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Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Arithmetic on the frontier

A great and glorious thing it is To learn, for seven years or so, The Lord knows what of that and this, Ere reckoned fit to face the foe -- The flying bullet down the Pass, That whistles clear: "All flesh is grass." Three hundred pounds per annum spent On making brain and body meeter For all the murderous intent Comprised in "villanous saltpetre!" And after -- ask the Yusufzaies What comes of all our 'ologies. A scrimmage in a Border Station -- A canter down some dark defile -- Two thousand pounds of education Drops to a ten-rupee jezail -- The Crammer's boast, the Squadron's pride, Shot like a rabbit in a ride! No proposition Euclid wrote, No formulae the text-books know, Will turn the bullet from your coat, Or ward the tulwar's downward blow Strike hard who cares -- shoot straight who can -- The odds are on the cheaper man. One sword-knot stolen from the camp Will pay for all the school expenses Of any Kurrum Valley scamp Who knows no word of moods and tenses, But, being blessed with perfect sight, Picks off our messmates left and right. With home-bred hordes the hillsides teem, The troop-ships bring us one by one, At vast expense of time and steam, To slay Afridis where they run. The "captives of our bow and spear" Are cheap -- alas! as we are dear. Rudyard Kipling
Written over a hundred years ago, this is probably my favorite poem for various reasons. True then, true in Vietnam, true now. This poem is a reflection of the military life on the North West Frontier, now the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan. Then, as now, expensively educated officers, such as the speaker in the poem, faced untutored natives with a reputation for ferocity and marksmanship. In Kipling's time, and this is one of his early poems, an Army Officer was expected to have gone to a good British Public School, and to be a gentleman. And "messmates" were the fellow officers of the speaker: the "Officer's Mess" was the place, and system, where they lived together. This was an expensive, privately-funded, education, 300 pounds sterling a year, at a time when the ordinary soldier was paid less than 20, and little of it had any direct relevance to war. What really matters is what the school, back in England, doesn't teach, unless, perhaps, you were planning to fight against a Roman Legion.. Nothing much has changed. The ten-rupee jezail, a cheap muzzle-loading rifle, has been replaced by a Kalashnikov, but it is still being fired at invaders from the far side of the world. The poem has scattered jargon from the place and time. A Crammer is a special sort of teacher, who gave extra, and intense, tuition to get boys through examinations. A tulwar is a type of Indian sword, and a sword-knot is a sometimes heavily decorated piece of cord-work used to prevent a sword being accidentally dropped in battle. And the tribes that were fought on the Frontier are named. (Me)