The Man Who Would Be King: The First American in Afghanistan
by Ben Macintyre
Farrar, Straus & Giroux. 351 pp. $25.00
The greatest cautionary tale about high imperialist ambition gone to smash is undoubtedly Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. But a notable runner-up is Rudyard Kipling’s 1888 short story, “The Man Who Would Be King”—a far simpler but equally bleak account of Europeans who attain godly power over benighted natives and are destroyed by their taste for exaltation. John Huston directed a fine movie of the Kipling story, starring Sean Connery and Michael Caine, in 1975.
The protagonists of Kipling’s tale, Daniel Dravot and Peachy Carnehan, are former soldiers of the Queen in imperial India. They are also a natural pair of scheming rascals: adepts at high-stakes extortion and skullduggery, and confident that if India were in hands as capable as theirs it would yield ten times the current profit. To prove their thesis, they head off to Kafiristan, in the northeast corner of Afghanistan, to make themselves kings and to amass a royal fortune. Village by lonesome village, the adventurers consolidate a small empire, pacifying a population accustomed to endless war and furnishing instruction in civilized essentials such as farming and bridge-building. Their success makes them literal gods in the natives’ eyes. But when they are shown to be mere men, the duped locals turn on them; Dravot is sent plunging into a bottomless chasm and Peachy is crucified, surviving only long enough to tell the tale.
Behind Kipling’s fiction lies a true story; it has a single protagonist, and he was not British. In The Man Who Would Be King, Ben Macintyre, an accomplished forty-year-old British journalist, recounts that story with superb ease, wit, and panache. Macintyre first went to Afghanistan in 1989 as a foreign correspondent covering the end-stage of the Soviet-Afghan war, and has been back several times since. He has seen a good deal that most Westerners have not, and he has thought about what he has seen to salutary effect. Although one would be hard-pressed to deduce his politics from this biography of a 19th-century soldier of fortune, it is patent that he appreciates the difficulty involved in bending Afghanistan—and other, similarly dark and refractory countries—to well-intentioned imperial will.
Josiah Harlan (1799-1871) thrived on just such difficulty. Raised a Pennsylvania Quaker, schooled in Latin and Greek, Harlan combined a passion for earthly justice with a craving for earthly glory on a scale that few men ever envision. No idler, he set out to make his wildest dreams come true—dreams that included not only doing tremendously well for himself but also doing colossal good for unfortunate multitudes. In Macintyre’s words, Harlan saw his pie-eyed craving to rule a substantial chunk of Asia “not simply as a bid for power, but the gift of a new world order to a benighted corner of the earth.”
It was a failed romance back home that propelled the twenty-five-year-old Harlan halfway around the globe, but what he found there surely made him forget the girl who had spurned him. That he had no medical training did not stop him from signing on as a surgeon with a British East India Company military expedition to Burma. There he saw a good bit of action, which to his expansive mind qualified him for greater things.
Harlan conceived his ambitions in the light of the most distinguished precedents. Books do furnish an empire, and his imagination was swimming with imperial notions lifted, especially, from his reading of Plutarch: if Alexander the Great could conquer Afghanistan, what was to stop Josiah Harlan from doing likewise? In 1826, Shah Shujah al-Moolk, the deposed king of Afghanistan, was living out his exile in British India; Harlan offered to restore him to the throne, drumming up a fifth column in Kabul and then leading an invasion force against the reigning monarch, Dost Mohammed Khan. In return, Harlan would be installed as the once and future king’s vizier, and would effectively rule the kingdom.
Harlan made his perilous way to Kabul all right, and found it the closest thing going to an earthly paradise; his seductive patter even ingratiated him with Dost Mohammed. But he also realized that his original scheme stood no chance without a British army to provide the firepower. That was not in the works, so it was off to the Punjab for him. There he caught on as a military adviser to the Sikh maharajah, Ranjit Singh, a committed debauchee and self-made ruler of consummate cunning. Once again Harlan’s nimble mind earned him brisk advancement: the maharajah appointed him governor of Gujrat, with the stipulation that if he did his job well he would be rewarded handsomely, and that if he failed his nose would be removed from his face. Ranjit’s incentives worked onders, and Harlan became quite rich.
After seven tumultuous years, Harlan was expelled from Gujrat for counterfeiting money; only his intense friendship with Ranjit saved him from being sliced to pieces. Now bent on revenge, he returned to Kabul to cultivate once again the friendship of Dost Mohammed. After a year’s work preparing the Afghan army, he was eager to try out its new skills; in 1838 the king obligingly sent him with a division to put down a notorious Uzbek warlord and slaver in the northern part of the country. Harlan rode an elephant over the mountain passes of the Hindu Kush, where the air was so thin the very birds were grounded, and in the fastnesses of Hazarajat he struck a monumental bargain. Harlan would help the local powers subdue some pesky insurrectionists, and the kingdom of Hazarajat would belong to him and his descendants in perpetuity.
No American boy could have hoped for a sweeter deal. Harlan’s expedition proceeded into the Uzbek city of Balkh, a sometime Hellenic marvel all but leveled by Genghis Khan and subsequent ravagers. There among the ruins, “surrounded by malarial marsh, Harlan imagined a new empire.” But the empire would exist in his mind alone. “The newly made American prince of Ghor would never see his principality again.”
For the British had plans of their own for Afghanistan. A massive British expedition in 1839 ousted Dost Mohammed, restored Shah Shujah as the imperial puppet, and shouldered Harlan out of the country. He returned to Pennsylvania, married, wrote a memoir so savagely anti-British it scuttled his literary career even in America, became consultant to the U.S. government on the formation of a camel corps, advocated the introduction of Afghan grapevines into America, formed a light-cavalry regiment in the Civil War (its troops mutinied at his incompetence and ill treatment), tried desperately and unsuccessfully to get financing for another Afghan expedition, and started up a medical practice in San Francisco, where no one much cared who passed for a doctor. He died there in 1871; there were no mourners at his funeral.
The collision between Western civilization and Eastern barbarism has become a predominant theme of our time; anyone insufficiently informed about the nature of that barbarism will find this book invaluable. During a royal picnic, for example, when a gust of wind knocked down the tent in which Shah Shujah’s wives were concealed from defiling eyes, the king ordered his chief eunuch and protector of the harem to be shorn of his ears; the earless, noseless, tongueless, and castrated among Shah Shujah’s courtiers were legion. Such exercise of the royal prerogative abounds in Macintyre’s tale, and persists to this day wherever civilization has not intervened to end it.
Where the rulers cavort like gods, the people live like beasts. The “revolting cruelties” with which the Hazar and Uzbek powers forced a starving people to cough up the last of their food appalled Harlan and appalls Macintyre in the telling. Near Bamian, not far from the kingly splendors of Kabul, dung was the stuff of life, used for building, heating, and smoking. The loathsomeness of Dickens’s London or Friedrich Engels’s Manchester could not touch this all-pervasive misery.
And yet the Afghans hated and resisted the British who attempted to rule them. One can understand why. The would-be conquerors, Macintyre reports, “either abused, displaced, or ignored” the local culture when they took Kabul. Polo, cricket, and tea parties required their energetic attention, and bedding Afghan women was often the extent of their interest in learning about native ways. To Harlan’s mind (and Macintyre agrees), a far better result would have been produced by conciliation of tribal chieftains and fiscal diplomacy—that is, judicious bribery. In the end, the British paid dearly for their arrogance. In 1841 Kabul rose up in revolt, and 15,000 British soldiers, women, and children abandoned the city to return to India. Exactly one man made it back alive.
Harlan represented a different breed of imperial adventurer. Admittedly, power and plunder had their attractions for him—indeed, they were the main attractions—but he was also a healer who used his crude skill to cure the blind of their cataracts, a minister of justice who fought against the Uzbek slave trade, and a seeker of knowledge who befriended holy men and delved into arcane lore. Macintyre sums up the complication nicely: “Harlan had always had two sides to his thinking: the Jeffersonian republican and the would-be monarch, the crusader for Western civilization who yet admired and adopted the native ways.” That is, Harlan admired what was admirable, and did what he could to eradicate the abominable.
So, is Macintyre’s book, like Kipling’s story, a cautionary tale? Not in the manner one might fear—that is, as an illustration that the American use of force in places like Afghanistan and Iraq is misguided, vicious, and hopeless, like that of the British before us. Macintyre recognizes the benevolent, philanthropic side to the American character, which is cruel only when absolutely necessary and often not even then, and which, if it can honestly be called imperialist at all, seeks a Jeffersonian “empire of liberty” for all. What America must be most cautious of now is, instead, undue caution: a shying away when peoples steeped in unfreedom for centuries balk violently at an end to tyranny, a failure to accept the necessary cruelty that must be performed in our name. Harlan’s story helps show what is needed of us: to be bold and hard, understanding and decent.