Colonel Cross of the Gurkhas

In the mountains of strife-torn Nepal, some lessons about modern warfare from a British throwback

The town of Pokhara, a half hour by plane west of Kathmandu, the capital of Nepal, lies in a dank and humid valley beneath the glittering snows and granite of the Annapurna range of the Himalayas. When I visited recently, in the company of a U.S. Army major, the town was wreathed in monsoon clouds. Water buffaloes meandered alongside black, mildewed walls that were almost completely covered with moss and further obscured by dripping banana leaves. Government paramilitaries in blue camouflage uniforms sleepily guarded their installations. In another era we could have arrived by bus or car, but Nepal today is torn by a Maoist insurrection, and the territory between Kathmandu and Pokhara is controlled or threatened by rebels. Pokhara was considered secure, but its atmosphere conjured collapse.

The U.S. Army major, who did not wish to be identified, is with the American team trying to help the beleaguered Nepalese monarchy in its campaign against the Maoists, and he and I had traveled to Pokhara to meet a military legend: the retired British army colonel John Philip Cross. Eighty years old, Cross greeted us outside his compound wearing a topi, dark glasses, a smart cravat, pressed shorts, and high woolen socks pulled up nearly to his knees. Those knees, I noticed, were tanned and powerful. He has covered 10,000 miles on foot through the Nepalese hills over the years, and still hikes twelve miles a day. Cross enlisted on April 2, 1943. On June 8, 1944—“D-Day plus two”—he boarded a troop ship for Bombay. Except for short visits to England he has lived in Asia ever since.

His first memorable experience in the army was a briefing on sex from a medical officer, which frankly shocked him. Without a trace of a smile the officer had said, “Don’t forget: a woman for children, a boy for pleasure, but for real ecstasy, a goat.” At the tail end of World War II, Colonel Cross was assigned to the 1st Battalion of the 1st Gurkha Rifles, based at Dharamsala, and thus commenced his life’s work as a leader of Gurkhas. From there it was on to Burma to fight and disarm Japanese soldiers; to Cochin-China (Vietnam) to fight the Viet Minh; and to Laos, where, as the last British defense attaché before the fall of the monarchy, Cross became the de facto eyes and ears of the U.S. embassy, tracking the Communist Pathet Lao (the British ambassador, he says with a sneer, “was a fellow-traveler”). Next he went to western Nepal to become a recruiting officer for the Gurkhas. Future years would find him parachuting into Borneo to fight a Communist insurgency, and training Americans in jungle warfare in the Malay Peninsula. “A certain BBC reporter, God rot his soul, accused me of teaching torture,” Cross recalls. All in all he has spent a total of ten years in the jungle, often carrying the equivalent of his own weight on his back, which he terms “a delightful way of life.” He speaks French and nine Asian languages.

Cross is a confirmed bachelor because of “hot blood and cold feet,” he explains. His library of battered books, medals, and kukri knives, each object charged by a memory, is decayed by heat and humidity, for he has no air-conditioning. He sleeps on a spartan bed in the next room.

Now, writing books on irregular warfare and Himalayan history that deserve to be read even though they aren’t, he is a minor and very eccentric offshoot of a British imperial species that reached perfection in the person of the former soldier and literary travel writer Patrick Leigh Fermor, whom I interviewed in Greece in 2002. Both are inveterate walkers: Fermor across Europe, Cross across Nepal.

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Robert D. Kaplan is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and the author of Imperial Grunts: The American Military on the Ground.

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