Colonel Cross of the Gurkhas

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

One cannot think about Nepalese fighting men—whether the Royal Nepalese Army, which is the government force, or the Maoist rebels—without thinking about the fierce and fabled Gurkhas. Throughout my travels with the U.S. military I ruminated on the American effort to raise indigenous troops and use them to project power. The story of the Gurkhas shows that the British were past masters at this.

The term “Gurkha” comes from a British mispronunciation of the town of Gorkha, in western Nepal, where the first units of these warriors were initially raised among Gurungs and Magars, Nepalese tribes of Mongolian origin. Not a true ethnic group, the Gurkhas represent what British officers since the mid-eighteenth century have considered the fighting classes of Nepal. The British first encountered them during the 1814–1816 war between Nepal and the Bengal Presidency of the East India Company. Impressed by their cheerful disposition even when wounded, the British bonded with their erstwhile adversaries. The relationship was solidified during the Indian Mutiny of 1857, when Gurkha recruits to the Indian army declined to revolt and in fact came to the aid of British civilians.

Afterward the Gurkhas fought for the British on India’s North West and North East Frontiers, in China during the Boxer Rebellion, in Mesopotamia and elsewhere during World War I, and throughout the globe during World War II. The British army used Gurkhas in the Falklands and the Balkans, and has used them in Iraq. They have served as UN peacekeepers in many places. Gurkha enlistees in the British military tend to come not only from the same tribes but from the same clans and families. In the 1970s forty-six sets of brothers were serving at the same time in a single battalion—the 6th Queen Elizabeth’s Own Gurkha Rifles. Plying a profession at times unfairly sullied, the Gurkhas have been Great Britain’s most valued mercenaries, in both imperial and post-imperial British history. A. E. Housman wrote,

Their shoulders held the sky suspended;
They stood, and earth’s foundations stay;
What God abandoned, these defended,
And saved the sum of things for pay.

“The toughness of Gurkha skulls is legendary,” writes the historian Byron Farwell. In 1931, on the North West Frontier, when a mess mule kicked a Gurkha havildar in the head with his iron-shod hooves, “the havildar complained of a headache and that evening wore a piece of sticking plaster on his forehead,” according to Farwell. “The mule went lame.”

I found the old Gurkhas a haunting presence, because they were sharpened, refined, exaggerated forms of the Marines and soldiers I had been befriending and describing in previous travels. There was something indisputably antique about these gentlemen warriors, who told me their life stories under a black-and-white photograph of Queen Elizabeth II. To call them Kiplingesque would be to cheapen them; they were practically out of the Iliad.

Balbasdar Basnet, a retired corporal in his seventies, was the most memorable of them. He had joined the Gurkha Rifles of the British army when he was sixteen. His shriveled, nut-brown face was capped by a topi. He had teeth on the right side of his mouth only, and his raspy voice fought against time.

Balbasdar was from a village so impoverished that he’d never tasted tea before joining the army. After basic training he served for eight months on the North West Frontier, guarding the border against “Pathans” (he used the nineteenth-century British term for what today we call Pushtuns). From there he went to Bombay, and then by ship to northwest Malaya for three months of jungle training, just as World War II was gathering force. Finally he fought the Japanese in close combat.

“Were you scared?” I asked.

“No, I was thinking only to do and die.” He actually said that.

For fifteen days he and other Gurkhas marched in the jungle, retreating from a much larger force of Japanese. He was taken prisoner early in the war, and for four years subsisted on beatings and 200 grams of rice a day, moving around among labor camps in Malaya, Java, Sumatra, and New Guinea, wearing nothing more than a loincloth. Hiroshima liberated him from his sufferings, he told me. Suddenly he was being fed and clothed, and a few weeks later New Zealand troops arrived to formally liberate him. Proud to have served Her Majesty, he told me.

This was no twenty-first-century Western mentality. Though many Marine and Army grunts make a good attempt at approaching the Gurkha corporal’s standard, the fact is that we are a softer, more complaining, less fatalistic society than the one the Gurkhas represent, and morally the better for it. But that is not without its disadvantages when confronting terrorists who have a very accommodating attitude toward their own violent death.

"Late-nineteenth-century warfare never stopped,” Colonel Cross told me, “though it was masked for a time by the Cold War emphasis on atomic bombs. And in this type of warfare that you Americans must master, only two things count: the mystic dimension of service and the sanctity of an oath. It’s about the giving of one’s best when the audience is of the smallest.

“Now take your Gurkha,” he went on, motioning toward Buddhiman Gurung, his beloved adopted son, who has been with him for twenty-eight years, and whose family the colonel has also adopted. “He’s a hungry peasant with a knife who is out for the main chance. There are none finer. I placed these western hillsmen in the Singapore police, and they never failed me. The Mongoloid doesn’t die easily. Plainsmen will never defeat such people in hill battles without field artillery. Clausewitz said as much.”

This was all bad news for the Royal Nepalese Army, I thought, though Colonel Cross was careful not to make explicit political statements, given his circumstances: the Maoists are in the hills nearby, and government forces are down the street. The fact is that the Maoists come from the same sturdy hill tribes that Cross recruited for decades, while many of the RNA’s forces are softer plainsmen and can’t employ artillery, because even a handful of civilian casualties would ignite protests from the international community. Moreover, the Maoists are fortified by “the mystic dimension of service and the sanctity of an oath,” whereas RNA recruits—aside from some specialized units—join for a salary and a career.

Of course, Colonel Cross is a throwback. His outlook and manner of expression can be brutal, almost perverse. He is living in a threatened backwater of the only country he can call his own. Still, there was a certain cruel logic in his pronouncements.

“It’s not about sugarcoated bullets and dispensing condoms in PXes,” he said. “You can’t fight properly until you know that you are going to die anyway. That’s extreme, but that’s the gold standard. You don’t join the army to wipe your enemy’s ass. You join to kill, or for you yourself to be killed, and above all to have a good sense of humor about it.”

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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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