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.
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.”