Thursday, May 31, 2012

Arithmetic of war

     In his poem, "Arithmetic on the Frontier," Rudyard Kipling (1865-1936) wrote of Britain's nineteenth century military aggression in Afghanistan.  His words remind us of important questions:  what is the cost of a life lost in battle?  are some lives cheap and some more dear?
     Arithmetic on the Frontier     by Rudyard Kipling

     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 troopships 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.

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