Rudyard Kipling’s Kim (1901) is the most ardent novel of the Great Game — that battle for supremacy in anarchic Central Asia among the European powers, which began with the ambition of the Napoleonic Age and ended in the self-murdering failure of the First World War.
The orphaned Anglo-Irish child Kim, abandoned on the streets of Lahore in the time of the British Raj, often misunderstood his power in his search for identity and purpose. A spell-binding Muslim horse-trader and spy, Mahbub Ali, scolded the puzzled young Kim, after he had wrongly presented himself as a native boy. “’What talk is this of us, Sahib?’ Mahbub Ali returned, in the tone he used towards Europeans. ‘I am a Pathan; thou art a Sahib and the son of a Sahib.” Mahbub Ali then told Kim to go among the European shops of Simla and find his British Secret Service contact. “Men say he does magic,” Mahbub Ali warned of the control agent, then he reminded Kim that he is invulnerable to such threat because he is one of them, “but that will not touch thee. Go up the hill and ask. Here begins the Great Game.”
Here, not long after America’s entrance in the Great Game, four years after the start of the turbulent American campaign to liberate Iraq, five and a half years after America plunged into abandoned Afghanistan, 16 years after America first garrisoned the Middle East to subdue the tyrant Saddam Hussein, it is illuminating to ask what America can learn from Kim and from the century-long endeavor of the great powers to transform ancient cultures that have been cutting throats, stabbing backs and smashing hopes for millennia.
The first lesson from Kim for America is that it is best to recognize its place in the historical scale of the landscape. As the crafty Kim had to accept he was part of a struggle called the Great Game, America must recognize that it too is just part of the Great Game, a vast, ghost-filled contest that has been underway for many centuries. Iraq is a spontaneously-constructed theater in a near at hand war, not the game itself. The players in the region have not changed a dagger’s glint since the Europeans broke off in 1914. Sunnis, Shia, Hindus are the largest groupings, but the tribes are legion, chief among them the Arabs, the Persians, the Russians, the Indians, the Chinese. And the locals are united in one thing only: they believe that America is just like a European power underneath the war paint and barbering. Not one of them wants to accept America as anything other than a sahib, to be distrusted, accommodated and, one day, dispatched. It is arguably true that America is more than a silicon version of Europe, but from the point of view of Mesopotamia, we are the Brussels elite in snakeskin cowboy boots. America cannot forget that it is new to a veteran, stem-winding game that, for the Asian powers, is at least as old as Bonaparte.
Another lesson from Kim is that America best not either favor or condemn any Asian power. The game is ever changing, and tonight’s foe can become the morning’s friend. The Asian powers are potent, shrewd, committed. Their practices of stealth and compromise are endlessly rich and flexible. In Iraq, America is well suited to be more a Kim-like seeker than a red-coated partisan. Kim was born an Irishman soldier’s son and fell into the mothering care of a street woman before he took up with a wandering Buddhist sage and then with the British Secret Service and its cunning Muslim agents. He was always of several pathways at once. Similarly, America is well served to remain in several alliances, several guises at once, which is an American strength because of our hard-earned appetite for tolerance.
Kim learned his lesson about the utility of tolerance from the horse-trading Mahbub Ali: "The wise man knows horses are good — that there is a profit to be made from all; and for myself- but that I am a good Sunni and hate the men of Tirah — I could believe the same of all the Faiths…. Therefore I say in my heart the Faiths are like the horses. Each has merit in its own country.’"
A final lesson from Kim for America is that the genuine American power is that it is a dreamer whose dreams come true. The Asian powers recognize that the American presence has resourceful potential to stop the bloodshed and enrich the lives of the least among them. However tens of centuries of invasion and depredation have developed an upside down sense of the world, where the cruel are rewarded in this life and the just are jettisoned to the next. This irony does not reverse itself because America can plant Old Glory in Kabul and Baghdad and outshoot the villains. What does begin the metamorphosis of the region, what will move the Great Game to a brighter view, is that America brings with it a narrative of enlightenment that is built upon the arresting metaphor of the American Dream. Liberty, democracy, tolerance, law and order, education, capitalism are invisible helpmates that walk alongside the American flag, and for these powers in the air of freedom the Asian powers will in time step up and offer welcome.
With Kim, Rudyard Kipling created a European child who won respect from the Asian powers by intrepidity, patience and luck. Britain left the Great Game prematurely for the living grave of Flanders fields, but Kipling’s vision survived. For the closing chapter, Kipling included a stanza of his verse The Fairies Siege to illustrate why there is hope that an outsider like Kim, or like America, can flourish in the Great Game after the restless battalions of so many potentates have fled the field. It is the dream itself that puts America into the game in Iraq, in Afghanistan, in the whole of Asia, to win.
I’d not give way for an Emperor,
I’d hold my road for a King—
To the Triple Crown I would not bow down—
But this is a different thing.
I’ll not fight with the Powers of the Air,
Sentry, pass him through!
Drawbridge let fall, ‘Tis the Lord of us all.
The Dreamer whose dreams come true.