Kut Losses

Two imperial ventures, in the same Middle East town a century apart, reveal the similarities – and differences – in the exercise of power.

US Marines evacuating wounded comrades, Kut al-Amara, 3 April 2003. (Gilles Bassignac/Gamma-Rapho, Paris)

This is a story of one town, two individuals and what their fate can tell us about transformative events in world history. Few people outside Iraq have heard of Kut al-Amara, which occupies a loop on the River Tigris some 180 miles north of Basra and about 100 miles south of Baghdad. A century ago it was a settlement with a few thousand inhabitants; today, it has become a city containing about 375,000 people and is on the main road to the capital. Despite its relative obscurity, Kut has been the scene of two dramatic episodes in the history of modern empires. The first, in 1915, is known to military historians; the second, in 2003, has yet to be studied. The events of 1915 can be seen through the eyes of a senior British officer who represented the military caste that had supported the British Empire since the 18th century. The second episode can be glimpsed from the perspective of a young recruit who joined the US Marines on leaving college and participated in the invasion of Iraq in 2003. In both cases, Kut was a site of battle and individual tragedy. It also serves as a parable that illuminates the rise and fall of empires.

In April 1915, Major General Sir Charles Vere Ferrers Townshend arrived in Basra as commander of the 6th Division of the Indian Army. His mandate was to clear the region of Turkish forces, encourage an Arab revolt against Ottoman rule and secure the new oilfields. The 6th Division moved north in June and occupied Kut at the end of September. Townshend’s inclination was to halt at that point, but his superior, General Sir John Nixon, ordered him to continue the advance with the aim of taking Baghdad. Leadership was already in question when luck ran out. Townshend never needed the detailed instructions he had drawn up in anticipation of street fighting in Baghdad. In November, he lost one third of his force at the battle of Ctesiphen, 20 miles south of the city, and was obliged to retreat with his 9,000 remaining combat troops to Kut, where he was pursued and then surrounded by units of the Turkish 6th Army.

Face saving

The siege of Kut, which began in December 1915 and ended five months later, was one of the longest endured by a modern British army. The surrender that followed was regarded at the time as the most humiliating in British military history since Cornwallis capitulated at Yorktown in 1781. Kut had little strategic importance. Its loss immediately after the disaster at Gallipoli, however, would have further damaged Britain’s prestige at a critical point in the wider conflict engulfing the European powers. Kut had to be relieved to save faces and reputations.

Three determined attempts were made to break the siege in 1916, each with increasing numbers of troops and rising casualties. The conditions facing the relieving forces were appalling: the rainy season had turned the terrain into mud; provisions were limited; medical support was largely absent. Townshend’s position deteriorated with each successive failure to recapture the town. Assaults had to be beaten back by hand-to-hand combat; rations divided into ever smaller portions and supplemented by horse meat. By March, malnutrition and disease had reduced the effectiveness of the defenders and depleted their morale. There were instances among the Indian troops of desertions and of soldiers inflicting wounds on themselves in the hope of avoiding further combat. Townshend’s communications began to convey signs of emotional strain: being ‘besieged’, he confessed, ‘one is in a constant state of nerves … All watch you and hope for news’.

Major General Charles Townshend in his quarters at Kut al-Amara during the siege of 1915-16. (Imperial War Museum)

The news, when it came, extinguished hope; it confirmed that the final attempt to relieve Kut had failed. A few days later, on 29 April, Townshend surrendered unconditionally to the commander of the Turkish army. The British force had sustained 10,000 casualties between the advance on Baghdad and the surrender at Kut; a further 23,000 men were killed or wounded in the effort to relieve the town and 13,000 soldiers and non-combatant auxiliaries were sent into captivity: more than half died on the long, debilitating march north or in Turkish labour camps. Although Townshend reappeared in 1918, criticism of his conduct drove him from public office. When he died in 1924, his reputation was as low as his morale had been when he was forced to surrender Kut.

Liberators or conquerors?

The disaster led to the appointment of a new commanding officer, General Sir Stanley (‘Systematic Joe’) Maude, who assembled a massive force of 150,000 troops, recaptured Kut in February 1917 and took Baghdad, the great prize, in March. A week after occupying Baghdad, Maude issued a proclamation containing a phrase that was to become familiar to observers of the invasion of Iraq in 2003: ‘Our Armies do not come into your Cities and Lands as Conquerors, or enemies, but as Liberators.’ In reality, Britain acquired a long lease on the country that became Iraq; what Maude had called the ‘tyranny of strangers’ was to endure.

In March 2003, 88 years later, the United States launched Operation Iraqi Freedom. At the beginning of April, two battalions of the 4th Marine Regiment reached the outskirts of Kut. The town was of no great interest in itself, but General James (‘Mad Dog’) Mattis, who had overall command of the 1st Marine Division, ordered the regimental commander to advance through Kut to save time in the race to Baghdad. The 3rd Battalion, commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Bryan P. McCoy, needed no persuasion. It intended to demonstrate that there were ‘new alpha males’ in Iraq by establishing ‘violent supremacy’.

The battalion swung into action. Its 1,500 troops were trained in desert warfare, equipped with 30 Abrams tanks and 60 armoured assault vehicles, backed by artillery and aircraft. The engagement that followed was intense but one-sided. The defenders had limited and inferior equipment, which ensured that much of the fighting was at close quarters. John Koopman, an embedded reporter and himself a former marine, described the scene:

At dawn, 155mm howitzers shake the earth. They’re launching high-explosive rounds into the outskirts of Kut … Death and destruction are everywhere. Bodies lie on the side of the road, jackets covering faces. Iraqi military vehicles are smoking ruins. Marine tanks blew holes in everything. Just in case.

Corporal Mark Evnin, who was a member of the battalion’s sniper unit, saw some of the action from his Humvee. From his viewpoint, the approach to Kut was full of uncertainties, not least being the novelty of the experience. At the age of 21, this was his first combat mission. He had wanted a military career since he was a boy growing up in Burlington, Vermont. He was a popular student, keen on sport and adept at technical matters, especially computing. In 2000, shortly after graduating from high school, he joined the Marines, less to see the world than to find himself. His letters to his family trace his progress in settling on a long-term purpose for his life.

Evnin’s Humvee was following a tank in a column that was approaching the town centre. Most of the column had passed without serious resistance. The tail end, however, was caught in an ambush. Evnin and his comrades suddenly found themselves on the wrong end of machine gun fire and rocket-propelled grenades coming from a grove of palm trees. He took shelter behind the Amtrac, an amphibious vehicle, that was just ahead of the Humvee, grabbed his grenade launcher, fired into the palm grove and stepped back to reload. When he stepped out again, he was hit by machine gun fire. Two bullets penetrated his upper thigh and abdomen just below his body armour.

Evnin was lifted onto a Humvee that raced to a medical station at the outskirts of Kut. A reporter was on hand to describe the scene:

A marine, whose body was rag-doll floppy, was pulled out and put on a stretcher. A marine doctor and medics surrounded him. His clothes were stripped off and needles and monitors placed on and into his body, and the dialogue of battlefield medicine began among the team, all of whom had slung their M-16s over their backs as they tried to save their comrade’s life.

The dialogue continued, this time with the patient:

‘Keep talking to us. Where are you from?’ ‘Remon’, he mumbled. ‘Where? Where are you from?’ ‘Verrrmon.’

Evnin was struggling. The battalion chaplain, Bob Grove, started to read the 23rd Psalm, at which point Evnin said: ‘Chaplain, I’m not going to die.’ A Chinook landed 50 yards away. Evnin’s stretcher was lifted from the asphalt and rushed to the chopper. Shortly after he was airborne, Evnin went into shock and died.

Once through Kut, the 3rd Battalion reached Baghdad on 5 April and helped to pull down the massive statue of Saddam Hussein in Paradise Square. As the statue fell, so did the regime. It was just three weeks since the invasion had begun. The UN Ambassador, who was still in the city, remarked: ‘The game is over.’ The mission, however, was far from accomplished. By the time the US withdrew its troops in 2011, 4,488 of its soldiers had been killed and 32,000 wounded. The cost of the operation was heading towards $3 trillion. Well over 100,000 Iraqis had lost their lives, countless more had been injured and even larger numbers became refugees. Stability had fled; democracy had yet to arrive. In the words of the Iraqi poet, Fadhil al-Azzawi: ‘Every morning the war gets up from sleep.’

History is rediscovered when the international order is deranged. As novel events strain the explanatory power of customary approaches, commentators whose interest lies in contemporary affairs turn to the past to trace the roots of present discontents. The trauma of 9/11 may not have ‘changed the world’, as was claimed at the time, but it undoubtedly galvanised American foreign policy, prompted far-reaching reappraisals of the role of the US in upholding or disturbing the world order and generated a now voluminous genre of ‘empire studies’.

Moral of the story

When the invasion of Iraq began in 2003, commentators hurriedly scanned the historical record for guidance. The humiliating end to Townshend’s career in 1916 appeared to be the relevant precedent. The moral of the story, however, was contested. To some observers, the siege of Kut captured more than the 6th Division. It caught the British Empire at its highest point, which was also the moment when irreversible decline set in and the baton was handed to a new and more vigorous custodian of western civilisation. From this perspective, Townshend was a prisoner of cyclical forces that were powerful enough to raise up and bring down even the greatest states. The events of 1915, like those that were to follow in 2003, could have only one outcome. All Chinese dynasties eventually lost their ‘mandate from heaven’; the Greeks taught that hubris preceded nemesis; Ibn Khaldun charted phases of growth, expansion and decay; Giambattista Vico identified three repetitive ages; Arnold Toynbee’s theory of the rise and fall of civilisations made him a celebrity. Modern ‘declinists’ continue to take the pulse of the nation at moments of gloom and reaffirm that the end is nigh.

Other commentators recoiled from an implacable pessimism that foreclosed on the future. In their view, the US was the legitimate descendant of the British Empire. Townshend’s fate signalled the transfer of global responsibilities from an elderly relative to its youthful successor. US political theorists provided arguments to support the claim that the world needed a dominant leader, a hegemon, to prevent international anarchy. Moreover, the lessons of history could now be learned: by combining the transforming capacity of advanced technology with the penetrating insights of modern social science, a superpower could disarm dissidents, spread progress throughout the world and avoid decline. Viewed from this encouraging position, the US stood at the summit of a process of linear development that had its origins in the optimism of the Enlightenment. Hegel and Marx, in their different ways, believed that dialectical forces would carry society to higher levels of achievement. For Henry Maine, progress entailed a shift from status to contract. Herbert Spencer linked social development to evolutionary individualism. Talcott Parsons knew how to convert ‘traditional’ into ‘modern’ societies. The ‘triumphalism’ of the 1990s produced the ‘end of history’. Optimists are publicists for swelling nation prestige.

Comparisons and contrasts

There are obvious parallels between the siege of Kut that began in 1915 and the invasion that passed through it in 2003. Britain and the US both declared that they came as liberators and not as occupiers. Both proceeded to install themselves in a manner that precluded an early exit. The invaders had an unquestioned belief in the superiority of their own values and a limited knowledge of the people they were to conquer and control. Military success was accompanied by inadequate planning for the postwar order. Occupation provoked resistance that was misunderstood and mishandled. Neither army was trained to deal with ‘insurgents’. Communication between civil and military authorities was often poor and sometimes dysfunctional. Neither power had an exit strategy; both were strongly motivated by fear of losing face. Unsurprisingly, great powers approve of themselves and feel superior to others. Assertiveness driven by a mixture of confidence and ignorance produced defective planning, as Townshend and Evnin, in different ways, found out. Warfare confuses even the best plans. Predicted short wars turn into quagmires. Destruction is easy and immediate; construction is laborious, complicated and costly. Indigenous societies are far more complex than the stereotypes drawn of them allow. These established facts are rediscovered as novelties every time an invasion takes place.

Commentators have cited these and other similarities to support large claims about the place of Britain and the US in world history. The US has been regarded as the ‘heir to empire’; both powers have been compared with Rome. At this point, however, it is wise to pause. Comparisons of this order require a sufficient degree of similarity for particular differences to be identified. Ibn Khaldun, one of the first practitioners of comparative history, understood the need for care in drawing lines of connection between different objects of study. His remarkable work, the Muqaddimah, written in 1377, presented history as the systematic study of the interaction of economic and political forces and their influence on the rise and decline of societies and states. He saw that comparisons had the merit of identifying differences as well as resemblances. He was aware, too, that the exercise could be warped by ideological intent and misdirected by methodological errors that could result in faulty analogies and disastrous policies.

Ibn Khaldun’s precepts underline the hazards of looking for similarities where differences may be more significant. As major international powers, Britain and the US undoubtedly had a number of general features in common. Many of the similarities, however, were not only true but also truisms and apply to a range of states other than the two chosen for comparison. Furthermore, it is misleading to argue that these shared characteristics justify the claim that Britain and the US were both empires, unless the term is used in a very general sense to refer to all states that controlled regions beyond their ethnic core. Such a reference, however, sheds darkness rather than light. What Rome, Venice and the US had in common may be less significant than what separated them.

The comparison fails even in the case of Britain and the US, which were contemporaneous industrial nation states with a shared inheritance and an acknowledged role as world powers. They both operated in a global context that altered significantly in the course of three centuries. The Pax Britannica was exercised in an era that either favoured or required territorial control; the Pax Americana was applied in an age when annexations were either impracticable or unnecessary. The potential for comparison existed during the first half of the 20th century, when the US acquired and managed its own territorial empire in the Caribbean and Pacific, but the opportunity has been neglected. Paradoxically, comparisons proliferated during the second half of the 20th century, when the US became a world power and an aspiring hegemon, despite the fact that the global context had been transformed, the insular empire dissolved and the basis of comparison profoundly altered.

Expressions of superiority

Britain was dominant at a time when empires were a familiar part of the international scene. Established and aspiring powers regarded empires as a measure of international stature and a legitimate expression of racial and technical superiority. The US functions in a post-colonial era that is hostile to imperialism and empires. Notions of racial supremacy no longer underpin the purposes of major powers; concepts of human rights have eroded the moral high ground once occupied by the West. Britain’s economic interests required integration as well as control to ensure the complementary exchange of manufactures for raw materials. The US inhabits a world dominated by inter-industry trade among advanced countries and financial flows that cross all borders and travel in all directions. For most of its history, the British Empire dealt with proto-nationalist protests rather than with fully formed, well organised mass movements. Today, the US has to find its way in a world of independent states founded on principles of self-determination. The invasion of Iraq in 1915 was part of a war among territorial empires and nation states, which Britain fought by mobilising the Indian army to defend imperial territories. The US is engaged in hostilities with movements that are supranational and relies on a volunteer force of national citizens. The British encountered resistance that was unable to strike beyond its locality. The US faces the prospect that weapons of mass destruction can arrive from any part of the globe. Post-colonial development has democratised the means of destruction faster than it has raised the standard of living.

Indian soldiers man an anti-aircraft gun during the siege of Kut, 1916. (Getty Images)

Dubious arguments gain credibility, if changes in the historical context are ignored or underestimated. Economic strength and military might are routinely compared, as if time can be discounted. On this reckoning, the US emerges as a superpower, even a ‘super-empire’, when ranked against previous great powers. Absolute measures, however, ignore the fact that power in international relations is also relative. The appropriate comparison is one that relates the power of a state to the problems it faces. On this measure, the US possesses colossal military might that is often inappropriate and frequently counter-productive when applied to movements labelled as insurgencies. Moreover, the events of 9/11 show that a small-scale operation could produce momentous results. There is no advantage in being Goliath if David can fell you with a sling and a stone.

The problem is not so much collective forgetfulness as selective remembrance. Like other great states, the United States of Amnesia, as it has been called, carries forward elements of the past that are congenial to those in power, while discarding alternatives that might challenge the dominant orthodoxy. As a result, the lessons of ‘liberation’ are often unknown or ignored. Hubris then works its way towards nemesis, which may result from overstretch, as in the case of Britain, or overconfidence, as in the case of the US. There is no easy solution to this problem; there may be no solution at all. Great powers may be incapable of overcoming the constraints imposed by their past successes. Alternative policies begin to commend themselves only in retrospect, which is too late for effective action. As General Stanley McChrystal, the commander of coalition forces in Afghanistan in 2009-10, admitted:

We didn’t know enough and we still don’t know enough. Most of us – me included – had a very superficial understanding of the situation and history, and we had a frighteningly simplistic view of recent history, the last 50 years.

These remarks were representative, if also exceptionally honest. They were made in 2011, after McChrystal had already served in both Gulf Wars. Yet the knowledge he lacked was available before the invasion of Iraq in 2003. Specialists on colonial rule and decolonisation were aware that it would all end in tears. The tears are still falling.

Lessons of history

As an eminent jurist who was close to the Egyptian government, Ibn Khaldun was obliged to accompany a military campaign led by the Mamluk Sultan, al-Nasir Faraj, in 1401. The expedition was undertaken against Ibn Khaldun’s advice, was poorly planned and was irredeemably compromised when the bulk of the Egyptian force was withdrawn from the field. At this point, Ibn Khaldun found himself, at the age of 69, besieged in Damascus by the fearsome conqueror, Tamerlane. Unlike Major-General Townshend, moreover, he had no prospect of receiving reinforcements. A desperate situation required a desperate remedy: Ibn Khaldun arranged for himself to be lowered by ropes from the city walls so that he could negotiate with the enemy. In the course of seven weeks, he so impressed Tamerlane with his erudition that he was able to secure a safe conduct for himself and his associates, though he had to submit a substantial intelligence report on North Africa to his captor to seal the deal.

The quagmire in Iraq reaffirms the wisdom of Ibn Khaldun’s belief that history is, or should be, a practical art needed for the ‘acquisition of excellence in ruling’. Although the ‘lessons of history’ are contested, their merits and defects can still be debated to ensure, minimally, that policies are formulated in the light of the evidence and not in the face of it. Today, historians are not obliged to place themselves in physical danger on behalf of their national governments, not least because, unlike Ibn Khaldun, they are far removed from the corridors of power. Given the relationship between defective knowledge and defective policies, however, the profession still needs to be prepared to lower its representatives by ropes from the city walls, if necessary, to ensure that its voice is heard in the tents of the mighty.

A.G. Hopkins is Emeritus Smuts Professor of Commonwealth History at Cambridge University. He is the author of American Empire: A Global History (Princeton, 2018).