Colonial history is no longer taught to young British officers at Sandhurst. And most American military planners might never have heard of the desperate battle to save an outpost called Rorke’s Drift in the Zulu Empire.
But that Victorian battle in 1879, and the 1964 movie Zulu that was based on it, have a crucial lesson for Allied forces now facing Islamist militias in flashpoints across the Middle East.
In the film, the Zulu chief sends a wave of warriors on a suicidal assault on the British outpost at Rorke’s Drift – men armed with assegais or traditional spears, gunned down by volleys of rifle fire.
The African losses are heavy. But they are not trying to win with this first assault: they are probing for weak points in the British defences, scoping out what weapons they have and how they use them.
There are strong parallels this week with the situation in the Middle East.
The Iranian-backed drone attack on US army outpost Tower 22 in the Syrian desert – in which three marines were killed and 40 suffered horrific injuries – has echoes of long forgotten colonial conflicts which helped to lay the gunpowder trail to World War I, just as we could face another world war now.
Our enemies, the Houthis in Yemen attacking shipping in the Red Sea and Hezbollah guerrillas backed by Iran, are testing the West’s resolve and how we might fight back.
After five days of dithering, America ‘hit back’ with B1 bombers and cruise missiles, blasting dusty and largely empty militia bases in the desert. Since then, a joint operation by the US and UK, backed by Australia, Bahrain, Denmark, Canada, the Netherlands and New Zealand, has struck 36 targets across 13 locations in Yemen.
Defence Secretary Grant Shapps was at pains this weekend to emphasise that RAF strikes on Houthi targets were not intended as ‘an escalation’, rather a mission ‘to protect innocent lives and preserve freedom of navigation’. Meanwhile, though the U.S. Air Force’s high tech weapons have killed an estimated 37 militants, officials in Washington said they had no intention of striking Iran itself, repeatedly stressing they did not want war with Tehran.
These statements signal to the Yemeni militias and their backers that we do not have the stomach for war, and recoil from killing our opponents – let alone risking the lives of our own forces.
The Foreign Secretary, former PM David Cameron, echoed this yesterday: ‘We need to send the strongest possible signal to Iran that what they’re doing through their proxies is unacceptable. [They] will ultimately be held accountable for what they do.’
Precision strikes that do nothing but destroy a few temporary bases are not ‘the strongest possible signal’. Nor is the killing of a handful of Houthi rebels who treat death as martyrdom. Frankly, they are regarded by their puppet-masters in Tehran as expendable.
The Tower 22 bombing was carried out by the terrorist militia group Kataeb Hezbollah which, as Turkish journalist Amberin Zaman revealed at the weekend, is not actually banned in the UK – their supporters were able to march down Whitehall on Saturday chanting anti-West slogans. Britain is trying to play an international role, but this demonstrates we cannot even police our own streets effectively.
If the Americans are oblivious to the lessons of Rorke’s Drift, they should at least remember Vietnam. At the height of that gruelling war, U.S. Defence Secretary Robert McNamara gave an interview explaining that his policy was to inflict enough deaths and damage on the North Vietnamese to make their Communist leaders back off from fighting the U.S. Army.
President Ho Chi Minh listened to that in such disbelief that he asked to have the tape replayed. Then he laughed. McNamara was revealing, he said, that lives mattered – to the Americans! All that mattered to North Vietnam’s fanatics was victory. No price was too high.
Ho Chi Minh’s assessment was right. Far more of his soldiers and untold numbers of civilians were killed. But It was America that gave up paying the price of war.
Today President Joe Biden dares not get drawn into an escalating Middle East conflict, with an election due this year. Democrat voters won’t stand for it. Our PM Rishi Sunak faces the same stark truth.
Britain herself is in no position to wage war against Iran or anyone else. Our military inadequacy is reflected in the fiasco of our two aircraft carriers: HMS Prince of Wales is being rapidly prepared to put to sea, after repairs to a crippled propellor shaft. The ship is needed to deputise for its £6 billion sister ship, HMS Queen Elizabeth II – currently out of commission because of an identical propellor shaft breakdown.
Russia and China are watching on as Iran and her proxies test the West on their behalf. This is a spectator sport for Putin and Xi, but they are looking for signs that we have failed these tests. Instead of responding to their attacks with real military might, we have staged pin-prick reprisals, designed to demonstrate Western technological superiority. But our timid hesitancy is doing nothing to frighten our global rivals.
The battle of Rorke’s Drift was won because we were prepared to fight with a ferocity that equalled the attacks of our numerous enemies. Now we no longer have the ships, the men or the resolve to do so.
With a world in growing chaos, advertising this fact to China or Russia makes the risk of a wider global conflict worse.
Mark Almond is director of the Crisis Research Institute, Oxford.