Don's diary: Military manoeuvres with US marines

April 4, 2003

Amajuba: Zulu for "the mount of doves". An hour of making steady progress uphill, but the steepest section looms ahead. Below is the road to Laing's Nek, marking the positions from which the British hoped to force the Boers to withdraw almost 122 years ago.

On Sunday I was shovelling snow in Virginia; here in KwaZulu-Natal the temperature is in the 70s and I am on a field trip with 15 US Marines - all majors in their 30s - from my elective course on Victorian small wars, studying battlefields from the Zulu war (1879), the Anglo-Transvaal war (1881) and the South African war (1899-1902).

Pausing to catch my breath, I am overtaken by one of my students: "Looks like another case of imperial overstretch to me, sir."

Note to self: am too old to climb mountains on successive days.

This time it is an even longer trek to the Devil's Pass on Hlobane where a celebrated Victorian soldier, Redvers Buller, won his Victoria Cross in March 1879 amid the shambles of a catastrophic defeat at the hands of the Zulu.

In the evening, another defeat: England versus India in the World Cup. My charges are sceptical of my view that it is a pity Americans do not play cricket: I argue that, if they routinely played a game for five days with the prospect of absolutely no result, they would be less inherently impatient in the conduct of military affairs.

The Zulu war site Isandlwana is scene of the greatest colonial defeat suffered by the British, in January 1879. It is good to see how much progress has been made in protecting it since I was here in 1999. The atmosphere seems to get to everyone and a very good discussion, ranging widely over the contrasting British and Zulu strategies and policies, breaks out. They are ever conscious of the contemporary parallels with an imperial power waging distant war in an inhospitable terrain amid a difficult political environment.

Our host arranges some clay-pigeon shooting before we set off for the day. Judging by the standard of marksmanship, I don't think an enemy has much to worry about. Later, at Elandslaagte, site of a small-scale action that took place in October 1899 at the start of the South African war, one student reveals that, as a lieutenant, he had to give a presentation on this very battle. It is a day for revelation: hearing the background music during dinner, I inadvertently gain cult status by mentioning that I saw Abba live in Manchester in 1977.

Overlooking Ladysmith from the Afrikaner Memorial on the Platrand, it is time for concluding themes. One of the Afro-Americans, completing his MA dissertation on the military's potential role in nation building, has been focusing on the lessons of British interventions in Afghanistan. He now concludes that the failure of both South African confederation in the 1870s and the post-1902 settlement are equally valid examples to examine.

Return to Johannesburg for the long flight back to Washington via the Cape Verde islands and Atlanta. With no fewer than three souvenir cricket bats on board, it is appropriate that we find the Canadian cricket team on the same flight home. The lessons of the British imperial military experience are clearly being absorbed after all.

Ian Beckett is professor of military theory at the US Marine Corps University, Quantico, Virginia.

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