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Arithmetic on the Frontier

This morning I came across the Kipling poem “Arithmetic on the Frontier,” which I had probably not read since college.   It was written in 1886 after the Second Afghan War.

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 troop-ships 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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#1 Comment By R J Stove On October 2, 2009 @ 4:29 pm

One wonders if other Kipling lines on Afghanistan (to be found in Barrack-Room Ballads, 1892) are still being acted on:

“When you’re wounded and left on Afghanistan’s plains,
And the women come out to cut up what remains,
Just roll to your rifle and blow out your brains
An’ go to your Gawd like a soldier.”

#2 Comment By Barney Rebble On October 3, 2009 @ 1:41 am

(With apologies for profaining a classic, we add the words:)

…While generals seek audience with the king,
papers in hand and voices pleading,
for just a bit more fodder.

#3 Comment By FRANCIS On November 13, 2009 @ 6:25 pm