How to model a graveyard - one point per deceased or one per grave?

How to model a graveyard - one point per deceased or one per grave?

This is a continuation of my previous question about our project on how to economically get away with the implementaion of a graveyard in a GIS system…

On the graveyard we can find

  • Regular graves: up to 2 people
  • Family graves: more than 2, some up to 20 (sisters from a Catholic congregation… )
  • War Monument: about 30 people
  • Ash Scattering Area: unlimitted, starting with 100 people
  • Fields with Burial Urns: up to 2 per spot
  • Walls with Burial Urns: up to 3 in height

So what's the best way to go, defining:

  • each person as a POINT object
  • each grave as a POINT object, the persons are part of the attributes

I would choose for each person as a POINT object:

  • One simple CSV file for all the persons.
  • Columns could be for example: FirstName - FamilyName - YearDeceased
  • Independent of the number of persons in a grave
  • That way even the ASH SCATTERING AREA can go into the file
  • Eventually some code has to be written to add to the results of a search the other persons burried in the same grave

Complications I see with each grave as a POINT object:

  • Each ROW needs the columns for the maximum number of persons in a grave…
  • That means that a lot of cells will be empty due to just a few graves with a lot of people
  • But what with the ASH SCATTERING AREA? 100 persons require all the additional columns in the table…
  • It is not reasonable to have all the data in one CSV file, but having more files will highly complicate the matter.

So, comments are welcome: person or grave as POINT object? Or none of this and do I need to do it another way?

In my town, 3 years ago, they had a bureau made SHP files for them. I was handed over those files and I noticed that the graves are drawn as POLYGONS. This comes with a DBF file for the ”data of the graves”. The normal graves have 4 sets of coordinates, seems logic. But a few things seem absurd to me:

  • There is an “urn wall” with hexagonal columbaria's drawn as a set of hexagonal figures… That means that each figure has 6 sets of coordinates…
  • In the “ash scattering area”, there is a pillar with little rectangular nameplates, they have drawn a rectangular POLYGON for each nameplate with 4 sets of coordinates… To me, using POLYGONS in these cases seems so much overkill in the database.

Besides that, correct me if I'm wrong, using:

  • POLYGONS requires DBF files, so a DBF editor (extra costs)
  • POINTS only requires CSV files, so EXCEL is enough (no extra costs)

In most towns, the data of the deceased persons come in a CSV file:

  • made directly in EXCEL or
  • exported form a DOS based program, made when WIN95 was still around…

Continuing to manage the “data of the persons” in one CSV file and EXCEL avoids:

  • buying software that can edit DBF files
  • worrying about importing the “data of persons” into the DBF file It seems not always to be without a hassle to import, edit and save data from CSV into DBF files and have NO corruption of your data. I read that this can be the case especially when working with ArcGis (ESRI).

I would go the complicated way: Two Tables in a 1:n relation

  • one table with the point location of the graves
  • another table with the Grave-ID and person data

You can build a relation between the two tables so that selecting a grave will select all person records in the person-table.

The idea of having tables with fields like Person1, Person2… is horrible and bad design.

I would create a polygon for the grave since the grave itself is a plot of land and have a one to many relationship for the people; one grave can have zero (unoccupied, available, or for sale ?) or many people. You could also use a point instead of the polygon. Polygons would make better presentations for sales and maintenance.

I would take DenaliHardtail's suggestion of using polygons to represent accurate sizes of the plots. This layer could have a table with Grave_ID, Grave_Type, Grave_Capacity, and Grave_Occupancy_Number. Then you could have a point layer with points overlying the corresponding grave polygons. Columns for the point layer table could be Person-ID, First_Name, Family_Name, Birthdate, Deathdate, Graveowner, and Grave_status (Sold, Unoccupied, etc.). You could then include the corresponding Grave-ID for each person so you could match person to grave and create a single excel table later on with all the grave and individual person info.

Normalizing the data leads me to some missing ideas/points. Also, I think Excel can do everything you want for the "database" you contemplate. Hint: Use sheets, or multiple files and use variations of Lookup functions. Save into the useful file(s) for imports/lookups from QGIS

I envision these discrete tables [or excel sheets], to start off your data set. Each Sheet/file is easily maintained by novice users, as long as the columns are clearly given (and are frozen as a top row… ), and novice is reminded that the IDs are unique and remain unchanged once assigned. The sheets and columns:

  1. PlotDescription - columns include: PlotID (ties to polygon), ownerID, plotTypeID (the plot type: grave, wall, crypt, etc.). This sheet is generally static, until one creates a new plot.
  2. Owner -- ownerID, columns with full description (name/ContactAddress/etc), deceased (T/F). I envision that if you have multiple owners, they are listed in full in the name field, and you would have one contact address
  3. Deceased -- DeceasedID, PlotID, full name/etc/other identifying data, elevationCode. The DeceasedID isn't found elsewhere so far, but good form creates a unique ID for each deceased; could be useful in expansions to the data -- for example, a list of relatives living for events or marketing.
  4. ElevationCode -- ElevationID and then a short description ("inGround", "inCrypt", "first row", "second row", "ash pile", etc). This sheet is generally static
  5. PlotType -- PlotTypeID and a short description -- crypt, grave, etc. This is a static sheet

For the mindset of the Novice, I don't suggest you fully normalize the identity issues and their columns, in the way they overlap between owners and deceased, and it creates unnecessary 1-many ancillary tables with nothing but various IDs. I envision a 1-to-1 between plot and owner tables, as a compromise for simplicity

I think this generalized set up will address issues such as: ash piles, wall crypts, owner/maintainer tracking, multiple deceased in a plot, and more.

Finally, remember to create a few, permanent rows in the two tables/sheets for owner and deceased: unknown owner; unknown deceased; unknown multiple deceased; owned by cemetery; not owned; etc.

Rails 3: How to execute rake task with form submit button

I would like the submit button action to execute a rails method or a rake task on the server side. The task copies the records from one model to another. I intend to add the button to the bottom of the index view of the pages controller.

I've read some posts but still can't figure out how to use the remote_function. Also tried using :onclick => :make_assets but nothing happens. Thanks

e.g. radio_button :model, :method, :onclick => remote_function(:controller => 'some', :action => 'action')

Options for final arrangement: Burial or cremation

One of the reasons that people should discuss their wishes before they become ill is so their family will know what final arrangements they would like to have after they die. Although some believe it is morbid to talk about end of life and funeral wishes while one is young and healthy, it can be a very important conversation to have. The family has had to make many difficult decisions while their loved one was dying, and then, after death, they have to plan the funeral. This is one of the most difficult things that people have to do in their lives. Although most people who die are older, there can be death that occurs in people of all ages, including newborn babies, infants, children, adolescents, and young adults. While the majority of nurses who are reading this book will care for adults or older adults, it is imperative to understand the perspective of the family who are undergoing the planning process.

One of the greatest decisions the family will have to make (unless specified in advance by the patient) is whether their loved one will be buried or cremated. Both methods have been around for thousands of years, and it is really a matter of personal preference (and sometimes family history). When burial is elected, the deceased will be interred in the ground in a cemetery, entombed in a vault in a mausoleum, or, more recently, have a “green burial.” Burials can be expensive the average median cost of a funeral is over $8,000. (National Funeral Directors Association, 2012). The deceased will need to have their body prepared and/or embalmed. Embalming is the process in which the blood is removed from the body via the veins and replaced with an embalming solution via the arteries, usually containing formaldehyde and other chemicals (National Funeral Directors Association, 2012). The body will be prepared cosmetically and dressed before being placed in the casket. Along with the casket, there is usually a vault that is placed into the ground that encompasses the casket. There are also fees associated with the grave or mausoleum space and opening up the ground/vault for internment. The funeral director has a fee for their services and use of the funeral home for visitation. A hearse is the vehicle that transports the deceased from the funeral home to the church (if applicable) and to the cemetery. The family will obtain a death certificate and may write an obituary for the local newspaper. Lastly, if burial is used, often there will be a headstone or marker purchased for the grave.

Although both burial and cremation can be costly, cremation is usually less expensive than a burial. Cremation is the process by which the deceased body is burned into ashes using heat and fire. Any fragments that remain after the procedure, including bones, are ground down to a finer consistency with special tools at the crematorium. When selecting this method, the body does not get embalmed. The body is placed into an approved container, such as a wooden casket, for the cremation. Certified crematoriums have special policies and procedures in place to ensure that the highest quality care and dignity are provided during the cremation process. The remains are placed into a special container called an urn. There are many choices available to families for urn styles as well as caskets. There can still be formal visitation and funeral practices that take place before the deceased is cremated, or a memorial service can be held with the ashes of the deceased after cremation occurs. Cremated remains are then either buried in the ground or mausoleum in a cemetery, kept by the family, scattered in an outdoor location or divided up between family members (although this practice is not used in some religions who believe that the remains of a person should not be divided).

Understanding social media data for disaster management

Social media data are increasingly being used in disaster management for information dissemination, establishment of situational awareness of the “big picture” of the disaster impact and emerged incidences over time, and public peer-to-peer backchannel communications. Before we can fully trust the situational awareness established from social media data, we need to ask whether there are biases in data generation: Can we simply associate more tweets with more severe disaster impacts and therefore higher needs for relief and assistance in that area? If we rely on social media for real-time information dissemination, who can we reach and who has been left out? Due to the uneven access to social media and heterogeneous motivations in social media usage, situational awareness based on social media data may not reveal the true picture. In this study, we examine the spatial heterogeneity in the generation of tweets after a major disaster. We developed a novel model to explain the number of tweets by mass, material, access, and motivation (MMAM). Empirical analysis of tweets about Hurricane Sandy in New York City largely confirmed the MMAM model. We also found that community socioeconomic factors are more important than population size and damage levels in predicting disaster-related tweets.

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Interpreting Past Human Mobility Patterns: A Model

In the last decade, the exponential increase in migration studies focusing on the mobility of groups and single individuals—mostly based on aDNA and strontium isotope analyses—has provided an important extra layer of information regarding past social dynamics. The current relatively large quantity of data and their constant increase provide an opportunity to examine human mobility in unprecedented detail. In short, the course of academic dialogue is changing from producing evidence for movement to examining differences or similarities in human mobilities across temporal and geographical barriers. Moreover, the amount and type of new data are beginning to provide new kinds of information that can help us grasp why that movement first came about. We present the first potential mobility model focusing on single individuals during different life stages based on in vivo movement patterns. We draw on previous studies in recent mobility research that provide a variety of case studies to illustrate the model. We hope that this model will prove valuable for future discussions regarding human mobility by integrating the present archaeological contextual discourse with the increasing body of data being produced.

Au cours de la dernière décennie, la croissance exponentielle des études concernant la migration mettant l'accent sur la mobilité de groupes ou d'individus—la plupart basées sur des analyses de l'ADN ancien et des isotopes du strontium—a fourni une série supplémentaire de données sur les dynamiques sociales du passé. Aujourd'hui, la quantité de ces données, un nombre qui augmente constamment, permet d'examiner la mobilité des humains avec un degré de précision inédit. La teneur du débat scientifique est en train de changer, passant d'une présentation des indicateurs de mouvement vers un examen des différences ou ressemblances entre la mobilité des gens, au travers des barrières temporelles et géographiques. De plus, la quantité et le caractère de ces données commencent à fournir de nouvelles informations sur l'origine de ces mouvements. Nous présentons ici un premier modèle de mobilité potentielle focalisé sur des individus dans différentes phases de leur vie et fondé sur des schémas de mouvement in vivo . Nous nous basons sur des études récentes sur la mobilité qui fournissent divers exemples illustrant notre modèle. Nous espérons que ce modèle s'avèrera utile dans de futures discussions sur la mobilité humaine en combinant le discours actuel basé sur le contexte archéologique avec les nouvelles données toujours plus abondantes. Translation by Madeleine Hummler

Im letzten Jahrzehnt zeigte sich eine exponentiell zunehmende Entwicklung innerhalb der Migrationsforschung in der Archäologie, welche die Mobilität von Menschengruppen oder Individuen betreffen und vor allem auf Analysen von alt-DNA (aDNA) und Strontium Isotop-Analysen beruhen. Diese Forschungen sind heute eine wichtige zusätzliche Informationsquelle innerhalb der Diskussion zu den Dynamiken vor- und frühgeschichtlicher Gesellschaften. Die zurzeit recht große und stetig zunehmende Menge von Daten bietet die Gelegenheit, menschliche Mobilität mit bisher unerreichter Genauigkeit zu untersuchen. Fokussierte die Forschung noch vor wenigen Jahren auf den einfachen Beweis für Mobilität, so ermöglicht die steigende Menge Daten heute die Untersuchung von Unterschieden und Gemeinsamkeiten innerhalb der menschlichen Mobilität, in Zeit und Raum. Darüber hinaus erlauben die neuen Daten bereits neue Angaben zu den Ursachen vor- und frühgeschichtlicher Möbilität In diesem Artikel stellen wir erstmals ein Modell zur Bestimmung potenzieller Mobilitätsmuster vor. Das Modell basiert auf in vivo Bewegungsmustern einzelner Individuen in verschiedenen Lebensphasen. Neueste Forschungsergebnisse verschiedener Projekte werden als Beispiele herangezogen um das hier vorgestellte Modell illustrieren. Das hier vorgestellte Modell wird hoffentlich zukünftige Diskussionen zur menschlichen Mobilität durch die Verbindung des aktuellen kontextuellen Diskurses in der Archäologie mit der zunehmenden Menge neu erzeugter Daten anregen. Translation by Madeleine Hummler

15 women who helped pave the way in the Army

Posted On January 28, 2019 18:40:01

Depicted from left, Civil War nurse Clara Barton, Susie King Taylor and Dr. Mary Walker. On the right is WAC founder Col. Oveta Culp Hobby and later WAC Deputy Director Col. Bettie J. Morden. Moving toward the front is Brig. Gen. Clara Adams-Ender and Brig Gen. Sheridan Cadoria. In front is today’s Army Surgeon General Lt. Gen. Nadja West. (Photo Credit: Peggy Frierson)

1. Mary Ludwig Hays McCauley, Revolutionary War (1775 – 1783)

Mary Ludwig McCauley gained the nickname of “Molly Pitcher” in 1778 by carrying water to the men on the Revolutionary battlefield in Monmouth, New Jersey. She replaced her husband, Capt. John Hays, when he collapsed at his cannon. Since then, many women who carried water to men on the battlefield were called “Molly Pitchers.”

2. Clara Barton, Civil War nurse (1861 – 1865)

Clara Barton witnessed immense suffering on the Civil War battlefield and did much to alleviate it. She was on the scene ministering to those most in need, taking care of the wounded, dead, and dying.

Barton became a “professional angel” after the war. She lectured and worked on humanitarian causes relentlessly, and went on to become the first president of the American Association of the Red Cross. At the age of 77, she was still in the field taking care of Soldiers in military hospitals in Cuba during the Spanish-American War.

3. Susie King Taylor, Civil War (1861-1865)

Born a slave in Georgia in 1848, Susie Baker, who later became known as Susie King Taylor, gained her freedom in April 1862. Baker was initially appointed laundress of the 33rd U.S. Colored Troops, re-organized from the 1st South Carolina Volunteers. Due to her nursing skills and her ability to read and write, her responsibilities with the regiment began to multiply. More than a few African-American women may have provided service as the Union Army began forming regiments of all black men. After the war, Taylor helped to organize a branch of the Women’s Relief Corps.

4. Dr. Mary Walker, Union Army contract surgeon (1861-1865)

Dr. Mary Walker graduated from Syracuse Medical College in 1855 and later earned a second degree in 1862 from Hygeia Therapeutic College in New York. During the Civil War, she worked at first as a volunteer in Manassas and Fredericksburg, Virginia. Later she worked as a contract physician for the 52nd Ohio Infantry Regiment. Walker is the only woman ever granted the Medal of Honor.

5. Mary Catherine O’Rourke, Telephone operator and interpreter (1917-1918)

Mary Catherine O’ Rourke was one of 450 “Hello Girls” who served in the Signal Corps Female Telephone Operators Unit during World War I. They were bilingual female switchboard operators recruited by Gen. John J. Pershing to improve communications on the Western Front.

The Signal Corps women were given the same status as nurses, and had 10 extra regulations placed on them to preserve their “status as women.” They had the rank of lieutenant, but had to buy their own uniforms.

Mary Catherine O’Rourke was in the fourth group of these women who shipped off to France during World War I. She studied French with instructors from the University of Grenoble. She was assigned to Paris and served as interpreter for Gen. John J. Pershing during months of negotiations at the Paris Peace Conference which resulted in the Treaty of Versailles.

6. Col. Oveta Culp Hobby, First WAC director (1942-1945)

Col. Oveta Culp Hobby was called upon to serve as the chief, Women’s Interest Section, Bureau of Public Affairs for the War Department. She served in this position for one year before becoming the first woman sworn into the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps, or WAAC in 1942 and appointed as its director. The WAAC was converted to the Women’s Army Corps in July 1943 and Hobby was appointed to the rank of colonel in the Army of the United States as she continued to serve as director of the WAC.

After setting the stage for the creation of the WAC, Hobby built the corps to the strength of over 100,000 by April 1944. She established procedures and policies for recruitment, training, administration, discipline, assignment, and discharge for the WAC. She surmounted difficulties in arranging for the training, clothing, assignments, recognition, and acceptance of women in the Army. Hobby made it possible for women to serve in over 400 non-combat military jobs at posts throughout the United States, and in every overseas theater.

Hobby was later called upon by President Dwight D. Eisenhower to serve as the first secretary of the Department of Health, Education and Welfare from 1953-1955.

7. Col. Bettie J. Morden, WAC deputy director, 1971

Bettie J. Morden had a long, distinguished career in the Army that took many turns. She enlisted in the WAAC on Oct. 14, 1942. She receiving basic and administrative training at the First WAAC Training Center, Fort Des Moines, Iowa. She served throughout World War II at the Third WAAC Training Center, Fort Oglethorpe, Georgia, as an administrative noncommissioned officer of the Publications Office. Morden later served as a first sergeant with Headquarters Company on the South Post. After the war ended, Morden was discharged in November 1945.

In September 1949, she entered the WAC, U.S. Army Reserve, and was commissioned a second lieutenant in February 1950. In November 1966, she was assigned as executive officer, Office of the Director, WAC, at the Pentagon and was promoted to full colonel on June 9, 1970. She assumed the position of acting deputy director, WAC, on Feb 1, 1971. She retired on Dec. 31, 1972, and was awarded the Distinguished Service Medal.

In July 1973, Morden was elected president of the WAC Foundation, now the U.S. Army Women’s Museum Foundation, a private organization formed initially in 1969 to support the museum. Morden resigned from the presidency in June 2001.

8. Jacqueline Cochran, Pioneer female aviator (Pre-World War II to 1970)

After developing a successful line of cosmetics, Jacqueline Cochran took flying lesson in the 1930s so that she could use her travel and sales time more efficiently. She eventually became a test pilot. She helped design the first oxygen mask and became the first person to fly above 20,000 feet wearing one. She set three speed records and a world altitude record of 33,000 feet — all before 1940.

She was the first woman to fly a heavy bomber over the Atlantic. She volunteered for duty as a combat pilot in the European Theater during World War II, but her offer was rejected. She trained American women as transport pilots in England for the Air Transport Auxiliary of the Royal Air Force.

Upon return to the United States, she oversaw flight training for women and the merging of the Women’s Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron into the Women’s Airforce Service Pilots in July 1943. She was awarded the Distinguished Service Medal in 1945 for her service in World War II.

After the war, she was commissioned in 1948. She became the first woman to break the sound barrier in an F-86 Sabre Jet in 1953 and went on to set a world speed record of 1,429 mph in 1964. She retired from the Air Force Reserve as a colonel in 1970.

9. Brig. Gen. Clara L. Adams-Ender, Army Nurse Corps (1961-1993)

In 1967, Brig. Gen. Adams-Ender became the first female in the Army to qualify for and be awarded the Expert Field Medical Badge. She was also the first woman to earn a master’s of military arts and science degree .at the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College in Fort Leavenworth, Kansas.

On Sept. 1, 1987, she was promoted to brigadier general and appointed the chief of the Army Nurse Corps.

In 1991, she was selected to be commanding general of Fort Belvoir, Virginia, and served in this capacity as well as that of deputy commanding general of the U.S. Military District of Washington until her retirement in 1993.

10. Command Sgt. Maj. Yzetta L. Nelson, First woman command sergeant major (1944-1970)

Yzetta L. Nelson joined the Women’s Army Corps in 1944. In 1966, she was promoted to the rank of sergeant major. On March 30, 1968, she became the first WAC promoted to the new rank of command sergeant major. She continued to serve in the WAC until her retirement in 1970.

11. Brig. Gen. Sherian G. Cadoria, First African-American female general (1961-1990)

Promoted to brigadier general in 1985, Sherian G. Cadoria was the highest-ranking black woman in the Army until she retired in 1990. She entered the Army in 1961, with a direct commission as a first lieutenant in the Women’s Army Corps. In the 1970s, she transferred to the Military Police Corps.

12. Sgt. Danyell E. Wilson, First black female sentinel at Tomb of Unknowns

Sgt. Danyell E. Wilson became the first African-American woman to earn the prestigious Tomb Guard Badge and become a sentinel at the Tomb of the Unknowns, Jan. 22, 1997.

Born in 1974 in Montgomery, Alabama, Wilson joined the Army in February 1993. She was a military police officer assigned to the MP Company, 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment (The Old Guard). She completed testing and a rigorous eight-month trial period and became part of the Honor Guard Company of The Old Guard.

14. Sgt. Maj. Michele S. Jones, First command sergeant major of Army Reserve

In September 2003, Sgt. Maj. Michele S. Jones was selected by Lt. Gen. James R. Helmly, Army Reserve chief, to become the ninth command sergeant major of the Army Reserve. She was the first woman to serve in that position and the first to be chosen as the senior NCO in any of the Army’s components. For some time, she was also the highest-ranking African-American in any of the military services.

Jones entered the Army in 1982. She attended basic training at Fort Jackson, South Carolina, and advanced individual training at Fort Benjamin Harrison, Indiana. She was the first woman to serve as class president at the United States Sergeants Major Academy.

15. Lt. Gen. Nadja West, Surgeon general of the U.S. Army

Lt. Gen. Nadja Y. West is the 44th surgeon general of the United States Army and commanding general, U.S. Army Medical Command.

West is a graduate of the United States Military Academy with a bachelor of science in engineering. She earned a doctorate of medicine from George Washington University School of Medicine in the District of Columbia.

Her last assignment was as the Joint Staff surgeon at the Pentagon. In that capacity, she served as the chief medical advisor to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and coordinated all health services issues to include operational medicine, force health protection, and readiness.

(Editor’s note: The above 15 are just a sampling of the many women who have contributed to shaping the U.S. Army.)


Why ‘The Black Widow’ might reboot the Marvel Cinematic Universe

Posted On April 29, 2020 15:52:59

Marvel officially announced its massive upcoming slate that will kick off phase 4 of the MCU starting with “The Black Widow” solo movie coming to theaters May 1, 2020. Black Widow finally getting her own movie should come as no surprise, as the superspy is one of the OG Avengers and is played by Scarlett Johansson, one of the biggest actresses in the world.

However, there is one big potential problem: Black Widow is, for lack of a better word, dead, as she sacrificed herself to help the other Avengers get a hold of the Soul Stone. Obviously, this means that “The Black Widow” will be an origin story set in the past but it also begs the question: could “Black Widow” being the first movie in phase 4 mean that the MCU is finally ready to embrace the multiverse?

Confused? Well, it’s possible that “The Black Widow” could just be a standalone origin film but given the interconnectivity of the MCU, that feels unlikely. “Captain Marvel,” the last movie before “Endgame,” took place in the 90s but it still managed to connect itself to the larger narrative (“Captain America” did the same thing). This makes it feel highly unlikely that “Black Widow” will be a stand-alone story that marks the end of Johansson’s time with Marvel, especially considering the fact that it has been chosen as the movie to start the post-Iron Man and Captain America era of the MCU.

This is where the multiverse comes into play because it could potentially allow the titular secret agent to find her way back into the story while also finally opening up the MCU to other universes. The MCU has been hinting at the multiverse theory for a long time, most recently via Mysterio in “Spider-Man: Far From Home,” but so far, it has only dipped its toes into the complex tapestry of parallel realities.

The multiverse theory makes even more sense when you look down the rest of the phase 4 schedule, as a lot of the upcoming shows and movies seem to suggest the possibility of alternative universes, as they are packed with dead members of the MCU. Loki, who died in “Infinity War,” will be getting his own show in 2021, while Vision, who was murdered by Thanos, is set to have a major role in “WandaVision,” another show set to air on Disney+.


Is Marvel just getting really into prequels? Maybe (although Vision and Wanda don’t meet until Ultron so that doesn’t really make sense) but how would that explain “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness?” At this point, Marvel is basically winking at comic book fans with its seeming embrace of the multiverse.

So when “Black Widow” hits theaters next year, don’t be surprised if its a badass espionage flick that also sets the foundation of the Avengers diving deep into the wonderfully weird world of the multiverse. This would open it up to infinite possibilities, including rebooting storylines and bringing back characters who are currently dead.

This article originally appeared on Fatherly. Follow @FatherlyHQ on Twitter.

More on We are the Mighty


Death On Facebook Now Common As 'Dead Profiles' Create Vast Virtual Cemetery

Sometime in mid-July, Anthony Dowdell put on his favorite plaid shirt, drove his Dodge pickup to the parking lot of a Sam's Club in Linden, N.J., leaned back in the driver's seat, and shot himself.

Nobody knows exactly when the 39-year-old, who went by the online moniker "Dare Dellcan," took his life. Nobody knows why the normally cheery creative director and design company owner did it. And for the first couple of days, few people besides the police officers who found his body on July 16 knew he was dead.

The day after the discovery, a message appeared on Dowdell's Facebook wall.

"I am a friend of Anthony's. I wish I could call you all to inform you personally and this is probably a crappy way to find this out but our dear friend Anthony aka Ant aka Dare Dellcan has passed away. It is confirmed. I live around the corner and I have spoken with authorities this evening … I am only sharing this because if I was Anthony's friend, I would want to know too. And I know that Anthony had friends all over the place."

Dowdell had 692 friends on the social network. They were in New Jersey, where he lived, New York City, where he was raised, and spread from Los Angeles to Miami. A few were in Brazil and Italy. As with most people on Facebook, they were former girlfriends and dates-turned-friends, high school and college classmates, co-workers. Many hadn't seen him in years. Most didn't know each other.

The message on Facebook, linked to a newspaper article about an unnamed man found dead in a truck in the store's parking lot, is how nearly all learned of Dowdell's death.

Dowdell wasn't close to his mother and stepfather, and "we knew from his family situation that there would not be any sort of memorial," says Jessa Moore, a 35-year-old friend who lives in Jersey City, N.J. "Facebook became our memorial. We could leave messages for him and each other." Moore has been posting memories of Dowdell on his page for four months. Friends upload photos of him and his dog, Bacon, and if they are at a restaurant or bar he would like, they "tag" his name so his Facebook profile shows that he, too, was there.

For some, it's been a painful experience to see constant reminders of Dowdell online, as if he were still living. Others have wondered if they're being respectful of his privacy. But for Moore, it's been cathartic. "For a month, I was there on his page every day. It just sort of kept us all connected," she says.

It used be that news of death spread through phone calls, and before that, letters and house calls. The departed were publicly remembered via memorials on street corners, newspaper obituaries and flowers at grave sites. To some degree, this is still the case. But increasingly, the announcements and subsequent mourning occur on social media. Facebook, with 1 billion detailed, self-submitted user profiles, was created to connect the living. But it has become the world's largest site of memorials for the dead.

Since the beginning of the Web, it's been plausible that pieces of information about people with Web sites and email accounts would be left accessible after they died. But the virtual cemetery is fairly new. One of the oldest online memorials is the U.K.-based Virtual Memorial Garden, which began in 1995. A simple, alphabetized collection of tens of thousands of paragraph-long, user-submitted memories of the dead, it's still growing. Since social media first gained mass appeal a decade ago with Friendster (2002) and MySpace (2003), online profiles have outlived their creators. But the skyrocketing growth of Facebook has created a new terrain for death on the Internet.


Dowdell is just one of an estimated 30 million people whose virtual profiles on Facebook have outlived them. By the end of this year, 3 million Facebook users' pages will have become memorial sites for their owners, according to calculations by Nate Lustig, the founder of Entrustet, an online company that helps people access and delete online accounts after someone dies. Lustig arrived at the number by culling data on the total number of Facebook users, their ages and geographic distribution, and international death rates.

There are clear rules for how next of kin can inherit or delete accounts on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and the countless other online manifestations of ourselves that have proliferated. Usually, family members have to submit an obituary, news article or death certificate to verify the user is dead. But unless there's a request, the rules on death are rarely enforced on social networks. Facebook allows only the living user of a registered account to have access to it -- families can't get full access to profiles unless there's documented instruction from the deceased. In a rare case in June, a Wisconsin couple obtained a court order for Facebook to give them access to the personal messages in their 23-year-old son's account after he committed suicide.

It's easy to track who joins a social network, but it's hard to keep up with who dies. Some accounts exist in perpetuity. Others are shut down by friends and family who have access to passwords or prove their relationship to the dead, or by social media companies because of inactivity. Facebook is largely hands-off with dead users unless there are specific requests from families.

One unique site,, tracks social media profiles of the dead and maintains an extensive message board and Facebook page, where the morbidly curious can discuss the passings. The site, which has archives of 17,825 profiles of the dead, gets up to 11,000 views per day.

"Looking at the MySpace and Facebook profiles of the deceased that haven't been altered by family members is like looking at a snapshot of a person's life the moment before they passed away," says Michael Patterson, the 31-year-old San Francisco resident who founded the site seven years ago. "You can see what the person was into, what music they enjoyed and so many interesting things that were important before their passing."

Other services, such as Lustig's Entrustet, have formed to assist the living in planning for their digital legacies. One called My Wonderful Life not only offers digital estate planning, but schedules posthumous emails to be delivered to friends, coworkers and loved ones.

The Web is profoundly changing the life of someone’s memory after their death.

"There aren't really any norms around death and social media yet. People are kind of making it up as they go along," says Jed Brubaker, a leading scholar in the relatively new field of digital identity and a doctoral candidate in informatics at the University of California-Irvine. "But what's known is that this Facebook generation will have more experiences with death than any generation before it. Because anyone you ever knew, people who have naturally faded from your life, will remain there and you will stumble into them and realize they are dead."

That's what happened with Dowdell. Moore, a communications student and actress, had met him six months before July 16. They first contacted each other on OkCupid, a dating Web site. There were no romantic sparks, but they became friends.

"We texted or talked or Facebooked every day. … He was supposed to come over for dinner that week," Moore says. But Dowdell’s Facebook page, peppered with photos of him with dogs, pictures of his design projects and videos of him dancing, had been quieter than usual.

Moore didn't come across the post about what happened until a few days later. A friend posted a message on his Facebook wall after speaking to Dowdell's mother, with whom Dowdell had a strained relationship. He would be cremated with no ceremony. So Moore and a handful of Dowdell's friends began exchanging messages, planning for a celebration to keep his memory alive.

They posted photos of him ahead of the gathering: a dapper Dowdell at a friend's wedding, him with a good friend's dog, him wearing a blue baseball cap and posing with a friend, one that captured his fun-loving spirit: him sticking his tongue out in a grainy iPhone photo. On July 26, Dowdell was posthumously tagged at his own wake at Stout, a bar in Manhattan. "A gathering of the FAB ladies in honor of our dear friend Anthony (Dare). RIP, we love and miss you ♥ ," the friends wrote.

The page has been filled with similar updates since. Most times, the friends speak directly to Dowdell, as if writing on a Facebook wall will transmit a message to him.

"It’s more for us than for him," says Moore, whose name is scattered throughout the page with her own postings and "likes" of others' words. She says she doesn't think Dowdell would mind. He loved being online. It's how he met new friends and kept in touch with old ones. "I remember saying to him once, 'You know, everything on Facebook stays on Facebook. It's not going to go away or disappear.' That's how he felt," says Moore.

Some would rather that not be the case.


In early August, Rohan Aurora, a 24-year-old biomedical engineering student and technology blogger who attends the University of Southern California, was on Facebook, reading news about friends back home in New Delhi, India. The routine is common and deeply important for Aurora. He posts photos and updates of his life -- announcements of internships and photos of mountain-climbing adventures -- and friends comment on them, while he does the same for them.

One friend from high school, Lalit Mendhe, had a photo posted on his Facebook page of himself in a hospital bed. He didn't look so bad, Aurora thought. "It didn't seem like he was very uncomfortable." So he made a quip on his wall, hoping to cheer up a friend stuck in the hospital, whatever the cause may have been.

"He had a habit of keeping long hair, so I wrote under the photo, 'Did you get a haircut?'" said Aurora. Not long after, he got a message in his inbox from another one of Mendhe's friends. Mendhe, 23, had been in a car crash. He died of cardiac arrest and liver failure in that hospital bed.

Aurora immediately deleted his comment. They hadn’t been very close, but would meet whenever Aurora was back in India. Facebook had allowed their bond to survive. It's been four months, and while Aurora misses his friend, he doesn't want to think about his death all the time. He says Facebook is forcing him to.

"My roommates and I, we have a lot of mutual friends on Facebook. And it would keep on notifying them that they may 'know' Lalit and should add him on Facebook," says Aurora. "My friends would pull me over and say, 'Do you know him?' He's expired. It just doesn't look nice."

One of Facebook's most loved and loathed elements is the "people you may know" feature. Based upon your location, university or workplace and the people one has friended, Facebook employs a formula to suggest users befriend people they "may know," usually friends of friends. Above a link to "add friend," Facebook shows the name and thumbnail photo of the suggested friend.

"One of my good pictures with Lalit, it came up on Facebook and it asked me to tag and identify this person. It's not good. You are tagging him at the wrong time. When I go through my pictures, I see his comment. I am forced to click on his name and look back," says Aurora. "A Facebook profile is an indication that someone is alive. We need to respect one's privacy."

What to do with dead profiles is an increasing problem for Facebook. Three years ago, the company introduced a feature to convert profiles of dead friends into official memorial pages to avoid the kinds of issues Aurora has seen.

"We believe we have put in effective policies that address the accounts that are left behind by the deceased," said Fred Wolens, a Facebook spokesman. "When we receive a report that a person on Facebook is deceased, we put the account in a special memorialized state. Certain more sensitive information is removed, and privacy is restricted to friends only. The profile and Wall are left up so that friends and loved ones can make posts in remembrance. If we're contacted by a close family member with a request to remove the profile entirely, we will honor that request."

Memorials can only be found by people who were already friends with the dead person (by default, Facebook accounts show up in Google) and the "tag a friend" and "people you may know" features are disabled. But the memorialization option is unknown to even the most social media-savvy and hard to find on the site. It's unclear how much the feature is being used. Wolens said there are no figures on how many formally memorialized pages exist.

"Facebook doesn't do a good job of thinking about death," says Brubaker, the scholar who studies death on social media. "It doesn't have that concept. There's no checkbox that says 'I am dead,' and when would you click it anyway? What does it mean for all these profiles to be lingering on of people who are dead?"

Evan Caroll, who co-founded a Web site called The Digital Beyond, is trying to fill that gap. Along with co-founder John Romano, a co-worker in the marketing business in Raleigh, N.C., the site has dozens of articles on how to plan for digital assets after death, from email to bank accounts and, of course, Facebook. The site lists more than 30 for-profit online services for digital legacy management.

"People really want to control what they leave behind -- and what's left behind of their loved ones," says Carroll. "But I think we are starting to see this shift in our feelings about death, where it will be less tangible but will be about situations where we can remember people whenever, wherever we want to and make them part of our everyday lives."

Aurora, who says he "wouldn't write on Lalit's wall" to say anything to his friend because he thinks he would violate Mendhe's privacy after his death, tried to submit his page to become an official memorial, but Facebook asked him for a news article to confirm the death. "I said if you come to his wall, you will see the RIP message." He forwarded the memorialization link to Mendhe's brother in case he had better luck.


For decades, the "five stages of grief," a model introduced by Swiss-American psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross in 1969, dominated popular thought about experiencing death. The stages -- denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance -- essentially supposed that people would eventually get over the death of a loved one. Some of that thinking continues today with the shift of grieving to social media.

In part, it explains why people such as Aurora -- who undoubtedly felt pain at his friend's death but was not in his closest circles -- would be ready for the profile of a dead person to stop showing up so often on Facebook. Aurora says his grieving process is done.

But it wouldn't explain why someone like Moore would be grateful to see her friend's Facebook account live in perpetuity. She would never ask for it to be removed, delete her words on his page or ask for a slimmed-down version of it to become a memorial. The stages of grief wouldn't explain why one would hold on to the account of a dead person, writing messages on it and checking for updates as if that person had never gone away. Or is Facebook the new phase of denial?

"Historically, clinicians may have looked at a Facebook wall and seen these people who are writing to the deceased as having not gotten over their attachment to the dead. They would say that by not letting go of that person they are not accepting the loss," says Brubaker. "But more recently, there's been this idea of 'continuing bonds' that takes strong issue with the notion that one has to 'get over' your relationship with the deceased. We always have relationships with the dead that continue. It's just that the nature of those relationships change."

Maki Podell is caught somewhere in the middle of these two ways of looking at death and grieving.

Two years ago, her husband Buff Herr went to his physician for a routine checkup. He ended up abruptly dying on the exam table. Culturally observant of Jewish traditions, the family didn't do an autopsy. Podell and their daughter don't know how Herr, who was 63, died. Podell, who lives in New York, buried him in Connecticut near her parents' graves. She rarely visits. But as a Facebook novice -- she had only recently joined it -- she was was "both shocked and interested" to see her husband's much more active Facebook page evolve into a tribute to his life. She was also taken aback by how people used the site to speak to her about his death.

"I had a friend send me condolences over Facebook. I thought, 'Wow, buy a card,'" says Podell, a 61-year-old corporate sales agent for Balthazar, a New York-based restaurant and bakery. "I don't think she meant any harm by it. It's just very impersonal.

"Some people didn't realize he died, so every May 4, they would leave 'happy birthday' messages. I would send them his obit notice," says Podell, who was with Herr for 34 years. "I don't know how real [Facebook] is. How much do you know about a person? Ultimately, it can be silly because you don't."

She looks at his Facebook wall about once a month. She reads through the messages friends leave for him -- and still notifies the occasional visitor who thinks he's alive. But she keeps her deepest thoughts about him private.

"I see people whose husbands are ill and the wives are playing out the whole scenario online. I just think you can overshare things sometimes. People's lives, maybe their deaths, shouldn't play out like that," Podell says. "But on the other hand, I think, who will be remembered? A couple of presidents. Some poets. And who will remember you? Kids if you are just a normal schmoe. And if you're lucky enough to see them, grandchildren. But that's it."

Podell says she has "a million memories" of her husband around her apartment. She can see his photos and his old letters anytime. Their daughter is 24, and they reminisce over the good times: Herr's obsession with red wine (he ran a wine blog), his 80-person Thanksgiving parties and his painstakingly cultivated backyard garden. But Podell finds herself going back to Facebook.

She looks over Herr's old Facebook photos, like the black-and-white one of him dipping his daughter on the dancefloor, and the one of him smiling, running his fingers through his hair while driving on a racetrack, one of his favorite hobbies. Known for his spontaneity, he once took her hand and serenaded her as they danced along a street during a visit to Los Angeles. A friend had snapped a photo and Podell recently made that her Facebook profile picture.

When she dies, she's not sure if she wants the same kind of activity on her own Facebook. As as much as it irks her to see some people pretend to know her husband when they didn't, remembrances posted by others have touched her heart.

"Maybe it's a way of pretending he is there on some level. It's weird, I don't even know what my own motives are," she said. "My father died when I was 17. The way we kept him alive was talking about him all the time. But there comes a point when that stops, and I think that it doesn't stop on Facebook. It just keeps going."

This story appears in Issue 32 of our weekly iPad magazine, Huffington, in the iTunes App store, available Friday, Jan. 18.

5 Answers 5

And you've felt that friction trying to make it happen, haven't you? Walking into a scene with a point planned for how it's going to end, and you have all this power to deal damage and put people in spots to do it. You feel a bit of a bully, and you should.

The thing with Powered By The Apocalypse games is that they're not great for telling stories "by accident", such that they arise as a result of fixed game rules interacting in unpredictable ways without anyone's intent to create them. Or "by 'accident'", where you as the GM contrive without your players' input or knowledge to present rules in such a way as to force a particular outcome, regardless of what your players do. They're for telling stories on purpose, with the full participation of all involved.

So how do you get your PCs to walk into their own deaths on purpose?

If it's the premise, you don't have to play it out.

If the interesting part of your campaign is going to be working as agents of cosmic powers in the afterlife or as time-displaced heroes in a strange new future, you can just start there. Even level 1 characters don't start at the very beginning of their heroic journeys - they've set up cons, guided each other through the wilderness, heard stories about each other.

If it doesn't make sense for an agent of cosmic powers or the last hope from the distant past to start out as level 1, they don't have to. You know what a higher-level character looks like, just add some stat points and pick some extra moves. Equipment and money and magical gear aren't nearly as important to Dungeon World as they are to other games, so your starting loadout there is fine to keep.

If it's important that some things have happened in their past that will play forward into the adventure - you know, like how exactly they died - well, that's what adventure moves are for. They were called "love letters" in the original Apocalypse World, and honestly I like that name a bit better, but you can read up on them in the Advanced Delving chapter. They differ from other player-facing moves in that they don't have to flow out of a player's narration of what their character is doing in fact, they don't have to be freely available to the players at all. They reflect a unique circumstance, assume some narration, and influence how events play out over a longer period of time.

So for example, here's something you might set Wizzrobe up with:

  • You sealed the source of the calamity securely away. Tell us what it was (a forbidden tome? a malevolent artifact? an ill-omened portal?) and what you did to it.
  • You didn't need to break your treasured staff to see it done. Tell the GM what kind of power sleeps in it, they'll come up with something neat to give you.
  • You didn't leave a scar on magic with the power you wielded.
  • You struck a definitive blow against the calamity, and it will fade with time.

Or, here's something you might just hand out to everybody as an ongoing concern.

  • When you come across a traveler or enemy you've met before (your call), tell the GM of your last encounter with them. The GM will tell you how they've changed since then.
  • When you come across a marked grave, tell the GM who they were and how you knew them.

If it's a development in the middle of an existing campaign. you still don't have to play it out.

It might be a bit harder of a sell to people who are invested in their characters and the world as it exists in front of them, as opposed to just starting a campaign with that premise. But you'll still need to sell it to them, and you'll need to be willing to walk away from your idea if your players don't buy into it, because you're still telling this story on purpose.

The adventure moves are still how you'd make the transition to the new form of your campaign, because otherwise you'd be walking into a scene where your players could theoretically act freely with a plan for how it's going to end, and we've already established that's a bad thing. Adventure moves that you deploy in this way are at once easier and harder to write than they might be for a campaign setup. Easier because you've been playing in this world for a while and you know what kinds of things your players care about that you can place in the crosshairs of a "how you died" move. Harder because the adventure moves are part of the sell and you need to be more open to negotiation with your players about what's ultimately at stake.

You cannot do this if you will only accept the outcome that the party is killed. A central agenda point for both GM and players in Dungeon World is "Play to find out what happens!". If the outcome is predetermined, this tenet is violated. On a mechanical level, successes, failures and successes-at-a-cost are supposed to be interesting precisely because they shape the story and influence what will happen. If everyone's going to die anyway, what's the point in rolling Last Breaths?

Anytime you feel the urge to say "the story requires X" in Dungeon World (and most other "Powered by the Apocalypse" systems like it), you're violating this tenet. The rules were at one point extremely explicit about this, since when explaining the GM's agenda they said this twice:

You're most certainly not here to tell everyone a planned story. That one deserves repeating: you are not here to tell everyone a planned story. [emphasis in the original!] Don't ever plan a storyline. You do not know what will happen to the players' characters any more than they do. Your job is to portray a fantastic world, not provide a canned plot.

If you want to impose specific story beats in this system, you need to think about how to make the players complicit in making them happen and you need to accept that it might not happen at all. Nothing is written in stone before it happens, and if you reach a point where the players goal is "survive" and your goal is "kill their characters", you've gone very far away from how this system is intended to run. GM and players work together to create a fictional narrative, not against each other.

If you want everyone to die, don't try to make it so that they cannot escape death at all. Instead, try to offer them interesting choices where death - or at least probable death - is what they want to choose. The hero sacrificing themself so that others may live is a common trope for a reason - try to use it. And if there is an afterlife and resurrection magic, why not telegraph this to the players, showing that death is not the end? Let an NPC die and come back from the dead, telling tales of what they saw, and the player characters might get interested in exploring that on their own or at least be a little more accepting of death.

But do not resist attempts by the players to evade whatever situation you may set up - the fidelity of the fictional world comes first, and if their way of resolving the situation without dying is in any way reasonable (or even awesome!), you have to grant it. Being a fan of the characters involves rooting for them to live as well as wanting their eventual demise to be awesome and meaningful. A pre-planned death by falling rocks is neither.

Why not make death an option they want/need to take?

For example, let's say to complete their quest they need certain information. That information was known only to someone that is currently dead or maybe they were captured by some evil force and imprisoned in the afterlife (or some other place/plane they can only get once they are dead).

Lead them to various NPCs to reveal these breadcrumbs to them. Maybe they find a group that will help them die and then agree to resurrect them after an agreed upon period of time. Once they put all of this together, they broker a deal with said person/group, all drink poison (or whatever method of suicide works with the story), they accomplish their tasks in the afterlife, and are resurrected later to complete their quest.

After totally agreeing with the excellent answers from Glazius and ACuriousMind, I'd like to offer my two cents on how I'd approach this if I had good ideas on an adventure on the other side of the black gates.

First of all, let's put one thing aside. This is not death. Not in the game-mechanical sense of Dungeon World. Death as in the last breath move is practically game over for the character. This is far from that. It's the beginning of a new adventure. So all the moves that apply to a deadly situation don't apply here. Sure, in the fiction it may look like death, but in the game, it is just the GM move put someone in a spot or separate them, which conveniently puts them beyond the gates.

Remember that you can make a move as hard as you like, as soon as someone misses a roll, or they look to you. So as long as it flows from the fiction, you can send them beyond just like that.

Fightgar, as you were just about to put your blade through the lich's undead heart, you accidentally hit and shatter the emerald amulet around its neck. Fiery green tendrils emanate from it in all directions, striking every beating heart as far as the eye can see. As your bodies crumble to dust, you all feel the darkness enveloping your souls. Then an eerie glow from beyond a cold mist fills your vision. You have no clothes that can protect you from such a chill that comes from your bone marrows. Wizzrobe, what have you read about this mist in the great library?

This may be the quick and dirty method of killing them without killing them. But still, it may even be better to prepare a move for something like this in advance, as a part of one of your fronts.

Why Is Afghanistan ‘The Graveyard Of Empires’?

“Up there, complex paths emerge then disappear behind huge boulders and rocks. Every footstep that dislodges anything, a small rock, a pile of shale, seems like it might cause an earth-shaking avalanche. Stealth, we were told, must be our watchword on the high, quiet slopes. ”

So says Marcus Luttrell in his book ‘Lone Survivor’.

Anyone familiar with it, or the film of the same name starring Mark Wahlberg, will know that Luttrell’s four-man Navy SEAL team was compromised by three goat herders whilst on a covert mission in Afghanistan. An intense gunfight with the Taliban followed, an encounter that only Luttrell made it through alive.

Despite his palpable annoyance and anguish about the decision to let the goat herders go, it’s obvious that Afghanistan’s geography was just as much to blame for the botched mission. Even before going in, he says of his initial impressions in the briefing room:

“…Barren, treeless mountainscapes are no place to conduct secretive landings and takeoffs, not with Taliban rocket men all around… And if those mountain cliffs that surrounded the village were as rough and stony as I suspected, we’d stick out on those heights like a diamond in a goat’s ass.”

In this, Luttrell echoes exactly what every observer of Afghan military history has always said about the country, albeit without necessarily comparing foreign troops to diamonds on a goat.

By all accounts, there are usually three principal antagonists in any Afghan war: foreign armies, the domestic force (or forces) resisting them, and the terrain.

Unfortunately, avoiding war in Afghanistan has also proved difficult for foreign powers over the centuries. In ‘Afghanistan: A Cultural and Political History’, Thomas Barfield says:

“Landlocked Afghanistan lies in the heart of Asia, and links three major cultural and geographic regions: the Indian subcontinent to the southeast, central Asia to the north, and the Iranian plateau in the west. Geography may not be destiny but it has set the course of Afghan history for millennia as the gateway for invaders spilling out of Iran or central Asia and into India: Cyrus the Great, Alexander the Great, Mahmud of Ghazni, Ghinggis Khan, Tamerlane, and Babur, to mention some of the most illustrious examples. During this period, Afghanistan was part of many different empires ruled by outsiders and the center of a couple of its own.”

Stephen Tanner makes much the same observation in ‘Afghanistan: A Military History’:

“The historian Arnold Toynbee once suggested that upon viewing the rise of civilization from its center in Mesopotamia, the map of the Old World becomes startlingly clear. He distinguished countries between blind alleys and highways, and among the latter he thought two held prominent place: Syria, which was the link between the civilizations of Europe, Africa, and Asia, and Afghanistan, which was the nodal point between the civilizations of India, East Asia, Central Asia, the Middle East, and thence Europe.”

Once foreign armies enter Afghanistan, it’s internal geography has also made a habit, it seems, of flinging everything it can at them. With the Hindu Kush mountain range running diagonally across it, through the (locally ignored, British co-drawn) 19th Century Durand Line into Pakistan, Afghanistan’s multifaceted climate is largely traceable to this feature. It explains why the east of the country has forests (because monsoon rains from India are caught by them when they drift north), why the lowest population density is in the south-west, near Khandahar (because the area is a desert), and why the other extreme – ice and snow storms – can also occur there.

One contemporary British observer who experienced this severe cold first hand was Rory Stewart, now a Conservative MP.

Tip Of The Spear: Green Berets In Afghanistan

In 2002, Stewart set himself the task of walking across the country to collect important information and wrote about his experiences in ‘The Places in Between’, including getting caught in dangerously cold weather whilst hiking in the north of the country with his companion, Babur:

“The weather was closing in again and the snow came harder. I leaned over (Babur). He was shivering and sucking air into his lungs in an asthmatic wheeze. I held him for two minutes while he trembled and panted and fought for breath, and then the fit passed and he was able to stand again. I thought we should turn down the hill, but I could see no promising path.

“We were both tired and cold and we would be pressed to reach Daulatyar by dusk. We were supposed to be travelling east so I set off on a traverse across the slope, dragging Babur behind me and hoping there were no crevasses. After half an hour of stumbling through more deep powder, we came over a lip. The fog lifted and I could see on the next ridge a line of footprints heading downhill. We began to follow the prints and a little later, to my delight, saw an arrow of dark purpose rock pointing into a village…

“From the village, I kept moving east. I walked across two half-dozen streams, jumping the cracks, but Babur was reluctant and struggled to drag himself across the ice. We were now walking through hard sleet. Fog descended…

“We came to a vehicle track. Tyres had gouged a glutinous dark-brown strip twenty feet wide. My boots stuck to the mud, so I walked on the ice in the roadside ditches. This was better, except when the ice broke and my feet plunged into cold water. Babur was now coated in black mud. We had been walking for nine hours… my left foot seemed frozen to a cold iron plate…

“…at this point, I saw two jeeps, their headlights on, weaving slowly towards us through the fog… When they reached me, an electric window went down. It was the Special Forces team from the (nearby) airstrip.

“’You’, said the driver, ‘are a f**king nutter’. Then he… drove on, leaving me in the snow. I had seen these men at work when I was in the army and in the Foreign Office and I couldn’t imagine a better compliment.”

Geography has also shaped the structure of Afghan society, as Barfield explains:

“…there is a more profound binary division that is strongly marked in Afghanistan: the dichotomy between what the medieval Arab social historian ibn Khaldun labeled ‘desert civilization’ and ‘sedentary civilization’ in his Muqaddimah, or introduction, to a universal history that he began writing in 1375. Desert civilizations were those human communities based on subsistence agriculture or pastoralism that organized themselves along kinship lines under conditions of low population density… Sedentary civilizations were those human communities based on surplus agricultural production that sustained dense populations and created complex economies… Such communities were… divided by class and occupational structures with a considerable division of labor. They were centers of learning and high culture as well as markets for regional trade and international commerce…

“The two systems were not sealed off… (but rather) had intense interactions and close connections, particularly because of population movements. Ibn Khaldun contended that desert civilizations must have predated sedentary ones because they were less complex socially and simpler economically—a supposition confirmed by modern archaeology.”

The location of cities is also important: Herat, in the east, served as a vital link between China and the Iranian plateau. Even when the Mongols sacked it in 1222, it was still reborn as a centre of art and literature.

Likewise, Kabul, in the northeast, is on the way to Peshawar in Pakistan, itself an important node in the trade networks running across the region:

“Peshawar is Janus-faced. Sitting at the eastern end of the Khyber Pass and west of the Indus River, travellers coming down from Kabul feel they have now truly entered South Asia. By contrast, travellers arriving in the opposite direction from Lahore or Delhi believe they have entered the first frontier city on central Asia. Closely connected to Kabul as its historic winter capital for many centuries, the city fell from Afghan control when it was lost the Sikhs in 1834. It became part of the British raj when it defeated the Sikhs.”

The British began eyeing Afghanistan with interest during the 19th Century because of its proximity to British India and to their competitor in ‘the Great Game’, Russia.

When they moved into the country in 1839, they, like the Americans almost two centuries later, walked into a thicket of complex geographical and social obstacles that had been around for millennia. As Stephen Tanner explains in ‘Afghanistan: A Military History From Alexander the Great to the War Against the Taliban’:

“In between enduring or resisting invasions from every point of the compass … the Afghans have honed their martial skills by fighting among themselves, in terrain that facilitates divisions of power and resists the concept of centralized control. The wonder is the Afghan people, who at this writing have experienced non-stop warfare for a quarter of a century, present the same problems to foreign antagonists today as they did 2,500 years ago … Afghanistan … remains the stage for not just clashes of armies but of civilizations.”

Alexander the Great came to Afghanistan because:

“Geography, as the Greeks knew it, had previously indicated that India was a thin line between the rest of the world and Ocean, the body of water that surrounded the earth. To Alexander, it (it was) the final stage of world conquest.”

In the process, Alexander led his men into the Hindu Kush, where they ran into the same weather as Rory Stewart in 2001, many freezing and being blighted by frostbite.

After his death in 323 BCE, Alexander’s empire was divided amongst his successors.

Meanwhile, Afghanistan up to the Hindu Kush came under the sway of the Maurya Empire. The empire was founded by Chandragupta Maurya in the north of the Indian subcontinent and his grandson, King Asoka, would continue expanding it. Asoka’s conversion to Buddhism led him to then spread its influence around his empire, including into Afghanistan.

The next several waves of invaders came from the other direction. The Great Wall of China proved so effective at boxing in (or rather, boxing out) ‘barbarians’ from the Eurasian steppe that many were forced westwards. The first of these, the Scythians, appear to have forced out the Alexander’s successors, though, perhaps they didn’t disappear from the region entirely:

“To this day, in the nearly inaccessible mountain valleys of northeastern Afghanistan exist ancient communities of people with fair hair and blue or green eyes … These people are popularly considered descendants of Alexander’s men …”

Another theory is that these people may be indigenous, Aryan-looking people who migrated to central Asia before the later waves from Africa that later became fairer looking Europeans. Tanner posits that both ideas may be correct, and that Alexander’s men, in fleeing the conquering Scythians, chose to hide amongst people who looked like them.

There was also, some 2,000 years ago, the arrival of people with very different features:

“ … south of the Hindu Kush and in today’s Pakistan across the Suleiman Range or White Mountains. Angular, dark-eyed men with heavy beards, fierce warriors with a love of individual freedom, their language clearly derives from an older Iranian group but with heavy influence over the centuries of Indian and touches of ancient Persian, Aramaic, and Greek. They absorbed influences from the native population while to a greater extent they supplanted the local culture with their own. These people are now known as Pashtuns.”

Then more light-skinned peoples arrived, although the ‘White Huns’ didn’t derive their name from their skin colour. According to the Ancient History Encyclopedia, they were one of four groups coming out of the Eurasian steppe at this point dubbed either ‘black’, ‘white’, ‘red’ or ‘green/blue’ Huns.

In any case, their most striking feature wasn’t their light skin, it was their deformed heads, caused by the cultural practice of head binding during childhood.

Eventually, they too were replaced, a process likely involving the local population:

“Like their Scythian predecessors, the White Huns disappeared as kings, but remnants of their people remained on the land. Invaders of Afghanistan have never found it possible to exert control over all the territory with outside force alone. Local leaders or warlords needed to be recruited or enticed to support an invader’s program … some tribes in Afghanistan had never been conquered by invasion, even if they occasionally lent support to a government that in turn allowed their freedom. With the demise of the White Huns we can picture a similar process taking place: strong men in control of regiments of fierce warriors promising fealty to a new imperial power while helping to eject the old one, as long as they were otherwise left on their own.”

Barfield likens this to Swiss cheese because, he says, the holes represent the isolated portions of the country that can never be conquered or continuously controlled as opposed to the cities and major highways, which, contrary to popular belief, have been conquered and held by numerous powers over the centuries.

The next conqueror was ideological as well as political – Islam. Though, as Tanner points out, this new religion on the block actually took some time to become fashionable in Afghanistan:

“As a whole, Afghanistan did not succumb quickly to the allure of Islam, and it can be surmised that the Arab invaders had to confine their activities to the major cities and flatter parts of the territory. The mountain tribesmen held to their Zoroastrian, Buddhist, or Shamanistic beliefs for decades longer, converting to Islam gradually through free will as much as through force.”

Barfield also says that, although it is considered deeply rude to acknowledge it, the historical record shows that the region most heavily populated by the Pashtuns in the east of the country was the one that resisted Islam the longest. In fact, as well as taking centuries to convert to Islam, once they’d done so, they preferred Shia Safavid rule from Iran to Sunni Moghal rule from India.

But as today’s dominant portion of the 30-million-strong population, this is not, well, ‘politically correct’ to acknowledge.

The Pashtuns make up about 40 percent of the national mix, whilst Tajiks are about 30 percent, Hazaras 15 percent, Uzbeks and Turkmen together 10 percent, the Persian-speaking Aimaqs five percent and other smaller groups together comprising around three percent or less. Every group, though, apparently overstates their share of the national pie, and if their figures were taken at face value, the population would be 60 million.

This jostling, ethnic pride and competition interacts with the devout religious identity of most Afghans, who are 85 percent Sunni and only 15 percent Shia:

“Few peoples in the world, particularly the Islamic world, have maintained such a strong and unproblematic sense of themselves, their culture, and their superiority as the Afghans. In abstract terms all foreigners, especially non-Muslims, are viewed as inferior to Afghans. Although the great powers might have been militarily, technologically, and economically stronger, because they were nonbelievers, or infidels, their values and way of life were naturally suspect. Afghanistan’s Muslim neighbors, however, fared only slightly better in (Sunni) Afghan eyes. The Uzbeks must have been asleep to allow the Russians to occupy central Asia for more than a century Pakistan is a suspect land of recent Muslim converts from Hinduism (Pastuns and Baluch excepted) that never should have become a nation and Iran is a nest of Shiite heretics who speak Persian with a ludicrous accent.”

This observation by Barfield gives a sense of just how much history, culture, ethnicity and religion overlap in the country, and how differently people view the passing of time:

“An illiterate man in northern Afghanistan gave me a detailed (and historically accurate) account of the Mongol destruction there while excoriating the memory of that ‘pure infidel’ Chinggis Khan (who he claimed was an Uzbek.) He then described a great irrigation system that originally had six major canals, of which only three operated today: ‘Afghanistan was a much better place then you should have visited us at that time’, he declared, as if I had just missed this golden age. I agreed, but knew that he was speaking of an age well beyond my own time horizon, since the Mongols had attacked in 1222. But by Afghan standards that was still recent enough to provoke strong emotion an Uzbek listening to this story vehemently denied that his group had any relationship to the pagan Mongols.”

Another local told him simply:

“I have been a Pakistani for thirty years, a Muslim for fourteen hundred years, and a Pashtun for five thousand years.”

But even tribal loyalties can be confusing because although people are generally loyal to their qamm – tribe, kin, ethnic group, village – these loyalties are expandable, or contractible, depending on the situation:

“…(while) a simplified map of these ethnic groups at the national level is useful… it is also misleading… two groups in a local context may declare themselves distinct… but also accept… a common ethnic label at the regional or national level… Thus, the larger the ethnic category being mapped, the less meaning(ful it will be.)”

Tribalism to this extreme may frustrate many-a-well-meaning nation builder, but it’s worth returning briefly to the end of the movie Lone Survivor, which highlights the fact that there is a deeply honorable side to all this:

“The Afghan villagers who protected Marcus did so out of duty to their 2,000 year old code of honor, known as Pashtunwali.

“Pashtunwali requires a tribute to undertake the responsibility of safeguarding an individual against his enemies and protecting him at all costs.

“These brave men and women still thrive today in the harsh mountains of Afghanistan and their fight against the Taliban continues…”

Almost a thousand years ago, these same mountain tribes faced a far greater threat than the Taliban – the Mongols, who were themselves partly responsible for further entrenching the country’s stubborn tribalism. According to Tanner:

“The fact that today Afghanistan is considered a rough rather than a fragile country—inured to warfare rather than prone to passive resistance—stems largely from the wholesale destruction of its sedentary element (in the 13th Century). Towns and farms based on centuries-old cultivation techniques lay naked in the path of the Mongol hordes where as a large portion of the nomad population was able to avoid attack.”

The Mongols, he says, exploded like an atom bomb on Eurasia during this period and, as Steven Pinker has pointed out, caused more deaths as a proportion of population than the Second World War did in our time.

This wide-spread destruction was made possible by their lethal, military efficiency and organization. Just as the Romans had their legions, the main building block of the Mongolian army was the tumen, a unit of 10,000 men (thus, it was like a modern division.) Within these were ten 1,000-man ambans (battalions), one hundred 100-man jaghuns (companies) and one thousand 10-man mingghans (sections.)

With these flexible, modular building blocks, made up of soldiers so skilled in archery they could fire deadly accurate arrows on horseback, they stampeded through the continent, including Afghanistan.

Yet even this unstoppable military force suffered its only defeat outside East Asia in Afghanistan, at Parwan, where:

“…the two sides met in a rock-strewn, sharply cut valley. It was poor ground for (the Mongolian) cavalry… At the same time, the Mongol’s usual tricks of feigned retreat and ambush, and their standard practice of encirclement, could not be employed… the native Afghans must have sensed their enemy’s vulnerability and clambered among the heights in order to shoot down at the invader, gravity assisting their shots with both velocity and range… A Mongol attack on the Afghan left wing wilted under a barrage of arrows, the men retreating in disorder. The Mongol general then ordered an attack along the entire front. The dismounted defenders were easy prey if the Mongol horsemen could close but the attackers were hard-pressed to penetrate the wall of arrows and were forced by the terrain to wade into it head-on. Gradually the famous Mongol discipline began to come apart… (as they later retreated one) can picture the most casualties in defiles where the panicked Mongols became jammed, falling victim en masse to the pursuing Turkic and Afghan tribesmen.”

But as noted, in general, townspeople in Afghanistan would not escape the infamous brand of Mongolian cruelty. The wife of one local ruler who’d resisted them was made to supervise the mass executions of her subjects, and then stack the heads of men, women and children into three separate enormous piles.

The Mongol or Tartar-descended Tamerlane was the next foreign invader. Like his forebears, he too destroyed vital infrastructure of the day, in this case the irrigation systems around the lower Helmand River. Tanner says:

“Already weakened by previous invasions, this area finally bit the dust, and today the dense patchwork of baked ruins are the only reminders of once-thriving communities.”

Following Tamerlane’s empire, Afghanistan became divided between a Safavid empire out of modern-day Iran and a Moghul one out of India the Afghan people then becoming a collection of “indigenous warriors who could swing the balance of power among outside empires”. Then, in the 16th Century, “when firearms put a stop to marauding horse-archer armies from the steppe, the Afghan tribes beneath the Hindu Kush were finally able to emerge from their element”.

“ … The most significant development during this period (by this point the 17th Century) was the growing strength of the Afghan people south of the Hindu Kush, who were divided into numerous tribes and clans, but who culturally and linguistically formed one ethnic group, the Pashtuns …”

One prominent leader was Khushal Khan, a kind of Afghan William Tell who simultaneously fought Moghul imperialists and rival tribesmen, whilst also composing poetry:

“If Mughal stand, then broken falls Pakhtun

“the time is now, if God will that we die

“The spheres of heaven revolve uncertainly,

“Now blooms the rose, now sharply pricks the thorn,

“Glory’s the hazard, O man of woman born!

“the very name Pakhtun spells honour and glory,

“Lacking that honor what is the Afghan story?

“In the sword alone lies our deliverance.”

This was the era of growing Afghan nationalism, accompanied by the development of the written form of the Pashtun language.

During the early 18th Century, indigenous tribes in the west revolted and took back control of Kandahar and the surrounding countryside. One of them, the Ghilzais, then plunged into neighbouring Persia to take on the Safavids directly. By this point, a man named Mahmud had emerged as their leader:

“The Ghilzais forged through Persian territory, taking cities or sometimes simply being bribed off, until they met the sultan’s army at Gulnbad. The Persians had 42,000 men and twenty-four cannon, the latter commanded by a French mercenary, Philippe Colombe Mahmud had about 20,000 horsemen. But in the battle the Afghans overran the artillery and left five thousand Persian dead on the field, losing only five hundred of their own. The Persians then huddled within their capital, enduring a six-month siege in which nearly 100,000 people died, mostly of starvation. When the Ghilzais finally broke in, they so ravaged and terrorized the city that Isfahan was never able to regain its former stature.

“Mahmud would be considered a greater hero in Afghan history if he had not also turned out to be a madman, and his rule of the former Safavid Empire was short-lived. Having conquered Isfahan in 1722, he became suspicious of the Persian nobility and invited them to a conference. Once the doors had closed they were all slaughtered by his Ghilzai troops. Then, suspecting sedition among Sultan Husain’s children, he had them assembled in a courtyard, and, with two other warriors, proceeded to hack them to death. The old sultan grabbed up two of his small children in his arms and was slashed across the face by Mahmud, but then the Ghilzai chieftain seemed to calm down. At one point Mahmud entered a cave for forty days in order to commune with God, but when he emerged he was more wild-eyed than ever. His own men were as aware as anyone of his lunacy and in 1725 they killed him. In his last days, Mahmud had flagellated himself, cutting his own flesh, so there is a distinct possibility that he suffered from illness, perhaps an advanced case of syphilis.”

His successor, his cousin Ashraf, son of an uncle Mahmud had murdered, also turned out to be a homicidal lunatic. So too did the next conqueror coming out of Persia, Nadir Shah, who slaughtered his way all the way through Afghanistan and down into the Moghul Indian capital, giving them a new word, ‘Nadirshahi’, ‘massacre’.

Within Afghanistan though, resistance to murderous brutes was beginning to stiffen:

“There is a sharp distinction that can be drawn at this point between rulers in the East in the eighteenth century and those in the West, where literate populations were already asserting individual freedoms in the face of monarchial rule. The populations of the West had been able to employ paper to unite themselves in common cause, disseminating beliefs or concepts of objective justice on such a widespread scale that monarchs feared to cross them. In the East, however, the sword or private intrigue still held sway.”

Both would hold sway over Nadir Shah. He suspected his men were planning to kill him (as Mahmud’s had him), and ordered his elite Abdali guard – an Afghan tribe incorporated into his army – to pre-emptively kill the suspected plotters. But the rest of the army heard about the anti-plotter plot and pre-empted the pre-empting Shah… by cutting his head off.

The immediate power vacuum was soon filled by the leader of the Abadis, Ahmad Khan. His coronation as ‘khan’ or ‘shah’, king of the surrounding tribes, was monumental in Afghan history. Referred to as the ‘Pearl of Pearls’, ‘Durr-i-Durran’, he henceforth was known as Ahmad Shah Durrani, and the Pashtun sub-clan he came from, the Abadis, became the Durranis.

As well as this increased political cohesion there was a decline in the power and importance of adjacent Asian empires. The discovery of the new world and increase in the use of sea routes made Europe less reliant on land trade across Eurasia. This reduction in competition allowed the Durranis to flourish politically and militarily, and Afghanistan now became a power centre of its own, instead of being part of someone else’s empire:

“At it’s height in 1762, the Durrani Empire encompassed all of modern Afghanistan plus Iran’s Khorasan, nearly all of modern Pakistan, part of India, and the province of Kashmir. It stretched from the Amu Darya (river) in the north to the Arabian Sea in the south.”

This hadn’t come without effort, or mishap. In the west, the Durranis had been repulsed once and returned with the big guns, literally – their artillery:

“(Ahmad Shah’s) largest cannon, cast and assembled during the siege, blew up the first time it was fired, but its 500-pound missile created such havoc in the city that Nishapur promptly surrendered. Still stung from their previous defeat, the Afghans ravaged the populace, killing many citizens and enslaving others.”

In the east, the Moghuls in India concluded a deal with the Durranis whereby the latter would get the Punjab (a region comprising parts of today’s northern India and Pakistan) in return for no further trouble.

But they still had to reassert military dominance. The governor of the Punjab, Mir Mannu, who was supposed to have been simply funnelling taxes to them, was found to also be steering the Punjab back towards the Moghuls.

There was further mishap when Mir Mannu died and the Moghul emperor made his three-year-old son the next governor, and his two-year-old his vizier (political adviser). Though “(real) power was held by Mir Mannu’s widow, who made an utter mess of things ruling from her scandal-ridden bedroom”.

Ahmad Shah again allowed the Moghul emperor to retain his throne but this time demanded the Punjab as well as Kashmir and Sind. His real concern, after all, wasn’t the Moghuls, who were fellow Muslims, but the danger posed by the Hindu Marathas.

He would fight them at Panipat in 1761, and because the Afghans won this battle, no powerful Hindu state came to rule northern India. This paved the way for the Sikhs, and later Europeans (most notably the British.)

“Ahmad Shah died in 1772 at age fifty after suffering from a horrible disease which might have been skin cancer. One visitor reported that late in his life he wore a silver nose, his original one have wasted away or perhaps been cut off in an attempt to stop the spread. By all accounts he was not only an excellent military leader but an admirable sovereign, who, while retaining his dignity, was solicitous of the concerns of his subjects. Like other pan-tribal leaders such as Attila and Genghis Khan, he was modest in his personal dress and habits while possessing an innate ability to draw the best efforts from others (and to) many, his accession to the head of the Abdali tribe in 1747 marks the birth of the Afghan nation . ”

Some dispute Ahmad Shah’s nationalism. But Tanner points out that a poem dedicated to Afghanistan by Shah reinforces the notion that he was a patriot, rather than just another tribal imperialist:

“By blood, we are immersed in love of you,

“the youth lose their heads for your sake.

“I come to you and my heart finds rest.

“away from you, grief clings to my heart like a snake.

“I forget the throne of Dehli

“When I remember the mountain tops of my Afghan land.

“If I must choose between the world and you,

“I shall not hesitate to claim your barren deserts as my own.”

The Durrani line would run until 1973. Yet this endurance is surprising because, soon after Ahmad Shah, succession became a ramshackle affair. Although, as Barfield notes, in some ways this may have been typical of a pattern observed by Ibn Khaldun:

“The tribal leader who established a dynastic line by conquest found himself in a new political environment with fresh opportunities. Ibn Khaldun called such a founder the builder of glory, a leader who through his personal struggles had achieved a success that he could rightly claim was the product of his own ability. He experienced the difficulties inherent in establishing his political dominance, and after obtaining power, retained those qualities that had allowed him to succeed in the first place. Having lived most of his life under rough conditions, he remained tough-minded and parsimonious, determined to maintain a simple life even when surrounded by luxuries. Stereotypically such a man would spurn the palace bedroom in favor of a tent pitched in a courtyard. He would dismiss his predecessor’s large staff of cooks, barbers, valets, perfumers, eunuchs, poets, and musicians to end unnecessary and wasteful expenses. His cheapness meant that the treasury’s tax receipts remained in surplus because such a ruler accumulated money but disliked spending it. He was often willing to share power with his immediate relatives, or at least seek their counsel on important decisions, because he still respected the bonds of kinship. On a larger scale, he would play the role of the generous chief by giving feats, minor gifts, and sometimes stipends to the people who helped him come to power.”

Ahmad Shah certainly seems to have been a strong leader who inspired loyalty. His first successor on the other hand, Timur, quickly angered Pashtun supporters by moving the capital city from Kandahar to Kabul. It was cosmopolitan and therefore not controlled by any one tribe. Tanner says:

“Timur ruled until 1793 … beneath him his father’s concept of an energetic Afghan nation had fallen apart. He left behind over thirty sons, not counting the unofficial production of his harem, among whom he did not bother to designate an heir. The result was a lurid swirl of chaos.”

Again, this isn’t unlike the Ibn Khaldun description:

“The second-generation ruler differed from the first because he inherited leadership and did not have to struggle to create it. If the son of the founder seemed to lack the raw vitality and originality of his father, this was the product of his socialization and not necessarily an absence of innate talent. Groomed to rule, the son learned how to govern by observing his father rather than through direct experience. And growing up in a palace surrounded by wealth and luxuries he took for granted, he probably chafed at his father’s cheapness as well as lack of manners and culture, and grew bored listening to endless tales of how many miles of desert the old man had walked through in his youth. On taking power, second-generation rulers were characterized by the luxury of their royal courts and the establishment of institutionalized royal authority. This required the elimination, frequently by murder, of the old tribal elite that had previously expected to share power. The founder’s brothers and their heirs were particularly targets. After such a purge, the ruler appointed court officials from the ranks of men who had no independent power of their own and abolished the stipends paid to old tribal allies in favor of a greater reliance on the dynasty’s mercenary military force. This generation also devoted its increasing tax revenues to large public works projects, but the budget remained in balance.”

Perhaps because Ahmad Shah stepped into what had formerly been a bloody contest for power, but was accepted by other tribal leaders, his third-generation heirs don’t exactly fit the schema. Their rule was characterized by fracture, with power passing back and forth between them, whereas for Khaldun, the next phases played out as follows:

“Third generation leaders began a period of seeming greatness that disguised an institutional decline. Content with simple imitations and reliance on tradition, they lacked independent judgment. They habitually implemented policies even when they were ineffective or destructive. For all the pomp of their municipal projects and patronage of the arts, these rulers were cowardly, and dependent on sycophantic and corrupt advisers. Officials at all levels siphoned off the state’s revenue for themselves. The treasury started to run large deficits as expenses mounted but revenues declined. As a result, the fourth-generation successors were doomed to a bad end. Inheriting both a bankrupt treasury and a mismanaged government, they had none of the skills needed to reverse the decline. Instead, assuming the right to rule was theirs by birth, they demanded the automatic respect of their subjects, but their arrogance and misrule destroyed what little remained of their political base. When disaffection in outlying areas turned to revolt, the dynasty was without revenues to pay its troops, which promptly abandoned it. Now damned and defenceless, it was only a matter of time before some fresh ‘founder of glory’ swept in from the margins to begin the cycle anew.”

Here too the model differs slightly, because, once the original line of Durranis was gone, they were eventually replaced in 1826 by a man named Dost Mohammed. He was not promptly swept from power – well, not until the Brits arrived on the scene (see below), though he certainly did have to deal with a treasury depleted by his predecessors.

He also inherited a country that had fallen out of love with the nationalism of Ahmad Shah, and tribalism was again becoming prominent.

But, as Tanner points out, and as Simon Schama has reminded us about fractured, early England, unable to unite without the continuous threat of Viking invaders:

“…if attacked, particularly by non-Islamic forces, the Afghans were capable of ad hoc unity in defense of their homeland.”

By now, it was the British who were doing the attacking. Firmly ensconced in India, they needed a firm buffer state between them and the disconcertingly close Russian bear. They also wanted Dost Muhammed replaced with his brother, Soojah, who was preferred by their man in the Punjab, Ranjit Singh.

As it was, many a British soldier may have preferred Dost Muhammed, since Ranjit Singh was the reason the British force that entered Afghanistan in 1839 did so from the wrong end.

Not wishing to offend their ally by marching troops through Singh’s Punjab terrority (8,000 soldiers, 38,000 camp followers and almost as many camels were hardly going to be inconspicuous, after all), the British soldiers were led about 800 miles in the wrong direction, approaching Kabul from the Bolan, instead of the customary Khyber, Pass.

Given the arduous nature of the march, some of what was carried is surprising. Two camels were used solely to transport cigars, and one eccentric officer required 60 camels to carry his personal effects.

As they headed through the desert into Afghanistan, the British Bengal Column ran afoul first of the weather, having to march at night to avoid the 100-degree daytime temperatures, then of the water, which was deliberately contaminated. Their own stomachs turned against them when they ran low on supplies then the stony, rocky terrain dogged their progress, as did snipers sent by Dost Mohammed to harass them.

Before passing through the next pass – the Khojak Pass – on the way to Kandahar, the Bengal Column linked up with Shah Soojah’s column and a Bombay column. All told, they’d accumulated thousands of camels to haul their stores, 3,000 of which perished in the five-mile defile, mostly by falling into ravines.

This necessitated the abandonment of 27,000 rounds of ammunition and 14 gunpowder barrels. If only they’d known how much they were going to need it.

Fortunately, Kandahar at least fell rather easily, but there was another obstacle on the road to Kabul: the fortified city of Ghazni.

To get inside, the British waited until nightfall before laying gunpowder at the gates and blowing them open. Shoving their way through the rubble, the British engaged in short-range gunfights and fought hand-to-hand for three hours amongst the narrow streets and passageways of the city. Their efforts paid off. When it was taken, they’d sustained only 182 casualties, the Afghans 3,000.

After that, resistance at Kabul melted away, with Dost Mohammed fleeing north, simultaneously embroiled in an uprising.

Shah Soojah was put in charge and the Bengal column remained behind to protect him, though they were housed in cantonments two miles from the city, giving him the appearance, at least, of not being entirely dependent on foreign troops.

This emphasis on political over military considerations caused at least one British soldier, Lieutenant Eyre, to remark:

“…the position eventually fixed upon for our magazine and cantonment was a piece of swampy ground, commanded on all sides by hills or forts.”

Eyre’s observations could be read as a premonition of trouble.

In 1840, it looked as if things might kick off again when Dost Mohammed returned at the head of a group 6,000 Uzbek cavalry. That, at least, was a false alarm. With him unable to fully trust his allies, he chose to surrender to the British at Kabul and things quietened down again, for now:

“Life in the cantonments began to resemble the domestic colonial atmosphere in India. Officers’ wives, and children, were permitted to join their husbands, and horse racing, cricket, skating, tending gardens for growing vegetables, and amateur theatricals became the order of the day.”

The British were also impressed with the broad array of foods they found at the city bazaars, coming from as far afield as India, Russia and Britain itself. (Whilst today Afghanistan is associated famously, or infamously, with opium, in modern times it also continues to grow a wide variety of other things: rice, cotton, melons and citrus fruits in the lowlands wheat and barley in higher altitudes).

But the tranquil interlude ended in November, 1841, when 130 British soldiers marching between Kandahar and Kabul were attacked. It was the first of several uprisings.

Back in England, the new Tory government, led by Robert Peel, had come in determined to improve matters financially. They’d resorted to cuts of subsidies to tribes who’d effectively been paid off to accept Shah Soojah.

To be sure, some of the British reforms were effective, at least monetarily. Ever the incentive-minded capitalists, they’d given tax collection rights to fruit merchants, who prompted locals to grow more profitable crops, thus increasing tax revenues.

But as well as leaving the local chieftains short of the subsidies they’d come to expect, the presence of 16,000 comparatively rich foreigners around Kabul – 4,500 troops and 11,500 followers – led to serious inflation, a massive inconvenience to the poor locals. The fact that some of the British spent their money on prostitutes also didn’t help with relations in this highly conservative society.

One notable ladies man was the East India Company’s and British government’s man on the ground in Kabul, Alexander Burnes. A kind of 19th Century James Bond, Burnes was a spy who’d been dispatched to Afghanistan in 1831 on a fact-finding mission prompted by British paranoia about the expanding Russian empire north of British India.

Ironically, as the BBC documentary ‘Afghanistan: The Great Game – A Personal View by Rory Stewart’, makes clear, the book Burnes wrote about his travels in the region – ‘Travels to Bukhara’ – became a best seller. When the Russians saw a French translation, it spooked them into matching British espionage with their own. The Russian presence in Afghanistan, in turn, stoked British paranoia. The ‘Great Game’ was on.

Except that it probably didn’t feel much like a game to British soldiers and their families stationed there in 1841, even if it had when they’d arrived in 1839 with “camel trains piled high with mess silver, with odour colognes, with exotic wines – the 16th Lancers even managed to bring their own pack of foxhounds…”

Now, Afghans killed Barnes and began storming the cantonments and other fortified positions. The British, effectively going back to tribal leaders cap in hand, offered them bribes again in return for their assistance.

But even if they’d got it, poor leadership by some British commanders would also continue to undermine them. According to Richard Macrory in ‘The First Afghan War 1839-42’:

“Colonel of the 44th Foot, Brigadier Shelton, was appointed second-in-command of the forces in Kabul on the arrival of his regiment on rotational duty in 1841. A cantankerous man, he openly despised his commander-in-chief, (Major-General William) Elphinstone, and during the uprising would deliberately go to sleep during councils of war.”

For his part, Elphinstone, the son of a director of the East India Company and veteran of the Battle of Waterloo, was “(all) too aware of his own weaknesses (and) proved incapable of providing decisive military leadership once the insurrection in Kabul had broken out in 1841”. He would die of dysentery in prison after being captured.

Shelton was also a veteran of Waterloo, and at one point carried out a textbook manoeuver from that battle, drawing his men up in infantry squares. But the Afghans weren’t about to launch a conventional cavalry attack nor were they coming on like Zulu warriors, both of which would have been repelled by the squares.

Instead, they sniped the British with long-range jezails, muskets they used for sharpshooting.

But rather than closing in and killing the British, the various Afghan chieftains seemed willing to negotiate their departure and the return to the throne of Dost Mohammed.

The British played along, but they also opened back channels to various tribal leaders, trying to bribe them into supporting Shah Soojah instead. One of these Afghan leaders, Akbar Khan, offered to meet Sir William Macnaughten, a civil servant posted in India who was the primary planner of the 1839 invasion that put Soojah on the throne. In this, he was at odds with Alexander Burnes, who’d favoured Dost Mohammed. But both men would share the same fate because when Macnaughten’s double-cross bribe attempt was exposed, Khan shot him dead.

After this, Khan did agree to the safe passage of the 16,500 British – 700 European soldiers, 3,800 Indian sepoys and 12,000 camp followers – to Jalalabad (near the border of modern-day Pakistan.) The catch was that the British had to hand over money and hostages.

After striking out, the British columns were continuously harassed when they passed through the mountain defiles. Akbar Khan sent messages offering to take more hostages he could protect – mostly women and children, but also, Elphinstone and Shelton.

Plodding on, the remaining British found the Jagdalak Pass blocked by holly oak and were reduced to hacking and tearing through it with their bare hands whilst being sniped from above by Afghans with jezails. By now it was January 12, 1842, so as well as battle casualties, men were dying of cold and sickness.

By the following day, on January 13:

“Of the remaining British forces, only some 20 officers, 45 infantry, and around a dozen cavalry managed to get through Jagdalak Pass. The officers and infantry reached the village of Gandamak, where they felt obliged to leave the road to take up a defensive position on a small hill just outside the village. They had only 20 muskets and two rounds of ammunition left.”

This was a far cry from thousands of men led by officers hauling an abundance of personal possessions on dozens of camels confidently striding through the Bolan Pass. How had it all gone so horribly wrong?

Whether the cost-cutting by Peel’s cabinet had fatally undermined the operation, or if the prior Whig government’s scheme was doomed from the start is hard to say. After all, if the British had been more subtle, with an eventual plan to leave – with their man left safely behind as king – perhaps they could have escaped the normal Afghan trap of gradually-mounting, incessant resistance.

Barfield has at least pointed out that the corrupt system of payments clamped down on by the Tory government was actually a form of social glue holding the society together. One observer from the period, Captain R S Trevor, made a similar observation:

“We must not look on the Irregular Cavalry (that the British wanted to replace with regular infantry) as merely a military body. In that light 3 Regiments might annihilate it tomorrow, but as an instrument which enables H. M.’s (Her Majesty’s) principal subjects to appropriate a greater part of his revenues without making any return, and which has continued so long that its destruction would certainly be considered an invasion of private property.”

What is obvious is that the British had effectively made the same mistake as everyone who’d ever conquered Afghanistan: they’d taken the country, and then failed to hold it, just in a shorter time frame than was often the case.

What’s more, in the wake of the disaster, events would prove just how unnecessary and wasteful the whole expedition had been. To start with, they united the various disparate tribes against them. Barfield comments that the notion of the war being an Islamic-inspired quest to rid the country of ‘infidel foreigners’ was suspiciously propagandistic. Religion hadn’t been such a major issue before the British arrived and Muslims regularly killed fellow Muslims.

Sometime after they left, Soojah was also murdered and the British returned, sending the comparatively feeble Afghan army on the run, sacking Kabul and laying waste to the surrounding countryside. This time they didn’t stay, but left behind Dost Mohammed on the throne, who now they decided they could work with after all.

But Dost Mohammed’s playing by the rules - staying passive during the Indian uprising against the British in 1857, for example - was not enough to keep the British away from Afghanistan again.

Paranoia about Russia didn’t go away, not least because of the 1854 Crimean War fought with them (and their 1877-78 war with Turkey.) And so the chess board of Afghanistan remained an obvious arena for another round of the Great Game.

Back home in Britain, defeat in the first Anglo-Afghan War had been spun into a heroic stand of lionhearted soldiers against barbarian natives who attacked women and children. The fact that the Afghans had gone out of their way to spare women and children from massacre by taking them as prisoners, and that some members of the British response force in 1842 murdered, raped and plundered Kabul, was left out of this version of the story.

In fact, like a movie of its day, Richard Macrory describes how the whole affair was dramatised for mass public consumption:

“Astley’s Circus in London was renowned for mounting spectacular reconstructions of famous military events. Their show in April 1843 was entitled ‘Afghanistan War’, and hyped up the invasion, the rescue of the prisoners, and the success of the Army of Retribution, while downplaying the disastrous retreat, and the political failures. The audiences cheered.”

Only fitting then that the sequel to this Hollywood extravaganza of the era should feature many of same, dare we say, hackneyed plot devices, epic backstory elements and heroic character arcs. As Rory Stewart explains:

“…in the late 1870s, Russians again appeared in Kabul. A new generation of British hawks decided the only response was again to invade. Again there was a public outcry, again, imperial paranoia triumphed, and once again, a British army, this time 40,000 strong, was marching into Afghanistan… a new envoy, Louis Cavagnari, another swashbuckling, multilingual officer, was installed in Kabul.”

Unlike, apparently, some of the politicians in London, Cavagnari had seen the first movie, and didn’t want to end up dead like Alexander Burnes. He lived inside a fortress, not amongst the locals, swore off the ladies, and, apart from riding in on an elephant, kept a low profile.

But fate had apparently cast Cavagnari in the role of unlucky hero anyway, and, like Burnes, he too became the focus of local ire – because his fortress was the Bala Hissar, a royal palace, and his presence here also caused offence.

He too was killed, this being the ‘inciting incident’ for ‘Anglo-Afghan War Part 2’ as the conflict now swung into high gear, with General Frederick Roberts starring as the righteous avenger. He took Kabul, examined the mangled corpses of Cavagnari and his colleagues and promptly hanged 100 locals as punishment.

Like Rory Stewart, Robert Fisk also sums up the whole episode rather cynically in ‘The Great War for Civlisation’:

“In the second half of the nineteenth century, Anglo-Russian rivalry and suspicion had naturally focused upon Afghanistan, whose unmarked frontiers had become the indistinct front lines between imperial Russia and the British Indian Raj. The principal victims of the ‘Great Game’, as British diplomats injudiciously referred to the successive conflicts in Afghanistan – there was indeed something characteristically childish about the jealousy between Russia and Britain – were, of course, the Afghans. Their landlocked box of deserts and soaring mountains and dark green valleys had for centuries been both a cultural meeting point – between the Middle East, Central Asia and the Far East – and a battlefield. A decision by the Afghan king Shir Ali Khan, the third son of Afghanistan’s first king, Dost Mohamed, to receive a Russian mission in Kabul after his re-accession in 1868 led directly to what the British were to call the Second Afghan War.”

Likewise, in ‘The Anglo-Afghan Wars’, Gregory Fremont-Barnes notes that a string of British military victories in the years since the First Afghan War contributed to the sense of amnesia that let them slide into another one. Though he does point out that even if Russia was unlikely to have invaded British India directly, revolts on the northern frontier stoked by a Russian-friendly Afghan monarch were a theoretical possibility.

But as it would turn out, the British got far more than just theoretical revolts once they’d entered Afghanistan. Stewart says:

“While General Roberts sat in Kabul, the countryside was now in revolt. Suddenly a jihad had been called against them, and when they looked out on a winter evening from their small camp in Kabul they could see right along (the opposite) ridgeline 60,000 watch fires burning, from Afghans bent on their destruction.”

Roberts, though, wasn’t going to cut and run, and get cut down in rocky defiles in the process – he too had apparently seen the first movie. But while staying and fighting off the Afghans worked for him, it didn’t work further south, at the village of Maiwand, where the British force was overrun.

Bucking the trend of the first war, Roberts marched south and, in September 1880, won the Battle of Kandahar, bringing the Second Anglo-Afghan War to a close. Appraising the situation afterwards, he said:

“We have nothing to fear from Afghanistan, and offensive though it may be to our pride, the less they see of us, the less they will dislike us.”

And then he left Afghanistan.

In this, he was clearly more astute than many who’d got themselves entangled in the country in years prior, and since. One can hear the words of Sir John Kaye, author of the 1851 ‘History of the War in Afghanistan’ and quoted by Macrory, echoed in contemporary observations. He said of the first conflict with regards to the British insistence on installing Shah Soojah on the throne:

“The expedition now to be undertaken had no longer any ostensible object than the substitution of a monarch whom the people of Afghanistan had repeatedly, in emphatic, scriptural language, spued out, for those Barukzye chiefs who, whatever may have been the defect of their government, had contrived to maintain themselves in security, and their country in peace, with a vigour and constancy unknown to the luckless Suddozye Princes.”

In ‘Bitter Lake’, the BBC’s Adam Curtis observes that, during the latest British intervention, many local Afghans didn’t see the overriding problem in Afghanistan as the Taliban. He points out that they were more concerned about what they said was the corrupt regional government that President Hamid Karzai had installed (Karzai himself having been installed by the Bush Administration in 2001* before officially winning the presidency in 2004.) When the British protected it, they saw this as the protection of their oppressors, a grievance that lay behind attacks on the British.

(*Karzai was selected to head Afghanistan’s interim government during the November 2001 Bonn Conference after the Bush administration’s first Special Envoy for Afghanistan, James Dobbins, lobbied for him. But one group at the meeting insisted that the former king of Afghanistan, Zahir Shah, be head of state. According to Theo Farrell in ‘Unwinnable’, Dobbins’ compromise was for “…Zahir (to) be given the privilege of nominating the chairman of the interim administration, provided that nominee was Karzai…” and that a Loya Jirga (a traditional meeting of elders) would follow in six months. Karzai, though, was light on security. Because of the factious nature of the emerging government, Farrell says this necessitated the creation of “a neutral security force provided by the international community” – hence, ISAF. According to, Karzai was also said to have been a consultant for the oil company Unocal, who were looking to build a pipeline through Afghanistan, an assertion made by ‘Le Monde’ and in the Michael Moore film ‘Fahrenheit 9/11’. But the site points out that, in fact, both Unocal and Karzai deny this, whereas what is true is that American ambassador to the Afghan government Zalmay Khalilzad was a former Unocal consultant. According to the ‘New Yorker’s’ Jon Lee Anderson, Khalilzad’s relationship with Karzai was seen by many Afghans as being too close. But even if this was the case, Dobbins’ original selection of Karzai is said to have been made simply on the basis that he had broad appeal across the various regional and internal factions. What he couldn’t do was gain legitimacy from those who were absent. Bonn conference chairman Lakhdar Brahimi later referred to the complete exclusion from the talks of the Taliban – which came to mean many Pashtun/Afghan nationalists who were not really synonymous with al-Qaeda – as an ‘original sin’ in the Afghan war).

Furthermore, local tribal feuds began to work their way into the mix. As a young Army captain, Mike Martin, told Curtis:

“The dynamic was one of manipulation. They understood how we saw the conflict – they presented their local group conflict, their civil war between groups that had been going on for 35 years, they presented everything in that dynamic. So they came to us and said ‘Those people over there are Taliban. And we… went off and dealt with them. But actually, we were dealing with their previous enemies, so we were just creating more enemies for ourselves. And you ended up in a downward spiral where, because everyone was manipulating us, we ended up fighting everyone and then, in return, everyone who fought us, immediately became ‘Taliban’. The way that we decided (if someone) was Taliban or not, was whether (they) were firing at us… Post 2001, whereas we’ve understood the conflict as good, bad, black, white, government, Taliban, they’ve understood it as a shifting mosaic of different groups and leaders fighting each other, effectively over power. And the currency of power in Helmand is opium. That’s largely what the conflict’s about.”

Initiating attacks on the British, even external ones, is also not without historical precedent.

The Third Anglo-Afghan War started in 1919 due to the British empire having been weakened by World War 1. So what better time to declare Jihad, invade British India and enlarge Afghan territory? Britain though held onto her colony, at least until Indian independence in 1947 and the end of the British Empire.

That left the relatively new Soviet empire to make its own mistakes in Afghanistan, invading and fighting a war of its own there between 1979 and 1989.

They too were forced out, but not without significant cost to the Afghans. The subsequent civil war and rise of the oppressive Taliban makes a lot more sense in the light of this observation from Thomas Barfield:

“Unfortunately the successful resistance strategy of making the country ungovernable for the Soviet occupier also ended up making Afghanistan ungovernable for the Afghans themselves. While the Afghans had recovered from many earlier periods of state collapse, the body politic was now afflicted with an autoimmune disorder in which the antibodies of resistance threatened to destroy any state structure, regardless of who controlled it or its ideology.”

Although the 1979-89 war was outside of British military experience, it wasn’t beyond the eyes and ears of British journalists. Again, in ‘The Great War for Civilisation’, Robert Fisk recalls being a young war correspondent who saw the conflict whilst (accidentally) embedded with the Russians:

“Private Tebin from the Estonian city of Tallinn – if he survived Afghanistan, I assume he is now a proud citizen of the European Union, happily flourishing his new passport at British immigration desks – repeatedly described how dangerous the mountains had become now that rebels were shooting daily at Soviet troops. Captain Viktor wanted to know why I had chosen to be a journalist. But what emerged most strongly was that all these soldiers were fascinated by pop music. Lieutenant Nikolai from Tashkent interrupted at one point to ask: ‘Is it true that Paul McCartney has been arrested in Tokyo?’ And he put his extended hands together as if he had been handcuffed. Why had McCartney been arrested? he wanted to know. I asked him where he had heard the Beatles’ music and two other men chorused at once: ‘On the “Voice of America” radio.’

“I was smiling now. Not because the Russians were friendly – each had studied my passport and all were now calling me ‘Robert’ as if I was a comrade-in-arms rather than the citizen of an enemy power – but because these Soviet soldiers with their overt interest in Western music did not represent the iron warriors of Stalingrad. They seemed like any Western soldiers: naive, cheerful in front of strangers, trusting me because I was – and here in the Afghan snows, of course, the fact was accentuated – a fellow European. They seemed genuinely apologetic that they could not allow me to continue my journey but they stopped a bus travelling in the opposite direction. ‘To Kabul!’ Captain Viktor announced. I refused. The people on that bus had seen me talking to the Russians. They would assume I was a Russian. No amount of assurances that I was British would satisfy them. I doubted if I would ever reach Kabul, at least not alive.

“So Lieutenant Nikolai flagged down a passing Russian military truck at the back of a convoy and put me aboard. He held out his hand. ‘Dos vidanya,’ he said. ‘Goodbye –and give my love to Linda McCartney.’ And so I found myself travelling down the Hindu Kush on Soviet army convoy number 58 from Tashkent to Kabul. This was incredible. No Western journalist had been able to talk to the Soviet troops invading Afghanistan, let alone ride on their convoys, and here I was, sitting next to an armed Russian soldier as he drove his truckload of food and ammunition to Kabul, allowed to watch this vast military deployment from a Soviet army vehicle. This was better than Mazar.

“As we began our descent of the gorge, the Russian driver beside me pulled his kitbag from behind his seat, opened the straps and offered me an orange. ‘Please, you look up,’ he said. ‘Look at the top of the hills.’ With near disbelief, I realised what was happening. While he was wrestling the wheel of his lorry on the ice, I was being asked to watch the mountain tops for gunmen. The orange was my pay for helping him out. Slowly, we began to fall behind the convoy. The soldier now hauled his rifle from the back of the cab and laid it between us on the seat. ‘Now you watch right of road,’ he said. ‘Tell if you see people.’ I did as I was told, as much for my safety as his. Our truck had a blue-painted interior with the word Kama engraved over the dashboard. It was one of the lorries built with American assistance at the Kama River factory in the Soviet Union, and I wondered what President Carter would have thought if he knew the uses to which his country’s technology was now being put. The driver had plastered his cab with Christmas cards.

“At the bottom of the pass we found his convoy, and an officer –tall, with intelligent, unnaturally pale green eyes, khaki trousers tucked into heavy army boots –came to the door on my side of the truck. ‘You are English,’ he said with a smile. ‘I am Major Yuri. Come to the front with me.’ And so we trekked through the deep slush to the front of the column where a Soviet tank was trying to manoeuvre up the pass in the opposite direction. ‘It’s a T-62,’ he said, pointing to the sleeve halfway down the tank’s gun barrel. I thought it prudent not to tell him that I had already recognised the classification.

“And I had to admit that Major Yuri seemed a professional soldier, clearly admired by his men –they were all told to shake my hand – and, in the crisis in which we would shortly find ourselves, behaved calmly and efficiently. With fractious Afghan soldiers, whom he seemed privately to distrust, he was unfailingly courteous. When five Afghan soldiers turned up beside the convoy to complain that Russian troops had been waving rifles in their direction, Major Yuri spoke to them as an equal, taking off his gloves and shaking each by the hand until they beamed with pleasure. But he was also a party man.

“What, he asked, did I think of Mrs Thatcher? I explained that people in Britain held different views about our prime minister – I wisely forbore to give my own –but that they were permitted to hold these views freely. I said that President Carter was not the bad man he was depicted as in the Moscow press. Major Yuri listened in silence. So what did he think about President Brezhnev? I was grinning now. I knew what he had to say. So did he. He shook his head with a smile. ‘I believe,’ he said slowly, ‘that Comrade Brezhnev is a very good man.’ Major Yuri was well-read. He knew his Tolstoy and admired the music of Shostakovich, especially his Leningrad symphony. But when I asked if he had read Aleksander Solzhenitsyn, he shook his head and tapped his revolver holster. ‘This,’ he said, ‘is for Solzhenitsyn.’

“I squeezed into Major Yuri’s truck, his driver and I on the outside seats, Yuri in the middle and so we set off for Kabul. ‘England a good country?’ he asked. ‘Better than Afghanistan?’ No, Major Yuri did not want to be in Afghanistan, he admitted. He wanted to be at home in Kazakhstan with his wife and nine-year-old daughter and planned to take a return convoy back to them in three days’ time. He had spent thirteen of his thirty years in the army, had not enough money to buy a car and could never travel abroad because he was an officer. It was his way of telling me that life in the Soviet Union was hard, that his life was not easy, that perhaps Comrade Brezhnev was not that good a man. Had not Brezhnev sent him here in the first place? When I asked questions he could not answer, he smiled in silent acknowledgement that he would have liked to be able to do so.

“Amid a massive army, there is always a false sense of comfort. Even Major Yuri, his pale eyes constantly scanning the snowfields on each side of us, seemed to possess a dangerous self-confidence. True, the Afghans were attacking the Russians. But who could stop this leviathan, these armoured centipedes that were now creeping across the snows and mountains of Afghanistan? When we stopped at an Afghan checkpoint and the soldiers there could speak no Russian, Major Yuri called back for one of his Soviet Tajik officers to translate. As he did so, the major pointed at the Tajik and said, ‘Muslim.’ Yes, I understood. There were Muslims in the Soviet Union. In fact there were rather a lot of Muslims in the Soviet Union. And that, surely, was partly what this whole invasion was about.

“The snow was blurring the windscreen of our truck, almost too fast for the wipers to clear it away, but through the side windows we could see the snowfields stretching away for miles. It was now mid-afternoon and we were grinding along at no more than 25 kilometres an hour, keeping the speed of the slowest truck, long vulnerable snake of food, bedding, heavy ammunition, mixed in with tanks and carriers, 147 lorries in all, locked onto the main highway, a narrow vein of ice-cloaked tarmac that set every Soviet soldier up as a target for the ‘terrorists’ of Afghanistan. Or so it seemed to the men on Convoy 58. And to me.

Russia vs Britain: How Do The Militaries Stack Up?

“Yet we were surprised when the first shots cracked out around us. We were just north of Charikar. And the rounds passed between our truck and the lorry in front, filling the air pockets behind them with little explosions, whizzing off into the frosted orchards to our left. ‘Out!’ Major Yuri shouted. He wanted his soldiers defending themselves in the snow, not trapped in their cabs. I fell into the muck and slush beside the road. The Russians around me were throwing themselves from their trucks. There was more shooting and, far in front of us, in a fog of snow and sleet, there were screams. A curl of blue smoke rose into the air from our right. The bullets kept sweeping over us and one pinged into a driver’s cab. All around me, the Soviet soldiers were lying in the drifts. Major Yuri shouted something at the men closest to him and there was a series of sharp reports as their Kalashnikovs kicked into their shoulders. Could they see what they were shooting at?

“A silence fell over the landscape. Some figures moved, far away to our left, next to a dead tree. Yuri was staring at the orchard. ‘They are shooting from there,’ he said in English. He gave me a penetrating glance. This was no longer to be soldiers’ small-talk. I listened to the crackle of the radios, the shouts of officers interrupting each other, the soldiers in the snow looking over their shoulders. Major Yuri had taken off his fur hat his brown hair was receding and he looked older than his thirty years. ‘Watch this, Robert,’ he said, pulling from his battledress a long tube containing a flare. We stood together in the snow, the slush above our knees, as he tugged at a cord that hung beneath the tube. There was a small explosion, a powerful smell of cordite and a smoke trail that soared high up into the sky. It was watched by the dozen soldiers closest to us, each of whom knew that our lives might depend on that rocket.

Remembering The Afghan War: A History

“The smoke trail had passed a thousand feet in height when it burst into a shower of stars and within fifty seconds a Soviet Air Force Mig jet swept over us at low level, dipping its wings. A minute later, a tracked personnel carrier bearing the number 368 came thrashing through the snow with two of its crew leaning from their hatches and slid to a halt beside Major Yuri’s truck. The radio crackled and he listened in silence for a few moments then held up four fingers towards me. ‘They have killed four Russians in the convoy ahead,’ he said.

“We stood on the road, backed up behind the first convoy. One row of soldiers was ordered to move two hundred metres further into the fields. Major Yuri told his men they could open their rations. The Tajik soldier who had translated for the major offered me food and I followed him to his lorry. It was decorated with Islamic pictures, quotations from the Koran, curiously interspersed with photographs of Bolshoi ballet dancers. I sat next to the truck with two soldiers beside me. We had dried biscuits and large hunks of raw pork the only way I could eat the pork was to hold on to the fur and rip at the salted fat with my teeth. Each soldier was given three oranges, and sardines in a tin that contained about 10 per cent sardines and 90 per cent oil. Every few minutes, Major Yuri would pace the roadway and talk over the radio telephone, and when eventually we did move away with our armoured escorts scattered through the column, he seemed unsure of our exact location on the highway. Could he, he asked, borrow my map? And it was suddenly clear to me that this long convoy did not carry with it a single map of Afghanistan.

“There was little evidence of the ambushed convoy in front save for the feet of a dead man being hurriedly pushed into a Soviet army van near Charikar and a great swath of crimson and pink slush that spread for several yards down one side of the road. The highway grew more icy at sundown, but we drove faster. As we journeyed on into the night, the headlights of our 147 trucks running like diamonds over the snow behind us, I was gently handed a Kalashnikov rifle with a full clip of ammunition. A soldier snapped off the safety catch and told me to watch through the window. I had no desire to hold this gun, even less to shoot at Afghan guerrillas, but if we were attacked again –if the Afghans had come right up to the truck as they had done many times on these convoys –they would assume I was a Russian. They would not ask all members of the National Union of Journalists to stand aside before gunning down the soldiers.

“I have never since held a weapon in wartime and I hope I never shall again. I have always cursed the journalists who wear military costumes and don helmets and play soldiers with a gun at their hip, greying over the line between reporter and combatant, making our lives ever more dangerous as armies and militias come to regard us as an extension of their enemies, a potential combatant, a military target. But I had not volunteered to travel with the Soviet army. I was not – as that repulsive expression would have it in later wars – ‘embedded’. I was as much their prisoner as their guest. As the weeks went by, Afghans learned to climb aboard the Soviet convoy lorries after dark and knife their occupants. I knew that my taking a rifle –even though I never used it –would produce a reaction from the great and the good in journalism, and it seemed better to admit the reality than to delete this from the narrative. If I was riding shotgun for the Soviet army, then that was the truth of it.

“Three times we passed through towns where villagers and peasants lined the roadside to watch us pass. And of course, it was an eerie, unprecedented experience to sit with a rifle on my lap in a Soviet military column next to armed and uniformed Russian troops and to watch those Afghans –most of them in turbans, long shawls and rubber shoes – staring at us with contempt and disgust. One man in a blue coat stood on the tailboard of an Afghan lorry and watched me with narrowed eyes. It was the nearest I had seen to a look of hatred. He shouted something that was lost in the roar of our convoy.

“Major Yuri seemed unperturbed. As we drove through Qarabagh, I told him I didn’t think the Afghans liked the Russians. It was beginning to snow heavily again. The major did not take his eyes from the road. ‘The Afghans are cunning people,’ he said without obvious malice, and then fell silent. We were still sliding along the road to Kabul when I turned to Major Yuri again. So why was the Soviet army in Afghanistan, I asked him? The major thought about this for about a minute and gave me a smile. ‘If you read Pravda,’ he said, ‘you will find that Comrade Leonid Brezhnev has answered this question.’ Major Yuri was a party man to the end.”

Like the First Anglo-Afghan War, there was also no Hollywood ending to Mark Luttrell’s book ‘Lone Survivor’, artistic license accounting for the film’s spectacle-filled finale.

And even events chronicled in the book are open to question.

Luttrell is highly critical of ‘the liberal media’ and restrictive rules of engagement that his enemies don’t follow - factors that he says could have led to murder charges for him and his comrades if they had decided to kill the goat herders who he says gave them away. Because the subsequent encounter with Taliban fighters killed his three comrades, he looks back with some regret about not having killed these Afghan civilians.

Luttrell’s point that many in the media do not understand what it is like to be locked in combat with ferocious, fanatical opponents is obviously a fair criticism. But he doesn’t point out the obvious fact that, at this point in history, western nations are more likely to be at war with groups that don’t follow the Geneva conventions or any rules of engagement precisely because they have such radically-different values. And he never explores the contribution of rules of engagement to winning the war for both Afghan and American public opinion, even from a cold and clinical perspective.

It’s interesting to compare Luttrell’s account of his mission with Andy McNab’s account of the Bravo Two Zero mission, which was similarly compromised by a child goat herder:

“Do we top him? Too much noise. Anyway, what was the point? I wouldn’t want that on my conscience for the rest of my life. Sh*t, I could have been an Iraqi behind the lines in Britain and that could have been (my daughter) up there … We could decide later what to do with him – to tie him up and stuff his gob with chocolate, or whatever … (but) the child had too much of a head start. He was gone, fucking gone, hollering like a lunatic …”

In the book ‘The Psychopath’s Guide to Success’, McNab reveals there was also an additional cold, military calculation to the decision not to kill the goat herder: that killing a local non-combatant, particularly a child, would have increased the odds that he and his men would face torture or execution if captured. So, in contrast to Luttrell’s arguments, not killing goat herders was both the right legal, humanitarian as well as the smart military option, at least in McNab’s opinion.

It’s also worth pointing out that the rules of engagement are meant to help prevent the mistaken or unlawful killing of non-Taliban Afghans, such as Mohammad Gulab, a local Afghan who saved Luttrell’s life.

And like the Afghan interpreters whose story of struggling to get British residency has just been covered by the Forces Network, Gulab’s life was also endangered by helping an American soldier, and he too struggled to get out of Afghanistan and into the US.

In fact, according to Newsweek, Gulab’s friendship with Luttrell became strained in more recent years. This might have something to do with his own take on the story being different to Luttrell’s. His account has the SEALs being given away by their helicopter, not by the goat herders. Luttrell’s own account certainly supports this possibility:

“This was my nightmare, ever since I first stared at those plans back in the briefing room: the four of us starkly silhouetted against a treeless mountain above a Taliban-occupied village. We were an Afghan lookout’s finest moment, unmissable … trapped in nature’s spotlight (a full moon) with nowhere to hide.”

And the size of the Taliban force that attacked the SEALs has also been estimated to have been far lower than the number given in the book. One figure quoted in Newsweek said it could have been eight to 10 individuals, not 80 to 100.

It seems possible that, if the number of enemy soldiers was exaggerated in later accounts, at least some of this might be accounted for by the intensity of fighting in rugged Afghan mountain terrain. One can see how 10 Taliban fighters armed with automatic weapons and RPGs ambushing American soldiers from above, with huge volumes of fire and explosions multiplied by ricochets and flying bits of rock might have made it seem like there were many more.

Whatever the actual details of the encounter Luttrell’s SEAL team had with their enemy in Afghanistan, the general trend seems to have been the same for them as every other military force that has gone into the country.

What comes through most in any military history of Afghanistan is the continuity not only of Afghan tribal culture, but also of the strategic obstacle of Barfield’s ‘Swiss cheese’ model, with isolated areas protected by geographical obstacles that cannot ever be entirely mastered. Paul Kennedy explains in ‘The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers’ that the geography of Europe – its varied terrain, rivers, valleys, mountains etc – has always lent itself to multiple different kingdoms. Multiple defensible positions have made it difficult for would-be conquerors to subjugate anyone in their path, as opposed to the vast, open planes of places like China, which are more easily united under one ruler. In this sense, strategically, Afghanistan might be thought of as Europe in microcosm, not only Swiss cheese, but a central-Asian Switzerland, as it were.

On a tactical level, this meant Marcus Luttrell’s SEAL team - however many Afghans they faced off against, getting caught in rocky terrain, from above, and by deadly Afghan sniper fire – were just like the Russians, and so too the British.

But what was slightly different between Luttrell’s experience and that of the fleeing British columns in 1842 was the proportion of those who made it out alive. Luttrell was one of four SEALs who lived through their mission. For the British, after many had been taken prisoner, of the 65 foot soldiers and 12 cavalrymen who made it through the holly oak in Jagdalak Pass, most were killed or taken prisoner. Macrory explains:

“The dozen cavalrymen had tried to ride on to Jalalabad but six were soon killed, with the remainder reaching the village of Futtehabad, only 16 miles from their goal. Initially welcomed by villagers, they were then attacked and two were killed. The remaining four managed to escape, but three were killed just four miles from Jalalabad … ”

This left assistant surgeon Dr William Brydon, trotting into Jalalabad on a wounded pony. There would be a few stragglers later, but for all intents and purposes, to those waiting in Jalalabad, Brydon was the only man out of 500 European troops and a force over 16,000 to make it out of Afghanistan without being killed or captured.

He was Britain’s lone survivor.

For illustrated histories of the British wars in Afghanistan, read ‘The First Anglo Afghan War 1839-42: invasion, catastrophe and retreat’ by Richard Macrory, ‘The Anglo-Afghan Wars 1839-1919’ by Gregory Fremont-Barnes and ‘The British Army in Afghanistan 2006-14’ by Leigh Neville. Visit Osprey Publishing for more military history.

Images of Mongolian siege warfare and Genghis Khan statue from François Philipp and Bill Taroli ‘Remnants of an Army’ from the Tate Gallery the Maiwand Lion from Jim Linwood and the picture of a Pashtun man in Kabul comes from Jeremy Weate.


Ageing is a fact of life. Just as with conventional forms of power generation, the energy produced by a wind farm gradually decreases over its lifetime, perhaps due to falling availability, aerodynamic performance or conversion efficiency. Understanding these factors is however complicated by the highly variable availability of the wind.

This paper reveals the rate of ageing of a national fleet of wind turbines using free public data for the actual and theoretical ideal load factors from the UK's 282 wind farms. Actual load factors are recorded monthly for the period of 2002–2012, covering 1686 farm-years of operation. Ideal load factors are derived from a high resolution wind resource assessment made using NASA data to estimate the hourly wind speed at the location and hub height of each wind farm, accounting for the particular models of turbine installed.

By accounting for individual site conditions we confirm that load factors do decline with age, at a similar rate to other rotating machinery. Wind turbines are found to lose 1.6 ± 0.2% of their output per year, with average load factors declining from 28.5% when new to 21% at age 19. This trend is consistent for different generations of turbine design and individual wind farms. This level of degradation reduces a wind farm's output by 12% over a twenty year lifetime, increasing the levelised cost of electricity by 9%.