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Young Winston at War with the Afghans

by Con Coughlin

Pub Date: Jan. 28th, 2014
ISBN: 978-1-250-04304-7
Publisher: Dunne/St. Martin's

Daily Telegraph executive foreign editor Coughlin (Khomeini's Ghost: The Iranian Revolution and the Rise of Militant Islam, 2009, etc.) infuses many of the celebrated traits of Winston Churchill (1874–1965) with a charming naïveté as he set out as a young man to reclaim his family’s good name.

Churchill’s determination to become a soldier played out against the illustrious legend of his distinguished grandfather, the first Duke of Marlborough, and the disgrace of his own father’s tarnished reputation as a hotheaded Tory statesman. As a boy, Churchill was obsessed with his collection of toy soldiers lined up in correct formation; he gleaned that “proving personal courage on the field of battle was a prerequisite for the pursuit of a career in politics.” Getting into the Royal Military College, Sandhurst, on the third try did not win his father’s approval, yet joining the cavalry proved his greatest joy. In choosing the elite 4th Queen’s Own Hussars, he got a smart uniform and a commanding officer, Col. John Brabazon, who agreed to take on young Winston as a favor to his well-connected mother. Coughlin’s bifurcated work moves between a winning biography of Churchill and a tortured catalog of Afghan history led by the precursors to the Taliban. Allied with his spendthrift mother to advance his career, Churchill tried to figure out how to achieve personal glory as quickly as possible, first in Cuba, then India. While his service with the Malakand Field Force quelling tribal resentment that erupted over the arbitrary Durand Line only lasted six weeks, his dispatches about the campaign published in the Daily Telegraph were remarkable and made his name as “knight of pen and sword.” Current soldiers in Afghanistan still read Churchill’s thoughtful account of civilization and tribal intractability.

An absorbing youthful biography and a messy history lesson that holds eerie pertinence today.