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 The Mahdi’s Revenge 

December 30, 2003

Now I know why Osama bin Laden spooks me so much. He summons up memories of a movie I saw 38 years ago. I just bought it on video and watched it again.

(You may recall Osama bin Laden. He’s the Arab guy we thought we were going to war with in September 2001, before we decided to settle for Saddam Hussein instead, on grounds that he was a pretty bad Arab guy too.)

Anyway, the movie was Khartoum, released in 1966. It stars Charlton Heston as Gen. Charles George Gordon, sent by England to suppress a Muslim uprising in Sudan in 1885. (Uprising is a quaint English word for unruly “natives” who refuse to obey the white man. Nowadays we prefer to say “insurgency.” That’s when the natives, now called “terrorists,” refuse “democracy.”)

Anyway, the uprising is led by a strange chap who claims to be the Mahdi, “the Expected One” foretold in Muslim lore. He’s played with chilling, exotic charisma by Laurence Olivier.

To say the least, the Mahdi knows how to bring a Muslim crowd to its feet. He reads his Koran and he has evidently graduated at the top of his Dale Carnegie public-speaking class. He is not a man to be trifled with. Late in the film, he shows Gordon a couple of severed heads of other white men by way of friendly warning. You or I might have taken the hint and gone home, but no hero played by Charlton Heston could do that. So Gordon winds up dead.

I think the moral of the story was supposed to be that Gordon was a brave man who deserves to be honored, but that’s not what I got out of it. My own inference was that you should think twice about going where you’re not wanted. But in 1966 we were still cheering movies about white men who went where they weren’t wanted, quelling uprisings. Today, only Republicans cheer them.

[Breaker quote: A movie based on history, and a news story]What Olivier somehow managed to convey, in only a few minutes of screen time, was just this: a world. A world I didn’t know existed. A world as different from ours as the Amazon jungle, and as dangerous to a careless intruder. (The less said about Heston’s performance, the better. He seemed about as British as Gene Autry.)

So when the World Trade Center fell on 9/11, I felt dimly that the Mahdi was trying to tell us something. We’d been poking our stick into his world long enough.

But we’re still there. And more than a century after Gordon’s death, on April 3, 2003, the New York Times informs us, Sgt. Jeremy Feldbusch of Blairsville, Pennsylvania, with his platoon, was guarding the Haditha Dam on the Euphrates River, near Baghdad, “when a shell burst 100 feet away and a piece of red hot shrapnel hit him in the face....

“The inchlong piece of steel, part of the artillery shell’s casing, sliced through his right eye, tumbled through his sinuses and lodged in the left side of his brain, severely damaging the optic nerve of his left eye and spraying bone splinters throughout his brain.”

Feldbusch woke from his coma five weeks later, totally blind, “with a lump of fat from his stomach in place of his missing eye, so the hole would not cave in.” His sense of taste and smell are weaker now too, though he is acutely sensitive to pain, and when the wind blows it hurts his skin. He has seizures. His temper is short. He also has a Purple Heart and a Bronze Star.

His parents do what they can for him. He still has his sense of humor and his penchant for wisecracks. But, says the reporter, “even in his dreams, he no longer sees. And he has stopped trying to picture faces.”

He was recently invited to speak to a sixth-grade class. “His mother told him the children would like to see his uniform. Instead, he wore sweat pants.”

The kids asked about various things, the Iraqi weather and so forth. One boy asked Sergeant Feldbusch if he’d made any new Iraqi friends.

“I didn’t make any Iraqi friends,” he replied.

Joseph Sobran

Copyright © 2003 by the Griffin Internet Syndicate,
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