Playing the Great Game in Shahrazar

Lost Civilizations and Found Adventures:

Playing the Great Game in Shahrazar

Lone Survivor, by Marcus Luttrell and Patrick Robinson

Back Bay Books, 2007. PB

American Sniper, Chris Kyle, Scott McEwen, and Jim DeFelice.

Harper Collins, 2012. PB

The Great Game: The Struggle For Empire in Central Asia, by Peter Hopkirk

Kodansha Globe, 1992. PB

Swords of Shahrazar, by Robert E. Howard.

Berkley, 1978. PB

“Every now and then, a news reporter or a photographer gets in the way sufficiently to stop a bullet.  And without missing a beat, those highly paid newspeople become national heroes, lauded back home in the press and on television. SEALs are not churlish, but I cannot describe how irksome this is to the highly trained but not very well paid guys who are doing the actual fighting.  These are superb professionals who say nothing and place themselves in harm’s way every day, too often being killed or wounded.  They are silent heroes, unknown soldiers….” (Luttrell, 171)

“Silent Heroes and Unknown Soldiers” is what I could have titled this piece.  This passage from Luttrell’s book Lone Survivor both captures and utterly misses the point I wanted to highlight in this study of our wars of adventure in Central Asia.  Let us ignore for a moment the logical fallacy he makes that these two types of people, soldiers and citizens, are equal, since in reality reporters are neither paid extravagantly nor expected to fight, and are lauded as heroes because they are unarmed civilians without specialized military training who are working in the middle of extremely dangerous war zones by choice, hence make the ultimate sacrifice in reporting the truth for us back home. 

For centuries now, Afghanistan and Pakistan have long been the battleground in the geopolitical games that many Western nations have played in the heart of Asia and the Middle East.  An excellent overview of this time period I want to recommend is Peter Hopkirk’s fantastic history of imperial machinations in Eurasia, The Great Game.  Another fiction author that perfectly captured the passionate savagery of these battles was Robert E. Howard (who is most famous for his fantasy character Conan the barbarian, but wrote in numerous genres and styles).  I won’t mention other relevant adventure series here, like the Flashman, or books on colonial India which would perfectly capture this same verve, because I want to single out an echo I found in these two particular modern books, American Sniper and Lone Survivor, since they have been the popular bestsellers and blockbuster movies of the past few years.  You cannot get bigger celebrity names involved than Clint Eastwood or Mark Walhberg in promoting the legends onscreen, and yet, in interesting dichotomy, these types of lone heroes should remain unknown to the world at large.

For instance, Howard’s character Kirby O’Donnell, an American adventurer and spy who works for our nation’s interests and also those of our European allies in Central Asia, is truly an unknown hero.  Virtually masked behind several local personas– his most well-known disguise is of a Kurdish fighter nicknamed Ali el Ghazi, and another Afghan nickname being El Shirkuh– he is often wearing a headdress, “…with a fold of his flowing kafiyeh drawn about his face.” This masked avenger of Western interests literally cuts a swath across Central Asia with two swords, a scimitar and a kindhjal, his preferred weapons of choice.  He is ferocious and there is no shying away from fierce bloodletting, for which he is legendary and feared, just as Chris Kyle was in his time.   In fact, in “The Treasure of Tartary,” Kirby is called Shaitan, exactly as Chris Kyle was almost a century later in Iraq.  Both are dealers of death and enforcers of the Western world order.  Just like his sniper and SEAL counterparts in modern times, though, Kirby spends all his years of service inserted deep inside enemy territory, infiltrating the local peoples and using their own culture as a disguise while networking to root out evildoers and stop plans that would damage the Western status quo.

In both “The Curse of the Crimson God” and “The Swords of Shahrazar” we follow Kirby Ali el Ghazi as he attempts to stop plots by would-be conquerors trying to establish new Khanates.  There is also the subplot of ancient treasures to be stolen and utilized to pay for the plans of these would-be Khans, but then in the modern wars we are fighting over oil fields and other strategic treasures.  But I was moved by the scenes of Kirby being abandoned or cut-off inside crumbling ruins and fighting for his life against violent extremists, terrorists, and tribesmen, in the exact same mountain valleys of the Pakistani border where Marcus Luttrell became the Lone Survivor in his fight against Al Qaeda.  Whether using gun or sword, it was downright eerie to experience the century-long echo of the individual hero fighting against overwhelming odds in a world of lawless violence, greed, and war.

No one compares to the passionate writing of Robert E. Howard when it comes to churning action sequences.  Needless to say, he is always one of my top suggestions.  However, I recommend reading The Great Game for historical context and then experiencing the modern-day terror and brutality of our “unknown soldiers” reliving that same tragic Game in order to appreciate the gritty, real-world drama infused in Howard’s fiction.  Sadly, we have not learned the lesson that history teaches and are repeating the same violent scenarios in the not-so-fictitious cities like Shahrazar.