While complicated, a look at turmoil in Sudan offers lessons. Factions of Sudan’s military government are warring, aftershocks of a 30-year dictatorship ending, many divisions. Instability invites crime, terrorism, hopelessness, and cascades, often getting out of control. The opposite is leadership, hope, and finding a way out of the darkness – a way others follow.
Lesson one is that history repeats itself, sometimes with eerie similarity. For almost a thousand years, Sudan has struggled for stability, sometimes getting a taste, never more than a bite. In 1899, Winston Churchill – just in his 20’s – was there, and decried British disrespect for Sudanese culture, such as it was.
To him, Sudan was not Great Britain, but that did not entitle Britain’s Sir Kitchener to destroy “the Mahdi’s tomb” – a leading architectural and cultural symbol of 19th century Sudan.
To Churchill, cultural conflict might be inevitable, but humanity was bound by certain formative principles. The future depended on succeeding generations seeing these principles, including intercultural respect, or we would gradually degrade ourselves, grind each other down, perish.
The young Churchill wrote to his mother about what he saw. On one hand, he was an optimist, and thank goodness. His optimism and belief in Western values, such as individual liberty, self-determination, a loving God, the “Good Fight,” and positive outcomes – later saved the world.
But in 1899, he was more circumspect. It bothered him that the Sudanese culture was being wrecked, and that British leaders felt wrecking it was necessary. He wrote his mother from Sudan that, for no reason, the former leader’s tomb was “profaned and razed to the ground.”
So, lesson one – ironic for a future wartime leader – was that destruction could be necessary, but if it is not necessary, it disgraced the party doing it, and sowed resentment hard to undue.
Second was the idea that, whether we know it or not, we can find similarities, unexpectedly positive commonalities, with cultures that on first blush seem wildly different from ours.
Here, the young Churchill – just 24 – got lyrical in a letter to his mother. His lyricism, without context unfortunately, is remembered. Always a student of history, Churchill was taken by the Sudanese Mahdi, who was totally different from any British youth, but had been an orphan.
Without a strong father or mother, the Sudanese Mahdi might just as well have perished, but he did not. He became a revered leader. Why? Wrote Churchill, “Solitary trees, if they grow at all, grow strong … and a boy deprived of a father’s care often develops, if he escape the perils of youth, an independence and a vigor of thought which may restore… he heavy loss of early days.”
What Churchill saw in a deceased Sudanese leader was – ironically – a reflection of his own life, a father who should have played a major role but did not. Churchill’s father was largely absent.
Third, and perhaps most importantly, Churchill realized the world is a big place, but certain core ideas are timeless, crosscut cultures, and are worth recognizing for peace and stability.
Even now, as we watch Sudanese factions again war, there is a sense of déjà vu. What are we seeing? An absence of Western engagement, disinterest in modeling leadership, another retreat. Like Afghanistan, we are not learning the way Churchill did, nor the lessons he taught.
Here is the nub: Young Churchill learned every day, in every way, from all he was exposed to. He sometimes taught himself unlikely lessons, never stopped learning, reading or writing.
From a dead leader of Sudan, whose monument was wrecked by Churchill’s own countrymen, Churchill learned a lesson that stood by him. Holding firm to values, fighting for them, turning circumstance your way by fortitude, energy, determination, and faith changes everything.
Of course, Churchill learned similar lessons from his own life, WWI, politics, memorizing Shakespeare, Henry V to Hamlet. He was a voracious reader, writer, and believer that destiny is reeled in by those who fish for it, who never give up the quest.
Maybe that is the point within the point: Destiny is part God’s Hand and part what we make it. Global leadership, like opportunities to contribute to peace and stability close to home, only comes to those who want it, work for it, step up to it, listen, learn, lead, seek the role.
Churchill did that, taking his youthful lessons to the apex of global leadership. Americans have long been cut from that same cloth – leaders, willing to listen, learn, and lead.
Recently, in a global and personal way, we seem to have forgotten these lessons. History is forgiving, but it is time to relearn them. We may not be able to save Sudan, but we can distinguish truth from untruth, leadership from none, get up and out of the dark, leave a mark.
What Churchill did not say, but likely meant, was that “Solitary trees, if they grow at all, grow strong …” because they resolve to live, thrive, persevere, and stay alive. They turn circumstances to their will, find a way to keep going, and show others how to. That is our mission, too.
Robert Charles is a former Assistant Secretary of State under Colin Powell, former Reagan and Bush 41 White House staffer, attorney, and naval intelligence officer (USNR). He wrote “Narcotics and Terrorism” (2003), “Eagles and Evergreens” (2018), and is National Spokesman2 for AMAC.
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