When Your Country Has Its Back Against the Wall


Recently I’ve been thinking about a story I first read decades ago. In his mid-50s Winston Churchill wrote an autobiography covering his life through his mid-20s: My Early Life, A Roving Commission. Churchill was born well past third base. He was the nephew of Lord Marlborough, one of the most exalted British noblemen, and ended up a commoner only by a small accident of birth. But in his own world he was something of a reject. And that gives his account a sympathy or emotional approachability it might otherwise not have.

Churchill’s father found him a disappointment, not bright enough for anything but a career in the army. It was a judgment he took little trouble to hide. When Randolph Churchill sent his eldest son to the Sandhurst military academy the young Churchill thought his father had great expectations for him as a heroic warrior. He only later realized his father doubted he had any ability for anything else. Churchill’s mother, an American heiress, also had little time for him and spent much of her life in serial affairs. Only later did she take much interest in him, using her accumulated friendships with powerful men to give him critical assists in his improbable ascent. So Churchill is packed off to military school and ends up in India on his first deployment.

In India he’s generally bored. He begins reading a lot and gets it in his head to be a journalist. Over the next few years, in large part through his mother’s connections and their deepening relationship, he gets a mix of military leaves, postings and journalistic assignments that lead him on a kind grand tour of the conflict zones of the world. Over a couple years he’s in Cuba for the Cuban war of independence; he’s in Africa for the reconquest of the Sudan after the Mahdi rebellion; he catches one military expedition on what is now the border of Pakistan and Afghanistan.

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