Most fearsome of fighters As British Army gives up its Gurkhas, U.N. should grab its chance


WHEN THE BRITISH hand over Hong Kong to China on July 1, the soldiers of one of history's most legendary and respected fighting forces won't be around for the ceremony. They bade farewell to the colony last year, when members of the unit dismantled the garrison, stacked their arms and started the long march home to an uncertain future, many as out-of-work civilians.

But home is not the lush tranquillity of the British countryside. Home to most of these proud soldiers is the rugged foothills of the towering Himalayas, which includes formidable Mount Everest.

They belong to the tightly knit, highly trained and superbly disciplined Brigade of Gurkhas from Nepal, diminutive warriors who have served the British in far-flung outposts for more than 180 years. Many returned to a homeland they haven't seen for years.

As the number of Gurkhas of the British Army - they also serve in the Indian Army - shrinks to a projected few thousand, calls to reconfigure them into a permanent United Nations rapid-reaction force have been renewed.

Such a stable force, proponents say, would give backbone to U.N. peacekeeping in global hot spots and save calling on often-reluctant member nations to hastily provide a mixed bag of soldiers, some highly professional but others ill-trained and ill-equipped for quick emergency duty.

Former British Prime Minister John Major proposed the idea in 1991, but it was shot down by the United Nations as being too costly.

Since then, according to analyst Jonah Blank, who favors the move, Bosnia, Somalia, Rwanda, Haiti and Republic of Congo, formerly Zaire, "have proved how much cheaper prevention is than cure," which usually comes in the form of millions of dollars to run refugee camps.

In 1992, columnist Flora Lewis wrote: "Some would call them [Gurkhas] mercenaries; the British Army gags at the thought, pointing out that they have been enlisted by agreement with the Government of Nepal. But mercenaries - troops serving no state - are exactly what the U.N. needs, for the same reason that the Vatican hired Swiss Guards in medieval times so that its protectors would be beholden to no other master."

The Gurkhas, she adds, "are just what is needed for the base of a U.N. force, and no doubt they are willing. Certainly, they are able."

That ability also has been recognized by Prince Charles, the future monarch who is colonel-in-chief of the 2nd Gurkha Rifles, also known as King Edward VII's Own.

The Gurkha's "spartan upbringing in a harsh environment [where survival to adulthood is in itself an achievement], his strong sense of loyalty fostered by the bonds of family, village and tribe, his stoicism in adversity and his innate cheerfulness give him so many of the characteristics of the natural soldier. They also help to explain the basis of his fearsome reputation in battle," he writes in tribute.

To be associated with them, he adds, "is one of the greatest

privileges of my life, as well as being one of the greatest pleasures."

Gurkha soldiers are readily identifiable when in uniform. Most are short, muscular and compact. Their formal headgear is a distinctive hat with upturned brim tipped at a jaunty angle. And on their belt is the highly prized, wicked-looking kukri, a long curved knife that has many uses, not the least being to frighten adversaries whether drawn or sheathed.

Their bearing and stoic features are testament to the discipline forged through their difficult lives back home and their rigorous training in infantry operations. They are expert trackers and jungle fighters.

Their homeland, Nepal, squeezed between China to the north and India to the south, is among the world's poorest nations. Gurkhas fought against expansionist-minded Britain for several years in the early part of the 19th century.

The British were so impressed with their ferocity, fighting skills and valor that when peace came, they recruited the Gurkhas for service in the East India Co. It was then that they took their oath of loyalty to the British. That loyalty has been tested many times, starting with their unwavering allegiance to the Crown during the Indian Mutiny of 1857.

After the mutiny and until World War I, Gurkhas saw active service in Afghanistan, Burma, India, Cyprus, Malta, Tibet and China. Some 200,000 Gurkhas volunteered for service in World War I, and more than 20,000 were wounded or killed in the fighting.

Two Gurkhas received the Victoria Cross, Britain's highest award for gallantry and the equivalent of the United States' Medal of Honor.

During World War II, more than 250,000 Gurkhas fought for the Crown, with casualties exceeding 23,000. Ten Gurkhas won the Victoria Cross, one in Tunisia, two in Italy and seven in Burma. Another Victoria Cross was awarded to a Gurkha for actions in Borneo in the mid-1960s.

Despite its distinguished and loyal service, the fate of the Brigade of Gurkhas was in doubt after World War II.

Delicate negotiations between the governments of Britain, Nepal and India, which had won independence from Britain in 1947, resulted in the breakup of the brigade, with some members remaining with the British and others going to the Indian army.

The Gurkhas' main connection with Hong Kong started when they were dispatched to help stem the flow of illegal immigrants from mainland China and to serve as a buffer to the violent Cultural Revolution under way in 1966.

The more permanent garrison was established several years later.

It was in 1974 that the Gurkhas demonstrated their ability to deal with refugees, when a battalion was sent to Cyprus to help stabilize the rapidly deteriorating situation between the Greek and Turkish communities. Their impartiality and reassuring presence did much to calm refugee fears and to win respect from the warring factions.

"The camp run by the Gurkhas was recognized as the best organized and the happiest as well as the most efficient refugee center on the whole island," according to Lt. Col. J.P. Cross, who spent much of his career serving with the Gurkhas.

Still, downsizing the brigade had been steady, and by 1992 the number of Gurkhas in the British army had shrunk from 14,400 in the mid-1960s to around 7,500, with 5,000 in Hong Kong.

The rest were largely deployed in Brunei and England, where, among other things, they have shared guard duty with the tall, elegantly attired British Guardsmen in their huge bearskin hats at Buckingham Palace and participated in many of the ceremonial duties for which the British army is noted.

In accordance with British tradition, their marching bands include bagpipers.

By last year, only 1,500 remained in Hong Kong. Now they are gone.

Those with sufficient years of service will receive modest pensions. The British have established training centers to counsel and help prepare others for civilian life.

Some have joined security firms and are trusted guards of the sultan of Brunei. Some have started learning to become commercial seamen.

And 400 Gurkhas will fill infantry posts in the British army.

Every year, upward of 10,000 applicants try out for 150 available slots in the brigade. Now is the time for the United Nations to seriously consider establishing a permanent quick-reaction force composed of these crack troops.

The Gurkhas are faithful and focused to the cause in which they are enlisted. There would be no lack of volunteers to choose from - all are steeped in the martial traditions of their ancestors and ready to assume the rigors of delicate peacekeeping assignments.

They are tailor-made for such duty.

Laird Anderson is a retired army colonel and journalism professor who has spent time in Nepal

Pub Date: 6/29/97

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