His first memorable experience in the army was a briefing on sex from a medical officer, which frankly shocked him. Without a trace of a smile the officer had said, “Don’t forget: a woman for children, a boy for pleasure, but for real ecstasy, a goat.” At the tail end of World War II, Colonel Cross was assigned to the 1st Battalion of the 1st Gurkha Rifles, based at Dharamsala, and thus commenced his life’s work as a leader of Gurkhas. From there it was on to Burma to fight and disarm Japanese soldiers; to Cochin-China (Vietnam) to fight the Viet Minh; and to Laos, where, as the last British defense attaché before the fall of the monarchy, Cross became the de facto eyes and ears of the U.S. embassy, tracking the Communist Pathet Lao (the British ambassador, he says with a sneer, “was a fellow-traveler”). Next he went to western Nepal to become a recruiting officer for the Gurkhas. Future years would find him parachuting into Borneo to fight a Communist insurgency, and training Americans in jungle warfare in the Malay Peninsula. “A certain BBC reporter, God rot his soul, accused me of teaching torture,” Cross recalls. All in all he has spent a total of ten years in the jungle, often carrying the equivalent of his own weight on his back, which he terms “a delightful way of life.” He speaks French and nine Asian languages.
Cross is a confirmed bachelor because of “hot blood and cold feet,” he explains. His library of battered books, medals, and kukri knives, each object charged by a memory, is decayed by heat and humidity, for he has no air-conditioning. He sleeps on a spartan bed in the next room.
Now, writing books on irregular warfare and Himalayan history that deserve to be read even though they aren’t, he is a minor and very eccentric offshoot of a British imperial species that reached perfection in the person of the former soldier and literary travel writer Patrick Leigh Fermor, whom I interviewed in Greece in 2002. Both are inveterate walkers: Fermor across Europe, Cross across Nepal.
I found the old Gurkhas a haunting presence, because they were sharpened, refined, exaggerated forms of the Marines and soldiers I had been befriending and describing in previous travels. There was something indisputably antique about these gentlemen warriors, who told me their life stories under a black-and-white photograph of Queen Elizabeth II. To call them Kiplingesque would be to cheapen them; they were practically out of the Iliad.
Of course, Colonel Cross is a throwback. His outlook and manner of expression can be brutal, almost perverse. He is living in a threatened backwater of the only country he can call his own. Still, there was a certain cruel logic in his pronouncements.
“It’s not about sugarcoated bullets and dispensing condoms in PXes,” he said. “You can’t fight properly until you know that you are going to die anyway. That’s extreme, but that’s the gold standard. You don’t join the army to wipe your enemy’s ass. You join to kill, or for you yourself to be killed, and above all to have a good sense of humor about it.”
Robert D. Kaplan, Atlantic Monthly. Colonel Cross of the Gurkhas.