Just picture the scene as a soldier returns from hunting an arch-enemy. Commanding officer: 'Did you get him?' Soldier: 'Yes, sir.' Commanding officer: 'Are you sure?' Soldier: 'Yes, sir.' Soldier reaches into rucksack and places severed head on table.
Commanding officer: ' ****!' If it happened in a Hollywood movie, the audience would either laugh or applaud. But there was no laughter the other day when this happened for real in Babaji, Afghanistan, current posting for the 1st Battalion, Royal Gurkha Rifles.
The precise circumstances will not be determined until an official report has been completed, but reliable military sources have confirmed that a Gurkha patrol was sent out with orders to track down a Taliban warlord described as a 'high-value target'.
Kukri lessons: The Gurkhas display their traditional weapon of choice
Having identified their target, a fierce battle ensued during which the warlord was killed. To prove that they had got their man, the Gurkhas attempted to remove the body for identification. Further enemy fire necessitated a fast exit minus corpse. So, an unnamed soldier drew his kukri – the standard-issue Gurkha knife – removed the man's head and legged it.
Ten out of ten for initiative. Nought out of ten for diplomacy.
Nato forces are supposed to be winning 'hearts and minds' and bolstering the fledgling Afghan National Army. This incident, however, has apparently appalled Afghans on all sides, not least because it offends the Muslim tradition of burying the dead with all body parts, attached or unattached.
It transpires that the Gurkha soldier has been removed from operations and sent back to his barracks in Kent pending further investigations. Ministry of Defence sources have been quick to emphasise that the British Army is appalled by what has happened. According to one: 'There is no sense of glory involved, more a sense of shame. He should not have done what he did.'
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I can already hear Ministers, diplomats and top brass echoing similar pieties. It is, of course, a gruesome business. All societies have taboos about desecrating the dead. It's even in the Geneva Convention.
But the Army had better be careful before attempting to demonise this unnamed Gurkha in order to polish its own halo. If the man was trophy-hunting or disobeying orders, then that is one thing. If, however, he was simply following them too assiduously for liberal tastes, that is a different matter.
And away from Whitehall, among the broader Gurkha family, the general response which I encountered yesterday could be summed up as follows: 'What's all the fuss about?'
As one put it to me: 'This man was only doing what his grandfather and father would have done before him.'
The general response which I encountered yesterday could be summed up as follows: 'What's all the fuss about?'
'The Gurkhas are the ultimate professional soldiers,' says Major Gordon Corrigan, military historian and a Gurkha officer for 29 years. 'They are not brutal or bloodthirsty. They treat prisoners honourably. But if their CO says, "That is the enemy. Go and attack him", they will not flinch. And do not be surprised if their weapon of choice is the kukri. It is their sidearm. But they kill in hot blood – not cold.'
Having seen his former comrades decapitating cattle, goats and buffalos at a single stroke, he has no doubt that the Babaji episode would have been a swift and clinical affair.
At Winchester's Gurkha Museum, curator Major Gerald Davies points out that Gurkhas were positively encouraged to bring back evidence of enemy kills during World War II.
'The intelligence officers would want to see proof,' says the veteran of 33 years with the Gurkhas. 'The men started coming back with Japanese heads, but when that became unwieldy, they took to cutting off ears. It might sound appalling to society today, but that's what war was like in the jungle.'
Major Corrigan says the Gurkhas followed a similar policy during the Malayan Emergency. 'They were told to bring back terrorists' bodies for identification, but you could hardly carry one of those through heavy jungle so they would come back with heads,' he explains.
'Finally, someone had the bright idea of issuing them with cameras, although I'm not sure the results were up to much.'
The Gurkhas have had a formidable reputation in the West ever since the Anglo-Nepal War of 1814-16. Having failed to conquer them – which is why Nepal has never been part of either the British Empire or the Commonwealth – the British did the next best thing, which was to sign them up. Since then, they have proved exemplary comrades for two centuries.
Their conduct is, perhaps, best summed up by Rifleman Lachhiman Gurung, who found himself under repeated Japanese attack in Burma in 1945. With his comrades badly injured, he fought off 200 enemy troops single-handed – literally – having lost an arm and eye.
When a relief force found him the next morning, his position was littered with 31 Japanese corpses. The 169 survivors had run away. Rifleman Gurung – who now lives in Middlesex – became one of the 26 members of the Brigade of Gurkhas to win the Victoria Cross (there would, undoubtedly, have been more but the VC was not extended to Gurkhas until 1911).
Their success is, in part, down to sheer guts. But it also derives from their reputation. As they found – to their disappointment – in the Falklands War, their fame precedes them.
When British forces embarked for the Falklands in the QE2, the other regiments pointedly lined the upper decks to cheer them aboard
'By the time they arrived on Mount Tumbledown, the Argentinians had seen pictures of Gurkhas sharpening their kukris and read all these stories about them eating their prisoners,' says Major Corrigan. 'So when the Gurkhas actually appeared, all they found were empty trenches.'
Our national respect and affection for them runs deep – as amply demonstrated by Joanna Lumley's campaign to secure a better pension and passport deal for retired Gurkhas.
Whenever I have been at the Cenotaph on Remembrance Sunday, I have noticed that the applause always rises noticeably for two contingents – the Chelsea Pensioners and the Gurkhas.
It's a view shared within the Army itself. When British forces embarked for the Falklands in the QE2, the other regiments pointedly lined the upper decks to cheer them aboard.
Stories of the Gurkhas are legion. My favourite is the tale of the Gurkha sergeant being told his men would be jumping into enemy territory. He returned next day to say the men would rather jump from below 500ft on to marshy ground. 'But your parachutes won't open,' said the Colonel. 'Ah,' said the sergeant. 'No one mentioned parachutes.'
Apocryphal? Probably. But among the documented accounts is that of the U.S. Air Force's Colonel John Alison on meeting uncharacteristically anxious Gurkha troops preparing for a glider assault on Japanese positions.
'We aren't afraid to go,' a Gurkha sergeant told him solemnly. 'We aren't afraid to fight. But we thought we should tell you that those "planes" don't have any motors.'
So, ask yourself this. Now that the story of the head-hunting Gurkha of Babaji has gone global, do you think that the insurgents of the world will be more inclined or less inclined to pick a fight with the British Army?