The 7th Duke of Edinburgh's Own Gurkha Rifles, recruited from the mountain people of Nepal and led by British officers, are proud of their age-old reputation for valor in combat. Their commander, Lt. Col. David Morgan, says they were honored to serve in last year's Falkland Islands war but disappointed that they were able only to play a minor role in securing Britain's victory.
The Gurkhas arrived two weeks before the war ended, fired few shots, took three prisoners, suffered only a handful of casualties and never reached the Falklands capital of Stanley.
But Gabriel Garcia Marquez, the distinguished Colombian writer who received the 1982 Nobel Prize for literature, tells another, vastly more colorful version of their exploits. Describing them as the "legendary and ferocious Nepalese decapitators" in a recent article circulated widely in the Spanish-speaking world, he quoted a witness as saying the Gurkhas beheaded Argentine soldiers "with their assassins' scimitars . . . at a rate of one every seven seconds . . . . They held the severed head by the hair and cut off the ears."
For good measure, he added, "these animals were so bloodthirsty that once the battle for Stanley was over, they continued killing the English until the latter had to handcuff them to subdue them." Of 700 Gurkhas who landed, the Nobel laureate declared, only 70 survived.
Official British records of the war lend no support to so bloodcurdling a rendering of Gurkha involvement, nor has any British journalist uncovered evidence to that effect. The total number ofsoldiers who died on the British side was about 250. The sole Gurkha death came in an accident after the fighting had ended. Even Garcia Marquez now acknowledges there may be something wrong with his numbers.
Nonetheless, his account and similar ones in Latin America remain a tribute, in their grisly way, to the Gurkha myth, a recognition that as one of the world's most unusual fighting forces, they are also considered among the most ferocious.
The first Gurkhas--who are named after a principality in Nepal called Gorkha--were recruited in 1815 for service in the British imperial Raj. By World War II, they numbered almost a quarter of a million. When the British withdrew from the Indian Subcontinent in 1947, they divided the Gurkha battalions with the new government of India. Gurkha units under British command later fought guerrillas in the jungles of Malaysia, Borneo and Sarawak.
A vestige of Britain's once globe-straddling military reach, the Gurkhas today number about 8,300. They are based in Hong Kong, the sultanate of Brunei in Borneo and here, in this English country village about an hour outside London. Despite their pillbox hats and distinctive habits, they are considered regular members of the British Army, excluded only from duty in Northern Ireland--where it is thought that their presence might exacerbate racial tensions. The only exception to this current-day practice of white men leading brown men of another nationality is that selected Gurkhas now can be promoted to certain officers' ranks.
Lore about the Gurkha penchant for slicing off parts of an enemy's anatomy, with curved knives known as kukris, dates from past wars rather than any evidence of current practice. But just the suggestion that Gurkhas were en route to staging areas in the Falklands, according to Lt. Col. Morgan, was enough to scatter Argentine conscripts.
To meet the young Gurkha soldier in peacetime is to be a bit puzzled by the tales of derring-do. Although handshakes are firm and the soldiers' small bodies trim and hard, their manner with strangers is more gently sheepish than tough. They are signed up at 17 by itinerant galla-wallahs (ex-Gurkhas who get a bounty for each successful entry), but even veterans in their twenties look boyish and shy. Their reticence often reflects a language problem. Many speak little English, communicating with their officers in Gurkhali--a linguistic hodgepodge spoken only in Gurkha units--which is made up of Nepalese, English and a smattering of other idioms.
Something called bhujability, meaning understanding, is essential to dealing with Gurkhas. "Some people think Gurkhas are thick," said Morgan, because "you can say all sorts of things to Gurkhas, and they will just smile. It's not because they're thick. It's because bhujability is missing."
Asked whether there is any truth to the atrocity tales from the Falklands, the troopers just smile and mutter something about pride in having been there.
The language barrier accentuates the sense that while serving in the British Army, the Gurkhas definitely are not intended to become immigrants. Whenever their service is finished, they are discharged back in Nepal.
Instead of names, the Gurkhas are called by serial numbers. For example 21161059 (nicknames are the last two digits) is also Lance Cpl. Rabin Rai, the latter being his tribal designation. Rai, who comes from a village in eastern Nepal, joined up nine years ago, because, he said, being a Gurkha was a family tradition. His wife remains behind in the mountains, and he may return from his far-flung postings for six months every three years until he reaches his minimum commitment of 15 years.
"The Gurkha is brave," Rai said. "They are good for fighting. They know how to take orders."
At the battalion headquarters (the unit that served in the Falklands is now being routinely rotated to Hong Kong), life is spartan. The barracks are dormitory-style, simple wood structures; the Gurkhas' basic diet is rice with meat or vegetables and hot curry sauce. Free time is spent in the best tradition of the armed forces, drinking beer, playing pinball machines and visiting the naughty haunts of nearby Aldershot, where about 20,000 regular British units are billeted.
Their pay scales are complicated because of the need to coordinate with the Indian and Nepalese armies, where soldiers' wages are low. According to Morgan, most of what the men earn is withheld so that when they return to Nepal, they will have a small nest egg. According to Col. Tom G. Blackford, another British officer, the soldiers' remittances are second only to tourism as a source of Nepal's foreign currency.
The secret of the Gurkhas' training and fortitude is apparently a concept called kaida, which means a system of order, ritual and loyalty to officers and each other that is unquestioned. It accounts for the Gurkhas' willingness to undergo rigorous boot camp, which transforms them in nine months from often illiterate and barefoot mountain tribesmen into what their commander says are the "best soldiers in the world."
In 23 years of commanding Gurkhas, said Morgan, 44, he has encountered only one recruit who asked to go home. Disciplinary problems are similarly rare. As for ferocity, he said, "Sure, the Gurkha gets his blood up in a conflict where his people are getting hurt . . . but it is important that the Gurkhas not be labeled bestial monsters. They are just bloody good soldiers."
Searching for a way to summarize the characteristics of the Gurkha, Morgan finally settled on the Staffordshire bull terrier, the most formidable British fighting dog. They are short and muscular and slow to anger. But when that happens, he said, "Look out."