The Man Who Would Be King

S M Chen
4 min readApr 14, 2020

“Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

  • Lord John Dalberg-Acton (1834–1902), British historian, politician and writer

In 1888, British writer Rudyard Kipling (1865–1936; Nobel Prize for Literature, 1907) published a novella entitled THE MAN WHO WOULD BE KING. The story was later (1975) turned into a film starring actors Michael Caine and Sean Connery.

For the two men whose goal was to become kings of Kafiristan (land of infidels; later Nooristan — literally, land of light) in the northeast part of Afghanistan, things did not end well. For a brief time they indeed did become kings, but one of the men, Dravot, carried things a bit far. Feeling in need of a queen and royal offspring, he had the bad judgment to choose a Kafir girl to marry. She, terrified of marrying a god (which her people had declared the two Brits to be, possibly descendants of Alexander the Great), bit Dravot when he tried to kiss her during the wedding ceremony. Upon seeing him bleed, the local priests declared Dravot neither god nor devil, but a mere man, like themselves. Most of the Kafirs then turned against Dravot and his friend, Carnehan.

Dravot, still wearing his crown, was made to stand on a rope bridge over a gorge. The Kafirs cut the rope and Dravot fell to his death.

Carnehan’s fate, though less definitive, was no less gruesome. He was crucified between two pine trees and, though he ultimately survived and was let go, was crippled for life. He lived to tell his tale to a person who seemed a stand-in for Kipling himself.

Girl from Nooristan. 1960s. Photo by S M Chen

Now we have a country in which the leader apparently aspires to kingship. But that aspiration is uneven and marked by inconsistency.

On the one hand, during our turbulent times of uncertainty, he has relegated duties of obtaining PPE (personal protection equipment) to the 50 states and their respective governors, taking the position that the federal government should not be the central authority responsible for directing the management of COVID-19. He also takes no responsibility for the virus and the devastation it has caused (and is likely not done causing). Unlike another POTUS, Harry S Truman, the buck doesn’t stop with him; rather, it stops elsewhere and with someone else. Exactly with whom, and where, we are…