Monday, May 15, 2006

The Improbable Country: Gertrude Bell and the Making of Modern Iraq


"Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it."

These memorable words by American philosopher George Santayana are from his 1905 essay on reason and common sense. Quoted often, they invariably go unheeded. Iraq's long history of resistance to central authority and Britain's disastrous attempts to establish self-government there should have informed America's involvement in that benighted country. Instead the lessons of Iraq's past have been stubbornly ignored.

America has clearly forgotten that Iraq is an artificial state--not a nation--cobbled together by the British in the early 20th century from disparate, contentious portions of the dying Ottoman Empire. In the eight decades of its existence, Iraq has suffered a full-scale civil war, a succession of coups, plus a number of attempted coups, various armed rebellions and rule by a ruthless dictator who conducted a disastrous eight-year war against neighboring Iran.

None of TV's talking heads and newspaper pundits see fit to recount details of Iraq's bloody early history. Yet it is a history that all Americans should know, especially since we so blindly disregarded the lessons from Iraq’s past that could have kept us from stumbling into the quicksands of the Middle East.

The 'Sick Man' Expires
Ever since Russian Czar Nicholas described Turkey as "the sick man of Europe" in 1853, the Ottoman Empire had been on a downward path. Early in October 1918, exhausted by fighting on the side of Germany and Austria-Hungary, Turkey put out peace feelers. Without consulting its allies, Britain sent its Mediterranean naval commander to the island of Lemnos to meet with Turkish envoys. Britain had long considered the Middle East within its sphere of influence.

In 1916, it signed the secret Sykes-Picot Treaty with France setting up the division of the Middle East at the end of the war. Some 2.5 million British troops had fought on the various Ottoman fronts, and more than a quarter-million were killed or wounded. In contrast, French losses were small--only 30,000 casualties in the Middle East, nearly all in the futile attempt to take Turkish positions at Gallipoli.

Spoils of war
On October 30, 1918, the Allies dictated the terms of an armistice that reduced the vast Ottoman Empire by some 10 million inhabitants and 770,000 square miles--a loss of roughly about half its prewar population and area. The British were awarded the lion's share—including areas already in their possession, Palestine, Trans-Jordan, and the huge region of Mesopotamia. But they were not to be added to the far-flung British Empire. First they would be held as "zones of influence" and then in trust as "mandates" from the League of Nations until their Arab peoples could be taught the art of self-government. Similarly, the French were awarded Syria and Lebanon.

In Mesopotamia, the British found themselves with a ruined and neglected semi-desert area of 172,000 square miles, populated by about 3 million inhabitants. Sunni Moslems predominated in the cities; the majority Shia peopled the rural south and the so-called "holy cities" of Najaf and Karbala. Both groups were divided into an almost infinite number of families, clans and tribes, all heavily armed, each with its ancient loyalties and blood feuds. The primitive and poor rural population hated the wealthy sheiks and effete urban merchants.

The mountain fastnesses of the northeast were inhabited by three-quarters of a million Kurds and rival Turkmen tribes, largely Sunni. In the northwest were small groups of Assyrian Christian refugees, recently driven from their homes in Turkey. Baghdad, the capital, was a collection of bazaars and narrow streets. The city's large and prosperous Jewish minority, making up 15 percent of its population, controlled commerce and provided administrative services. Ottoman officials, fellow Moslems, had been lax administrators, usually less heavy-handed the farther one got from Constantinople. In contrast, British civil servants, non-Moslem and non-Arabic-speaking, zealously collected taxes.

The postwar problems facing the British in Mesopotamia included a lack of trust between the country's ethnic groups, a feudal tribal culture, an economy battered by the war, and high unemployment. With the exception of the Jews who migrated elsewhere in 1950-51, the Mesopotamia of eight decades ago was little different from today's Iraq. The entire country was a tinderbox waiting to be ignited. As today's headlines proclaim, it still is.

Winston Churchill, Britain's war secretary, unwittingly encouraged unrest by insisting that occupation expenses be cut back. Obediently, Lt. Gen. Sir Aylmer Haldane tried to police Iraq with too few troops. He reduced his forces to a mere 3,500 soldiers in scattered outposts across an area the size of California.

The Second Arab Revolt
When British Lt. Gen. Stanley Maude captured Baghdad in March of 1917, he issued a noble proclamation written by Sir Mark Sykes, the same Sykes who had drawn up the secret 1916 agreement with François Georges Picot calling for joint British-French control over much of the postwar Middle East. Its sonorous words sound eerily familiar today, "Our armies do not come into your cities and lands as conquerors or enemies, but as liberators," it announced. The newly liberated Iraqis did not see it that way. A succession of Turkish, British and Indian forces had fueled Mesopotamian distaste for occupying foreign armies.

In the summer of 1920, a band of 300 Arabs, equipped with weapons smuggled from Turkey, swept down on undermanned British positions north and west of Baghdad. Surrounded and outnumbered, successive outposts were systematically wiped out. Among those slain was the chief British political officer of the region, Col. Gerard Leachman, a legendary hero of the first Arab campaign. The insurgents declared a provisional Arab government. By mid-August, almost the entire countryside was aflame with Arab cavalry raids. The widely scattered Anglo-Indian garrisons were slaughtered and mutilated. Another uprising broke out in the south among Shia tribes, called "Swamp Arabs." Heavily-armed and fiercely independent, these semi-nomadic peoples resisted the efforts of the British to collect taxes, and also attacked British outposts.

Paralleling today's situation in Iraq, Baghdad headquarters, with a large military presence in the well-fortified city, continued to issue rosy communiqués. The heavy toll of British and Indian troops in the summer's exploding unrest triggered an angry report in the London Times about conditions in Mesopotamia. The writer was former Lt. Col. T.E. Lawrence, better known as "Lawrence of Arabia." His hit-and-run guerrilla tactics during the so-called Arab Revolt had tied up Turkish forces. He was unhappy over the British government's mismanagement of the unruly populations of Mesopotamia.

The British people had been "led into a trap from which it will be hard to escape with dignity and honor," he claimed. "They have been tricked into it by a steady withholding of information. The Baghdad communiqués are belated, insincere, and incomplete. Things are far worse than we have been told, our administration more bloody and inefficient than the public knows." Calling the situation a disgrace that may soon be too inflamed for any ordinary cure, he wrote, "We are today not far from a disaster. We have not reached the limit of our military commitments. Under hard conditions of climate and supply, our troops are policing an immense area, paying dearly every day in lives for the willfully wrong policy of the civil administration in Baghdad." The dateline of the report was August 22, 1920. Yet the same piece could have appeared in any American newspaper in the past three years. Lawrence was to get his chance to set matters straight. Seven months later in Cairo, he would become one of the architects of the new kingdom of Iraq.

War Secretary Churchill responded to the alarming losses with a forerunner of the recent war's "shock and awe" tactics. R.A.F. planes were ferried to Mesopotamia to bomb villages and encampments. After visiting an Iraqi hospital full of wounded Arabs, Air Commodore Lionel Charlton was so upset by the casualties inflicted on innocent villagers that he resigned his position as a senior air staff officer. Fresh British and Indian troops poured in to reoccupy captured outposts and towns. By early 1921, the Arab rebel government had evaporated. Its leaders were hunted down systematically as outlaws.

The cost to Britain of this second Arab revolt was more than 500 British soldiers killed, wounded or missing as prisoners and presumed dead. About 6,000 Arabs were killed and wounded. Despite their relatively small losses, the British spent more money in putting down the rebellion than had been spent subsidizing the original Arab Revolt against the Turks during the war. Interestingly, after American troops began the occupation of Iraq in 2003, second-hand copies of Gen. Haldane's 1922 book, "The Insurrection in Mesopotamia, 1920," belatedly became required reading in Washington.

Unexpected anarchy in Mesopotamia had prompted public calls at home for Britain's withdrawal, but the British were determined to stay. The four-year World War had revealed the need for closer communication with the far-flung outposts of empire and showed the usefulness of aircraft. Control over the unruly country straddling the air and land routes linking the Mediterranean with India was crucial. Moreover, control of Mesopotamia would safeguard British oil interests in Persia.

The Cairo Conference
In March of 1921, Churchill, newly appointed as colonial secretary, decided to call a conference in Cairo of some 40 Middle Eastern experts. One goal was a solution to the problems of Mesopotamia, the fractious area that was rapidly draining manpower and funds. To call it a "conference," however, is a stretch. Major decisions had already been made by the Foreign Office back in London. The task of those called to Cairo was largely to tidy up the details.

Churchill invited T.E. Lawrence and other specialists--all male, with one exception: Gertrude Bell, a human dynamo who would literally become the architect of Iraq. Born in 1868 into a wealthy British industrial family, Gertrude Bell was impatient with the narrow lifestyle expected of Victorian women. One of the first females to attend Oxford, she took top honors in modern history. After graduation at 20, she traveled widely. Mountaineering was not a woman's sport. Climbing in Switzerland with two guides, she exhibited unusual courage. On a peak in the Alps that still bears her name (Gertrude's Peak), a sudden storm caught the party without shelter.

Spending the night on the exposed cliff face, she showed remarkable courage in the face of danger. The storm cleared the next morning, and the party was able to descend to safety. One of her Swiss guides later said that of all the climbers he had guided, "none had equaled Gertrude Bell in coolness, bravery and judgment."

Fascinated by what was then called "The East," she studied Arabic and Persian, and became a fluent speaker of both languages, all the while continuing to travel. Her translations of the poems of Persian poet Hafiz into English are still regarded as the best. A brief love affair with a British diplomat in Rumania followed, but was broken off when her father refused to allow let them to marry. Her lover's death from pneumonia left her disconsolate.

"Queen of the Desert"
Travel became a source of comfort for this restless, impetuous redheaded woman. In 1900, dressed as a Bedouin man, she rode out into the desert a hundred miles northeast of Jerusalem in search of the Druze, a secret sect that combined the teachings of Islam with Buddhism, Judaism and Christianity. Militant and hostile, the Druze had been fighting their sworn enemies, the Beni Sakhr, for years and had successfully resisted Ottoman rule. Evading Turkish authorities, Gertrude met with Yahya Beg, the Druze ruler. She found him impressive--"a great big man, very handsome and with the most exquisite manners," she noted. They ate and spoke together, earning each other's respect and admiration. In addition to Arabic and Persian, Gertrude was also fluent in French, German, Italian and Turkish.

At the urging of French archaeologist Solomon Reinach, she returned to the Druze country to study the impact of Roman and Byzantine cultures on the region and resulted in her 1907 book “The Desert and the Sown.” Next, she traveled to Turkey to work with British archaeologist Sir William Ramsay. The venture resulted in a joint effort, the 1909 work titled "A Thousand and One Churches." Her observations about the defects in Ottoman rule combined with her eye for detail and meticulous description soon caught the attention of the British government, which found them invaluable.

She first became acquainted with the Mesopotamian desert by crossing it from west to east in 1909, mapping it as she went. Her party consisted of guides, guards and servants plus baggage, tents and a canvas bathtub, not to mention silver and Wedgwood china on which to dine in style. The countryside was full of Arab raiding tribes, plundering each other's flocks. Deadly blood feuds of unremembered origin dated back a thousand years. On this trip, she stumbled on the ruins of the ancient castle of Ukhaidir, which she meticulously measured and recorded in her notebooks. Eighteen months later, she visited the site of the ancient Hittite city of Carchemish in Turkey. Here she found two young British archaeologists digging and surreptitiously keeping an eye on the nearby bridge the Germans were building for the planned Berlin-to-Baghdad railway.

Characterizing their methods as "prehistoric," she showed them modern techniques of excavation. One of the archaeologists was Thomas Edward Lawrence, 20 years her junior. Bell's notes recorded, "an interesting boy, he is going to make a traveler." In 1913, without the permission of the Turkish authorities and despite British warnings, she set out from the Syrian capital of Damascus to explore the northern Arabian Peninsula. No explorer, man or woman, had penetrated this desert in the previous two decades, and reliable data was scant. After many hair-raising adventures, she returned to Damascus the following year with her notebooks bulging with recorded details. Had she been on the payroll of British intelligence, she couldn't have collected more appropriate information.

One month later, a Serbian nationalist assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, touching off the First World War. Gertrude's knowledge of the Arab tribes was to prove invaluable to campaigns in the Middle East. She was first sent to Cairo, where she joined the newly formed Arab Bureau, a small espionage unit headquartered in three rooms in the Savoy Hotel. One of the bureau staff was the same T.E. Lawrence she had met at Carchemish. Her job was to create a catalog of the Arab tribes, their lineages, alliances, enemies, water wells and the areas they controlled. She also recorded roads, railway lines and caravan routes that would be important to later military operations.

"Lawrence of Arabia"
Also at the Cairo Conference was T.E. Lawrence, the same Lawrence Gertrude Bell had met years before. He would be another architect of Iraq, although he had only the briefest acquaintance with the country. When British Maj. Gen. Charles Townshend's 13,000-man army was trapped in the town of Kut al-Amara by superior Turkish forces in 1916, Lawrence had been sent to try to buy the release of the surrounded force for a million British pounds. Unfortunately, by the time he arrived outside the city under a flag of truce to make his offer, the British had already surrendered. Lawrence would later become better known in America than he was in his home country, thanks to the efforts of writer Lowell Thomas.

In 1917, 25-year-old Thomas left his part-time job of teaching public speaking at Princeton and was hired by powerful British newspaper publisher Lord Beaverbrook to help publicize Britain's part in the war. After sailing to England and then to France, Thomas could not find a dramatic human-interest story on the Western Front. He asked British novelist John Buchan to arrange for him and photographer Harry Chase to visit General Allenby's headquarters in Jerusalem. Here he was introduced to Capt. T.E. Lawrence, a short (5 foot, 3 inches) political officer who liked to dress in Arab robes. Chase photographed Lawrence in various poses. Only four years younger than his subject, Thomas immediately recognized that he had found the heroic figure he was seeking. Lawrence seemed to enjoy wearing his Arab regalia, but would say little about his own achievements.

Lawrence prevailed on other British officers to allow themselves to be photographed and interviewed. Thus, most of Thomas's information about "Aurens," as the Arabs called him, came from others--and was largely hearsay. Back in the United States, Thomas put together a two-part film-and-lecture show about the Arab Revolt.Titled :The Last Crusade," his inflated account of the Arab uprising and the role of the Arabs in the war opened at New York's 2,320-seat Century Theatre, at Central Park West and 62nd Street, in March of 1919.

Within weeks, the Thomas program had become so popular it had to be moved to even larger quarters in the old Madison Square Garden on the site of the former New York & Harlem Railroad depot at 26th Street and Fourth Avenue. Like Thomas's best-selling book titled "With Lawrence in Arabia" that followed in 1924, the show hyped Lawrence's exploits at the expense of others who deserved credit.

Many details were overstatements, exaggerations or outright lies. For example, the total Arab force fighting the Turks consisted of several thousand opportunistic fighters who came and went at will. Thomas magnified this into a cohesive Arab army of 200,000. Although the Arab Revolt did divert Turkish forces and supplies, its real accomplishment was that it protected the right flank of the British forces advancing north through Palestine toward Damascus. Playing hob with chronology, Thomas portrayed Lawrence as fomenting the revolt in the desert in February of 1916. In fact, the 28-year-old Lawrence had a desk job in Cairo at that time. He only reached Arabia for the first time the following October.

Booked into London's Royal Opera House in Covent Garden for a two-week run, the show ran for six months. Now titled "With Allenby in Palestine and the Conquest of Holy Arabia" for British audiences. the program was seen by the royal family, Prime Minister Lloyd George and British policy makers, including Winston Churchill. Later the title was altered to "With Allenby in Palestine and Lawrence in Arabia."

Lawrence quietly attended several performances but did nothing to correct its romanticized misinformation. After its phenomenal New York and London successes, Thomas took his show on a world tour of other English-speaking countries. The sold-out performances made young Lowell Thomas not only rich but also famous. And it created in "Lawrence of Arabia" a world-class hero.

Unaware of how much Gertrude Bell, Lawrence and Lloyd George's staff had exaggerated the role of the Arabs in the victory over the Turks, Churchill accepted Lawrence's arguments that Britain owed a great debt to Prince Faisal and the Arabs who had fought under him against the Turks. Lawrence's withdrawal from public life in the 1920s, however, was not for the reasons suggested. Instead of having an emotional attachment to the Arabs portrayed in the now-classic movie, Lawrence privately disliked them. He had promised them their freedom only because it was the best way to get them to fight.

The Improbable Country
Two problems faced the Cairo conferees: giving a name to the new country and delineating its boundaries. They chose the former Arabic name Iraq, variously translated as "a sunny land," "coastline," "flat plains" or "the dark-colored country." Churchill was all for giving independence to the Kurds, but Gertrude Bell counseled against this. She pointed out that the Kurds, being mostly Sunni, when combined with the Arab Sunnis would tend to balance the Shia majority in Iraq. Oil was also an important consideration. If Kurdistan became a part of Iraq, Kirkuk's anticipated oil wealth could finance the new country.

For its boundaries, Gertrude Bell took a pencil and drew a continuous line on the map around the three former Turkish provinces of Mosul, Baghdad and Basra. She excluded a portion of the latter province, which would become the new British protectorate of Kuwait. It was a design that left Iraq virtually landlocked, with a coastline only 23 miles long, and opened a wound that would rankle Iraqis for generations.

Had the British been trying to design a country with everything working against its chances of enduring for more than a few years, they could not have succeeded better. To rule the newly created Iraq as king, Bell and Lawrence proposed to install 36-year-old Faisal ibn Hussein of the venerable Arabian Hashemite family, Britain's main ally in the Arab Revolt.

At that moment, Faisal was literally out of a job. He had first been placed on the throne of Syria--until France decided to exercise its claim to a mandate in Syria and Lebanon under the secret Sykes-Picot Treaty, and deposed him. The new king was totally unknown in Iraq, but this did not seem to bother the British. In fact, he had never even been in the country, and his Arabic accent was strange to Iraqi ears. The British arranged for an election in which a surprisingly large majority--96%--chose Faisal. It would not be the last of Iraq's lopsided elections. His only serious opponent was kidnapped by the British and whisked off for a long vacation in Ceylon.

Despite the country's obvious lack of enthusiasm for Faisal, on August 23, 1921, he was ceremoniously enthroned as King of Iraq in an early-morning ceremony attended by only a few of his new subjects. Iraq lacked a national anthem, so the British military band played "God Save the King." The music was a fitting choice. Faisal would be under British control throughout his reign.

Faisal had one advantage as a ruler of the incongruous groups making up the country. As an outsider, he was not associated with any faction or region. As an Arab, he had little support among the Kurds; as a Sunni, he found little favor among the Shia, although some respected him as a sayeed, a descendant of the Prophet Mohammed. Faisal had no illusions about the precariousness of his position or that he ruled at the pleasure of the British. He would reign for a scant 12 years.

In 1923, Gertrude Bell began a massive project of assembling and arranging archaeological treasures for the Baghdad Museum to make it one of the great antiquities museums of the world. On Sunday July 11, 1926, three days before her 58th birthday, she went for an evening swim in the Tigris, then went home and took a double dose of sleeping pills. Her death may have been an accident; she left no note and had asked her maid to wake her at six a.m. Her friend King Faisal gave her a full military funeral. She is buried in the British cemetery in Baghdad not far from the Baghdad Museum, her museum, that would be looted in 2003.

A treaty was signed with Britain in 1930 that would end the British mandate in two years, followed by entrance of Iraq into the League of Nations. British influence would nevertheless continue in Iraq until 1958. The reign of King Ghazi, Faisal's son and successor upon his death in 1933, was short—a mere six years. He turned out to be a stubborn nationalist, vexing the British by making strident radio broadcasts from the palace demanding the return of Kuwait. Then still without oil, Kuwait was a poor country under British protection, deriving meager revenues from pearl fishing and smuggling.

King Ghazi had a well-earned reputation as a playboy, gained in the casinos of Europe and the nightclubs of Cairo. Around midnight on an April night in 1939, with two companions, he took one of the royal sports cars and sped through the palace gates. The car hit a lamppost, bringing it crashing down and crushing the king's skull. Mysteriously, the car was undamaged. Demands for an autopsy and an inquiry went unanswered. His widow appointed his pro-British brother as regent, to rule until Ghazi's four-year-old son Faisal reached the age of 21. The annoying broadcasts were not resumed.

As it turned out, the reign of young King Faisal II also was short. In July of 1958, Iraqi Army officers murdered the 23-year-old grandson of the original Faisal and the entire royal family in a coup d’etat. In July of 1968, almost ten years later to the day, the Baath Party staged its own coup d'etat to end military rule. Saddam Hussein became vice-president. In July of 1979, in a reprise of Hitler's "night of the long knives," Saddam Hussein announced the discovery of a plot financed by Syria to take over the government. Hundreds of members of the Baath Party were executed. Saddam was sworn in as president. The rest, as the saying has it, is history.

Fast forward to May of 2006. Iraq's new fledgling government is about to be launched. What the coming months hold no one dares to say. Curiously, no commentator has remarked the every bloody, convulsive revolution in Iraq has taken place in July.

Disappointment in Samarra
As in Vietnam, we are learning in Iraq the painful lesson that a local insurgent army--even one poorly trained--can cripple and may even defeat a better-trained and equipped foreign army. This, by the way, is one of the oldest of military axioms. Witness the bitter experience of the British in the American Revolution, the French and the Americans in Vietnam, and the Russians in Afghanistan.

Air supremacy cannot win such wars. B-52 bombers could not dislodge the Viet Cong from their carefully hidden underground bunkers. As it turned out, Soviet attack helicopters and aerial gunships offered easy targets for Afghan mujahedeen armed with shoulder-fired missiles provided by the CIA. We are disingenuous when we complain that the same terrorists we financed to fight the Russians have now turned on us.

During the war in Vietnam, the Tet offensive--an attack by the North Vietnamese army on South Vietnamese and American positions—was actually a military defeat for North Vietnam. Yet the suddenness and the boldness of the offensive surprised everyone. In America's living rooms, TV images of machine-gun-toting black-garbed Viet Cong within the compound of the American Embassy in Saigon markedly weakened confidence in our ability to win the war.

In arguing for a pre-emptive attack on Iraq, Pentagon civilians chose to ignore the lessons of history and to disregard the advice of military staff, virtually duplicating what happened in Vietnam. When President Lyndon Johnson boasted to Sam Rayburn about the brilliance of the civilians in the Pentagon, mostly former academics, in masterminding the war in Vietnam, the Texas congressman commented sagely, "Lyndon, they may be every bit as intelligent as you say, but I'd feel a whole lot better about them if just one of them had run for sheriff once."

What can be said about the civilian decision-making that brought us to where we are in Iraq today? A paraphrasing of David Halberstam's judgment of Robert McNamara, architect of the Vietnam debacle, in "The Best and the Brightest," surely fits the neocons: "They did not serve themselves or their country well. They were brilliant, but they were--there is no kinder or gentler word for it--fools."

True, Saddam is on trial now for the crimes he committed, but America has neither the troops nor the treasure to eject all the bullies of the world from power. Besides, it may turn out that only a ruthless strongman can weld together the warring factions in the improbable country called Iraq. Fuzzy goals only yield fuzzy strategy. We began the invasion of Iraq with no clear idea of our aims. When the neocons' excuse for the conflict--weapons of mass destruction--turned out to be nonexistent, we hastily substituted the vague intention of "bringing the blessings of democracy to the Iraqi people," yet had no real plan for achieving it.

Von Clausewitz postulated that warfare is always an extension of politics. But if political goals are murky, military goals also will be murky--and unachievable. And Santayana's epigraphic aphorism only tells half the story. What he should have said was, "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it--and the rest of us are condemned to repeat it with them." The supreme irony, perhaps, is that George W. Bush's major subject at Yale was history.

As if to underscore the futility of wars of empire, consider the fate of the British military cemetery in Kut al-Amara, along the Tigris River south of Baghdad. It contains the graves of soldiers of the Sixth Division who died defending that city in 1916 against a superior Turkish force before being overwhelmed.

A plaque honors the thousands of dead with a poignant epitaph written by British classicist John Maxwell Edmonds. It reads, "When you go home, tell them of us and say, 'For your tomorrow, we gave our today.'" In 1991, to punish Britain for taking part in the Gulf War, the Baath Party ordered the cemetery desecrated and used as a garbage dump. American Seabees restored it in 2003. Today it is being used as a garbage dump again and is awash in sewage.

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