The real T.E. Lawrence
It should almost go without saying that America is failing in Iraq today mainly due to our woeful ignorance of history and the nature of the region and its people.
We can learn a lot from the British Empire’s mistakes in their Mandate of Mesopotamia.
1) There is a natural tissue rejection of any foreign body. The Iraqis in 1919 and 1920 revolted against British rule. The Ayatollahs in Karbala and Najaf declared jihad against the English. The Kurds resisted as well. The area was only controlled with heavy bombing from the Royal Air Force and use of poison gas.
2) Subjugating people who don’t want to be subjugated is ugly. It was ugly when Saddam did it, it was ugly when the British did it, and it is ugly with our new version Subjugation 2.0 that we’re attempting today. It is immoral, and lends itself to atrocities. Facing the 1920 rebellion in Iraq, Winston Churchill wrote, “I do not understand this squeamishness about the use of gas. I am strongly in favour of using poison gas against uncivilised tribes.” And use gas on tribes they did. “gas was used against the Iraqi rebels with excellent morale effect,” Churchill said. Phosphorus bombs were also employed. The West today acts outraged that Saddam gassed the Kurds, but had no problem selling Saddam said gas, nor with gassing rebellious tribes themselves decades earlier.
3) Iraq, and Arabs, are not what people think. Iraq is a fake construct, and though Iraqis are now attached to the current territory, the borders were drawn by the British in such a way to engender instability and dependence on foreigners.
Everyone should watch Lawrence of Arabia. While it is flawed, it did win seven Oscars (including Best Picture) and it gives real insight into the turbulent birth of modern “Arabism” and the struggles with it today.
What struck me most in Lawrence of Arabia was that the concept of “Arab” is also a new construct, and an identity, to an extent, also imposed by outsiders. The line in the movie when the Bedouin chieftain Auda abu Tayi says “what’s an Arab? I am Howitat!” says it all. Not only did he not have a unified Arab national identity, he did not know what an Arab was!!! He knew only a tribal identity.
Then after Lawrence and the chieftains seized Damascus from the Ottoman Turks, the Howitat and the Harith tribes can’t agree who will control what city services. Water is offline because the Howitat who control electricity won’t coordinate with the Harith who control water and need power to run the pumps (or visa versa). “Being an Arab will be thornier than you suppose, Harith!” Auda abu Tayi says. They blame each other and despise each other. I don’t know what happens, I think they end up giving the British the water duties and eventually the Imperialists play the tribes off each other as further pretext for foreign rule, but Lawrence says “There may be honor among thieves, but there’s none in politicians” and leaves Damascus.
The Damascus situation and the failure of the independent Arab state post-WWI seems like an eerily similar forerunner of the One of the most powerful quotes in the movie that hits home today is when Lawrence says, “So long as the Arabs fight tribe against tribe, so long will they be a little people, a silly people – greedy, barbarous, and cruel…” and while this statement had plenty of imperialism behind it, it’s hard not to see insight in it given the current tribal bloodbath in Iraq..”
Though decades of nationalist rule created a strong Iraqi identity (check out Hometown Baghdad for a great vlog by ordinary Iraqis) and many Iraqis demand the old borders and stability be maintained, much of the population seems to have reverted to the same kind of pre-national tribalism and sectarian infighting seen in Lawrence of Arabia. Once tyranny is removed, whether it be Saddam or the Ottomans toppled, Arab society seems to inexorably revert to the more basic tribal forms. When in crisis, you go with what you know.
WWI created the outlines for all the disasters that we have in the Mideast today. The British stacked up the House of Cards that was Iraq. Now the U.S. has toppled it, but doesn’t know what the cards and identities even mean as they try to stack something back up, and are probably just making it worse.
We would do well to heed the lessons of history, and abandon our fruitless quest to pacify and remake the Middle East. It’s 2007, and we should know better than to retrace British blunders.
Leave Iraq to Iraqis; it’s the only way.
“Those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” — George Santayana.