Tag: World War I

When Zeppelins Attack

Some Jews are offended by the Ride of the Valkyries, and any music by Wagner, because it was revered by Hitler, and used
heavily in Nazi propaganda. I get that…

But it’s still a musical masterpiece.

For some reason, whenever I hear the Ride of the Valkyries, and those famous (almost Darth Vader Imperial March-esque) bombastic horn lines, I don’t think of Nazism. I think of World War I Germany, the Kaiser, and a fleet of imposing zeppelins flying over England.

While WWI-era German imperialism is sorta part of a continuity with Nazism, it’s not the same thing.

It makes me think of German zeppelins attacking England in WWI.

Did you know Germany used zeppelins like this one to attack the British mainland during WWI? They flew very high (away from anti-air artillery) and dropped 5,806 bombs on England, killing 557 people and injuring 1,358. This was a minor toll compared to the mass devastation wrought by the Luftwaffe in WWII, but when random explosions could fall from the clouds without warning, it had a terrorizing, intimidating impact beyond any concrete damage.

This plaque marks a part of London obliterated by zeppelins

However, zeppelin raids became obsolete in the latter part of the war, with the advent of fighter planes that could easily shoot them down, and military zeppelins never appeared again.

Learn more here: Zeppelins during World War I.

So that’s what I think of when I hear Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries: a fleet of the Kaiser’s scary, imposing zeppelins on the march.

There’s your historical oddity for the day….



EDIT: No, I don’t support the Kaiser. Germany was evil. Ride of the Valkyries and a fleet of zeppelins on the march are scary.
I’m just describing history. It fascinates me.

What The U.S. Can Learn From “Lawrence of Arabia”

In my post, Why did they create the new nation of Iraq? I discussed T.E. Lawrence (“Lawrence of Arabia”) and his vision of the Middle East’s borders after WWI, which would’ve amounted to the Shias getting their own state in the Mesopotamian Basin, a single state for most of the Sunnis of what are now the fake nations of Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Syria, and the whole region transitioning to Arab self-rule. The British shot down Lawrence’s proposal, because they were imperialists in the purest sense, and wanted an Empire of “civilized” and orderly Western governments sending them resources and profits.

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 disturbing reports coming out of Baghdad lately, with tribes in gridlock and some areas devoid of basic government services like water and trash collection because sectarians will attack anyone working for the government as a “collaborator.” 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.


Why did they create the new nation of Iraq? UPDATED

After World War I destroyed the Ottoman Empire, why did the British decide to create the new nation of Iraq out of the 3 different Ottoman provinces?

The British divvied up the Ottoman Empire’s holdings and created Iraq out of the three Ottoman “vilayets” (regions) of Mosul, Baghdad and Basra. Why would they do this? If we understood why Iraq was formed, we might could answer why Iraq should remain united or break apart into three states.

Iraq today

Clearly the Brits created a lot of rage by drawing colonial borders all over West Asia, but what I’m asking is, “why did they draw Iraq’s borders the way they did?” Was it just, “hey, this is a good shape!” ????

These are the borders proposed by T.E. Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia) of new states from the parceling-out of the Ottoman Empire, based on sensibilities Lawrence observed talking to the local populations. This is fascinating to me.

Lawrence has most of Syria and all of Jordan and Saudi Arabia as one state under King Faisal. This makes a lot of sense given tribal patterns.

He has “Irak” defined as the Shi’ite regions of the Mesopotamian Basin, and the Sunni West as a separate state.

It’s entertaining that he puts “?” over central Iraq and a “?” over Kurdistan, lol. He didn’t know what to do with them. The only outright oddity here is a state for Armenians in Southern Turkey. wtf?

But overall Lawrence’s map would make way more sense than the current divisions. Jordan, Syria and Arabia aren’t separated unnecessarily like they are today, Shias in Iraq have their own state, etc.

Lawrence’s proposal was shot down.

My question for historians is this: why were the borders of Iraq we have today chosen vs. Lawrence’s or others? The current boundaries make no sense.

UPDATE: I got a great response from a history professor. This is what she wrote:

Nick — I’m an American historian, but I study empire, so I have some expertise to answer your excellent question. The answer is (and this may strike you as cynical) that the current borders were drawn to create instability that would require sustained British involvement in Iraq. They’d had interests in the area for a long time (Suez Canal was hugely important to the British economy), but had been held in check by the Ottoman Empire. At the end of WWI, with the Ottoman Empire in eclipse, they had the chance to expand influence in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Palestine, etc and control both the geopolitics and the economy. (Hey, they were very successful imperialists. This is what imperialists do!)

Lawrence’s plan was envisioning self-rule, which is something that the British government did not want to bestow. Their plan (see “imposition of empire game plan, version 53.0”) was to “civilize” and “modernize” the Middle East, slowly apprenticing them to the demands of life in the free capitalist Christian global marketplace and constitutional monarchy rather than sheikdoms. During so-called British Mandate period, the Brits imposed a puppet Haashemite monarchy, gave most of the land to the Sunnis, then proceeded to look for oil). Because few Arabs had the money to invest, the prime investments were purchased by the British and the money directed out of Iraq and back to Bristol, Manchester, and London.

There were also other reasons to keep all the three groups together. The plan was a regional one that would keep the warring groups of Iraq weak and focused on their internal divisions rather than going to war with Saudis, etc.

Did it work? No. Both the Shia and the Kurds fought for independence under the Brits and the Brits bombed them with phosphorous bombs (a chemical weapon — only wrong, apparently, when European or American trops are targeted). In 1941, when Iraqi Petroleum (a British corporation and subsidiary to British Petroleum, I think) interests were threatened, the Brits again shot up Iraq with troops from British India and Jordanian mercenaries. (Their own army was somewhat engaged in WWII.) The monarchy was finally overthrown in 1958 (after the British were forced to give up the Suez Canal in 1956…the post WWII empire fell apart pretty quickly.)

So…that’s the long and short of it. I’m so glad you asked something that I knew something about, as I’ve been reading you lately and really learning a lot. Nice to have something to give in return.

She is right that the British used WMD against Iraq. Winston Churchill wrote about Iraq: “I do not understand this squeamishness about the use of gas. I am strongly in favour of using poison gas against uncivilised tribes.”

What we are coping with today in Iraq are the scars of the British Empire. They set up a fractured amalgam of a country that would, since then, be forced to rely on strongmen to achieve stability. Yet most of the Iraqi bloggers I read want the old (British) borders maintained, they don’t want Iraq redrawn and they don’t want to lose what status they had.

Iraq is changing, and unfortunately, neither the Iraqis nor the new American “managers” can predict how it will turn out.