Monday, October 29, 2007

Gertrude Bell in Iraq

To me, one of the least understood aspects of the wars conducted by the Bush administration is the almost studied dismissal if not outright rejection of any source of information on the experiences of diplomats bureaucrats and politicians.

I was quite familiar with the U.S. government’s various products -- CIA reports and country studies, the Department of State’s country profiles, and the U.S. Army’s huge multi-volume country studies -- on Iraq and Afghanistan. I also was familiar with the U.S. Marine Corps now-famous Small Wars Manual published in 1940.

But the New York Review of Books for October 25 (http:///) carried a multi-book review by Rory Stewart of the life and times of Gertrude Bell.

“Gertrude who?” you might ask.

Bell was a mid-level British diplomat/bureaucrat, one of a small group operating from 1916 to 1926 in the three provinces of the collapsed Ottoman Empire occupied by the British during World War I that eventually became Iraq. As I read Stewart, Bell was not the prime mover and shaker in Baghdad; I suppose that honor would have to go to T. E. Lawrence -- the fabled “Lawrence of Arabia.“ But she was not a shrinking violet, either. Bell was Oxford educated, an accomplished mountain climber, and an Arabic speaker whose reputation in Basra, where Stewart was posted by the UK Foreign Office in 2003, obviously outlived her.

What I found most interesting in Stewart’s essay was not the details of what Bell did but the “how” and the “why” and the “why nots.” In those ten crucial years, the British presence morphed from an army of occupation to a British Mandate under the League of nations (responsibility without power) to an army that suppressed a large-scale revolution by nationalists, Sunni sheiks and Shi’a religious leaders in 1920 to a monarchy. The resemblance to the way events have and continue to unfold in Iraq in the early 21st century is uncanny.
Also of note is Stewart’s passing reference to ten books about Bell, of one book-length report by Bell to the Foreign Office that was read in Parliament, and at least three other books by British Army officers seconded to Baghdad.

Where were all these books, where were all the warnings they contained about an area that had defied the power of the British empire -- before Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, and company sent U.S. troops to “bring democracy” to Iraq.

To read but one passage from one of Bell’s letters penned in 1920 is like hearing the sound of some ancient war tocsin warning, echoing down the decades to fade, unheeded, before the incessant beat of the Pentagon’s war drum:

“[In talking to an Arab nationalist leader] I said complete independence was what we ultimately wished to give. "My lady" he answered—we were speaking Arabic —"complete independence is never given; it is always taken."


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