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Sunday, April 18, 2004: Getting Out of Endless Loops - Lawrence of Arabia and his Motorcycle

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Frank Rich is the media critic for the New York Times and picks up on the latest meme – Baghdad in 1920 looks a lot like Baghdad in 2004.  This is not a happy thought.


See 'Lawrence of Arabia,' the sequel

Frank Rich, The International Herald Tribune, Saturday, April 17, 2004 – The New York Times, Sunday, April 18, 2004


As many have done, Rich notes we have a habit of seeing big events through the prism of popular movies.  And he notes that as we start the second year of this business in Iraq we’ve used up four so far.  In my numbering and his words…


1 and 2. - What began as a "High Noon" showdown with Saddam Hussein soon gave way to George Bush's "Top Gun" victory jig. 


3. Next was the unexpected synergy with "The Fog of War," Errol Morris's Oscar-winning documentary underlining how the Johnson administration's manipulation of the Gulf of Tonkin incident was the ur-text for this administration's hyping of Iraq's weapons of mass destruction. 


4. And then Falluja: "Black Hawk Down."


Okay, that works.  And out here folks know how to make a buck in the movies, so the next film that should have been a smash would be the fifth in Rich’s list.  But Michael Eisner (Denison, 1965, English Major – for you insiders) as CEO of Disney has been making a lot of stunningly bad decisions lately and may lose his job.  Thus this:


If the news from the war were better, there might be an audience now for Disney's version of "The Alamo," with which Michael Eisner had once hoped to "capture the post-Sept. 11 surge in patriotism."  But triumphalism is out.  If we are to believe most commentators, the next title on our wartime bill will instead be "Apocalypse Now" (if we stay and sink into the quagmire) or "Three Kings" (if we cut and run).


But Rich says the movie that best expresses things now is David Lean's "Lawrence of Arabia."


Yep, last week I printed a letter from that Lawrence guy, the real one, written from Baghdad back in 1920, that could have been written yesterday.  See April 11, 2004 - Lawrence of Arabia Reports on George Bush's War for that.


In fact, Rich quotes Richard Holbrooke, the Clinton ambassador to the United Nations whose foreign service career began in Vietnam, saying to Rich about that film: "That's the image everyone I've talked to who saw the movie has in his head right now."  Rich says Holbrooke was referring to the story's “mordant conclusion.”   As Rich points out and you might recall, the Arab revolt against the Ottoman empire, abetted by the heroic British liaison officer T.E. Lawrence and guerrilla tactics, has succeeded.  The shotgun mandating of the modern state of Iraq, by the League of Nations in 1920, is just a few years away.  But as the Arab leaders gather in a council, there is nothing but squabbling, even as power outages and public-health outrages roil the populace.  "I didn't come here to watch a tribal bloodbath," says Peter O'Toole, as Lawrence, earlier in the movie, when first encountering the internecine warfare of the Arab leaders he admired. 


The Rich adds:


But the bloodbath continued - and now that America has ended Saddam's savage grip on Iraq, it has predictably picked up where it left off.  But Americans have usurped the British as the primary targets in the crossfire of an undying civil war.


Yep, same old same old.  And it was just last weekend when L. Paul Bremer, the American civilian administrator for Iraq, was asked by the journalist Tim Russert to whom we would turn over the keys in Iraq on June 30, and gave his answer: "Well, that's a good question."


As Rich points out, we don't have a clue, and in part that's because we have no memory.


Heck, everyone is quoting the British commander who occupied Baghdad in 1917, General F.S. Maude.  He really did say “Our armies do not come into your cities and lands as conquerors or enemies, but as liberators."  Bush said the same thing Tuesday night in his press conference.


In these pages, in August 3, 2003 Reviews you will find an item on Niall Ferguson’s writing - on the British Empire and Iraq and what the United States can learn from that.  Rich adds that in Niall Ferguson’s newest book, "Colossus: The Price of America's Empire," Bush's promise to Iraqis of "a peaceful and representative government" in place of Saddam's brutal regime.  He call this “an uncanny, if unconscious, replay….” 


Indeed it is.  Niall Ferguson has been harping on this for more than two years.  And yes, Iraq back then was run by a civil commissioner, one Sir Arnold Wilson, the Bremer of his day.


Well, Wilson lasted three years, then the Brits installed a monarchy – the constitutional kind like Britain had – then there was a revolution in 1958 and that was gone, and we got the Baath party and finally Saddam Hussein.  And one might recall that Iraq did not become formally independent until 1932, and British troops remained there until 1955.


So, do we start again?  Do we repeat the cycle?  There is some talk in the air that maybe a monarchy would be best.  Chris Matthews mentioned the idea this week on MSNBC’s “Hardball” program.  The Brits found the Hashemite prince Faisal and popped him in.  Is there some Hashemite prince available these days?  (Yes, in Jordon.)  Not a likely solution.


In fact Niall Ferguson has an item in the Times this weekend on this whole sorry business.  His whole premise is this: Learning from history is well and good, but such talk – referring to all the comments comparing what we face in Iraq to what we faced in Vietnam - illustrates the dangers of learning from the wrong history. To understand what is going on in Iraq today, Americans need to go back to 1920, not 1970.  And he says we need to get over our inhibition about learning from non-American history.


Do we have such an inhibition?


See The Last Iraqi Insurgency

Niall Ferguson, The New York Times, April 18, 2004

The evidence of such an inhibition is in Bush’s words:


"We're not an imperial power," he insisted in his press conference on Tuesday.  Trouble is, what he is trying to do in Iraq — and what is going wrong — look uncannily familiar to anyone who knows some British imperial history.  Iraq had the distinction of being one of our last and shortest-lived colonies.  This isn't 'Nam II — it's a rerun of the British experience of compromised colonization.  When Mr. Bush met Prime Minister Tony Blair of Britain on Friday, the uninvited guest at the press conference — which touched not only on Iraq but also on Palestine, Cyprus and even Northern Ireland — was the ghost of empire past.


First, let's dispense with Vietnam.  In South Vietnam, the United States was propping up an existing government, whereas in Iraq it has attempted outright "regime change," just as Britain did at the end of World War I by driving the Ottoman Turks out of the country.  "Our armies do not come into your cities and lands as conquerors or enemies, but as liberators," declared Gen. Frederick Stanley Maude — a line that could equally well have come from Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld this time last year.  By the summer of 1920, however, the self-styled liberators faced a full-blown revolt.


Hey, is that what we face now?


And if so, what lessons can Americans learn from the revolt of 1920?


The first is that this crisis was almost inevitable.  The anti-British revolt began in May, six months after a referendum — in practice, a round of consultation with tribal leaders — on the country's future and just after the announcement that Iraq would become a League of Nations "mandate" under British trusteeship rather than continue under colonial rule.  In other words, neither consultation with Iraqis nor the promise of internationalization sufficed to avert an uprising — a fact that should give pause to those, like Senator John Kerry, who push for a handover to the United Nations.


Okay fine, but are events similar?


Then, as now, the rebels systematically sought to disrupt the occupiers' communications — then by attacking railways and telegraph lines, today by ambushing convoys.  British troops and civilians were besieged, just as hostages are being held today.  Then as now, much of the violence was more symbolic than strategically significant — British bodies were mutilated, much as American bodies were at Falluja.  By August of 1920 the situation was so desperate that the general in charge appealed to London not only for reinforcements but also for chemical weapons (mustard gas bombs or shells), though these turned out to be unavailable.


Oh my.  History is no fun.


And Ferguson suggests the second less is even less fun:


… Putting this rebellion down will require severity.  In 1920, the British eventually ended the rebellion through a combination of aerial bombardment and punitive village-burning expeditions.  It was not pretty.  Even Winston Churchill, then the minister responsible for the air force, was shocked by the actions of some trigger-happy pilots and vengeful ground troops.  And despite their overwhelming technological superiority, British forces still suffered more than 2,000 dead and wounded.


Is the United States willing or able to strike back with comparable ruthlessness?


I would guess the answer is a firm maybe, maybe not.


Ferguson says there is much to learn from the events of 1920 – but he says he’s pessimistic that any senior military commander in Iraq today knows much about it.


Late last year, a top American commander in Europe assured me that United States forces would soon be reinforced by Turkish troops; he seemed puzzled when I pointed out that this was unlikely to play well in Baghdad, where there is little nostalgia for the days of Ottoman rule.


Obviously this was a fellow who didn’t see the David Lean film.


Ferguson points out that “the lessons of empire are not the kind of lessons Americans like to learn.”  No kidding. 


So Rich suggests we look at the David Lean Film again –


To revisit "Lawrence" and the history it dramatizes in embryo is to feel not only déjà vu but also a roaring anger at the American arrogance and ignorance that has led to this nightmare.  Condoleezza Rice's use of the word "historical" to describe the Aug. 6, 2001, presidential briefing on Osama bin Laden was not the only tipoff to her limited understanding of history.  In the opening filibuster of testimony, she invoked the Lusitania, Hitler's rise and Pearl Harbor as analogues of 9/11 - an asymmetrical comparison that blurs the distinctions between nations' acts of war and the stateless conspiracies of modern terrorists.

Apparently the administration's understanding of British colonial history in the Middle East is no sharper.  Though it might have been impossible to prevent the 9/11 attacks, it would have been possible to avoid what's happening in Iraq now had anyone heeded the past.  However much the current crisis may be a function of a military bungle like Donald Rumsfeld's inadequate deployment of troops or the diplomatic failure to attract a proper coalition, it is above all else the product of cultural hubris.


Cultural hubris?  Well, they are being pesky.  We’ve had to shut down a newspaper or two.  They seem not to like us much.  No one seems appropriately grateful.  Damn.  And they don’t have much use for the folks we think they should want to lead them, these folks from the Iraqi exile community who have been waiting patiently here and in Jordan and all over for decades.  There is a long discussion of Chilabi – and that led me to wonder whether, if the Iraqis don’t vote this guy we like into power in July, in spite of his conviction for bank fraud and in spite of his having been out of Iraq for almost four decades and rather despised there, will we punish the Iraqis severely?   Maybe so.  Anyway, Rich adds a lot of detail.  But finally he ends up quoting the First Amendment lawyer Floyd Abrams, who supported the war in Iraq, writing in Newsday: "Of all the messages the United States could send to the people of Iraq, the sorriest is this: If you say things we disapprove of, we'll shut you up."

It’s a sad business.  Rich lists all sort of politicos and scholars with whom he has discussed this "Lawrence of Arabia" replay.  Everyone gets the meme.  We’re in the same damned film again, and it’s a long one, and this is just the beginning.  And it may be an endless loop.


Let’s see.  How did T.E. Lawrence die?  Back home in England’s green and pleasant land, disgusted with it all, he drove his motorcycle into a tree.  He’d had enough.  That took him out of the loop. 


That cannot be the only way out.







From “Jerusalem”

William Blake (1757-1827)


Bring me my bow of burning gold!

Bring me my arrows of desire!

Bring me my spear! O clouds, unfold!

Bring me my chariot of fire!


I will not cease from mental fight,

Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand,

Till we have built Jerusalem

In England's green and pleasant land.


Copyright © 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006 - Alan M. Pavlik
The inclusion of any text from others is quotation
for the purpose of illustration and commentary,
as permitted by the fair use doctrine of U.S. copyright law. 
See the Details page for the relevant citation.

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