In Iraq, 'Lawrence' is a must read
CAIRO — In the spring of 1920, British occupation forces were tied down by an Iraqi uprising that began in Fallujah.
British biplanes had rained bombs down on insurgent- occupied towns while ground forces had gone house to house confiscating weapons at the cost of thousands dead.
By August, British generals said they had the uprising well in hand. But a retired British colonel dissented, writing an article for The Times of London that was sharply at odds with the triumphal tone of officers and civilian administrators.
"The people of England have been led in Mesopotamia into a trap from which it will be hard to escape with dignity and honour,'' he wrote from the country. "Things have been far worse than we have been told.... We are today not far from a disaster."
The author was Lt. Col. T.E. Lawrence, better known as Lawrence of Arabia. And his letters are getting a fresh airing as US commanders in Iraq, military historians, and journalists reach for understanding as to the challenges the US is facing in the country.
Lawrence's "Seven Pillars of Wisdom,'' tells how a 1917 Arab revolt against Ottoman rule - which he helped to organize - crippled Turkish supply lines in Arabia with guerrilla raids. It was No. 2 of 100 recommended books for US commanders in Iraq. The list was compiled in a survey of officers by the Inside the Pentagon newsletter last month.
The rest of the books on the list tend to fall into one of three categories: Accounts of the effort to build empire in the region, general looks at counterinsurgency, and histories of the Vietnam War.
But Lawrence himself was a key player in the British colonial decisions that led to the arrangements of modern Iraq and the establishment of its ill-fated monarchy - decisions that set off the bloody procession of events that eventually gave rise to Saddam Hussein and the current war.
Lawrence's complaint of Britain's lack of candor echoes the continuing controversy over how things are going in Iraq. Confidential US government intelligence assessments, one leaked Tuesday to The New York Times, paint a gloomy picture of the war and of Iraq's future, while US officials publicly cite progress. US officers have described the recent victory in Fallujah as a crushing blow to the insurgency, even as fighters have sought to filter back.
And then there are Lawrence's ideas drawn from having helped to run an Arab insurgency.
"The Turk was stupid and would believe that rebellion was absolute, like war, and deal with it on the analogy of absolute warfare,'' Lawrence wrote in "The Evolution of a Revolt." "Analogy is fudge, anyhow, and to make war upon rebellion is messy and slow, like eating soup with a knife."
Lawrence understood the maddening task regular soldiers faced when confronting an enemy who hits briefly, then hides, saying frequently that time was on the side of the rebel.
"It seemed a regular soldier might be helpless without a target," he wrote. "He would own the ground he sat on, and what he could poke his rifle at."
How much such comments resonate with current US generals is unclear.
"The enemy is broken,'' Marine Lt. Gen. John Sattler, commander of US forces in Fallujah, said Nov. 14. "We have liberated the city of Fallujah." Since then, about 20 US soldiers have died there.
To be sure, Lawrence was a deeply flawed man by today's standards, an enthusiastic colonialist who viewed the Arabs he worked with as natives to be "handled" rather than as friends and equals. And some of his ideas are downright horrifying. In a letter to a London newspaper while the 1920 revolt raged, he mused: "It is odd that we do not use poison gas on these occasions."
The differences between Britain's imperial past and America's Iraqi present are vast and crucial. But analysts say they may offer lessons as Iraq turns toward elections next month that could be marred by violence and may be boycotted by large elements of Iraq's Sunni minority, who controlled Iraq throughout its history until the American invasion.
"Our armies do not come into your cities and lands as conquerors or enemies, but as liberators,'' British Lt. Gen. Stanley Maude said shortly after Baghdad was occupied by the British in 1917, replacing longtime Ottoman Turkish rule. "But you, people of Baghdad ... are not to understand that it is the wish of the British Government to impose upon you alien institutions. It is the hope of the British Government that ... once again the people of Baghdad shall flourish, enjoying their wealth and substance under institutions which are in consonance with their sacred laws."
Nevertheless, by 1921 a foreign institution had been placed upon Iraq: Feisal, a member of Saudi Arabia's Hashemite family and who had been the local leader of the 1917 Arab revolt that Lawrence helped arrange, was declared Iraq's king. Weak inside his own country, Feisal and his heirs were essentially British clients until they were swept away by Iraq's 1958 revolution.