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Sunday, April 15, 2007

Peril in Mesopotamia: Fighting the Same Wars, Making the Same Mistakes

Peril in Mesopotamia: Fighting the Same Wars, Making the Same Mistakes
Image © Austin Cline
Original Poster: Library of Congress
Click for full-sized Image

Would it be trite to say that the more things change, the more things stay the same? One of the many tragedies about the Republican Party's rush to invade and occupy Iraq is just how predictable the awful outcome was. It's hard to fault anyone for wanting to be optimistic about such things, but optimism without overwhelming arguments to demonstrate that a new invasion and occupation wouldn't go like previous invasions and occupations wasn't optimism at all — it was unjustified fantasy. One might as well take seriously the ravings of someone high on drugs.

Just how familiar does this sound:

The people of England have been led in Mesopotamia into a trap from which it will be hard to escape with dignity and honour. They have been tricked into it by a steady withholding of information. The Baghdad communiques are belated, insincere, incomplete. Things have been far worse than we have been told, our administration more bloody and inefficient than the public knows. It is a disgrace to our imperial record, and may soon be too inflamed for any ordinary cure. We are to-day not far from a disaster. ... Our unfortunate troops, Indian and British, under hard conditions of climate and supply, are policing an immense area, paying dearly every day in lives for the wilfully wrong policy of the civil administration in Baghdad.

T.E. Lawrence, wrote the above as part of his "A Report on Mesopotamia" which appeared in the Sunday Times (London), August 22, 1920, and is quoted in Resurrecting Empire: Western Footprints and America’s Perilous Path in the Middle East by Rashid Khalidi.

It’s amazing — not to mention depressing — how little has changed in the past 80 years or so. T.E. Lawrence was complaining about many of the same things which critics of the current war in Iraq are complaining about today.

First there is the complaint that Britain’s involvement was achieved through trickery — and trickery based in large part on the deliberate withholding of the truth from the people. Then there is the complaint that the government has been remiss in providing complete and accurate information about the situation on the ground — a problem, since the actual situation is much worse than the government would like to portray it.

Lawrence complains that the British government has been inefficient in its handling of the conflict; people today complain about how the American government didn’t properly prepare for how to manage things once the war was over. Lawrence complains that the troops are forced to police too large of an area with inadequate resources, resulting in heavy casualties; the same is happening to American troops today. Why do we have to make the same mistakes all over again like this — are the Republican Party and Bush administration so incompetent that they can't even find new mistakes to commit?

On a related note, the Summer 2005 Wilson Quarterly quotes the article “Unconscious Colossus: Limits Of (& Alternatives To) The American Empire” by Niall Ferguson:

Had policymakers troubled to consider what befell the last Anglophone occupation of Iraq they might have been less surprised by the persistent resistance they encountered in certain parts of the country during 2004. For in May of 1920 there was a major anti-British revolt there. This happened six months after a referendum (in practice, a round of consultations 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. Strikingly, neither consultation with Iraqis nor the promise of internationalization sufficed to avert an uprising.

In 1920, as in 2004, the insurrection had religious origins and leaders, but it soon transcended the country's ancient ethnic and sectarian divisions. The first anti-British demonstrations were in the mosques of Baghdad, but the violence quickly spread to the Shiite holy city of Karbala, where British rule was denounced by Ayatollah Muhammad Taqi al-Shirazi, the historical counterpart of today's Shiite firebrand, Moktada al Sadr...

This brings us to the second lesson the United States might have learned from the British experience: reestablishing order is no easy task. In 1920 the British eventually ended the rebellion through a combination of aerial bombardments and punitive village-burning expeditions. Even Winston Churchill, then the minister responsible for the Royal Air Force, was shocked by the actions of some.

And despite their overwhelming technological superiority, British forces still suffered more than two thousand dead and wounded. Moreover, the British had to keep troops in Iraq long after the country was granted full sovereignty. Although Iraq was declared formally independent in 1932, British troops remained there until 1955.

People have argued that the American government should have learned more from its experiences in Vietnam, but perhaps more valuable lessons are to be found in the British experiences in Iraq in the early part of the 20th century. Of course, given the strong British support for the invasion of Iraq, it’s possible that even they didn’t learn their lessons from their own history, so why expect anyone else to do so?

This World War I poster was originally designed to encourage people to buy war bonds, since so many soldiers had sacrificed so much on the battlefield.

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