Before moving on to the Treaty of Versailles, the peace conference that “failed” and is blamed for giving the world Adolf Hitler and all the attendant horrors that attend his legacy, it is important to note the “forgotten war” within the Great War. It was fought on and about the Arabian Peninsula. The history of the world owes much to the events of this time, and is particularly instructive today. Unfortunately, like so much of what happens in the Middle East, the story of the Great War in the Holy Land is not and probably never will be complete. Winners write the history. This fact colors all narratives. There did exist enough of a free press, scholarly thirst for knowledge, and widespread information, pursued unhindered, to depict such events as the American Revolution, the Napoleonic era, the War Between the States and the Western Front, to create an honest body of data.
Germany under the Nazis, of course, revised the history of the Great War. In fact shameful revulsion about their warring past is so prevalent in Germany today that while the history is not actually obstructed, it is rather hidden, reduced to whispers or rumors. But there is no active effort to change the facts. The Communists made a study of the Eastern Front of the Great War much more difficult to assess. The two "losers" of that conflict fought it. World War II did nothing to change this situation. For years, all anybody ever read of official accounts were “glorious victories” and “peoples uprisings” that repelled “imperialist invaders” and varying forms of garbage. With the fall of the Berlin Wall, much has been made available for the historical record, but the lack of a free press in their history still shrouds events like the Great War in semi-mystery.
No place is more mysterious than the Middle East. The English were victorious there, and giants of journalism such as Lowell Thomas and the New York Times (presumably before they sold their souls for the Democrats) joined with British and Muslim press and scholars in hashing out the events there. The actual straight facts are not so colored by ambiguity; rather, it is in the margins that the battle against the last of the Ottoman Turks and its after-effects become difficult to nail down. Today in the Middle East, and this is a sad fact that works to the terrible disadvantage of millions of Arabs and Persians who live there, Truth is a prisoner of war. Truth will come to the Middle East, sooner rather than later. This shall happen because of five simple words: The United States of America.
The recent Iraqi War for freedom made this more plain than ever before. Despite the utterly horrible rule of Saddam Hussein, enormous majorities of everyday Arab citizens were shocked to the bone by the sight of Iraqis kissing and welcoming en masse U.S. soldiers and Marines. Americans might have anticipated this with a little nervousness, but they knew, because we have access to Truth, that it would happen. Since the Information Superhighway opened its ramps for business, we have lived under an illusion. We said that a Hitler, for instance, could not rise because of the Internet, cable television, cell phones, satellites, massive newspaper exposure, telephones, fax machines, and all our other modern conveniences. Now we know that Al-Jazeera can spread lies and disinformation with a modern style that would make Joseph Goebbels envious. This offers a great challenge to people like me. I sit at my computer pounding out words like the ones you are reading right now, more or less so that the most possible readers know the simple dissemination of Truth (with the most possible royalties coming to me for the effort, thank you).
In the case of the Middle East, and this has been going on since the Crusades but for now let us concentrate on the period during and after the Great War, so many things obstruct Truth that it is not of great value to try and list all them. Religion and culture are shrouded there. But for all the mystery, people who live there are human beings, endowed by the same Creator of you and me (whether the Muslims want to believe it or not), and the principles of Jefferson and Adams still apply. They want to be free because God endows them with that natural right. Machiavelli would have made a nice living as a modern day political consultant to the Syrians, Iranians, Palestinians, Saudis, Yemenis, Libyans and…the list goes on. His theories, and the theories of Hitler (their hero for killing Jews) and Stalin (their hero for surviving so long and for killing Jews) are prevalent among a dictatorial class that emerged out of Soviet client states during the Cold War. Machiavelli said that people want security, not freedom. Again, in the 21st Century, and this is a promise, we will see freedom replace all of these despot systems. Again the reason for that is five words: The United States of America. But jingoistic love-it-or-leave-it American patriotism, as much as it gives me a near-sexual charge, does not help when it comes to the hard work of understanding the Middle East.
After 9/11, many conservatives railed against the idea of “understanding” the terrorists. To do so was to engage in moral equivalence when all that was required was to hunt them down and turn them into fire, courtesy of the red, white and blue (with a little help from the Bechtel Corporation). But we do need to understand them. Understanding the Middle East is imperative. The West has been there for many years, and done some nice work that we should be thanked for, which too often does not happen. But mistakes have been made there, no question.
Some of the nice work and some of the mistakes revolve around the man who represents as good a starting point as any in studying modern Anglo-Arab relations. His name was Thomas Edward “T.E.” Lawrence. The world knows him as Lawrence of the Arabia, immortalized forever by David Lean’s stunning direction and Peter O’Toole’s boffo acting in the 1963 film classic. Lawrence was not an English aristocrat, although his manners were upper class. He was a “bastard” child, born in 1888, but his educational acumen combined with a talent for audaciously ingratiating himself with the right people, led to the opportunities for advancement that a free country offers. Thus, he was able to attend Jesus College and Magdalen College at Oxford University, the pinnacle of the English gentleman’s peerage. An archaeologist by training, he immediately went on an excavation expedition to the Euphrates River from 1910 to 1914. He took part in a survey of the North Sinai in 1913-14. When the war broke out he tried to enter the service. His short height was given for his rejection, so he went to work in the geographical division of the British War Office.
It was there that Lawrence worked his way into General Kitchener’s good graces and talked himself into an intriguing assignment with British Intelligence in Cairo. He somehow overcame the height restriction, securing a commission. In 1916 he was granted permission to go to Arab with Feisal, son of the Sherif of Arabia. The assignment might have been considered a “throw away” of sorts. Lawrence impressed nobody as a great military officer. He was not disliked, but not highly respected. His constant obsequiousness and pushy ways made him the kind of guy who gets passed along from one assignment to the next, mostly to get rid of him. But Lawrence had been in the desert since prior to the war. He knew by training the geography, and had a unique “feel” for the people. Because he was a bastard, he had never quite fit in as an English gentleman, but he was too well bred by education and temperament to be a commoner. He identified with misunderstood people. The Arabs were misunderstood by the English, who at turns thought of them as lazy, liars, savages, terrorists, good fighters, cowards, and all things in between. Think of the Americans and the Indians in the 19th Century, and throw in the history of the Crusades, Muslim fatwas and jihads, and mutual mistrust for 800 years. This is where the common interpretation of Lawrence of Arabia usually ends in Western scholarship.
The English were as much a mystery to the Arabs as vice versa. In Lawrence they found an egotist who could be very self-deprecating; most likely a homosexual with a pendant for young Arab boys; a pacifistic gentleman who developed a thirst for blood; and a diplomat who respected Arab culture while understanding that tribesmen enjoyed wealth as much as Englishmen. Many of the Arabs who came in contact with Lawrence must have thought he was representative of the white man. For the most part they were disappointed when they found out he was not.
Once Lawrence was dispatched on his mission, he could have disappeared into the sands and hardly been missed. But the campaign against the Turks was not a major success. The Dardanelles disaster was a terrible setback, not just in terms of men, materiel, the planning and hopes of linking with Russian allies via the Turkish route and the capture of Constantinople, but also as a psychological blow. The press got hold of the story, and in Great Britain and Australia, the citizenry was aghast at the near-wipeout, which sounded like "Custer’s last stand." The English military had gotten used to winning regularly. Getting their hats handed to them by the Turks, of all people, was highly unsettling.
Not that anybody pinned hopes on Lawrence embodying hero status at a time when heroes were not in short supply. But living, non-crippled ones who led the Brits to big victories were. In Arabia, Lawrence faced a Herculean task. The English never would have assigned anybody with real standing, somebody who was accustomed to being accorded high hopes, to a job that was doomed to failure. Success would simply be an unexpected bonus. Feisal was the king of disparate peoples. While he and his monarchy thought of themselves as rulers of a single important country, the land was dispersed with numerous and sundry tribes. Each tribe had their own leaders, customs, religious differences, and goals. Few were commensurate with each other. Lawrence was supposed to round these people up and get them to fight for Britain against the well-armed Turks. The Turks were notorious for their reprisals and were at that time doing a very efficient, Hitleresque job of trying to eliminate all Armenian humanity from the face of the Earth. The English gave Lawrence some fuzzy orders about blowing up bridges. At first the fey, blonde-haired, blue-eyed English gentleman was laughed at. He possessed none of the self-righteous bluster of British officers that the Arabs either expected or had come to know. Lawrence respected individual Arabs and paid homage to tribal leaders. He took the time to understand their customs and to try and speak their language. But most important, he was a natural politician who was able to bring all the tribes together, convinced that their common goal was to defeat the hated Turks. He made some promises he knew he could not keep, but he earned the respect and understanding of the Arabs. In many cases, he was revered as a god, and to those who only heard of him, he ascended to mythic status.
Lawrence organized the tribes into a cohesive fighting unit. Politically, he was Manna from Heaven for Feisal, who had never been able to get all the different elements together in Arabia. Thanks to Lawrence he was now the leader of a powerful, burgeoning “nation.”
The first order of business was the capture of Damascus. Along the way, Lawrence managed to blow up 74 bridges, disrupting Turkish supplies, communications and railroad transportation, preventing Turks from getting to battle theatres, and creating panic and terror among the Turk soldiers.
Lawrence came up with an idea that was one of the best in military history, involving the taking of Aquaba, a seaport. His audacious plan ranks along with MacArthur’s invasion of Inchon in its breathtaking brilliance. The Turks held Aquaba, and had huge guns pointed at the sea. Behind them lay a virtually impossible desert stretch of land for an army to cross. For an army, with supplies and logistics, to cross it, then still be able to fight when they finished, was not plausible. The Arabs scoffed at the idea. Lawrence led them. To those who balked at the concept, he promised gold and treasure for the looters of Aquaba. The rag-tag fighting expedition did cross the desert. They caught the Turks completely off-guard, slaughtering them to the dismay of Lawrence, who loved the adventure but was torn when it came to killing. He hated it, but he also loved it.
Lawrence was once caught by the Turks, who did not know who he was. He persuaded them that he was a Circassian, was given a beating and sent on his way. Lawrence endeared himself to the Arabs by wearing traditional Muslim dress, instead of English Army issue. When he returned to Cairo after sacking Aquaba, he showed up unwashed and dressed in full headdress. The stuffed shirts in the officers club tried to throw him out. When they discovered who he was they thought he was a traitor, a spy or nuts. Then Lawrence demanded an audience with General Edmund Allenby, the theatre commander. When Allenby was finally convinced who Lawrence really was, and that Aquaba had been taken, and that it was all on the level, Lawrence became a national hero. He was already a national hero in Arabia, and became known as Lawrence of Arabia, a romantic figure.
This is the Western vision of Lawrence. The Arab point of view is different, and in understanding how this is so, important lessons are learned in dealing with the region. At Aquaba, the treasures he promised did not materialize in sufficient quantities, and Lawrence placated some tribal leaders with IOUs from the British Crown. The IOUs were either not met or not met to the satisfaction of the Arabs. Lawrence was the product of a modern, complicated political process, which for lack of a smaller word can be called Democracy. He had superiors, in the military, political and diplomatic realm. During his time with the Arabs, Lawrence became “one of them.” That created for him a simplistic worldview in which promises are kept, and honor is achieved through old and noble exploits going back to Platonic descriptions of the “warrior spirit.” Lawrence, being the “black sheep” going back to his childhood in England, identified with the simple view, sharing it with the Arabs. When the Arabs discovered they were not equal partners with the English, Lawrence himself was deeply disturbed. Surely he could not have been so naïve as to believe post-war politics would be complicated and veer towards British interests above all else.
Lawrence was invited to the 1919 Paris Peace Conference. When most of his promises to Feisal were not met, he refused a peerage and returned all the medals he had won. He was sought out, however, for the stewardship of Arabian Affairs of the Middle East Division, British Colonial Office. Lawrence helped establish Feisal as King of Iraq. He wrote an account of his Arabian experiences in 1926 (“The Seven Pillars of Wisdom”), among other works. He lived the life of an English gentleman, albeit a curmudgeonly one who alternated between anonymity and fame
Causes Steven Travers Supports
Conservative, Christian, USC, American patriotism