Arab War Lords and Iraqi Star Gazers: Gertrude Bell’s Pamphlet Propaganda

cairo conference picture at the pyramids

Back in December, Musings on Iraq published a review on Gertrude Bell’s The Arabs of Mesopotamia. Synopsis below.

Arab War Lords and Iraqi Star Gazers is a collection of two pamphlets Gertrude Bell wrote for British troops entering Iraq during World War I. The first was printed in 1916 called The Arab of Mesopotamia and the second came out the next year Asiatic Turkey. The writings were part information guides to the lands and people of the Ottoman Empire and part propaganda justifying why London invaded.

Musings on Iraq, Review Arab War Lords and Iraqi Star Gazers, Second Edition, Gertrude Bell’s The Arab of Mesopotamia

I’ve always been fascinated by Bell – more so than the more popular and well-known T. E. Lawrence. I’ve given mention to her numerous times on the blog (here). While she didn’t advise the Arab Revolt, she deftly served as a political officer in colonial Iraq, and holds the ominous moniker “Mother of Iraq.” The movies made about her have – to date – been pretty poor. I only recently discovered Clash of Loyalties, which does her better service, I think, but you’ll have to swallow that with a large dose of Ba’athist propaganda that comes with it.

I was also fascinated by the fact that this book – or rather, pamphlet compilations – were written as both primers for British colonial troops serving in Iraq and subtle propaganda “justifying why London invaded.” Similarly, I remember receiving my Iraq “country guide” and Iraqi langauge flip-book prior to the 2003 American invasion.

The more things change…

There were a few things that stuck out in my reading of the book and I’ll share them over the next few days.

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The Ghost of Iraq

Originally published in 2015, but still true.

I know I’m particularly biased, but it seems hard to understate the cultural effect the invasion of Iraq and the subsequent first year of occupation (OIF 1) has on the current Army. Many – if not most – of the field grade officers and senior non-commissioned officers I’ve met came of age during “the invasion.” They were there and have stories. They likely joined the Army before 9/11 and were pulled into the GWOT from a different Army. When a war story comes out from that period of time, faces glow and it’s talked about with a hard nostalgia. Shitty field or deployment situations are always compared to the dismal conditions of OIF 1. Often, they’ll pause and reflect on some of the crazy things we did during that invasion and wonder if we could ever do that or experience it again. The consensus is no, but I’m not so sure.

On the other hand, most company grade officers, to include commanders, and junior non-commissioned officers came of age during either the surge in Iraq or Afghanistan. They are more likely to have joined after 9/11, fully knowing that they were getting themselves into a near-certain deployment.

The point of this post isn’t to compare the two, only that as more officers and NCOs who cut their teeth during OIF 1 move into positions of authority, I wonder what – if any – effect this will have on the force.

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The Great North East Blackout of 2003 and the Fury of the Veteran (August 15, 2003)

I was leaning against the locked door that leads to the next car of the F train, hands in the pockets of a new $300 leather jacket I just bought with war money. I was home on mid-tour leave from Iraq. It was December, 2003. Saddam Hussein would be captured in a few days. I was heading to Manhattan from my parents’ home in Queens for some fun.

There were plenty of seats available but I didn’t want to sit. I wanted to watch. The light above me was out, casting my corner a little darker than the rest of the car. I leaned there, rocking back and forth, straining my abdominal and leg muscles to try and stay as still as possible, enjoying the way my back lightly slammed against the thick glass of the door, over and over again. I watched the silent, tired commuters sitting there, all bundled up for winter, listening to music, reading, sleeping, staring into space.

Not caring about the war in Iraq.

My mind raced back to Baghdad and the thought that somewhere out there, right now, some young American soldier like me was experiencing the worst terror of his life. Right. Now.

The train rocked to a stop at 169th street in Queens and the conductor said something inaudible. The bell rang and the doors opened, and then closed. No one got off and no one got on.

As the train lurched out of the station and got back up to speed, the rumbling drowned out anything but the conversation happening in my own head. I shouted to myself internally how these people had no idea what was going on over there, what we were doing for them. Look at them, they don’t even care.

I thought back to the summer.

August 15, 2003.

“Did you hear about this blackout back home?”

I shifted barely on my cot, turning towards the source of the question. I felt my damp skin lightly peel away from the canvas.

“No, what blackout?” I responded.

“Apparently there is a big blackout all over the northeast. Everyone’s bitching about it.”

“New York, too?” I asked, propping my head up in my hand as I lay on my side, suddenly a bit more interested.

“Yeah, they’re bitching the most.”

I laughed slightly.

“Waah! I’ve got no electricity and now I can’t go to work for a few days!” another soldier interjected from across the bay, overhearing the exchange.

“What do they have to bitch about? It’s like a 120˚ here and we don’t even have air conditioning. Plus, people are trying to kill us!” came another soldier, piling on.

“If they only had to do this for a couple – no, if they had to do this for like, one day, they’d stop their bitching.”

August 3, 2013. From Disgrunted Vet, a poem by Nathan Allen Hruska:

No, my countrymen would rather
regurgitate their professor rhetoric,

upgrade to the newest smartphone,
complain to their overpaid therapist,
blog about their first world problems,
while my friends are dead, or still dying.

How can I love my flag so dearly
and hate my country so deeply?

I started this blog post wanting to write about the blackout of 2003 from my perspective as a miserable soldier in Baghdad. I have been recounting my deployment for my blog and this was a unique moment in the deployment.

The theme of the post was going to be of the “oh you think you had it bad” sort. We were infuriated that anyone back home would complain about having a power outage when we were overseas in a terribly austere environment that was significantly worse. We were bitter and jealous, but also feeling entitled.

I don’t know if it has always been this way, but this generation of veterans – myself included, as per my internal tantrum on the F train – likes to compare any inconvenience that civilians might complain about to our current or worst possible circumstance, and then self-righteously declare that those people back home have no right to complain because at least they aren’t experiencing what we’re experiencing.

This, I think, is probably one of the byproducts of being constantly reminded – mostly by ourselves – that we’re a part of the “less than 1%” who serve in the military. Then there are the predictable interruptions in sporting events and political speeches to “recognize the service and sacrifice of our military.” All nice gestures that have become robotic and meaningless through forced repetition.

Like Nathan writes about in his poem, and like I experienced on the F train while on leave, I think at some point we (veterans) can’t help but compare what we’re experiencing and what we’ve experienced to the candy-laden reality we see in the media. It can be maddening.

But it’s also unfair.

When Nathan writes about his countrymen preferring to update their smartphones than honor their war dead, it’s not an actual thing that is happening, just as when I stared hard at the tired New York commuters with hate, for – I don’t even know what. They just weren’t experiencing what I experienced, and it made me angry.

We roll our eyes at constantly being called heroes and blush at the unsolicited ‘thank you’s’ at the airport, yet we get outraged if someone complains about a power outage without mentioning how bad we have it on the frontier.

All that said, I think this is all part of the process of “transitioning,” a word that gets thrown around a lot in veteran circles without ever being really discussed. You can’t just read this blog post and suddenly understand that it’s okay to let people complain about losing their power, or to ‘ooh and aah’ over a new smartphone, all while American service members are fighting and dying overseas. I think, “transitioning” is a process that does not have a set timeline or result. Every veteran’s experience will vary. And it is a thing that has to be experienced as an individual. And that’s okay.

But seriously, you have no idea how hot it was in Baghdad 2003 and you have no right to complain.

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PAUSEX: Iraq. Nothing is over.

Baghdad Monument

I’m a Howard Stern fan. I was listening to an old broadcast of the show from October, 2006, and when Robin was reading the news, she matter-of-factly stated that the number of US service members who had died in Iraq that month had just reached 100. Howard acknowledged it with a barely audible grunt, there was an awkwardly long pause, and then Robin moved on to the next news story.

If you are a follower of this blog, then you know I’ve been recounting my year in Iraq during OIF I in a series of posts (Iraq: Ten Years Later). It’s been a sometimes enjoyable and sometimes painful experience and I can’t possibly get down everything I want.

I’m very aware, however, that I am fortunate to have the luxury of ruminating over that experience. One, because I made it home safely and two, because my basic needs are met. I’m able to delve into the airy “what it all means” discourse. Many of my veteran peers do not have that luxury. And based on my thesis research, veterans who served in the Iraqi military are for the most part, uninterested.

While I’m waxing nostalgic over my year in Iraq, others Iraq veterans are bummed out about the country’s slide to civil war, concerned now that if this unraveling is the end result, their service and sacrifice might have been squandered. Others still, are writing about how Iraq Was America’s Best Run War (Foreign Policy). A rage-inspiring self-congratulatory title designed to get you to read it, I’m sure.

There is no shortage of interesting and important things happening in the Middle East right now. Egypt is still struggling to find itself out of its most recent upheaval. Syria continues to implode. Peace talks between the Israelis and Palestinians have just resumed.

But over in Iraq, things are getting really nasty.

July 22, Reuters: Al Qaeda militants flee Iraq jail in violent mass break-out – Over 500 militants busted out in brazen raid on Abu Ghraib prison
July 29, The Independent: Iraq car bombs: At least 60 dead as rush-hour attacks hit Baghdad and nearby cities
August 2, AP: Iraq sees highest monthly death toll in 5 years – over 1,000 killed in July

I think, as a result to the daily barrage of bad news stories that came out of Iraq while we were there, we have become completely desensitized – and uninterested – in anything that happens there, no matter how spectacular or significant. Syria and Egypt are interesting because they’re new. But Iraq, well, we’ve been watching death and destruction there since we were children.

It’s unfortunate, because what’s going in Iraq is significant and important. And the lives and souls of millions of Americans are forever tied to that ground – for better or for worse. It is worth paying attention.

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