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

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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Clash of Loyalties

I came across this short video on the Iraqi film “Clash of Loyalties.” It was part of Saddam’s effort to shape perceptions of the Iraqi state, this one with an eye towards an international audience. It’s a bonkers story. The film features British movie star Oliver Reed who spends much of his time boozing in Baghdad bars during the shoot. The whole thing was shot during the Iran-Iraq war and Saddam insisted that filming continue to project a sense of normalcy.

The film is about the early days of Iraqi state formation and features well-known figures of the time, including Percy Cox and Gertrude Bell. It’s a fascinating story that has really only been told through books, mostly memoir. T.E. Lawrence is the more well known orientalist of the day because of the Arab revolt in the Hijaz, but the political scheming of Cox and Bell would have a more significant and long-lasting impact on Iraq and the region.

The political intrigue stems from “who” would control Iraq – a struggle between the British colonial service’s Cairo office and India office with little thought towards the Iraqis themselves.

Looking at it now, the episode looks very similar to a combatant command rivalry. 

The film was never released in the West, but through the magic of the internet, you can watch it on YouTube. It’s mostly in English, but there are some drawn out scenes fully in Arabic. 

Watching the movie, it felt like the British got a fair portrayal. The personalities of the key figures (Cox, Wilson, Leachman, and Bell) were all exagerated for sure, but the gist of the film accurately portrayed Iraq (and the proto-Iraqis) as a canvas for British imperial interests. Wilson, who preferred a more militant approach versus Bell and Cox who preferred a gentler, scheming approach, in the end were all working towards improving the Crown’s prospects in Mesopatamia. 

In going down this rabbit hole, there are a number of good articles on the film – mostly interviews with the director Mohamed Shukri Jameel (Vice, Esquire). 

Lastly, I just want to point out there is a shot of a fantastic map board used by one of the British officers – complete with a sling.

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Accidental Empire and the British Colonial Service

four feathers 1939

When I initially got out of the Army and went to college, I liked to have conversations with people – mostly International Studies students – about how America could be more effective overseas. This was between 2007-2011, and the limits of what military power could accomplish in foreign lands in terms of democracy-building or statecraft was becoming well known, with then Defense Secretary Robert Gates famously urging more funds to go towards the State Department, even if that meant less for the Department of Defense.

Between classes, over coffee, or at some dive bar near the City College of New York, I argued to anyone who would listen that what we needed was a more “expeditionary” State Department. We needed young Foreign Service Officers who weren’t afraid to get out on the streets and do the hard work on the ground, even if that meant strapping a pistol to their belt and taking a couple of IEDs along the way. In my mind, the stereotype I had of the foreign service was a risk-averse, cubicle-chained organization. In 2007, as the United States began its “surge” in Iraq, there was backlash from some foreign service officers over potentially being sent to Iraq, some describing it as a “death sentence.” I remember reading those stories at the time and feeling frustration, as it exacerbated the idea that the military was fighting the war in Iraq, while everyone else – including the State Department – looked the other way.

On a scholarship application in which I discussed the State Department, I wrote this:

Specifically, the State Department will need Foreign Service Officers who have an expeditionary mindset and are willing to sacrifice personal safety and comfort to meet the nation’s objectives.

Still fueled by the fire of being an enlisted infantryman fresh from Iraq sling-shot into college life, I was adamant that what the world needed was a more aggressive foreign service. At CCNY, we had a diplomat-in-residence, a State Department official who holds an office at a college to recruit and teach classes. Ambassador Robert Dry, a former Middle East hand (and Navy veteran) was the diplomat-in-residence at CCNY. I often visited him in his office and tried my best to keep up with him – he’s exceptionally intelligent. When I spoke confidently about my ideas of a more robust and aggressive State Department, citing the recent examples of the resistance to go to Iraq by some, he quickly fired back, saying that it sounded like I wanted to recreate the defunct British Colonial Service.

I remember feeling a bit of shock at hearing it. What was he implying? At the time, I wasn’t really aware that there was a thing called the British Colonial Service but I instantly understood what he meant. The argument that I was making, and one that continues to be made by prominent figures, is that we have found ourselves managing an accidental empire and that requires different mechanisms than the ones we’re familiar with. Not an “empire” in the sense of territorial conquest, but rather we have “boots on the ground” in lots of places, and as a result, the need to “do it right” becomes apparent.

The conversation between the Ambassador and I then shifted to what then to do; if you find yourself running an accidental empire, do you create the institutional structures to adequately manage it, or do you address the policies that led to its origin? Or in paratrooper parlance, do you try to “slip-away?”

As I’ve gotten older and have watched things develop, I’m not as gung-ho about the idea of simply strapping a pistol to the leg of a foreign service officer as the antidote to America’s challenges overseas. I suppose the continuing troubles in the Middle East and the recent stories (linked above) about more frequent deployments and calls for reforming how we do whatever-it-is-you-call-it that is being done, reminded me of these old conversations in the dark, granite recesses of the ‘Harvard of the Proletariat.’

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