Arab War Lords and Iraqi Star Gazers: Sunni and Shia

Soldiers escorting trucks carrying concrete “T-Walls” (Source)

Gertude Bell, describing the Sunni element in Iraq:

The Sunni element in Iraq, though small, enjoys a social and political importance incommensurate with its size. It consists mainly of great landowners, such as the Sa’dun and the houses of the Naqibs of Baghdad and Basrah, and the wealthy merchants inhabiting the towns and holding estates along the rivers. With the exception of Sa’dun, the Sunnis of the Iraq are mostly town-dwellers. Since the country has been under the Sunni government of the Turks, Shiahism has had no political status, Shiah religious bequests had not had legal recognition, nor has the Shia ecclesiastical law, which differs from that of the Sunnis, been included in the Ottoman code.

And on the Sunni-Shia relationship in Iraq:

Partly, it may be, because of the unquestioned nature of the Sunni ascendancy, there has been little jealous or bitterness between the two branches of Islam in the Iraq, and whatever changes the future may bring, it should be the first care of the rulers of the country to preserve that fortunate condition.

Ouch.

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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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Two recent podcasts on Fallujah

I haven’t listened to an Urban Warfare Project podcast for awhile – this one was good.

In this episode of MWI’s Urban Warfare Project Podcast, John Spencer is joined by retired Colonel Leonard DeFrancisci. He served thirty-two years in the Marine Corps and in 2004 he was a civil affairs detachment commander for Regimental Combat Team 1 during the Second Battle of Fallujah, Iraq.

Civil Affairs and the Second Battle of Fallujah – Modern War Institute

I don’t usually get too excited about Civil Affairs, especially USMC Civil Affairs. In the episode, we learn about civil affairs contracts as military deception, the effective use of PSYOP and loudspeakers to clear an area of civilians, and whisper campaigns.

Incidentally, I recently listened to another podcast on Fallujah, titled “Toxic Legacy of War in Iraq,” which discusses the lingering effects of warfare on the health of the people of Fallujah.

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Man and Machine

This sequence terrifies me (bottom).

A hunk of metal, high above the ground, completely out of control.

The pilot’s dead and you know you’re going down.

You have to try to do something but at this point there’s really nothing to be done.

The way the world swirls through the windshield – spinning and spinning – is sickening.

The alert sounds. You don’t know what it means, but you know it isn’t good.

Pulling on the stick, trying to make it do something.

Rapidly changing gravity makes every movement a challenge.


When I first joined the Army, there was an older guy in my basic training course. He was 29 and I was 19. We got along well enough and he said he thought I should try to become a helicopter pilot. I don’t know why, but that stuck with me.

I’ve always been fascinated with helicopters. As a kid, I used to play ‘HIND‘ on an old Mac and loved trying to pilot the hulking mass low to the ground to a landing zone to drop off Soviet Spetznaz under fire.

I never seriously considered trying to fly.

Being in an aircraft as a military person is a special experience.

There is the thrill of the infil.

But there’s also the terror of the portal. Looking out the door of a Blackhawk into the night, down the ramp of a CASA at the hazy ground as it passes by slowly, or through the round porthole of a C-130 as it corkscrews for a landing under threat of attack, the world spinning and spinning.

It is a reminder of how out of control you are. You’re a passenger. You are completely at the mercy of the pilot, the crew, and the machine.

At least the pilot and the crew have something to do.

Rewatching the above clip reminded me of this horror story, about a helicopter that was shot down in Iraq in 2005. The helicopter was carrying Blackwater contractors who all died after the helicopter was struck with a missile. Miraculously, the pilot somehow survived both the missile strike, the fall to Earth, and the subsequent crash.

The insurgents who shot down the helicopter found the pilot near the wreckage and shot him. The whole thing was captured on video and released.

It’s easy to forget that these kinds of things were happening on a regular basis in those days.

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Saddam, eradicating illiteracy, and the Ba’athist propaganda machine

Fascinating interview on women, writing, and the Ba’athist state.

Hawraa Al Hassan’s Women, Writing and the Iraqi Ba’thist State: Contending Discourses of Resistance and Collaboration, 1968-2003 (University of Edinburgh Press, 2020) is unique because it both explores discourse concerning women and how women themselves used literature to create a site of resistance to the state. Al-Hassan’s work is also inclusive, as it joins a wider call to make literary studies a space in which works which were previously considered propagandistic can also be seriously considered.

New Books Network | Hawraa Al Hassan, “Women, Writing and the Iraqi…

There are some great gems in this episode and areas I would like to dig deeper on, such as:

-Saddam eradicating illiteracy chiefly to build a wider audience for Ba’athist propaganda.

-Book covers as messages (not many read the book, but they do see the cover).

-The novels of Saddam Hussein. You may recall, it is believed that Sacha Baron Cohen’s comedy The Dictator was inspired by one of these novels.

For more, here’s a print interview with Dr. Al-Hassan over at ArabLit.

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‎Army Myths: Chechens

A ruined Grozny, 1995.

Reminded during a recent Team House podcast of a very-GWOT myth: Chechens.

For some reason, “Chechens” became a bogeyman. I heard this in both Iraq and Afghanistan (Related: Juba).

“I heard there is a Chechen sniper in our AO,” someone might say with a knowing gravity.

“Oh damn, really?”

Given the influx of foreign fighters in both countries, of course there would be Chechens. I always wondered though – why, exactly?

What is it about “Chechens” that makes them particularly scary or fearsome? Why is it that when someone would invoke the Chechens, faces became sullen and serious?

I never figured that out.

Maybe someone has a better take on this, but I remember growing up in the 1990s watching the news of the war in Chechnya. It was brutal, and the Russians pulled no punches. I had a notion of what was going on, and there is a part of me that thinks much of the myth-making here is attributing mystical fighting prowess to Chechens because we (collective we, soldiers) really don’t know much about it.

It also feels very conspiratorial any time Chechens are invoked. The presence of “Chechens” points to something darker going on that I never quite bought into. Other leaders might roll their eyes – “This guy again with the Chechens…”

I am sure there is a kernel here, something going on that got this ball rolling. But the power the myth has does not seem warranted.

Would love to know more about the reality here, if anyone can point me in the right direction.

Details about the referenced podcast below.

Wesley Morgan details the history of US military operations in the Pech valley in Afghanistan, a place of deadly battles and unforgiving terrain. We start with the history of the valley and America’s first forays there in 2002, then get into the larger conventional and special operations campaigns that have taken place there with all sorts of unexpected twists and turns.

‎The Team House: Deadly Special Ops missions in the Pech Valley with Wes Morgan, Ep. 85 on Apple Podcasts

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Media war in Iraq

From Al-Monitor:

In a span of less than three months, five “new pro-Iran militias” have announced their plans to escalate attacks on US forces in Iraq. Some of them have claimed responsibility for major anti-American attacks. But evidence indicates this is a propaganda campaign conducted by existing militias rather than an actual escalation. The main desire common among these groups is avenging the death of Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, the Popular Mobilization Units’ (PMU) military leader who was assassinated by the United States alongside Iran’s Quds Force commander, Qasem Soleimani, in January.

Pro-Iran militias in Iraq wage ‘fake news’ campaign against US – Al Monitor: The Pulse of the Middle East

So much noise in the Iraqi media environment. If you take the time to dig through it, there is a lot to learn.

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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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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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“I’m Proud to be an American.”

“So what are you, in the Marines or something?” This was his cold open. His head rested against the seat. He looked straight, eyes hidden behind large brown sunglasses.

“No, I’m in the Army,” I said.

“Are you like, coming back from Iraq?”

“Yes, pretty much.”

“Oh, I do not agree with that at all. I’m glad you’re back home.”

“Thanks,” I replied.

“Do you want a Bloody Mary or anything? I need a Bloody Mary.”

He was probably in his late twenties. Well dressed, with a day’s stubble on his face. He seemed exhausted. He told me he was hungover from a night of partying and heading back home to New York.

“So did you have to shoot anyone?” he asked with the casual air of a mother asking her child if he had homework today.

“Yes, I fired my rifle.”

“Oh my god,” he said, finally looking towards me, flipping up his sunglasses, “did you kill anyone?”

“I don’t know.”

“That’s crazy. I could never do that.”

Since this was the first time I was going home on leave after war, I was wearing my dress uniform. It was issued to me before I even began basic training. I weighed 140 pounds then. This was three years later and I had put on 20 pounds. The uniform was tight, but looked good. It felt very strange to be traveling like this, but I wanted my parents to experience it. I kind of wanted to experience it too.

The flight attendant delivered the Bloody Mary. Her vest was full of pins. Most were variations of American flags and yellow ribbons. Some were of military units I was familiar with. She placed a coke on my tray.

“My son is in the 101st Airborne Division. Thank you very much for you service,” she said.

“Thank you,” I replied.

My new friend leaned forward and eagerly stirred his drink with a piece of green celery and took a large sip.

“So do you have to go back?”

“Not anytime soon,” I said.

“Well that’s good.”

He became more talkative. He talked about his party last night and the partying he is going to do in New York when he gets there. He says he’s tired of it all. I don’t say much back to him.

My uniform is too tight.

I spend most of the flight looking out the window. It’s a short flight. North Carolina to New York.

The pilot announces we are making our approach. The flight attendant gets on the microphone and tells us to raise our seats and place our trays in their upright position to prepare for landing.

At the point in which she would normally say to sit back and relax, we’ll be on the ground shortly, she instead announces that we are privileged to have a real American soldier on board, just back from Iraq. This gets a round of applause.

As the applause dies out, she begins to sing.

From the lakes of Minnesota
To the hills of Tennessee

“Holy shit, this is crazy!” my now drunk friend says, excitedly.

Across the plains of Texas
From sea to shining sea

I can see the flight attendant at the front of the plane, singing into the microphone. Heads are turning in their seats with wide smiles to see me. My uniform suddenly feels huge.

From Detroit down to Houston
And New York to L.A.
Where’s pride in every American heart
And it’s time we stand and say

Everyone is singing now. My friend is looking at me with a wide grin.

That I’m proud to be an American
Where at least I know I’m free
And I won’t forget the men who died
Who gave that right to me
And I’d gladly stand up next to you
And defend Her still today
‘Cause there ain’t no doubt
I love this land
God Bless the U.S.A.

The passengers erupt into applause and the plane lands a moment later.

I’m in the back of the plane, sweating. I take my time and will be one of the last to get off.

My friend gets his luggage and wishes me luck. He disappears into the rush of people getting off the plane.

I make my way to the front of the plane and thank the flight attendant as I get off. She shakes my hand but doesn’t say anything special. I get the impression that this experience wasn’t unique. She’s done this before.

My parents are in the terminal. They look impressed with my uniform.

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