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Looking For A Lawrence Of Iraq

by Michael Winship

The Inevitable Iraq Islamic State

Having stopped drinking a few years ago, for me, venturing out New Year's Eve increasingly takes on more of the aspects of an anthropological expedition than a booze-fueled bacchanal. I walk around observing the locals in their native habitat, face down.

Here in London, the entrance of the New Year is marked by inebriated crowds gathering at Trafalgar Square for the midnight tolling of Big Ben, followed by ten minutes of fireworks along the Thames. This year, to free up squad cars and ambulances for more important emergencies, police lined the streets with rental vans to scoop up the noisome, noxious and nauseous. They were busy.

In words of classic British understatement, a sign by the elevator of the hotel in which I'm staying read, "If you would like to celebrate the New Year with a bottle of champagne, please order with reception before 11PM to avoid disappointment."

The next morning, with half the United Kingdom comatose and the other half in rehab, I chose to avoid disappointment by heading over the river to the Imperial War Museum, a first-class repository of all things military and lethal. I wanted to see a new exhibition there on the life and legend of Lawrence of Arabia.

It's a fascinating portrait of the man first made famous to Americans by the late, roving reporter Lowell Thomas, and then by the 1962 epic film starring Peter O'Toole and Omar Sharif.

If you've never seen the movie, T. E. Lawrence was an archeologist-scholar who, as a British Army officer during World War I, unified nomadic Bedouin tribes in armed revolt against the Ottoman Empire. He was a hero in the Arab world, but the rest of his life was a disappointment no amount of fame or hotel champagne could surmount.

His vision of Arab independence was shattered by the Versailles peace conference at the end of the war, at which Iraq, Syria and Palestine were carved into British and French spheres of influence. "When we achieved and the new world dawned," Lawrence bitterly wrote, "the old men came out again and took our victory to re-make in the likeness of the former world they knew. Youth could win, but had not learned to keep: and was pitiably weak against age. We stammered that we had worked for a new heaven and a new earth, and they thanked us kindly and made their peace."

Devastated by this diplomatic failure and deeply ambivalent about his own notoriety, Lawrence sought anonymity back in the military, serving as an enlisted man under two different aliases. He fought frequent bouts of depression and contemplated suicide, finally dying in a motorcycle accident at the age of 46.

What makes Lawrence significant today, and the reason I wanted to see the exhibition, is the continuing relevance of his knowledge of the Middle East and the prescience with which his words mirror the shambles we're in today. As he wrote a British major in Cairo in 1918, "I'm afraid you will be delayed a long time, cleaning up all the messes and oddments we have left behind us."

Demand for Lawrence's book, "Seven Pillars of Wisdom"" increased eightfold after the current Iraq war began and it's taught at the Pentagon and Sandhurst (Britain's West Point) for its insights into fighting Middle East insurgents.

Also part of the coalition's reading list is "The 27 Articles," advice to British officers in the Middle East, written by Lawrence in 1917 ("11. The foreigner and Christian is not a popular person in Arabia. However friendly and informal the treatment of yourself may be, remember always that your foundations are very sandy ones... 15. Do not try to do too much with your own hands. Better the Arabs do it tolerably than that you do it perfectly. It is their war, and you are to help them, not to win it for them. Actually, also, under the very odd conditions of Arabia, your practical work will not be as good as, perhaps, you think it is.").

One display in the exhibit has attracted a lot of media attention: a newly discovered "peace map" of the Middle East proposed by Lawrence. As NPR's Deborah Amos reported, "It provides an alternative to present-day borders in the region, taking into account local Arab sensibilities rather than the European colonial considerations that were dominant at the time."

The map could have saved the world a lot of time, trouble and treasure, historian Jeremy Wilson noted, providing the region "with a far better starting point than the crude imperial carve up."

But to me, the most unsettling and spooky display item was an article about Iraq that Lawrence wrote for the Times of London in 1920 headlined, "Mesopotamia: The Truth about the Campaign." It begins:

"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 today not far from a disaster..."

"How long will we permit millions of pounds, thousands of Imperial troops, and tens of thousands of Arabs to be sacrificed on behalf of colonial administration which can benefit nobody but its administrators?"

How long indeed?

© 2006 Messenger Post Newspapers

Michael Winship, Writers Guild of America Award winner and former writer with Bill Moyers, writes for the Messenger Post Newspapers in upstate New York

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Albion Monitor January 3, 2006 (

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