Thursday, January 11, 2007
Gertrude Bell and the Lessons of History in Iraq
They say that those who don't learn from the mistakes of the past are doomed to repeat them. And in Iraq to understand that all you have to do is visit the old British Cemetery in Baghdad.
Under the art deco dome among the weeds lies the body of General Sir Stanley Maude, the conquering hero of Mesopotamia. When he entered Baghdad in 1917 he issued the following proclamation.
"To the people of Baghdad... our armies do not come into your cities and lands as conquerors or enemies, but as liberators....."
He promised them a "future of greatness." Eight months later he was dead from cholera. Three years later the British were bombing Kurdish villages and using poison gas against rebellious tribesmen. Sound familiar?
And then there's that other tomb in the ruined cemetery.The tomb of the woman who drew up the map of Iraq. The amazing Gertrude Bell.
They called her the Queen of the Desert, She fell in love with the region and its people. She knew their history. She spoke their languages. She lived with tribes in the desert.
The tragedy of Iraq is that when she went to draw the map...... she loved the Sunnis more than the Shia. As she once wrote:
"I don't for a moment doubt that the final authority must be in the hands of the Sunnis, in spite of their numerical inferiority; otherwise you will have a ... theocratic state, which is the very devil...."
So she drew up a map giving the minority Sunnis all the power, and leaving the Shia as an oppressed and persecuted majority. And in so doing helped create a Pandora's Box that would one day blow open and let out all that pent up resentment, and the hideous devils of religious hatred.
The time of the Shia has finally arrived. And they won't be denied.
Just as Gertrude Bell found out so long ago....
As the British slaughtered Iraqis like animals, and the country descended into anarchy, she became disillusioned and depressed. Until on a steamy hot Baghdad night she took an overdose of sleeping pills and killed herself.
Which leaves me wondering...when the hell in Iraq is finally over one day...who will history be harder on? Saddam Hussein who murdered hundreds of thousands to keep the lid on that Pandora's box? George Bush who knocked him off the box only to let the devils inside escape and take wing all over the Middle East?
Or the amazing woman who helped created the nightmare box in the first place with a few strokes of a pen?
And who now lies forgotten in Baghdad cemetery overgrown with weeds, where the silence of the dead is broken by the sounds of gunshots and car bombs. A cemetery that is now too dangerous to even visit.
A cemetery where the Conqueror of Mesopotamia and the uncrowned Queen of Iraq now lie in the rubble of their dreams.
Oh yeah. Those who ignore the past are condemned to repeat it.
Over and over again....