Sunday, November 14, 2004

Free At Last: T.E. Lawrence, Iraqi Freedom and The Promise Land

At the top of this blog are words written by T.E. Lawrence (ie, Lawrence of Arabia) in the forward of his book titled "The Seven Pillars of Wisdom":

I loved you, so I drew these tides of men into my hands and wrote my will across the sky in stars to earn you Freedom

To read more about the meaning of these words and their implication today, go on to the inner sanctum.
Some folks might not be familiar with Lawrence and his exploits and, therefore, not understand to whom it wrote these words. He was talking about the Bedouin tribes of Arabia. These tribes had been oppressed by the Turkish Ottoman Empire. The Turks were rather cruel. There were many instances of whole sale slaughter and massacres of indigenous peoples through out the Empire. Some of the worst episodes occurred against the Assyrians, but the bedou were no exception.

During World War I, the Turks sided with the German Kaiser Wilhelm against the British, French, Australians, Russians and, eventually, America. T.E. Lawrence had been sent to work with the bedou and encourage them to fight alongside the Brits against the Turks. While living with the bedou tribes, Lawrence had come to understand them and to love them. He loved their freedom and their ultra-masculine society that constantly pushed them to physical fitness. Having lived with them and learning to love them, he felt he had a grander mission. More than just rallying them to assist the Brits in defeating the Turks. He felt that these people deserved their own country, out from underneath the control of the Turks or the Brits or anyone else that would suppress what he saw as their natural freedom.

And so he wrote the words, "I loved you" and he meant it. He had adopted the people and their cause as his own. Even as he brought them along to the side of the Brits and rallied them to fight the Turks, he did his best to put their cause forward in asking for treaties and guarantees. Then he said, "so I drew these tides of men into my hands." He felt that, if he was able to unify the bedou tribes, their strength would not only help defeat the Turks, but would give them a position of power to negotiate from. He was very instrumental in drawing the tribes together under Feisal. His personal courage and charisma can not be understated.

As a youth, he had been considered weak and slightly effeminate. He stood barely 5'4 and weighed somewhere between 130 and 140 pounds in his adulthood. But he had never let this hold him back. He constantly pushed himself to prove, to himself and others, that he was strong. This served him well during his interactions with the Arab tribes. His courage and strength were not questioned there.

He also wrote, "and wrote my will across the sky in stars to earn you Freedom." Having taken on the role of both British liaison to the tribes as well as that of champion, he struggled many times with the part he had to play in the politics as well as war planning. He had begun to realize that the tribes could not rely on the British to hand them the country that they wanted. He knew that the tribes must be willing to forsake their own internal squabbles in order to present a united front to the European nations dickering over control of the area. Through his urgings, the tribes not only won significant battles, but came together for a brief moment as a power house as they had never done before.

The freedom that he spoke of, was not "freedom" exactly as we think of it today as "democracy, for the people and by the people". The freedom that he wanted for them was the freedom to BE them. To live the life that made them "bedou" without interference from outside forces. He had no desire to change their way of life, just to give them the "freedom" to live it. When the tribes reached Damascus, it began to fall apart. Having reached their goal, the sheikhs began to fight amongst themselves for the spoils and for power.

He had not given up on the idea. Rather he was even more passionate about it than the tribes themselves. He went back to England to campaign on the behalf of the Arab tribes. His exploits were given exposure by a journalist named Lowell Thomas and this made Lawrence a bit of a celebrity. A platform which he used to try and garner support for a free Arab state. He was not particularly successful. The British had signed an agreement with France, Sykes-Picot, during the war which guaranteed France the territories of Lebanon and Syria. Syria contained the capitol of Damascus where Feisel had hoped to set up his government of Arabia which would include those areas as well as the area referred to as Palestine by the Brits, Iraq, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the gulf states.

But it was never to be. India was looking to take over the Mesopotamian area (later known as Iraq) as well as Persia (Iran). The British, having made too many opposing treaties with different groups decided to cede Lebanon and Syria to France per the original agreement considering them more important politically than any alliance with the Arab tribes. They divided the rest of the areas into "mandates". The French Mandates included Lebanon and Syria. The British carved out several other separate mandates for governing: Palestine Mandate (current day Israel, Palestine, parts of Jordan and the Siani now in control of Egypt); Trans-Jordan (ie, spanning the Jordan river, now current day Jordan) and Iraq.

It is from this moment that all roads to the future, to our current situation, are being built.

In the end, battling the British, French, internal Arab strife and the Zionist lobby (yes, there really was such a thing), drove Lawrence to throw up his hands. He was only able to do one final thing before he cut himself off and returned to the service as an anonymous enlisted man. In 1920, the tribes in the Iraqi mandate had begun to revolt. You can read about that in detail here, here, here and here at our Iraqi friend Zeyad: Healing Iraq. Lawrence pressured then head of the Colonial Office, Winston Churchill, to allow Prince Feisel, whom he had fought with and who was the son of King Hussein, to be designated "King of Iraq". From this perspective, it looks like a back handed attempt to help create the Arab state.

From that moment, Iraq and it's current situation was born. Under Feisel, Sunni Arab tribes were brought into Iraq to help bolster Feisel's position. He granted them land and government offices. From that point forward, it has largely been the Sunni Arabs that have controlled the people of Iraq not to mention the past historical raids by Sunni Arab tribes into the area. Iraq has been a country divided and ruled by a minority for over a hundred years. The past three decades of Ba'athi rule, largely made up of Sunni Arabs either existent in country or brought in by Saddam, was no exception.

There were many things that happened in between and are certainly fascinating history, but I chose to quote Lawrence on this blog and discuss his part in it simply because he represents the first western attempt at unifying the many folk of the region and guaranteeing them freedom. In my youth and as a I grew older, I was always fascinated by the movie "Lawrence of Arabia", based on Lowell Thomas's contemporary writings and Lawrence's service records and book, The Seven Pillars. Of course, when I saw that movie, I never really understood all of the political ramifications and struggles it represented. It was always a romantic adventure and war movie to me.

It was not until this year that I actually read T.E. Lawrence and the history of that era that I began to understand the movie in it's context. Besides the over glamorized battle scenes, the most important scenes were actually the ones where Lawrence continues to try and bring the tribes together as well as convince the British government to fore go their secret Sykes-Picot agreement in favor of rewarding the allied tribes.

This year, I learned his importance and the political issues of the day by first becoming interested in the blog of the three brothers from Baghdad, Ali, Mohammed and Omar, at Iraq the Model. I had been wondering for nearly a year how things were going in Iraq. It was hard to tell, after the embedded journalists had left their assignments with the military. All of the news seemed vague, canned and very pessimistic. At that time, I still looked at Iraq as an "enemy" country that needed to be conquered and pacified. I knew what Saddam had done to some of his people and to surrounding countries, but my perception was that Iraq's people must have supported him to some larger degree in order for him to be in power and be able to perpetrate his deeds. I thought that the Shi'a and the Kurds were minority populations and that the Sunni Arabs were the majority. So "enemy" was the best I could come up with as a "label" for the state and it's people.

I had written previously that in March of this year, my second brother was on stand by to go to Iraq. At which point, I began to consume as much information about Iraq as possible. I wanted to know what he would be up against if he went. During this time, I read an opinion piece that talked about three Iraqi blogs: Iraq the Model, A Family in Baghdad and The Mesopotamian. I looked up these blogs and quickly became addicted. The information was first hand and helped me understand the make up of thoughts of the Iraqis and it was quite different from my original understanding of the situation. While the Family in Baghdad blog was largely critical of the invasion, the brothers and Alaa were talking about "freedom".

It had a profound effect on me. It changed, not only my perception of Iraq, but of the region as well, which had been largely damaged by the September 11 attacks by the Al Qaida operatives. I found that I had painted with a rather wide brush. Until then, I had been willing to write off, not only Iraq, but the entire region as nothing but a bunch of Arab Islamic nuts that were bound to destroy America. I will not lie, but tell you that my perceptions and reasonings included the possibility of carpet bombing the whole area.

But here were several men who voiced the first words of the desire to be free from all such dictators and oppressions. Their words were like the first sprout of a flower through the bitter and damaged earth after a long and harsh winter. They were the voice of hope and reason in a chaotic world full of sound bites.

Today I read that it is the one year anniversary of the Iraq the Model blog. I was not there to read it from it's inception, but reading it since April, I have been better able to see the situation, read the changes to Iraqi society, learn that there are many who desire freedom and are not my enemy. Most of all, I learned about the true meaning of freedom.

I am a student of history. In school we were taught about citizenship, the war for independence. We read Locke, Paine, Franklin and other important figures. We learned the Declaration of Independence and the meaning of the Constitution and it's amendments. We learned about federalism and state's rights. We learned, but I did not understand it. It was information, but it did not seem to apply to me so far into the future. We had been free for over 200 years. It seemed, along with my personal immortality, brought on by youth, I also believed in the immortality of the free, democratic republic of the United States.

It was not until I read these men from Iraq, the modern day pamphleteers, that freedom and all it's entailed responsibilities, began to sink in. All the words of Paine and Locke finally made sense. The struggle against slavery, the civil war, both world wars, they all began to fall into place along with my own sense of responsibility towards maintaining and protecting the freedoms that I had taken for granted for so long as well as what that freedom might mean to a man on the other side of the world.

Today, I read these words from the brothers:

Many people ask me why I started to write and how was the beginning and I today remember the time when we were sitting together, carrying our dreams, our ambitions and our hunger to communicate with the others; it felt like a sweet dream to find all the doors wide open for us and all the chains that restricted our minds simply gone.

I am free...
And I need to tell the whole world what this means.
I’d love to share this feeling with everyone, the feeling of being strong and capable of making miracles happen and that nothing can limit your dreams.

It was these kinds of words, written by these men, that awakened me to something bigger and grander than my personal pursuits of "life, liberty and happiness". It awakened me to look at the world as something more than just a place that we needed to maintain peace in and protect the United States. I was reminded of the millions of people, despite the fall of the USSR, that did not live in freedom. It reminded my of the words of John F. Kennedy that I have quoted on several occasions, freedom is our only commitment to the world.

It also reminded me to pay attention here at home. Having read the history of Saddam's rise to power and the subjugation of his people, I was reminded that one moment of inattentiveness, one moment of lazy contentment and I would be them. Who then would be able, capable and desirous of coming to our rescue should such a thing happen. There are none like the United States, therefore, it is our responsibility, my responsibility, to insure that this country remains strong and capable. To insure that I understand the ramifications of electing government officials or supporting policies, lest we become our Iraqi brothers.

For that awakening, I am eternally grateful to these men who have felt the need to thank us for freeing them from thirty years of tortuous, tyrannical rule. Yet, I feel that they do not owe us any thanks. We were doing what we should have done so long ago. Our responsibility, not only to the historical situations that we participated in as a country that led to this moment, but our responsibility to our fellow men. I, we, owe them our gratitude for reminding us, "but for the grace of God go I."

A few months after beginning to read the blogs and enter comments there, a fellow commenter noted that my entries were rather long and suggested, not actually kindly, that I should get my own blog if I had so much to say. So I did. And I found that I actually had a lot to say. Writing here has given me a place to voice my opinion, to here from others, to coalesce my own thoughts into some meaning. I began to research certain historical issues and incidents related to our current problems. Until then, my blog really had no theme besides "words from the middle ground". I finally stumbled across T.E. Lawrence again during my research. I finally understood his passion for freedom of these people. It meant freedom for him as well. I rented and watched "Lawrence of Arabia" again and it finally made sense beyond the scenes of great charges of bedou on Arab horses and camels. The nuances of the political situation finally made sense.

It was then that I read the words that appear at the top of this blog:

I loved you, so I drew these tides of men into my hands and wrote my will across the sky in stars to earn you Freedom

I finally understood them. They became the theme of this blog, though I have occasionally drifted off into American politics, mostly because I believe these politics would have a profound future on the disposition of Iraq and my friends, the brothers.

I am here, thousands of miles away. I can do little, but offer my support in words and money. It has come to me that sometimes words have more value than money. They can influence the future. Someday, the words of these brothers and our words to them, might be read by a future generation. Though I have no illusions about who or how many might read my words, they may have influenced one or two people, who will then pass similar words or notions onto others, onto their children. And, in their future hour of confusion and darkness that is bound to come to every generation, it might remind them of what we believed, what we stood for. It might give them strength during a moment of weakness, bolster them to go on and perform the job at hand.

That might be wishful thinking on my part, but I cannot help but think of others in our history who said or wrote important thoughts for their time that still echo down to us today. Even they might be humbled to know that they are still remembered, that their words still mean something.

If that ever should occur, however far into the future, I will have served my small purpose in the grand scheme of the universe.

Reading Mohammed's words today, "I am free", reminded me of another man in our history who, with all the inherent failings of man, still stood for something important, for his people. In one of his last speeches, Martin Luther King, Jr talked about standing on the mountain and looking over the promise land, like Moses in Genesis. He told his people that he might not make it to the other side with them, but he spoke these words:

Free at last, free at last. Thank God almighty, we are free at last.

Today, I feel like that. That I am standing on the mountain looking down on the promise land. The land where men are free forever from tyranny, death, destruction, ignorance, hunger and disease. Maybe that is just a dream. Maybe I will end like Moses and Mr. King: forever standing on the mountain looking down and unable to cross. But, my people, our people, the people of the world might make it there.

It is a daunting task to embrace, but necessary for the future of man. If it happens in my lifetime, I will remember these words: Free at last.

1 comment:

Cigarette Smoking Man from the X-Files said...

As America's own history should illustrate, achieving freedom does not mean that the struggle for liberty has ended. There are always those within the borders and without, who would snatch freedom back away from people and subjugate them. That much you have illustrated and I agree.

I would also add that merely being free doesn't guarantee that people will take a peaceful and rational course. Adolf Hitler was elected. Many of the more egregious leaders of South America were elected. The Islamic terror that governs Iran did so by a widely popular revolution. Sometimes an angry mob will opt to do the most insipid thing possible, ruled by their emotions rather than by reason. It was concern over this tendancy of mob behavior that caused an American Tory in Boston to opine: "I would rather have one tyrant 3,000 miles away, than 3,000 tyrants one mile away."

The sobering lesson of the dynamic of freedom is that ONLY when the population is educated and enlightened can it engender anything that can be called reasonable or praiseworthy. And where I marvel the most is that there have been so many in Iraq who have achieved that level of education and enlightenment in spite of being under the thumb of a psychopath all those years. To that extent, Iraq really IS the "model", for the perserverence of intelligence even in the deepest darkest cloud of stupidity that would try to reign over it.