December 7, 2010
This fall, a friend gave me David Fromkin’s extraordinary book, A Peace to End All Peace: The Fall of the Ottoman Empire and the Creation of the Modern Middle East (Holt, 1989). It chronicles the chaos of the era in which the Allies of Europe led to the drawing of lines on a map creating the countries of Israel, Iraq, Jordan and elsewhere (1914-1922). He sees the formation of the Middle East as a consequence of ‘The Great Game’, the age in which Britain sought to protect the road to India from French, Russians and anyone else.
One of the things that becomes most clear in the book is that the European powers introduced an artificial system of ‘states and nations’ on the assumptions that they could change the fundamental life of Islamic Asia, that they should and that while this was about extending their own power it was dressed up as being good for the Arabs.
As with everything about the First World War it is a confusing story of bureaucratic infighting, terrible communications, unbridled arrogance, all underneath a heavy layer of myth. Most of the mythology was crated in the imagination of T. E. Lawrence, Lawrence of Arabia.
This is not a ‘happy read’, but is essential for having a clue about what is going on, (and what does not have a chance of going on) in the Middle East (including Afghanistan) today.
Ken Follett, tells a similar story in a wonderful and accessible novel of the First World War in the first volume of his Century Trilogy. It is called Fall of Giants (Dutton, 2010), and once again the arrogance of those with power in social respects and international respects, in class systems and gender inequality, in Europeans over Africans and Arabs, in Christians over Muslims and on and on. It is a sad story that caused untold suffering and slaughter and provided the seeds for societal change among those willing to be self critical. The consequence of that war was not only the Second World War. This idea is a main thrust of John Keegan’s magnificent history, The First World War (Knopf, 1999). It also fueled class struggle and bolshevism with its eventual strengthening of democratic institutions and countries, gave impetus to the case of equal rights for women in such democracies, began the rumblings that became civil rights movements and also moved the Democratic West further and further from the norms and assumptions of other peoples and systems.
I support fully the vigorous defense of our way of life and the freedoms that we enjoy within it. I remain hard pressed to understand how our aggressive wars contribute to that defense. I was never sold on the logic of invading Iraq. I thought going after Osama Bin Laden and his organization made sense. I can see some merit in trying to keep Pakistan honest and an ally. But I am unclear what virtue there is in continuing to pursue military action in Afghanistan that talks as thought the outcome will be the formation of a functioning ‘country’. Even if I thought that was a desirable goal, I can find no basis for having any hope that it is achievable through warfare.