Live from Mesopotamia

The war correspondent for the Rambles weblog is good friend and Renaissance man Jay Czarnecki. Almost exactly a year ago he filed a report from the front lines of the Washington D.C. metropolitan area just as the snipers were being put behind bars. He’s back this week with a timely report on developments in Mesopotamia, also known as… well, I’ll let Jay take it from here. What was it George Santayana said about history? I forget.

I just finished working my way through “A Peace to End all Peace” written in 1989 by David Fromkin and subtitled “The Fall of the Ottoman Empire and the Creation of the Modern Middle East.” I had wanted to understand the historical antecedents for the various stuggles occurring in the Middle East, especially Iraq. I really was surprised to see how directly connected today’s troubles are to the post-World War I arrangements imposed by the Great Powers.

I use the phrase “working my way through” because it was a bit of a chore for a layman like me – but worth it. Although the book emphasized British political and diplomatic activities, it’s analysis was very even-handed. I would recommend it for the determined reader who has a hankering for both the broad sweep of history – and how random events or individual decisions can change its direction. For example:

– The ultimately disastrous Allied attempt to take Constantinople in 1915 came within a few hundred yards of victory. The Ottoman army was practically out of ammunition as the Allied navy steamed up the straits of Dardanelles. Constantinople was being evacuated, the treasury’s gold bullion dispatched to safety, and gasoline was stockpiled to burn the city rather than surrender it intact. The British Navy’s minesweepers had cleared all the mines that lay across the narrows – except for a single line of mines running parallel to the shore. With uncanny accuracy, the attacking naval force hit them, however, and a number of ships were lost. They still could have continued the next day, but the British commander deferred, thinking the way was impassable. You can view the immediate tragic aftermath in the decent 1981 film about the ensuing land battle, “Gallipoli,” co-starring a young Mel Gibson.

– In 1920, at a delicate time in the maneuvering over the land of Asia Minor, the King of Greece was bitten by a monkey and died of the resultant infection. The next Greek government aggressively pursued a war against the Turkish remnant of the Ottoman Empire – with devastating results for both sides. “A quarter of a million people died of this monkey’s bite,” wrote the British Colonial Secretary at that time, Winston Churchill.

Here’s another gem:

“[They] either were not aware of, or had given no thought to, the population mix…The antipathy between the minority of Moslems who were Sunnis and the majority who were Shi’ites, the rivalries of the tribes and clans, the historic and geographic divisions of the provinces…made it difficult to achieve a single unified government that was at the same time representative, effective and widely supported.”

No, that’s not from the editorial page of yesterday’s New York Times criticizing the Bush Administration’s approach in post-war Iraq. It is describing the British Empire’s struggles there in 1917 (it was then called Mesopotamia – the name Iraq made it’s debut in a few years later). And by the way, the book’s title comes from a quote by an officer who said of the post-war Peace Conference in Paris: “After the ‘War to end all War,’ they seem to have been pretty successful in Paris at making a ‘Peace to end all Peace.’ ”

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