By Robert Fisk
Back in 1929, Lawrence of Arabia wrote the entry for “Guerrilla” in the 14th edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica. It is a chilling read—and here I thank one of my favourite readers, Peter Metcalfe of Stevenage, for sending me TE’s remarkable article—because it contains so ghastly a message to the American armies in Iraq.
Writing of the Arab resistance to Turkish occupation in the 1914-18 war, he asks of the insurgents (in Iraq and elsewhere): “... suppose they were an influence, a thing invulnerable, intangible, without front or back, drifting about like a gas? Armies were like plants, immobile as a whole, firm-rooted, nourished through long stems to the head. The Arabs might be a vapour…”
How typical of Lawrence to use the horror of gas warfare as a metaphor for insurgency. To control the land they occupied, he continued, the Turks “would have need of a fortified post every four square miles, and a post could not be less than 20 men. The Turks would need 600,000 men to meet the combined ill wills of all the local Arab people. They had 100,000 men available.”
Now who does that remind you of? The “fortified post every four square miles” is the ghostly future echo of George W Bush’s absurd “surge”. The Americans need 600,000 men to meet the combined ill will of the Iraqi people, and they have only 150,000 available. Donald Rumsfeld, the architect of “war lite,” is responsible for that. Yet still these rascals get away with it.
Hands up those readers who know that Canada’s Defence Minister, Gordon O’Connor, actually sent a letter to Rumsfeld two days before his departure in disgrace from the Pentagon, praising this disreputable man’s “leadership”. Yes, O’Connor wanted “to take this opportunity to congratulate you on your many achievements (sic) as Secretary of Defence, and to recognise the significant contribution you have made in the fight against terrorism”. The world, gushed the ridiculous O’Connor, had benefited from Rumsfeld’s “leadership in addressing the complex issues in play”.
O’Connor tried to shrug off this grovelling note, acquired through the Canadian Access to Information Act, by claiming he merely wanted to thank Rumsfeld for the use of US medical facilities in Germany to ferry wounded Canadian soldiers home from Afghanistan. But he made no mention of this in his preposterous letter. O’Connor, it seems, is just another of the world’s illusionists who believe they can ignore the facts—and laud fools—by stating the opposite of the truth. Bush, of course, is among the worst of these meretricious creatures. So is the late Tony Blair.
Oh, how we miss Lawrence. “The printing press is the greatest weapon in the armoury of the modern (guerrilla) commander,” he wrote 78 years ago, accurately predicting al-Qa’ida’s modern-day use of the internet. For insurgents, “battles were a mistake ... Napoleon had spoken in angry reaction against the excessive finesse of the 18th century, when men almost forgot that war gave licence to murder”.
True, the First World War Arab Revolt was not identical to today’s Iraqi insurgency. In 1917, the Turks had manpower but insufficient weapons. Today the Americans have the weapons but insufficient men. But listen to Lawrence again.
“Rebellion must have an unassailable base ...
“In the minds of men converted to its creed. It must have a sophisticated alien enemy, in the form of a disciplined army of occupation too small to fulfil the doctrine of acreage: too few to adjust number to space, in order to dominate the whole area effectively from fortified posts.
“It must have a friendly population, not actively friendly, but sympathetic to the point of not betraying rebel movements to the enemy. Rebellions can be made by 2 per cent active in a striking force, and 98 per cent passively sympathetic ... Granted mobility, security ... time, and doctrine ... victory will rest with the insurgents, for the algebraical factors are in the end decisive, and against them perfections of means and spirit struggle quite in vain.”
Has the US General David Petraeus read this? Has Bush? Have any of the tired American columnists whose anti-Arab bias is wobbling close to racism bothered to study this wisdom? I remember how Daniel Pipes - one of the great illusionists of modern American journalism - announced in the summer of 2003 that what the Iraqis needed was (no smirking here, please), a “democratically minded strongman”.
They had already had one, of course, our old chum Saddam Hussein, whom we did indeed call a “strongman” when he was our friend and when he was busy using our gas against Iran. And I do wonder whether Bush - defeated, as he is, in Iraq - may not soon sanction an Iraqi military coup d’état to overthrow the ridiculous Maliki “Green Zone” government in Baghdad. Well, as one of my favourite expressions goes, we’ll see.
But wait, Pipes is at it again. The director of the “Middle East Forum” has been writing in Canada’s National Post about “Palestine”. His piece is filled with the usual bile. Palestinian anarchy had “spewed forth” warlords. Arafat was an “evil” figure. Israeli withdrawal from Gaza had deprived Palestinians of the one “stabilising element” in the region. Phew! “Palestinianism” (whatever that is) is “superficial”. Palestinian “victimisation” is a “supreme myth of modern politics”. Gaza is now an “[Islamist] beachhead at the heart of the Middle East from which to infiltrate Egypt, Israel and the West Bank”.
One of these days, Pipes concludes, “maybe the idiot savant ‘peace processors’ will note the trail of disasters their handiwork has achieved”. He notes with approval that “Ehud Barak, Israel’s brand new Defence Minister, reportedly plans to attack Hamas within weeks” and condemns the Prime Minister, Ehud Olmert, for buoying Mahmoud Abbas’ “corrupt and irredentist Fatah”.
So we are going to have yet another war in the Middle East, this time against Hamas - democratically elected, of course, but only as a result of what Pipes calls “the Bush administration’s heedless rush to Palestinian elections”? It’s good to see that the late Tony Blair is already being dubbed a “savant”. But shouldn’t Pipes, too, read Lawrence? For insurgency is a more powerful “vapour” than that which comes from the mouths of illusionists.
Originally printed in The Independent.