Tag Archives: general allenby

The Feet of Clay of the Best and Brightest

lawrence-3

General Allenby: [leafing through Lawrence’s dossier] “Undisciplined… unpunctual… untidy. Knowledge of music… knowledge of literature… knowledge of… knowledge of… you’re an interesting man there’s no doubt about it.” 

Character is a terrible thing to judge. Mostly because those doing the judging also suffer from flaws in their own character and truthfully I don’t think that any of us are exempt from doing this at least sometimes. Dietrich Bonhoeffer noted: “Nothing that we despise in other men is inherently absent from ourselves.” I think is is somewhat freeing to realize that.

Yet somehow the temptation is for us to stand as judge, jury and character executioner on those that we find wanting. As a culture we like tearing down those that we at one time built up, in fact we have industries that exist in order to build up and then destroy people.

It is a rather perverse proclivity that we have as human beings, especially if we can find some kind of religious justification for it.

I think that is part of the complexity of the human condition. As a historian I find that the most exalted heroes, men and women of often great courage both moral and physical, intellect, creativity, humanity and even compassion have feet of clay.

I find that I am attracted to those characters who find themselves off the beaten track. Visionaries often at odds with their superiors, institutions, and sometimes their faith and traditions. Men and women who discovered in themselves visions for what might be and pursued those visions, sometimes at the costs of their families, friends, and in quite a few cases their lives.

Throughout my studies I have been attracted to men as diverse as Peter the Apostle, Martin Luther, Thomas Aquinas, T.E. Lawrence, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Erwin Rommel, Admiral Horatio Nelson, Abraham Lincoln, John F Kennedy, Dwight D Eisenhower, Franklin Roosevelt, Dr Martin Luther King Jr, Jackie Robinson, Teresa of Avila, Nelson Mandela, Vaclav Havel and Emir Feisal Hussein of the Arab Revolt. All had flaws and the list could go on and on and on.

Some of these men and women, saints and sinners alike had fits of temper and violence, others sexual escapades, mistresses, affairs, greed, avarice, and a host of other unseemly characteristics.  Some of them stretched law and morality in their quest to achieve their goals. But all are considered great men and women.

Feet of clay. Who doesn’t have them? But them I think that I would rather have feet of clay than a heart of stone, an an unchallenged mind, or a lack of courage to do the right thing even when it does not directly benefit me.

I love the cinema classic Lawrence of Arabia. Peter O’Toole plays Lawrence in a most remarkable manner, showing his brilliance, courage, diplomatic ability and understanding of the Arabs with whom he served.

There are many people, leaders and others that we encounter in life or that we study. Even the best of the best are flawed and there is no such thing as a Saint who never sinned. But we love destroying them and their memory when to our “surprise” when we find that their hagiographers built them into an idol.

I am a great believer in redemption and the weight of the whole of a person’s life. Thus I try to put the flaws as they are called in perspective and their impact both positive and negative in history. Studying in this way gives me a greater perspective on what it is to be human and to place my own clay feet in appropriate perspective.

As Lawrence said: “Immorality, I know. Immortality, I cannot judge.”

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Feet of Clay: The Common Flaw of the Best and Brightest

Charlene and Michel de Carvalho

General Allenby: [leafing through Lawrence’s dossier] “Undisciplined… unpunctual… untidy. Knowledge of music… knowledge of literature… knowledge of… knowledge of… you’re an interesting man there’s no doubt about it.” 

Character is a terrible thing to judge. Mostly because those doing the judging also suffer from flaws in their own character.  Yet somehow the temptation is for us to stand as judge, jury and character executioner on those that we find wanting. As a culture we like tearing down those that we at one time built up. It is a rather perverse proclivity that we have as human beings, especially if we can find some kind of religious justification for it.

I think that is part of the complexity of the human condition. As a historian I find that the most exalted heroes, men and women of often great courage both moral and physical, intellect, creativity, humanity and even compassion have feet of clay.

I find that I am attracted to those characters who find themselves off the beaten track. Visionaries often at odds with their superiors, institutions, and sometimes their faith and traditions. Men and women who discovered in themselves visions for what might be and pursued those visions, sometimes at the costs of their families, friends, and in quite a few cases their lives.

Throughout my studies I have been attracted to men as diverse as Peter the Apostle, Martin Luther, T.E. Lawrence, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Erwin Rommel, Admiral Horatio Nelson, Abraham Lincoln, John F Kennedy, Dwight D Eisenhower, Franklin Roosevelt, Dr Martin Luther King Jr, Jackie Robinson, Teresa of Avila, Nelson Mandela, Vaclav Havel and Emir Feisal Hussein of the Arab Revolt. All had flaws. Some involved fits of temper and violence, others sexual escapades, mistresses, affairs, greed avarice, and maybe some that stretched law and morality in their quest to achieve their goals. But all are considered great men and women.

Feet of clay. Who doesn’t have them? But them I think that I would rather have feet of clay than a heart of stone, an an unchallenged mind, or a lack of courage to do the right thing even if it does not directly benefit me.

Tonight I watched for the first time straight through the cinema classic Lawrence of Arabia. Peter O’Toole plays Lawrence in a most remarkable manner, showing his brilliance, courage, diplomatic ability and understanding of the Arabs with whom he served.

There are many people, leaders and others that we encounter in life or that we study. Even the best of the best are flawed and there is no such thing as a Saint who never sinned. But we love destroying them and their memory when to our “surprise” when we find that their hagiographers built them into an idol.

I am a great believer in redemption and the weight of the whole of a person’s life. Thus I try to put the flaws as they are called in perspective and their impact both positive and negative in history. Studying in this way gives me a greater perspective on what it is to be human and to place my own clay feet in appropriate perspective.

It was an interesting film to watch.

However, speaking of feet of clay I will probably be writing about the Baseball Writers who vote for the inductees for the Hall of Fame. Today for the first time in nearly 4 decades no players were selected for induction, mostly due to the steroid era. But that is a subject for another night.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Why the Libyans were able to Overthrow Gaddafi and what We can learn from It: A Lesson from the work of T E Lawrence

T E Lawrence

“Do not try to do too much with your own hands. Better the Arabs do it tolerably than that you do it perfectly. It is their war, and you are to help them, not to win it for them. Actually, also, under the very odd conditions of Arabia, your practical work will not be as good as, perhaps, you think it is.” T. E. Lawrence

Lawrence with Arab fighters at Aqaba and Emir Faisal Hussein (below)

The Libyan revolution succeeded in overthrowing Moammar Gaddafi and his 42 year tyranny because the West did not turn it into an American or NATO war. By limiting involvement to airpower, coastal interdiction and tiny numbers of advisers the United States and NATO avoided the costly trap of putting large numbers of troops on the ground.  Such action would have been counterproductive in Libya and in the Arab world. While the action certainly would have ridded the world of Gaddafi and his regime much more quickly it would have emasculated the Libyans who had taken up arms against Gaddafi by turning it into our war, a war which would have been seen by many Libyans and Arabs as just more Western Imperialism.  Critics can always find fault in any military operation but for once in the Post Cold War era the United States and NATO knew their limitations and that the revolution had to be the work of the Libyans themselves.

Lawrence and Hussein’s troops pass Ottoman prisoners at Damascus in 1918

T E Lawrence understood the Arab mind more than most westerners ever will.  Living with and helping lead the Arab tribes that revolted against the Ottoman Empireduring the First World War he learned the culture as well as came to understand the strengths and weaknesses of the Arab tribes.  One thing that can be said is that most Americans like many of Lawrence’s counterparts in the British political leadership, military and diplomatic services is that far too few have taken the time to either understand or respect the Arabs. When I was in Iraq the senior Iraqi Officers that I met were amazed and impressed that I knew their history and culture because so few people did. When I mentioned their victory at Al Kut Amara, or their capture of the Al Faw peninsula at the end of the Iran-Iraq war they beamed with pride.

Ottoman troops in Mesopotamia 

One of the things that Lawrence understood was the profound sense of personal pride and honor which imbued the Bedouin.  He understood that the various Bedouin tribes had no love for the Ottoman Turks who treated them with distain.  He also understood that they needed to be the ones that defeated the Turks.

The campaign waged by Lawrence and the Bedouin confounded the Turks. Working with Emir Faisal the son of Sherif  Hussein of Mecca he convinced his force of Arab irregulars not to make a direct assault on the city of Medina which was heavily garrisoned by the Turks.  Instead he expanded the battlefield by exploiting the natural weakness of the Turks, the need for constant supply via the Hejaz Railway.  In doing so he tied up large numbers of Ottoman troops that could have been used against the forces of General Allenby that were waging a conventional campaign and which was very successful in defeating the Ottomans.

While Lawrence was a part of a much larger effort his work in helping the Arab revolt was of great importance to the success of the British efforts against the Ottomans.  Unfortunately the good will that Lawrence and others like him built did not last. The British and French governments did not respect treaties that supported Arab independence and instead dividing the region between them under the terms of the 1916 Sykes-Picot Agreement. They left an isolated and abandoned Hashamite kingdom in the Hejaz which was conquered by the Saudis to whom the British had shifted their support.

British prisoners at Kut al Amara

A few hundred miles away the British did not take advantage of indigenous Arab resentment of the Ottomans in Mesopotamia.  The British invaded Mesopotamiain 1914 expecting to defeat the Turks easily.  However the British did precious little to enlist the support or help the Iraqi Arabs.  The campaign was long and included the worst defeat of a British Army during the war at the Siege of Kut Al Amara in 1916 at the hands of a largely Iraqi Ottoman 6th Army.  Some 30,000 British and Indian soldiers were killed or died of disease and 13,000 captured many who did not survive captivity.  After the war Lawrence remarked “The people of England have been led in Mesopotamia into a trap from which it will be hard to escape with dignity and honor. They have been tricked into it by a steady withholding of information.”

Faisal would go on to be elected as the new Kingdom of Syria by the Syrian National Congress in March of 1920 but kicked out by the French who enforced the Mandate of Syria in July.  In 1922 after the British brutally suppressed an Iraqi independence movement they appointed Faisal as the King of Iraq. When the British “gave” the Iraqis their independence in 1932 Faisal was the head of state.  He died in 1933 and the British maintained a tight grip on the country and put down another Iraqi nationalist revolt led by the Army in 1941.  The British would remain in Iraq until 1958 when a military coup which is known as the “14 July Revolution” overthrew the government and killed king Faisal II.

Libya Rebels

In Libya there was great temptation and political pressure for the United States to begin an early air campaign without significant support in the international community.  Some say that this caused more casualties and suffering for the Libyans, but it helped in the long run because Libyans saw it as their war to win even when NATO began its air campaign against Gaddafi.  The air campaign was a great help to the newly proclaimed National Transitional Council in Benghazi and probably saved them from being defeated but it was the courage of Libyans on the ground who sacrificed themselves against a better armed and trained force to retake the country.

The revolt restored the pride of an oppressed people, something that could not have taken place had the campaign been led by the United States and NATO with boots on the ground.  People forget that in 2003 the majority of Iraqis welcomed US forces as liberators.  This lasted until Paul Bremer unilaterally dissolved Iraqi military, police and civil servants that were actively helping us, turning them into enemies overnight.  The liberated Iraqis felt betrayed and dishonored by the United States just as they had been by the British following the First World War.  Bremer did this without ensuring that the Iraqi Army weapons depots were secure thereby providing Sunni and Shia insurgents with vast amounts of weapons.  These weapons were turned against American and coalition soldiers and even the UN and NGOs which were just beginning to helpIraqrebuild.  The result of Bremer’s was a protracted insurgency and civil which cost us nearly 4500 soldiers killed and over 32000 wounded and hundreds of thousands of Iraqis killed, wounded or displaced.  If one wants an answer as to why the Iraqis rose up against the United States occupation in late 2003 they need to look no farther than this. The Iraqis only want to be independent and saw the Bremer’s actions in the lens of their history with the British.

The author with Iraqi General Sabah Ramadi 2007

The decision of President Obama, French President Sarkozy and British Prime Minister Cameron to work through the UN and NATO was the correct one. It enabled the Libyans to overthrow Gaddafi and it kept our military involvement to a minimum.  While it cannot be a template for all future military operations in the Arab world as every Arab country is different it does have lessons for us. Libya was a perfect place to use this method. It had a population that wanted Gaddafi gone and were willing to die trying to overthrow him.  It had no huge urban population centers teaming with uneducated and poverty stricken people with little hope.  It has substantial oil wealth and an oil infrastructure which unlike Iraq was not destroyed during the war or in bad repair due to years of sanctions. It also enjoyed a key geographic location which made NATO air intervention much easier than almost anywhere in the Middle East because we did not need bases in Libya or its neighbors to run the operation. It was conducted from Europe and platforms at sea.   This is not possible in most other Arab countries. The task would be much more difficult if the target was Syria.

Now is the time to help the Libyans in rebuilding their country and letting them continue to regain their pride by letting them do as much as possible.  They won’t do it the way we would but that is okay. They will make mistakes but given time the people that shed their blood together to rid themselves of Gaddafi can work together to build a free country.  Those that go to Libya to assist the Libyans need to keep this in mind if they really want to see a strong, robust and successful Libyan democracy take hold.  Let’s also make sure that the good feelings that the Libyans have for us now remain by simply treating them as we would like to be treated.  Simply put we have to stop treating them as vassal states that we only value for their natural resources while we disrespect their people, history and culture.

As for the future it would be a wise investment to ensure that diplomatic, military and NGO personnel be trained and educated to understand and appreciate the Arabs and other cultures that are different than ours in the West.  The West has much to overcome in its relationship with the Arabs most of which is self inflicted. But we can try to start again.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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