Log Cabin Chronicles

Royal Orr

Thinking about Mid-East history


The Cycle 2 students at North Hatley Elementary School in Quebec presented fairy tales done in the style of rap poetry last week. It's a bit peculiar to see 10-year-olds dressed up like street thugs and pimps rhyming about Rapunzel, but it was very well done and a lot of fun to watch.

Sitting in front of me was my Grade 7 British History teacher. She turned around to tell me that she'd read a recent column of mine in The Stanstead Journal and then in a stern, low voice I remember from nearly thirty-five years ago she said, "And I assume you are against this war."

Well, I was caught.

Against all my own expectations for myself, I am not foursquare against the American and British attack on Iraq. The Middle East is so damned complicated that I'm not sure what to think.

I mumbled something like, "War is a great tragedy." But you can't fool a life-long teacher and I felt the same slow burn of shame as when I couldn't recall the name of the last Plantagenet or the first Hanoverian king.

When I got home, I dug out several books on the history of the Middle East. I refreshed my mind on the scheming and the sacrifice of the British imperialist forces that took Baghdad in 1914-1916 as the old Ottoman Empire crumbled. More than 30,000 Turkish, Indian, and British troops died in that campaign.

The Russians, the British, and the French carved up the Middle East after the Armistice. Winston Churchill supervised drawing the borders of a band of new nation states that have simmered on the edge of collapse and mutual destruction ever since - Lebanon, Jordan, Israel, Iraq. The Kurds, who had been promised a homeland in 1922, were somehow forgotten by the time a final settlement on boundaries was reached in 1923.

The British put puppet kings in charge of many of these new outposts of Empire. Iraq was an ungovernable mix of Kurds, Sunnis, Shi'ites, Assyrian Christians, and Jews. These Hashemite client-kings were propped up by British influence and arms until a revolution in 1958.

A decade of even worse administration brought the Ba'ath Party to power in 1968 in a military coup d'etat. Saddam Hussein was already a key member of the regime way back then.

Even a quick reading of the short history of modern Iraq overwhelms you with its brutality, duplicity, and hypocrisy. No one comes out looking very good - the Iraqi militarists, the British imperialists, or the American practitioners of Realpolitik who took over the burden of influencing Middle Eastern affairs for the benefit of London, Washington, and Wall Street from their bankrupt British predecessors.

Only the underdogs of Iraqi history seem worthy of admiration - the Kurds who just never give up; the Baghdad Jews who were prodded and terrorized into flight to Israel; the Assyrian and Chaldean Christians who continue a slow but inexorable transfer of their 2000-year-old culture from Mosul and Basra to Chicago and Toronto. The quick dip into history makes you despair of any good coming from an entanglement in that part of the world.

But history cannot be our only guide. While it may be true that those who ignore history are condemned to repeat its mistakes, those who rely on history alone face a fate that is equally terrible.

The scale of Saddam Hussein's murderous technologies and inclinations do seem without precedent.

Terrorism against capitalist democracies is a fact and we are a potential target.

Our economic dependence on Middle East oil is a regrettable fact, at least for the time being.

Our commitments to an ally like Israel must remain firm in spite of a conviction that grave injustices are being committed against the Palestinians.

Dipping into history is not an intellectually comforting thing to do in a time of crisis.

And even thirty years later, a good history teacher sure knows how to make you think.

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