T.E. Lawrence’s hero status

Last Sunday, Newstalk’s Talking History had a special edition on T.E. Lawrence. As I was on the go at the time, I couldn’t take down any names, but there were some interesting speakers, and much good discussion. What I waited for in vain, however, was some acknowledgement of Lawrence’s responsibility for the British use of bombing in the aftermath of the Iraqi revolt (1920).

Lawrence wrote to the London Observer, “It is odd that we do not use poison gas on these occasions.” [1] It was a hint Winston Churchill, then British secretary of state for air and war, was to take up seriously, and while poison gas doesn’t seem to have been used in the end, as Priya Satia shows, T.E. Lawrence was to the forefront of the air policing campaign.

Arabist intelligence agents were among the most fervent proponents of airpower in general and the air control scheme in particular. Lawrence dated both his interest in joining the service and his conviction that “aircraft could rule the desert” to the war. … Winston Churchill, the postwar secretary of war and air, had long been intimate with the community of Arabist agents, through common social networks and a shared sensibility besides wartime contact and close cooperation at the Peace Conference. He and the RAF both wagered that airpower might be used creatively to maintain order in the Iraqi mandate after the war. Lawrence, then a fellow at Oxford, assisted in their efforts to devise such a scheme from 1920, as did Iraq’s civil commissioner and head of political intelligence, Arnold Wilson. In 1921, as colonial secretary, Churchill inducted Lawrence and his fellow agents Reader Bullard, Hubert Young, and Richard Meinertzhagen into the new Middle East Department, partly for the aura of legitimacy that they would bring to its work. [2]

The aerial bombardment of civilian populations was an innovation and set the stage for wholescale terror bombing. From the point of view of the British, it was an efficient and cost-effective method of “policing” the newly created Iraqi state. The “moral effect”, it was thought, was very salutary – shades of the Black and Tans?

Wing Commander Lewis, then of 30 Squadron (RAF), Iraq, recalls how quite often ‘one would get a signal that a certain Kurdish village would have to be bombed’, the RAF pilots being ordered to bomb any Kurd who looked hostile. In the same vein, Squadron-Leader Kendal of 30 Squadron recalls that ‘if the tribespeople were doing something they ought not be doing then you shot them.’ [3]

Denis Halliday, John Pilger and Harold Pinter protested the commemoration of Lloyd George’s legacy in 2007 due to the reign of terror bombing in Afghanistan, Egypt, Iran and Iraq that was carried on under his leadership. The unconditional praise of Lawrence, one of the architects of that reign, who went “native” in the great orientalist tradition and betrayed the people he professed to have an affinity with, seems a little bit much in the aftermath of the latest Iraq war.

[1] http://sites.google.com/site/apoetjb/Home/war
[2] http://www.historycooperative.org/journals/ahr/111.1/satia.html
[3] http://en.internationalism.org/wr/265_terror1920.htm

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