History is useful not only for revealing the past, but also in foreshadowing the future. In the case of Iraq, this is no small matter. This book by Liora Likutz, a scholar who is currently at the Truman Institute in Jerusalem, describes the making of modern Iraq through the life of one the two key protagonists who drew its boundaries on the map following World War I. Those two individuals were T.E. Lawrence and Gertrude Bell. While the broad outline of Lawrence's life and exploits in the Middle East are well known to many, Gertrude Bell remains more of a mystery. This book attempts to pull back that veil. Anyone who seeks to understand the currents and tides swirling underneath modern Iraq needs to understand how this country came to be, and the complex life of Gertrude Bell is a good place to start.
Gertrude Bell was born on 14 July (ironically, the Baath Party National Holiday) in 1868 to a wealthy Victorian family. She attended Queen's College in London and later studied history at Oxford. Exceptionally bright, she not only excelled at academics but also proved herself to be a durable athlete who could compete with the boys. Following school, Gertrude met a young man named Henry Cadogan when she was 24 and desired to marry him. But her parents disapproved of this union because Cadogan was a "poor diplomat" not from a well-to-do family. Although the two shared common interests and might have made a happy couple, Gertrude - ever the dutiful daughter -shunned this relationship. She instead went to Bombay, India in 1902 and saw firsthand how Lord Curzon's rigid policies of not appointing Indians to his governing committees created opposition to British rule there. She carried this lesson with her. Britain's interest in India eventually brought Gertrude to Mespotamia, where she had an unconsummated affair with a British officer named Dick Doughty-Wylie. Gertrude did not understand Doughty-Wylie's devotion to his wife however, and perhaps persisted in this stillborn relationship because it did not impinge on her intellectual interests or her freedom. Doughty-Wylie, promoted to LtCol by 1916, was killed at Gallipoli in an attack on the Sidd-al-Barh castle for which he was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross. Gertrude probably never completely recovered.
The British interest in Basra and concern over it falling into Turkish hands led the British to mount an expedition to Baghdad in 1916. In the climax to this disastrous campaign, 17,600 colonial troops ended up surrendering at Al Kut and were marched into enemy captivity. Later revelations of the Sykes-Picot Agreement (the secret agreement between the British and French to carve up the post-war Middle East) and the important question of what would happen to Mosul after the war convinced British administrators to stay involved in Iraq for years to come. And Gertrude intended to play a key role in what would happen in this Cradle of Civilization.
Gertrude quickly discovered that the population of Mesopotamia wanted to manage their own affairs, even if less competently than the British. This caused her to clash with other administrators. She also disagreed with them over the shape of the future Iraq: while some thought it would be impossible to unite the disparate populations of Basra, Baghdad, and Mosul, Bell envisioned an independent and unified Iraq that encompassed these key population centers. She thought Wilson's "rigidity" (like Curzon's earlier) had caused the July 1920 rebellion to spread from the south of the country to the west, ultimately costing hundreds of British lives and thousands of Arab lives.
Many tribes still resisted a Sunni-led government in Baghdad and instead preferred an Islamic government based out of Najaf and Karbala. Churchill, now Secretary of State for the colonies, sought to mobilize public opinion to convince the British it was worth their treasure to maintain presence in Iraq for a prolonged period. Britain would maintain control over the country primarily with its air force (similar to the no-fly zones between Desert Storm and Iraqi Freedom) rather than committing large numbers of ground troops.
King Faysal I was finally coronated as King of Iraq on 23 August 1921. Gertrude developed a good relationship with him and was enamored of her role in "making Kings and inventing kingdoms." The Kurds still longed for self-rule however, and Faysal's weak governmental institutions depended upon British arms to give his rule sanction. By 1923, after much diplomatic wrangling, modern Iraq had taken shape. Mosul would stay within Iraq despite the Kurds' insistence on independence because: 1) it could not survive economically without the rest of Iraq, 2) it was not a Turkish province - nor it could it be allowed to become one, and 3) no oil concessions could be given to foreign oil companies. Oil was the driving strategic interest for Britain keeping its foot firmly planted in Iraq.
Gertrude saw the Sunni tribal leaders as the natural elites and thus the future rulers. As Iraq hardened into the form it would maintain for the remainder of the 20th Century and into the 21st, Gertrude's role in politics diminished and she became totally absorbed in her work at the Baghdad Museum. Alone and depressed yet unable to break away from the work she had anchored herself to for so much of her life, Gertrude took her own life with an overdose of sleeping pills in July 1926. She was buried on 12 July in Baghdad.
Likutz has produced a fine book that will be of interest to anyone who wants to learn more about Gertrude Bell and the making of modern Iraq. It is a brisk read, yet very impressively researched, relying primarily on Gertrude Bell's own letters. My only criticism of this book is that it does not contain any maps. These would have been very helpful in explaining the military campaign into Mesopotamia and surrender at Al Kut, the importance of Iraq vis-à-vis Britain's India policy, and the drawing of the post-war boundaries that Gertrude Bell played such a large role in. Still, the books' strengths outweigh this one weakness, and if you are interested in Iraq, you will not be disappointed.