Thursday, March 31, 2011

A Peace to End All Peace

One valuable thing for me about having time off and traveling is I get to read more than usual.  Because of my trip to Europe, I have gotten through more than usual this year.  And since I find writing down some thoughts about them helps me remember what I got out of the whole experience later, well, get ready for some book reports!

First installment is one recommended to me by my friend Sinead in Amsterdam, A Peace to End All Peace by David Fromkin (1999), which chronicles the events leading up to and through World War I that ended up putting us on the path to a lot of the problems we see in the Middle East today.  This is where the - mostly fictional - account of Lawrence of Arabia comes from, for instance.

If nothing else, Fromkin makes one aware of how incredibly stupid that very smart people can be, and actually often are.  The level of misunderstanding of the real motivations of players in this theater of war is just depressing in many respects.  Such as?

  • Key officials in the British government believed that Jews were the real shadowy influence behind the Young Turks running the Ottoman Empire, despite their only having 4 seats in the 288-man parliament, and holding essentially no power in the government.  The British reasoned that if they could buy off this group, they could win the war against the Ottomans and, through that, Germany.  Such was a major reason for the 1917 Balfour Declaration which promised an eventual Jewish homeland in the Holy Land.
  • A mysterious man named Muhammed Sharif al-Faruqi comically played the British Arab Bureau, and a number of Arab leaders too, by claiming to each that he spoke for the other.  Al-Faruqi walked into Cairo saying he could deliver a massive Arab uprising against the Ottomans, but only if the British guaranteed the independence of the Arab states after the war.  They bought it.
  • On the less comical side were the misinterpreted orders, underestimations of opposing troops and numerous blunders that made World War I into perhaps the most tragic in history.  Had British naval vessels continued toward Constantinople in 1915, rather than having their newly-installed admiral lose his nerve at the last minute, there would have been no "need" to land troops at Gallipoli, where half a million men were lost without changing the war a bit.

Winston Churchill, blamed by history ever since for Gallipoli, comes off much better in this accounting of events as one who made mistakes, but was not responsible for the disaster.  He is also credited with excellent post-war diplomatic work under difficult circumstances.

Carving up the modern Middle East was Europe on autopilot, a map drawn more or less using the old imperial formula, just as imperialism was going out of style, partly because the countries that ran most of the world were just beginning to realize they could no longer afford to do so.  Britain and France actually tried to whip up Arab nationalism, which had barely existed before, all for the purpose of beating the Ottomans.  Not so helpful.

Getting involved in foreign affairs is complicated business, especially trying to build a state or an empire.  Actually taking the time to understand the people one is dealing with, their history, and what they want, not so surprisingly helps one get what one wants.  Why do we constantly forget this?

And but so.  Very good book, chock full of stuff you probably didn't know that still weighs heavily on the world as it is today.


  1. If you own this, can I borrow it?

  2. Sure, I have it next to my bag now so I can at least try to remember to bring it back.

  3. I can't recall, have you read Paris, 1919? (the book, not the awesome John Cale album/song)

    Exclusively about the peace conference but covering much of the same material, and equally as startling how long-lasting some of these strange and arbitrary decisions have been.