Virtues of war and vices of peace

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The eminent historian Sir Michael Howard, the former Chichele Professor of the History of War at All Souls College at Oxford University, has said that one of the things that we know about all wars is that they all end. That may seem obvious, but it is in fact an astute observation.

We all hope that we are nearing that point in Iraq. The part that comes next is, in many ways, more uncertain than war itself. Wars have a beginning, a middle and an end. The making of a sustainable peace is more ambiguous.

Let’s go back in time. In the early autumn of 1918, one of the several new world orders in this century was taking shape in the Middle East. The Ottoman Turks, at that time allied with the Germans, had held most of that part of the world for centuries. Early on the morning of October 1, 1918, the British, Australian, French and Allied Arab forces surrounding Damascus entered the burning city. The Ottoman Turk and German forces had escaped hours earlier, having looted and set fire to the city as they left.

The next few days produced a series of graphic press accounts of the savage fighting that led to the taking of Damascus and the dreadful conditions the allied forces found there. Major T. E. Lawrence, the fabled Lawrence of Arabia, arrived with the combined Arab forces who had waged a long and costly uprising against the Turks. It was those battles, that war, and that attempt at peace that created the idea of an Arab identity – an identity that transcended the tribal and territorial loyalties that went back hundreds if not thousands of years.

There is an adage that war changes everything, while changing nothing. It is certain that the tensions, the inequities, the anger, and the animosities that were there before the war are there today, some in even fuller measure. That is almost certainly the case in Iraq. The Bush administration’s announced goal of a democratic Iraq is unassailable. It is of course a good goal. Getting from here to there is going to be very, very difficult.

T. E. Lawrence’s dream of pan-Arab unity set in motion an idea which remains politically seductive but truly elusive. Back in October 1918 Lawrence quickly became disillusioned by the squabbling among the victors. He left Damascus a few days later, leaving the making of the peace to others.

In the script for the film, “Lawrence of Arabia,” the brilliant playwright, the late Robert Bolt brilliantly sets the scene as General Allenby, the General Tommy Franks of his day, and Prince Faisal, the great, great-grandfather of the present King Abdulla of Jordan, send Lawrence on his way. In the film, Prince Faisal says to Lawrence, “There is nothing further here for a warrior. We drive bargains – old men’s work. Young men make wars, and the virtues of war are the virtues of young men – courage and hope for the future. Then old men make the peace, and the vices of peace are the vices of old men – mistrust and caution. It must be so.”

Soon thereafter, they were all in Paris – Allenby, Lawrence, Faisal – and Lawrence wrote that the first three months of the 1919 Peace Conference were “the worst I have lived through: and they were worse for Faisal.” After so valiant a war, Lawrence’s disillusionment with the peace process was virtually total.

There will be no encompassing peace conference this time, but memories of past injustices are real as are vested interests. A functioning democracy in Iraq is yet a long way off.

This is Olin Robison.

Olin Robison is president of the Salzburg Seminar, located in Middlebury, Vermont and Salzburg, Austria.

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