Letter From Mesopotamia, Part II

Bedouin, with rifle. Israel, 2016.

I agree with most of your reflections about the moral justification of war. War is an evil, because it is the product of sin and involves more sin and much suffering. But that does not mean it is necessarily wrong to fight. Once evil is at work, one of its chief results is to leave good people only a choice of evils, wherein the lesser evil becomes a duty.

I’m not prepared to say we’ve been wholly guiltless in the whole series of events which produced this war: but in the situation of July 1914, produced as it was by various sinful acts, I am quite sure it was our duty to fight, and that it is our duty to fight on till German militarism is crushed. And I certainly can’t believe we ought not to have made such a treaty with Belgium as we did.

You’ve got to face the fact that the spirit which produces war is still dominant. Fight that spirit by all means: but while it exists don’t suppose your own duty is merely to keep out of wars. That seems to me a very selfish and narrow view.

As for our Lord in a bayonet charge, one doesn’t easily imagine it: but that is because it is inconsistent with His mission, rather than His character. I can’t imagine a Christian enjoying either a bayonet charge, or hanging a criminal, or overthrowing the tables of a money-changer, or any other form of violent retribution.

If this neighbourhood could certainly be identified with Eden, one could supply an entirely new theory of the Fall of Adam. Here at Amarah we are 200 miles by river from the sea and 28ft. above sea level. Within reach of the water anything will grow: but as the Turks levied a tax on trees the date is the only one which has survived.

There are little patches of corn and fodder-stuff along the banks, and a few vegetable gardens round the town. Otherwise, the whole place is a desert and as flat as this paper: except that we can see the bare brown Persian mountains about forty miles off to the N.N.E.

The desert grows little tufts of prickly scrub here and there, otherwise it is like a brick floor. In the spring it is flooded, and as the flood recedes the mud cakes into a hard crust on which a horse’s hoof makes no impression; but naturally the surface is very rough in detail, like a muddy lane after a frost. So it is vile for either walking or riding.

Armed Bedouin in Mandate Palestine. Yafo, August 2016.
Armed Bedouin in the desert. Israel, 2016.

The atmosphere can find no mean between absolute stillness—which till lately meant stifling heat—and violent commotion in the form of N.W. gales which blow periodically, fogging the air with dust and making life almost intolerable while they last. These gales have ceased to be baking hot, and in another month or two they will be piercingly cold.

The inhabitants are divided into Bedouins and town-Arabs. The former are nomadic and naked, and live in hut-tents of reed matting. The latter are just like the illustrations in family Bibles.

Anyway, it appears to be beyond doubt now that we mean to push on to Baghdad. It was only lack of water and the exhaustion of the troops which prevented a much larger haul this time: and now they are concentrating against the next position, 90 miles further north.

We hear again on good authority that 8,000 reinforcements are coming out. They will certainly be needed if we are to hold Baghdad. It seems to me a very rash adventure: especially as Bulgaria’s intervention may enable the Turks to send an Army Corps down to Baghdad, in which case we should certainly have to retire.

As for this campaign, it is the old story of the Empire repeating itself. When it began they only meant to secure the oil-pipe and protect British interests at Basra. But they found to their great surprise that you can’t stay comfortably on the lower waters of a great river with an enemy above you any more than you could live in a flat with the lodger above continually threatening your life.

A river like the Tigris or Euphrates is a unit, and the power which occupies its mouth will inevitably be drawn to its source unless it meets the boundaries of a strong and civilised state on the way. Turkey will be neither after the war.

All this inclines me more and more to believe that we shall be forced, sooner or later, to occupy the whole Mesopotamian plain as far as Mosul or to whatever point is the southern limit of Russian control. At first I favoured a “neutral zone” from Mosul to Kut, and I shouldn’t be surprised if that plan still finds favour at home.

In the Bedouin camp.
In the Bedouin camp.

But frankly I see no prospect of a strong enough government to make the neutral zone workable; on the contrary everything points to the absorption of the Persian neutral zone by either us or Russia, probably us.

It seems to me that what is wanted here preeminently is thinking ahead. The moment the war stops, unprecedented clamours will begin, and only a government which knows its aim and has thought out its method can deal with them, that the aim may be fairly simply defined, as the training of India to self-government within the Empire, combined with its good administration in trust meanwhile.

All this seems to me to point to a repetition of our Egyptian experience. We shall be drawn, whether we like it or not, into a virtual protectorate at least as far up as the line Kut-Nasiryah, along the Shatt-al-Hai, and that will have to extend laterally on the east to the Persian frontier and on the west to the Arabian tableland.

I don’t see how we can hope to get off with less: and that being so, I believe it would be better to take on the whole at once. I see no real hope of avoiding a partition à la Persia into British and Russian spheres of interest. In that case, it seems to me the British sphere should go to the Shatt-al-Hai, and the Russian begin where the plain ends, or at any rate north of Mosul.

Adapted from Letters From Mesopotamia, by Robert Palmer. Published under a Creative Commons license. Photographs courtesy of Joel Schalit.