"Since the First World War Americans have been leading a double life, and our history has moved on two rivers, one visible, the other underground; there has been the history of politics which is concrete, factual, practical and unbelievably dull; and there is a subterranean river of untapped, ferocious, lonely and romantic desires, that concentration of ecstasy and violence which is the dream life of the nation."

Norman Mailer
"The whole work of healing Tellus depends on nursing that little spark, on incarnating that ghost, which is still alive in every people, and different in each. When Logres really dominates Britain, when the goddess Reason, the divine clearness, is really enthroned in France, when the order of Heaven is really followed in China--why then it will be spring."

"This new history of yours," said McPhee, "is a wee bit lacking in documents."

C.S. Lewis

Synchronicities this week

  • June 24 Midsummer/St. John’s Day
  • June 24, 1947 The first flying saucers are sighted over Mount Rainier by pilot Ken Arnold.
  • June 24, 1542 St. John of the Cross, Spanish Carmelite mystic and poet, is born.
  • June 24, 1938 500 ton meteorite lands near Pittsburgh Pennsylvania.
  • June 24, 1717 First Free Masons' grand lodge founded in London.
  • June 24, 1374 A sudden outbreak of St. John's Dance causes people in the streets of Aachen, Germany, to experience hallucinations and begin to jump and twitch uncontrollably until they collapse from exhaustion.
  • June 24, 1314 Battle of Bannockburn; Scotland regains independence from England.
  • June 24, 843 Vikings destroy Nantes.
  • June 23 Midsummer’s Eve
  • June 23, 1972 Nixon & Haldeman agree to use CIA to cover up Watergate.
  • June 23, 1942 Germany's latest fighter, a Focke-Wulf FW190 is captured intact when it mistakenly lands at RAF Pembrey in Wales.
  • June 23, 1888 Frederick Douglass is 1st African-American nominated for president.
  • June 23, 1848 Workers’ insurrection in Paris.
  • June 23, 1713 The French residents of Acadia are given one year to declare allegiance to Britain or leave Nova Scotia, Canada. They choose the latter, migrate to Louisiana, and become Cajuns.
  • June 21 Summer Solstice (11:28 a.m.).
  • June 21, 1964 Three civil rights workers-Michael H. Schwerner, Andrew Goodman, and James E. Chaney-are kidnapped and murdered by the Klan in Mississippi .
  • June 21, 1948 The 33 1/3 RPM LP record is introduced by Columbia Records.
  • June 21, 1944 Ray Davies of the Kinks born in London.
  • June 21, 1916 Mexican troops beat US expeditionary force under Gen Pershing.
  • June 21, 1877 The Molly Maguires, ten Irish immigrant labor activists, are hanged in Pennsylvania prisons.
  • June 20, 1947 Benjamin "Bugsy" Siegel, gangster, the “man who invented Las Vegas,” shot dead in Beverly Hills, Cal.
  • June 20, 1909 Errol Flynn, greatest of the swashbucklers, born in Hobart, Tasmania.
  • June 20, 1944 Congress charters Central Intelligence Agency.
  • June 20, 1943 Detroit race riot kills 35.
  • June 20, 1893 - Lizzie Borden acquitted in murder of parents in New Bedford Mass.
  • June 20, 1871 Ku Klux Klan trials began in federal court in Oxford Miss.
  • June 20, 1837 Queen Victoria at 18 ascends British throne ; rules for 63 years ending in 1901.
  • June 20, 1756 146 British soldiers imprisoned in the "Black Hole of Calcutta." Most die.
  • June 20, 1631 The Irish village of Baltimore is attacked by Algerian pirates.
  • June 20, 1214 The University of Oxford receives its charter.
  • June 20, 451 Germans & Romans beat Attila the Hun at Catalarinische Fields.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

This Week in the Secret History: Arab Revolt Seizes Turkish Port of Aqaba; Age of "Asymmetric Warfare" Begins

Triumphant Bedouin race through Aqaba to the sea in scene from Lawrence of Arabia

Auda abu Tayi, sheikh of the Howeitat Bedouin

Captain Lawrence, AWOL

One of the most significant developments in the politics and history of the post-colonial world took place in December 1916 inside a hot, darkened tent pitched in a desert gully in the Hejaz region of what is now western Saudi Arabia, where a young Englishman lay in misery for a week sweating off a bout of dysentery. He was a British soldier, but he had no combat or command experience; his previous experience in the army had been interrogating prisoners and making maps. His current status was irregular--at the time, nobody exactly had a name for the position he had gotten himself into, and nobody has a really good one now. We might see him as some unlikely combination of diplomatic envoy and Delta Force operator. Until the war he had never had any kind of military experience. He had in fact been a scholar, an archeologist, and it's what he wanted to get back to as soon as the war was over. He was slight, small (5'6"), fair in coloring, soft-spoken, a hyper-literate Oxonian aesthete. All in all, there was something a little absurd about him being where he was.

Where he was was in the middle of a rebellion against the 500-year domination of the Arabian Peninsula by the Ottoman Empire, a rebellion consisting of a small and very loose confederation of some western Arabian bedouin tribes owing an informal sort of allegiance to Kng Hussein, the Sherif of Mecca, the head of the ancient and aristocratic Hashemite clan. It was World War I, the Ottoman Turks had entered on Germany's side, and had threatened to call for a jihad against Britain in all the Muslim bits of the British Empire. Which made perfect sense. The British response was to try to find a Muslim religious authority of their own who could counter the call for jihad. And so they lighted on the elderly Sherif Hussein of Mecca, hereditary guardian of the Holy Cities of Mecca and Medina. Hussein had long had an itch to be master in the province of the Hijaz, which contains the Holy Cities. The British casually promised him self-determination if he would issue a call for revolt against the Turks. It was all supposed to be very local and low-key and 19th century--grizzled tribesmen taking potshots at Turkish columns, and after the hostilities maybe one barren and strategically marginal province would change hands. The British had a lot of experience balancing one obscure ethnicity against another in remote corners of the world while never letting it shake the Pax Britannica. But this was the 20th Century, and new forces were loose. There was a generation of educated, cosmopolitan Arabs who did not take the British, the French or the Ottoman Empires as unchallengeable assumptions. The American president was talking about the end of colonialism. In any hopeless cranny of the imperial globe these days, something or someone could come forth with an assertion, a demand, an idea, that could shake the calculus of power.

Right now one of those people was sweating in that airless tent in the Hijaz. But he was also doing something else. He was occupying his enforced leisure by thinking. He had been watching the little Hejaz adventure fall apart, as any confrontation between a modern, disciplined, mechanized imperial army against a motley crowd of nomads whose style of fighting--the quick raid, with antiquated weapons, on unsuspecting tribal enemies, followed by disapearance into the desert, with a low tolerance, if any, for casualties, orders, or organization--has not changed in generations. No, there was no possible way for the bedouin to contest the Turks for control of the territory. They could not aim to occupy and hold strategic ground, much less come to grips with and destroy significant units of the enemy army. They had tried that in a frontal camel charge against Medina, and been torn to pieces by Turkish artillery. But the 26-year old inside the tent had had no training that would have caused him to give undue weight to established military principles. What did begin to dawn on him in the dark was how vastly outnumbered, outgunned and out-organized partisans might have unsuspected advantages that in the end could conceivably make the continued occupation of their land by conventional forces too costly and too agonizing for them to continue. It was the first glimmering of the practice of what our geopoliticians today call asymmetric warfare, and it has been applied with remarkably consistent success from the first post-WWII and Cold War colonial risings and wars of national liberation, to Vietnam, to the very moment I write this, during which Western forces are engaged on two fronts in classic asymmetric wars. In each one of these, the insurgents, the revolutionaries, the terrorists--take your pick--have either read T.E. Lawrence (for that is the name of the man in the tent) or understood the principles instinctively. And the occupiers, the strangers in the land, have had to read him eventually.

Back to the tent. In a flash of insight, Lawrence saw that it was madness to try to take the city of Medina, the Turkish stronghold in the Hejaz. This was the the British military orthodoxy--you seek out the forces of the enemy, engage and destroy him. Lawrence saw that the Turks in Medina, isolated in the middle of a desert, hundreds of miles from their own territory, were effectively prisoners. 99% of the Hejaz already lay in Arab hands. The Turks' only supply line was the Hejaz railway which ran undefended through a thousand miles of desert dominated by Bedouin tribes, at whose mercy the railroad lay. The power, in this case--here's the asymmetric part--lay with the conventionally weaker force, who could, at will, keep the railway running to whatever extent they chose.

The remains of the vulnerable Hejaz Railway

With that realization, the war in the Hejaz was won, though no-one but Lawrence knew it yet. Now what? If the Arabs were going to have a modern state that meant anything, it meant Arab rule in the Turkish provinces along the Mediterranean--Palestine, the Levant, Syria. No European nation that had made promises to King Hussein has dreamed of such a thing. But Prince Feisal, son of Hussein, whose advisor Lawrence officially was, was a genuine modern nationalist, unlike his father, and he and Lawrence both dreamed of


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