Quote from T.E. Lawrence

Turning the fight over to the Iraqis

In the first article in a series about training the new Iraqi military:

There’s a directive that T.E. Lawrence penned in 1917 that is part of a classified briefing members of the U.S.-led training effort give to distinguished visitors. It reads:

“Do not try to do too much with your own hands. Better the Arabs do it tolerably than that you do it perfectly. It is their war, and you are to help them, not win it for them.”

We’ve been seeing more and more activity from the Iraqi forces, and I’m hoping it’s not all hype. Remember that the British and French governments really didn’t take much of Lawrence’s advice, and look how the Middle East turned out. It’s important that the Iraqis begin taking on more and more responsibility.


  1. If you haven’t read Lawrence’s Seven Pillars of Wisdom, you should. The guy was a fantastic writer, and the narrative gives a lot of insight into the mind of the Arab. Really, really good book.

  2. Actually, after the British and French learned how to do it, the Middle East turned out very well indeed (try googling on Sir Reginald Coupland – or maybe Copeland, I forget – and Iraq). By the mid ’50s the whole dyarchy thing was maturing nicely, just at the time I was a child in Iraq. But then Suez happened, with all the destabilising warned about by Eden when Eisenhower pulled the rug out from under in the particular manner he did. British authority disintegrated away from the Persian Gulf proper (where the British kept things working well until the ’70s). The Baghdad Pact went, and the Iraqi constitutional monarchy too. All in all, today’s situation is the result of past US mistakes, not British ones. Today’s mistake is in not taking on board the British experience with hands off handling that Sir Lionel Curtis described, instead trying to deny the nature of the role the USA has fallen into. Result: always using the wrong mindset for the job.

  3. P.M.: Thanks for the tips. I’ll check them out. As for British or US fault for issues in the Middle East, one thing you won’t find me doing is claiming that the US hasn’t made many mistakes in the region. I also didn’t mean to imply that the Brits or French were responsible for the specific problems of today. I wonder what path things would have taken if the map had been drawn up along more tribal/social/cultural lines after WW1. ‘Iraq’ was an artificial construction, and there are major problems to this day because of the way things were mashed together. Not to mention the splitting of the Kurds from those in Turkey. Not claiming that that is responsible for today’s issues, of course. Just wondering how/if things might have been different.

  4. If you’re going to do client states at all, you have to do it by setting up something with mild instability. It works like a bicycle, needing some outside input but not so much as to take you over yourself. A fully tribally based system would either have been impossible to achieve with the likes of the Kurds oppressing their own minorities the way they are now, or else it would have broken the client state model that made the local rulers need the outsiders. Of course, I’m describing the problem from the point of view of those who wanted at least initial control over what went on. That is not inconsistent with long term withdrawal, it just means being able to contribute to the political maturing while that went on. What kind of freedom would it have been, with Kurds free to oppress Yezidis, Assyrians, Armenians etc. in their turn? That was the sort of dilemma that sucked the British into the empire business in the first place, facing up to what happens in power vacuums (which the British didn’t make). The US failing was not to recognise this, starting from an anti-imperialist mindset; this is what Sir Lionel Curtis was trying to lay before them in the ’30s, but the graft didn’t take.