Iraq Reprise: The 2003 Invasion and the Historian’s Work

I decided to spend my last substantive lecture of the semester addressing that student’s question directly: How do I deal with the importance of narratives in my lectures?  Although I had planned to welcome them with part of the film Control Room, technical issues made that impossible.

I began by reiterating Tuesday’s problem: Why was there an uprising among Palestinians in 2000? I reviewed my arguments: The uprisings resulted from the same kinds of issues being faced by people throughout the region: economic hardships, oppressive governments, and, in this case, also occupation.  And I had really emphasized my other argument: Historical interpretations have consequences.  I wanted to take the historiographical issues I had discussed about the origins of the 2000 Intifada and ask the students to think about how to apply them to the US invasion of Iraq in 2003.  The lecture would focus on the ways historians think, with a silly slide providing the outline:  I began at the beginning.  Different questions would require different kinds of sources, I explained.  So “Why did the US lead an invasion of Iraq in 2003?” would require different sources than the question “How were Iraqis’ lives changed by the 2003 invasion?”  And both would require different sources than the question, “What were the international consequences of the 2003 war in Iraq?”  I shared with them my sources for Tuesday’s lecture and discussed the importance of primary sources.  Then I asked them to think about their assigned readings on the 2003 Iraq war.  What questions would they want to ask?  We collected their questions, the TA writing them on the PowerPoint Slide.  After they had articulated their research questions, she typed in red their brainstorming about where they would look for primary sources.

Often the sources lead to changed questions, which I illustrated using my own experiences beginning research only to find that the information I had was inaccurate or the documents I sought were unavailable.

The next problem was analyzing the evidence.  How do you know that what you read or see or hear is accurate?  I provided two examples.  First, the pulling-down of Saddam Hussein’s statue in Firdos Square on April 9, 2003.  First they saw the Fox News version of the events.  Then they saw the MSNBC critique.

   How is one to decide which version to accept?  I also offered them Jessica Lynch’s disagreement with the narrative that had been provided about her heroism, but did not have time to play the link with her testimony to Congress.  (I do post my PowerPoint slides on the Blackboard site, so they can view it if they choose.)

The question of sources is quite tangled, I argued.  I showed them the New York Times investigation about the “Pentagon’s Hidden Hand” in television analysis, and juxtaposed that with an analysis from National Defense University of the issues raised by US military interventions. 

But even with presumably reliable evidence, the question remains, which issues and events matter?  I talked about fishing in the sea of history, deciding which things of the millions and millions of events taking place each day should be included in our considerations.  I reminded them of the first week of class, when I had explained that some analysts sought answers to the current uprisings in economy, others in demography, and still others seeking to understand the Arab uprisings by looking to religion.

Whichever events and issues seem most important to the analyst, though, it would still be necessary to put them into a larger context.  Here I went back to the British mandate.  Was the mandate important in some way for understanding the 2003 invasion or today’s Iraq?  If it was, how did it matter?  What kind of context did it provide?  Did the distinction between two different Muslim groups matter in the war or its outcome?  I pointed out that, although many people have emphasized the centrality of a Sunni-Shi’I divide, Iraqis themselves seem not to have paid much attention to it until 2006.  Bagdad’s neighborhoods were remarkably integrated until after the bombing of the al-Askeri mosque.

In the end, historians have to construct narratives.  But which of the images do we focus on?And what about the consequences?

For historians, how important is “balance”?  Although journalists find it crucial in their work, at which stage of our work are historians supposed to seek “balance”: Question-asking? Source-locating? Evidence-analyzing? Narrating hardly seems to be a place to begin trying to find countervailing patterns and forces just for the sake of “balance” when evidence shows a clear way to an argument.  And the point of historians’ work is, after all, to interpret the past, not to present a variety of incidents and issues and let the reader decide.

I wanted to make sure that they know that this freedom to pursue information about the past, and to narrate it consistent with our research, is crucial to society in general.  That is why US universities provide academic freedom; this is what the tenure system is about.  I offered examples of places where historians and journalists are not free to write the information they found, not free to offer their best and most accurate analyses of the past.  I really wanted this next generation to understand the point of tenure: the fact that I have tenure allows me to write and teach history as I and historians around the world have understood it, without fear of losing my job–or my life–even  if my analysis disagrees with the most powerful members of my society.  Having dissenting views is not only important for some abstract liberal reasons.  Having people able to tell the powerful that their ideas are likely to evoke dreadful consequences is important for the whole society (even, sometimes, for the powerful themselves).

I did not, in the end, provide my own narrative about the Iraq invasion of 2003, which the TA’s told me would likely frustrate the students.  The students can easily find a timeline online, and their journal for the week asked them to write a textbook entry for the Iraq war.  I knew they already had the basic elements, and I wanted to interrogate how they had come up with their own narrative.

As the semester draws to a close, I had consciously decided to focus on making the historian’s process transparent instead of presenting my own narrative, and I’m not sure that was generally appreciated.  Next week, we turn again to the current uprisings in the Middle East, something we haven’t discussed in the big lecture since January (though the students had been talking about their weekly news postings in discussion sections).  But the person at the front of the room won’t be me as the course considers the ways that people are living the current Middle East.

Lebanon

So much to “cover”!  This week, I wanted to connect the growing dissonance about belonging with its violent consequences in the 1960s, 70s and 80s. The era was so fraught that Billy Joel seemed the best introduction as the students got settled.

I began by talking about the exercise Thursday, trying to reckon with the perspectives of each of the three authors so we could figure out what happened.  Analyzing sources is important, I argued, and we can learn even from explicitly “untrue” sources.  My example: fairytales.  What can we learn from such fiction?  They offered terrific ideas: methods of economic production (pricked her finger on a spindle), kinds of housing, value structures, forests as frightening, class divisions, and others.

At the same time, I emphasized, all sources are not equally valid or trustworthy or believable.  Corroborating evidence is always essential.  So rejecting a source because you disagree or because their tone seems strident isn’t helpful.  I reminded them of the need for a historian to have a split screen.

And the only question from Thursday was really helpful in discussion which things matter: “Was the economic situation as important as the human rights situation in wanting to overthrow the government?”  Different historians focus on different things in trying to understand the past, so the answer would depend on which historians one read or talked to.

One of the four basic themes on which we are focusing this semester is the question of who belongs.  The Lebanese civil war of the 1970s is a devastating window into the issue, and its antecedents offer perspective and context.  So I began with a map of the French division of “Syria” during the mandate and the longstanding European demand to be able to “protect” Ottoman minorities.  Their “protection” led to the 1943 National Pact, which offered an opportunity to remind the students of their readings on the 1860 Damascus riots and the problem of borders that came after World War I.

Then I introduced another strand: the refugees from the creation of Israel in 1948, the new refugees from the war in 1967, and the establishment of competing Palestinian nationalist organizations.  As Palestinians began to emulate the Algerian liberation movement, they tried to create a space in Jordan from which to operate.  Jordan’s King Hussein, threatened by the hijackings that followed, along with Israeli strikes against Palestinian bases on the border, attacked the Palestinian organizations, resulting in thousands of dead.  I talked about three consequences:

  • the creation of Black September, the organization that carried out the Munich Olympics hostage crisis
  • the new refugees flooding into Lebanon and destabilizing the precarious religious balance institutionalized in the 1943 Lebanese National Pact
  • the alienation of non-Palestinian residents of Jordan.

Readings for this week included discussions of the We Are All Jordan campaign of the last decade, and descriptions of the changing geographic boundaries within Beirut as a result of the civil war.

But in addition to demography and war, analyzing Lebanon’s economy is also essential to understand the outbreak of war in the 1970s.  I described the gap between Beirut, Playground of the Rich on one hand, and Beirut, Slums for the Poor on the other, and a political/economic system in which each of the confessional groups were represented among the wealthiest 4%, who seem to have encouraged them to identify with co-religionists instead of with the other underemployed and impoverished people in the city’s surroundings.  Then I briefly compared the Lebanese Nationalist Movement’s and the Phalange’s positions on confessional politics, reform, and restricting Palestinian fighters on Lebanese soil.  After a very brief mention of the horrors of the civil war, I tried to summarize the connections among the three “minority” issues in the neighboring states.  It seemed a long lecture, and I never even got to the Israeli invasion in 1982.

Europeans, Ottomans, and Minorities

The students are reading two versions of the horrific massacres in Damascus in 1860, when Muslims killed Christians, one of the first instances of religious violence in the region for a long time.  There has been a lot written about the violence, but what I wanted to do was have them think about what I’ve been thinking about in my own research.  What are the options for how one treats “minorities”?

I began, as always, with a video to try to wake them up, and this one worked wonders!  It’s based on Tennyson’s “Charge of the Light Brigade,” and I wanted to end with the Crimean War.  (The students seemed either horrified or amused!)

I have been using Poll Everywhere to take attendance, since their phones are registered in the system.  I do a quiz every day, usually about definitions or locations.  This one is the first they really missed:After one of the students came into my office confused about Muhammad Ali’s relationship with Napoleon, I decided to do a brief synopsis of the story to date (the TA’s liked this).  I wonder if my focus on the big issues is leaving them confused about events. Clearly, they need to know enough detail to make interpretations and see how historians work.

I had left class on Tuesday worried about my description of Christian privileges that resulted from European “protection.”  So I began with a broad question: based on their readings for this week (1860 Damascus massacres), the Tanzimat proclamations describing Ottoman reform measures from last week, their discussions about “outsiders” from Tuesday, they were to brainstorm in small groups. What are all the possible ways for institutionalizing relations between majorities and minorities?  Once they had listed them, they needed to choose the best option, and take it to another group and see if they agree.  The students texted the consensus decisions to the Poll Everywhere slide behind me.  Their proposals fell into three groups, all tried at various places in the recent past:

  1. Majority rules. Minorities have to adapt.
  2. Minorities should have the right to live their own culture/religion/society and provisions should be made for them
  3. Individuals should have free choice about how to live.

I reassured them that we would return to all of these in time.

The Ottomans came closest to the second of these options, and I described the millet institutions and the use of multiple legal systems.  Abd al-Qadir, an Algerian nationalist hero living in Damascus at the time of the massacres, became the obvious character to describe varied Muslim responses to non-Muslims.

The man who led the fight against French colonialism in the early years after France’s 1830 invasion of Algeria had been defeated and exiled to Syria.  There he protected hundreds of Christians during the violence described in the readings for this week.  Although the French claimed that Abd al-Qadir’s protection of Damascene Christians indicated that he had reversed his previous antipathy to their invasion of Algeria, neither he nor his supporters thought anything of the kind.  He had opposed a foreign invasion.  He had protected Christians, which for him was a duty incumbent upon Muslims because of the special protected status Christians enjoyed in Muslims lands as “peoples of the book.”  His fight against the French invasion of Algeria was anti-colonial, not anti-Christian.  His protection of Christians was Muslim, not pro-French.

But that made the 1860 massacres even more difficult to understand, so I suggested that there is a difference between prescriptive “Islam” and the behavior of Muslims.  This may be easy to understand in a largely Baptist environment where what “Christianity” demands and what Christians do are often dissimilar.  Because this is a history course, we don’t focus much on the way faith is supposed to be but instead on the ways it is mobilized and articulated at specific times in the past.  We are concerned with what Muslims have done, and they have done a wide variety of things.  We can no more attribute the horror of September 11, 2001 to “Islam” than we can attribute the horrors of fascism to “Christianity,” even though the perpetrators of both claimed they were motivated by faith.

I needed to continue my meta-history mini-lecture, thinking about where I had left them after the last class.  I had tried to explain why Muslims in Damascus might have been angry at Christians, angry enough to commit terribly violence.  How is it possible to understand the perpetrators?  More importantly, are we supposed to understand the perpetrators?  This has become a bit of a political argument in the United States of late.  Academics have been accused of “supporting” terrible crimes just by trying to understand the motivations behind them.

If we don’t try to understand the perpetrator, we risk having any crime be simply “incomprehensible,” any criminal simply “barbaric,” with no possibility of prevention or reconciliation.  Once this sort of attitude is directed at whole populations (Muslims, Arabs, and Africans are the most common in history texts), warring groups are assumed to be motivated by “savagery.”  As a result, of course, colonialism, rapacity, slavery, or bombings cannot be mentioned–the violence arises out of nothing more than the character flaws of the population.  Challenging as it is, then, for many of us, one of our jobs is to explain the motivations of the perpetrators (whether the Africans at Omdurman or the British).

My solution: historians must have a split screen, the ability to hold two things in mind at the same time.  For example, we have to be able to actually understand the arguments Israelis and Palestinians make and hold them in our minds at the same time.  In my research, I have to understand–simultaneously– the motivations of Venizelos and the Turkish nationalists in 1921.  So my quoting of the US Ambassador in 1835 saying that Christians had privileges that Muslims resented was not an effort to blame the victims.  It was, instead, an effort to understand the perpetrators, which is often a challenging project!  This reflects no sympathy for oppressors, but simply the need to make people in the past comprehensible to the present.

I returned to the Ottomans and the role of minorities.  Minorities became pivotal in Ottoman history not only as subjects who needed special law courts and holidays off.  European powers used the (often imagined) oppression of minorities to achieve their own imperial objectives–even in cases where local Christians neither needed nor wanted “protection.”  The Crimean War, like all others, was multi-causal, but it was the Russian Empire’s demand to “protect”  all Ottoman Orthodox Christians–and their refusal to acknowledge similar French claims to protect Catholics– that sparked the conflagration.  I ended with an unintentional reenactment from 2011.

Their questions suggest that they are thinking hard about the connections of the Ottoman past with more recent events.

Ottoman Reform and the Question of Minorities

The two biggest challenges of preparing for classes as I continue trying to move from narrating to problematizing: first, figuring out what the central issue will be, and second, trying to come up with a question or format for engaging it.  Today I knew that I wanted to focus on the changing status and roles of non-Muslims in the nineteenth-century Ottoman Empire and the ways that Europeans exploited their own perceptions of Muslim oppression to intervene directly in the Empire.  They are reading two accounts of the 1860 Damascus massacres and they needed some context.

But my students have a very clear notion of “minority.”  In the south (I suspect in most of the US), “minority” is about race.  I once had a student who wanted to write his seminar paper proving that race was the most important division in the Middle East because, growing up in NC, he couldn’t imagine anything else.  So how could I get them to think about broader issues of identity, membership and belonging in the Ottoman Empire?

My solution was to ask students to rethink “minority” be redefining it as outsider status.  I asked them to think back to some time when they had the sense of being an outsider, and try to figure out what criteria had divided those who belonged from those who didn’t.  I wanted to illustrate the changing definition of belonging (or “majority”).  Not wanting to spend  much time listening to middle school trauma, I tried to extrapolate from the first few specific incidents they mentioned.

Defining who belongs is context-specific and changes over time.  Being an outsider can bring suspicion of alternative loyalties (e.g. fear that JFK would be devoted to the Pope’s needs instead of Americans’).  It can be much more complicated than one might expect (I showed a chart– on which I had spent far too much time– illustrating the proliferation of Christian groups in the region).

I introduced Christian Rassam, the British Vice Consul in Mosul during the middle of the nineteenth century, to describe the ways that Christians had become privileged as Europeans gained power over the Ottoman Empire, and quoted Eli Smith, a US missionary in Beirut in 1835, “The Christian community apparently escaped all of the fears of sudden arrest and conscription experienced by Muslims and Druzes.  Indeed, there was a certain amount of conversion by the latter to escape conscription.”  (from Khalaf)

I left class worrying that they might have heard me justifying the massacres they had read about as being the result of Christian privileges that resulted from European meddling.  I realized I would have to introduce them to the notion of a historian’s split screen.