Category Archives: culture/arts/writers

gertrude of arabia: british intelligence officer

The Daily Beast Clive Irving


Gertrude of Arabia, the Woman Who Invented Iraq

The story of the British intelligence agent who rigged an election, installed a king loyal to the British, drew new borders—and gave us today’s ungovernable country.
She came into Baghdad after months in one of the world’s most forbidding deserts, a stoic, diminutive 45-year-old English woman with her small band of men. She had been through lawless lands, held at gunpoint by robbers, taken prisoner in a city that no Westerner had seen for 20 years.It was a hundred years ago, a few months before the outbreak of World War I. Baghdad was under a regime loyal to the Ottoman Turks. The Turkish authorities in Constantinople had reluctantly given the persistent woman permission to embark on her desert odyssey, believing her to be an archaeologist and Arab scholar, as well as being a species of lunatic English explorer that they had seen before.She was, in fact, a spy and her British masters had told her that if she got into trouble they would disclaim responsibility for her. Less than 10 years later Gertrude Bell would be back in Baghdad, having rigged an election, installed a king loyal to the British, re-organized the government, and fixed the borders on the map of a new Iraq. As much as anyone can be, Gertrude Bell could be said to have devised the country that nobody can make work as a country for very long—no more so than now.The Middle East as we know it was largely the idea of a small coterie of men composed of British scholars, archaeologists, military officers and colonial administrators who were called the Orientalists—this is the “orient” according to the definition first made by the Greeks, meaning everything east of the Mediterranean as Alexander the Great advanced to seize it.For decades, beginning in the mid-19th century, the Orientalists had explored the desert and found there the ruins of the great powers of the ancient world—Egypt, Assyria, Babylonia, Persia. Through archaeology they revealed these splendors to the modern world and, from their digs, stuffed Western museums with prizes like the polychromatic tiled Ishtar Gates of Babylon, moved to the Pergamon Museum in Berlin, or the Cyrus Cylinder, containing the Persian king Cyrus’s new creed of governance as he conquered Babylon, shipped to the British Museum.

They wondered why such resplendently rich and deeply embedded pre-Christian urbanized cultures ended up buried by the drifting sands of the desert, completely unknown and ignored by the roaming Arab, Turkish and Persian tribes above. The many glories of Babylon, for example, lay unexplored not far from the boundaries of Baghdad.

The Middle East as we know it was largely the idea of a small coterie of men composed of British scholars, archaeologists, military officers and colonial administrators who were called the Orientalists.

Among the explorers, a state of mind developed that was patronizing and paternalistic. If they had not made these discoveries, who would know of these great cities? If Arabs took the artifacts it would be, to these men, mindless looting; if the Western scholars shipped them home, often in vast consignments, it was to preserve them for posterity.

The Ottomans had managed Arabia through a decentralized system of provinces called valyets, run by governors they appointed. Tribal, sectarian and territorial conflicts made it a constantly turbulent place, despite the hammer of Ottoman rule. Under a more centralized system the place would have been ungovernable. But the Turks never entertained the Western idea of nation building, it was as much as they could do to keep even a semblance of order.

The Orientalists thought differently. The Western idea of nation building was the future of Arabia. As World War I drew to its end and the Ottoman Empire collapsed, the Orientalists saw an opportunity to bring modern coherence to the desert by imposing new kingdoms of their own devising, as long as the kings would be compliant with the strategic interests of the British Empire.

Into this coterie of schemers came two mavericks, both scholars, both fluent Arab speakers, both small in stature and psychologically fragile, both capable of extraordinary feats of desert exploration—a young man called T.E. Lawrence and Gertrude Bell, a more seasoned connoisseur of the desert life.

Both had been recruited before World War I to gather intelligence on the Ottomans. Both were hard to accommodate within a normal military and diplomatic machine and so ended up working for a clandestine outfit in Cairo called the Arab Bureau, which was more aware of their singular gifts and more tolerant of their habits.

Bell’s epic desert trek in 1913-14 was already legendary. Her objective had been a city called Hail that no European had reached since 1893. Under the cover of archaeological research, her real purpose was to assess the strength of a murderous family called the al Rashids, whose capital Hail was.

The Rashids had been kicked out of Riyadh by the young Abdul Aziz bin Abdurrahman al Saud, otherwise known as Ibn Saud, who was to become the founder of Saudi Arabia.

Despite the rigors of the terrain, Bell was as susceptible to the spiritual appeal of the desert as others like her young protégée Lawrence. “Sometimes I have gone to bed with a heart so heavy that I thought I could not carry it through the next day,” she wrote. “Then comes the dawn, soft and benificent, stealing over the wide plain and down the long slopes of the little hollows, and in the end it steals into my heart also….”

When she reached Hail, the Rashids were suspicious and put her under what amounted to house arrest in the royal complex.

But as a woman, Bell enjoyed an advantage over male colleagues that she was to deploy on many missions: molesting or harming women was contrary to the desert code of conduct, even in a family as homicidal as the Rashids. For a week or so, Bell was warmly entertained by the women of this polygamous society, and the women’s gossip provided a rich source of intelligence on palace intrigues, of which there were many. From this she was able to see what her British minders valued: That the Rashids were yesterday’s men and the Saudis would likely be a formidable and independent power in Arabia. The Rashids released her, and she went on to Baghdad, Damascus, and home to London.

It was inside knowledge like this that put Bell in an influential position when the war ended and the European powers decided how they would carve up Arabia. Lawrence had committed himself to the princes of the Hashemite tribe, notably Feisal, with whom he had fought against the Turks, and promised Damascus to them. But unknown to Lawrence, a secret deal had been cut with the French, who wanted control of the eastern Mediterranean and were to get Damascus while Britain would fill the vacuum left by the collapse of the Ottoman Empire by re-drawing the map of Arabia.

The British were more aware than the French of the importance that oil would assume. Syria, the new French subject state, was unpromising as an oil prospect. The first Middle Eastern oil field began pumping in Persia at the head of the Persian Gulf in 1911, under British control, and geologists suspected, rightly, that vast oil reserves lay untapped in both Persia and Iraq.

While Lawrence left the Paris Peace Conference in 1919 stricken by the guilt for a British betrayal of his Arabs to which he had not been a party, Bell was sent to Baghdad, where Feisal was to be given his consolation prize: the throne of a new Iraq.

As well as the prospect of huge oil reserves, this new Iraq was crucial to the lines of communication to the great jewel of the British Empire, India. And, ostensibly, it was the diplomats and generals of the Indian administration who ran the show in Baghdad. But they depended on Bell as an expert and a negotiator, fluent in Arabic and used to the schisms and vendettas of the region. In fact, many of the decisive meetings as the British struggled to create a provisional government took place in Bell’s own house.

On August 23, 1921, at a ceremony in central Baghdad, Feisal was installed as the monarch of Iraq, even though he had no tribal roots in the country to assist his legitimacy. “We’ve got our king crowned,” wrote Bell with relief. And she made a claim about this election that would be echoed decades later by Saddam Hussein, that Feisal had been endorsed by 96 percent of the people, even though he was the only candidate and the majority of the population was illiterate.

Indeed, Bell was so carried away with her confidence in the nation she had helped to create that she crowed: “Before I die I look to see Feisal ruling from the Persian frontier to the Mediterranean.”

In reality, the Iraqi borders had been arbitrarily drawn and disregarded 2,000 years of tribal, sectarian, and nomadic occupation. The Persian frontier was the only firmly delineated border, asserted by mountains. Beyond Baghdad the line drawn between Syria, now the property of France, and Iraq was more cartography than anthropology. Nothing had cooled the innate hostilities of the Shia, in the south, who (in a reversal of the current travesty in Baghdad) were virtually unrepresented in Bell’s new assembly, and the Sunnis to the north, as well as the Kurds, the Armenians and the Turks, each with their own turf. Lawrence, in fact, had protested that the inclusion of the Kurds was a mistake. And the desert border in the south was, in Bell’s own words, “as yet undefined.”

The reason for this was Ibn Saud. Bell wrote in a letter to her father, “I’ve been laying out on the map what I think should be our desert boundaries.” Eventually that line was settled by the Saudis, whose Wahhabi warriors were the most formidable force in the desert and who foresaw what many other Arabs at the time did: Iraq was a Western construct that defied thousands of years of history, with an alien, puppet king who would not long survive and internal forces that were centrifugal rather than coherent.

For a while, Bell was the popular and admired face of the British contingent in Baghdad. An American visitor pleased her by calling her “the first citizen of Iraq.” The Arabs called her “Al Khatun,” meaning a noble woman who earned respect. She went riding and swimming every day, somewhat diminishing the benefits of that by chain smoking in public. She also made no secret of the fact that she was an atheist. It seemed that she was more comfortable in the company of Arabs than she had been among her peers in Cairo.

Lawrence, for example, while respectful of her scholarship, thought that Bell “had no great depth of mind” and politically was a poor judge of people and “changed direction like a weathercock.” Sir Mark Sykes, a crusty diplomat who had colluded with the French to give them Damascus, was more defiantly a misogynist. He called her “a silly chattering windbag, an infernal liar, a conceited, gushing, rump-wagging, blethering ass.”

Sometimes Bell revealed a dark self-knowledge. In 1923 she wrote to her father: “At the back of my mind is that we people of war can never return to complete sanity. The shock has been too great; we’re unbalanced. I am aware that I myself have much less control over my own emotions than I used to have.”

By then she had only three years to live, and was becoming frail from overwork. She described her routine in a letter: “I get up at 5:30, do exercises till 5:45 and walk in the garden till 6 or a little after cutting flowers. All that grows now is a beautiful double jasmine of which I have bowls full every day, and zinnias, ugly and useful. I breakfast at 6:40 on an egg and some fruit…leave for the office by car at 6:55 and get there at 7…”

As well as administrating in the manner of a colonial official, she often acted like a viceroy, receiving a stream of tribal sheiks, Arab officials or simply citizens with grievances. The king had to be managed, as he sat in his garden “in full Arab dress, the white and gold of the Mecca princes.” But she also devoted much of her time to a personal passion: creating the Iraq Museum in Baghdad where she gathered a priceless collection of treasures from the world of antiquity—reminding herself and the Iraqi people how the earliest urban civilizations had flourished around the Tigris and Euphrates.

There were, though, other loves that belied the appearance of a desiccated, workaholic spinster. She lived with the memories of two passionate romances, both thwarted.

At the age of 24 she became engaged to a young diplomat but her rich industrialist father deemed it an unsuitable match and, in the compliant Victorian manner, she ended it. Her second affair was far deeper, tragic and, in its effects, everlasting. She fell in love with Colonel Charles Doughty-Wylie, a soldier with a record of derring-do with appropriate movie star looks. But Doughty-Wylie was married, and as long as the war occupied them both neither could see a way out. Bell was, however, completely besotted:

“I can’t sleep,” she wrote to him, “I can’t sleep. It’s one in the morning of Sunday. I’ve tried to sleep, every night it becomes less and less possible. You, and you, and you are between me and any rest; but out of your arms there is no rest. Life, you called me, and fire. I flame and I am consumed.”

He responded in kind: “You gave me a new world, Gertrude. I have often loved women as a man like me does love them, well and badly, little and much, as the blood took me…or simply for the adventure—to see what happened. But that is all behind me.”

Doughty-Wylie died in the amphibious assault on the Turks at Gallipoli in 1916—ill-conceived by Winston Churchill as an attempt to strike at the “soft underbelly” of the Ottoman Empire.

Bell died at her house by the Tigris in Baghdad in July 1926 at the age of 57.  She had taken an overdose of barbiturates, whether deliberately or accidentally it was impossible to tell. Lawrence by then was a recluse, in flight from the road show devised by the American journalist Lowell Thomas that had turned him, as Lawrence of Arabia, into the most famous man on Earth.

But it was Gertrude Bell, who was never a public figure, who had left the greater mark on the Middle East, for better or worse.

King Feisal, who had been ailing for some time, died in Switzerland in 1933, at the age of 48, to be succeeded by his son Prince Ghazi. The monarchy was brought down by a pro-British military coup in 1938, a regime that would ultimately mutate into that of Saddam Hussein’s in 1979.



© The Gertrude Bell Archive, Newcastle University
© The Gertrude Bell Archive, Newcastle University

“Coming towards me was a party of camel riders. They were clearly all Arabs, except one who seemed to be a woman. It was Gertrude Bell. I could hardly believe my eyes when I saw a well-­dressed Englishwoman, looking spick and span in spite of her weeks of desert travel. I never forgot that first striking impression.”  Sir William Willcocks,1914

An advisor on Arab affairs during World War I, she was the only woman with a diplomatic role at the Paris Peace Conference in 1919 and the only woman (invited by Winston Churchill) at the Cairo Conference in 1921.

In 1925, Bell drafted a new Law of Antiquities which safe-guarded Iraq’s right to hold onto excavated artifacts. She championed education for Muslim girls, helping to establish one of the most progressive educational systems in the Middle East.

Gertrude Bell (1868-1926) was part proper Victorian and part modern woman. The precocious daughter of a wealthy industrialist family from northern England, her life was a series of “firsts”:

  • The first woman to receive highest honors in Modern History at Oxford
  • The first person to climb all the peaks of the Engelhörner range in the Swiss Alps
  • The first woman to do a solo journey into the uncharted Arabian desert (traveling by camel for 1500 miles across Central Arabia in 1914)
  • The first female Intelligence officer employed by the British Military
© The Gertrude Bell Archive, Newcastle University
© The Gertrude Bell Archive, Newcastle University

baghdad museum reopens remaining treasures

Restored Baghdad museum reopens with most of its greatest treasures

Six months ago it was unthinkable but now curators and historians alike celebrate as most of the Iraqi national museum’s original artefacts go back on display

A beheaded sculpture lies amonst rubble in the Iraqi national museum, April 2003. Photograph: Patrick Baz/AFP/Getty Images

Today the shelled, looted, bullet scarred and blockaded national museum of Iraq opens its doors again, with most of its greatest treasures safe and on display once more.

It is a remarkable feat. Even six months ago, when the antiquities department began to bring in small groups of specialists and journalists to see what had once been one of the world’s greatest and most famous collections, whole galleries were still wrapped up in plastic sheeting and the security situation was judged too precarious even to speculate on an opening date.

After the invasion of Iraq, the museum’s shuttered facade, punched by a tank shell, became a symbol of the destruction in war to museum curators and archaeologists around the world. .

In the security meltdown that was Baghdad, the building was judged too dangerous even for its own surviving staff, and its outspoken former director, Donny George, fled into exile after he found a paper wrapped bullet lying at the doorstep of his home — a potent death threat against his family.

During the war the building was left defenceless and for three days it was ransacked as an American tank stood by useless because its crew had no orders to intervene.

Today, many galleries are still closed and hundreds of objects are still undergoing delicate conservation work – including some of the exquisitely carved Nimrud ivories, thought safe from the bombs in a bank vault but damaged by sewage-contaminated flooding as water pumps failed. Although visitors are unlikely to notice, thousands of objects are still missing and unlikely ever to be recovered.

In the joyful headlines over the recovery of iconic pieces such as the 5,500-year-old Warka Mask, a serenely enigmatic alabaster head smiling faintly at the absurdities of human folly, it was almost overlooked that thousands of small metal and clay pieces, inscribed tablets and amulets, seal cylinders, easy to smuggle, hard to trace, of little commercial value but priceless to historians, have almost certainly gone for ever.

The Warka Mask was recovered by the Americans after a tip-off, wrapped in rags and buried in farmland outside Baghdad. It is believed to have changed hands several times after it was stolen. The Warka Vase, a magnificently carved tall alabaster vase from the same period, snapped off at the base to steal it from its gallery, came back to the museum in pieces, wrapped in a blanket, in the boot of a car.

Many pieces were voluntarily returned by people who claimed to have held them for safe keeping. That may have been true in some cases but archaeologists believe that many were simply so famous they could neither be sold nor displayed.

That is not true of the little scraps of history, less beautiful but more precious to the experts: the poems and spells, star charts and family histories, shopping lists and tax bills inscribed on scruffy little lozenges of mudbrick or cough drop sized cylinder seals, which seeped out through Iraq’s borders into the world’s antiquities markets.

“I’m not aware of any major recovery of these pieces,” said Irving Finkel, curator of the current exhibition on Ancient Babylon at the British Museum.

“I’m not holding my breath for one.”

Finkel can read Babylonian cuneiform, and the treasures in his exhibition include a broken tablet recording Nebuchadnezzar’s capture of Jerusalem in 597BC, and a cylinder seal from 1300 BC, illustrating a ziggurat, almost certainly the origin of that wonder of the ancient world, the Hanging Gardens of Babylon.

There must be answers to gaps in the story of his exhibition in the thefts from the Baghdad museum — including objects never even catalogued, never mind published.

But today curators such as Finkel are celebrating. The museum is open. Tomorrow the work of patchworking together lost history resumes.

bill moyers interviews george packer and deborah amos re: iraq refugees

Bill Moyers Journal

Deborah Amos:   It’s very, very tough. And I’ve covered refugees for most of my career. And this is a different– this is a different population. Because you can’t help thinking that it could be me. You know, I’ve met journalists just like me who have the same level of education just like me. And they have been forced to take their savings. I don’t know what I would do. So, it’s not even empathy. You don’t have to imagine. It is so stark and clear to you when you talk to people who speak English as well as you do that there’s no translation problem. You get it.

BILL MOYERS: We turn now to one of the most neglected consequences of the war in Iraq, the humanitarian crisis that’s been unfolding since the American invasion 4 1/2 years ago. It’s almost beyond comprehension, two million inter-refugees inside the country, a million dispossessed in Baghdad alone, their numbers rising stupendously during the surge. Another two million have fled to other countries, over 1 1/2 million to Syria, another million or so to Lebanon and to Jordan which has now closed its borders. Among the refugees are Iraqis escaping reprisals for cooperating with Americans. The Bush Administration has allowed fewer than 1,000 of them into the U.S. This week the Senate passed the Iraqi Refugee Crisis Act, calling on the President to do more. We’re seeing a human tragedy unfold with consequences that can only compound in the months to come as the power vacuum in Iraq spreads. Joining me to talk about this is George Packer. He’s a staff writer for The New Yorker who’s acclaimed for his articles, essays and reviews on foreign affairs. In 2005 his book, The Assassin’s Gate, America in Iraq was named by the New York Times as one of the ten best of the year. This week he’s more justly proud of being the father of a brand new baby, Charlie, obviously also one of the ten best of the year. And National Public Radio’s, Deborah Amos, who’s been a colleague of mine in public broadcasting since 1977, 30 years now. Deb Amos is one of the few American journalists to cover this story. She’s just back from Syria, Lebanon and Jordan, her fifth trip to the region to report on the refugees. Welcome to you both.

DEBORAH AMOS: Thank you.


BILL MOYERS: Give me a human face to these people. Who are they?

DEBORAH AMOS:: So many of them, Bill, are the doctors, the professors, the architects, the intellectuals, the poets. There are the poor who have left. But this community that’s now in Damascus and Amman and increasingly going to Lebanon is the middle class. These are the technocrats, the kind of people that you need if you want to rebuild a country. And this is the demographics that has left Baghdad.

BILL MOYERS: What is life like for them now? What– what is– we think of refugees in the Middle East as Palestinian refugees living in those awful camps. What– what do these people face?

GEORGE PACKER: As Deb says, they have these — what you might call middle class concerns. They’re not so much worried about food although I think as their savings dwindle they will. They worry about their children’s education, health care and the fact that they really can’t work and so they have – they are a desperate population but they’re not the kind of refugees we think of coming out of Darfur or Somalia. They are very much a middle class population and the great problem for them is they all left Iraq with some money and they’re running out of money, and a few of them are actually going back to Iraq because they don’t have enough to spare.

BILL MOYERS: I think I heard you report not long ago that in Damascus there’s something like 20 to 30 people, refugees, living in the same room?

DEBORAH AMOS:: Many people do that. 20 people living in one apartment.

BILL MOYERS: For how long?

DEBORAH AMOS:: They do it for months. And it’s not because they’re all broke. It’s because they have no idea how long they have to hold out. And when you run out of money the choices are very stark. The– the incidents of child prostitution in Damascus is rising dramatically. There’s a– there’s a belt of clubs above Damascus. And this is where some Iraqi families are prostituting their daughters. That’s how dire–

BILL MOYERS: For money?

DEBORAH AMOS:: For money. That is how dire it is becoming in Damascus. Or you go home. There was a young man who was a sculptor. And he was targeted in Baghdad. He came to Damascus. He ran out of money. He went home last week and he’s dead.

BILL MOYERS: George, why didn’t the administration anticipate this?

GEORGE PACKER: I think it’s a piece– with everything that’s gone wrong with the war, for political reasons. To acknowledge that there was a huge refugee crisis in the region, to acknowledge that Iraqis who work with Americans are a uniquely endangered population in Iraq– I mean, they are as hounded and helpless as European Jews in the 1940’s — would have been to acknowledge that the war was going badly. That it was creating more pain than it was alleviating, that the picture of steady, slow progress was false. And so the administration simply chose to ignore this crisis. I mean, for the first year or two of the refugee crisis our policy was, “It’s not happening.” More recently our policy has been we’re committing some funds, rather small compared to the need. But– our real objective is to create a safe and stable Iraq to which these refugees can then return. In other words, it’s temporary. Well, it’s not temporary. When you talk to Iraqis now compared to at the beginning of the war they no longer say in six months things will get better as they used to or in a year things will get better. They now say in two decades. In other words, for an Iraqi, not really in my lifetime. It will be my children that see a better Iraq. That means they’re making decisions now about what they have to do with their families in order to ride out a 20 year horror. And that means they’re not going back to Iraq.

BILL MOYERS: What’s the political consequences of what George just described of a long migration of refugees who can not go home, who are running out of money, who are spilling over into the borders of the other countries. Taking– I assume they’re taking their warring, sectarian passions with them, are they not?

DEBORAH AMOS:: The passions, not necessarily their actions. They know very well that if kidnapping and assassinations begin in Damascus or Amman that those governments will kick the entire populations out. So, a lot of it is by remote control. A family has someone threatened back in Baghdad. But I think the larger point is this, Bill. We– no refugee situation is like another. However, you can make some comparisons to the Palestinian refugee situation 50 years ago to the Afghan one more recently. And, these populations are easily recruited. It’s not that the leadership of radical movements necessarily comes from the refugee population. But it’s a great recruiting ground for children who have been out of school for– in some cases now, three years.


DEBORAH AMOS:: And so it– people in the region are starting to understand that this population could potentially be destabilizing. As time goes on, if there is no policy to address the situation they find themselves in. And so far there hasn’t been one. Only one presidential contender in this country, Barack Obama, has even mentioned the crisis of the refugees. The others have not so far.

BILL MOYERS: In the Democratic Presidential debate on Wednesday night the leading Democrats, none of them would commit to taking American troops out of Iraq in the first terms of their administration, if they should win. That would mean American troops in Iraq until at least 2013. What– what are the political implications of that with– with this huge migration of– of refugees?

GEORGE PACKER: I think that it just says if we’re rather helpless now with 160,000, the highest number we’ve had in– over the course of the war, troops in Iraq to prevent this outflow of people, when we’re down to 50,000, we’re going to be all the more unable to check this– this– I think, potentially destabilizing flow of people around the region. We will be in Iraq to do very specific missions. We will be there for counterterrorism. We will be there to train the Iraqi army. And we will be there to protect our own forces. We will not be there to secure the population which means civil war will continue to burn, maybe even in– in, you know, a– a bloodier way than now. And Iraqis will continue to leave the country. And they certainly won’t be able to go back. So, I think we may well have American forces simply watching helplessly as Iraqis leave. Now, there have been some proposals to reconfigure our forces along the borders in– to act, in a sense, as a net to prevent refugees from leaving.

BILL MOYERS: Border patrol like along the Texas-Mexican border.

GEORGE PACKER: Something like that and also to prevent irregular forces, jihadis and others from crossing into Iraq. I have some operational questions about that. How could our brigades, scattered in the desert, really stop people from crossing. And both morally and strategically is that a position we want to be in sending refugees back into the cities or creating giant camps policed by American soldiers which also will be, as all refugee camps are, recruiting grounds for extremists.

DEBORAH AMOS:: Although, it hardly matters. The Jordanian border is all but closed. And in September the Syrian government imposed a visa restriction on all Iraqis coming into the country. Up until that time, 30,000 crossed every month. Because they could– it was the last border open. Syria has had enough with 1.5 million. So now, the policy is you have to go to the Syrian embassy in Baghdad. The problem is that Syrian embassy is one of the most dangerous neighborhoods in Baghdad so you can’t go. So, that border is essentially closed.

BILL MOYERS: What are the governments you’ve been talking to– government officials you’ve been talking to in Jordan– Lebanon and Syria, what are– what are they saying about this in terms of the long run?

DEBORAH AMOS:: The Syrians say, “It costs us an extra $2 billion a year.” Because they subsidize bread, gasoline, health care. And this huge Iraqi population is putting such pressure on their own social makeup. The Jordanians say it costs them an extra billion dollars a year. And the international response has been astonishingly weak. The Saudis gave– a couple of tons of dates, dates– to this population that needs schools and health care. And we have contributed some money but not nearly enough. And so both of these countries are at their wits’ end. Why is there no response to what they see– what they know is a regional crisis outside of Iraq.

GEORGE PACKER: There’s also a lot of bad history in that region between Iraqis and their neighbors. And what Iraqi refugees tell me is the idea of Arab brotherhood which the Syrian regime is based on is wearing very thin. And they don’t feel that they’re being treated at all as kinsmen or fellow Arabs or as brothers. AndÑso, and above all, the Iraqis who have worked with the Americans are treated as traitors. And– and so, they are increasingly unwelcome. Shiah in Jordan are absolutely not welcome. Sectarianism plays a part in this especially, I think, in Jordan. And– and so there– there’s a sense in which these Iraqis don’t really have anywhere to go that wants them.

BILL MOYERS: How do you keep– how do you distance yourself from this dilemma, this suffering? How do you come back here and be human?

DEBORAH AMOS:: It’s very, very tough. And I’ve covered refugees for most of my career. And this is a different– this is a different population. Because you can’t help thinking that it could be me. You know, I’ve met journalists just like me who have the same level of education just like me. And they have been forced to take their savings. I don’t know what I would do. So, it’s not even empathy. You don’t have to imagine. It is so stark and clear to you when you talk to people who speak English as well as you do that there’s no translation problem. You get it. And I find it’s exhausting when I come home. Because I actually get to go back to work.

GEORGE PACKER: I came back from my most recent trip to Iraq in the region having spent a lot of time talking to Iraqis like these with a feeling of shame that I had never had before as a journalist including covering this war. Because it’s a war we brought to Iraq. We bear tremendous responsibility for what’s happened in that country. And our official response whether at the embassy in Baghdad or the State Department in Washington or the White House has been so paltry, so indifferent that to hear them tell their stories, very individual stories about how they got a death threat and their supervisor said, “You can take a month off. But there’s really not much more we can do for you.” It– my eyes were burning after these interviews. I’ve never quite felt that way.

BILL MOYERS: How many trips– you’ve made five just to cover the refugees recently– how many trips have you made since the war started?

DEBORAH AMOS:: I had four or five a year since the war started.

BILL MOYERS: So, do you think you’ll be going back indefinitely?

DEBORAH AMOS:: Well, what you see– I know– I keep saying I cover Iraq. I just don’t ever go there. But to do Lebanon, Jordan and Syria is essentially to cover Iraq. Because the issues that are roiling Iraq are the same issues that now are playing out. Everything is hooked to everything else. You know, the American standoff with Iran gets played out in Syria and in Lebanon. And so those issues will certainly keep me going back not just for the refugees but for this confrontational politics that grows out of Iraq and now has spread through the entire region. So, I will have plenty of work to do.

BILL MOYERS: So, you the United States is grafted to the Middle East for a long time to come?

GEORGE PACKER: I think so. And I don’t think our population quite understands that. Because our leaders haven’t leveled with them as has been the case throughout the war. And so I’m afraid we’re going to feel like we’re stuck there pointlessly when in fact what we need is a coherent policy that does ask what are our interests in– over the next five or ten years? How can we secure them? Basically policy questions that right now nobody’s asking on either side.

BILL MOYERS: Given what both of you have said and what you see and what you’ve been reporting, what’s the political discussion? What should Washington be talking about right now?

DEBORAH AMOS:: I think they have to talk about a long term policy for these displaced Iraqis. Even with borders closed you still have in two countries bordering Iraq about ten percent of the population are now Iraqis. I mean, think about that in terms of American numbers, that, you know– I don’t know– 20 million? It’s really hard to make those comparisons. It’s huge. They will have an effect on the policies, on the social fabric of Iraq’s neighbors. None of it for the good without some sort of policy that addresses their needs — educational, health — and their desperation.

BILL MOYERS: The administration– the President invaded Iraq for many reasons, overthrow Saddam Hussein, weapons of mass destruction, al Qaeda, all of that. But arching over everything was the neo-conservative conviction that we were going to see the birth pains of democracy in the region you two cover. Are what you’re talking about the birth pains of democracy?

GEORGE PACKER: No, we’re talking about the return of real politic. This is the final, I think, defeat of the Bush Project for the Middle East. We’re talking about the only way that we can begin to secure our interests is by cutting deals with regimes that we don’t like. And I don’t just–

BILL MOYERS: Dictators in Egypt, dictators in Syria, dictators in–Saudi Arabia?

GEORGE PACKER: We’re now talking about a big arms sale to Saudi Arabia because we’re worried about Iranian influence. Saudi Arabia was the problem four years ago. We– we invaded Iraq, according to Paul Wolfowitz, in part to undercut the power of Wahabism and Saudi influence in the region. Now we’re back to James Baker’s foreign policy, which is essentially you make deals with people you don’t like in order to create stability. We’re back to hoping we can have stability because we don’t have democracy.

BILL MOYERS: Look at the places that– that are, you know, quote, in this democracy experiment, Iraq, Gaza and Lebanon. Now, the people who run the security states in Syria, Jordan, Egypt and Saudi Arabia say to their people, “That’s what you want? That’s what you want?” And they say of course no. What’s the therefore to this?

DEBORAH AMOS:: And the therefore is this democratization policy has been a failure.

GEORGE PACKER: And the irony is the only country in the Middle East that has a genuine grass roots democratic and even secular movement is our number one enemy, Iran. That country has a– a movement every bit as promising as what we saw in Eastern Europe and in other countries. And– and yet we’re almost at war with Iran. And I think if we do go to war with Iran it will set that movement back 30 years. So, it seems like the therefore is countries have to find their own way to democracy. We can help. But we can’t force it.

BILL MOYERS: The drums have been beating this week for military action against Iran, beating in this country. Do you hear the same rhythm that you heard in the build up to the war in Iraq?

DEBORAH AMOS:: I hear it in the region. I’ve just come back. And so I’m not as tuned to the debate here. Because I hear it as a reverberation. But I can assure you that there is a rising anxiety level in the places I’ve just come back from, Beirut, Damascus, Amman, about the possibility of a war. And it’s back. I mean, I’ve been going regularly. And it receded for a while. And I feel like people are much more anxious than they were just a few months ago.

GEORGE PACKER: What I fear is it will happen overnight. We will wake up one morning and discover that we have begun bombing targets inside Iran. And so there won’t be a chance for all of the– questions about war with Iran. What do you do afterward? You know, what– what– what do we do to protect our– our forces in Iraq and Afghanistan from Iranian reprisals? What about Israel? Those questions have to be talked about now. But unlike Iraq this could happen very quickly. And it will be too late once those questions start getting asked.

BILL MOYERS: George Packer, Deb Amos, on that– happy note– thank you very much for being with me on The Journal.

DEBORAH AMOS:: Thank you.


BILL MOYERS: A final note on the war. You may remember our report last month based on the remarkably candid op-ed piece written for the New York Times by seven of our soldiers in Iraq. Putting their careers on the line, they took issue with the optimistic rhetoric of officials in Washington on the progress of the occupation. “We are militarily superior,” they wrote, “but our successes are offset by failures elsewhere.” And they went on to describe those failures one by one. “In the end,” the soldiers said, “we need to recognize that our presence may have released Iraqis from the grip of a tyrant, but that it has also robbed them of their self-respect. They will soon realize that the best way to regain dignity is to call us what we are — an army of occupation — and force our withdrawal.”

But then the seven men pledged themselves anew to their duty: “As committed soldiers,Ó they wrote, “we will see this mission through.”

As they were preparing the op-ed, one of the men — Sgt. Jeremy Murphy — was shot in the head by a sniper. He is now in a rehab facility in Southern California, trying to recover from a severe traumatic brain injury.

Since then, two of the other co-authors of the piece — and five comrades — were killed when their military vehicle turned over in Baghdad.

Yance Tell Gray was 26 — and wore his sergeant stripes proudly on his sleeve, next to the Bronze Star on his chest, and the oak leaf clusters, the Army Good conduct Medal, the Humanitarian Service Medal, and the badges indicating his service as a combat infantryman, Ranger, and paratrooper. He had won just about every honor a soldier could win, for doing just about everything a solder can do.

His wife Jessica said, he was “an amazing husband and an adoring father (who) couldn’t wait to come home and be a dad to his daughter.” He didn’t make it. He was nearing the end of four tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan when he was killed. This week he was buried with full military honors at Arlington National Cemetery, having given all a soldier can give.

Omar Mora enlisted in the Army because he wanted to do something in response to 9/11. He made sergeant in three years, and was shipped to Iraq. A roadside bomb damaged his hearing in April and he was sent home for two weeks. He returned to combat only to have a comrade die in his arms. Sgt. Mora had just received his citizenship papers when he and Sgt. Gray were killed. His service was held at St. Mary of the Miraculous Medal Church where he had taught Sunday School. He came to America from Ecuador with his mother when he was two years old.

I’m sure many of you’ve been watching Ken Burns’ moving account this week of The War — Ken’s notable series recollecting the personal stories of the sacrifice made by an earlier generation of Americans caught up in the catclysm of the Second World War. But any war is The War for the soldiers who die in it — the war they will not live to remember, or recount for their grandchildren, or revisit in the movies. For sergeants Omar Mora and Yance Gray, who fought bravely and bravely told us the truth, The War is over. I’m Bill Moyers.