Gertrude Bell (1868-1926 ) was one rip-roaring, bad-ass skirt. An academic, travel writer, explorer, cultural anthropologist, diplomat and spy, this broad can reasonably claim to be the founder of modern day Iraq.
Bell, daughter of a famous industrialist and clearly born into a life of British privilege, first gains props for being the first woman to graduate Oxford with a degree in history. Her wanderlust kicked in after graduation when after visiting an uncle who was the British Minister in Tehran, Persia (you know this place better as Iran), Bell wrote her first book Persian Pictures.
Bell spent a number of years bouncing about the continent learning mountaineering, archaeology, and picking a language or two (Actually it was 6. This bird had an enormous brain). In 1899, Bell found herself again in the Middle East where she became the human bridge from the Middle East to Europe, publishing books, mapping the area, photographing ruins and learning the culture. In 1909, Bell came into acquaintance with T.E. Lawrence. You might know him better as Lawrence of Arabia.
In the outbreak of WWI, Bell joined Army Intelligence in Cairo, Egypt. She proved her worth to the organization in teaching her “superiors” the local languages, customs and ways of political maneuvering. We Americans only recently wised-up about this in Iraq and now employ the practice called “Human Terrain Analysis”.
After a year, Bell finally managed to get her bad-self sent to Basra (Iraq) where she and T.E. Lawrence organized the revolt made so famous in the movie.
When the Ottoman Empire collapsed in 1919, it was Bell who was commissioned to provide analysis of the area. Nearly a year later, Bell presented what many feel to be a definitive report on the subject that rather strongly supported Arabic leadership, but this went clearly against the agenda of her superiors and Bell found herself put out.
So here’s the important lesson to be learned in Intelligence and political infighting: Decision Makers do well by listening to their analysts. Bell’s recommendations were ignored because the British wanted strict control of oilfields without any thought or care as to how this would affect the region. And it wasn’t so much that Bell contradicted what they wanted to hear, I’m sure the old “What does she know? She’s just a girl” played no small role in this scenario as well.
Which is shame, because while Bell’s influence established the modern day borders for Iraq, the failure of the Decision Makers to heed Bell’s advice, is clearly seen as history repeats in modern day Iraq as differing cultural values and religious ideologies still plague the area. Just as Bell said it would.
To her credit though, Bell stuck it out and aided the newly crowned King of Iraq and acted as a King’s advisor in local customs that influenced everything from business to politics. Bell even went as far as to supervise to the appointment of the King’s cabinet. But Bell was burnt out and exhausted by the end of it. She is famously quoted as saying “I’ll never engage in creating kings again; it’s too great a strain”.
The years took their ultimate toll on the Uncrowned Queen of Iraq. Heavy smoking, desert climate and some vicious malaria ravaged Bell’s health. She developed a not pleasant chronic lung condition (possibly lung cancer) and eventually overdosed on sleeping pills in Baghdad in 1926. She was interred in the British cemetery with a large outpouring of people to mourn her death.
And the final lesson to be learned here: History is not always written by the victors. “History” is often written by the schmoes lucky enough to have met an American writer and broadcaster who glamorize certain men’s adventures without getting all the facts straight. As was the case with Lowell Thomas popularizing “Lawrence of Arabia” and leaving our gal Gertrude out in the cold.
Time to get Gertrude out in the spotlight where she clearly belongs.