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Of Arms And The Man


Bruce Anderson


Source: BBC, 2016

Soldier in the Sand: A Personal History of the Modern Middle East 
by Simon Mayall. Pen and Sword. £25.00. 320 pages 

Arma virumque cano. That most eloquent and equally untranslatable phrase would be a good subtitle for this excellent book, although General Mayall does not only cover his own long and distinguished service in the profession of arms. He guides us through the history and geopolitics of the Middle - or should that be 'Muddle'? - East, while describing the many failures of Western politicians in successive generations. Indeed, I cannot think of any book which is such fun to read, and so pessimistic in most of its conclusions.

There is plenty of fun. Simon Mayall was a cavalryman. In mid-career, he commanded the Queen's Dragoon Guards, one of his proudest accomplishments. The cavalry are a breed of soldiers notorious for pretending never to take anything too seriously. It was a cavalryman who claimed that in wartime, their raison d'etre was lending style to what would otherwise be a vulgar brawl. The young Mayall enjoyed the boisterousness and rumbustiousness of Mess life, with humour and alcohol never far away. Pretending to be even more languid than usual, one of his colleagues, while briefing a mere yeomanry officer, managed to stimulate his social chip and provoke a gritted-teeth enquiry: 'does everyone in this regiment have a private income?' 'Don't be silly' came the reply: 'only the officers.'

But this affectation of frivolity only lasts until the guns begin to shoot. In peacetime, it has a clear military purpose. There is one basic point about the Army which most civilians, including many politicians, fail to understand. There is nothing natural about being prepared to die for your country. Frederick the Great once castigated some faltering troops. 'Fools, would you live for ever?' The honest answer would probably have been: 'No, but we do want a bit longer.' In the case of the UK, as the coercive measures which previous generations of officers were able to use are no longer available, they have to be replaced by an even greater emphasis on bonding and leadership, to encourage discipline, inspire loyalty and, when necessary, self-sacrifice. Old-fashioned mess life assists all this. It helps the men to understand that their officers are not snowflakes. Soldiers would not follow snowflakes. No British officer whom I have talked to takes followership for granted. I do not think that any organisation in the world has given more thought to leadership than the British Army. Simon Mayall was one of the thinkers.

Indeed, and although he always wears his learning lightly, Simon is one of the more intellectual senior officers of his generation. Most cavalrymen would pretend to be unable to spell 'intellectual', and express horror at the thought of its being said of them. But there would be no point in Simon's trying to dodge that column. A Balliol man, who learned Arabic and did an M.A at St Anthony's, he knows that any contemporary version of 'servitude et grandeur militaires' must include hard thought. 'Serve to lead' is the Sandhurst motto. 'Think to fight' would be a useful additional aphorism.


In that respect, Simon is the very model of a modern Lieutenant-General. 

Yet, much as he revered his chosen branch of the Army, there was one drawback to the cavalry. It had a Cold War role, in Germany, waiting for the day which everyone hoped would never come while ensuring that the Western side of the Iron Curtain did not grow rusty. Simon wanted a more adventurous deployment. He had caught the eye of two formidable Generals. The first was Nigel Bagnall, whom some qualified judges regard as possibly the finest post-war British General. In combat, he won two Military Crosses. As a Corps Commander in Germany, and based on his studies of German tank warfare on the Eastern Front, he recast British armoured-fighting methods, in case we should ever have to deal with larger Soviet formations. Thank God that never happened, but the Bagnall doctrine contributed to the Armoured Corps' successes in the desert.

'Baggy' as he was nicknamed, though never in earshot, believed in training the young officers who worked for him, if they could meet his standards. When he appointed Peter Inge as his chief of staff, he said; 'If you don't have the moral courage to stand up to me, you'll be no use to me.' Peter passed muster, rose to become a Field Marshal, and made equal demands on his own staff. Simon Mayall served as General Bagnall's ADC. His master had always hated Whitehall warfare, and had to be ordered to collect his Knighthood in person. But this refusal to engage in military politics had an unfortunate consequence. It prevented him from becoming Chief of the Defence Staff (CDS). the British equivalent of Chaiman of the Joint Chiefs. Baggy had quarrelled with Margaret Thatcher, because he did not believe in the nuclear deterrent. He also fell out with John Fieldhouse, the man whom he should have succeeded as CDS. Nigel Bagnall did not think that he was up to the job and did not conceal his opinion. Oddly enough, Fieldhouse did not agree, so Bagnall fell short.

Simon Mayall's second patron was General Sir John Waters. Given the army's inevitable irreverence, it will come as no surprise that he was nicknamed 'Muddy.' He too believed in encouraging the young, if they were worth it. Simon was. After being advised by a senior officer that it was time to get some sand between his toes, he applied to become a loan service officer in Oman. On the application form, Waters wrote 'Approved. This officer wants adventure and excitement. Exactly what we all joined the Army for.'

Oman is a triumphant exception to this book's eupeptic pessimism. Simon Mayall fell in love with that country, as so many have. It has a glorious landscape, an equally impressive coastline, a fascinating history - and a promising future. The Omanis are natural traders and for centuries their dhows traversed the Indian Ocean, from Zanzibar to India itself. The Royal Family of Zanzibar were Omanis. Some of the trade goods were controversial. There is a delightful Tenniel cartoon of an interchange between Disraeli and the Sultan of Zanzibar. Disraeli: 'Her Majesty's Government would be grateful if Your Majesty could do more to suppress slavery in Your dominions.' Sultan: 'Ah, Sheikh ben Dizzy, I would like to abolish slavery, but you see: Conservative Party very strong in Zanzibar.'


In Oman too, small-c Conservatism had impeded modernity. As late as the early Sixties, the UN was complaining about slavery in the country. For two centuries, Oman had been in gentle decline. Although a Sultan ruled in Muscat, he had difficulties in imposing his authority on tribal chiefs and religious leaders in the interior. Then, the decline threatened to become rapid. In the South, there was a rebellion, backed by Yemenis. Russian and China were ready to make trouble. Although oil revenues had started to arrive, the then Sultan, Said bin Timur, refused to deploy them for social improvement. Children were still dying for want of simple drugs, while Sultan Said more or less stored his nation's new wealth in brass-bound trunks under the bed. Something had to be done. Assisted by the British, Said's son Qaboos launched a coup, won, and set about changing the country. It was arguably the most successful instance of neo-colonial intervention in all history. Oman has modernised, without losing any of its charm. Muscat is a city with every modern resource plus antiquity. As the morning sun comes on duty, Fitzgerald has the right description: 'And Lo! The Hunter of the East has caught/ The Sultan's Turret in a Noose of Light.' 

The populace are fully worthy of their endowments from nature and history.


The Sultan decreed that adult males must wear national dress: a white dish-dash. He also hated the sight of rubbish. As a result, Muscat is at least as tidy as any other city of its size. Religion also helps. Most Omanis follow the Ibadi branch of Islam, a gentle faith which does not lure its adherents into militancy. Apropos faith, as Christendom prepared to herald the Millenium, with greater or lesser conviction, Sultan Qaboos decided to commission a new Mosque. It is a triumphant success, with superb craftsmanship in harmony with traditional forms. The English translations are as they should be, BC and AD: no nonsense about CE. It is a beautiful building but also a numinous one. Qaboos died earlier this year, falling just short of half a century on the throne. The Mosque is an appropriate memorial. Like Wren, and referring to both the Mosque and the city of Muscat, the Sultan could have said: 'Si monumentum requiris, circumspice.' His nation proves that Islamic civilisation survived the centuries of decline.

By the time Simon Mayall arrived in the country, the immediately military threat had been dealt with, but powerful armed forces were a necessity. The Omanis live in a dangerous neighbourhood. They have almost two thousand miles of coastline, and their neighbours include Saudi Arabia, Yemen and Iran, none of whom can be entirely trusted. The Sultan also believed in using his army to spread education and training, thus strengthening civil society. So Simon Mayall had a wonderful time, in a good cause, doing his bit to ensure that Oman remained an island of stability in a troubled world.

Those troubles occupy much of the book. It all starts with the fall of Empires, almost invariably a troublesome process, and moves on to the rise of religion: an equally fraught matter. Starting with Empires, It probably took a thousand years after the fall of Rome for the formerly Roman parts of Europe to reach the same level of GDP that they had enjoyed under the Antonines. In the Nineteenth Century, Western European statesmen kept a constant eye on the Turkish Empire, the 'sick man of Europe.' There were obvious opportunities for Imperial expansion, but London saw an equally obvious risk: that the Russians would annex territories which enabled them to threaten Britain's communications with India. By the First World War, European powers had taken control of the entire North African littoral. After 1918, there was further expansion, with the British Empire and Dominions reaching their greatest extent. In all this, there was one oversight. T.E. Lawrence excepted, not nearly enough attention was paid to local political developments. 

There was a lesson to be learned. Out of the Turkish Empire, there emerged a new Turkey. Under Ataturk, it modernised. If there had been a Western statesman of genius, he might have pondered the implications of all that. But there was another problem. Although the British Empire did not disintegrate, it was increasingly afflicted by Imperial overstretch. Kipling's 'Recessional' must have bewildered many late Victorians who still took it for granted that there would be indefinite dominion over palm and pine. As the years passed, his gloomy prophecies were increasingly vindicated. By 1945, they had almost become an understatement. The days of Empire in the Far East were numbered and we were no longer in a position to dominate the Middle East. So what would replace us?

In retrospect, there was a choice, between Ataturkism, as represented by the Baath party, and the Muslim Brotherhood. Secular states could have emerged, whose priorities would have been economic, not Islamic. They might well have flirted with the Russians; they would never have been easy allies. Israel/Palestine would always have been problematic. But there was no reason why they should not have cooperated with the West. Instead, we prevented Mossadeq establishing a constitutional monarchy in Iran, and blundered into Suez, a geopolitical disaster, which led to the fall of the Baghdad Pact and the end of the Hashemite Monarchy in Iraq. 

Paradoxically, Egypt itself has become the least troubled of the major states in the region. The smooth transition after the assassination of Sadat and the failure of the Islamists to exploit the fall of Mubarak suggest that in Egypt, there is now a stable political class, based on the army. In effect, this is neo-Ataturkism. The hopes of the jeunesse dorée in Tahir Square during the Arab spring may not have been realised, but that was never likely. There is a relevant Irishism: 'This pig does not weigh as much as I thought it did, but then again, I never thought it would.' Although political liberalising cannot be on any immediate Egyptian agenda, there ought to be other priorities. If only something could be turn to make 'Egyptian economy' a reality, not an oxymoron.

IIn Egypt, religious extremism appears to be containable. That is not so easy in other parts of the region. Even in Turkey, the herd immunity from fanaticism - an Ataturk-ite legacy - seems to be wearing out. Marx said that religion was the opium of the people. Sophisticated Westerners often assume that there are stronger opiates, especially economic ones, which could lessen religion's attractions. That is not necessarily true. The religious impulse is deep in the human psyche. The average Muslim may not resemble the warrior-poets who rode their camels out of the Arabian peninsula in the Seventh and Eighth centuries, conquering half the known world and intimidating the other half. But it would be foolish to assume that consumerism is always an antidote to belief. Admittedly, the absence of consumerism has not helped, and nor have the humiliations which many Middle Easterners regard as the most prominent theme in their recent history. 

That brings us to Iraq. Inevitably, Simon Mayall devotes a lot of attention to that benighted country. He is not kind to American policy-makers. He argues that the original sin was to end the first Gulf war too early. Although our author does not believe that we should have pressed on to Baghdad, he does think that Saddam should have been made to surrender and thus deprived of the opportunity to conceal the fact that he had been defeated. As it was, he developed an Iraqi version of the stab in the back myth which encouraged German revanchism after 1918. Some years later, our author discussed this with Margaret Thatcher. She was emphatic. She would not have supported the War's end. The job was only half done. She was right, which does not mean that she would have got her way back in 1991. There would have been a number of difficulties. The American generals were in favour of halting. One cynical observer wondered if they were competing to use the title 'Hundred Hours War' for their memoirs. A quick termination of hostilities would lessen the strain on the Arab members of the coalition, while the film footage of the so-called 'turkey shoot' gave the impression that the Iraqi Army had been smashed. Pressing on might have seemed unnecessarily blood-thirsty. Above all, in both Washington and London, there was a general expectation that Saddam was finished and would be ousted in weeks, if not days. In retirement, Lady Thatcher was certain that she could have prevailed. In reality, we will never know. There would have been a lot of voices against her.

Having so comprehensively underestimated Saddam in 1991, one might have thought that the Americans would have been more cautious in 2003. On the contrary. Simon Mayall describes the coalition of idealistic neo-Conservatives, Fukuyama-ites, techno-fanatics and Tony Blair who were responsible for a succession of misjudgments. Donald Rumsfeld thought that high-tech would make it easy to win wars without the need for vast quantities of tanks and infantry. After 9/11, the neo-Cons asked themselves agonised questions. Why do these people seem to hate us so much? Their answers verged on vulgar Marxism. Because so many Arab countries were so badly run, young men were unable to find work, or wives. Searching for a meaning to life, They were therefore perfect fanatic fodder. The Neo-Cons also believed that democracy was a universal political antibiotic. Open the tailgate of the jeep: candies for the kids, votes for the parents, and all would be well. Mr Blair, meanwhile, made the 'dodgy dossier' speech. Never has the House of Commons been treated to a more powerful piece of mendacity. The then PM also disregarded all the experts who would have urged caution.

Iraq was riven between a Shia majority and a Sunni minority, many of whom had used power to oppress. Some wise American generals urged a much larger allied troop deployment to create a framework for stability.


They were sidelined and replaced by less competent men while a fool called Jerry Bremer decreed that the Iraqi state must be de-Baathised. So millions of Sunnis lost their jobs, but kept their weapons. In Simon Mayall's words, 'Bush and Rumsfeld chose a newly promoted and untested Lieutenant General. Sanchez was confronted by a lack of command authority, an under-resourced staff, conflicting orders from Washington, growing civil disorder. a failure to get basic power supplies back on line as the summer temperatures soared, and a poisonous relationship between himself and Bremer, which communicated itself to both the military and the civil personnel.' Thus, only a few weeks after the triumphant toppling of Saddam's statue, the mission went pear-shaped: a US version of Imperial overstretch.

Returning to that theme should remind us of a fable: the Princess and the pea. However many mattresses the spoilt girl's servants heaped on her bed, they could not efface the pea which was disturbing her sleep. In this case there are two peas: Palestine and Pakistan. By 1945, Britain was too exhausted to tackle either. We had to leave both to the tender mercies of conflict, terrorism, war and fitful American intervention. The Americans knew how to break away from our Empire. But they never learned how to run one of their own. If the world is destroyed during the next few decades, the Ps may well be responsible. In the meantime, everyone interested in geo-politics, and certainly anyone responsible for it, should read this book.

Background painting is The Education of the Children of Clovis, Lawrence Alma-Tadema, 1861

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