Monday, January 12, 2009

A Cure for All Curiosity



Before I say anything else, I want to say A Peace to End All Peace: The Fall of the Ottoman Empire and the Creation of the Modern Middle East is a good book. Heck, it’s probably a great book. Having said that, thank the Lord, I finally finished it.

A Peace to End All Peace was in the running for the National Book Critics Circle award and a Pulitzer Prize. If you want to know how the modern Middle East emerged from the end of World War I and the demise of the Ottoman Empire, this is the authoritative book. It just drove me nuts reading it.

It was not, however, uninteresting.

”The principal danger, as “The Times” pictured it, lay in British overcommitment. The principal challenge to the country, in its view, was at home and was economic. Britain needed to invest her money in renewing herself economically and socially, and was threatened in her very existence by a governmental disposition to squander money instead on Middle Eastern adventures. In an editorial published on 18 July 1921 “The Times” denounced the government for this, saying that “while they have spent nearly £150,000,000 since the Armistice upon semi-nomads in the Mesopotamia they can find only £200,000 a year for the regeneration of our slums, and have had to forbid all expenditure under the Education Act of 1918.“”

Does any of that sound familiar ?

If you’re going to major in Middle Eastern history, this is the book for you. Otherwise, it will just hurt your head.

On the opposite side of the spectrum is Mark Stein’s easy-reading How the States Got Their Shapes. I breezed through it in a couple of days and enjoyed every bit of it. Fascinating and fun. Unfortunately, reality intrudes when you begin to realize just how much of our country’s history (not to mention its borders) is shaped by slavery.

One of the more fascinating facts is just how many of the States willingly gave up gold mines to maintain the political status quo. Yes, I’m being literal. Gold would be discovered in a Territory nearing Statehood and borders would be realigned to exclude the gold mines (and the miner’s votes) from the soon-to-be-State.

Both of these books highlight one of the fundamental facts of life. Much of the world’s history can be explained by geography. Geography explains America’s most easily discernible State border -- the Mississippi River -- and (if you think of a land route between Egypt and India) it explains why the British have been in Basra, Iraq before.

Don Brown
January 12, 2008

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