From the heartlands/Will it be as it was?

Opinion Editorials, VA
Aug 18 2004

FROM THE HEARTLAND/Will it be as it was?
Alan Thederahn

`There is nothing new in the world except the history you do not
know'(Harry S. Truman). The current armed uprising in Iraq is not a
surprise to anyone familiar with the Iraqi revolt against the British
military occupation in 1920. Resentment of the occupation led to the
formation of a secret society, Haras al-Istiqlal (Independence Guard)
led by Muhammad al-Sadr, (Grandfather of Moqtada Sadr, the leader of
the current Iraqi uprising) a son of the prominent Shi’a mujtahid
Ayatollah Hasan al-Sadr. Haras al-Istiqlal also had a close liaison
with esteemed cleric Ayatollah Muhammad Tami al-Shirazi who in April
1920 issued a fatwa pronouncing that service in the British
occupation administration was unlawful. By May there was active
cooperation between Sunnis’ and Shi’a against the British occupation.
The armed uprising broke out in June, set off in part by the arrest
of the son of Ayatollah al-Shirazi by British authorities. The
response of Ayatollah al-Shirazi, the premier Shi’a cleric in Iraq,
was to send out another fatwa appearing to encourage armed
insurrection. British measures to pre-empt an uprising only resulted
in the revolt breaking out and acquiring momentum. Inadequate British
forces were compelled to regroup and the uprising was not suppressed
until the end of October 1920 at a cost of lives of approximately 500
British and Indian soldiers and 6000 Iraqis.

If viewed from a time outlook of years rather than months the current
American military invasion and occupation of Iraq shares conspicuous
affinities with the campaign of the Roman emperor Trajan in the same
geographic region between 113 and 117 A.D. In both instances
political instability in the region jeopardized vital economic
interests which motivated both America and Rome to attempt to impose
a radical political solution upon the region by military conquest and
de facto annexation. It is a noteworthy fact that in both cases this
fundamental and far-reaching revision of previous established foreign
policy was instigated by `War cliques’ within the current American
administration and the emperor’s retinue. In both cases initial rapid
and complete military success was followed by an occupation
characterized by chaos, growing resentment, and ever more pervasive
violence which served only to generate even more political
instability in the region. Finally in both instances the military
invasion and occupation produced enormous strains upon both the
military capacity and financial solvency of both America and Rome.
These costs could not be recouped from the economic exploitation of
the occupied territory. A brief review of the main factorsand
sequence of events comprising Trajan’s campaign and its aftermath
clarify these four defining similarities with the present American
position in Iraq.

The prudent moderation of Emperor the Augustus fixed the geographic
limits of the Roman Empire within the Empire’s military capacity to
protect Rome’s vital economic
interests. These economic interests were essentially coterminous with
the Commerce of the Mediterranean world. On its eastern frontier Rome
had come to an arrangement in 66 A.D. with the Parthian Empire (the
regions of present day Iran and Iraq) over the disputed buffer
Kingdom of Armenia to the satisfaction of both Rome and Parthia. This
modus vivendi produced conditions that fostered regular caravan trade
which was a source of income for both powers. Such commerce yielded
large customs duties to both empires Treasury’s and brought
prosperity both to Roman Syria and Parthian Mesopotamia. The
arrangement permitted Rome to continue consolidation of its eastern
frontier to promote the affluence of the Empire’s urban and upper

The diplomatic and commercial understandings between Rome and Parthia
were ruptured in the reign of Emperor Trajan (98-117 A.D.). An
irregular succession inthe buffer Kingdom of Armenia and attendant
disorders in that realm provided Rome with a pretext to place matters
in the East on an entirely new footing. The death of Trajan’s
confidante L. Licinius Sura about 110 A.D. was an evil day for the
Empire because it strengthened the influence of the military element
in the emperor’s entourage. From his experiences in the Dacian wars
(105-108 A.D.) Trajan had acquired distaste for compromise which
played into the hands of those who advocated an aggressive policy in
place of the established traditional policy of Augustus.

The end result was that Trajan determined to annex Armenia as a Roman
province and end the threat posed by Parthia by occupying portions of
its territory by military garrisons and appointing a Roman nominee as
king of Parthia. This radical military solution would also entail a
tremendous commercial coup for the conquest to of Iraq would
eliminate Parthia from its middleman roll in the lucrative India
trade leaving the caravan routes to Syria completely in Roman hands.
Initial and complete military success attended Trajan’s plans from
114-116 A.D. With the fall of the Parthian capital, near present-day
Baghdad, and the emperor’s advance to the Persian Gulf the war seemed
over. Revolt quickly broke out to in the occupied areas of Iraq and
Rome regain control only after extensive heavy fighting. However, the
resources of Rome had been severely strained and it became a serious
question of how much effort would be required from the Roman Army to
preserve the bulk of Trajan’s conquests with Parthian military forces
still very much present and active. With the memorable failure of the
Roman Army before the key caravan city of Hatra in Iraq in 116
A.D.and the death of Trajan in 117 A.D., his successor Hadrian was
left to wrestle with the formidable legacy Trajan’s radical policy
had bequeathed to him. The new emperor, who had served on the Army
staff in the recent campaigns, was deeply impressed that Trajan’s
conquests were a severe political miscalculation and that it was
unsafe to attempt any extension of the Empire’s eastern frontiers
beyond the boundaries Augustus established 100 years previously. The
discretion of Hadrian recognized that in the East there were alien
and indissoluble cultural structures that might well exhaust the
energies of the Empire to provide the institutions and laws which
characterized the pax Romana. He also fully appreciated the extent to
which the Roman army had been stretched in the recent fighting and
for the preservation of the Army it was necessary to disengage the
troops from Iraq. The first acts of Hadrian were to evacuate the new
conquests in Iraq, to reestablish the former arrangement with Partha
over Armenia, and to withdraw the legions within the traditional line
of the Euphrates. The wisdom of these measures was quickly
demonstrated when the withdrawal of the legions made available extra
military forces for the suppression of an extensive insurrection
which had broken out among the Jewish Diaspora in the possessions of
the Empire itself while Trajan had been campaigning in Iraq. In his
actions on becoming emperor demonstrated a political courage that
enabled him to reject a failed radical policy, and in doing so save
the Army and restore peace within the Empire. The present American
position in the occupied Iraq leaves unanswered the critical
historical question: Will it be as it was?

Comments may be sent to: [email protected]

Alan W. Thederahn Director
Robert W. Meyer Deputy Director & Senior Analysts
The Old Virginia Military District Institute