In response to:
The Queen of the Quagmire from the October 25, 2007 issue
To the Editors:
In “The Queen of the Quagmire” [NYR, October 25], Rory Stewart writes that my book, Gertrude Bell: The Lady of Iraq,
is slight on Bell’s emotions and relationships. It is, however, the most assured portrait of Bell in the setting of her age. Whereas his subsequent book about Bell’s colleague Colonel Gerard Leachman is thin and ill-considered, his account of Bell is detailed, erudite, and thoughtful.
Gertrude Bell was in the singular position of being trusted by both sides, by tribal sheikhs and most of the British Cabinet, but she disliked Leachman intensely and was not without vanity. “Your unbounded conceit is the talk of Iraq,” Leachman told her shortly before he was killed by a tribal leader’s bullet at a place as yet unknown to the outside world, Fallujah. Gertrude told the story against herself. For me, they and their compatriots were a biographer’s delight and, anyway, no one else seemed willing to leave behind the cozy legend of “Lawrence of Arabia” in order to do them justice.
As for Leachman, though, I agree entirely with Rory Stewart. In retrospect my biography was ill-advised in tone. Had I known that within twenty years of writing it an Anglo-American invasion would stand the past on its head, I would have taken a more critical stance in dealing with one of the few Englishmen who would have been in favor of that intrusion. He did, after all, presciently recommend “mass destruction” of the tribesmen who took part in the 1920 rebellion, or “war of liberation” as we would call it if the boot was on the other foot. Hindsight is a rare gift.