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    Decisive Point Podcast – Ep 3-31 – Dr. Heather S. Gregg – “The Grand Strategy of Gertrude Bell: From the Arab Bureau to the Creation of Iraq”

    Decisive Point Podcast – Ep 3-31 – Dr. Heather S. Gregg – “The Grand Strategy of Gertrude Bell: From the Arab Bureau to the Creation of Iraq”

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    Audio by Kristen Taylor 

    U.S. Army War College Public Affairs

    The remarkable life of early-twentieth-century British adventurer Gertrude Bell has been well documented through her numerous travel books and biographies. Bell’s role as a grand strategist for the British government in the Middle East during World War I and the postwar period, however, is surprisingly understudied. This monograph offers insights into the role women play as grand strategists. It shows how Bell helped to devise Great Britain’s military strategy in the Middle East during World War I and its creation of the modern state of Iraq. Studying Bell as both a military strategist and a grand strategist offers important insights into how she helped to devise British military strategy in the Middle East. These insights include Britain’s efforts to work through secret societies and saboteurs to undermine the Ottoman Empire during the war as part of the Arab Bureau and the country’s attempts to stabilize the region after the war through the creation of the modern state of Iraq.

    As importantly, studying Bell offers a glimpse into how this extraordinary woman was able to become one of the principal architects of British strategy and the exceptional set of skills and perspectives she brought to these efforts. Bell’s education, firsthand knowledge of the region, fascination with archaeology, and, above all, her ability to make and maintain relationships with key individuals were invaluable tools for shaping and promoting British efforts at retaining influence as a great power in the postwar era as well as Britain’s aims to secure key resources for the empire, including military bases and oil. Ultimately, Bell helped to shape British strategy in the region from 1915–26 because she was a woman, not in spite of it. She had access to both men and women within the local population, she used her social skills to connect and influence key actors in the region, and she brought decades of learning and firsthand experience traveling through the region and speaking with its people to inform and shape her grand strategy.

    Additionally, Bell’s grand strategy offers important lessons for the challenges of creating peace and stability after war. Britain’s efforts at stability operations in Iraq following World War I demonstrate the inherent tensions in balancing an intervening country’s objectives and priorities with those the intervening country is trying to stabilize—especially, the challenges of creating transitional governments and including the population in stability operations. Bell’s unique legacy offers insights into the roles women have played and continue to play as influencers of grand strategy in male-dominated contexts and the importance of including diverse perspectives in strategic thinking.

    Read the monograph:

    Episode Transcript: The Grand Strategy of Gertrude Bell: From the Arab Bureau to the Creation of Iraq
    Stephanie Crider (Host)

    Welcome to Decisive Point, a US Army War College Press production featuring distinguished authors and contributors who get to the heart of the matter in national security affairs.

    The views and opinions expressed on this podcast are those of the podcast guests and are not necessarily those of the Department of the Army, US Army War College, or any other agency of the US government.

    Decisive Point welcomes Dr. Heather Gregg, author of The Grand Strategy of Gertrude Bell: From the Arab Bureau to the Creation of Iraq, which was published by the US Army War College Press in July 2022. Gregg is a professor at the US Army War College’s Strategic Studies Institute. She’s the author of The Path to Salvation: Religious Violence from the Crusades to Jihad and Building the Nation: Missed Opportunities in Iraq and Afghanistan.

    Welcome to back to Decisive Point, Heather.

    (Heather S. Gregg)

    Great to be here. Thanks so much for having me.


    Oh, absolutely. Let’s talk about your new monograph. Strategic Studies Institute Director Dr. Carol Evans notes in her foreword to your work that “The contributions women have made in devising both military strategy and grand strategy are surprisingly understudied and in need of greater attention.”

    What a treat to read about Gertrude Bell. Please give our listeners an overview. Who was she?


    Yeah, so Gertrude Bell was this fascinating woman. She was born in Britain during the Victorian era in the late 1800s. She was born to a wealthy family. She was one of the first women to go to Oxford University. She was the first to get a first class in modern history, and she was fascinated with the Middle East. She started traveling there at a relatively young age. She traveled extensively. She learned the languages. She wrote travel books. She was even an avid hiker and a mountain climber, which is fascinating to me. But it was her language and her experience in the Middle East that got the attention of the British military. And she became very useful to helping devise both British military and grand strategy in the Middle East from World War I through the end of the war to the middle war period.


    When and where did she work, and how and why were her contributions important for British strategy?


    Yeah, so she became part of a small group known as the Arab Bureau that was stood up in 1915 in Cairo. And she worked with between seven to 14 people, very small group, including T. E. Lawrence that we know as “Lawrence of Arabia.” And she helped devise an unconventional warfare strategy, which was a strategy designed to frustrate and undermine Ottoman authority in the British Empire—I’m sorry, in the Middle East—and on behalf of the British Empire. So she was very instrumental in helping to devise that strategy and work with local leaders. And Lawrence of Arabia became famous because he went out and actually executed the strategy, but she was a part of a small group that formed that strategy. And then, after that, she went to what was known as Mesopotamia at the time—what we now know as Iraq—and she helped devise the military occupation of Iraq after the British government and the British military seized it at the end of World War I. And then, she actually helped create the modern state of Iraq, and that included putting the first king in power in Iraq, who she knew personally and who T. E. Lawrence had worked with. So she had a huge influence on both what happened during the war and then what happened after the war.


    So what were some of the techniques that Bell used to operationalize her strategy?


    Yeah, so she had a really interesting tool kit that I think shows that being a woman is actually an asset in certain circumstances. So, for example, she was very, very good at building friendships, and she built friendships that lasted a lifetime, both in the Middle East, but also back in Britain. And so one example of this is there was a bit of a fight that broke out between the Cairo office and the office in Delhi about who should control the Middle East. Should it be the government of India, the British government of . . . in India, or should it be Cairo, or should it be London? And Gertrude Bell happened to be lifelong friends with the viceroy at the time, who was who was in India. And she was dispatched to go to India and to smooth over this problem, which she did. So I think that’s a fascinating example of how this relationship she had had for a long time—she was able to work quiet diplomacy, friendship diplomacy, and resolve that problem.

    She also built lifelong friendships with people in the region, and this included King Faisal (Faisal I), the first king of Iraq. She was his trusted advisor for several years, and he put her in charge of antiquities. And she helped create laws for Iraq that protected their antiquities from Western archaeologists coming in and taking antiquities. So her relationship building was just phenomenal and, I think, very important.

    The second thing she did which I thought was really interesting was she was very good at throwing parties. And this might sound very superfluous, but it actually isn’t. She threw parties in a strategic way. She would put certain people in the room together so they could talk and meet one another. She was very instrumental in throwing parties for the wives of influential men. So she knew that wives had their husband’s ears, and so she was able to build relationships with those women, and then they, in turn, would help influence their husbands. So she did a lot of very interesting things, not in spite of being a woman, but because she was a woman. And I think that’s really interesting.


    How was Bell able to have such influence and hold the positions she held as a British woman during and after World War I?


    Yeah, I think this is a really interesting question, and it’s something that I still am not entirely sure I know the answer to. But I think that one of the things that’s very interesting is that it seemed to me that the British government saw her as useful, and that was the priority—that they knew that she had on-the-ground experience. She had language experience; she understood tribal dynamics and key leaders and their relationships to one another. And they saw this as useful.

    So it’s surprising how little conversation there was about her being a woman and how much that her expertise was valued. I would also say that once again, her friendships were very important. So the fact that she knew T. E. Lawrence mattered. He was at the Arab Bureau first in Cairo. The first director of the Arab Bureau was actually not in the military. He was an academic and archaeologist, and they had also met on a dig, and so she knew him. So I think that was important too. But I think overall, this is a fascinating story about seeing someone as an expert first, and then seeing their gender second.

    And so that’s very interesting and, I think, important contribution that her legacy has made.


    Let’s talk more about her legacy. What would you say Bell’s legacy is today? What can we learn from her?


    Yeah, I think there’s just a lot of things that are deeply relevant for today. I’ve already mentioned that, you know, building friendships is incredibly important. A second thing I would add to this is that building the right team matters for creating good strategy. So the Arab Bureau drew from academic experts, from civilians, from military. They would add experts and remove them, depending on the problem that they were looking at. But it wasn’t just the military having a conversation about what to do. They really built a team, a table that included a wide array of voices and perspectives. And I think that was legacy, and I think it’s really important.

    Another thing that Bell leaves for us today is just how difficult it is to stabilize a country or region in the wake of war. So she had tremendous expertise. Her loyalties were to the British government and to the Crown, and her priorities were not to Iraq per se. But she was a British subject, and her loyalties were to Britain. I think she cared deeply about Iraq, but, still, the decisions that she made and the team made have lasting consequences and, frankly, many of those decisions, in retrospect, were probably not the right ones. And so I think it’s a very humbling story for me about someone with all this expertise and passion for the region, and things still didn’t go well when it came to stabilizing the country.

    I would say also that she had a real emphasis on working through the local population to shape dynamics. And, again, Bell is a very confusing person to me because she cared deeply about the local population and cared deeply about the region. But then, she would she would pick and choose when she listened to the local population. So when they chose to put King Faisal on the throne, make him the leader of Iraq, he was not Iraqi. He had never been to Iraq. He was the leader that Bell knew and that the British knew, not the Iraqis. And so she didn’t listen, I think, as well as she should have in that instance.

    But in other places, she did, and she cared deeply about the local population. So I think, yeah, for me, the big lasting takeaway is that stabilizing a state is very, very difficult to do in the wake of war.


    That’s fair. Do you have any final thoughts before we wrap up?


    Just I’d like to take a moment to thank the press for this opportunity to write about this fascinating woman. This was a (coronavirus disease or) COVID project for me. Gertrude Bell’s letters and documents are all digitized. They sit on the University of Newcastle’s (University of Newcastle upon Tyne’s) website in Britain. They’re excellent. They’re easy to navigate, and it was just a tremendous opportunity to learn about this woman and learn from her.

    Thank you for this opportunity, Stephanie, to speak with you about Gertrude. And I hope that our listeners will download the manuscript and read it.


    I hope so too. I read it and really enjoyed it. So, well thank you so much for being here. This was a real pleasure.


    Thank you so much, Stephanie!


    If you enjoyed this podcast and would like to learn more about Gertrude Bell, download the monograph at

    If you enjoyed this episode of Decisive Point and would like to hear more, look for us on Amazon Music, Spotify, Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, and any other major podcast platform.



    Date Taken: 09.19.2022
    Date Posted: 06.20.2023 15:09
    Category: Newscasts
    Audio ID: 74945
    Filename: 2306/DOD_109718156.mp3
    Length: 00:10:04
    Artist US Army War College Press
    Album Decisive Point – Season 3
    Track # 31
    Year 2022
    Genre Podcast
    Location: US

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