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Warnings from the Archive: A Century of British Intervention in the Middle East

1 January 2021 - 1 March 2023

PI/s in Exeter: Dr Owen Thomas

Research partners: Prof Catriona Pennell (History) Dr Margot Tudor

Funding awarded: £158205

Sponsor(s): Leverhulme Trust

Project webpage(s)

Warnings from the Archive: A Century of British Intervention in the Middle East

About the research

This interdisciplinary project deconstructs two official inquiries, one hundred years apart, into British military intervention in Iraq: the Mesopotamia Commission (1917) into the failures of Britain’s military effort during the First World War in Mesopotamia, and the Iraq ‘Chilcot’ Inquiry (2016) into Britain’s role in the 2003 US-led invasion and occupation of Iraq.

Despite officially withdrawing from the Iraq war in 2009, the British Government has retained an extensive military presence in the region – as it has done for the last century. Formal military engagement in the Middle East has long been an integral part of the state’s repertoire and self-image. Historically, British military intervention has been marked by self-identified failures, most conspicuously in Iraq with surrender at Kut-al-Amara in 1916 and the decision to participate in the US-led intervention in 2003 that led to a protracted programme of state-building. Both events were followed by official inquiries: the Mesopotamia Commission (1917) and the Iraq ‘Chilcot’ Inquiry (2009-2016). Both inquiries offered a remarkably similar verdict: the failure was one of poor planning and execution. The similarity was so striking that the Chilcot inquiry referred to the Mesopotamia Commission as the ‘first Iraq inquiry’. Yet to date, there has been no comparative research of either inquiry or the lessons learnt.

Led by Dr Owen Thomas, Professor Catriona Pennell, and Dr Margot Tudor, this Leverhulme-funded project will compare how these two inquiries were conducted, and what this reveals of the political culture of learning lessons. This interdisciplinary project brings together scholarship and methods from History, Politics, and International Relations to deconstruct how inquiries received and produced knowledge, influencing how contemporaries narrativized or remembered the intervention. Rather than focusing why the interventions failed, we want to centre how particular lessons came to be foregrounded and promoted by the inquiry.