~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~Ignored at Our Own Peril
By Russ Wellen
The name Lawrence of Arabia was bestowed upon T.E. Lawrence as if he were an earl, such as Mountbatten of Burma, not by the British crown, though, but by journalist and showman Lowell Thomas, who helped turn the man into a myth. Lawrence’s popularity and legend ebbed and flowed in the decades following World War I. But it kicked into another gear when, twenty-seven years after Lawrence’s death, David Lean directed his epic biopic Lawrence of Arabia. In recent years, Lawrence’s legacy has once again undergone a resurgence.
One reason is his fight with and for the Arabs of today’s Saudi Arabia. Openly and militarily, to free the Arabs from the Ottoman Empire; secretly and diplomatically, to try to make the British honor their initial promise of the Arabs’ right to self-determination. The extent to which the British (and French) prevailed in denying this right against lonely voices such as Lawrence’s is viewed today as helping sow the seeds for the discord and tyrannies that have plagued the Middle East ever since, culminating, of course, in the US invasions and sieges of Iraq and Afghanistan.
Another reason can be filed under the category of irony: the commanders of those very US operations were apparently influenced by Lawrence’s guerilla war tactics. In the words of Major Niel Smith, formerly of the US Army and Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Center, Lawrence was the “patron saint of the US Army advisory effort in Afghanistan and Iraq.” General David Petraeus disseminated a briefing of Lawrence’s titled “Twenty-Seven Articles” and John Nagl, coauthor of the 2006 US Army/Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual, said: “What Lawrence gave us was an appreciation of [working] through our local allies…And also a sense of the independence of thought and action that is required both for good insurgent leaders and, in many cases, for good counterinsurgency leaders.” Thus the innovative tactics Lawrence developed for insurgency were flipped to counterinsurgency.
A third reason Lawrence’s story strikes a chord today is that his life and autobiography, Seven Pillars of Wisdom, present a case study in that modern plague, post-traumatic stress disorder.
In Lawrence in Arabia: War, Deceit, Imperial Folly and the Making of the Modern Middle East (Doubleday, 2013), veteran journalist Scott Anderson makes Lawrence’s timeliness abundantly clear. In the process, he also sheds some light on other Westerners in the Middle East who could be characterized as independent actors. These include Aaron Aarohnson, the Zionist agronomist who helped make what would later become Israel habitable, and American William Yale, who spearheaded Socony’s cold-blooded plunder of the Middle East’s oil before he became a diplomat. But, we will focus on Lawrence, to whom the bulk of the book is devoted, and provide a broad outline of his quest for Arab self-determination.
How did Thomas Edward Lawrence, an English archaeologist with a passion for medieval history, come to be embraced by natives of Arabia’s Hejaz region, which contained religious sites Mecca and Medina, and play such an outsized role in history?
To begin with, Lawrence was supremely driven. Here’s how he spent his last summer at Oxford: to survey nearly all the Crusader castles in Syria, he journeyed over 1,000 miles across its deserts and mountain ranges with temperatures reaching 120 degrees on foot. Forewarned that he’d be met with threats of bodily harm, Lawrence instead found that he was overwhelmed with hospitality. His physical toughness can be traced back to a stern Christian mother with a penchant for severe physical punishment, which Lawrence prided himself on enduring without a whimper.
After Oxford, Lawrence returned to Syria for a British Museum archaeological dig. While helping to discover an important temple, he also got a first-hand look at the decline of the Ottoman Empire. The British government soon enlisted his familiarity with the region in a map-mapping expedition to route possible paths of attack by the Ottomans and Germans in the event of war, which soon broke out.
Drawing back from Lawrence to view the big picture of World War I, Anderson adds his own eloquent voice to the chorus that has lamented the futility of the Great War.
[S]tripped of all its high-minded justifications and rhetoric, at its core this war had many of the trappings of an extended family feud, a chance for Europe’s kings and emperors—many of them related by blood—to act out old grievances and personal slights on to the heaped bodies of their loyal subjects. In turn, Europe’s imperial structure had fostered a culture of decrepit military elites—aristocrats and aging war heroes and palace sycophants—whose sheer incompetence on the battlefield, as well as callousness toward those dying for them, was matched only by that of their rivals.Because the Ottoman Empire was a weak link among the Central Powers (which, besides the German Empire, also included the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and the Kingdom of Bulgaria, as opposed to the Triple Entente of Britain, France, and Russia), the British saw the Middle East theater as an opportunity to make gains significantly more marked than the mere meters measured out at Marnes or Ypres. Thus did they make the decision to aid the Arabs in their rebellion against the Turks, stoking Arab dreams of a greater Arabia including Syria to the north.
When Emir Hussein, tribal and religious leader of the Hejaz, indicated a willingness to join forces with the British, Lawrence determined that his dynamic son, Faisal ibn Hussein, was perfectly poised to act as the Arabs’ military leader—with Lawrence as liaison. Aside from his knowledge of the language, love of the people, and physical toughness, what made Lawrence such a good candidate to co-direct the Arab rebellion? Anderson explains:
[W]arfare in early-twentieth-century Arabia bore striking similarities to that in fourteenth-century Europe. [Lawrence] found many of the features of the Arabian battlefield instantly recognizable, and certainly far more familiar than to a professionally trained officer steeped in Napoleonic or even current Western Front precepts.In addition, Lawrence demonstrated a first-rate strategic mind. For example, in the early years, the British were intent on capturing Medina. Lawrence’s plan for accomplishing that was light years ahead of the British military mind. Anderson again:
The proper strategy going forward, in Lawrence’s new estimation, was to keep the Turks settled into Medina almost indefinitely. [Thus] the Arabs could take their rebellion into Syria and pursue the same strategy there: ceding the larger garrison towns to the Turks while they roamed the countryside striking at soft spots of their choosing, constantly disrupting the enemy supply lines until the Turkish presence was limited to an atoll of armed islands amid an Arab-liberated sea. [Emphasis added.]Lawrence also advocated beginning an operation with small, mobile forces of elite warriors and recruiting others along the way, after which, “the local recruits could melt back into their villages as those in Lawrence’s party scattered in search of a safe haven.” What does that sound like? Oh yeah, the Taliban, for one.
Enter dilettante British diplomat Mark Sykes, of whom Anderson writes that “it’s hard to think of any figure who, with no true malice intended and neither a nation nor an army at his disposal, was to wreak more havoc on the twentieth century.” Along with French diplomat François Georges-Picot, he authored the Sykes-Picot Agreement, which divvied up the Middle East between Britain, France, and Russia. In the agreement’s first edition, Iraq was awarded to Britain, Syria to France, and Constantinople to Russia.
Lawrence’s heart sank at how ready and willing the Triple Entente was to brush aside the Arabs’ role in the war against the Turks and to cut the string from which it had dangled the carrot of Syria. The ever-irreverent Lawrence said, “I’m not working for HMG [His Majesty’s Government] but for Sherif [Emir Hussein].” He would write that he was trying “to defeat not merely the Turks on the battlefield, but my own country and its allies in the council-chamber.’”If you have seen Lean’s movie, you may recall how central Aqaba, a port in Sinai, was to Lawrence’s legend. The Turks’ last important outpost on the Red Sea, it was also a jumping-off point from which the British and Arabs could carry the fight to Syria. On the way to Aqaba, Lawrence mounted multiple strikes with his small, mobile forces and, approaching from inland, surprised the Turks, who were defending against an expected attack by the Royal Navy. This victory not only energized the British military command, it vastly increased Lawrence’s strategic credibility.
Then the British issued the Balfour Declaration, throwing its support behind the idea of a national home for Jews in Palestine. It constituted yet another threat to the English-Arab partnership along with the Sykes-Picot Agreement. Lawrence’s reaction was that “if a Jewish state is to be created in Palestine, it will have to be done … and maintained by force of arms amid an overwhelmingly hostile population.”
As you can see, despite the impasse at which the Triple Entente and the Central Powers found themselves, the British, as well as the French, remained intent on reaping the spoils of war. Anderson writes:
Given this stunning lack of progress earned at such horrific cost, it might seem reasonable to imagine that the thoughts of the various warning nations would now turn toward peace, to trying to find some way out of themes. Instead, precisely the opposite was happening.You may be familiar with this dilemma, if on a less apocalyptic scale than World War I, from the lack of results achieved by the United States in Iraq and Afghanistan. In “contemplating all the lives already lost, the treasure squandered, how to ever admit it was for nothing?” asks Anderson. He answers his own question: “Since such an admission is unthinkable, and the status quo untenable, the only option left is to escalate.”
After all, “defeating one’s enemies is only half the game…payment of war reparations into the victor’s coffers, the grabbing of a disputed province here or there … seemed rather picayune in view of this conflict’s cost.” Instead, both in spite of and in light of all the losses, what was now “required was greater commitment—more soldiers, more money, more loss—to be redeemed when victory finally came with more territory, more wealth, more power.”
The end was soon near for the Central Powers and would begin in a locale distant from the battlefields of Europe—Syria. The British military swept up the Palestinian coast and encircled the whole Turkish army, which it now sought to crush. Meanwhile, on the way to Damascus, Lawrence’s Arab forces engaged in an orgy of railroad and bridge destruction. As is often the case when armies are on the run, their backs serve as tempting targets to ruthless effect. In retaliation for brutalities by the Turks, Lawrence allowed his men to massacre 4,000 fleeing Turkish troops, as well as commit other atrocities before finally arriving in Damascus.
But, writes Anderson, “Everything T.E. Lawrence had fought for, schemed for, arguably betrayed his country for turned to ashes in a single five-minute conversation between the prime ministers of Great Britain and France.” David Lloyd George “took aside a visiting Georges Clemenceau and bluntly outlined just what Britain wanted in the Middle East: Iraq and Palestine. In tacit exchange, although Lloyd George would always deny it, France would have free rein in Syria.”
Under French supervision, Faisal would be permitted to administer Syria, but, adding insult to injury, he was boxed out of Palestine and Lebanon, thus denying the Arabs access to ports—in other words, it was the Sykes-Picot Agreement on steroids. That was Lawrence’s cue to depart the scene. Though utterly disillusioned he would rouse himself to return to the fray and fight for Arab independence at the Paris Peace Conference.
As Faisal’s counselor, Lawrence lobbied British statesmen and even sought to ally with Zionist leader Chaim Weizmann, calling for Jews to be welcomed by Arabs into Palestine. But to no effect—Lawrence may have helped win the war but, as Anderson points out, he had “lost the peace.” But, oh, what France and England inherited. In Syria, Faisal rebelled against the French and, in British Palestine, tension between Zionists and Arabs erupted into violence. Meanwhile, Faisal’s father Hussein’s reign in the Hejaz was ended by Wahhabist Ibn-Saud, under whose watch oil was discovered and whose name was given to an Arabia which his house rules to this day.
Lawrence enjoyed one last hurrah when, in 1920, Lloyd George called on Winston Churchill to help reshape the British Middle East at the Cairo Conference. In fact, Lawrence helped one of Hussein’s other sons, Abdullah, to establish his own government in what became Jordan.
Wrapping up, Anderson writes that “it’s hard to imagine that any of this could possibly have produced a sadder history than” the “catalog of war, religious strife, and brutal dictatorships that has haunted not just the Middle East but the entire world.”
Meanwhile, for the rest of his life, Lawrence “was to feel stained by what he had seen and done during the war, and in his struggle to ever ‘feel clean’ again, repeatedly looked to self-abnegation and violence against himself … as recompense for his sins.” Anderson diagnoses Lawrence as suffering from PTSD, with that messy mix of what soldiers were subjected to, what they witnessed, and what they did (which has come to be known as moral injury). In Lawrence’s case, this incorporated everything from torture and an apparent rape he experienced at the hands of the Turks to those he personally killed to Turkish forces he ordered mowed down by machine guns to the massacres he either encouraged or condoned.
Lawrence in Arabia is the type of nonfiction book that, because of the fantastical nature of the tale and the author’s gift for storytelling, appears to be part of a plot to make serious fiction obsolete. Its deficiencies are negligible: too few maps too broadly drawn, some question about whether or not the stories of the others he chronicles enhanced or distracted from his narrative. At least one, though, that of Aaron Aaronsohn and his sister, in part because it was new to this reader, was riveting.
To reiterate, Lawrence in Arabia is a tale of betrayal, though not just the betrayal of the Arabs by colonial powers. Swimming against the current of his myth, it must be stated that Lawrence too was a betrayer—of humanity itself—by overseeing the commission of what amounts to war crimes. While his importance should never be sold short, the time has come to discontinue mythologizing him, as well as many, if not most, of those honored as war heroes.
Other reviews have been published by the NY Times and Washington Post. But this one by Russ Wellen, without the same big audience, strikes me as more in-depth. If I were the book reader I once was I would get the book and read it, but in retirement I cheat and read the reviews instead.
Wrapping up, here is the final scene from the movie.