Part 1 is here.
T. E. Lawrence thought of himself as a great expert on the Arabs, and he managed to convince others to share in that belief. And he met a felt need, in Great Britain in the 1920s, after the Great War, for a hero, and a hero on a horse, whose heroism took place far from the trenches that one would wish to forget. That made him even more attractive. And his myth was also helped along, across the Atlantic, by the entrepreneurial Lowell Thomas, who proceeded to market books and short, traveloguish films, about “Lawrence of Arabia,” flogging his wares everywhere.
Let’s remember that Lawrence’s achievement, such as it was, was merely one based on gold. The Arabs he dealt with did not flock to the Allied side. Almost all of the Arabs in the Ottoman Empire remained quiescent, to the very end of World War I, content to accept, or fearful of not accepting, their Turkish overlords. But there were some, a few, under the Sharifians (the family that controlled, or was the custodian of, the Two Noble Sanctuaries, Mecca and Medina), who came to the Allies after years of cajoling, and especially after they finally saw, by late in 1916, which way the war appeared to be going. They were further persuaded by what some cynical British called the “cavalry of St. George” – that is, the bags of gold that Lawrence distributed. (The “bags-of-gold” method was used by the British often, as the best way to rent temporary Arab support – even the famous crosser of the Empty Quarter, Mr. Shakespeare, found bags of gold sovereigns the best implementer of policy among the Al-Saud.)
It is in Lawrence’s Seven Pillars of Wisdom, written at the end of his life, in 1935, that he records his exploits most fully. And it is Seven Pillars of Wisdom that, along with his “Twenty-Seven Articles” (written in 1918) turns out to have been, according to a new article by Bertram Wyatt-Brown, so influential among assorted colonels, headquartered in Leavenworth, for Lessons Applicable To Today’s Iraq (Afghanistan, Pakistan, name your exotic Muslim poison). Before dealing, then, with the “Twenty-Seven Articles,” it makes sense to take a look at Seven Pillars of Wisdom, which so many consider to have been Lawrence’s final summing-up, and his masterpiece.
Now it’s not hard to grasp the appeal of Lawrence for many today, especially if they do not know much about him. Imagine yourself an officer in the American military, having to endure repeated tours in Iraq, or possibly now in Afghanistan. The mysterious Muslim East, with its camels, and muezzins, and those cloths you wrap around your face to protect against sun and sand. East is there; the East is exotic. Many of the people you meet are well versed in pleasing foreigners who may bear gifts (military hardware, money). And besides, poverty itself (as exhibited by, for example, Afghan tribesmen) is itself enough to win you, for you are at heart a sentimentalist, uninclined to ask just what it is about the local population that makes for, even guarantees, such poverty. If you are, or like to think of yourself, as of a scholarly bent, you may start with Byron’s “The Road To Oxiana” or Doughty’s “Arabia Deserta,” or Fitzroy Maclean’s accounts of Central Asia. The verities of the desert, the endless dunes, the stars seen unhindered by man-made lights in the sky above, the camels, the sandstorms, the headdress.
And then there are all those points of Arab or Muslim etiquette to master: how to enter a tent, how to accept an invitation for a meal, even if the meal is sheeps’ eyes, how to respond to a request, how to parry a question about religion, and so on. And if you are like the rest of us, you might well sink into this stuff, and as you master it – it’s not very hard – think that you have acquired some important skill. And the more you learn about this kind of thing, the more you think the task you have been assigned – to win those hearts and minds for your cause – is important, cannot possibly be trivial or even a distraction. You forget, or never bother to think about, the larger question – of how, say, what you have been asked to do in Iraq, or in Afghanistan, will affect the worldwide threat that Muslims, that Islam, pose to all non-Muslims. You do not think about what is happening in the countries of Western Europe, or of how the temporary rental of cooperation from Sunni Arabs in Anbar Province could possibly make the Muslim threat in, say, Great Britain, less worrisome.
No, you are dedicated entirely to the immediate task that has been assigned you. And the more you study for that task, and the more you convince yourself that you have some special knowledge and that you will, as a consequence, “make a difference” in Anbar Province, or Iraq, or Afghanistan, the more likely it is that you will become an unwitting collaborator in a collective folly – the folly of how we now choose not to exploit the fissures that can be found within the Camp of Islam, the folly of trying to pour development money into these places on the theory that “poverty” and “lack of jobs” is the real explanation for the popularity of the Taliban, or Al Qaeda, or any of a hundred other groups (Lashker-e-Toiba, Lashkar Jihad, Jaish-e-Muhammad, Sunna al-Islam, Hizballah, Hamas, and so on). It’s the line from the song about Officer Krupke in “West Side Story”: “We’re depraved on account of we’re deprived.” No one mentions the ideology of Islam, no one sees the elephant that is in the room, or rather, no one notices that the very air is suffused with the attitudes of Islam, the attitude of deep mistrust, and permanent hostility – not to be overcome by any acts of generosity or kindness, which in Islam are already seen as part of the sinister Infidel plot to woo good Muslims away from Islam.
And so the farce continues, the farce in which American and other Infidel aid is poured in to Muslim lands in order to make Muslim peoples less poor, to make their countries less wretched, to somehow – even in the presence of Islam – make them better so that they will be, we think, less of a threat. Was the threat that the Saudis posed to all Infidels greater when they did not have the fabulous riches they now have? Now that everyone in Saudi Arabia is “prosperous” thanks to oil, is the threat posed by the Saudis greater, or smaller, than it was, say, fifty years ago? What about Iran? What about the other Muslim oil-states – has “prosperity” made them better friends, or at least less hostile, or at least so distracted by their wealth that they have no time to pursue Jihad all over the world?
For some American policymakers, outside it is still 1948. America is the only country standing, and it is we who will send money to the countries of Western Europe, build and fund NATO, give aid whenever it is asked. In fact, for the past sixty years, the easiest thing in the world for foreign countries has been to inveigle the Americans into emptying their pockets. And the theory is always that “poverty” is always and everywhere the cause of hostility, and that if we can only end that “poverty” we shall end the hostility.
The logic of this is particularly bizarre when it comes to Islam. We all agree that there are many poor countries, in sub-Saharan Africa, in Latin America. But these countries are not Muslim, and for some reason their people are not full of murderous hostility toward us and toward others they call “Infidels.” So we don’t pay too much attention to them. Instead, we are now lavishing hundreds of billions in aid on Muslim lands. Eventually the non-Muslim poor will figure this out, and perhaps many of their peoples will start converting to Islam, so that the Americans will think they have to shell out money to keep these people from becoming “hostile.” What is particularly absurd about the American effort is that when Muslims are poor, when they have to lead a hardscrabble existence and have no time, and no means, to conduct Jihad, they are relatively harmless. Afghan villagers without television and computers and radios to whip them up against the Infidels, who must farm or raid to keep alive, are not the threat to us that Saudi and other rich Arabs are, than the government of Libya is, than the Islamic Republic of Iran is. Think of Iran fifty years ago, or Libya. Were these countries “prosperous”? No. Did they constitute a danger to us anything like what they constitute today?
Furthermore, the attempt to pretend that “poverty” is the problem, and not the ideology of Islam, delays the day of recognition by Infidels of the true basis of Muslim hostility toward us (Islam itself), wastes a tremendous amount of resources (two trillion dollars have been spent, or committed to be spent, on the Iraq folly), and allows Muslims who could be made aware that the reason Muslim states that do not possess oil will remain poor (and even oil-rich states have failed to create economies not based completely on oil) is that Islam itself, with its inculcated hatred of bid’a, innovation, and its discouragement of hard work because of widespread inshallah-fatalism, is the reason for poverty in the Muslim lands. Why should we, the Infidels, keep transferring our own wealth, and allow Muslims not to recognize the source of their economic stasis?
Which brings us back to General Petraeus, and Colonel Nagl, and Colonel Crane, and Colonel Kilcullen, and others. They did not fashion the policy in Iraq. They did not decide to go to war. They were all handed a task, and they performed the task they were assigned splendidly, but the very excellence of their execution may have caused them to avoid thinking about the larger picture into which the war in Iraq must fit. That larger pictures has to do with what, really, one is attempting to achieve. Why should we wish the sectarian and ethnic fissures in Iraq to lessen? Why do we have a stake in preventing, for example, co-religionists of the Sunnis in Iraq from sending money, materiel, and men, to help the Sunnis against the Shi’a (so despised by the Saudis, and the Egyptians, and the Jordanians), who refuse for some reason to give the Sunni Arabs what they had grown accustomed to, and what they want still? Why is dividing and demoralizing the Camp of Islam not a goal that makes sense, while the goal assigned to General Petraeus and his men does not make sense? Should they not have at some point begun to think about the Islamic penetration, through use of the Money Weapon, campaigns of Da’wa, and unchecked demographic conquest, in the historic heart of the West, the countries of Western Europe? Too much fixation on a task at hand in Anbar Province can be geopolitically fatal.
And one wonders if those who came up with general laws to be applied to “all insurgencies” had any idea of what an absurdity that is, as absurd as someone stating, after solemn study, that “civil wars, in general, last 3.7 years.” This is useless as a statistic, but not more useless than such a statement as “on average, insurgencies last about ten years.” “On average”? And what constitutes an “insurgency” in Iraq? Is it Al Qaeda in Iraq against the Americans? Is it Moqtada al-Sadr’s men against the Americans? Is it the Dawa Party and the SCIRI Party militias fighting the Sunnis? Is it the Kurds fighting the Arabs in Mosul? Is it the Sunni tribes, receiving American pay and weapons, fighting – for their own purposes – al Qaeda in Iraq? There are a dozen different armed conflicts, or conflicts that have military aspects, in Iraq, and the temporary alliances can shift overnight. The Anbar Sunnis, or many of them, are now showing that they never were the friends of the Americans, and a moment’s thought would have made that clear to those who said, uncritically, that “the surge worked.”
It is disturbing to think that American military men would ever take Lawrence, he “of Arabia,” as an authority to study and revere. Lawrence of Arabia was a mythomane (a congenital liar, who took pleasure in lying), whose military exploits were minor – “his Arabs” did not take Damascus, and “his Arabs” did not even dislodge the Turks from the southern terminus of the Hejaz Railway at Medina, where a Turkish garrison remained throughout the war, and held out even after the war. What they did, in harrying the Hejaz railway, was militarily insignificant, as General Allenby and others knew; the taking of Aqaba, too, was hardly as important as Lawrence allowed himself to believe.
One wonders if some of those entranced with Lawrence’s supposed wisdom are themselves not entirely immune from a desire to see themselves as akin to him, or him as they imagine him, at understanding the exotics — those Arab tribesmen – among whom they have come to create their own local versions of an “Arab Revolt.” After Aldington, Kedourie, Kelly, and many other scholars long ago exploded the Lawrentian myth, we have a right to expect that our own military leaders would have known about Lawrence, and even if they did enjoy the movie by David Lean, would have enjoyed it only for the romantic fable it is.
In his Inaugural Lecture delivered in 1967, at the University of Wisconsin, where he had just been appointed as the Professor of British Imperial History, J. B. Kelly discusses “the frauds and deceptions practiced by Lawrence in the Seven Pillars of Wisdom” and the “stylized murkiness of its prose.” Kelly asks where the romantic notions, the sentimentalism about the Arabs and other Eastern peoples, came from – he mentions Lady Hester Stanhope – and he discusses the vein of sentimentality that could be discerned, not only in the “amateurs and romantics,” but, under a thin veneer, in the minds of supposedly “practical-minded” men who also exhibited, bizarrely, a “reverence for Muslim institutions.”
Lawrence went out to the Middle East as “a temporary subaltern, unknown and undistinguished, but harbouring large ambitions in a small frame, a yearning, as he himself put it in the Seven Pillars, ‘to do a thing of himself,…a thing so clean as to be his own.’ Lawrence found his ‘thing’ in the Arab revolt, and from the moment that he was fortuitously dispatched to the Hijaz on a minor errand he bent the whole of his energies and all of his peculiar talents towards making the revolt his own. Since he could not make it that – there were too many other, and weightier figures, involved – he used his genius for self-advertisement to make it seem his own, being reckless of, and even taking a perverted satisfaction in, the injustice he was doing the other British and the Arab officers who fought with the Sharifian forces….Lawrence postured and intrigued on his Arabian stage, flattered and indulged by his masters and mentors in Cairo….”
And there is much more in that vein. Kelly is not impressed with Seven Pillars of Wisdom in the slightest, and he quotes contemptuously:
Lawrence coyly recalls in “Seven Pillars of Wisdom” that in September 1918 he made a “saucy threat” to Allenby that he would take Damascus without waiting upon permission to do so. The only drawback to what Lawrence conceived of as an engaging piece of impudence was that the Sharifian forces were incapable of taking Damascus. The Turkish army stood in the way. The road to Damascus was not opened until Allenby defeated the Turks at Megiddo on 18 September. Even then General Barrow’s Indian division still had to roll up the remnants of the fourth army east of the Jordan.
As was noted in “Arabia Petraea, or General Petraeus’ Middle East (Pt. 1),” it was the Australians who took Damascus, and had the city surrendered to them. But, Kelly notes, “later that day the Sharifian forces entered in triumphant procession, of which Lawrence has left a lyrical description in ‘Seven Pillars of Wisdom.’ He left out, of course, the bit about the Arabs slaughtering the patients in the hospital, and of course the bit about his standing outside the hospital while the slaughter was going on inside, unhinged, giggling.”
And there is more about
Now the process of the suppression of the truth began, and worse. Not content with blurring and misshaping the story in “Seven Pillars,” Lawrence proceeded to calumniate the Australians, saying that he had begged Sir Harry Chauvel, the commander of the mounted division, to keep his men outside the city that night, “because tonight would see such carnival as the town had not held for six hundred years, and its hospitality might pervert their discipline.” He then displayed his pique that Chauvel would not salute the Sharifian flag, now flying over the town hall (“I wanted to make faces at his folly”), and at Chauvel’s intention to “march through” and not “enter” the city. “It meant,” Lawrence writes, in a tone which he thinks of as schoolboy merriment but which emerges as mere petulance, “it meant that instead of going in the middle he would go at the head, or instead of the head, the middle. I forgot, or did not well hear, which: for I should not have cared if he had crawled under or flown over his troops, or split himself to march both sides.”
In the next few pages [of Seven Pillars of Wisdom] Lawrence casts aspersions upon the Australians’ conduct, discipline, and humanity, dwells upon his own tireless efforts to restore the amenities of Damascus, enlarges upon the tenderness with which he ministered to the wounded Turkish prisoners, and casually mentions, en passant, that a little fighting broke out. With a scornful rebuke for the press correspondents for sending alarming reports of the disorder to Allenby, he laughingly tells how he “accepted” – not that they were needed – an “offer” of troops from Chauvel. Now the truth of all this is very different. The Sharifian forces had begun fighting with the adherents of Faisal’s rivals among the Syrian politicians, Turkish prisoners were being butchered, the Bedouin were looting, and Lawrence, for all his claimed spiritual affinity with them, for all his prowess and courage of which they were said to stand in awe, could exert no control over them. It is doubtful if he even tried to do so: Sir Alec Kirkbride, who is now the sole survivor of the band of officers who fought with the Sharifian army, has recounted how Lawrence seemed to have gone into a trance, incapable of word or deed, while K. himself stalked the streets of Damascus with the Australians, revolver in hand, shooting the looters.
It is the measure of the influence of Lawrence’s friends that his version of the capture of Damascus gained immediate circulation, not merely after the “Seven Pillars” was made public in 1935 but almost immediately after the event. It could not have gone unchallenged as long as it did – for forty years – had not the creation of the myth served the purposes of others (one must recall the period when Lawrenciana was at its height: the late thirties, in Palestine). It is equally the measure of their determination and unscrupulousness that the perpetuators of the myth, public and private, were quite prepared that this, offensive and perverted version should continue to circulate as long as it did – offensive because it besmirched the character of the Australians, perverted because it subordinated the honor of the many to the cheap glorification of the few.
Lawrence himself, as with so many of the incidents in which he was involved, is the worst of witnesses, as a consequence of his habit of blurring the sharp and uncomfortable outlines of reality with swirling gusts of flaccid prose. The account of his meeting with Allenby in Damascus comes on the penultimate page of the “Seven Pillars”: “Mistily I realized that the harsh days of my solitary battling had passed. The lone hand had won against the world’s odds, and I might let my limbs relax in this dreamlike confidence and decision and kindness which were Allenby.” There follows a cursory description of Allenby’s meeting with Faisal and then suddenly, as sudden as Lawrence’s departure from Damascus, are at the end of the book:
“When Feisal had gone, I made to Allenby the last (and also I think the first) request I ever made him for myself – leave to go away. For a while he would not have it; but I reasoned, reminding him of his year-old promise, and pointing out how much easier the New Law would be if my spur were absent from the people. In the end he agreed; and then at once I knew how much I was sorry.” There is no question here of the warrior-scholar flinging aside his pen, wearied to the point of collapse by the effort of recounting so much that which tormented his mind and his spirit in the immediate past, of recoiling from the horror of war and things best forgotten. The book had too many literary godfathers for that; too many hands, Bernard Shaw’s, Robert Graves’s, David Garnett’s, and others’, helped shape the mannered gaucherie of its style. If the book ends abruptly it is not merely to put a merciful end to this dreary flow of disguised rodomontade. After all, its editors considered it a masterpiece, and took a justified pride in their handiwork. As Bernard Shaw said, in reviewing it in the Spectator,” (and who better to say it?): “There is a magical brilliance about it,…a Miltonic gloom and grandeur….It is one of the great histories of the world…by an author who has reached the human limit of literary genius and who has packed in to the forepart of his life an adventure of epic bulk and intensity.” No, if the literary editors and executors of Lawrence, men who have expended millions of windy words in praise and explanation and extenuation of him, have not seen fit to say more about the manner in which Lawrence left Damascus and Allenby, it cannot be out of a decent reticence. There are things that have to be left unsaid if the mystery is to retain its power.
Kelly quotes, in this lecture, from a brief epilogue that Lawrence appended to Seven Pillars, evidently intended as a coda to the mighty and sonorous movements which precede it, the closing lines of which run: “There remained historical ambition, insubstantial as a motive by itself. I had dreamed, at the City School in Oxford, of hustling into form, while I lived, the new Asia which time was inexorably bringing upon us. Mecca was to lead to Damascus; Damascus to Anatolia, and afterwards to Baghdad; and then there was Yemen. Fantasies these will see, to such as are able to call my beginning an ordinary effort.”
Isn’t this grandiosity, for himself, but for himself in the context of re-making a world, a “new Asia” where Mecca would lead to Damascus, Damascus to Anatolia, and then to Baghdad, and “then there was Yemen” exactly the kind of thing that one should be wary of, something one should deplore? Isn’t it akin in its own way to the messianic sentimentalism of the Bush Administration that went to war in Iraq in order to “re-make” Iraq, to create a Light Unto the Muslim Nations? Aren’t all these grand schemes, or even schemes less grand, deplorable — as in Afghanistan, or Pakistan, where we now hear that there are plans afoot for large numbers of American civilians to remain to “re-make” as much as they can of these places, even after the military withdraw? (That the civilians will not possibly be able to exist safely without a large military presence appears to be one more of those obvious things that keeps being – like Islam itself – overlooked.) Only later did Bush discover that it was most unlikely 1) that Iraq could be re-made as a liberal Western democracy or anything close to one; and 2) that any Sunni Arab state would never take as its model an Arab state where the Sunnis had been forced by events to give up power to the mistrusted, and often despised Shi’a.
Yes, there are “lessons” to be drawn from Lawrence’s Seven Pillars, all right, but they are not exactly the lessons he intended to draw. They are things we can learn not to do, and one of those things is to avoid grand schemes, or people who enjoy going native, and thinking they are using the locals, when it should be obvious to all that the locals, in the case of the Sharifians, were all along using him. (My, how Lawrence’s Arabs made out like bandits, not only during but then after the War.) They did little, and received much during the war. And after the war? Well, what about the Emirate of Transjordan? What about the kingdom of Iraq? How’s that, just for a start? The Sharifians did not do so badly, did they, in addition to all that gold and all those rifles?
Kelly quotes one last passage from Seven Pillars, in which Lawrence appears to briefly recognize his own illusions:
“A man who gives himself to be a possession of aliens leads a Yahoo life, having bartered his soul to a brute master. He is not of them. He may stand against them, persuade himself of a mission, batter and twist them into something which they, of their own accord, would not have been. Then he is exploiting his old environment to press them out of theirs, Or, after my model, he may imitate them so well that they spuriously imitate him back again.”
The belief that the Arabs of Iraq, or the Afghans of Afghanistan, or many in Pakistan, can be battered and twisted, or bribed and bribed, to become like us, or that we should, in our dealings with them, “imitate them” and then possibly be fooled as they, in turn, “spuriously imitate us” (a variant on the Gunga Din problem, of our sympathetic identification with a handful of locals, forgetting all the rest), is something to be guarded soberly against. But the American government has squandered, and is squandering, money, men and materiel, and shows no signs of pulling back. It cannot, its upper ranks cannot, begin to grasp the ideology of Islam. And so the waste continues, continues and kills.
I have quoted at length from Kelly’s unpublished lecture because there was no point in putting his own perfectly expressed analysis in words less precise and less telling. But I see I have spent an essay’s worth of your time not, as previously promised, on the “Twenty-Seven Articles,” but almost entirely on Seven Pillars.
But there’s a reason for that. And the reason is that, along with the “Twenty-Seven Articles,” another work that General Petraeus has apparently been recommending to one and all as some kind of guide to their mission in Iraq is Lawrence’s Seven Pillars.
Kelly has described the “the frauds and deceptions practiced by Lawrence in the ‘Seven Pillars of Wisdom'” and the “stylized murkiness of its prose.” He has shown, in detail, especially in Lawrence’s account of the taking of Damascus (Sir Harry Chauvel, the Sharifians, the massacre at the hospital, the encounter with Allenby, the dismissal of Lawrence by Allenby), just how meretricious, unreliable, and self-serving, Lawrence was. It is not surprising that the general public is unaware of this; for them, the myth of Lawrence remains as it was back in the mid-1930s or mid-1920s. But General Petraeus, and his collaborating colonels, are readers, and one expects that they would at the very least have been repelled by that “stylized murkiness,” and that some faint hint of Lawrence’s mythomania would have reached them.
Apparently it has not.
And now, given the space and time devoted to the Seven Pillars, I will deal with the “Twenty-Seven Questions” that, along with the Seven Pillars, are said to have been so influential among some in the American military, in what was to have been a second, but will now constitute a third, and final, part.