Seven Pillars of Wisdom: A Triumph
By T. E. Lawrence,
Anchor, 784 pages, $21
Despite his many prejudices, T. E. Lawrence was nothing short of a dreamer who wanted to create a new nation. Yet, he was “continually and bitterly ashamed” of his endeavours (page 15). An archaeologist and medieval fortification expert who was recruited for the First World War intelligence work, the wily soldier surprised his superiors with his vast knowledge, as evident from this autobiography that is also a masterpiece of guerrilla warfare. Many Arab readers will find the book particularly distasteful but those who are intrigued by the clash of civilisations will enjoy Lawrence’s descriptions of how he manipulated various Arab personalities. He befriended most and betrayed all to serve the Crown, for Lawrence was only loyal to his country and its military leaders. A goldmine of anecdotal evidence on the 1917-1918 Arab Revolt, “Seven Pillars of Wisdom” documents the author’s attitudes towards Arabs, which vacillated between admiration and patronisation. Yet, unlike Charles Doughty or Gertrude Bell or even Freya Stark, Lawrence was honest with himself as well as his readers, and even if his text is blatantly anti-Turkish, his wrath focused on Arabs.
Although an extremely dense and very long book, “Seven Pillars” is both beautiful and ugly, as all military history studies are. It offers a very subjective view of war but does not glorify it. Lawrence compares British and French doctrines of modern war, opining that “philosophically, it was idiotic, for while opinions were arguable, convictions needed shooting to be cured; and the struggle could end only when the supporters of one immaterial principle had no more means of resistance against the supporters of the other” (page 190). This apology for the necessities of war stand in contrast with his many portraits of tribal warfare, which Lawrence respected and even loved. His detailed descriptions of the desert, including fascinating insights on the camels he came to own and ride, mix fact and fiction. Although embellished, they romantically affirm that in Arabia “range was more than force, space greater than the power of armies” (page 196), both of which needed to be overtaken by various tribes to defeat Ottoman forces and eventually occupy Damascus.
The bulk of the story revolves around Faisal’s liberation of Syria (a Roman name for no Arabic equivalent existed [page 336]), which literally perturbed Lawrence; at least by mid-1922, when he composed the first version of this book, he was in a state of severe mental turmoil. As the after-effects of war took their toll, the psychologically broken soldier — his description of severe beating at the hands of a Turkish officer, who may have also raped him, is astonishing (pages 441-447) — barely managed to keep his head straight. “I was tired to death of these Arabs,” he writes, and describes his friends as “petty incarnate Semites who attained heights and depths beyond our reach, though not beyond our sight. They realised our absolute in their unrestrained capacity for good and evil; and for two years I had profitably shammed to be their companion!” (page 586)
Lawrence was killed in a motorcycle accident in May 1935, at the age of 46, and within weeks of his death, became a legendary figure. To be sure, he was an unlikely defender of empire, although he enjoyed the Arab Revolt, which he believed would end the war “to end all wars”. Unfortunately, it produced many more. Few would deny his heroism and innate skills in military strategy and tactics. In fact, General Võ Nguyên Giáp, the principal commander in the First Indochina War against the French as well the Vietnam War against the United States, said that “Seven Pillars of Wisdom” was his guerrilla-war bible and that he never went anywhere without it. General John Abizaid, who fought in Iraq and served as commander of USCENTCOM (United States Central Command), referred to Lawrence’s tactics frequently. Reportedly, every American officer working as a liaison official in the Arab world is now required to read Lawrence even if the context has changed dramatically from nearly a century ago.
T.E. Lawrence’s well-deserved reputation as a military genius must therefore be re-evaluated, especially in the context of the post-2010 Arab revolts. These have proved to be terribly frustrating, with Arab conspiracy-theorists alleging that outside forces are manipulating the opposition from Tunis to Damascus. Lawrence’s vivid and intense descriptions of war, the well-drawn characters and discussion of mentalities are all penetrating. They provide rare insights into guerrilla warfare, elucidating the emergence of the Arab Nationalist movement, how the Middle East — as we know it today — came to be, and the complex realities that surround every Arab society in 2013.
Dr Joseph A. Kéchichian is the author of the recently published “Legal and Political Reforms in Saudi Arabia” (London: Routledge, 2013).