Wednesday, May 25, 2005

Mad about Laurie 

The original Anglo desert warrior gets respect again:
He died 70 years ago, but T. E. Lawrence, the great British adventurer known as Lawrence of Arabia, is still helping coalition forces in Iraq.

US commanders are increasingly turning to his accounts of 20th-century warfare in Mesopotamia for guidance. General John Abizaid, the overall US commander in the region, said last week that one quote of Lawrence's had "always been in my heart". He was referring to a remark Lawrence once made about British attempts to organise government in the region: "Better the Arabs do it tolerably than that you do it perfectly." The quote hangs over a US Marines conference room in Iraq's Al-Anbar province, where coalition forces recently concluded a week-long sweep against insurgents...

In a recent survey of US officers' reading material in Iraq, Lawrence's Seven Pillars of Wisdom, published in 1926, emerged as the second-most recommended book. "Most of the US advisers out there have a copy," said Duncan Anderson, head of war studies at Sandhurst, who visited Iraq between January and March…

"Lawrence drew up a list of dos and don'ts for advisers to the Arabs," Mr Anderson said. "The Americans are using Seven Pillars at virtually every meeting, on a daily basis…" Copies of Lawrence's books are less evident among British officers, but only because most of them have already read them at Sandhurst. "We already have Lawrence pretty well sussed," Mr Anderson said.
Reading this, I was reminded of the words of a legendary Australian editor and critic Peter Ryan in a review of a 1991 biography of Lawrence (unfortunately not available online):
Peculiar he was. Put it down to his discovery of his illegitimate birth, put it down to his extreme shortness of stature, put it down to something else, but few odder fish swam to great fame... He invented - no other word will do - an episode in which he was supposedly captured by the Turks, who seized the chance first to beat and then to bugger him. He slanted his intelligence reports to suit whatever private scheme he was promoting at the moment. He lied to his British commanders and he lied to his Arab friend Prince Faisal...

Lawrence promoted the romance that "his" Arabs had been the first to enter fallen Damascus in 1918. In truth, the leaders were a group of Australian Light Horse led by (unromantically) a barrister from Brisbane... Although without doubt Lawrence was a brave and enterprising officer - perhaps a visionary one - in his behind-the-lines work, his achievement measured by cold military accountancy was slight. He spent the rest of his life - some 17 years - inflating that achievement into a legend and himself into a myth...

He devoted years of studied labour to writing "Seven Pillars of Wisdom", his account of the desert campaigns. This book is bunk as history and repulsive as literature. As autobiography it is embarrassing bombast: "I drew these tides of men into my hands and wrote my will across the stars." Really! Laurence Durrell could find "not one healthy or straightforward emotion or conviction in the whole thing." Elie Kedourie found it "profoundly corrupting", and the most overrated book of the century.
The ultimate lesson of history, if not "Seven Pillars", is that the Arab guerrillas of their own were not able either to defeat the Turkish empire or to decide the post-war future of their lands. But then again, unlike eighty years ago and contrary to many a contemporary paranoid raving, this time the Coalition is not in the Middle East to carve up the region between its empires but in many ways to try to help the locals unmake a century of bad choices made by their own and other peoples'’s rulers.


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