Seven Pillars of Wisdom – T.E. Lawrence

“We want the world’s end.”

This book falls into the ‘One that Got Away’ category. I wanted to read it when I read up on WWI, because Lawrence orchestrated the Arab uprising against the Turks – this was part of a bigger plan of the British High Command to distract the Turks and ease the pressure on their Western battlegrounds.

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Proposed map of Arabia by T.E. Lawrence.

For whatever reason, I never read it.

Then I read up on the origins of the Middle East Conflict  and of course T.E. Lawrence would pop up again and again – he is Lawrence of Arabia, after all – the almost mythical figure who brought freedom to the Arabs, one of the Good White People, honest and kind.

Still, didn’t read it.

And years ago now, when I read up on the (current) Iraq Conflict and the problems that the US were facing – even back then, Lawrence was mentioned.

Well, I finally got around to reading it, and I must say – I am a bit mad at myself for not reading it sooner.

It is a book that can be read in any number of ways – Churchill said “as a narrative of adventure, it is unsurpassable.”

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Not T.E – that’s Peter Toole in the Hollywood Classic

And sure, that’s one way of reading it – because this story is an adventure, after all. Lawrence gets sent to the leader of the Arabs, Prince Faisal, to help with the war effort. He rides through the desert, blows up Turkish railways, and sleeps under desert skies.

But it is also so much more.

It is a witness account of one of the most crucial moments in world history – there would be no Middle East Conflict without the Arab uprising, after all.

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That’s him.

All of this would have made the read worthwhile, but where I really, really fell in love with this book was when Lawrence lays out the strategy of guerilla warfare.

“As the Arabs had no organized forces, a Turkish (Force) would have no aim. (…) Perhaps in war the absolute did rule, but for peace a majority was good enough. If we held the rest, the Turks were welcomed to the tiny fraction on which they stood, till peace or Doomsday showed them the futility of clinging to our window-pane.”

Put differently – in this kind of warfare, conquering the land doesn’t matter as much as convincing the people to fight on your side.

If you do not have the support of the local population, you will never succeed, especially against a force that is unconventional.

To control the land they occupied, the Turks would have need of a fortified post every four square miles, and a post could not be less than 20 men. The Turks would need 600,000 men to meet the combined ill will of the local Arab people. They had 100,000 men available.”

Somehow, this British historian foreshadowed the exact conditions that the United States would find themselves in over 100 years later, when Bush estimated he’d need 600,000 men to fight the insurgency – and only had 150,000 available.

History repeats itself, but only because humanity doesn’t listen.

But there is also yet another layer to this book that breaks your heart. Lawrence was hailed as a hero when he returned to Europe – he became an almost mythological figure, complete with his own Hollywood movie. He is revered, quoted, and used to argue that perhaps, what the Western Powers did in the Middle East wasn’t all too bad.

But when you read this book, you realize that Lawrence didn’t see it that way. He clearly saw the conflict between what England promised the Arabs – their own country, freedom, independence – and what they would get – ultimately, nothing.

He knew of the Sykes-Picot Agreement, which promised lands to the Arabs, and also of the Belfour Declaration, which came out in favour of establishing a Jewish State in Palestine. He was aware that those two couldn’t be reconciled, and he knew that in the end, the Arabs were a useful pawn to England’s war effort.

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Lawrence is the third from the right. This picture was taken at the Versaille Peace Conference. Note that Lawrence is wearing Arab Head Gear.

He knew that the reason why he was sent out to the desert wasn’t magnanimous or benevolent – it was a cold calculation in power politics.

And it destroyed him.

You can feel how he spirals into depression – he starts out hopeful that a great battlefield performance of the Arabs will create facts on the ground, that, if they only conquer enough land quickly enough, they will end up with what was promised to them.

But as time progresses, he comes to the realization that he is deceiving the very people he is fighting for – that their hopes will never come to fruition. And he has these fights with himself, this feeling of self-hatred, that make you feel pity for him.

Can you imagine what it must have been like, to come back, hailed as a hero, and you know that all of this is based on lies and falsehoods of the worst kind?

The lecture of this book is jarring if you know that within a decade of writing it, this brave, funny and imaginative man would reduce himself to penury and self-destruction.

He even gave up his name – T.E. Lawrence was for the myths, the man behind it preferred to be called T.E. Shaw.

T.E. Shaw died in a motorbike accident in 1935.

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