Blundering in the Desert

Book review of Hero: The Life and Legend of Lawrence of Arabia by Michael Korda

   T.E. Lawrence was courageous, capable and unexpectedly tough for an intellectual not quite five and a half feet in height. He seemed destined for a successful academic career in Oxford, the city of his childhood. Instead the First World War gave him the chance to accompany Bedouin in Arabia in their uprising against their Ottoman overlords. It was not Lawrence’s fault that many people needed someone whose war service seemed a glorious freewheeling adventure very different from trench warfare in Flanders. Skilled publicists fashioned a myth out of this. Churchill, Bernard Shaw and King George V were among those who suspended their usual critical spirit and indulged him. Seven Pillars of Wisdom gives Lawrence’s own account of the desert campaign. In that peculiar example of special pleading, he couldn’t quite decide whether he had done well or badly. Which is why the myth around him survives. 
Michael Korda is an experienced biographer but his purpose in Hero is to substantiate the myth. Substituting hero-worship for rational analysis, he asserts every few pages that Lawrence was exceptional. No claim is too far-fetched. Lawrence is compared to Napoleon as a strategist and military genius whose ideas of irregular warfare influenced Mao and Castro.  As a writer, he is the equal of Tolstoy and Hemingway. In politics, diplomacy, aesthetics, sailing, photography, geology, carpets, engines, even commercial development and agriculture, Lawrence is supposed to display an astonishing accumulation of knowledge and mastery of every detail.
However, Lawrence’s role in the Middle East cannot be reduced to the same kind of froth as that about him conjuring kings and countries out of nowhere and nothing. The entry of Ottoman Turkey into the First War on the side of Germany had brought the future of its Arab subjects into question. The British government concluded that an Arab rebellion could hasten an Ottoman collapse. By the same token, Sherif Hussein of Mecca and several other Arab tribal chiefs perceived that they might extend their power and even establish an independent Arab kingdom if the British were to help them to do so with arms and crates of gold sovereigns. Each party hoped to take advantage of the other, but the Arabs were far more experienced and wily than their British counterparts. The Sherif was careful to stay secretly in touch with the Turks until he was convinced that a British-backed rebellion would pay off.

A junior intelligence officer in the field, Lawrence had the duty to deliver the sovereigns, and act as liaison between the Sherif and British officials in Cairo. As he describes in Seven Pillars, he set about enlarging his mission, attaching himself to Faisal, the son whom the Sherif had appointed to lead the campaign. “I felt at first glance,” Lawrence gushed in a much-quoted passage in his book, “that this was the man I had come to Arabia to seek — the leader who would bring the Arab Revolt to full glory.” Actually he had come to Arabia because his superiors had posted him there. A second lieutenant fantasising that he was seeking the leader of the Arab Revolt for the purpose of giving him independence had strayed into the territory of Baron Münchhausen.
The British were less than clear in the promises they gave to the Arabs about the future, and for good reason: they had a war to win. One of the proposed post-war plans involved sharing Arab provinces with France. What Lawrence called “biffing the French” was one concept he cherished, and another was that Arabs should form a “brown dominion” within the British Empire. Confronted by the planners’ conflicting promises, he told his commanding officer that the British had been calling the Arabs to fight with a promise of independence which they had no intention of granting. The whole campaign was a lie that he couldn’t stand, hoping the Turks would kill him. Here is the dramatised self-importance of the fantasist. But if someone as widely admired as Lawrence could make such an accusation in a famous book, who were Arabs to think otherwise?  Lawrence’s legacy is that millions in the Middle East are convinced that British perfidy and conspiracy betrayed them, and they accordingly hate the British.  Conversely, the British are expected to feel nothing but guilt about their dealings with Arabs. It is hard to think of anyone who did more damage to the long-term reputation and standing of Britain.
There is more. Lawrence treated the divide between Sunni and Shia as if it hardly mattered. To the end of his life, Lawrence liked to boast that his great achievement was to have installed Faisal, a Sunni, as king of Iraq. The Shia warned that they would revolt, and it cost thousands of lives and millions of pounds to crush them. Not in the least grateful, Faisal immediately began scheming against the British. Lawrence’s infatuation with this smooth deceiver laid a lasting foundation for Sunni tyranny in Iraq which lasted until Saddam Hussein.
After the war, the fantasy of being Lawrence of Arabia had no practical application, and it was time to invent another version of it. He enrolled as an anonymous aircraftsman (though making sure to inform all his famous friends and in a pinch ask them for favours). Loneliness and profound uncertainty about his sexuality remained constant. He could not bear to be touched. In Seven Pillars he recounts that a Turkish governor sodomised him. Some have suggested that this was a masochistic fantasy but Korda gives good grounds for believing that it really happened. He also examines the strange relationship of Lawrence and John Bruce, a barrack-room friend. On the strength of a preposterous tale about an Old Man determined to correct Lawrence’s bad behaviour, this fellow regularly birched Lawrence severely but had no other physical contact. Never mind the hyperbole intended to elevate Lawrence to the position of all-time hero and genius. In the end, Korda arouses pity for someone so determined to punish himself — and everybody else — just for being who he was.

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