Rumor has it that Lawrence of Arabia is being held up as a model for American officers on active service in the Muslim world. In his favor, Lawrence was courageous and surprisingly tough. He impressed worldly contemporaries such as Winston Churchill, Bernard Shaw, and King George V. The First World War put him to the test. Several Arab tribal chiefs, Sharif Hussein of Mecca prominent among them, saw the opportunity to seize independence from their Ottoman Turkish overlords and turned to the British for help. A lieutenant, Lawrence was appointed liaison officer between the Sharif in Arabia and British officials in Cairo. Writing after the war, Lawrence gave the impression in Seven Pillars of Wisdom that his time in the desert ranked as an epic in the grand manner, with him as both hero and victim. This book has often been exposed as tendentious, but no amount of criticism seems to dent belief in the myth Lawrence set up around himself.
James J. Schneider is Emeritus Professor of Military Theory in the School of Advanced Military Studies at Fort Leavenworth, and the latest to accept Lawrence’s self-portrait at face value. His Guerrilla Leader is a faithful rehash in less vivid prose of the story told in Seven Pillars. All the footnotes except for four are direct quotations from it. Pretty regularly, Schneider breaks the narrative to add commentary in this style (all italics appear as they do in the text):
The art of war had always been a dynamic resolution of a four-sided conundrum of ends, ways, means, and risk . . . action against a fierce enemy changed everything in the dynamic calculus. Actually, the relationship included a fifth element, the enemy, but the commander had no control over him. . . . Ideally, the friendly means should be proportional to the ends plus the means opposed. In reality, this was seldom the case. Where means were lacking—soldiers, bullets, units, morale, will—the ends could be adjusted to create a balanced proportionality once again. But what if this latitude was foreclosed to the commander . . . embedded within the riddle lay its very solution: the ways.
And much more of the same.
Schneider seems to have a thesis that commanders on horseback in old days were impersonal, while Lawrence set the example of being himself, if that is the meaning of the relevant description of him as “the autonomous leader who seeks to transcend the level of psychological need and gain personal autonomy from human desire.” The question for such a leader, Schneider goes on to assert, is, “If I am to lead others, how do I lead myself?” Whether and how this might differ from the conduct of previous leaders of irregulars, guerrillas, and even Bedouin tribes he does not say. Moreover, as the illegitimate son of a baronet and a demanding mother, Lawrence was never at ease with his identity, feeling himself to be the social equal of generals and cabinet ministers, and yet not.
Everything that might bear upon Lawrence’s view of himself as hero and victim is omitted. No mention of illegitimacy. Nothing about sexuality, which Lawrence liked to insist was abhorrent to him. Yet he had taken up the Arab cause, he wrote to a friend, for love of Dahoum, a teenage donkey boy whom he had picked up in Mesopotamia before the war and to whom he dedicated Seven Pillars. After his death, it turned out that he had had himself birched regularly by a man who otherwise did nothing else to him. Repression and self-punishment carries through to Lawrence’s campaigning in the desert.
In a much-quoted passage in Seven Pillars, he describes how he attached himself to Faisal, the son whom the Sharif appointed to lead the Bedouin: “I felt at first glance 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 because he had been posted there with the primary task of distributing the gold sovereigns that really kept the so-called Arab Revolt going. To suppose that a field officer of his low rank could seek out an Arab in order to give him an independent kingdom was to be lost in self-flattery and delusion.
Sharif Hussein and Faisal had skillfully conscripted the British to win their cause for them. The British, however, were less than clear about what the future held for Arabs, and for good reason: They had a war to win. Lawrence spread the accusation that the British had enrolled the Arabs with a promise to fight for independence which they had no intention of granting. According to him, the campaign had been waged on an unbearable lie, and he was reduced to hoping that the Turks would kill him. A whole chapter of Seven Pillars is devoted to a traumatic episode in which he was captured and forcefully sodomized by a high-ranking Turkish official. This may really have happened, but perhaps it expressed the depths of masochistic fantasy. Failure to mention it at all falsifies discussion of Lawrence and his leadership.
Seven Pillars has a particularly slippery account of the entry of Lawrence and his Bedouin into Damascus at the end of the campaign. Australian cavalry had already captured the city, taken its surrender, and moved on in pursuit of the fleeing Turks. Schneider waves this away with the misleading statement “the Australians enveloped Damascus to the north and west,” and treats Lawrence and the Bedouin as liberators. The Bedouin had come fresh from a previous massacre of Turks and now became busy looting and murdering hundreds more who had been wounded or taken prisoner. Lawrence wandered about the city, leaving it to other British officers to restore order, if need be by shooting Bedouin. Today, he would be found guilty of war crimes.
Lawrence’s legacy went much further. He was to use his considerable influence to place the Sunni Faisal on the throne of Iraq, provoking a Shia uprising still not properly settled. And if Lawrence was the authority accusing the British of bad faith, how were Arabs to think otherwise? Following him, hundreds of millions of Arabs are convinced that the British perfidiously broke their promise to give them independence and so wrecked the Middle East. It is hard to think of anyone who did more harm to Britain. They’d best be warned at Fort Leavenworth.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 30 Number 6, on page 68
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