"Lawrence of Arabia." For me that phrase has always invoked exotic imagery of a hazy time in mystic lands far away. I'm sure most of us are more aware of his vast echoing aura than his specific deeds. T. E. Lawrence, illegitimate child of Sir Thomas Chapman and his governess, was an enigmatic soul whose ostensible goal was that of creating an independent Arab state, of creating a modern pyramid in the Sinai sands. And while he was wholly faithful to that goal, it belied his own crushing need to be free, to see it happen for others if not himself.
In his 1922 book "Seven Pillars of Wisdom" he recounts his role in the Arab revolt against the Turks in WWI. His descriptive powers are enormous; lyrical and romantic. One sits crouching in the desert moonlight with dried sweat listening to a cacophony of unsorted sounds on the edge of an un-sworn village. We ride with Lawrence, complete with his unedited perceptions and staggering insights. Ah, if there was ever a soul meant for Dorothy Parker's roundtable!
But Lawrence has a leaking hole in him, needing to feed off the world and the living in the moment. I feel had he attempted a fictional work solely of his own making, he'd be empty and flat, contrived and uninspired. There is no greater moment-to-moment existence than war; he'd found his element and an outlet for his monumental dreams, no imagination required. A rabid historian, a digger of spiritual artifacts, a poet among brutes and warriors, a daredevil who needed risk to feel alive - Lawrence was all these things.
The book is dense and long. The beginning with its essays on the historical background and culture of the Arabian region is overwhelming, though necessary, in its data. Lawrence realizes we must know the big picture to understand the little picture. Once he joins the revolt as an adviser and British liaison things start moving along. In the introduction he reflects in an overview of the entirety of events and specifically his own misgivings at knowing the falseness of British assurances for Arab self-rule after the war.
It was evident from the beginning that if we won the war these promises would be dead paper, and had I been an honest adviser of the Arabs I would have told them to go home, and not risk their lives fighting for such stuff: but I salved myself with the hope that by leading these Arabs madly in the final victory I would establish them, with arms in their hands, in a position so assured (if not dominant) that expediency would counsel to the Great Powers a fair settlement of their claims. It is not yet clear yet if I succeeded: but it is clear I had not shadow of leave to engage them unknowing in such hazard.Lawrence described his role as being a reluctant conspirator in the British deception, of which he was "continually and bitterly ashamed". The Arab revolt and its eventual hoped for prize of freedom was his driving passion, not military decorations or personal glory. If he did have one vanity it would be that of a Moses leading his people to the promised land. I would hazard to guess he very much hungered for this. He drolly continues:
I risked being made a fraud, on my conviction that Arab help was necessary to our cheap and speedy victory in the east, and that better we win and break our word than lose. The dismissal of Sir Henry McMahon confirmed my belief in our essential insincerity, but I could not explain myself to General Wingate, while the war lasted, since I was nominally under his orders, and he did not seem sensible of how false his own standing was. The only thing to do was refuse rewards for being a successful trickster; and to prevent this unpleasantness from arising again.Lawrence was a student of what he called "the Semitic mind", longing for the Arabs to fulfill a potential he believed in with every fiber of his being.
And later writing:
...I had convinced myself that I was the only person engaged in the field of the Arab adventure who could dispose it to be at once a handmaid to the British Army of Egypt, and also at the same time the author of its own success.
The Semitic mind was strange and dark full of depressions and exaltations, lacking in rule, but more of ardor and more fertile in belief than any other in the world. They were a people of starts, for whom the abstract was the strongest motive, the process [to be] of infinite courage and variety, and the end nothing. They were as unstable as water, and like water would perhaps finally prevail.
God's prophets inhabited these lands and even non-believers benefited by the grace of the their company. Miracles in the midst had branded their minds for the ages but the mantle was too heavy to wear until finally the land of the pyramids and the cradle of civilization became nothing but a faint echo of her past. The Arabic states turned fractious, sparring over crumbs of a lost heritage; they became a "little people". This wounded Lawrence grievously, songs of a heritage rising ringing in his ears. He continues:
Since the dawn of life in successive waves they had been dashing themselves against the coasts of flesh. Each wave was broken but, like the sea, wore away ever so little of the granite on which it failed, and some day, ages yet, might roll unchecked over the place where the material world had been, and God would move upon the face of those waters. One such wave (and not the least) I raised and rolled before the breath of an idea, till it reached its crest, and toppled over and fell at Damascus. The wash of that wave, thrown back by the resistance of vested things, will provide the matter of the following wave, when in fullness of time it shall be raised once more.Prince Feisal, in whom Lawrence found a leader he could trust to lead the revolt, was no rube by any stretch of the imagination either. Educated abroad, politically brilliant, and endlessly skilled in the dealings of men's hearts knew full well British desires and lusts. But he was in a spot, for without British aid he was doomed while also realizing he was likely abetting the loss of future control of Arab territories. Thus, he lets loose with this wonderful piece of rhetoric:
"You see, we are now of necessity allies of the British. We are delighted to be their friends, most grateful for their help, most expectant of our future profit: but we are not British subjects. We would be more at ease were they not so disproportionate an ally."
... Feisal mused a little, and said, "I am not a Hejazi by upbringing, and yet, by God, I am jealous for it: and though I know the British do not want it, yet what can I say, when they took the Sudan, also not wanting it? They hunger for desolate lands, to build them up, and so one day Arabia may seem to them precious. Your good and my good, perhaps they are different, and either forced good or forced evil will make a people cry with pain. Does the ore admire the flame which transforms it? There is no rational ground for offense, but men too weak will be claimant about their little own. Our race will have a cripple's temper, till it has found its feet."
There is so much wisdom, truth, humor, conviction, deft cajoling and wit in that little speech as to surpass the sum total of many men's entire lifetime. Instead of saying, "I know you fuckers! You're planning to fuck us!", which invites a retort of denials and protests creating a divide, Feisal in a non-threatening way simply informs that he knows what the score is, judges not their ill intent but has a watchful eye wide open. Shakespeare would have been appreciative.
Lawrence had initially been sent to assess the Arab situation and report back. This he did and was able to organize some British support for the Arab revolt. The Turks, armed with modern German weapons were able to push back the Arabs but in so doing put themselves in range of recently arrived British ships whose guns the Turks could not match. At last, the newly supplied Arabs were in a position to mount an attack but a full scale assault was an unprecedented operation, requiring tribal factions to be put aside and forge a trusted unity that did not exist.
There were too many pressing details to leave us time to disentangle principle from example, and the dogma of irregular warfare, already present at the back of my mind in cloudy formlessness, expressed themselves as yet mainly in empirical snatching at solutions for attendant difficulties. However in my own impression right and wrong were gradually sorting themselves out.The ever heady Lawrence needs a strategy before heading into battle, realizing that even a force of superior numbers is doomed to fail against the enemy of confusion. In this way he was an invaluable ally, a keen observer of both the situation and Arab mind. He was ego-less in the sense he pressed forward no personal agenda, married to no military tactics, no cowering British officer clinging to dogmatic ways in absence of thought. The mind of Lawrence was free and clear to see the road before him. He continues:
Before the march to Wejh, I had written that the Arab army in mass was not formidable, since it lacked corporate spirit, discipline, mutual confidence. Every Arab man by himself was good: the smaller the unit, the better the performance. A thousand were a mob, ineffective against a company of trained troops, but three or four of them in their own hills would account for a dozen Turkish soldiers...This was the judgment Napoleon put into ten words about the Mamelukes: only he was on the other side, and they danced to his tune. My half-memory of his words turned them inside out: and my temper refused to hear the Turkish piping.Of his desert travels, Col. Lawrence was quite detailed and specific, sharing both the beauty and the horror. Of the many travails he was quite matter-of-fact in his notation, making no to-do of say, catching lice or being bitten by a scorpion, other than to notate it. I imagine he also got a bit of a secret thrill in terrifying his comparatively coddled brethren back in England in being so dismissive of that which would be horrified in the West. But make no mistake about it, Lawrence was an honest adventurer without affectation, breaking Arab protocol at his whimsy and immersing himself wholly into the desert terrain.
The book is filled with poetic landscape passages like these two from the spellbound observer:
The union of dark cliffs, pink sand floors and pale green shrubbery was beautiful to our eyes sated with months of sunlight and black shadow: when evening came the low sun made one side of the valley a dull purple and the other a hot crimson, as though consuming in a furnace of its rays.To travel in the desert having known nothing but desert travel is one thing, but for a "soft" westerner to be hounded by flies, snakes and suffocating heat would break the hardiest of souls. Yet our man endured without so much a stiff upper lip but rather seeing it as the simple price one pays for adventure. Those men bound by creature comforts lived as unknown slaves, never able to roam the vast beautiful desolate deserts and gaze upon their wonders as Lawrence, the freest man in the world, did what no other man in the British regiment would dare or care to do.
...the landscape was of a hopelessness and sadness deeper than all the open deserts we had crossed. A sand desert, or a flint desert, or one of bare rocks was sometimes exciting, and in certain lights had the beauty of sheer sterility and desolation: but there was something sinister, something actively evil in this snake-devoted Sirhan waste, so pregnant with salt water, fruitless palms, and unprofitable bushes which served neither for grazing nor for firewood.
So we were wise and marched on, over monotonous glittering sand and over those worse stretches, Giaan, of hard, unbroken polished mud, nearly as white and smooth as laid paper, and often whole miles square. They blazed back the sun into our faces with glassy vigor, so that we rode with the light raining its arrows upon our heads, and its reflection glancing up from the ground through our inadequate eyelids. It was not a steady pressure, but a pain ebbing and flowing, at one time piling itself up and up till we nearly swooned, and then falling away coolly in a moment of apparent shadow, which was in reality a black web crossing the retina: and which, like the struggles to the surface of a drowning man, gave us a moment's breathing space only to store new capacity for suffering.Arab customs also gave no bother to this ancient soul. One otherwise might find oneself as equally uneasy at a feast as stranded upon a camel in blazing desert heat!
The bowl was now brim-full ringed round its edge by white rice in an embankment a foot wide and six inches deep, filled with legs and ribs of mutton till they toppled over. It took two or three victims to make in the center a dressed pyramid of meat such as honor prescribed. The center-pieces were the boiled heads, upturned, propped on their stumps of neck deep-buried in the food, so the the ears, browned like old leaves, flapped out on the rice surface. The jaws gaped emptily upward, pulled wide open, to show the hollow throat, with the tongue, still pink, clinging to the lower teeth; and the long incisors whitely crowned the pile, very prominent above the nostrils' prickly hair and the lips which sneered away blackly from them.Eating consisted of wedging around in on one knee as space permitted, turning back your right sleeve to the elbow and digging in with your fingers. One wonders what these Bedouin folk might have thought at the sight of a fine English restaurant of the time.
The first dip for me at least was always cautious, since the liquid fat was so hot that my unaccustomed fingers could seldom bear it: and so I would toy with an exposed and cooling lump of meat till others' excavations had drained my rice-segment. We would knead between the fingers, not using the palm, neat balls of rice and fat and liver and meat, all cemented by gentle pressure, and project them by leverage of the thumb from the crooked forefinger into the mouth.
No doubt, had Lawrence whipped out a fork it would have been social suicide. And Lawrence was anything but a man unaware of politics and the lethality of ignoring the same. After weeks of hell, finally reaching within striking distance of a surprise attack upon Akaba, perhaps the most key victory of his career, Lawrence had to contend with a shifting of priorities by a key ally who now became fixated on the higher and more intoxicating goal of Damascus. This overreach would mean a collapse of the strategy for the entire Arab revolt, dooming it to an aborted fate.
I pointed [ally Nesib] in vain to Feisal yet in Wejh, to the British yet the wrong side of Gaza, to the new Turkish army massing in Aleppo to recover Mesopotamia, and showed how we in Damascus would be unsupported, without resources or organization, without a base, without even a line of communication with our mends; but Nesib was now soaring above geography, and beyond tactics, and only sordid means would bring him down. So I went to Auda, and said that with the new objective the cash and credit would go to Nuri Shaalan and not him: and I went to Nasir, and used my influence and our liking for one another to keep him on my plan, and fanned the jealousy easily lit between a Sherif and a Damascene...Though now isolated, Nesib was still enamored with the idea of taking Damascus and vowed to do so on his own. In Japanese history, one reads of many failed, deluded men such as Nesib with their head in the clouds; taking no counsel; without thought a wiser voice may even exist. But while Lawrence the man was but one speck upon the desert riding a camel, his mind swept over and across the sands like a khamsin wind.
I knew [Nesib's] incapacity to create, but it was not in my mind to have even a half-baked rising [in Damascus], to spoil our future material, so I was careful to draw his teeth before he started, by taking from him most of the money Feisal had shared out to him. The fool made this easy for me, as he knew he had not enough for all he wanted, and measuring the morality of England by his own pettiness, came to me for the promise of more if he raised a Syrian movement independent of Feisal, under his own leadership. I had no fear of so untoward a miracle, and instead of calling him a rat, gave my ready promise for the future, if he would for the present give me his balance to help at Akaba, where I would make funds available for the general need. He yielded to my condition with a bad grace, but Nasir was delighted to get two bags of money unexpectedly.
The taking of Akaba! Akaba was a huge thorn in the side of the British, impregnable from the sea with its powerful guns and mountainous defenses. But from the desert side, she could be had. The Turks never expected an attack coming out of the impossible sands and the element of surprise was key to Lawrence's strategy. When word leaked out of their possible presence, multiple feints were made towards Damascus as if that were the Arabs' target. The "stupid Turks" fell for it and thus Akaba fell after the first initial conflict. This was the heaviest action seen to date, literally too hot to handle!
It was terribly hot, hotter than ever before I had felt in Arabia, and the anxiety and constant moving made it hard for us. Some even of the tough tribesmen broke down under the cruelty of the sun and crawled or had to be thrown under rocks to recover in their shade...The sharp ground tore our feet, and before evening the more energetic men were leaving rusty prints upon the ground with their every stride.Auda's rush of manpower crumpled the Turks giving Akaba over to the British who now reversed the situation having Akaba become a thorn in the side of the Turks. While still not wholly secured until British manpower and supplies could come to reinforce her, Lawrence nonetheless devised a strategy for psychologically protecting Akaba from a large-scale Turkish response. Using the tactics of irregular (guerrilla) warfare he deemed ideally suited for the Arabs, he proposed death by a thousand cuts to the Turkish positions.
Our rifles grew so hot with the sun and shooting that they seared our hands and we had to be grudging of our rounds, considering every shot, and setting great pains to make it sure. The rocks on which we flung ourselves to get our aim were burning with the sun, so that they scorched our breasts and arms, from which later the skin peeled off in ragged sheets...
In the afternoon I had a heat-stroke myself, or pretended to, for I was dead-tired of the weariness of it all, and cared no longer how it went. So I crept down into a hollow where there was a trickle of thick water in a muddy cup of the hills, and strained to suck some moisture off its dirt through the filter of my sleeve. Nasir joined me, panting like a winded animal, with his cracked and bleeding lips shrunk apart in distress: and then old Auda appeared, striding down powerfully, his eyes bloodshot, and staring, his knotty face working with excitement.
He grinned with malice when he saw us lying there, spread out trying to find coolness under the bank, and croaked to me harshly, "Well, how is it with the Howeitat! All talk and no work!" "By God, indeed:" said I back again, for I was angry with everyone and with myself, "they shoot a lot and hit a little." Auda turned almost pale with rage, and trembling tore his head cloth off and threw it on the ground beside me. Then he ran back up the hill like a madman, shouting out to his men on this side and the other in his dreadful strained and rustling voice.
Bemoaning and deploring even the loss of single life, Lawrence devised to be an "invisible enemy", untouchable and infuriating. Like a homeowner leaving a single door unlocked to lay a trap for a burglar, railways lines were cut and destroyed, hampering the Turkish forces, containing them to be where the British pleased to keep them. When the Turkish attack was finally mounted to retake Akaba, the timing of it had largely been orchestrated by Lawrence, and his waiting - and very well placed - defensive forces sliced the Turks to pieces at the very first outpost. This confounded the Turks madly, unable to stop the invisible forces sabotaging their railways and yet equally repelled by a mass attack! Who are these guys?
Our fighting tactics should be always tip and run: not pushes, but strokes. We should never try to maintain or improve an advantage, but should move off to strike again somewhere else. We should use the smallest force in the quickest of time, at the furthest place. If the action continued till the enemy had changed its dispositions to resist it, we would be breaking the spirit of our fundamental rule of denying him targets. If the enemy brought us to action we would be disgraced technically, even if victorious in the issue.How would you like to tangle with a wily bastard like that? Lawrence became adept at setting the charges, eventually passing off much of the sabotage to trained Arab irregulars. He shares an early success:
So when the front driver of the second engine was on the bridge, I raised my hand to Salem [to detonate], and there followed a terrific roar, and the [rail] line vanished from sight behind a jetted column of black dust and smoke a hundred feet high and as many wide. Out of the darkness came a series of shattering crashes, and long loud metallic clanging of ripped steel, while many lumps of iron and plate, with one entire wheel of a locomotive whirled up suddenly black out of the cloud against the sky, and sailed musically over our heads to fall slowly and heavily into the desert behind. Except for the flight of these there came a dead silence, with no cry of men or shot, as the now-grey mist of the explosion drifted from the line towards us, and over our ridge until it was lost in the hills.
Of the laying of the trap for the brunt of Turkish forces directed towards attempting to retake Akaba:
Maulud presided beautifully. He opened his center, and with the greatest humor let the Turks in till they broke their faces against the vertical cliffs of the mountain which was the Arab refuge. Then, while they were yet puzzled and hurt, he came down simultaneously on both flanks.Were the adventures of Lawrence to be serialized and made episodic, there would be many an episode written of the solving of tribal tensions and personal ambitions of the various Arab tribes and leaders, respectively. In totality it seems nearly miraculous and as absurdly resolved as a modern TV series where all is well in the end, week after week without fail. But while it would be easy to gloss over Lawrence's accomplishments as "He came. He saw. He conquered.", do not be deceived that a lesser man without the absolute dedication and brilliance of Lawrence - that by only a few stumblings to have fallen into the dustbin of history - was continuing success made possible.
They drew off dazed, and never ventured another attack on a prepared Arab position. Their losses had been heavy, but their loss of nerve at finding us invisible and yet full of backlash cost them more than the killed and wounded. Thanks to Maulud our situation about Akaba became entirely easy, and we no longer had to plan at all for the safety of our base.
To have shown in an unguarded statement, or by direct question, ignorance of [tribal] matters would have been fatal to me, for every competent Arab was familiar with them by instinct or experience. In the small and little-peopled desert every worshipful man knew every other, and instead of books they studied their own generation. To have fallen short in this knowledge would have meant being branded either as ill-bred, or as a stranger, and strangers were not admitted to familiar intercourse, and were shut out from councils and friendly confidences. There was nothing so wearing in all Arabia as this constant mental gymnastic of apparent omniscience at each time of meeting a new tribe. An effort to grasp unknown allusions, and to take an intelligent share in a half-intelligible conversation, would be hard in England, where only politeness was at stake, but how much more in the Arab Revolt, where one bad failure not merely in etiquette or in imagination, but in understanding a new dialect, might have wrecked the whole endeavor.
"I already am in hell."
Attributed as the "last great romantic war story", El Aurens' (as called by the Arabs) accounting of his time in Syria stands unique. With each passing war, soldier suicide rates increase as war's stubborn myth continues to feast on the souls of men as we continue to reject reality, paying an ever higher price. The whole "Charge of the Light Brigade" romance died with Lawrence and his naivete, a man who despised "animal passions", firmly (and correctly) believing the spirit to be more real than the body. But what of love, El Aurens, what of love?
This brings us to the most disputed point in "Seven Pillars": his torture at the hands of the Turks. Some claim it never happened but if so, Lawrence is a brilliant and intricate liar and certainly a man who has knowledge of torture regardless. He describes the Turkish army as highly predatory with officers abusing any and all hapless victims who come their way (including their own men). While only a brutally harsh and sadistic beating is recounted, rape by the Turks was a common disease in their ranks. As the story goes, the beating is a result of refusing to submit to rape but rude speculation has it that it did happen, Lawrence not liking what it revealed in himself.
I got angry and said something to [the Turkish commander]. His face changed and he stood still; then controlled his voice with an effort and said significantly, "You must understand that I know about you, and it will be much easier if you do as I wish." I was dumbfounded by this, and we waited silently for another moment, staring at one another, while the men who had not seen an inner meaning shifted about uncomfortably: but it was evidently a chance shot by which he himself did not or would not mean what I feared. I could not again trust my twitching mouth [Lawrence was hopelessly sarcastic] which faltered always in emergencies but at last threw up my chin which is the sign for 'No' in the East and then he sat down and half-whispered to the corporal to take me out and teach me till I prayed to be brought back.Many will make much of these passages but it was that last line that terrified me most: that's when I knew it was real. Later, when one of the trouble-making boys got his usual whipping in camp, Lawrence made them stop because it caused a flashback to that night of living terror. I also remember reading of another sign of his PTSD from this event. To insert touches like that as pieces of fiction is beyond the pale. No, there would not be any more great romantic war stories after this; war so obviously nothing more than an amalgamation of men's inadequacies, expressing internal shelling with external shelling. Nothing noble here.
...The corporal had run downstairs and now came back with a Cicassian riding whip of the sort the gendarmes carried...As the punishment proceeded the whip fell more and more upon existing whales biting blacker or more wet till my flesh quivered with accumulated pain and with terror of the next blow coming. From the first they hurt more horribly than I had dreamed of and, as always before the agony of one had fully reached me another used to fall, the torture of a series worked up to an intolerable height.
At last when I was completely broken they seemed satisfied...I remember the corporal kicking me with his nailed boot to get me up: and this was true, for the next day my left side was yellow and lacerated and a damaged rib made each breath stab me sharply.
I remember smiling idly at him, for delicious warmth, probably sexual, was swelling through me: and then that he flung up his arm and hacked with the full length of his whip into my groin. This jerked me half-over, screaming, or rather trying impotently to scream, and only shuddering through my open mouth. Someone giggled with amusement, but another cried, 'Shame, you've killed him.'
They splashed water in my face, lifted me to my feet, and bore me, retching and sobbing for mercy, between them to the [Turkish commander's] bedside: but he now threw me off fastidiously, cursing them for their stupidity in thinking he needed a bedfellow streaming with blood and water, striped and fouled from face to heel...
So the crestfallen corporal, as the youngest and best-looking of the guard, had to stay behind, while the others carried me down down the narrow stairs and out into the street...The soldiers, now free to speak, tried to console me in their fashion, saying that men must suffer their officers' wishes or pay for it, as I had just done, with still greater suffering.
...I went timidly down the road towards the village, trying to walk naturally past the few people already astir. They took no notice, and indeed there was nothing peculiar in my dark broadcloth, red fez and slippers: but it was only by restraining myself with the full urge of my tongue silently to myself that I refrained from being foolish out of sheer terror. The atmosphere of Deraa seemed inhuman with vice and cruelty and it shocked me like cold water when I heard a soldier laugh behind me in the street.
El Aurens and his Arab irregulars were like gnats to a boxer, annoying yet never capable of inflicting ultimate defeat. But paired with the boxer that was the British and Arab regulars, Lawrence's gnats could confound and confuse the enemy in planned coordination to strike the fatal blow. Near the end of the war this partnership came much more into play and therefore Lawrence in his preparations was more likely to cross paths with the regular Turkish army. At one point he'd been caught out in the open, trapped and facing certain death.
A moment later more troops appeared on the front. We were certainly caught. The Arabs jumped off their camels, and crouched in a covered place with their guns, meaning to fight to the last like cornered animals, and kill at least some of the enemy before they themselves died. Such tactics displeased me, for when combats came to the physical, bare hand against hand, I used to turn myself in. The disgust of being touched revolted me more then the thought of death and defeat: perhaps because one such terrible struggle in my youth had given me an enduring fear of contact: or because I so reverenced my wits and despised my body what I would not be beholden to the second for life of the first.Turns out the the attackers Lawrence suicidally rushed into headlong were in fact Arab allies dressed in captured Turkish uniforms. But we see here his dedication to the cerebral and absolute refusal of submitting to the physical, the reverse of most lives. Unable to touch or be touched, he connected in the only ways he knew how, reaching out in word and thought with compromise his only true enemy.
Anyway I had not the instinct to sell my life dearly, and to avoid the indignity of trying not to be killed and failing, rode straight for the enemy to end the business; in all the exhilaration of that and terrific and most glad pain of death; noting that the shock had paralyzed my intuition, and put reason on the throne. This was peculiar to me in company, when I felt fear, disgust, boredom, but anger very seldom; and I was never passionate. Only once or twice, when I was alone and lost in the desert, and had no audience, did I break down.
"Are you kidding? It's fun to have people
die for your graven image!"
As the war reached its conclusion, the acts of waging war weighed heavily on this instigator. Certainly within the framework of freedom and justice, Lawrence's clarion vision was free from doubt. But seeing the dead bodies of men never met, pressed into foreign combat, gave him pause for self-reflection. To order men unto the breach based on your motivations also gave a cry out for honest reason. But it was this constant self-questioning that allowed him to keep his sanity and negotiate the constant perils of his campaigns. Any one slip could be fatal.
...To endure by order, or because it was a duty: that was straightforward and easy. The soldier suffered knocks harder than the general's, but involuntarily, which much lessened their hardship; whereas it was horrible to make one's own will play the ganger tin the workmen fainted. To stand in a safe place and thrust others into danger might not be merely painful but very brave. It would have been heroic to have offered up my own life for a cause in which I could not believe: but it was a theft of souls to make others die in sincerity for my graven image. They accepted our method as truth, and were ready to be killed for it, because it was true: but such a condition made their acts more proper than glorious, a logical bastard fortitude, suitable to a profit-and-loss balance of conduct. To invent a message, and then open-eyed to perish for its fraudulent self-made image - that was greater.He goes on for several more paragraphs, weighing and measuring, always with his detached observations. Later in the book on his 30th birthday he grew even more inward, knowing he must live an eternity with deeds done.
This craving [for good repute among men] made me profoundly suspicious of my truthfulness to myself. Only too good an actor could so impress - or wish to impress - men, with his favorable opinion. Here were the Arabs believing me, Allenby and Clayton trusting me, my bodyguard dying for me: and I began to wonder how many established reputations were founded like mine, upon a fraud: how many people acted the dictator and felt like mean worms.
Easier to face a Turkish whip than this!
But there was not only wondering of deeds done, but of deeds not done in his life. Lawrence felt himself an alien being living with the human race. Even if making the best of a situation, one must still consider doors not opened and paths not taken that can create predicaments in life. This creature of the spirit wished to know of life but not live life. He needed to prove the superiority of his wits in order to prove his time not wasted - then regretted the pursuit of that proof as wasted. He spoke of the perfidious crime of not doing what one wants in life.
When a thing was within my reach I no longer wanted it. My delight lay in the desire and not in the desired. I believed that everything which my mind could wish for was attainable, and used to strive, until I had just to open my hand and take it. Then I would turn away. Other people used to pluck, and afterwards reject: I was content with the inner consciousness that it had been within my strength. I sought only to assure myself, cared not a jot to make others know it and so preserved often for myself something of a secret illusion of the quest, for memory's sake.The closing stages of war would bring about the most brutal, ruthless and godless of all battlefields: politics. After the final step of the taking of Damascus would come power grabs for the spoils not only between the Arab factions but a royal British nose would be sticking in as well. Lawrence was the only man in the world who could bridge both sides in making competent decisions. However, his zealotry would brook no British interference in a complete Arab takeover and in this he was successful. We get a glimpse of his mentality when crossing paths with a British general unaware to the superiority of camels in desert travel over his treasured horses.
...This futile pettiness [of proving my wits at other's expense] made me uncomfortable with other men, lest my whim drive me suddenly to collect them as trophies of my marksmanship: also they were interested in so much of which my self-consciousness was ashamed. They talked of food and illness, games and pleasure - with me, who felt that to recognize our possession of bodies was degradation enough, let alone to enlarge upon their needs and attributes. These others were outwardly so like me that I would feel shame for myself, seeing them wallow in what I judged shame: since the physical could be only a glorification of man's cross. Indeed the truth was always that I did not like myself.
So when [the general] saw me freshly riding up he was astonished and asked when we had left Deraa; I sad,"This morning" and his face fell. "Where will you stop tonight?" was his next question. "Damascus," said I gaily and rode on, having made another enemy. It a little smote me to play him these tricks for he was generous towards my wishes: but my play was for high stakes, high beyond his sight and I cared nothing what he thought so that I won. By being personally objectionable to the great men, I transferred their anger from my cause to my manner and gained from them all I wanted so long as it was not for me, this was a useful discovery and later in Paris and London. Where events made me a big brother of Arab independence, I was able to divert much of the odium to myself: though new nations were necessarily disliked, thrusting as they did, parvenus, into the most exclusive society in the world.
Like many men, Lawrence was made whole by war and halved by its absence. (Sort of like Patton. What a pair those two would make!) With direction and clear definable goals, Lawrence was in his element, allowing full devotion of his soaring spirit. After the war, Lawrence lingered in foreign affairs then attempted to join the RAF under a false name, desperate to stay in the bubble of military motivations. He was finally admitted and served almost to the end of his life when he died from a motorcycle crash at age 46. It is said he "professed happiness" in this service but I have to believe he was stuck trying to relive his time in Arabia having no personal life in which to turn.
Of Lawrence the man much has been written. He is a delight as a target for cheap-shot artists and small men of little persuasion for Lawrence is a man easily painted in a mean light for the simple-minded and the savage. Political ax-wielders also begrudge him his greater understanding of politics yet having his wholesale mistrust of the same with an idealist's clarity and rejection. Dreamers must float above us in the sky, arousing envy among earthbound souls making false charges to cover their own faults against those cloud dwellers not present to defend themselves.
But if we put aside our pettiness for a while, and suffer to hear the sound of our dreams, we hear the laughter and tears of Lawrence, begging to be understood and, most of all, to be set free - free as an Arab Bedouin roaming his empire of sand with neither master nor slave, accepting both the heritage and blessings of the ancient winds crying out for redemption, pleading for the prodigal lost to come home at last.