Commentary Magazine


T. E. Lawrence

To the Editor:

Elie Kedourie has written such a powerful critique of the Lawrence cult [“The Real T. E. Lawrence,” July] that it is almost graceless to fault him for not making the warning in his superb final paragraph more specific. I fear that his judgment that Lawrence “pandered to some of the most dangerous elements to be found in the modern Western mentality” will be shrugged off as a mere assertion, especially by those most in need of the warning.

Lawrence makes Mr. Kedourie’s case even more cogently than Mr. Kedourie himself. In the opening chapter of Seven Pillars of Wisdom Lawrence tells us that he was sent to the Arabs “charged by duty to lead them forward and to develop to the highest any movement of theirs profitable to England in her war.” In speaking of the British soldiers as “young, clean, delightful fellows,” Lawrence goes on to say: “By them one saw vividly how great it was to be their kin, and English. . . . I am proudest of my thirty fights in that I did not have any of our own blood shed. All our subject provinces to me were not worth one dead Englishman.”

Despite this stirring pronouncement, which would have startled Kipling and Sir Henry Newbolt, Lawrence was willing to let “our own blood” be shed for what he called the Arab movement. By October 1917, Allenby was ready to mount a general attack the following month along the Gaza-Beersheba line, to capture Jerusalem and destroy the Turkish army in Palestine, cutting off its supply and escape route, the Yarmuk Valley Railway. The appropriate role for Lawrence and his Arabs on Allen-by’s right flank was obvious to Lawrence: “For my eyes the center of attraction was Deraa, the junction of the Jerusalem-Haifa-Damascus-Medina railway, the navel of the Turkish armies in Syria . . . an area in which lay great untouched reserves of Arab fighting men, educated and armed by Faysal from Aqaba.” But after making an overwhelming case for the Arab attack on Deraa called for by Allenby, Lawrence reflected that it might not be an assured success for Faysal and his ambitions for the Hashemite dynasty, and that a failure would also have “involved the massacre, or the ruin, of all the splendid peasantry of the district. . . . So I decided to postpone the hazard for the Arabs’ sake.” He designed instead what he called a “specious operation . . . which met the failure it deserved.”

In other words, Lawrence was ready to exact a cost in the British lives he claimed to hold so dear, for the sake of his Arabs, in whose behalf he had drained from the British army hundreds of thousands of gold sovereigns, rifles and camels by the thousands, artillery, air and heavy-weapons support—all on his representation that he would provide a dependable right wing for Allenby. The “modern Western mentality” may not judge this decision harshly, but by the code of Lawrence’s day, it was monstrous, and Lawrence knew it.

For other reasons, Allenby’s attack was postponed until the following September, but the “pernicious confusion between public and private” had already corrupted Lawrence. His biographers have been preoccupied by the psychic consequences of whatever the Turks did to him in November when he was captured in Deraa, of which Lawrence writes, “the citadel of my integrity had been irrevocably lost.” Rather than what happened to him in Deraa, what he had decided not to do there the previous month destroyed his integrity.

Lawrence’s recourse to “politics for a spiritual satisfaction it cannot possibly provide” led him down some shady paths. Alerted by British headquarters in Egypt that one of his chieftains was in treasonable correspondence with the Turks, he investigated and determined that it was so. Temporizing, Lawrence bought off the errant tribesman and reported to Cairo that there was no treachery abroad, commenting after the war: “This may have been hardly true; but since Egypt kept us alive by stinting herself, we must reduce impolitic truth to keep her confident and ourselves a legend.”

. . . Although Lawrence invested Arab nationalism, in Mr. Kedourie’s words, “with an impossibly transcendental significance,” the final irony is that another side of Lawrence took a cool and manipulative view of the Arab cause. In his official report to Cairo, November 1916, Lawrence wrote: “[The Arabs’] idea of nationality is the independence of tribes and parishes and their idea of national union is episodic, combined resistance to an intruder. Constructive politics, an organized state, and an extensive empire are not only beyond their capacity, but anathema to their instincts. . . . Unless we, or our allies, make an efficient Arab empire, there will never be more than a discordant mosaic of provisional administrations.”

To read Seven Pillars of Wisdom—a rewarding task because Lawrence writes so very well—in its historical context is to be warned off Lawrence’s path by that divided, unhappy man himself.

Robert A. Riesman
Providence, Rhode Island

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To the Editor:

T. E. Lawrence, dead for over forty years, has done it again: he has made someone very angry. This time, the victim is the eminent Arabist, Elie Kedourie. Driven to expose the hagiography of the most recent Lawrence biographer (John E. Mack, A Prince of Our Disorder), Mr. Kedourie provides proof after proof that Lawrence’s account of his World War I Arabian campaign in Seven Pillars of Wisdom has been highly inaccurate and self-serving.

But, as always, Lawrence was ahead even of his most severe critic. His tendency to self-dramatization cannot be denied, but his histrionics never kept him from eventually confronting and acknowledging the truth. He had long ago decided that his war book was, as he called it in one of his letters, “a stodgy mess of mock-heroic egotism” and “one of the best-dressed imitations of a book you’ll ever see. . . .” Mr. Kedourie could not ask for more.

But to dwell, as he does at great length, upon the non-accomplishments of Colonel Lawrence helps little to explain the enduring magic of the Lawrentian myth, the reason the “conqueror of Damascus” who demoted himself to the rank of mere private when the war was over could become one of the few authentic heroes of the years between the two world wars. To dismiss the Lawrence cult, as Mr. Kedourie does, as “destructive,” fails to do justice to the fact that Lawrence was not, after all, a “timeless hero,” but must be placed, and understood, within the historic context of the postwar period.

This writer asks to be forgiven for repeating what he had to say about the subject more than ten years ago (in Counter-Revolution, Atherton Press, 1966):

It was the time of revolution, first in Russia, then in Italy; in Germany the revolution fizzled, and it never came to England, which was, after all, one of the winners of the war. But England was in crisis too. . . .

In the meantime, the war veteran [Lawrence] tried to fit the shattered pieces of his life together. But they would no longer match. That made him what we now call a displaced or maladjusted person. Because it was not in his nature to express himself in any fashion short of the spectacular, he joined at once the company of England’s great eccentrics. . . . His deliberate “downward mobility” filled many whose existence was conventional with something like a sneaking admiration. . . . England slept, but her sleep was uneasy, haunted by bad dreams, and Lawrence acted out those dreams for all to see. . . . In that symbolic Punch-and-Judy show, ex-Colonel Lawrence, now called Airman Shaw, became the rebel against old routine and obsolete authority. . . . It was possibly the most original way of combating the establishment. By serving instead of attempting to destroy authority, he undermined it as effectively as conditions would permit. . . .

His self-degradation was his form of service, and his place of service was within the only institution left for him—the only monastery not closed to the unbeliever which still stood intact and outside the disorder of the marketplace. Not that he had the slightest faith in soldiering; but while there was no longer anything worth fighting for, he stood guard waiting for the old flag to be lowered and a new one to be hoisted. . . .

The vision of a leader against “leaders,” fighting in the Permanent Resistance, . . . there was the hint, the hope, the message of the man. There it still is.

James H. Meisel
Seattle, Washington

____________

 

To the Editor:

. . . According to Elie Kedourie, T.E. Lawrence “held simple and uncritical views on politics . . . commonly described as ‘anti-imperialist’”—this of the Lawrence, anything but simple, who was often called an imperialist, and who, serving in the Colonial Office under Churchill, helped set Faysal and Abdullah upon thrones in Iraq and Transjordan.

Mr. Kedourie continues: “. . . It was, of course, entirely because of his public activities that Lawrence attracted so much attention. . . . Lawrence’s public career . . ., after all, is the only reason for any interest in him. . . .” Mr. Kedourie is 179 degrees off-track here. Lawrence’s renunciation of a public career, and even of the name Lawrence, attracted much interest and attention. Most of his writing—his dispatches, Seven Pillars of Wisdom, The Mint, and his extensive correspondence—was undertaken for private audiences. True, he sought public and private acclaim as well as obscurity; and the press and in due course biographers and scholars have sought to remove every fig leaf from his lacerated body.

Lawrence received continuing attention because he remained compelling, puzzling, and potentially powerful. Though (as we now know) literally beaten, he remained a force to be reckoned with and a personal and political resource to his friends and allies. L. B. Namier, then political secretary of the Jewish Agency for Palestine, consulted him in 1930, as Chaim Weizman had done repeatedly a decade earlier. And since Mr. Kedourie is so harsh on Seven Pillars of Wisdom—“not only corrupt but also corrupting”—for being romantic and, at places, knowingly inaccurate, it is worth quoting Namier on the point: “The thing which was wholly absent from Lawrence’s mental make-up was a legal conception of fact or a mathematical idea of accuracy. He was fond of Cubist paintings, and his statements sometimes partook of a Cubist character. It was easy to arraign them on formal grounds, but if probed they would often be found to express the truth better than would a formally correct statement.”

Mr. Kedourie sees and says nothing about the power and quickness of Lawrence’s mind; his knowledge of and talent for language, literature, politics, strategy, and practical affairs; his penetration, incisiveness, wit, and compassion; his mastery of men and machines; his capacity for friendship from the top to the bottom of English or Arab society; above all, the power of his will which, banked beneath the ashes of self-hatred, burned inextinguishably until his death.

One explanation of Lawrence’s mystery, G. B. Shaw and Robert Graves thought, was that he never grew up. He combined a boy’s dreams and responsiveness with a man’s command and suffering.

Mr. Kedourie scoffs at Irving Howe’s and John Mack’s “grandiose” characterization of Lawrence as “a prince of our disorder.” Scoff then at Churchill, who, knowing a good many princes, once wrote of

the precision of [Lawrence’s] opinions, the range and quality of his conversation . . . [his] flashing eyes loaded with fire and comprehension. . . . He looked what he was, one of nature’s greatest princes. . . .

His grip upon the imagination of the modern world was due to his indifference to all the delights which nature offers. . . . Home, money, comfort, fame, power itself—meant little or nothing to him. . . . I was under his spell, and deemed myself his friend . . . I deem him one of the greatest beings alive in our time.

But Churchill was another romantic, guilty, like Lawrence, of “transforming the mediocre and the shady into noble and exalted beings” and thereby helping to win a war.

Harold Orlans
Washington, D.C.

____________

 

To the Editor:

Elie Kedourie’s excellent article debunking the myth that encompasses the life and times of Lawrence of Arabia would have been further enriched by reference to the Middle East Diary, 1917-1956 of Colonel Richard Henry Meinertzhagen, published by Thomas Yoseloff (1960). Meinertzhagen during World War I was on the staff of General Allenby’s army which conquered Palestine and he became chief political officer in Palestine and Syria in the postwar military administration of these regions. He also served as a member of Herbert Samuel’s staff when the latter was appointed High Commissioner of Palestine, and was attached to the British delegation to the Paris Peace Conference as an adviser (1919-20).

From 1921 to 1924 Colonel Meinertzhagen was military adviser to the Middle Eastern Department of the Colonial Office. His diary (from which I quote verbatim below) is thus a valuable record, as well as a source for correcting the misinterpretations of history relating to persons and events that stirred the Middle East during the turbulent period 1917-56.

Meinertzhagen knew T. E. Lawrence intimately (he devotes sixteen pages of his diary to him) and was puzzled by this man whom he alternately pitied and admired. . . .

This strange friendship between the professional soldier and the eccentric but brilliant amateur began in Rafa, Palestine, on December 10, 1917. It was nighttime and Colonel Meinertzhagen was working in his tent when,

. . . in walked an Arab boy dressed in spotless white, white headdress with golden circlet; for the moment I thought the boy was somebody’s pleasure boy, but it soon dawned on me that he must be Lawrence whom I knew to be in camp. . . . Lawrence praised his Arabs, boasting that with 7,000 well-armed men he would take on and defeat ten times their number in European troops, emphasizing only in the desert. . . . I was not impressed by Lawrence’s bombastic exaggerations. . . . He loathes the French, fearing they may interfere with his dreams of an Arab empire in Arabia, Mesopotamia, Syria, and Palestine. I reminded him of Zionism and Palestine. He promised that Palestine would be a self-governing province under Arab sovereignty.

At the Paris Peace Conference of 1919 Meinertzhagen renewed his acquaintanceship with T. E. Lawrence and confided to his diary (August 4, 1919):

He is writing a book [Seven Pillars of Wisdom] on his Arabian exploits and admitted to me that though it purports to be the truth, a great deal of it is fancy, what might have happened, what should have happened, and dull little incidents embroidered into hair’s-breadth escapes. He confesses that he has overdone it and is now terrified lest he is found out and deflated. He told me that ever since childhood he had wanted to be a hero, that he was always fighting between rushing into the limelight and hiding in utter darkness but the limelight had always won. And now he is genuinely terrified at his brazen imagination—all to what purpose? He hates himself and is having a great struggle with his conscience.

. . . Using arguments strongly akin to those outlined in Mr. Kedourie’s article, Meinertzhagen believed that Lawrence’s reputation in the final analysis must rest on his military career. He acknowledged Lawrence’s skill as a guerrilla leader but parted company from Lawrence’s partisans and worshippers who considered him a military genius. . . .

Interestingly enough, his diary entry of December 8, 1937 seems to bolster Mr. Kedourie’s doubts about the Deraa incident, and contradicts Meinertzhagen’s earlier account (diary entry of July 20, 1919). After reiterating his objections to Lawrence’s book, Seven Pillars of Wisdom, he notes: “. . . The Deraa incident is false. T.E.L. would have recalled that book if possible; therefore how I loathed the unlimited edition published immediately after his death. . . .”

In his last diary entry on Lawrence, dated November 20, 1955, London, Meinertzhagen wrote:

Aldington has just published a book [Lawrence of Arabia: A Biographical Enquiry] exploding the Lawrence myth. It is a venomous book but true. Lawrence was the victim of his own desire for publicity, but I blame the so-called Lawrence Bureau for pushing him into such an impossible position—men like Lowell Thomas, Storrs, and his own family. There are also men like Lloyd George, Winston Churchill, Allenby, and Wavell who helped erect the myth and made the most extravagant claims for Lawrence’s military genius. . . . Lawrence never commanded anything but a looting rabble of murderous Arab levies, he took part in no major military operation, and his desert exploits had not the slightest bearing on Allen-by’s campaign. . . .

Lawrence’s love of speed and power was closely linked with the fascination for great big he-men such as Allenby, Dalmeny, Churchill, and many others. He had no use for women, his sexual inclinations being big strong men. He had little use for small men such as he was himself. I remember an occasion in the Majestic Hotel in Paris when he ran off with my knobkerry; I chased him, caught him, and holding him tight, gave him a spanking on the bottom. He made no attempt to resist and told me later that he could easily understand a woman submitting to rape once a strong man hugged her.

But, all the same, he had great charm, and I was devoted to him. His obsession for publicity ruined his life; he got what he wanted, knew it was all false, and got frightened. He found out that his life was an enacted lie. . . .

Joseph Adler
Forest Hills, New York

____________

 

Elie Kedourie writes:

James H. Meisel confuses, in a very Lawrentian manner, historical criticism, which is a public matter, with feelings such as anger which are private. Since he does not know me, he cannot possibly know anything about my feelings. Like Lawrence’s own writings, my piece about him stands or falls on the basis of whether it speaks the truth or not. Mr. Meisel also quotes some sentences by Lawrence in disparagement of his own book and adds, “Mr. Kedourie could not ask for more.” Indeed I can. Seven Pillars of Wisdom was a book published to the world and advertised as a true account of the events with which it dealt. In answer to someone who shows that this was not the case, it is not enough to quote brief sentences from private letters. In any event, if Lawrence believed that his book was “one of the best-dressed imitations of a book that you will ever see,” why did he publish it? Mr. Meisel also has a very nice way with words: it is curious to describe a historical critic as a “victim” of the subject with which he deals. Further, the destructive character of Lawrence’s influence is not in any way modified by the fact that he lived in a certain time and place. I do not think that I need comment on the long quotation from his own writings which Mr. Meisel provides in his letter.

Harold Orlans is under a misapprehension. What Namier said or what Churchill said does not establish what Lawrence did or was. The historian or biographer has to have regard for the evidence. Eulogies and encomiums used in the way in which Mr. Orlans uses them may be compared to those testimonials which tradesmen sometimes include in advertisements for their products. If it is true that Churchill, like Lawrence, transformed the mediocre and the shady into noble and exalted beings, well then it is true. But Mr. Orlans produces no evidence for this.

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