Friday, June 4, 2010


As I write, I am deeply in T. E. Lawrence’s The Seven Pillars of Wisdom. The book is a record of Lawrence’s efforts to help the Arab rebellion during the first world war, when Turkey controlled the Arab peninsula, Palestine, Syria, and Persia. The Turks were aligned with the Germans, so it was to the British advantage to have the Arabs engage the Turks in large numbers.

However, Lawrence, who had been in Arabia before the war, was aware that the Ottoman empire had ruled for more than 400 years over a scattered people who managed to learn to live with Ottoman control.

What strikes me as I read this book, is that Lawrence had developed a keen understanding of Arab interests and Arab habits. His views on Arab psychology are doubtless primitive by today’s standards, since they resemble the kinds of generalizations about groups that we know rarely hold up in practice. But he is subtle enough to see that there are characteristic behavioral patterns among the many different tribal groups and tribal chieftains that he ultimately gathered together. He knew, for example, not to group certain Arab tribes with those with whom they had a blood feud.

I think that modern warriors, such as those who were in the First Gulf War and the subsequent wars in Iraq and Aghanistan, would have profited from studying his work. They might have been better prepared for the difficulties that local police and troops have with discipline and regimentation – complaints that show up daily in our current newspapers. All these were issues in Lawrence’s time.

He describes his activities in 1916-17 and later. He published his work in 1922 in one version, then in another in 1926. He actually lost the bulk of his manuscript in 1919 after he had destroyed his notes, not a good practice, incidentally. Then he reconstructed the book from memory, and he had a most prodigious memory.

He not only characterizes the people with whom he rode and fought, but is meticulous in the best military fashion in describing the landscapes through which he and his men traveled. He emphasizes often the need to speak the language of the people, which many of his superior officers did, just as he emphasizes the fact that the local people were much his master when it came to understanding their land and its difficulties. Water, of course, is an absolute issue throughout the book, but he makes us understand that wells are placed at convenient distances to correlate with the capacities of the camels on which he and his men rode.

this is truly a timely book, and an education for contemporary Americans.