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Being T.E. Lawrence

Friday, April 1, 2011

Michael Korda. Hero: The Life and Legend of Lawrence of Arabia. HarperCollins. 762 pages. $36

He was the best of England and the worst. A wastrel, in many ways, and a triumph, in others. A hero and a clown. A scholar and a soldier. A sophisticate and a naïf. A child and a grown-up. He was an adolescent, all in all: perhaps the greatest lifelong teenager the modern world has ever known, with every bit of the soaring self-confidence and crushing self-doubt the awkward years can bring.

His name was Lieutenant Colonel Thomas Edward Lawrence. Or T.E. Lawrence, as he signed his books, or John Hume Ross and T.E. Shaw, the military pseudonyms under which he was concealed during the 1920s and 1930s — and notice, even in the ways he named himself, the inverted boast and the adolescent fantasy of famously hiding from fame.

Of course, in his case, it wasn’t fantasy. It was simple reality, for he managed to be that unique figure, that strange bird, for whom it all came true. And that’s because, as Michael Korda notes in a new biography, he was always Lawrence of Arabia — the strange short man (only five-foot-five) who towered above his contemporaries: an “odd gnome, half cad — with a touch of genius,” as one soldier who served with him observed. What, in the end, are we to make of a nearly perfect soldier who was so psychologically crippled that, once he returned to England, he had to hire men to beat him? And that, even while he was producing the elegant prose of The Seven Pillars of Wisdom, his magisterial account of the Arab Revolt during the First World War?

As it happens, after the failure of direct attack on the Ottoman Empire in the disaster of the Gallipoli campaign in 1915, much of the British high command considered the Middle Eastern theater a distraction from the main action of the war in France — and the Arab rising against the Ottomans even more of a distraction: “a sideshow of a sideshow,” as one officer complained at the time. But with the help of Lowell Thomas (a cynical American journalist prone to hero-worshipping, and no stranger himself to internal contradictions), Lawrence turned the Arab Revolt into center stage: the whole world watching as he battled his demons and the Turks across the ancient desert.

Being Lawrence, he couldn’t just write the book about those days. He had to agonize over it, and toy with it, and dismiss it, and devote himself to it. He rewrote the manuscript several times — once after losing it at the Reading train station, which is as clear a symbol of psychological ambivalence as one is likely to find — before finally publishing the text in 1922 in an edition of eight copies. Convinced by his friends, notably the poet Robert Graves, that he ought to make it more widely available, he abridged the book somewhat and issued it in 1926 in a special subscribers’ edition.

In the event, “more widely available” meant that he allowed two hundred copies to be made, a hundred of which he sold for 30 guineas each, although the illustrations and hand-binding made the book cost almost double that to produce. The result was near bankruptcy, and he was forced, finally, to do what he ought to have done from the beginning — prepare a short version for general readers: the 1927 Revolt in the Desert, “an abridgement of an abridgement,” as George Bernard Shaw sneered. It sold extraordinarily well and paid off his debts, which allowed him to hide, again, in the Royal Air Force as a mechanic under an assumed name.

What a circus. On and on goes the adolescent unity of contradictions that was T.E. Lawrence. The illegitimate son of a minor aristocrat, he far surpassed his father in fame and accomplishment, but he never quite got over the fact of his bastardry. He was a natural leader, who mostly wanted to be alone. By all accounts a gentle man aimed, by predilection and education, at a scholar’s life, he was also a ruthless killer. Like Lord Byron during the Greek uprisings against the Turks in the early 19th century, Lawrence showed the surprising practicality that dreamers sometimes have, understanding far better than his contemporaries just what gold and guns could accomplish. He showed, as well, the surprising brutality of dreamers: executing one of his own men to prevent a blood feud and admitting, to British dismay, that his Arab forces had slaughtered Turkish prisoners.

He seemed, in many ways, a character out of time. Dispatches from the Western Front were filled with reports — Ypres, Verdun, Passchendaele — of thousands upon thousands dead, gassed, shell-shocked, or lost, all for tiny gains of ground. In the four months of the 1916 Somme campaign, the Allied forces managed to advance a mere seven miles, at the cost of 420,000 British casualties, 200,000 French, and 500,000 German. Meanwhile, Lawrence was filing dispatches of battles that seemed almost Victorian in their numbers and their victories: 300 Turks killed and a town captured, for example, at the cost of two of his Bedouin men killed. In a letter to a friend, he laconically described a 1917 attack on the railroad: “The whole job took ten minutes, and they lost 70 killed, 30 wounded and 80 prisoners.” His Arab forces suffered only one casualty, although they had to flee when a major Turkish rescue force arrived: “I lost some baggage, and nearly myself,” he added. “I’m not going to last out this game much longer: nerves going and temper wearing thin . . . This killing and killing of Turks is horrible.”

Simply as a commander, T.E. Lawrence proved he could do serious, theater-wide strategy. Ill with dysentery in 1917, he used the time to plan the whole campaign he and Prince Feisal would attempt. It would start by abandoning the old Arab plan of driving the Turks out of Medina and the other Arabian cities. The true success of the Arab Revolt, Lawrence saw, depended on forcing the Ottomans to abandon the northern cities: Jerusalem and Damascus, particularly. So he would begin with a series of pin-prick attacks on railroads, telegraph wires, and small outposts, requiring the Turks to spread their forces across the Middle East and alerting the squabbling Arab tribes to the unifying figure of Feisal. The next step would be the acquisition of Aqaba, a sea-port at which to receive British supplies. And the final step would be the building of a serious army with which to hold the ground gained by the Ottomans’ retreat back to Turkey.

The amateur soldier could do superior battlefield tactics, as well. In February 1918, Lawrence helped direct the Arab forces in a old-fashioned set battle against three Turkish battalions at the village of Tafileh. “A miniature masterpiece,” the historian Basil Liddell Hart would later call it, as the Turks were tricked into a frontal attack on dug-in positions, then routed from the flanks by the highly mobile Arabs. The result was over 400 Turks killed, perhaps 600 taken prisoner, against Arab casualties of 40 men.

And, of course, Lawrence had the almost impossible personal bravery and finely wrought character that made him perhaps the greatest leader of small forces in the 20th century. Rumors of the 1916 Sykes-Picot Agreement, carving up the Middle East between England and France after the war, deeply disturbed him. Preternaturally sensitive about his honesty, he decided that he had been soiled by lies to the Arabs about British support for independence. “Can’t stand another day here,” he wrote. “Will ride north and chuck it.” In a letter to one of his superiors, he added, “I’ve decided to go off alone to Damascus, hoping to get killed on the way: for all sakes try and clear this show up before it goes further. We are calling them to fight for us on a lie, and I can’t stand it.”

On and on goes the adolescent unity of contradictions that was T.E. Lawrence. The illegitimate son of a minor aristocrat, he far surpassed his father in fame and accomplishment, but he never quite got over the fact of his bastardry.

Leaving his forces behind, he made a 300-mile sweep behind Turkish lines — recruiting temporary companies from local tribes across Lebanon and Syria to help him destroy bridges and railways, and promoting revolt among clan leaders still under the Ottomans’ thumb. It may be the most extraordinary single act of the entire war, even if he undertook it in one of those dangerously fey moods into which young warriors sometimes fall, not much caring if they live or die. “At the time,” he explained in The Seven Pillars of Wisdom, “a bodily wound would have been a grateful vent for my internal perplexities.”

Then came the almost mythic taking of Aqaba, the expansion of the revolt, and his capture and beating at Deraa while reconnoitering a railway junction. His possible homosexual rape, as well, although the only actual evidence is the coy but eroticized language with which he described it years later. Just before Christmas 1917, Jerusalem fell, and Lawrence made a triumphal entry into the city at General Allenby’s side. After a delay of some months (60 of the 90 British battalions were stripped off and sent to France), Allenby launched the Megiddo campaign: as complete a victory as the Allies had experienced in the war, the final answer to the defeat at Gallipoli three years before.

It opened, naturally, with T.E. Lawrence. On September 17, he took his Arab irregulars, two regular army camel corps, a handful of Gurkha machine gunners, and a detachment of French mountain artillery, and broke the Ottoman railhead at Deraa. With extensive use of air power, Allenby smashed through the lines at multiple points. (The Royal Air Force essentially destroyed the Ottoman’s retreating Seventh Army in a single hour, catching it in the open just west of the Jordan.) Battalion after battalion of the trapped Turks surrendered, Damascus itself fell on October 1, and the entire Middle East campaign ended when the Ottoman government surrendered to the British on October 31.

Not that Lawrence was there to see the culmination. Two days after the capture of Damascus, he was posted back to England.

The one thing you can’t say about this story is that it’s little known. After dozens of biographies, stage plays, and documentaries — to say nothing of David Lean’s epic 1962 film — the world is inundated with information about the man, and Michael Korda’s new Hero: The Life and Legend of Lawrence of Arabia adds little that we didn’t know before. Still, Hero is a lively, well-written walk through the material, and Korda has a reason for writing it. In recent years, the trend among historians has been to debunk Lawrence’s legend. Why anyone would bother is something of a question. From the beginning, T.E. Lawrence has been as ambiguous a hero as we’ve ever known. But something there is in modern historical writing that cannot tolerate the idea of any heroism, and — as the title of Hero suggests — Korda wants to restore our sense of the man’s achievements.

The longtime editor-in-chief of the Simon & Schuster publishing house, Korda is a nephew of the Hungarian émigré Alexander Korda, who helped create the British film industry — and actually owned, for a while, the movie rights for Lawrence’s story, although he sold them, over a casual lunch, to the people who would end up producing the 1962 extravaganza Lawrence of Arabia. In previous books on such figures as Ulysses S. Grant and Dwight Eisenhower, Korda has shown his appreciation for military success, and although he is no professional historian — his account of the Balfour Declaration and the moves toward establishing a Jewish homeland in Palestine is a little shaky — he works hard in Hero to reestablish our sense of T.E. Lawrence’s greatness.

As well he ought, for in the context of modern sneers at the man, Lawrence’s reputation needs defending. In the context of Korda’s praise, however, one wants to say, Yes, but . . . The last section of the book is particularly concerned to cast Lawrence as a prophetic figure whose “advanced and radical ideas about the future of the Middle East” were simultaneously more idealistic and more practical than those of the diplomats who would not listen to him at the Paris Peace Conference after the war.

That’s a curious claim, for Korda sees clearly that part of the future problem with “the brutal carving up of the Turkish empire” was that the enormous wealth, from the 1970s on, of the great oil reserves came to the most backward areas. It transformed “remote desert ‘kingdoms’ and ‘principalities’ into oil-rich powers, while leaving the more highly developed, better educated, and more populous parts of the area — Egypt, Syria, Jordan, and Lebanon — impoverished.” Lawrence hardly foresaw all this, and such lines from Korda as “On this subject, at least, Osama bin Laden and T.E. Lawrence would have stood as one” should give us pause.

In truth, Lawrence was simply Lawrence: Who else but T.E. Lawrence possessed the personal reputation and charm that could force Prince Feisal and the Zionist Chaim Weizmann to sit down together in January 1919 and sign an agreement (drafted by Lawrence) to create an Arab-Jewish government in Palestine? And who else but T.E. Lawrence could have such a major accomplishment so completely ignored by the Allied powers as they settled up the Middle East?

Perhaps the best way to understand him is as a fairly typical product of the British school system in his time, atypical only in being the absolute perfection, the complete achievement, of what that system seemed to want. As Edmund Wilson once remarked, Edwardian education (Lawrence studied at the City of Oxford High School for Boys before he began attending university at Oxford in 1907) aimed at only two essential goals: to produce classicists and to produce leaders of men. In T.E. Lawrence, it got what it was looking for — which is rather the problem, isn’t it?

Something there is in modern historical writing that cannot tolerate the idea of any heroism, and — as the title of Hero suggests — Korda wants to restore our sense of Lawrence’s achievements.

Certainly he had the scholastic background. His first-class honors thesis on crusader castles was a solid piece of work, completed after a thousand-mile walking tour of Europe in the summer of 1909. He absorbed languages like a sponge: French, German, Arabic, Turkish, Latin, ancient Greek (his 1932 translation of Homer’s Odyssey remains a superior prose rendering). And he used his skills, in the years before the war broke out in 1914 when he was 26, to become a promising young archeologist.

He was schooled, however, precisely at the moment in which British academics made a strange turn. Essentially giving up on their Christian foundations, the British schools shifted into a modern Orientalism that persists to this day: the old biblical scholarship still directing attention to the Middle East, but the rejection of Christianity causing the emphasis to be placed instead on nonbiblical peoples. In the end, it proved a kind of Arabolatry, a philosemitism, that engulfed the universities and, through them, the British Foreign Office.

Dying in a motorcycle accident in 1935, Lawrence had the advantage of living before he was forced to choose between Arabs and Jews, and even, to some degree, before he was forced to choose between serving England and aiding Arabia. But Michael Korda’s Hero is wrong to read Lawrence’s thoughts about the Middle East as something more than the kind of British intellectualism that, today, advocates the boycotting of Israel.

For that matter, the man’s psychological development was of a piece with his intellectual training. In both, he proved the product of his place and time. England aimed its sons at golden moments, but to look back is to realize that those moments were the wild highs and lows of adolescence, not the steady maturity one hopes adults can find. There’s no denying that Lawrence was a great figure. At the moment of crisis, he proved a hero. But his biographies, even Michael Korda’s near hagiography, always end a little sad. T.E. Lawrence was a green bay tree that shot in its early years to an extraordinary height — and then never quite filled out. He was a glorious boy who could never quite discover how to be a man.