restricted access In And Out Of History: Col. T. E. Lawrence
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February 2003 Historically Speaking 15 In and Out of History: Col.T. E. Lawrence Harold Orlans Lieut.-Colonel T. E. Lawrence (1888-1935), Britain's World War I hero, was an extraordinary man. Those who doubt this should read Seven Pillars of Wisdom and judge for themselves die kind of man bodi revealed and hidden in this penetrating yet elusive account of his part in the 1916-18 Arab revolt against Turkish rule. It is not die work ofa detached scholar (diough Lawrence studied medieval history at Oxford and, while writing Seven Pillars, was a fellow of All Souls College) but a leader ofthe revolt, a determined, wily man who led Bedouin guerrillas from the Hejaz to Damascus and sought to impose his view ofthat desert war upon the historical record. Tb a great extent, he succeeded, as even his critics cannot escape his forceful words. Irving Howe called his prose "coercive." EHe Kedourie, who considered Lawrence a dangerous romantic and corrected his misleading version of the Arab entrance into Damascus, acknowledged Seven Pillars' "immense influence." To Kedourie, Lawrence was "a symbol ... of the constant irruption into history of die uncontrollable force of a demonic will exerting itself to the limit of endurance." Lawrence had a scholar's tools—wide reading in several languages, an eidetic memory , a powerful mind inclined to puncture accepted doctrine—but not a scholar's disposition , preferring games of life to those of study. "I am not going to put all my energies into rubbish like writing history," he wrote home from Syria. "I don't think anyone who had tasted die East as I have would give it up ... for a seat at high table ___" He had vast literary aspirations and exalted creative art and artists to the point offolly. Asmall man (5' 5") widi a Napoleonic complex, he made himself strong by exercise, ascetic feats ofendurance, willpower, and that great equalizer, a gun. Confronted, he would not back down. Auden saw his life as "an allegory ofthe transformation of a Truly Weak Man into the Truly StrongMan." His life was a struggle between action, his native métier; self-expression; and a growing conviction ofthe futility ofaction, diought, and life itself. Lawrence knew the Near East well. In 1909, turning twenty-one, he hiked 1,000 miles alone, in scorching summer heat, through often roadless, bandit-infested Palestine and Syria to inspect thirty-six crusader castles for his Oxford thesis. From 191 1-14, he and Leonard Woolley dug a Hittite mound on the Euphrates just inside the presentTurkEffusively praising the work of contemporary writers, poets, and painters, Lawrence was more critical ofhistorians. ish border. He managed the work crew effortlessly , hoped to free indentured natives from their usurious masters, and befriended Busrawi Agha, chief of the Melli Kurds, who promised him a houseful ofart ifthey sacked Aleppo. After Turkey entered the war in October 1914, Lawrence prepared maps and interviewed captives for British military intelligence in Cairo. Youngest in a small group ofArabists , he tried to explain to untutored officials that not everyone in Turkish uniform was Turkish and that secret dealings, money, and guns could prompt native uprisings. In die Arab Bulletin (1916-19), he and his colleagues interpreted regional affairs for government circles. The Bulletin was supposed to be secret, but Lawrence's gripping contributions raised its circulation. Apracticed marksman, he wore a sword and dagger—standard tribal weapons in Arabia; but his trenchant pen and speech were his strongestweapons. Where others saw unfathomable chaos, he saw the region's troops and peoples placed like so many pieces upon its varied topography, wadis, roads, and rail lines. Drawn to the elemental, marauding tribesmen, he knew dieir customs, rivalries, and what could move diem, and expressed his views with confident clarity. In Cairo strategy discussions and campfire talk about tomorrow 's foray, he was detached, even-tempered, shrewd, convincing, blending knowledge and insight with wiliness and purpose. He was a first-class intellectual and practical mechanic; he knew how to get things done; ifnecessary, he could be ruthless. Following demands for postwar rule ofa vast territory from Arabia to Persia and the Mediterranean, an equivocal British response, and a secret...


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