Seven Pillars Of Wisdom: A Triumph, by T.E. Lawrence
This sprawling book of more than 650 pages is evidence simultaneously of the reason why autobiographies cannot be trusted and also why they cannot be rejected out of hand either. As one of the principle people behind the successful Arab Revolt during World War I, T.E. Lawrence sought to make this book a classic memoir of leadership in the vein of Caesar’s Gallic Wars or Grant’s two-volume autobiography. The author’s self-conscious literary ambitions and his obvious desire both to minimize his own role to boost the Arabs up as well as to avoid being too clear about his own treasonous behavior as well as his evident desire to avoid being too explicit about the rape he suffered while scouting in the area of Deraa all demonstrate the ways that this text is not reliable as a statement of truth. Most autobiographies fail to be as candid as the honest and curious reader would wish, and the author wishes himself to be seen as a decent man who is compelled to act in support of a corrupt and foolish and dishonorable imperialistic strategy even as the trauma of warfare eats away at his humanity and sensitivity. Although the book is not reliable, it is indispensable nonetheless and despite its length it is a worthy book about an important part of the history of the Middle East that haunts us today.
This sizable book begins, quite sensibly, with a synopsis of the book’s contents by the author as well as some illustrations (which are scattered throughout the book as well). The author himself wrote the preface as well as an introductory chapter that was not printed until after his death because of the scorn it puts on British diplomatic efforts during World War I, and a postscript as well. After this the main contents of the book begin with an introduction that discusses the foundations of the Arab revolt. The author discusses meeting Faisal (I) and figuring that he would do as the figurehead of the Arab revolt as he was more impressive than his brothers or his suspicious father. After that the author discusses the opening of the Arab offensive (II) as well as the strategy of damaging the railway but not destroying it outright so as to starve and hold the Ottoman garrison in Medina and deny its use to fighting the British (III). The author discusses the advance to Aqaba (IV) as well as the marking time that happened afterwards as limitations in supplies and manpower limited what could be done by the irregular Arab forces (V). After this comes a discussion of the raid on the bridges near Yarmouk (VI) as well as the success of the Dead Sea campaign (VII). After this comes a look at the ruins of high hope because of the failure of Allenby to take and hold Salt (VIII), the efforts that were undertaken in 1918 to strengthen the allied forces (IX), and the successful conquest of Damascus at the close of World War I (X), after which there is an epilogue, two appendices, and some indices.
Throughout the book the author shows himself to be an appealing outsider who observes the people and places around him with an admirable sense of humanity as well as an important eye for self-presentation. His skill at bureaucratic infighting would have been better served fighting for a more noble cause than Arab political power or British imperialism, but we are not always wise in our choice of causes. If this book was mostly entertaining to read, that speaks highly of the book’s value as an adventure memoir, but the book also leads the reader to think about the sort of trouble that war involves to the people who are in it as well as to the world at large. Is the world better for Lawrence having taught Arabs to be skilled at using roadside bombs? I would argue not. Was the cause of the Arabs just? It is not unjust today, for though they did not deserve to be under Ottoman oppression, they have been just as oppressive themselves in turn. Was it worthwhile for T.E. Lawrence to do what he did? It is hard to say–he demonstrated himself to be a heroic leader of men, but they were bad men whose divisions have sabotaged the well-being of their people for the last century. And T.E. Lawrence going native was certainly a bad thing as he would have been better to be English than to end up as he did.