Arabian Knight

Published May 1, 2024

First Things

In the literature of the First World War, full of the horrors of trench warfare that ravaged a generation even for the victorious Allies, a single heroic leader stands apart from the mass-murdering generals and clueless politicians who were responsible for the slaughter. Whereas their corroded names are mostly forgotten, his remains vital, legendary, the name of a modern crusader who fought for the freedom and self-rule of a Muslim people when most white men would have preferred its subjugation for their own imperial purposes. T. E. Lawrence (1888–1935)—Lawrence of Arabia, as the world came to know him—may validly be called the generalissimo of the Arab Revolt against the flyblown but still oppressive Ottoman Empire. Diminutive (topping out at 5 foot 5 and at fighting weight sometimes under a hundred pounds) but indomitable, this Oxford history graduate and archaeologist thrust himself into the leadership of desert guerrilla forces despite having no experience of combat; what he knew of war came exclusively from books and a Cairo office job in British intelligence. He mastered the practicum on the run and in a terrific hurry.

Lawrence’s account of his part in the war, Seven Pillars of Wisdomis subtitled A Triumph—a word suggesting a singular departure from the best-known memoirs, novels, and poetry of soldiers caught up in the carnage and catastrophe. Yet Lawrence’s story is not as simple as the subtitle suggests. He learned the lessons that familiarity with atrocity teaches—on his own suffering body and in his own contribution to the inescapable cruelty of men grown adept in killing. He came out of the war much different from the man who had gone in. His experience of savagery, on both the receiving and the giving ends, can be said to have unmanned him. Wielding the power of life and death became abhorrent to him.

Yet he could not stop others from admiring or even revering him. The remarkable poet Robert Graves, the formidable military historian Basil Liddell Hart, and the grasping carnival barker Lowell Thomas wrote early and praiseful biographies, heavy on the war stories. The Harvard psychiatrist John E. Mack, in A Prince of Our Disorder (1976), probed more deeply than his predecessors into the psychic malformations (as doctors for the cure of souls habitually do) that had produced Lawrence’s youthful craving for glory and later scorn for it. Jeremy Wilson, the Lawrence specialist who wrote his authorized biography in 1989, believed he had solved “the biographical riddles” that earlier biographers could not quite crack, but room remained for future questioners. And now Sir Ranulph Fiennes, sometime desert warrior in the Lawrence mold, adventurer extraordinaire, and author of some twenty books, has joined the list of biographers allured by this enigmatic, tortured, and astonishing man.

Fiennes interleaves his narrative of Lawrence’s career with reminiscences of his own stint in the 1960s as leader of a platoon of native Muslim soldiers fighting for the Sultan of Oman against pitiless Marxist insurgents. Like Lawrence, Fiennes knows the peculiar pleasures of living in constant danger of sudden violent death, and he understands just how serious a business killing is. And like Lawrence, Fiennes was attracted to the pursuit of military glory and honor by a sense of familial obligation. Fiennes’s father had been killed before his son was born, fighting with the Royal Scots Greys in the Second World War, and it had always been Fiennes’s ambition to enlist in the regiment and do his father proud. Lawrence was the product of an illicit union between an Irish baronet named Chapman and the governess of Chapman’s children, Sarah Junner. Chapman abandoned his original family to run off with Junner and live under an assumed name; Fiennes the biographer surmises that Lawrence was goaded by his mother to atone for this tarnished legacy with feats of valor and renown.

Lawrence was ten years old when he figured out that his parents were unmarried and he and his brothers officially bastards; his mother always singled him out for special exhortation as the wonder child who would make their disgrace come clean in the end. “This insistence that Lawrence could redeem the family, and restore them to their rightful status, coincided with his obsession with the Crusades and medieval legends.” As Fiennes notes, Lawrence told his biographer Liddell Hart “that he had studied war when he was younger because he was filled with the idea of freeing a people, while his ambition had been ‘to be a general and knighted by the time he was thirty.’”

Private Lawrence spent the first two years of the Great War mostly drawing maps and figuring out enemy positions. His evident intellect and his knowledge of Arabic and of Middle Eastern politics and mores caught the attention of a superior officer, Ronald Storrs of the British Agency in Cairo, whom he accompanied on a mission to meet with Arab leaders: the sons of Sherif Hussein ibn Ali—emir of Mecca, ruler of the Hejaz, that part of the Arabian peninsula on the coast and in the hinterland of the Red Sea and extending as far east as the holy cities of Medina and Mecca—the future king, Abdulla, and thirty-one-year-old Feisal, the magnifico Lawrence would call “the man whom I had come to Arabia to seek.” Now a temporary second lieutenant, the stripling military genius tossed off a 17,000-word report, convincing the brass that a few British advisers and some explosives and modern weapons would suffice to help make the Arab cause a winning proposition. In short order, arrayed in the splendid white robes with gold trim that were Feisal’s gift to him, Lawrence was riding a camel into war with Feisal and his 10,000 men on the way north from Medina. Their objective was Damascus, eight hundred miles away, and the next two years would be spent reaching it. Lawrence soon became the brains of the operation and the de facto general on the ground. Usually operating in small bands, striking suddenly from out of nowhere, blasting the Turks’ invaluable Medina–Damascus railway into uselessness (Lawrence became an adept demolitions man), the force advanced in parallel with the British army led by Gen. Edmund Allenby, and reached their prize on October 1, 1918, little more than a month before the war’s end. By then Lawrence was a colonel and a knighted Companion of the Order of the Bath.

Lawrence was impelled into battle by the highest political ideals, and stung into heroism by the need to prove himself an exceptional military mind and a noble chivalric warrior. Throughout his campaigns, he carried with him Thomas Malory’s fifteenth-century Le Morte d’Arthur, telling of the legendary king and his Knights of the Round Table. He seemed to have a shot at glory and the chance to take it in a just cause.

Disillusion with the romance of war, and with the virtue of the Allied powers, stunned Lawrence. The ends for which the Arabs were fighting, under Lawrence’s direction, proved at odds with the plans of his British superiors, who had to satisfy the even more demanding French. When Lawrence learned of the secret Sykes–Picot Agreement, which would apportion Arab lands among the imperial Allies at war’s end, he was thunderstruck. As he continued to lead his men with the promise of freedom on the horizon, the lie he was compelled to live with gnawed into his soul. He loathed himself for his duplicity.

His self-loathing intensified as he plunged deeper and deeper into bloodshed. The first man he killed was one of his own, Hamed the Moor, who had slain a comrade in arms of the Ageyl tribe. This intramural murder was a capital crime in every Arab’s eyes, but if in reprisal an Ageyl were allowed to execute the murderer, or to kill another Moor in Hamed’s place, it would start a blood feud with no end in sight.

Lawrence decided he had to do the job. Fiennes recounts the “horrifying ordeal” with terse vividness, like Lawrence’s own in Seven Pillars. The first shot, to the chest, left Hamed writhing in torment on the ground. “In a panic, Lawrence shot him again, but his hand was shaking so violently that the bullet hit Hamed’s wrist, leading to yet more howls of agony. . . . Taking no chances, he approached Hamed, put the muzzle of his pistol to his neck, and pulled the trigger.” That this killing appeared to be Lawrence’s unavoidable duty did not ease his anguish. This was not the war he had imagined for himself.

He would go on to endure unimaginable pain. On clandestine reconnaissance in the city of Deraa, trying to pass himself off as a Circassian peasant, he was captured by Turks, whose commanding officer, a bey of malevolent perversity, apparently recognized him; he was brutally beaten and raped, and just managed to get away. This savagery would haunt him for the rest of his life.

Fiennes follows Mack in finding here the source of Lawrence’s uncharacteristic command, in one of the last engagements of the war, to take no prisoners: He was avenging his savaging at Turkish hands. But there was another provocation: The fleeing Turks had left their mark on the Syrian village of Tafas, butchering men, women, and children, their corpses “set out in accord with an obscene taste,” with a truly unspeakable outrage inflicted on a pregnant woman. In response, Lawrence declared, “The best of you brings me the most Turkish dead!” His men lived up to the spirit of his order. The massacre at his command left him feeling more unclean than his own violation by the enemy.

This brutally acquired self-knowledge rendered him incapable of ever again commanding men in the field, or for that matter of taking anything but a subservient role in his military career. He wanted to be, and did his best to become, anonymous, a mere cog in the machine, to use his own metaphor. Any hint of a wish to rise in the world was unforgivable glory-seeking, to be despised and shunned.

Men of action, captains who lead their soldiers into battle and political men who hurl entire nations into war, often make a sort of devil’s bargain to maneuver their way around perhaps the most vexing of spiritual questions: the problem of evil. The need to understand why the world is as it is, why human existence should be plagued, not only with noisome insects and venomous reptiles and lethal microbes and murderous earthquakes and childhood cancers, but also with mortal hatreds among peoples and terrible man-made wounds and the untimely deaths of the bravest and best in unthinkable multitudes, roils the minds of philosophers, some theologians, and probably most ordinary persons; but it fails to trouble unduly those who rush into the fight, bent on winning the distinction that crowns the strongest, the most audacious, the victorious. They do not ask why God so made the world, whether he might be indifferent or incapable or cruel, or whether he conceived Creation in perfect wisdom and goodness and will justly condemn those who blatantly violate his fifth commandment. Brooding over his own bloody hands or the questionable justice of his cause can disable a military officer or a statesman.

Psychically robust men are propelled into action by an inborn enthusiasm. They are acting as their natures dictate, with blithe innocence, the ebullience and gay abandon of animal spirits; they cannot help that they are not like most other men, and usually they are sure that they are far superior. If they have spiritual or intellectual misgivings about the profession of legal manslaughter, they can summon the sangfroid to keep them under wraps. Better not to ask themselves what contribution they are making to the sum of humanity’s pain. Perhaps that was how Lawrence began. But what makes him a figure of such pathos is that, over time, he was driven to dwell on the suffering he had caused, to a degree unbearable for a soldier. The conviction that he had betrayed his ideals and was complicit in evil darkened his mind for a very long time.

Of course, there are also morally unexceptionable reasons why some men choose the warlike life. The literature on just war is time-honored, voluminous, and still taken more or less seriously by the world’s democracies. So men may fight righteously to alleviate human suffering, sometimes for their own country’s freedom or another’s, or perhaps to avert mass misfortune more terrible than war, such as totalitarian slavery. Lawrence went to war wanting the glory and honor of the great name he undertook to earn, but that was not all he wanted. He also acted under the influence of political motives he considered unimpeachable. Although the imperial powers at that time, especially the French, took a very dim view of surrendering their Arab colonies to their longtime colonial subjects, Lawrence believed that justice required an immense political transformation: The Europeans must acknowledge that their era of world mastery was finished and that a new, more equitable order was ascendant.

He became indispensable to the cause of Arab freedom and sovereignty, not only as military leader, but also as a postwar political advocate, both at the Versailles Conference of 1919—where, to his disgust, the imperial powers prevailed—and as Colonial Secretary Winston Churchill’s trusted adviser in 1921, when the Arabs were granted the coveted dominion they had claimed in the field.

What Lawrence saw as his greatest achievement—his role in eroding the empires of the European powers—might today seem a dubious proposition at best. The Arab nations he helped to found have not exactly thrived. Their rulers care little for the lives of their subjects, and they are more belligerent and oppressive than their sometime oppressors. The arc of history doesn’t always bend toward justice, though history is often seriously bent.

As for Lawrence’s personal ambitions, their fulfillment in honor and renown proved repellent to him. The responsibility that command bestowed on him for the fates of other men was more than he could bear. Leadership rightly belonged to healthier specimens, men gifted with a useful insensibility. He used his top-brass military connections to secure a place under a changed name in the Royal Air Force as a common airman: first a mechanic, later a clerk, by all means strictly a menial. Three months after he retired in 1935, he crashed his motorcycle on a country road while avoiding two boys on bicycles and died six days afterward. Not unlike his father, he had done his best to start his life over with a new name (trying on John Hume Ross before settling on Thomas Edward Shaw). His headstone was nevertheless engraved “T. E. Lawrence.” The blazing honorific he ached to be rid of, Lawrence of Arabia, he could never escape. 

Algis Valiunas is a Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center and a contributing editor to The New Atlantis, a journal about the ethical, political, and social implications of modern science technology.

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