Review: Seven Pillars of Wisdom, by T. E. Lawrence

Wisdom has built her house; she has set up its seven pillars. — Proverbs 9:1

T. E. Lawrence is the Lawrence, of Arabia, and Seven Pillars of Wisdom is his autobiographical account of his time spent serving in the British and Arab armies during World War One. If you’ve seen the movie, you’ve got the basic idea, but it’s always good to read the original.

This is a pretty hefty book; my copy clocked in at about 690 pages. (The trick is to read about 50 pages a day; then you will finish it before the library wants it back.) The first hundred pages or so will make more sense if you already know a bit about the British/Ottoman front in WWI, but if you don’t want to read an additional four or five hundred pages in preparation, just read my reviews of Lawrence in Arabia and The Berlin-Baghdad Express. In particular you’ll want to know something about the absolute disasters that were Gallipoli and the Siege of Kut–Lawrence played a small, bitter role in the latter.

Once you get into the meat of Lawrence’s adventures, however, the book stands perfectly well on its own.

T. E. Lawrence was originally a British archaeologist who traveled to the Middle East to study Crusader-era castles and fell in love with the region. When Britain and the Ottoman Empire went to war, Lawrence was one of the few Brits with any first-hand knowledge of the area, people, and language, so he was sent to the intelligence bureau in British-controlled Cairo to draw up maps for the troops.

The war was, of course, a terrible idea for everyone involved. The Ottoman Empire was on its last legs, but the British generals were too stupid to strike anywhere useful and kept insisting on throwing its men into yet more trenches. The war also put the Bedouin population around Mecca in a bind, for while they were ruled by the Ottoman Turks, they got most of their income (and thus their food) from the annual pilgrimage, and the world’s largest Muslim country–and thus their biggest source of pilgrims–was British India. The Bedouins simply couldn’t afford to go to war with Britain–they’d starve–but they could afford to take British food and guns and gold and rebel against the Turks: so they did.

1307109799 king-faisal-i-of-iraq-kopiya.jpg
Prince Faisal, king of Iraq from 1921 to 1933

But how could the British actually manage a rebellion down in Arabia, especially when the locals were deeply distrustful of the British and the Arab aristocracy didn’t want to let Christians anywhere near their holy cities? This is where Lawrence, who actually spoke Arabic and understood something of the culture, inserted himself. He convinced the Arab leaders to let him journey far enough inland to actually meet them, liaisoned between them and the British in order to get them the guns and supplies they needed, and so made himself useful enough that Prince Faisal decided to keep him around.

Lawrence was, from the beginning, suspended between two armies. His basic job was to get Faisal to do what the British wanted (Lawrence was, after all, a British subject in pay of the British army,) moving troops here and there and attacking the Turks as needed. This was obviously complicated by the fact that what was in Faisal’s interest wasn’t necessarily in Britain’s interests, and vice versa, and so to get the Arabs to do what they wanted, the British commanders weren’t above lying. For Lawrence, actually on the ground among the troops, actively deceiving people into giving their lives to benefit the British was a heavy burden, and he assuaged his conscience by trying to minimize casualties and giving Faisal the best advice he could to position the Arab troops favorably come the inevitable post-war settling of accounts.

Lawrence soon realized that the Arab troops he was accompanying were not even remotely suited to modern, European-style trench warfare–for that matter, neither were European troops, but the sheer size of European armies allowed them to keep throwing men into the giant war-grinder for years on end. The Arab armies were too small (and poor) to grind through men and materials in this way; if they tried to face the Turks in head-to-head combat, they would run out of men and collapse.

While laid up with dysentery (or some similar illness,) Lawrence had plenty of time to think through all of the books of military strategy he’d read and ponder the point of war. The point of the Arab rebellions wasn’t “the shedding of blood” nor even the conquering of enemy territory. It as simply to make the Turks go away, and this was best achieved not by killing the Turks, but by being a pain in the ass making it difficult for them to maneuver in Arabia. In open combat, the Arabs were at a distinct disadvantage–they had fewer men, fewer resources, fewer weapons, and no way to conscript troops or force the soldiers to even stay and fight if a battle turned against them–but when it came to sabotaging supply lines, the Arabs were at a distinct advantage, because Turkish rail lines went through hundreds of miles of trackless, uninhabited desert where a raiding party could materialize in an instant, do damage, and then disappear. By contrast, the Arab supply lines were basically wells, camels, and forage.

Thus, in Lawrence’s words, while the traditional army was a solid, immobile block tethered to supply lines, the Arab army should be like a gas, materializing where needed, doing damage, and then melting back into the landscape, indistinguishable from ordinary Bedouins with their tents and herds.

Thus was born Lawrence’s strategy of leading small parties of men and camels across the desert to blow up trains, bridges, and track, with the occasional unavoidable battle.

It’s a good book. Is it 690 pages worth of good? Not quite; I think Lawrence could have cut about a hundred pages’ worth of descriptions of sand and rocks, but that’s still 590 pages of exciting train demolitions and life-or-death struggles across the desert. The book also chronicles Lawrence’s mental degeneration under the strains of war, starvation, torture, and watching people die, sometimes by his own hand. If you’re the sort of person who likes long books about wars, like Lord of the Rings or War and Peace, Seven Pillars of Wisdom should be right up your alley.

Review: Lawrence in Arabia

Scott Anderson’s Lawrence in Arabia is, quite obviously, about the famous T. E. Lawrence “of” Arabia. The book ranges significantly wider than Lawrence’s personal account, however, shifting between the perspectives of Ottoman officials, German spies, American spies, Zionist spies, and of course British spies.

I read this book concurrently with The Berlin-Baghdad Express, so my apologies if some of my memories overlap and I ascribe to one book content actually found in the other. The two books complement each other very well; The Berlin-Baghdad Express basically focuses on the German/Ottoman side of the war, with special attention given to the characters of Max von Oppenheim and his protégé Curt Prufer; while Lawrence in Arabia focuses more on the Allied side of the war, following primarily Lawrence (of course), Jewish spy Aaron Aaronsohn, American oil-spy William Yale, and occasionally Ottoman officials like Enver Pasha.

If you only have time to read one book, I’d recommend Lawrence in Arabia, because it also covers the lives of Prufer and Oppenheim, but you’d be missing out on the true depths of the German-Ottoman strategy.

World War One is not light reading. Most of the war can be best described as “insane human carnage over absolutely nothing.” The Arabian end of the war is slightly less bad simply because the Arabs did not have the numbers to send hundreds of thousands of soldiers to their deaths. Lawrence quickly realized that the usual British fighting strategy of “kill your own men as quickly as possible” wouldn’t work in Arabia, and came up with a daring alternative strategy of striking the enemy’s vital points while risking minimal deaths to his own troops. Unfortunately, of course, troops still did die.

Lawrence found himself caught in a bind, however. As the British liaison to the rebel Arab army, his job was to convince Prince Faisal and the troops to put their lives on the lines in exchange for British support and promises of post-war independence. As a British intelligence officer, he knew these promises were lies: he was privy to the Sykes-Picot agreement long before many others in the region. Lawrence wanted neither to betray his own government, least of all in the midst of war, nor to ask men to fight and die for promises he knew were lies.

Lawrence ultimately solved this conflict by simply telling Prince Faisal about the Sykes-Picot agreement. While he was certainly not authorized to do this, he rationalized his action on the grounds that it was, ultimately, in Britain’s interest that it not lie to its allies. Informed allies today might not take as many deadly risks on behalf of the British, but also wouldn’t feel themselves betrayed at the end of the war and demand retribution for their sacrifices. Still, the result of telling Faisal about Sykes-Picot wasn’t “forthright honesty between the British and Arabs” but “no guarantees at all of what the British will decide at the end of the war and ordinary men still asked to fight and die for forces that might very well turn on them.”

Beyond end-of-war agreements, Lawrence’s duty to Britain often called upon him to use the Arabs he was advising or leading to advance Britain’s ends, not their own. For example, it might be in the Arabs’ interest to take some town, while it’s in the British interest that the Arabs attack a nearby railroad depot and the British take the town. In his capacity as a British officer, it was of course Lawrence’s duty to carry out his nation’s military plans, but this meant actively sabotaging the efforts of the Arab men fighting under and for him. A man cannot serve two masters, and this inherent conflict of motives could never truly be resolved so long as Lawrence insisted on seeing his men as human beings and not pawns to be moved at will across the battlefields.

The British command, for its part, might be excused somewhat by the justification that this was war; with thousands of British men being sacrificed by the day upon the fields of Europe, the deaths of a few handfuls of foreigners for the cause hardly even bore noticing. Of course, the sensible response to discovering that your men are marching into an insatiable meat grinder is to stop marching men into the meat grinder, not to throw some Arabs in after them, but don’t look to WWI for wise decisions.

Lawrence was basically able to ignore/rationalize his way around his direct orders on the Arab front and go do more or less what he wanted simply because the front was so small and insignificant in the grand scheme of the war. Maybe Lawrence and 25 men would blow up a bridge, maybe they wouldn’t. Meanwhile, nearly a half million men threw themselves at the shores of Gallipoli in a disastrous experiment to see whether humans could withstand machine gun bullets attempt to take Constantinople. 50 thousand Allied men perished on those beaches (along with 56 thousand Ottoman defenders.) So the Arabs are inexplicably in a spot where they weren’t expected last week: who even cares?

While Lawrence was not completely forthright with his men, when push came to shove, Lawrence tended to side with his men over his commanders, advising the Arabs to take actions that would hopefully benefit themselves in the eventual peace accords. Under normal circumstances, this might have been termed “treason” and Lawrence hanged, but everyone loves a winner and Lawrence’s strategy of “not marching directly into a meat grinder” was so comparatively successful that he could not help but be forgiven.

In the end, it didn’t really matter. Britain’s strategy of “tell everyone what they want to hear until we get out of this mess” eventually boiled down to “splitting the conquered territory with France.” With the war finished on the Western Front, the remaining British and French forces so outweighed the small Arab force that they more or less dictated the terms of the settlements with the Ottomans. The Arab troops were helpful for distracting and worrying Turkish troops during the war, but once the fighting was over, their utility was spent.

The adventures of Aaron Aaronsohn and William Yale were also quite interesting.

Aaronsohn’s family was one of many that moved to Palestine in the early years of the Zionist movement, but they came from–more or less–within the borders of the Ottoman Empire itself. The Ottoman Empire used to rule a significant chunk of south-eastern Europe, including Greece, the Balkans, and several nearby areas, and as the Empire lost its territories in Europe, former citizens were faced with the question of whether to stay put and become subjects of their new nation, or pack their bags and stay part of the Empire. Since Aaronsohn’s family was Jewish, they were never accepted into their newly formed nation, and so the family kept their Ottoman citizenship, packed their bags, and moved.

At the time, many other Jewish families were also moving to Palestine from other parts of the world. Some came from Germany; others came from Russia. Russia is generally regarded as the worst of the worst for Jews in those days, and Jews were eager to get out.

Aaronsohn grew up in a company town literally run by the Rothschilds in something resembling an NRX dream. He was very bright, so the community paid for him to go to college in America, where he studied agronomy (these were he days when simply growing enough food to feed everyone was still a pressing concern). It was clear to Aaronsohn, based on historical accounts from the time of the Roman Empire, that Palestine ought to be able to grow more food than it currently was. Aside from importing modern farming techniques, he figured out that there were untapped water reserves–People simply needed to drill more wells.

When WWI began, all of the belligerent nations were faced with the problem of what to do with their resident alien populations. Those from allied nations posed no difficulties, but immigrants from countries they were now at war with posed potential security threats. In particular, since the Ottoman Empire had entered the war on the side of Germany and against Britain, France, and Russia, the Empire’s German Jews were allowed to stay put, but its Russian Jews were expelled and sent back to Russia–despite the fact that if there was one country in the world that Jews hated, it was Russia, and if there was one group of Jews that the critically-short-on-manpower Ottoman army might convince to take up arms against Russia, it was Jews who had fled Russia and been given sanctuary in the OE. But never mind that; they were simply expelled, creating a mass exodus from Ottoman-controlled-Palestine to the nearest Russia-allied country, British-controlled-Egypt.

Since Aaronsohn’s family consisted of actual Ottoman subjects, they did not have to move, but they witnessed the expulsions of many in their communities and the subsequent Ottoman army requisitions of virtually everything not nailed down–food, horses, fence posts, plows, clothes, baby clothes, women’s underwear–“for the cause.”

And then the locusts came. Locust swarms of Biblical proportions descended upon the land, devouring everything the army hadn’t. Children and animals were actually going blind because the locusts would land on their eyes while they were asleep and drink the moisture from their eyeballs. The war had barely even begun and the population was already facing starvation.

The Ottomans hired Aaronsohn to head the locust eradication program, giving him sweeping powers to do whatever was necessary to get rid of the bugs. Unfortunately, local authorities were often less than eager to listen to a Jewish guy, preferring the eradication strategy of “doing absolutely nothing.”

And then the Armenian Genocide started. (This is obviously what the Ottoman army needed to be spending its energy on at this point in the war, right?) Most able-bodied Armenian males were simply shot, but the women, children, and elderly were force-marched into the desert to die of thirst/starvation. Train stations were clogged with throngs of desperate, starving people. Train tracks were clogged with the corpses of formerly desperate people who’d been run over by the trains. Many of the skilled workers on the railroads were themselves Armenian, and with the official expulsions were also transformed into starving, desperate corpses, because what army needs a functioning railroad during a war?

It was basically the zombie apocalypse.

To his credit, Enver Pasha, who apparently wasn’t informed of the “kill all the Armenians” policy, actually tried to save the starving people streaming into his city by requisitioning food and other resources for them, but there wasn’t anything to be had because there was already a famine going on.

Meanwhile, Aaronsohn and some of his close family were travelling up and down the locust-affected-area, watching all of the destruction and thinking, “Oh my god; the Ottomans are murderously incompetent; we have to get the British to invade and start running things or we’re all going to die.”

And so Aaronsohn became a spy (or at least tried to become a spy), but that’s a story that I’ll let you read the book to learn the end of.

William Yale hailed from the family that had gifted the famous university with its name, but his particular branch of the family had fallen on hard times and Yale went to work as a common laborer for Standard Oil in Oklahoma. But Yale was ambitious and hard-working, and the company soon decided to send him to the Middle East to scout for oil.

And so, William Yale was stranded in the Ottoman Empire when the war broke out. At the time, the US was neutral, not a combatant, so he just hunkered down and tried to look out for Standard Oil’s interests until drilling could resume. His status protected him from most of the war’s worst privations, but he still saw the destruction around him. Eventually he made it back to the US and joined the war effort in his capacity as a “Mid-East expert,” or yet another spy, though he never abandoned his true loyalty to Standard Oil.

The US plays a rather small role in the book, since it had almost no part in the Ottoman theatre–in fact, the US never even declare war on the Ottomans. The US only comes in as player at the end of the story, with the Americans attempting to influence the creation of a new world order at the Treaty of Versailles, which by all accounts involved a bunch of naïve ideas born of no real experience with the regions under dispute. (But that shouldn’t surprise you if you’ve been paying any attention to the past hundred years of US foreign policy.)

So, do I recommend it? Yes. It’s a good book, especially if you’re interested in the late Ottoman Empire, Lawrence of Arabia, or WWI. I’ve now begun reading Lawrence’s personal memoir, Seven Pillars of Wisdom, and while I am enjoying it, I find that I am quite glad I read Lawrence in Arabia first. Even though Seven Pillars is 650 pages long, the material is dense and many events are covered so quickly that I wouldn’t know what Lawrence is talking about if I hadn’t already read about it in more depth in Lawrence in Arabia. (I’m sure this was less of an issue back when the book was published and the general public was more familiar with the course of various WWI battles.)