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.

3 thoughts on “Review: Seven Pillars of Wisdom, by T. E. Lawrence

  1. “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”

    Do you mean “a guerrilla”?

    Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s