For Victory Everything Material and Moral Might be Pawned.
(T. E. Lawrence and the Arab Revolt)
In our two years’ partnership under fire they grew accustomed to believing me and to think my Government, like myself, sincere. In this hope they performed some fine things, but, of course, instead of being proud of what we did together, I was continually and bitterly ashamed. It was evident from the beginning that if we won the war these promises would be dead paper, and had I been an honest advisor of the Arabs I would have advised them to go home and not risk their lives fighting for such stuff: but I salved myself with the victory that I would establish them, with arms in their hands, in a position so assured (if not dominant) that expediency would counsel to the Great Powers a fair settlement of their claims … I risked the fraud, on my conviction that Arab help was necessary to our cheap and speedy victory in the East, and that better we win and break our word than lose.
(Lawrence, T. E. Seven Pillars of Wisdom)
Thomas Edward Lawrence was a British army officer who achieved renown in 1926 for his dramatic novel ‘Seven Pillars of Wisdom’, an autobiographical account of his participation in the Arab Revolt from 1916 to 1918. Lawrence was a British advisor to Arab leadership, specifically Emir Faisal I, who would go on to become King of Syria in 1920 and, later, King of Iraq (1921-1933). Lawrence’s book, however, focuses on the role he (Lawrence) played in mobilizing the Arab people to fight against the ruling Ottoman Empire.
As the Ottomans had allied with Germany against Britain in the First World War, British support of the Arab Revolt was more a strategic attempt to undermine the Central Powers than an actual interest in Arab independence. Lawrence’s perceptions of both Arabs and British are in full view in ‘Seven Pillars of Wisdom’, which I would recommend to anyone interested in understanding the foundations of the modern region’s insecurity.
Ultimately, Lawrence’s “win at all costs” mentality perpetuated a functional Orientalism that exploited Arab allies as tools to secure Britain’s authority in the Middle East. By the end of the novel, it becomes clear that Lawrence was aware of the consequences of this deception and gradually comes to view the British as a “feral” presence in the region, partially a result of the dishonesty surrounding their stake in the Arab Revolt.
In October 1916, Lawrence first advocated for the Arab Revolt to his superiors, presenting it as a formative moment for the British to strike against the Ottoman Empire and grow their influence in the Middle East. Shortly after, he left the Arab Bureau in Cairo in search of a strong leader for the revolt, finding Emir Faisal, son of Sherif Hussein, a worthy candidate. Donning robes and a headscarf at Faisal’s request, Lawrence advised the revolutionaries in their campaign against the Ottomans, attacking infrastructure in the Hejaz, securing Aqaba, and then moving north to Syria. Although his prose suggests a confident leader and a largely successful campaign, Lawrence was frequently faced with challenges; he had to execute a man convicted of murder, he failed to take the critically important Yarmuk bridge, and he was later kidnapped and tortured by Ottoman officials in Daraa, Syria. Lawrence and Faisal’s campaign against the Ottomans ultimately succeeded following victorious battles in Tafileh and Ramleh, after which they proudly arrived in Damascus to meet supplementary British troops.
Throughout the campaign there are several instances where Lawrence knowingly deceived local populations in order to further the cause of the revolt. One of the clearest instances of this (besides the passage at the beginning of this article, which paints the revolt itself as a means to achieving British victory against the Ottomans), is when Lawrence and Faisal chose to deceive the various tribal communities of Syria in order to promote unity against Ottoman forces:
Syria remained a vividly coloured racial and religious mosaic. Any wide attempt after unity would make a patched and parcelled thing, ungrateful to a people whose instincts ever returned towards parochial home rule. Our excuse for over-running expediency was War. Syria, ripe for spasmodic local revolt, might be seethed up into insurrection if a new factor … arose to restrain the jarring sects and classes … Within our sight the only independent factor with acceptable groundwork and fighting adherents was a Sunni prince, like Feisal [Faisal], pretending to revive the glories of Ommayad or Ayubid [referring to the Umayyad and Ayyubid dynasties]. He might momentarily combine the inland men until success came with its need to transfer their debauched enthusiasm to the service of ordered government. Then would come reaction, but only after victory; and for victory, everything material and moral might be pawned.
In this passage, we see Lawrence “pretending to revive the glories of Ommayad or Ayubid” for the short-sighted purpose of unity against the occupying Ottoman forces. We could ask, how aware of this ruse was Emir Faisal? Did the “jarring sects and classes” of Syria protest against this deceit after the revolt? According to the final sentence of that passage, Lawrence and the British would not have been concerned with either answer, as unity of the Syrian forces was only concerned with securing the defeat of the Ottomans. Lawrence did not inform the Syrians of Britain’s true agenda for the same reason he did not inform Faisal; the British government believed they either would not understand or would not agree – both reactions of a population deemed too immature to appreciate the complexities of the war in which Britain had found itself.
We see the consequences of this attitude after Lawrence and Emir Faisal arrive in Damascus and unite with the British troops sent to help them strengthen their hold on the city:
About the [British] soldiers hung the Arabs: gravely-gazing men from another sphere. My crooked duty had banished me among them for two years … The intruding contrast mixed with a longing for home, to sharpen my faculties and make fertile my distaste, till not merely did I see the unlikeness of race, and hear the unlikeness of language, but I learned to pick between their smells: the heavy, standing, curdled sourness of dried sweat in cotton, over the Arab crowds; and the feral smell of English soldiers: that hot pissy aura of thronged men in woolen clothes: a tart pungency, breath-catching, ammoniacal; a fervent fermenting naphtha-smell.
Without mincing words, this passage perpetuates a distinction between the British soldiers and the Arabs “from another sphere”. However, perhaps as a consequence of having ruminated for two years in Britain’s deception of the Arabs, Lawrence now described the air around the English soldiers as “feral”, “pissy”, and “ammoniacal”. Throughout the novel, Lawrence often identified with his co-revolutionaries not just militarily, but socially and spiritually. He saw in them the natural human desire for independence and autonomy and, as is reflected in the passage at the beginning of this article, lamented his betrayal of them in the name of British victory. By the end of the novel, there are frequent passages in which Lawrence bemoans his “crooked duty”; “By our swindle they were glorified. We paid for them our self-respect, and they gained the deepest feeling of their lives. The more we condemned and despised ourselves, the more we could cynically take pride in them, our creatures”.
As a work of literature, ‘Seven Pillars of Wisdom’ was the result of two years of military campaigning, seven years of drafting, and three successive rounds of rewriting. Undoubtedly, Lawrence had the benefit of hindsight when describing the intense encounters of his experience in the Arab Revolt. His prose reflects a gradual disillusionment with Britain’s involvement in the uprising and paints a picture of an optimistic army officer whose enthusiasm was gradually replaced by self-loathing and guilt. Reflecting a predatory imperialism wherein the British (characteristically) took advantage of a Middle Eastern population for personal gain, Lawrence’s novel is unique among contemporaries as he comes to terms with the consequences of this exploitation, manifested in the new British imperialism in the Middle East. As we today look upon the Middle East and see similar confidence and self-interest on the part of active foreign governments (namely the United States), Lawrence’s reflection on the human need for sovereignty and independence offers an important lesson for future policymakers in the region.
Lawrence, T. E. Seven Pillars of Wisdom. New York: Doubleday, 1991.