The Wisdom of Lawrence of Arabia

A century ago, during World War I, a British intelligence officer known as “Lawrence of Arabia” deeply understood the Mideast and saw hope for rational politics, but Western imperial ambitions intervened to ensure regional instability, as Bill Moyers and Michael Winship recall.

By Bill Moyers and Michael Winship

As fears grow of a widening war across the Middle East, fed by reports that the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) envisions a region-wide, all-controlling theocracy, we found ourselves talking about another war.

The Great War – or World War I, as it would come to be called — was triggered 100 years ago this month when an assassin shot and killed Austria’s Archduke Ferdinand in Sarajevo. Through a series of tangled alliances and a cascade of misunderstandings and blunders, that single act of violence brought on a bloody catastrophe. More than 37 million people were killed or wounded.

Thomas Edward Lawrence, better known as Lawrence of Arabia, a British intelligence officer who recruited Bedouin tribesmen during World War I.

Thomas Edward Lawrence, better known as Lawrence of Arabia, a British intelligence officer who recruited Bedouin tribesmen during World War I.

In America, if we reflect on the First World War at all, we think mostly about the battlefields and trenches of Europe and tend to forget another front in that war — against the Ottoman Empire of the Turks that dominated the Middle East. A British Army officer named T.E. Lawrence became a hero in the Arab world when he led nomadic Bedouin tribes in battle against Turkish rule. Peter O’Toole immortalized him in the epic movie, “Lawrence of Arabia.”

You may remember the scene when, after dynamiting the Hijaz railway and looting a Turkish supply train, Lawrence is asked by an American reporter, “What, in your opinion, do these people hope to gain from this war?”

“They hope to gain their freedom,” Lawrence replies, and when the journalist scoffs, insists, “They’re going to get it. … I’m going to give it to them.”

At war’s end, Lawrence’s vision of Arab independence was shattered when the Versailles peace conference confirmed the carving of Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Palestine into British and French spheres of influence; arbitrary boundaries drawn in the sand to satisfy the appetites of empire – Britain’s Foreign Office even called the former Ottoman lands “The Great Loot.”

The hopeful Lawrence drew his own “peace map” of the region, one that paid closer heed to tribal allegiances and rivalries. The map could have saved the world a lot of time, trouble and treasure, one historian said, providing the region “with a far better starting point than the crude imperial carve up.”

Lawrence wrote to a British major in Cairo: “I’m afraid you will be delayed a long time, cleaning up all the messes and oddments we have left behind us.”

Since 2003, as the reckless invasion of Iraq unfolded, demand for Lawrence’s book, Seven Pillars of Wisdom increased eightfold. It was taught at the Pentagon and Sandhurst — Britain’s West Point — for its insights into fighting war in the Middle East.

In 2010, Major Niel Smith, who had served as operations officer for the US Army and Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Center, told The Christian Science Monitor, “T.E. Lawrence has in some ways become the patron saint of the US Army advisory effort in Afghanistan and Iraq.”

But then and now, Lawrence’s understanding of the ancient and potent jealousies of the people among whom he had lived and fought generally was ignored. In 1920, he wrote for the Times of London an unsettling and prophetic article about Iraq – then under the thumb of the British.

He decried the money spent, the number of troops and loss of life, and warned that his countrymen had been led “into a trap from which it will be hard to escape with dignity and honor. They have been tricked into it by a steady withholding of information…. Things have been far worse than we have been told, our administration more bloody and inefficient than the public knows. It … may soon be too inflamed for any ordinary cure. We are today not far from a disaster.”

Not for the last time in the Middle East would disaster come from the blundering ignorance and blinding arrogance of foreign intruders convinced by magical thinking of their own omnipotence and righteousness. How soon we forget. How often we repeat.

Bill Moyers is managing editor and Michael Winship, senior writing fellow at the policy and advocacy group Demos, is senior writer of the weekly public affairs program, Moyers & Company, airing on public television. Check local airtimes or comment at www.BillMoyers.com.

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2 comments on “The Wisdom of Lawrence of Arabia

  1. Robert Nothhouse on said:

    Published in the London Times on Aug. 22,1920, Lawrence wrote: “The people of England have been led in Mesopotamia into a trap from which it will be hard to escape with dignity and honor. They have been tricked into it by a steady withholding of information…Things have been far worse than we have been told, our administration more bloody and inefficient than the public knows…We are today not far from a disaster.” The same could be said for the usa.

  2. Hillary on said:

    Thank you Bill Moyers and Michael Winship for yours above a little History for the US public is better late than never.
    ..
    The Arabs began their revolt against Turkish rule in 1916 based on promises from the British governor of Egypt that the Arabs would be given independence after British victory.
    ..
    At that time Syria was more of a regional term roughly encompassing today’s Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Palestine, and Israel.
    ..
    The British Empire was a confusing maze of ministries and departments with overlapping jurisdictions, and a British MP (Sykes), an ardent Zionist , was adviser to “the” intergovernmental committee on Mid-East affairs, was negotiating a carve up of the dying Ottoman Empire with France.
    Britain was to get Palestine, Jordan (aka Transjordan) and Iraq while France was to get Syria and Lebanon. Needless to say the Arabs felt betrayed after World War I ended in victory for the British and French who then carved up the Arab lands of the fallen Ottoman Empire.
    ..
    The absurd division of the entire Middle East, primarily by an extremely stupid, ignorant, and greedy British and the French Government that has resulted in the untenable and confusing situation that exists there today with the British using the Arabs to topple the Ottoman Empire, many characters in the British government were conspiring with British Zionists to establish a Jewish state in Palestine, then a part of the Ottoman Empire. This problem has had major repercussions which continue to today and is the main reason the West including the United States has made an enemy of Muslims all over the world.
    ..
    The players are the British Empire, the French, the Germans, the Ottomans, the Arabs and the Zionists.

    Lawrence in Arabia: War, Deceit, Imperial Folly and the Making of the Modern Middle East by Scott Anderson