Friday, June 21, 2013

Thomas Edward Lawrence

No, that's not a bathrobe.
"The Beduin could not look for God within him: he was too sure that he was within God."

History is filled with people who began their lives in humility and obscurity, tangential to contemporary events, only to discover, either through their own devices or just plain caprice, that they had become the event itself.

T.E. Lawrence was the illegitimate son of an English nobleman and a household governess.  The nobleman and the governess ran off together, obscured their identities by changing their surname to "Lawrence", and moved to Oxford.  When of age, their son Thomas entered Jesus College, graduating with a degree in history [honors, first class] in 1910.  Because of his area of interest and natural ability at language, not to mention a near-photographic memory, Lawrence became the protege of Sir Leonard Woolley, the pre-eminent archaeologist of the early 20th century.  Together, they made significant discoveries while working the dig site at Carchemish.

Lawrence on the left, Woolley on the right; a great whopping stone in between
With a talent for languages and map-making, matched with a familiarity with the Levant gleaned through a three-month trek he had made between his third and fourth years at Oxford, it seems probable that Lawrence would have been one of the great archaeologists of the century, especially when one considers that he was the protege of Woolley.  Fate and history, however, had other plans.

At the outbreak of World War I, Woolley and Lawrence were pressed into duty by British military intelligence to spy on Turkish activity while maintaining the guise of working field archaeologists.  Eventually, now bearing the rank of lieutenant, Lawrence was transferred to Cairo to draw maps, until becoming of interest to the rather nebulous office known as the Arab Bureau.

[An aside: The British, in particular, seem to enjoy creating nebulous offices that pursue rather peculiar goals, often answering to few in the established power structure, that grow beyond their original intention. Military Intelligence's File Room #6 eventually became the organization that, in fiction, James Bond works for, the Secret Intelligence Service. The SIS now has a huge and conspicuous building on the Thames that houses hundreds of offices and rooms.  The Special Air Service never had anything to do with flight, airplanes, or oxygen usage, but was a group that drove around North Africa creating general mayhem against the Italians and Germans in WWII.  They now are the world's premier anti-terrorist commando force. They still don't have their own aircraft, though.  The Arab Bureau was begun in order to "harmonise [sic] British political activity in the Near East", and it wound up being the organization that re-wrote the borders of the Middle Eastern countries, thus leading to the continued strife into which the United States has been particularly drawn during our current century.]

One of the ideas hatched by the Arab Bureau was for the Arab tribes, rivals in everything from livestock to water wells, to organize and harass the Turkish forces.  Like many bright ideas, it was brilliant on paper, divorced as it was from the realities of tribalism.  In order for this to work, the Arab Bureau would have had to provide a European officer who was skilled in Arab language and customs, familiar with the geographic challenges of the region, conversant in Islam, and able to recognize the tribe members from one another.  As they didn't think they had such a person, the Bureau sent Lieutenant Lawrence to the the fledgling Arab stronghold in the desert to "appreciate the situation" while the Bureau-crats looked for a suitable officer for the project.

Yes, this was one of history's most remarkable examples of unfamiliarity with one's staff.  Once with the tribes, Lawrence, relying on his quiet authority, encouraged the Arabs to find common ground with one another, mainly by convincing them that the coastal town of Aqaba, poorly defended by the Turks, could be seized.  As this appealed to the Arab sense of adventure, and more mercenary considerations since the Turkish army paymaster's office was in Aqaba, the "Arab Army" stormed the town and seized it in July 1917.  This energized force then began a campaign of asymmetrical warfare under the direction of now-Major Lawrence.

The Middle Eastern command was still considered a sideshow of WWI until enterprising American journalist Lowell Thomas showed up and decided that Lawrence was to be the "star" of Thomas' popular slide show productions that he hosted all over the U.S.  Thomas would follow Lawrence with a photographer and send back lurid and colorful dispatches to the American newspapers and wire services.  Lawrence became the first media-created celebrity of the 20th century, for better or ill.

This was certainly a loss to archaeology, as Lawrence would never be able to return to obscurity, or so he thought.  He rode with the Arab tribes to Damascus, attended the Paris Peace Conference, attempting in vain to have the Arabs recognized by the British and French as anything other than a backward and minor culture, and served, now as Colonel Lawrence, as an adviser to Winston Churchill, then of the Colonial Office.

[Another aside: If the British and French had been willing to listen to Lawrence, much of the world's current strife could have been avoided.]

In 1922, "Lawrence of Arabia" disappeared.  A year later the press discovered that a Royal Air Force private by the name of Ross was, in fact, the Royal Army's former 29-year-old colonel.  He disappeared again, this time in the guise of Private Shaw of the Royal Tank Corps.  Shaw/Lawrence would later be transferred back to the RAF and, to protect him from the nosy press, posted to India, where he would remain until 1928.  He would be discovered yet again, and because an increasingly volatile Indian government suspected that he was there not to hide from notoriety but to spy on them, was returned again to the UK.

Lawrence struck up a surreptitious friendship with many of the thinkers and artists of his day, especially with George Bernard Shaw and his wife [hence his sobriquet of "Shaw"], and maintained a lively correspondence with them; he also maintained an interest in archaeology, but would never again participate in any field work.

Lawrence retired from the military at the age of 46 to indulge in his books, letters, memoirs, and hobby of riding a motorcycle far too fast for conditions.  It would be on one of these excursions, in the spring of 1935, that he would lose his life in a crash.

To the surprise of many, the Church of England would have a bronze bust of his likeness placed in the crypt at St. Paul's Cathedral in London; he would be interred in a small parish cemetery in Dorset near the home of his later years.

There is a great volume of literature about Lawrence; in fact, just within the last two years, yet another bestselling biography would be published.  There is also an extremely well-made film, "Lawrence of Arabia" that would be one of the last of the studio blockbusters and would win the Best Picture Oscar for 1962.

If one were to read just one volume, however, it should be Lawrence's own memoir of the Arab campaign, Seven Pillars of Wisdom.  It is well-written and comprehensive, displaying the depth and range of Lawrence's intellect and his ability lyrically to render the sobering events of war and diplomacy.

"All men dream, but not equally. Those who dream by night in the dusty recesses of their minds, wake in the day to find that it was vanity: but the dreamers of the day are dangerous men, for they may act on their dreams with open eyes, to make them possible."