That was then...
May 9, 2004 11:57 AM   Subscribe

A Report on Mesopotamia by T.E. Lawrence, August 2nd, 1920.
posted by homunculus (13 comments total)
Wow. The similarities, manifest. Very tightly written piece, too. I just watched the (helpfully advertised) dvd for the first time recently: (My review: thumbs up!) I didn't know much about Lawrence and the Arab Revolt before watching it - I need to read his books.
posted by crunchburger at 12:37 PM on May 9, 2004

A lot of people are reading "Seven Pillars of Wisdom" these days.
posted by homunculus at 1:02 PM on May 9, 2004

Really fine post, thanks. The third link (US regnancy of theory, ignorance of history) deserves development into a longer essay.
posted by crunchburger at 3:07 PM on May 9, 2004

Oh, the guy's book is coming out next month, that's why it read like an abstract.
posted by crunchburger at 3:09 PM on May 9, 2004

Anyone interested in the historical angle here should read A Peace to End All Peace- it is a really well researched book that really gives a lot of context to the current situation in the middle east, even if the focus is basically on World War I. And anyone interested in Lawrence should read the utterly brilliant psychobiography of Lawrence by John Mack first. Seven Pillars is of course a classic, but it lacks so much context and Lawrence himself had such a convoluted personality and such strong political and personal goals that reading it without the context provided by Mack gives one a really skewed view of both Lawrence and the Middle East.
posted by louie at 3:51 PM on May 9, 2004

I read Seven Pillars of Wisdom a long time ago after seeing Lawrence of Arabia and loving it. As I recall it was quite boring. The story basically went like this:

Chapter 1 We blew up a train today.
Chapter 2 We blew up a train today.
Chapter 3 We tried a different way of blowing up trains. This new method met with little success. We promptly returned to the old way of blowing up trains.
Chapter 4 We blew up a train today.

It read more like a travel log as I recall. My mouth still waters when I think of this passage from his description of a Bedouin feast
posted by euphorb at 4:02 PM on May 9, 2004 [1 favorite]

euphorb, all due respect, but your memory does not represent the book, which is thrilling for the first half (after which, like the movie, it kind of gets lost in the sands). However, it is filled with both Lawrence's own megalomania and the typical British conviction that the Arabs loved them and wanted to be ruled by them. Unfortunately, most of the available literature on the period is by Brits, so you have to practice discounting for the bias.

And I second louie's recommendation for A Peace to End All Peace -- a very enlightening book (though almost entirely oriented towards the European actors in the drama, so again you have to allow for the bias).
posted by languagehat at 5:52 PM on May 9, 2004 [1 favorite]

Great link, truly interesting stuff. There are, of course, those who would say that history has no bearing on the present and that it's impossible to make paralels between Britian and America's adventures in Iraq. Of course. these are often the same people who drag (a misunderstanding about) Chamberlain into every argument regarding war.
posted by cell divide at 6:32 PM on May 9, 2004

Apropos of El Aurans, the droll punctuation guide "Eats, Shoots & Leaves" relates 1924 correspondence sent to Lawrence by George Bernard Shaw excoriating him for overuse of colons in "Seven Pillars." GBS's letter began: "My dear Luruns [sic], Confound you and your book: you are no more to be trusted with a pen than a child with a torpedo . . . " and then went on, "As you have no rules, and sometimes throw colons about with an unhinged mind, here are some rules for you."

It is not known what Lawrence's reaction was to this missive, but, shortly afterward, he joined the RAF under an assumed name.
posted by rdone at 6:37 PM on May 9, 2004

The importance of T. E. Lawrence by David Fromkin
posted by donth at 11:40 PM on May 9, 2004

Regarding "Seven Pillars", the book itself has an interesting history; the first draft disappeared inside a stolen briefcase and,

Lawrence hurriedly wrote out a second version, recreating the book from memory while it was fresh in his mind. The result, over 400,000 words, was reasonably complete but "hopelessly bad as a text", but the book was later rewritten, and those privileged to read the 1922 version (soon dubbed the 'Oxford Text') were extraordinarily impressed. In a private letter to Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin, Bernard Shaw wrote: "The Work is a masterpiece, one of the few very best of its kind in the world."

So I imagine the "child with a torpedo" quote was probably more in the way of a friendly ribbing than a blistering critique.
posted by taz at 11:54 PM on May 9, 2004

The historical parallels are indeed striking, but unfortunately they don't offer many clues as to how to get out of the present mess.

For one thing, it's very misleading to portray Lawrence as "anti-war" or "anti-imperialist". True, he criticised British military involvement in Mesopotamia and argued, correctly, that the policy of direct rule (via League of Nations mandate) was not going to work. But he wasn't arguing that the British should simply pull out, stop meddling, and leave the Arabs to govern themselves. Far from it. He believed in a policy of arm's-length imperialism, with the British exercising indirect rule via a puppet monarchy. As it turned out, this was equally impractical.

If more people are reading Seven Pillars, then good. But I hope no one in Iraq is treating it as a textbook on how to handle the natives. It's a great book, but it's essentially a piece of adventure fantasy, classic Boys' Own stuff. And while Lawrence's view of the Arabs is highly romanticised, his view of the Turks is positively racist.
posted by verstegan at 12:57 AM on May 10, 2004 [1 favorite]

donth: great link. I think there is more to be said about Lawrence the man, but Fromkin does encapsulate Lawrence the historical persona almost completely.
posted by louie at 6:40 AM on May 10, 2004

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