Book Review: Seven Pillars of Wisdom, by T.E.Lawrence…and the ‘counterfactual condition’


If there is one genre of book I  would not pick to read…it’s military history.  I’m not much of a  Western fan, either, but the idea of reading about people being cruel to each other, and rich people having others killed to enforce their beliefs…just not entertaining.  I was not expecting a military history when I chose this book.   I don’t know what I was expecting.    Probably, from the title, more about Islam, and how Lawrence ‘discovered’  it for himself.  The fact is, there are five Pillars of Islam, and I have no idea where  Lawrence came up with this title.  I have had a fascination with T. E. Lawrence for  a long time.  First of all, there is the myth that Lowell Thomas created.   Having read several Lawrence biographies, the man  who emerges, from all descriptions, was  very complex.  He was the subject of so many bios because  he was a study in contradictions, and was also such a  fantastic artist and writer himself.

The book, Seven Pillars of Wisdom (also published as Revolt in the Dessert), has  gone out of print.

I have to say, and anyone who has read the book  probably wonders the same thing, that the title is confusing.  Revolt in the Dessert is a better title, but still does not do the book justice.  I had put off reading the book (until my trip to Turkey) because I felt it might be  too dry to sustain my interest.  How wrong I was.    Lawrence does an amazing job  of describing how he got involved  with the Arab cause, and also of his experiences during his involvement during World War I.  This includes his  trips through the desert.  His descriptions are marvelous, very richly detailed.

It is well documented that Lawrence really pushed himself physically.  Others have speculated that he was  a masiochist, and did so because he was embarrassed that his parents had never married.

He does allude to the possibility of fame, and being knighted, but more, he wants to do right by the Arabs.  It is clear, early on, that he realizes that his country, England, has sold them out to the French.  What he also makes clear is that, as the Arabs were making progress, Mustafa Kemal (who was to become the great Ataturk) offered Feisal a deal for self rule once the war against the Ottomans was won…and Feisal decided to  trust  the British.  Big mistake.

One has to remember that the European powers, and Russia, got involved in World War I for an expansion of territory.  Malaysians  have told me that while the Chinese were always in southeast Asia, they never  fought for political control.  They were just doing business.  Not so the Europeans. They were always out to  subject people to their  rules and culture.  What started out as patriotic duty to Lawrence ended up in realizing he played a part in the betrayal of the Arabs. Sure, they got part of what they wanted, but  in the end, due to the French insistence on  ruling Syria, we have what we now have in the modern Middle East.

This is the counter-factual condition. Were it not for  this, everything would be totally different.  In the past several years, much has been written about Zionism, the Balfour Declaration, and how Jewish immigration was handled in Palestine, since nobody wanted the Jews,  dumping them in this desert place was as good an idea to European powers as anything, and  certainly the Arabs were not mature or intelligent to run a country . Transparency and respect for rules of law?  Issues not addressed.  it was the firth estate—the press—not mature or intelligent enough…and they still aren’t.  Vested interests and all.  However, we Americans are so gullible, and under the guise of our own patriotism, continue to fight for the wrong side  (Iraq, Afghanistan), using the wrong tactics, worshiping as heroes the people we send to die for an amorphous cause, and keeping the playing field unlevel so the rich in developed areas can  unfairly prosper.

In the end, Lawrence  was ‘rewarded’ by his government for his role, but, obviously sick at heart, he tried to become anonymous.  Although he died in a motorcycle accident, he was obviously depressed, and  it is fair to say he was also a victim of his government.

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