Orde Wingate despised Lawrence's record as a war-leader, possibly because Wingate recognized something of his own failings in Lawrence. But Wingate also felt that Lawrence abdicated his personal responsibilities as an officer to play too much the desert warrior. There are no records of Wingate actually shooting an enemy in combat--he was too busy maintaining his supply line and keeping his troops on the march. Lawrence fired his weapon often, and preferred the emotional rush of battle to the more mundane tasks typically required of officers in combat. Lawrence's emphasis on action, in Wingate's view, was an abdication of responsibility.
Lawrence's campaigns are often held up as a positive example of irregular warfare, and as a better way of fighting than what soldiers faced in the trenches of the First World War. Lawrence himself was not so sure that he was actually preserving life, or winning battles more efficiently. The numbers, in fact, indicate that he lost men at a higher rate than most British units that faced action on the Western front. This is not surprising. State control and industrial efficiency seems to reduce casualties, either because men lose their willingness to die as a mere part of a 'machine' rather than as an individual warrior, or else because industrial society provides soldiers with better access to medicine and stable rations. State control also increases the number of prisoners taken, and reduces the number of prisoners slaughtered.
British methods of warfare and 'state control' might outright reduce the 'proportion' of people who die violently. Lawrence noticed this, which explains why he heaps praise upon Allenby above and beyond any other soldier in the First World War, and why he denigrates Allenby's rival commanders not as butchers, but as unimaginative sticks-in-the-mud.
So why does Lawrence seem attracted to desert warfare? His writings indicate that he appreciated the straightforward human practicality of 'desert' warfare. Yes, the violence in the desert was terrible, but it was coupled with a familiarity, a spirit of adventure, and a sense of honor that Lawrence never felt while working for the British military in Cairo prior to his desert campaigns.
The Arab 'irregulars' that fought beside Lawrence risked hearth and home in an immediate way. More than one of Lawrence's fighters, in fact, saw their homes destroyed by the Turks in retaliation for joining with the Arab revolt. More than one Arab also saw his village destroyed, and his family annihilated, during the panicked Turkish retreats from Palestine and western Jordan. And so the Arabs often risked not only their lives, but their families and tribes to fight the Turks--and sometimes each other. The Arab revolt involved a type of warfare that was less organized in the sense of mass bureaucracy and written protocol, and yet no less sophisticated in its nuance and complexity.
And so Lawrence wrestles with the following, implicit idea throughout Seven Pillars of Wisdom: He senses that the Arab way of war is more virtuous, honorable, and personally fulfilling than the sort of violence that destroyed the lives of his friends and brothers along the European Western Front. But given that Lawrence knows the superiority of British warfare for battlefield outcomes (Lawrence always suspects the British will emerge triumphant), is it morally acceptable for him to dabble in Arab nationalism and 'desert warfare'? Lawrence believes that Arabia, Syria, and Mesopotamia rightfully belong to the Arabs--but he is a student of history, and knows that even as he props up a certain brand of Arab nationalism, he is setting in motion a thousand difficulties for hundreds of extant ethnic and religious groups living in the same region.
Throughout Seven Pillars Lawrence examines his conscience, and recognizes that ultimately he has fought this war to satisfy his own peculiar appetite for violence, warfare, and chivalry. Many of his Arab friends admire him for it, but he considers himself a sham. The Arab irregulars, in Lawrence's eyes, live with the virtues of the desert; but he, their leader, merely wears the costume--he possesses the heart, but not the mind.
The Arabs who followed Lawrence died at tremendous rates--nearly sixty of Lawrence's two-hundred personal bodyguards perished within a year. Their villages burned. Their children and wives lived unprotected, and hungry.
The European powers, on the other hand, featured stronger, centralized state governments compared with Arabia, Mesopotamia, and Syria-Palestine. Even on the Western and Eastern fronts, preserved a macabre sense of decorum. Yes, terrible acts took place in the First World War--murder, rape, pillaging, poison gas and vicious trench fighting. But even then, the war in Europe obeyed strange rules: the taking of prisoners, the feeding of troops, and the separation between the war-front and the home-front.
I conclude this letter with a couple of quotes from General Archibald Wavell, a man who fought alongside Lawrence in the Palestine campaign.
David Lean's film, Lawrence of Arabia was a wild act of filmmaking. In today's terms it costs very little money, but it took the lavish resources of time and energy and passion.
I want to quote a film critic, the late, great Roger Ebert on this film:
And yet, people said 'yes' to making 'Lawrence of Arabia.' Perhaps it was perhaps, the sort of British thing to do, as when Lionel de Rothschild loaned Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli the money to purchase the Egyptian shares of the Suez Canal.
To return to Roger Ebert:
Lean rejected the original draft of the script, written by Michael Wilson, because it emphasized historical detail and political context. Lean wanted a portrait of human soul in a moment of crisis and exaltation, not a history lesson.
Something must be said of the use of an Italian actor, a British actor and an Egyptian actor to play three of the key Arab roles. On the one hand it dangerously reminds us of the use of makeup to present stereotypes of other ethnic cultures. On the other hand, the actors, went to great lengths in their portrayals, going so far as to meeting with either their real life counterparts, or their descendants. Further, twenty-first century Hollywood would probably not insist on genuine, racially appropriate casting--but instead I suspect modern Hollywood simply would not fund the film whatsoever. I invite you all to talk about this more at another time.
T.E. Lawrence's Seven Pillars of Wisdom rates as one of the greatest war memoirs of the 20th century. In its original published form, the memoir is filled with scores of full color portraits and wildly evocative abstract dreams that parallel the flights of fancy taken in the writing. It is a work of spiritual crisis measured through the changes of a millennium, rather than a single century.
From that epic story, David Lean carved out what is often regarded as one of the top ten films of all time. The two works are almost not recognizable side by side. The film, which is easier to comprehend, obscures Seven Pillars of Wisdom, which is dense, and usually badly printed. It is an epic film, not because of its cost or its sets, but because Lawrence's character arc is as strong and as visible as a Roman arch. Lawrence's book devours a mythic feast among the bloodshed of the First World War, but Lean's film exists outside of the First World War altogether. They are two wholly different modes of art.
Both are wonderful. Neither is a lesson for strategists.