Saturday, July 15, 2006

Review : The Golden Warrior

The Golden Warrior: The life and legend of Lawrence of Arabia by Lawrence James
Reviewed by Sean Badal

Although this book was first published in 1990, it was revised and updated in 2005, with new material uncovered on Lawrence’s personal life - but most importantly, there is a kind of coda by the author on the 2003 invasion of Iraq, hence this review.

Even as a disinterested reviewer Lawrence is an infuriating subject. In a way it is ironic that so substantial a biography (500 odd pages) should be devoted to a man who was, in so many ways, so insubstantial. Lawrence was a fey creature both physically and intellectually. In the cold harsh of daylight his accomplishments are slight He wanted to be a great revolutionary, leading the Arabs to freedom, except that the Arabs he liked were a particular kind of Arab (the Bedouin) and the freedom promised was naturally within the confines of the British Empire. He saw Arabia as the first “brown” dominion.

He wanted to be a great writer but in the end, all he managed was one major work – Seven Pillars of Wisdom – a largely florid exercise in sulky petulance in which he, the hero, is always right.

And how utterly perverse that Lawrence was fighting alongside the Arabs for their “freedom” from the Turks whilst their Muslim brethren were being so ruthlessly crushed in nearby India.

Lawrence’s Arabism comes into clear focus here. As the author points out, there was only a certain type of Arab that Lawrence cared about, those Arabs who were nomads, who lived by their ancient codes of “honour”, the “clean” Arabs as Lawrence referred to them. He hated town types, those who were considered clever, or were tainted by contact with western ideas, especially western ideas about freedom. It is vastly different from say, the Arabism of Burton, who lived amongst the Arabs and spoke Arabic fluently and who delighted in the philosophical experience of Islam.

Lawrence’s ideas then were no different to the usual construct of the noble savage so beloved by colonial types – the Sikh in India, the Pathan in Afghanistan, the Zulu in South Africa – all singled out and hero-worshipped for their “warrior” qualities.

There was a certain cinematic fluidity to Lawrence, so it is perhaps natural that the moving pictures played such a pivotal role in establishing the legend of Lawrence of Arabia – and no, it’s not that picture. The American film-maker Harry Chase first presented Lawrence on screen in 1919 – and at least a million British people watched the shows in London – an astonishing number for that period. With the connivance of a number of powerful people – John Buchan, Robert Graves, Winston Churchill, the Lawrence legend was born. (Glad to say that my hero George Orwell saw through his theatrics). It reached an apotheosis of sorts in David Lean’s 1962 epic, with Peter O’ Toole seemingly inhabiting the skin of the real Lawrence (in his diaries, Noel Coward tartly observed that if the real Lawrence had been half as pretty as O’ Toole, he would have been buggered by a lot more Turks).

The legend has been chugging along fairly steadily since then.

It is mostly myth. All he managed to do was blow up a few trains and bridges. The Arabs loved him - mostly because he paid them timeously with gold sovereigns from the government purse. And ah, Damascus, well, it was liberated by the Aussies.

And so to Iraq. The author points out the striking similarities between the Mesopotamian campaign of 1914-1918 and the Iraqi insurrection of 1920 to the invasion by “coalition” forces of Iraq in 2003. Lawrence was a great proponent of what he called “aerial policing” i.e. bombing the shit out of the natives, and then riding in heroically with the cavalry. Churchill, then in charge of some office or the other, loved him for it, and enthusiastically sanctioned the gassing of Kurds from a great height. Yup, the wheel keeps turning.

Anyway, here’s a nice quote from Seven Pillars.

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 their dream with open eyes, to make it possible.

Title: The Golden Warrior: The life and legend of Lawrence of Arabia
Author: Lawrence James
ISBN: 0297810871

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