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Perspective: Another from Fromkin on Lawrence

A second excerpt from David Fromkin’s “The Importance of T.E. Lawrence,” The New Criterion, Volume 10, September 1986

Seven Pillars is the work of an author unwilling to tell which of his statements are fact and which fiction, and unable to decide what story, fact or fiction he wants to tell.  In the original first chapter Lawrence told two stories which were mutually inconsistent. In one of them the Arabs had been used as pawns by the British during the War, and he was guilty of acting for his government in this and of making promises to the Arabs that he knew his government had no intention off keeping. In the second story, he was not guilty; his government had duped him as well as the Arabs. The idealistic young men of whom he was one, he wrote, had a bright triumph, but then “the old men came out and took our victory.”

Lawrence was equally muddled about his own role. At different places in the book (Seven Pillars) he makes three claims: that he secretly intended, when the moment came, to keep faith with the Arabs by defeating his own Government’s machinations; that on the contrary, he had lost his soul in the greed for victory, and did not intend to keep faith with the Arabs; and that again on the contrary, betraying the Arabs was justified by the overriding need to win the war. In other words: He did not betray the Arabs, and that was good; he did betray the Arab, and that was bad; and he did betray the Arabs and that was good.

In reality the issue was false. Hussein had never trusted Britain, and therefore had not been deceived; he never relied on the heavily qualified phrases in which British officials suggested they would do great things for the Arab peoples after the War. Feisal knew of the secrete treaty in which Britain supposedly betrayed the Arabs to France; Lawrence had told him of it. Each of his own, (for they betrayed one another too), Hussein and Feisal had negotiated to betray  the Allies and go back to the Ottoman side. T.E. told Liddell Hart that “Feisal was definitely ‘selling us,’” so he knew his one-sided story of betrayal was fiction.

In any event the story became moot. Since the events recounted in Seven Pillars, Churchill, with Lawrence’s help, had negotiated new arrangements for the Middle East that T.E. believed provided full justice for the Arab claims. So in the end there was no betrayal and Seven Pillars – a cry of political guilt - was politically out of date long before it was published.”