“We were fond together because of the sweep of open places, the taste of wide winds, the sunlight, and the hopes in which we worked. The morning freshness of the world-to-be intoxicated us. We were wrought up with ideas inexpressible and vaporous, but to be fought for. We lived many lives in those whirling campaigns, never sparing ourselves: yet when we achieved and the new world dawned, the old men came out again and took our victory to remake in the likeness of the former world they knew. Youth could win, but had not learned to keep, and was pitiably weak against age. We stammered that we had worked for a new heaven and a new earth, and they thanked us kindly and made their peace.”― T.E. Lawrence, Seven Pillars of Wisdom: A Triumph (1922)
T.E.Lawrence—a.k.a. Lawrence of Arabia—was born on this date 125 years ago. One of the first great celebrities of the 20th century because of his role in the Arab Revolt against the crumbling Ottoman Empire in WWI, this British intelligence officer also was one of the last century’s most paradoxical figures—someone whose Arab apparel made him stand out among the officer corps, but whose reticence eventually led him after the war to enlist in the Royal Air Force under an assumed name (T.E. Shaw, a tribute to good friend George Bernard Shaw).
In some quarters, Lawrence remains a somewhat controversial figure—or, in the words of Ephraim Karsh, in a Wall Street Journal article from last week, “an exceptionally gifted charlatan with a keen eye to networking and self-promotion, who successfully cast his spell on far more senior and accomplished contemporaries, such as Allenby and Winston Churchill.”
But, as the United States continues to cope with its place in the Middle East, the example of Lawrence from a century ago looms large. In this regard, the quote above from the hero’s memoir Seven Pillars of Wisdom seems particularly relevant. It evokes the dispiriting conclusion of the David Lean masterpiece about his life, Lawrence of Arabia (which I posted about here), in which the hopes for Arab self-determination are quashed after the war at the negotiating table. The dawning of the “new world” he fought for remains elusive.