Wednesday, August 16, 2023

D.W. Buffa

D.W. Buffa's new novel is Lunatic Carnival, the tenth legal thriller involving the defense attorney Joseph Antonelli. He has also published a series that attempts to trace the movement of western thought from ancient Athens, in Helen; the end of the Roman Empire, in Julian's Laughter; the Renaissance, in The Autobiography of Niccolo Machiavelli; and, most recently, America in the twentieth century, in Neumann's Last Concert.

Here is Buffa's take on T.E. Lawrence's Seven Pillars of Wisdom:
In the copy of Seven Pillars of Wisdom T.E.Lawrence gave to his friend, E.M.Forster, he wrote: “Not good enough, but as good, apparently, as I can do.” Forster disagreed. Lawrence, he explained, “was so modest that he never grasped its greatness, or admitted that he had given something unique to our literature.” To say that the book describes the revolt in Arabia against the Turks, is like saying that “Moby Dick is about catching a whale.”

The book that Lawrence did not think good enough, and E.M. Forster thought one of the greatest ever written, was written more than once. The original manuscript, left in a bag at the Reading station, was stolen, and Lawrence had to write it all over again. This second manuscript, known as the Oxford edition of l922, did not do much better. Nearly 330,000 words in length, only about a half dozen copies were known to exist. Lawrence cut this version by 50,000 words, including all of the first chapter, which contained one sentence Forster always remembered: “All the subject provinces of the Empire to me were not worth one dead English boy.” It was a sentence to be weighed against the seven words stamped on the cover of the edition finally offered to the public in 1935, the year of Lawrence’s death: “The sword also means cleanness and death.”

Forster understood why Lawrence had become so famous. The war in the desert was the “last of the picturesque wars. Camels, pennants, the blowing up of little railway trains by little charges of dynamite in the desert - it is unlikely to recur. Next time the airplane will blot out everything in an indifferent death….” The Arab Revolt, Lawrence’s war, was “the last effort of the war-god before he laid down his godhead and turned chemist.” How did it happen? How did a twenty-eight year old English intelligence officer who had joined the army only at the outbreak of the war become one of the greatest generals England ever had?

Lawrence was sent out from Cairo, where he was stationed, to make an assessment of the Arab capacity to help the British fight the Turks. He met Feisal, the Arab leader, who was himself only thirty-one. When Feisal asked him, “And do you like our place here at Wadi Safra?” Lawrence replied, “Well; but it is far from Damascus.” That remark, that it is “far from Damascus,” reveals a depth of understanding, an idea of what the Arabs should be doing, that from the start separated what Lawrence thought necessary and what the British high command had in mind. “I believed in the Arab movement, and was confident, before ever I came, that in it was the idea to tear Turkey into pieces; but others in Egypt lacked faith, and had been taught nothing intelligent of Arabs in the field.”

Lawrence would have to act alone, but that meant he would, in a way, have to change identities: “no man could be their leader except he ate the ranks’ food, wore their clothes, lived level with them, and yet appeared better in himself.” He had also to rid himself of much of what he had been taught. He had read all the the classic works of military strategy and tactics, “Clausewitz and Jomini, Mahan and Foch, had played at Napoleon’s campaigns, worked at Hannibal’s tactics, and the wars of Belisarius, like any other man at Oxford, but I had never thought into the mind of a real commander compelled to fight a campaign of his own.” He did this, finally, after laying ten days in bed in the desert with an illness.

The British were insistent that the Arabs capture Medina. Lawrence woke up one afternoon “from a hot sleep, running with sweat,” wondering “what on earth was the good of Medina to us.” In a revelation that, had it been understood by the American military authorities a half century later, might have made them doubt the wisdom of fighting an insurgency in places like Vietnam and the Middle East, Lawrence decided that the attempt to destroy the enemy in battle was all wrong.

Why take Medina? The Turkish garrison had been “reduced to an inoffensive size” and their effort to keep the town would only cost them men and material. The best way to win the war was not to fight. “Out of every thousand square miles of Hejaz nine hundred and ninety-nine were now free.” The Turks were “welcome to the tiny fraction in which they stood.” They had to defend 140,000 square miles. That would require a fortified post every four square miles. It would take 600,000 men “to meet the ill-will of all the Arab peoples combined with the active hostility of a few zealots, “of which there were at present 50,000.” The Arab revolt should be “a war of detachment.” Lawrence would attack not men, but materials. He would cut the railroad lines.

Cut them, not to prevent, but to delay the movement of men and supplies to the various Turkish positions. This was the key. The object was not to destroy the Turkish army, or to force them to withdraw; it was to make the maintenance of the Turkish garrison “just a shade less difficult than its evacuation….” The Turkish army would be held prisoner in the places it thought it had to defend. Led by Lawrence, the Arabs “were never on the defensive except by accident and in error,” because “we had nothing material to lose, so our best line was to defend nothing and to shoot nothing….” What the Turks, and not just the Turks, but the accepted military judgment of the allies, failed to grasp was that “in Arabia range was more than force, space greater than the power of armies.” The Turkish army was an army of occupation in an area greater than could be dominated effectively from fortified posts.” That meant, for Lawrence, “that our rebellion had an unassailable base, guarded not only from attack, but from the fear of attack.”

The conclusion, at least for Lawrence, was obvious: “We must not take Medina.” To the contrary, “we wanted him to stay at Medina, and every other distant place, in the largest number.” The Turks would not want to do anything else. “His stupidity would be our ally, for he would like to hold, or think he held, as much of his old provinces as possible. His pride in his imperial heritage would keep him in his present absurd position - all flanks and no front.”

Lawrence knew what had to be done, but the reason why it had to be done had to remain his secret. No one else had a serious interest in England’s honor. Everything Britain had done, all the promises made to the Arabs, had been a lie. “The Arab revolt had begun on false pretenses.” There were secret agreements in which England, France, and Russia had agreed to annex some of the areas of the Middle East and to create spheres of influence “over all the rest.” The only way to force England to keep its promises was to make the Arab revolt so successful England would have no choice.

This meant Lawrence would have to speak like Odysseus, tailoring his speech to his audience. To keep Egypt, on whom he depended for supplies, satisfied, Lawrence and the Arabs “must reduce impolitic truth to keep her confident and ourselves a legend.” He “could not explain to Allenby the whole Arab situation, nor describe the full British plan to Feisal.” The reports he wrote to the British headquarters in Palestine were, quite on purpose, done to “make them think me a modest amateur, doing his best after the great models; not a clown, leering after them where they with Foch, bandmaster, as their head went drumming down the old road of effusion of blood into the house of Clausewitz.”

It is striking how much everything Lawrence did was a conscious attempt to make himself “a legend” who would be given the respect, and the independence, without which the Arab revolt could never succeed. He became as hard, as heedless, as any Arab, and as indifferent to the demands of his body as any Stoic ever dreamed, able to go “two, three, or four days without food.” He had never ridden a camel, but became better at it than any Arab follower of the Arab revolt, because only with the camel could his forces go without supplies for six weeks, which meant, in the desert, “a thousand miles out and home.” Fifty miles covered in a day was considered an easy stage, eighty miles was good, a hundred ten was possible, riding through a breathless wind, “with the furnace taste,” riding with “Our shriveled lips cracked open, and the skin of our faces chapped; while our eyelids, gone granular, seemed to creep back and bare our shrinking eyes.” Like torture, to most civilized men, but something else for Lawrence, “since its torment seemed to fight against mankind with ordered conscious malevolence, and it was pleasant to outface it so directly, challenging its strengths, and conquering its extremity.”

The Arabs followed Lawrence because they hated the Turks and were inspired by Feisal. The first rule of Arab warfare was that women were “inviolable’; the second rule was that the “lives and honor of children too young to fight with men were to be spared.” The Turks had no rules. After taking one village, “Hundreds of the inhabitants were raped and butchered, the houses fired, and living and dead alike thrown back into the flames.” The Arabs followed Feisal because “he brought nationality to their minds in a phrase, which set them thinking of Arab history and language…. Another phrase showed them the spirit of Feisal, their fellow and leader, sacrificing everything for the national freedom….” Lawrence felt some of what they felt. “Even I, the stranger, the godless fraud inspiring an alien nationality, felt a delivery from the hatred and eternal questioning of self in my imitation of their bondage to the idea; and this despite the lack of instinct in my own performance.”

One year of this, then another, his conscience racked with the question - a question that may seem, if not impossible, archaic, in our more sophisticated, and morally less rigorous, times - whether he had not lost his honor, “when I assured the Arabs that England kept her plighted word.” He was tired of it, the “pretense to lead the national uprising of another race, the daily posturing in alien dress, preaching in alien speech….” But there was no escape. He had to stay. Turkey had to be taken out of the war, to redress the stalemate of the Western front.

Lawrence became even more insightful. It was all a fraud, but the Arabs had been given something that made that fraud a gift. “By our swindle, they were glorified. We paid for them our self-respect, and they gained the deepest feeling of their lives.” Fraud itself became a subject. “Here were the Arabs believing in me, Allenby and Clayton trusting me, my bodyguard dying for me: and I began to wonder if all established reputations were founded, like mine, on fraud.” He wondered if he himself was a fraud. He had “a craving to be famous; and a horror of being known to like being known.”

With a constant close eye on himself, and yet observing with extraordinary clarity the world around him, Lawrence never lost sight of what he had set out to do. He led the Arab revolt and took Damascus, which “meant the end of the war in the East and, I believed, the end of the general war, too: because the Central powers being inter-dependent, the breaking of their weakest link - Turkey - would swing the whole cluster loose.” It was something that, astonishing as it must seem, he had planned from the beginning, when he was still a boy. Seven Pillars of Wisdom ends with these three sentences: “I had dreamed, at the City School in Oxford, of hustling into form, while I lived, the new Asia which time was inexorably bringing upon us. Mecca was to lead to Damascus; Damascus to Anatolia, and afterwards to Bagdad; and then there was Yemen. Fantasies, these will seem, to such as are able to call my beginning an ordinary effort.”

It is no wonder that Winston Churchill said of Lawrence: “I deem him one of the greatest beings alive in our time…We shall never see his like again. His name will live in history.”
Visit D.W. Buffa's website.

Third reading: The Great Gatsby

Third reading: Brave New World.

Third reading: Lord Jim.

Third reading: Death in the Afternoon.

Third Reading: Parade's End.

Third Reading: The Idiot.

Third Reading: The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.

Third Reading: The Scarlet Letter.

Third Reading: Justine.

Third Reading: Patriotic Gore.

Third reading: Anna Karenina.

Third reading: The Charterhouse of Parma.

Third Reading: Emile.

Third Reading: War and Peace.

Third Reading: The Sorrows of Young Werther.

Third Reading: Bread and Wine.

Third Reading: “The Crisis of the Mind” and A Man Without Qualities.

Third reading: Eugene Onegin.

Third Reading: The Collected Works of Thomas Babington Macaulay.

Third Reading: The Europeans.

Third Reading: The House of Mirth and The Writing of Fiction.

Third Reading: Doctor Faustus.

Third Reading: the reading list of John F. Kennedy.

Third Reading: Jorge Luis Borges.

Third Reading: History of the Peloponnesian War.

Third Reading: Mansfield Park.

Third Reading: To Each His Own.

Third Reading: A Passage To India.

--Marshal Zeringue