Strange characters pirates and terrorists, in that when you view them from another angle they can be virtually indistinguishable from heroes.
Over the weekend, BBC2 offered two programmes to gladden the hearts of patriotic traditionalists – the kind of tales of British manly pluck on which empires are founded. First of all, Dan Snow kicked off the first part of Empire of the Seas: How the Navy Forged the Modern World, his history of the Royal Navy, and then in The Legacy of Lawrence of Arabia, Rory Stewart offered an unapologetically admiring portrait of the writer and soldier. Both were rippled through by notions of courage and adventure – great risks taken for glory, profit and national pride. And both reminded you that there's nearly always a perspective from which valour can look exactly like crime.
When John Hawkins and his cousin Francis Drake set on one of their early freebooting expeditions, for instance, their enterprise was to be fuelled by the transport of slaves, some of the very first to fall victim to the transatlantic trade. And when Drake, in revenge for what you might call a Spanish police action against the same expedition, attacked the port of Cadiz, sinking numerous ships and looting the city, he was regarded by the Spanish as little better than a piratical murderer under the protection of a rogue state. Fortunately for Drake this kind of thing went down very well in the rogue state itself, seeding a national myth that would lead, decades later, to a notably catastrophic attempt to repeat his raid.
Snow's history began with ripping yarns of adventure at sea, of surprise attacks and raids by Barbary pirates on the unprotected fishermen of Cornwall (whose indignation at slavery seemed to be considerably sharper when it was they who ended up in fetters in the cargo hold). But it concluded with a kind of paragon of bureaucracy – Samuel Pepys, whose reforms of naval administration helped transform the Navy from a lucrative source of government peculation into something like a fighting force. Pepys never swashed a buckler in his life, but he was, in his way, one of our great naval heroes. Snow himself makes a pretty good presenter here, incidentally – a Boy's Own type, happy to shimmy up the ratlines for a panoramic long-shot and gaze wonderingly out at the far horizon, as if dreaming of a Eldorado of foreign-territory sales.
Rory Stewart is no slouch when it comes to walking in the shoes of his own heroes either. Lawrence of Arabia (a terrorist insurgent from an Ottoman perspective, let's remember), he told us, inaugurated his love affair with the Middle East by taking a 1,000-mile stroll from Turkey to Syria. Stewart himself surpassed that by walking alone 6,000 miles from Turkey to Bangladesh, a journey that took him 26 months. He then topped up his credentials as a scholar-adventurer by helping to govern two Iraqi provinces after the American invasion, and founding a charity intended to regenerate historic areas of Kabul. At a time when it's virtually compulsory to hire Griff Rhys Jones or James May to present BBC2 factual documentaries it's close to a miracle that his inside knowledge of the subject hasn't actually disqualified him from the job. The result is very good, anyway, even if he (or his producers) rather missed a trick in burying their most telling bit of footage in the middle of this film, rather than using it at the beginning as the perfect encapsulation of Stewart's main theme, which is the gap between Lawrence's approach and that currently employed. Notionally, at least, the Americans in Afghanistan and Iraq pay lip service to Stewart's hero, quoting Lawrence admiringly in their Counterinsurgency Field Manual and encouraging their officers to study his writings. But the reality is perhaps more accurately represented by the Portakabin with the hand-made sign reading "Arabian Night Photo", a temporary studio where American troops can take a souvenir snapshot in fancy dress, before popping out to the McDonald's or Subway Portakabins across the way, airlifted in to protect them from contact with the Arab world. A more pointed contrast with Lawrence's deep and thoughtful immersion in local culture is hard to imagine.
Lawrence's idealistic attempt at nation-building failed, betrayed by the self-interest of the British and French governments, who declined to keep their promise to hand over a new Arab nation to the men who helped them defeat the Turks, thus sowing seeds of mistrust and suspicion that are still sprouting nearly a 100 years later. One hopes that in next week's episode, Stewart might find time to quote what is currently one of the most pertinent of Lawrence's 27 Articles, an adage perfectly suited to drawdown and troop withdrawal: "Do not try to do too much with your own hands. Better the Arabs do it tolerably than that you do it perfectly... Actually, also, under the very odd conditions of Arabia, your practical work will not be as good as, perhaps, you think it is."