Thursday, January 9, 2014

Lawrence in Arabia by Scott Anderson

Lawrence in Arabia: War, Deceit, Imperial Folly and the Making of the Modern Middle East This book would be a perfect semester-long study for young bucks with an interest in foreign affairs and a willingness to test themselves with knotty problems and harsh realities. Coming into the information with clear eyes and no prior understanding of the histories we have undergone in the past one hundred years, youths that imagine patterning themselves on the legendary stoic T.E. Lawrence will have an education.

Anderson had much primary material at his disposal to create this dense wartime history of The Middle East full of schemes and counter-schemes, spies and double agents, treachery unbound and heroism unheralded. There might be just too much information for me here: I am Swift’s Gulliver, on my back, securely bound with threads of information, staring unblinkingly at the sky and wondering still about Lawrence. The subtitle of the book is perhaps a truer picture of the contents than the title, and the two could be reversed.

Anderson does a masterly job of marshaling the material and propelling the narrative with quotes from the players themselves. One becomes familiar with the skill and treachery of many men besides that of the enigmatic Lawrence. Lawrence is a device: a way into the material and circumscribing it fore and aft. Lawrence had been used before for such ends and at one time he would have been interested to read this many-faceted story of the times in which he lived and how it played out.
Anderson writes: “Since late 1916, Lawrence had waged a quiet war against his own government, and now he had lost. What would soon become clear, however, was that he intended to continue that fight off the battlefield, in the conference halls and meeting rooms of peacetime Paris. He may have asked to leave Damascus out of exhaustion, but it was also to prepare for the next round in the struggle for Arab independence.”
If Lawrence had been given more credence at the Paris Peace Conference instead of stripped of his credentials, things may have been different in the present-day Middle East, though perhaps not much better. Lawrence worked out an agreement for the administration of an Arab-Jewish state in Palestine with then Prince Faisal ibn-Hussein of Syria and British Zionist Chaim Weizmann but the plan was scuttled by the British and French, who had earlier agreed to split the Middle East between them. “…Great Britain and France had taken the discredited Sykes-Picot Agreement and fashioned something even worse; how much worse was evidenced by the myriad fires that had spread across the region almost immediately.”

An alternative history with Lawrence’s involvement after the war, had he not suffered from PTSD, changed his name (twice), retreated to a lonely Indian outpost as a low-ranking British army private, and then died from a motorcycle accident in 1935, would be most interesting. But the Lawrence of the First World War had died shortly after that war, though the man himself lived another seventeen years:
Anderson: ”In Arabia, Lawrence had exerted life-and-death control over thousands, and had cobbled together a cause and an army as he went along. All the while, he had been tormented by a sense of his own fraudulence, the awareness that the men who fought and died at his side were almost certain to be betrayed in the end. As he would suggest in Seven Pillars, and state quote explicitly in letters to friends, after Arabia he never wanted to be in a position of responsibility again: ’The Arabs are like a page I have turned over, and sequels are rotten things.’
Lawrence in Arabia
The 1962 David Lean/Peter O’Toole movie is surprisingly thorough and captured many key events featuring Lawrence recounted here, though emphases and characterizations were tailored to the screen and the sensibilities of the time. With Anderson’s help, we understand the larger context of competing national interests and how the shaping of the Middle East had less to do with T.E. Lawrence, Curt Prüfer, Aaron Aaronsohn, Chaim Weizmann, and William Yale than with Mark Sykes, François Georges-Picot, David Lloyd George, and Georges Clemenceau. The whole globe was watching the unfolding events in the Middle East and everyone had different desires. The event-makers, in the end, did not have the effect of those who watched.

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  1. It seems to have taken 20 years and a second world war for the colonial European powers--and their colonies--to realize Europe had lost too many of their people in WWI to continue to maintain their colonial experiment. Well, I guess it took until the mid-50s really.

    I read Lawrence's Seven Pillars of Wisdom a long time ago, & the thing I always remember first is his very funny account of leading his first camel charge against the Turks and managing to shoot his own camel in the back of the head. This account looks like it would explain many of the things Lawrence probably assumed the contemporaries his book was written for would already know.

    1. What this book does really well is show the contemporaneous events happening at the time Lawrence was in the desert. He must have been so awfully remote, and yet he had his pulse on the region like none other. The Americans were constantly and consistently "misreading the Middle East" according to Anderson, the Germans, the French, and the Russians were all there, but it was Lawrence, that odd character, that could move mountains. One knows that there are special people in the world: the Middle East could use one now.