Thursday, July 12, 2012

Setting the Desert on Fire: T.E. Lawrence and Britain's Secret War in Arabia, 1916-1918 (2006, James Barr)

Publishing Info:

Barr, James. Setting the Desert on Fire: T.E. Lawrence and Britain's Secret War in Arabia, 1916-1918. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2008 (paperback). Originally published 2006. 382 pp.


Since 9/11, increased American and British involvement in the Middle East has revived interest in World War I's Middle Eastern theaters. Looking for historical background on the region, causes for Islamic resentment of the West, understanding of Arab cultures, or pointers on combating insurgency, a slew of authors penned dozens of new books on this previously-neglected theater. Lawrence's own writings (especially the 27 Articles) have been standard reading for US troops in Iraq and Afghanistan.

James Barr's lively book is more a general history of the Arab Revolt than a biography. Thus, my review will be unusually succinct. Nonetheless, Lawrence becomes the central figure in Barr's narrative, and Setting the Desert on Fire provides a fine portrayal of his exploits.

The Author:

James Barr is a journalist for the Daily Telegraph, an historian and an expert on the Middle East. He has recently published a follow-up volume, A Line in the Sand: The Anglo-French Struggle for the Middle East, 1914-1948 (2011). His website can be found here; his Lawrence-related blog here.

The Review:

Preparing for this project, Barr traveled extensively in the Middle East and trawled through British and French archives, taking advantage of new documents. His book contains much original research, but frustratingly little fresh analysis.

Barr scores most in portraying the Revolt's background. He spiritedly depicts the politicking amongst the British and French, each keen on establishing their own spheres of influence; disputes among military and political leaders over the Revolt's necessity; Lawrence's interactions with testy, skeptical superiors. He gives fair coverage to Lawrence's colleagues, both British and French, showing the Arab Revolt to have been a team effort. He also briefly addresses the post-war political fall-out, as broken promises "created a reservoir of deep resentment" in the Islamic world (322). Barr commendably strips this convoluted background down to readable length.

In Barr's account, the Arab Revolt was worthwhile militarily and defensible politically (at least for the Arabs). He gives a complex portrait of Sherif Hussein and his sons, showing them a mixture of self-interest and nationalist fervor. True, the Arabs were ridden by tribal faction and often avaricious. The staunch religiosity of the Sherif alienated nationalist "Town Arabs" in Syria who may otherwise have supported the uprising. Many, like Howeitat warlord Auda abu Tayi, blew hot-and-cold in their allegiance. But overall their military utility outweighed their small numbers and fractious nature, providing crucial support to Allenby's invasion of Syria.

Perhaps inevitably, Lawrence takes center stage. Bare depicts him heroically, as a brave man, skilled diplomat and expert military leader. While Barr notes Lawrence's propensity to stretch the truth (especially his strategic "revelations" at Wadi Ais), he argues that official records often support Lawrence's accounts. Most notably, he lays to rest any lingering doubts about Lawrence's "Northern Ride," showing that "recently unearthed British and French intelligence reports... corroborate the most audacious episode in Lawrence's story" (162). It's a limited portrait, but effective so far as it goes.

Barr's one bombshell regards Deraa. Using an electrostatic detection apparatus (ESDA) on Lawrence's journal, he analyzes pen compressions to argue that  missing pages indicate Lawrence was in Azrak, not Deraa, in late November 1917. "This new evidence makes it seem likely that Lawrence removed the page... because its contents did not correlate" with Seven Pillars' account of torture and rape, says Barr (206). While I lack technical expertise to critique Barr's method, his interpretation (that an impression of an A means Lawrence was at Azrak) isn't enitrely convincing.

Setting the Desert on Fire is hardly the most incisive Lawrence book. For providing a concise, lucid account the Arab Revolt though, James Barr surely deserves high praise.