Thursday, September 19, 2013

Lawrence in Arabia: War, Deceit, Imperial Folly and the Making of the Modern Middle East (2013, Scott Anderson)

Publishing Info:
Anderson, Scott. Lawrence in Arabia: War, Deceit, Imperial Folly and the Making of the Modern Middle East. New York: Doubleday, 2013. 577 pp.

Just three years after the last major Lawrence biography (Michael Korda's Hero) comes this volume. Veteran journalist Scott Anderson further probes the Lawrence enigma, fitting him into the broader wartime canvas. In his view, "Lawrence was able to become Lawrence of Arabia because no one was paying much attention" to this marginal theater of war (3). Anderson's critical view of Lawrence nearly provides a throwback to Aldington-era skepticism.

The Author:
Scott Anderson is a New York-based journalist and author. As a war correspondent, Anderson covered conflicts ranging from Northern Ireland and Checnya to the Sudan. He's published several nonfiction books, along with novels including Triage and Moonlight Hotel. Anderson discusses his book with NPR here.

The Review:
As the subtitle suggests, Anderson attempts a broader view of World War's Middle Eastern Theater, focusing mainly on the Arab Revolt (though bringing Allenby's Palestinian campaign and the muddled Mesopotamian adventure in where appropriate). For that matter, he's more concerned with the war's diplomatic and political finagling than its military dimensions. In this regard it's more akin to David Fromkin's A Peace to End All Peace, or James Barr's Setting the Desert on Fire, than a straight biography.

To flesh out his narrative, Anderson compares Lawrence with several contemporaries. These are Aaron Aaronsohn, the agricultural expert-turned-Zionist agent who became an intelligence asset to the British (see also Ronald Florence's Lawrence and Aaronsohn); Curt Prufer, Germany's chief intelligence operative in Turkey; and William Yale, a Standard Oil official who became General Allenby's American military attache. Anderson argues that in this military backwater, "these men drew upon a very particular set of personality traits... to both forge their own destiny and alter the course of history" (4).

These individuals are interesting in their own right, and occasionally clarify Lawrence's story. For instance, Anderson uses Prufer's correspondence to demonstrate that Lawrence's nemesis Abd el-Kadr was indeed on Djemal Pasha's payroll (385). Aaronsohn provides a window not only into nascent Zionism, but his contacts with Djemal allow readers to appreciate the actions of Turkey's government. But Anderson treats them superficially; they appear irregularly through the narrative, without making strong impressions. By default, Lawrence becomes the central figure.

Anderson's is primarily a disillusioned imperialist. He starts the book with Lawrence refusing the VC from King George V and follows this strand throughout. Lawrence's prewar intelligence work and early years at the Arab Bureau give way to bitter disillusionment. Anderson makes Lawrence's involvement in the Siege of Kut, trying to negotiate the ransom of General Townshend's besieged garrison, a turning point in Lawrence's worldview. Along with his Cairo experiences, Kut taught Lawrence to distrust the "toxic fusion of racism and British notions of military superiority" (170) that shaped British attitudes towards Arab and Turk alike.

Anderson views Lawrence as not only cynical towards his government, but actively siding with the Arabs. Lawrence not only opposes landing troops in Alexandretta and informs Feisal of Sykes-Picot but, in Anderson's view, encourages his March 1918 negotiations with Mehmet Djemal. Apparently Lawrence saw the negotiations "as a powerful potential weapon to use against his government" (447). Anderson views this as a reaction to Mark Sykes' devious diplomacy ("[he] had a very hard time keeping his facts, even his own beliefs, straight" (155)) and French Colonel Bremond's brusque arrogance. This tallies also with Lawrence's habit of cavalierly disregarding orders.

Post-Aqaba, Lawrence relished throwing his weight around, spiting not only officers like Cyril Wilson he disliked but "pushing aside" his friend Stewart Newcombe (352). Anderson thoroughly plumbs Lawrence's relationship with Emir Faisal: he respects the chieftain's "unshaken ambition" (246) but grows wary at his "propensity for vacillation" (289). Where Korda recounts Lawrence's postwar meetings with Feisal as happy occasions, Anderson shows them as "awkward gatherings" (504). Not an overt "debunking" work, it's surely the most cynical treatment of Lawrence since Michael Asher. 

Anderson isn't entirely convincing. Lawrence's disgust at Allied perfidy is evident throughout his writings; it's hard to credit authors like Suleiman Mousa and Phillip Knightley who strenuously argue him a heartless imperialist. But extreme suppositions that Lawrence engendered Feisal's negotiations with the Turks build on decidedly slender foundations. Anderson isn't wrong to that Lawrence's efforts during the Arab Revolt, and later at Versailles, left him drained and ashamed. Yet later, Lawrence felt his efforts at 1922's Cairo Conference squared his loyalty to Britain and the Arabs adequately.

Nor does Anderson particularly shine elsewhere. His accounts of Lawrence's military actions read fairly, but without particular insight or originality. He's less interested in Lawrence's tactics than his growing "hatred for the enemy" which culminates in Tafas (416). He dismisses Seven Pillars of Wisdom as a "fabulously uneven book" (504). Lawrence's later life, in Anderson's view, is "decidedly prosaic" (504) and hence largely ignored. The Lawrence lauded for his "genius for friendship," able to charm both aristocrats and army privates, appears nowhere in these pages. Any hints of insouciant humor drown beneath waves of bitterness.

Anderson sniffs at "arcane squabbles between those seeking to tarnish his reputation and those seeking to defend it" (3), yet can't help examining a few himself. He confirms Barr's assertion that the northern ride during the Aqaba expedition is beyond dispute (322). He reasonably questions Lawrence's account of Deraa but concludes that "something happened in Deraa" (401). His "something" is a recapitulation of Richard Aldington's theory that Lawrence willingly submitted to the Bey's advances (402).

One shouldn't begrudge Scott Anderson for a well-written book. History buffs can learn a good deal, and even jaded Lawrence snobs may find it an engaging read. It's just a shame that Anderson offers little substantive insight into his central figure.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Checking in

It's been over four months since my last post. Groggy's recently moved and started a new job, so not a lot of time for Lawrence research.

One obvious point of interest: the recent release of Scott Anderson's Lawrence in Arabia: War, Deceit, Imperial Folly and the Making of the Modern Middle East. The reviews are positively hyperbolic, yet little I've culled from more detailed pieces (cf. here) suggests there's anything not covered by myriad other Lawrence books, or broader studies like David Fromkin's A Peace to End All Peace. The only new wrinkle seems to be profiling Lawrence alongside contemporaries like Aaronsohn (already juxtaposed with TEL by Ronald Florence), Curt Prufer and William Yale.

Does this mean I won't read Anderson's book? Of course not. I'm always excited to read a new Lawrence tome, and will jump on this as soon as time and money allow. I'm just amused that the same old claims get trotted out by every biography coming down the pike.

Friday, March 15, 2013

Upcoming Lawrence Biography

May sees the release of a new volume on TEL: Lawrence: Warrior and Scholar by Bruce Leigh.

This book is a slim (120 pp.) volume published by Tattered Flag, an independent publisher of military history. Its Amazon blurb makes some rather bold claims, to wit:

"Nobody has gone in search of the mind of the man himself - of his formation and his deep beliefs. Nobody has asked the question, What, really, is the source of the extraordinary power of this little man?"

I leave it to my readers to judge the truthfulness of this comment. Suffice it to say this sensationalist, preening ad copy gets more tiresome with each new book. Still, let's wish Mr. Leigh the best of luck - and hope his book is a worthy addition to the Lawrence canon.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Hannen Swaffer Vs. TEL

Maarten Schild points me towards an article published in the April 22, 1933 Literary Digest. Entitled "Debunking Lawrence of Arabia," it's a sarcastic open letter questioning Lawrence's modesty and achievements, penned by famed British journalist Hannen Swaffer.

The letter itself offers no substantive criticism, merely a rant against Lawrence's inflated (in Swaffer's view) reputation. "This sort of hero worship is a public menace," Swaffer writes, condemning Lawrence's self-contradiction and ceaseless press coverage. Yet it's an interesting piece, if only as an example of early Lawrence criticism, long before Richard Aldington's Biographical Enquiry.

Skepticism towards Lawrence did not originate with Aldington. Indian officers serving in Mesopotamia, including Arnold Wilson and Charles Vickery resented the attention drawn to Lawrence's theater of operations. Major N.N. Bray published Shifting Sands in 1928, criticizing Lawrence and the Arab Bureau for supporting the Hashemites over Ibn Saud. Lawrence's French counterpart Edmond Bremond was unflattering in his Le Hedjaz dans la guerre mondiale (1931). Charles Wilson, wartime British resident in Jeddah, excoriated Lawrence in a review of Lowell Thomas's With Lawrence in Arabia (1924). Schild notes also that these critics helped originate claims of Lawrence's homosexuality. Many had personal reasons to attack Lawrence, yet their positions gave them perceived credibility. 

Intellectuals and writers shared their reservations. Explorer Rosita Forbes attacked Lawrence as "a figment of [Lowell Thomas's] imagination." Poet Herbert Read, incidentally a friend of Aldington, called Seven Pillars of Wisdom an "expensive parade of eccentricity and bad taste" and the author a near-psychopath in a 1928 article for The Bibliophiles' Almanack. Historian George Antonius accused Lawrence of self-promotion in The Arab Awakening (1938). Even D.H. Lawrence took a few shots in Lady Chatterley's Lover, ridiculing Colonel "C.E. Florence" for his "unsatisfactory mysticism... [Sir Malcolm] saw too much advertisement behind all the humility."

Swaffer's critique illustrates that Aldington did not exist in a vacuum. Many publicly and privately found Lawrence failed to measure up to the Lowell Thomas media circus. Some outright loathed him. Yet until 1955, they were a footnote compared to the popular biographies of Thomas, Robert Graves, Liddell Hart, the praise of well-connected friends Winston Churchill and Bernard Shaw, and Lawrence's own remarkable writings.

Friday, February 22, 2013

T.E. Lawrence in Arabia and After (1934, B.H. Liddell Hart)

Publishing Info:
Liddell Hart, Basil H. Lawrence of Arabia. New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1989. 406 pp.

Originally published as T.E. Lawrence in Arabia and After. London: Jonathan Cape, 1934. US publication: Colonel Lawrence: The Man Behind the Legend. New York: Dodd, Mead & Company, 1934.

Many consider T.E. Lawrence in Arabia and After the first "serious" Lawrence biography after the sensationalism of Lowell Thomas and Robert Graves. Written by England's foremost military theorist, it provides valuable insight into Lawrence's achievements as a strategist "who had the vision to anticipate the guerrilla trend of civilized warfare" (382). Despite his sober bearings, Liddell Hart proves no less susceptible to hero worship than his predecessors.

The Author:
Captain Sir Basil Henry Liddell Hart (1895-1970) was an influential writer of military history and tactics. Among his many works are The Strategy of Indirect Approach (1929); biographies of Scipio Africanus, Napoleon, William T. Sherman and Ferdinand Foch; edited The Rommel Papers; and one-volume histories of the First and Second World Wars. His writings on the "indirect approach" to warfare, emphasizing maneuver, concentrated firepower and tanks, provided an intellectual model for Germany's blitzkrieg tactics during the Second World War.

The Review:
The balance of Liddell Hart's book analyzes Lawrence's military campaigns. Liddell Hart views Lawrence as a brilliant leader, worthy of comparison to "great captains" like Clausewitz, Napoleon and Marlborough. Using minimal resources against a numerically and technologically superior foe, Lawrence "turn(ed) the weakness of the Arabs into an asset, and the strength of the Turks into a debit" (383).

Liddell Hart draws uncritically on Lawrence's writings, often to the point of paraphrase. But his strategic and tactical analysis frequently proves unassailable. Consider his analysis of Lawrence's most famous military achievement: (pp. 166-167)

Tactically, the Aqaba operation had inflicted a permanent loss of some 1,200 men... on the Turks - at a cost of two men killed in the conquering force... By the strictest canons of orthodox strategy... it was an unrivaled achievement. The British forces in trying unsuccessfully to capture Gaza [under Murray]... had only succeeded in killing or capturing 1,700 Turks at a permanent cost to themselves of 3,000 men... They had sacrificed roughly two men to kill one Turk, the same number that the Arabs sacrificed to kill 1,200 Turks!
Liddell Hart broods on Lawrence's interlude at Wadi Ais, one of Seven Pillars' more dubious (though beautifully written) passages. Liddell Hart takes it at face value, marveling at Lawrence formulating "a new theory of irregular warfare" (138) while racked with fever. He emphasizes Lawrence's campaign against the Hejaz Railway, but downplays the Royal Navy's decisive role in capturing Wejh. He views Lawrence's ephemeral victory at Tafileh as a "gem" (215), while skimming over his failed 1918 Dead Sea Campaign. The Arabs become a feverish mass, indecisive until Lawrence prods them into action.

Liddell Hart's analysis deserves qualification. In 1929 he wrote The Strategy of Indirect Approach, thanking "T.E.S." in the foreword and dissecting the Arab Revolt. In another book (Great Captains Unveiled, 1927) he highlights Lord Allenby as a great modern general. Later in life Liddell Hart headed the so-called "Lawrence Bureau," ferociously defending Lawrence's reputation against Richard Aldington, David Lean and others. (He did collaborate with Terence Rattigan on his play Ross: A Dramatic Portrait (1960).) Along with his disparagement of Great War leadership, Liddell Hart clearly views Lawrence as exemplifying his pet theories.  

For all that, Liddell Hart's overall assessment is shrewd. It's possible to overstate Lawrence's tactical achievements, but he undeniably influenced military theory: guerrilla leaders from Orde Wingate to Vo Nguyen Giap drew inspiration from Seven Pillars, while American troops in Afghanistan and Iraq study Lawrence's 27 Articles. Those scoffing at the small number of Arabs joining King Hussein's revolt miss the point of asymmetrical warfare, so beautifully elucidated by Liddell Hart. For minimal casualties and lucre, the Arab Revolt provided the British an extremely useful sideshow.
Liddell Hart (right) with TEL at Hythe, ca. 1934.

Liddell Hart proves less shrewd otherwise analyzing his subject. He seems just as credulous to Lawrence's tall tales and evasions as Thomas or Graves. He sketches Lawrence's early years thinly, omitting Lawrence's illegitimacy or tense relationship with his mother. Even this early in Lawrence literature, inconsistencies emerge. For one, Lawrence's pre-war ambush by a Syrian bandit (9) differs significantly from Graves: in this telling, Lawrence thwarts the bandit by dissembling his pistol. More notably, Liddell Hart downplays Lawrence's complicity in the Tafas Massacre (287-288), when Lawrence himself is shockingly forthright.

Liddell Hart notes Lawrence's artistic interests, highlighting his "process of swift mental appreciation" (12), "extraordinary charm" (13) and "ha[ving] an instinctive shyness born of a sense of difference" (258). He relates amusing anecdotes like Lawrence's confronting an imposter: "Had he stuck to his statement I should have begun to question myself," says his subject (369). There's also his passage on Lawrence's postwar military service, finding "a sense of fulfillment, reinforced by a sense of futility" in being a gentleman ranker (330), and proving rare in 'adjusting his opinions to his knowledge" (375). These passages provide valuable insight into Lawrence's personality.

But Liddell Hart's views of Lawrence often prove simplistic or worse. The author's "reasoned belief in the benefits of British administration" (309) distorts Lawrence's efforts at Paris and Cairo to reconcile British, French and Arab war aims. Nor can we credit his view of Lawrence as a "Crusader" (374), a melodramatic flash out of Lowell Thomas. When all else fails, Liddell Hart falls back on starry-eyed hagiography. He melodramatically ends by announcing that "in [Lawrence] the Spirit of Freedom came incarnate to a world in fetters" (390), a messiah cut down in his prime.

It's perhaps unfair to conclude, like Stephen Tabachnick, that Liddell Hart views "Lawrence as a potential dictator" (Images of Lawrence, 40). Liddell Hart discussed the idea with Lawrence but both seem to view it as a lark. It was proposed seriously by novelist Henry Williamson, who imagined Lawrence leading "a whirlwind campaign which would end the fearful thought of old Europe" (Genius of Friendship, 75). Lawrence also complained of being approached by Oswald Mosley's Blackshirts, repeatedly rebuffing them. "I don't want to be considered... as a philosophic system, or a paragon... of conduct," he told Graves.

Rather, Liddell Hart seems profoundly awed by Lawrence, a common reaction among friends. Winston Churchill proclaimed Lawrence "one of the greatest beings alive in our time." Vyvyan Richards compared him to Alexander the Great and St. Francis of Assisi; Williamson to Jesus Christ. All of them, not unreasonably, thought Lawrence an extraordinary man with a calling greater than RAF anonymity. Perhaps there lies the true measure of Lawrence's greatness: not his military genius or literary skill, but his ability to befriend and bewitch such a diverse lot of people. 

Even this benign reading points up T.E. Lawrence in Arabia and After's primary shortcoming. Liddell Hart the historian can scrutinize Lawrence's campaigns with clarity and insight. But Liddell Hart the man can't see Lawrence as anything but a friend, seemingly lacking guile or fault. The resulting tome merely cocoons the Lawrence myth in a scholarly patina, begging for skeptics to bust it open.

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Richard Aldington Rides Again: Nick Pope on Lawrence, Aldington and "Legends"

This piece by Nick Pope appeared in Monday's edition of The Majalla, a magazine focusing on the Arab World. Given the magazine's focus it's not surprising Lawrence comes under fire: Arab writers like Edward Said and Suleiman Mousa have long criticized Lawrence, alongside more liberal-minded Westerners. What is strange is that it posits Richard Aldington's 1955 Biographical Enquiry as "unravel[ing] the hype and fabrication behind the Lawrence story."

Mr. Pope admits he's "no scholar" in Lawrence studies, yet evinces familiarity with Seven Pillars and other biographies. That said, his read on both Lawrence and Aldington proves annoyingly superficial. This piece reads like the breathless reviews that invariably accompany new Lawrence biographies, boldly intoning again how this book "cuts the Lawrence legend down to size" or "reduces its subject to human scale." 

First, it's wrong to characterize Aldington as "a mere footnote... in the Lawrence legend industry." Anyone vaguely familiar with Lawrence studies knows Aldington's profound impact on public and scholarly discourse. His revelations of Lawrence's illegitimacy and connivance with early biographers, alongside critical analyses of Lawrence's writings and more spurious accusations of homosexuality, pathological lying and egomania, forced future biographers to reassess Lawrence. Certainly they remain prevalent in public consciousness; the film Lawrence of Arabia notably incorporates much of Aldington's characterization. For better or worse, Aldington continues to color the Lawrence debate. 

Pope's criticisms of Seven Pillars of Wisdom, drawing on Aldington's book, aren't very convincing either. Note his disparagement of Lawrence claiming Aqaba's capture as "another Gallipoli" (not a direct quote) when "it had been done [by the British] twice before." Yes, by small Royal Navy hit-and-run raids too small to actually hold the town. Anyway, Lawrence's comment occurs when his superiors Murray and Wingate proposed an Anglo-French landing at Aqaba. Having visited the region, Lawrence feared that a massed landing of troops would be
as unfavorably placed as on a Gallipoli beach, would be under observation and gun-fire from the coastal hills: and these granite hills, thousands of feet high, were impracticable for heavy troops: the passes through them being formidable defiles, very costly to assault or to cover. (p. 173, 2001 Penguin Classics edition of SP)

True, the Turks maintained only a small regional garrison at Aqaba, small enough for Royal Marines to periodically come ashore and capture them. But then the Turks had few troops guarding the Dardanelles in early 1915, either. The landing of an entire army would produce a major reaction, with terrain giving the Turks a decided advantage. Hardly a baseless boast by Lawrence but a shrewd tactical assessment.

It's true that Allenby's British regulars did the lion's share of the fighting in Palestine, with the Arab Revolt a "sideshow." Does Lawrence claim otherwise? He consciously admitted to writing a subjective account of his personal experiences serving with the Arabs. Nor was Lawrence's oft-stated distrust of French imperial designs - harped on incessantly by Aldington - remotely unique among British policymakers of that era, as David Fromkin and James Barr have shown.

But then Aldington's whole book harps on minor points. When Lawrence dismissively refers to Bulgaria's surrender as "insignificant to us" (SP 649) during a raid, Aldington thinks it "a degree of more than usual egotism" (240) to downplay such a momentous event. To Lawrence's Bedouin campaigning in the desert though, the news probably didn't matter. Deflating the claim that Lawrence read 50,000 books at Oxford (31-32) is amusing but pointless: surely this was playful exaggeration rather than a psychotic lie. If Robert Graves reported it uncritically the fault doesn't lie with Lawrence.

This sarcastic pedantry characterizes Aldington's entire work, finding fault with Lawrence even where there's none to be had. Aldington may have started with "no particular feelings towards Lawrence" but his writings drip with contempt towards the British establishment that lionized T.E. Certainly he loathes that Lawrence won fame instead of "the real heroes of 1914-1918" (381) - Western Front veterans like himself. Not for nothing did Robert Irwin compare Aldington's book to "a waterfall of venom." 

My main complaint though comes in positioning Aldington as the Rosetta Stone to Lawrence. Pope mentions John Mack and Michael Korda's books but dismisses them as hero worship, marking the authors as dupes or worse. All the revelations of the post-Aldington era - the release of War Office documents in 1969, witnesses like John Bruce and Janet Laurie, Jeremy Wilson's authorized biography and publishing of Lawrence's private papers - go unmentioned. By ignoring this, Pope strangely undercuts Aldington's importance.

Finally, there's the implied dichotomy between Lawrence worship and Lawrence hatred. Granted, Aldington was savaged in his time by the "Lawrence Bureau," with A.W. Lawrence and Basil Liddell Hart (whose book I'll soon review) trying to suppress and smear his work. And authorized biographer Jeremy Wilson can be viciously defensive towards Lawrence. That doesn't mean a nuanced view of Lawrence isn't possible. Some people can square Lawrence's disreputable side with his achievements and still find him admirable. Lawrence wasn't a mythic construct, but a human being - more interesting than either Aldington or Liddell Hart would have us believe.