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.


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  2. Lawrence advocated a British incursion at Alexandretta (as Arab units that were leaning towards revolt were stationed there and in vicinity) stipulating that a small British force (of mostly Muslim Egyptian troops augmented with Arabs who bolted their Ottoman masters) could have severed Syria from Arabia and split the Ottoman armies...but was overruled (ignored) for the Gallipoli fiasco

  3. The Anderson book is the one that introduced me to T. E. Lawrence and ignited an obsession. I immediately read Seven Pillars, then acquired Jeremy Wilson's biography and am currently reading it while rereading the two others to see how the descriptions and interpretations varied. I guess the Oxford edition of Seven Pillars is next on my "to buy" list.

    I was blindsided by my strong emotional response to Lawrence's life and accomplishments. Perhaps this was due in part to the memories I have of my 1980s geologic field work in the eastern desert of Egypt, a region with strong physiographic similarities to the Red Sea and Aqaba regions. I can easily see in my mind's eye the landscapes Lawrence describes. I can appreciate how intimate knowledge of such landscapes makes them a part of oneself that can never be left behind and for which there will always be a longing. I loved the Egyptian desert (to the untrained eye my field area was a featureless gravel plain) and truly liked the Egyptian people. Lawrence's descriptions touch that core in me.

  4. Susan, thank you for the interesting response! Appreciate your comments.