311 of 334 people found the following review helpful
Scott Anderson brings an interesting background to this latest history of the modern Middle East. His father was an agricultural advisor to the US government. As a result, Anderson grew up largely in Taiwan and Korea, although he graduated from Gainesville High School in Florida. A novelist and veteran war reporter who has covered foreign conflicts for two decades in five countries, Anderson spent four years researching Lawrence in Arabia. He combines a feeling for foreign locales and an understanding of the realities of the battlefield with an extensive use of primary documents. The result is provocative history that reads like a political thriller.
Given the strategic importance of the Mid-East today, it is fascinating to read of the disproportionately large impact of some fairly low level functionaries in this "sideshow of a sideshow" (Lawrence's own words) in the run up to World War I. German academic and womanizer Curt Pruefer works to foment Arab jihad against British rule under the protection of Turkish rulers. Aaron Aaronsohn was a renowned agronomist and dedicated Zionist who gained the trust of the Ottoman governor by trying to relieve Syria of a plague of locusts. Twenty-seven year old American William Yale transitioned in a short eighteen months from roustabout duties in an Oklahoma oil field to Standard Oil's main agent charged with locating and securing oil in central Judea. Abdul-lah ibn Hussein is assigned by his father, Emir Hussein of Mecca, to sound out the British on supporting an Arab revolt in the Hejaz. Marching into history and legend was TE Lawrence who achieved the wholly unlikely transition from 21 year old archeologist in Syria in 1914 to head of a foreign Arab army in 1919, without a single day of military training.
"Lawrence was able to become 'Lawrence of Arabia,'" submits Anderson "because no one was paying much attention." Amidst the vast slaughter in Europe, the Mid-East theater was of distinctly secondary importance. Against this backdrop, the author shows both the poor decisions made by governments separated from action on the ground and the void that was filled by individuals such as those listed above. Through this lens, the reader sees the breakup of the Ottoman Empire, the transition of European imperialism, the first steps in Western oil exploration, a side stage of the first world war and the creation of the modern Middle East.
Anderson balances all of this with a driving narrative that focuses more on political developments than on camel charges through the desert. When battles do occur, such as the failed British attack at Gallipoli, Anderson incorporates Lawrence's correspondence ("The Med-Ex came out, beastly ill-prepared"), eyewitness accounts ("the sea near the shore was a blood red colour, which could be seen hundreds of yards away") and unencrypted cables from War Secretary Kitchener. The strong narrative result bears the stamp of the author's experience as a war correspondent.
History should not be this much fun to read. Anderson's work includes imperial decisions, tribal revolt, the discovery of oil and larger than life individuals in an account that has significant implication for headlines in 2013. Lawrence in Arabia is the perfect summer book. It is important yet vastly entertaining, story as much as history, epic in scale yet attuned to the individuals who breathe life into it. Lawrence in Arabia is one of the quicker and most rewarding 500 page reads you are likely to undertake this year.
151 of 162 people found the following review helpful
T. E. Lawrence was legendary even before he died, and some of it was genuinely earned. What makes him a favorite in popular imagination is that he was disdainful of the myth that surrounded him- even when he was instrumental in perpetuating it. He is also, perhaps, seen as a reflection of what many commoners might have felt in the midst of the morass that became World War I: determined to get through the byzantine (no pun intended) negotiations and considerations that were foisted upon the world by outdated principles to arrive at an outcome that would allow his country some honor and the Arabs he was trying to help a measure of dignity that would justify the sacrifices he helped convince them to make. That he made great sacrifices himself is arguably the primary reason there was any honor or dignity to the outcome at all, but the compromises Lawrence had to make to get that far weighed far heavier on him.
This volume gives an extensive, nearly blow by blow account of how Lawrence came to the Middle East, why he became attached to the war effort and, most importantly, what he did. Anderson also explores the lives and careers of others who influenced the war and to some extent the outcome, including the German academic Curt Prufer, the American oilman William Yale and the Romanian-Palestinian-Jewish agronomist Aaron Aaronsohn. What all of three of the men shared was that they were also at one point spies, and each of them was trying to play the conflict in the Ottoman Empire to achieve their own ends. To do that, all of them needed the mercurial Djemal Pasha, one of the leaders of the Young Turks, in one way or another.
Lawrence, however, is the star. The quintessential outsider-looking-in, he perhaps believed more fully in the values of his civilization than the people who got to experience it more fully. He knew enough to distrust institutions, but his childhood interest in medieval warfare also led him to believe in doing the right thing (although he would never have used such a maudlin statement to describe himself).
Why did he identify so personally with Arab independence? Perhaps because his time in the region was his happiest memory; perhaps because there were aspects of the culture that reminded him of medieval Europe; perhaps because he had no love for imperial manipulation. Regardless of why, up until the very end of the war, he considered that his cause, not protecting British interests in the region.
There are many points during the book at which the reader will groan at the diplomatic machinations and lost chances. The description of the beginning of the Armenian genocide will make the reader wince- much as it did both Faisal Hussein, Lawrence's military and political partner in the region, and Djemal Pasha, who tried to offer as much protection to the survivors as he was capable of. The specter of what happened to the Armenians also haunted the Zionists both inside and outside of the region.
Zionism was perhaps less controversial in the 1910s, but not by much. It, like every other consideration of the war, wasn't considered on its own merits but by what strategic advantage it could offer its sponsors or detractors. Lawrence himself was almost virulently anti-Zionist during the war in large part because he thought the proposals were ill thought-out and would further compromise the Arabs. However, by the Paris Peace Conference, he arranged for Faisal and Chaim Weizmann, the leader who would become the first President of Israel, to support each other's desiderata in the peace settlement. (Obviously, the agreements did not ultimately bear fruit.)
While much is made of the disastrous Sykes-Picot agreement (and certainly the description of Mark Sykes is another moment that will make the reader cringe), Anderson notes in the epilogue that it wasn't the previously discredited agreement that paved the way for the modern mess in the region. During the Paris Peace Conference, the prime ministers of both England and France wanted to make sure that they presented a united front against the other phantom of World War I- the idealistic but arrogant Woodrow Wilson. Sykes-Picot would have been an improvement over what they ultimately came up with.
Finally, it seems you can't talk about Lawrence without talking about what did or didn't happen to him in Deraa. Up to a point, the interest is justified: Lawrence gave three different accounts during his lifetime, and some of his details don't seem to be physically plausible. Anderson comes to the conclusion that Lawrence was most probably tortured *and* raped, and his inability to offer an accurate account of it was due probably to both the social mores of his era (Anderson guesses that Lawrence submitted after he had already been tortured) and the psychic trauma the event would have caused anyone. Regardless, there is a certain bloodthirst in Lawrence that we only see after Deraa- and this is what mars the Lawrence legend more than anything else.
Highly recommended for both observers of the modern Middle East and students of World War I history.
124 of 140 people found the following review helpful
This is a fascinating book, for the most part well written. While the key character is T. E. Lawrence, the book is formally structured as an examination of the roles of and sometimes interaction among four characters: T. E. Lawrence (of Arabia), Curt Prufer (umlaut over the u), Aaron Aaronson, and William Yale.
A brief note about each. Lawrence began World War I on an archaeological expedition--and ended up as a celebrity. Prufer was a German who worked for German interests in the Middle East. Aaronsohn was a Zionist and an agronomist trying to enhance agriculture in Jewish areas. He also developed a spy network as World War I broke out. Yale was of the family after whom the college was named. He was, at the outset of WW I, an official for Standard Oil of New York (now Mobil) seeking access to lands that might be rich in oil. During the war, he became a representative of the United States' foreign policy apparatus.
The book provides considerable depth to each of these persons--but Lawrence is at the center. He is portrayed as somewhat enigmatic, someone who was almost a tragic character. While he fought for Arab independence, he knew of nefarious schemes by the English and French to be dominant forces in the Middle East after the war's end. He was a decent person who ended up tolerating acts of violence (such as watching as prisoners were killed after surrendering). The author suggests that, after a period of time at war, he became someone afflicted with Post traumatic stress disorder.
Aaronsohn, too, was an important figure. He tried to advance Zionist ideals and saw that working with Great Britain might be the best pathway. He developed an espionage network in the Middle East, with his sister as a key player. It took a great effort to get the British officials in the Middle East to pay attention. The spy network suffered greatly for his vision. The story also tells of the tension between Aaronsohn and a key leader among Zionists--Chaim Weizmann.
Other important actors are portrayed as well. The Hussein family, whose father and sons became important leaders in the Middle East after the war, albeit compromised in many respects by the English and French. Then, the ibn Saud family (ultimately becoming the rulers of Saudi Arabia).
The book does a very good job of outlining the complex interactions among countries, the cynicism of European powers in the Middle East, the negative results of this cynicism. The development of the Middle East was perverted by European efforts at domination, as the end of the book attests.
One final feature of note--the discussion of the fates of the major characters in this drama.
All in all, this is a fine volume, and one well worth looking at if one wishes to understand the roots of some current dysfunction in the region.
29 of 31 people found the following review helpful
About the only real quibble with Scott Anderson's "Lawrence in Arabia" is that it is slightly mistitled. Its subtitle of "Imperial Folly and the Making of the Modern Middle East" more accurately reflects the book's focus, as it brilliantly describes exactly how the British - and to a lesser degree, the French, Germans, and Ottoman Empire - bungled the birth of nations in the Middle East to such a degree that their mistakes still haunt the world 90 years later. Using primary source research, much of which seems to have been skipped by other authors, this account surpasses Fromkin's A Peace to End All Peace as the single best reference on the subject and stands alongside MacMillan's Paris 1919 as a must read on how the modern world was created. 5 stars.
Much of the story of the arrogance and blunders that created the modern Middle East is well known. Sykes-Picot, the disaster of the negotiations at Versailles in 1919, and the British campaigns in Palestine and Iraq have all received substantial attention by scholars. Anderson frames the conflict with a focus on 4 players that neatly represent their countries' interests. T. E. Lawrence is well-known, of course, but the three other players are not: William Yale, a Standard Oil employee assigned to buy petroleum leases in Palestine who by 1918 ended up becoming the United States' "expert" on the region, Aaron Aaronsohn, a Jewish agronomist who founded an anti-Ottoman spy ring and viciously battled with Chaim Weizmann and other Zionists, and Curt Prüfer, a brilliant German spy who was among the first to see the potential of using Arab liberation as a weapon against current rulers and who, incredibly, recruited Weizmann's sister as his lover and one of his spies. By interweaving their stories and other players like Sykes, French Colonel Edouard Bremond, Sharif Hussein and his sons, Dejmal Pasha, and the British military and intelligence establishment, Anderson constructs an extremely accessible history.
At the center of this tale is Lawrence, and Anderson provides enough valuable insights on his character and actions to make this book be worth a read for that alone. What is well-known about Lawrence is that his rise to prominence came almost as an accident and that his autobiography - which was originally intended as a very limited release for his friends - exaggerates much and muddles up more. What is not is that Lawrence's leadership in the Arab revolt was quite personal and risky - Lawrence seemed to be outright seeking death on a number of occasions - yet arguably didn't have as much impact as his two great strategic observations. Despite lacking any military training, Lawrence deduced the vulnerability of Alexandretta and the impact of isolating Ottoman troops in Medina long before anyone on the British staff did. The second played a central role in British strategy, and if his advice on the first had been taken the Ottoman Empire might have collapsed as early as 1915 with the arrogant disaster of Gallipoli avoided.
By the end of the book, Lawrence is more pitiful than heroic. A five minute conversation between Lloyd George and Clemenceau at Versailles superseded 4 years of fighting and hundreds of thousands of deaths in the Middle East, and directly contributed to the mess that has existed there for the last 90 years. Lawrence's observation on ibn-Saud and Wahabism proved remarkably prescient, and the rivalry between British Egypt and British India military and political staffs that helped create the mess is almost unbelievable. About the only thing missing here is the postwar chaos and look at the Cairo Conference and the work in 1921 by Lawrence and Winston Churchill to provide a temporary fix to the mess made of the region, which Fromkin covers effectively.
There's a lot more that can be said for the topics covered in this book, but the strongest recommendation is simply that even readers quite familiar with the region and history will learn something new here. 5 stars, and a must read.
37 of 41 people found the following review helpful
on August 4, 2013
I came to this book a bit late and many honest and fine reviews already exist. This work is everything good that these reviewers say. It is very well-written. The author provides a large bibliography of both primary and secondary sources that assisted him in this massive endeavour. A generous section of end notes, organized by chapter, helps to close out the book and to document or expand on key points. About twenty-five pages have been set aside for an index but my pre-publication copy leaves these pages blank (but numbered and identified)so I cannot comment on how helpful it might be. The intention of these features is to make the work more accessible to students and to readers who might wish to pick and choose the parts of these events that draw their interest. In short, this is a work of scholarship that offers a view for historians as well as being a 'good read' for the interested public, including World War I buffs, persons interested in the Ottoman Empire and persons interested in an account of how the current muddle in the Middle East came to pass.
The 'news' for most readers in this subject is the angle played by Standard Oil of New York (Socony), more or less as amoral war profiteers (a la Krupp in Germany)and, more particularly, the detailed and long-running narratives about players other than T E Lawrence. They seem to have been every bit as interesting and adventurous as Lawrence, albeit less driven to test themselves physically. As other reviewers have noted, a screen writer could not imagine a more diverse or colourful cast of characters through which to follow the historic events that shaped the Middle East from WWI on to the present day.
At the same time, one finds a layered and nuanced look at how France, Britain, Germany and Turkey developed policies regarding the region or tried to govern it or to shape the way in which it would be governed after the war. Fiascos like the British campaign for Gallipoli do not show Winston Churchill in his finest hour but the book is frank about what was and a bit wistful seeming about what could have been if local advice had been followed to focus a landing on Alexandretta. Similarly, the author expands his view from an Arabia-focused account offered by Lawrence to discuss the ways in which German armed forces and advisors worked with the Ottomans to try to topple British rule in Egypt and to deny passage of British colonial forces to Europe through the Suez Canal. This continuing line throughout the book was 'new information' to me.
Even so, at 500 plus pages (without counting the documentation and index), this book will seem long and perhaps a bit familiar or repetitive for all but the most interested reader or the reader who is new to the whole topic. I have read about Lawrence and have read his own book; lived in Saudi Arabia and visited the remains of Turkish fortifications and have seen the movie. Even so, I found myself skipping around in the book, saving parts for 'later' or becoming impatient with the layering of detail that is necessary to a work of history. The writing has been interesting enough and the new material has been fascinating enough that I have kept on coming back to it. Less interested persons might not.
84 of 101 people found the following review helpful
on August 14, 2013
A big picture view and an enjoyable read of changes taking place in the Near East from the turn of the century through WW I. The Near East at the time was controlled by the Ottoman Empire out of Constantinople, though it was crumbling and threatened by the military and industrial might of the European powers. The Germans, a late arrival, hoped to gain influence by offering their assistance to the Turks in building a railroad from Constantinople, through Syria (and modern day Jordan), to Saudi Arabia. Then there was the quest for oil in the area by Standard Oil and the Americans (at a time when the British Navy was converting from coal to oil propulsion for its ships). Additionally there was the rise of Zionism for which many Jews hoped that Great Britain (already a presence in the area when it grabbed control of Egypt away from the Ottomans and thus incurred both Turkish and Egyptian wrath) would be able to sustain and protect a Jewish state in Palestine once the Ottoman Empire had been defeated. Scott Anderson possesses a broad an insightful historical perspective and tells this story through the lives of four young men -- an American, a German, a European Jew, and a Brit -- T. E. Lawrence. Anderson takes up their stories from their early days, providing us insights into their educational backgrounds and how they came to find themselves in the Near East, which enables us to better understand Lawrence's remarkable accomplishments in uniting the Arabs against the Ottoman Turks who found themselves on the losing side, in alliance with Germany and Austria-Hungary, during WW I. The population of the Ottoman Empire at the time was approximately 75% Muslim (made up equally of Turks and Arabs with the Kurds forming a smaller segment), while the remainder included Greeks, Armenians, Bulgarians, and Jews. An interesting side note is that the United States did not make or declare war against the Ottoman Empire, as Woodrow Wilson concluded the Turks had not made war against the United States, hence it was the British, French, Italians, and Russians who pounced upon the Turks with the intent of carving up the waning Ottoman Empire to serve their own interests; certainly the Brits were the first in when a British led Indian Army seized the oil fields of southern Iraq in the spring of 1915 and then made their way up to Baghdad. This book is an engaging read for history buffs as well as for the casual first-time reader of the Near East.
11 of 11 people found the following review helpful
on August 29, 2013
I have been stung by T. E. Lawrence's legend, myth and enigma ever since my Father bundled myself, Brother and Mother together explaining that he had just seen the newly opened film Lawrence of Arabia while on a business trip. That very next weekend we went down to Hollywood to see the three plus hour movie (I was bored to tears). Being surprised and seeing my Father's enthusiasm I began to read more about Lawrence and World War One and the Arab Revolt. I saw the film several more times over that year and began what has been a lifelong hobby as I have collected books, articles and research on LAWRENCE. So anytime there is a new Lawrence biography I am pleased in the expectation that others too will discover this unique, flawed and mysterious man.
This month we have the release of Scott Anderson's new book LAWRENCE IN ARABIA which for some reason felt it important to replace the word OF with the word IN. And although I have some concerns with some of Anderson's characterizations and his depiction of Lawrence especially in his post war life I think the book is a tremendously good read that takes on a much broader scope than just being a Lawrence biography.
Anderson gives us a broader picture of how the Arab Revolt and Lawrence's roll tied into other World War I campaigns. There is a good section on how Lawrence and others proposed early in the war that the British attack the Ottoman Empire (who controlled the Middle East) at Alexandretta (near Aleppo which is much in the news today). But instead Winston Chruchill and the British war planners attacked Gallipoli resulting and a lost opportunity and a crushing defeat. If Alexandretta had been captured and the Ottoman Empire split in two there may have been no need for an Arab revolt.
The book tries to be a biography of Lawrence asking how did Lawrence do it (answer no one was looking) and three others: Curt Prufer a German spy who tries to get Arabs to attack the Suez Canal, Aaron Aaronsohn the Jewish Zionist who along with his sister set up pro-British spy ring in Palestine, and William Yale who working for Standard Oil traveled the Middle East. The problem with these three other individuals with the possible exception of Aaronsohn is that they are at best interesting footnotes except that they do help expand the readers understanding of people and events beyond the scope of the Lawrence story. And although I liked Anderson's structure I thought the Aaronsohn story was better told in Ronald Florence's 2007 book LAWRENCE AND AARONSOHN, T.E. Lawrence, Aaron Aaronshon, and the Seeds of the Arab-Israeli Conflict (Anderson quotes Florence in several of the Aaronshon sections). As to Prufer and Yale I don't recall ever hearing about them before this book.
Anderson's book justifiably spends a lot of time discussing the Sykes/Picot treaty between Britain and France and the person of Mark Sykes who was a major political player and is a major character in the book. Much more so than even Aaronshon. His personal and political story really is what the book's subtitle is about.... Deceit... Imperial Folly... and the making of the modern Middle East. Add Sykes/Picot with the Balfour Declaration and you have the unbelievable colonialism arrogance that Lawrence opposed in his support of an independent Arab nation. What the Arab's hoped to gain by their revolt.
This brings me to a point in Anderson's book that really disturbed me when I read it. The fact that Anderson calls Lawrence out as a TRAITOR. This on pages 270-271, "....in any wartime army at any point in history - The divulging of a secret treaty to a third party was considered a consummate act of treason, one sure to win the offender a long prison sentence if not an appointment with a firing squad. Yet a some point during those early days of February in Wejh, Lawrence took Faisal aside and did precisely that, revealing to him both the existence and salient details of Sykes-Picot." No one doubts that Lawrence at this time knew of the treaty but I am hard pressed to see any evidence that Lawrence was a traitor. There are many other numerous explanations about how and when Faisal first found out about the treaty. If Lawrence was in fact a traitor I would have thought the French at the very least would have pressed the point with their British allies. I don't believe any other biographer has made a point of this issue. Anderson then even ends his book in the Epilogue by saying, "Everything T.E. Lawrence had fought for, schemed for, arguably betrayed his country for, turned to ashes....." This is a heavy handed indictment. The interesting thing about Lawrence is that many things about him are elusive and will always remain a matter of conjecture. But I for one feel Anderson has gone over the top on this claim. (Much the way prior biographers have made the point that Lawrence was a homosexual. No one will really know for sure but then does it matter.)
Lastly, I take exception to Anderson's brief depiction of Lawrence in the Epilogue diagnosing Lawrence as having had Post-traumatic stress disorder. Anderson further says, " ...it is hard to escape the image of a sad and reclusive man, his circle of friends and acquaintances steadily dwindling to a mere handful...".
No doubt Lawrence had a unique and difficult personality to understand. How many Britain's would turn away from being knighted by their King during the actual ceremony? None before Lawrence. John Mack in his Pulitzer Prize winning book, THE PRINCE OF OUR DISORDER: The Life of T.E. Lawrence (1976) devoted a whole book to doing a psychological study of Lawrence (One of the best books on Lawrence). In Michael Korda's recent book, HERO: The Life and Legend of Lawrence of Arabia (2010) Korda paints a more convincing picture than PTSD where Lawrence having sought fame, having become a celebrity as big as say Diana today, found he did not like living with fame. Rather than leverage his fame like most people would be expected to do Lawrence hid from it. I always thought the fact that he grew up keeping the secret that he was illegitimate in class contentious Britain that he was a pretender. The work Lawrence did after the war was never going to be heroic...the stuff of headlines.... But he was an intellectual who wrote two books and translated others. The letters he wrote were long and interesting and send to a wide circle of acquaintances yielding who collections of text. Yes, Lawrence was not like the rest of us... and that is why his legend, myth and enigma endure.
In Anderson's Acknowledgments at the end of his book Anderson gives high recognition to Jeremy Wilson whose authorized biography, LAWRENCE OF ARABIA (1990) and says, "While I respectfully disagree with Mr. Wilson on several aspects of Lawrence's actions in Arabia. I am deeply indebted to the astounding amount of scholarly research he has done on Lawrence......" If you're a fan of all things Lawrence you no doubt know that Jeremy Wilson and his wife Nichole own Castle Hill Press. They have been publishing fine collector quality books by Lawrence for some twenty years. I own several of these the two most recent being THE MINT and BOATS FOR THE RAF 1929 - 1935. I recommend the Wilson's work to you as well as Wilson's T.E. Lawrence Studies page on internet. (Here he also does a good power point presentation covering the historical accuracy of the movie.)
For those who like and collect things Lawrence I want to also mention a book I found very well published and presented. It is in part what one might term a small coffee table book. It is Joseph Berton's T.E. LAWRENCE AND THE ARAB REVOLT (2011.
Lawrence is now but a drifting bit of sand blowing across the landscape of a land and people he loved that today is fractured by human intolerance. He became the medieval knight he dreamed of becoming. And I think that is what drew my Father to Lawrence.
37 of 45 people found the following review helpful
Last year I read Desmond Stewart's excellent biography T E Lawrence. And I have been procrastinating on re-reading Seven Pillars of Wisdom: A Triumph: The Complete 1922 Text, which I first read some 30 years ago. After all, how much of one's life should be devoted to a man who has widely been regarded as a charlatan and a liar, even by himself? However, I am ever so glad that I pushed the "Please send" button when this popped up on my Vine list. Because Scott Anderson's book is so much more than a "mere" biography of Lawrence, though it is an excellent and balanced account of his life. It is much more akin to David Fromkin's incisive history A Peace to End All Peace, 20th Anniversary Edition: The Fall of the Ottoman Empire and the Creation of the Modern Middle East, which covers the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire in World War I, and "the making of the modern Middle East," as the sub-title of his work indicates. Anderson demonstrates a mastery of the historical material, and provides ever so lucid and balanced explanations of that very complex web of historical and personal forces that "The Great War" unleashed. One unique contribution that Anderson provides to our understanding of "why things are the way they are" today is that in addition to Lawrence, the author provides solid biographies of three other Westerners of that period: the American, William Yale, the German, Curt Prufer, and a committed Zionist agronomist from Romania, Aaron Aaronsohn, none of whom, regrettably was I familiar with. Furthermore, Anderson's perspective is not solely Western; he elucidates the motives and actions of Hussein of the Hijaz, the primogenitor of the "Arab revolt," along with his four sons, but principally two: Faisal and Abdullah. Djemal Pasha, the Turkish governor of (greater) Syria is also a principal character in Anderson's account.
Anderson "draws the reader in," as the expression has it, relating the incident which occurred 13 days before the cessation of hostilities of World War I. The King of England has summoned T.E. Lawrence to Buckingham Palace to give him a medal: The Companion of the Order of the Bath... the highest level...etc., and Lawrence, standing before the King, refuses it, and walks out. It is a 500 page book, and thereafter the author unfolds the complex events of the Middle East in a history that is told in a temperate fashion that balances the perspectives of the competing forces, and the people those forces represented, in a narrative of considerable dynamic tension, so much so, I found it difficult to put down. Challengingly, in the introduction, he provides what he calls an "anticlimactic" answer to how Lawrence became "Lawrence of Arabia": "...because no one was paying much attention."
Deception. Lies. "Truth is the first casualty..." the familiar axioms of war, but when it came to how the events of WWI unfolded in the Middle East, those axioms were in overdrive. Of the various principal participants, perhaps the one who came off the worst in Anderson's account is Mark Sykes, co-author of the Sykes-Picot agreement that divided the Middle East between France and England, while both those powers were promising independence to their Arab allies. As Anderson says: "Mark Sykes, by contrast, was a man ruled by whim, who didn't feel bound by- perhaps at times didn't even remember- the myriad promises that tripped so easily from his lips." Curt Prufer, a master spy and promoter of German interests in the Middle East, and who would go on to be a Nazi during WW II, recruited as a fellow spy, as well as a mistress, Mina Weizmann, the sister of the first President of Israel, Chaim Weizmann. (Real life topping the most improbable fiction... and poor Mina has now been more or less airbrushed out of Israeli history.) Socony (Standard Oil of NY), and long-time employer of the impoverished scion of the family who founded the eponymous university, William Yale, comes across as one of the most ruthless of corporations, even for the Robber Baron era, naturally selling oil to the enemies of the USA, once it was at war. Aaron Aaronsohn, the "fact on the ground" in Palestine, always with his eye to the productivity of the land, had some of his major problems with his fellow, non-Zionist Jews, and even with Weizmann. The above are just a few "flakes" from a very complex story.
One reason Lawrence soared to prominence was a strong desire to "change the subject" from the utter stupidity that was the horrifying slaughter of the Western Front. But as Anderson depicts all too well, the same stupidity was operative in the Middle East, coupled with the hubris that it was "the Sick Man of Europe," the Ottoman empire, that should have so easily been "rolled up." Certainly a major chance was lost when the British High Command did not attack, and seize Alexandretta, whose lose would have made resupply of Syria and beyond virtually impossible for the Turks. Instead, the British High Command threw away all too many lives of the Australians and New Zealanders at Gallipoli. Later, General Powell, in two offensives, would throw away more British lives, hitting the strongest part of the Turkish defensive positions in Palestine. Madness to third power.
Anderson neither buries nor sensationalizes Lawrence's flaws. Yes, his stories "did not add up," on many an occasion... but that was very much the environment, as indicated above. Sexual relations with young Arab boys, and the S/M that is in "Seven Pillars": all treated in a balanced fashion. The sub-title to Lawrence's book: "A Triumph": Anderson concludes it must be "self-mockery. More positively, Anderson also relates Lawrence's bicycle trips across the length of France in 1908. When he saw the Mediterranean for the first time, at Aigues-Mortes, and bathed in it, he said: "the great sea, the greatest in the world, you can imagine my feeling...I felt that at last I had reached the way to the South, and all the glorious East - Greece, Carthage, Egypt...Crete...they were all there, and all within reach of me... Oh I must get down here again!" Amen! 6-stars for a brilliant history, and further inspiration.
9 of 9 people found the following review helpful
on December 15, 2013
This book is a very worthy attempt to endow a much-told tale with a contemporary perspective. The history of T.E Lawrence as Lawrence of Arabia is well known, and Anderson tries to tell story of the “man behind the myth”, with much emphasis on his family life, and early interests in mediaeval history and archeology. He traces the development of Lawrence’s growing involvement with the cause of Arab self-determination – initially as part of the British war effort against the Ottoman Turks, and increasingly motivated by his empathy with the Arabs and their cause – to the extent that he often defied orders from his superior officers and took actions that were not necessarily in the best interests of Britain’s strategic objectives. He tries to analyze the motivations for many of the more troubling (to contemporary sensibilities) actions or incidents during Lawrence’s time in Arabia , and picks apart the various accounts of them - often contradictory - in Lawrence’s own writings and in those of others that knew him. The author seems intent on establishing a consistent and objective “truth” about Lawrence’s nature, which may not recoverable.
The book is much larger than just the story of Lawrence, because Anderson deliberately sets out to create an epic narrative. He introduces three other characters, whose lives and activities during the war years are recounted alongside those of Lawrence. They are William Yale, a young American oil man who almost serendipitously became the then rather amateurish US State Department’s expert on the Middle East; Curt Prufer, a German intelligence operative, and Aaron Aarohnson, the Jewish/Palestinian agronomist who formed the NILI spy ring in Palestine working on behalf of the British. Following extensive background on each of these three, the author uses the standard epic novel technique of interspersing contemporary narratives of the activities of each of them with those of Lawrence. Much of it is interesting; for example, the very detailed account of Aaron Aarohnson’s trials and tribulations in attempting to get the British to take his spy ring seriously, or his involvement in the Zionist movement. But overall, much of it is just filler; Lawrence was a “mover and shaker” who influenced events on a massive scale; the other three are minor characters, for the most part observers who had little or no influence in shaping either the war efforts or strategic outcomes of their respective nations. The account of Lawrence in Arabia gains nothing – other than length – from this treatment.
This is clearly a book written by a journalist, rather than a historian – not because of any deficiency in the author’s research – but because it takes a very moralistic contemporary point of view of British and French imperialistic policies, how the war was mismanaged with a reckless disregard for life, and how the peace was so badly compromised. This is with the benefit of 90 years’ hindsight and the sensibilities of a contemporary liberal outlook , although a clearer understanding of past events is usually better seen from the perspective of their participants.
One gets the impression that the wartime Anglo-French jockeying for control of large parts of the soon to be ex-Ottoman empire is the whim of individual English and French players, rather than a strategic rivalry between these so-called allies. James Barr’s “A Line in the Sand” does a better job of this, because it follows the rivalry through the next 30 years after WW1. Anderson of course is concerned primarily with Lawrence, so his book ends with Lawrence’s exit from the scene, and subsequent events are only covered very briefly in the epilogue. “A Line in the Sand” is no less replete with interesting characters than “Lawrence in Arabia”; but the difference is that in the former, the characters subserve the narrative, rather than the other way around.
If you are interested in reading an in-depth analysis of T.E Lawrence, then this book will give you that – but you will also have to learn almost as much about Yale, Aarohnson and Prufer. If you are looking to understand, as the cover blurb says “… the making of the modern middle east”, there are more complete and less judgmental accounts to be read.
12 of 13 people found the following review helpful
Scott Anderson's "Lawrence in Arabia:War, Deceit, Imperial Folly and the Making of the Modern Middle East" doesn't just glance through a keyhole in history focusing on one man to give us an understanding on the formation of the Middle East. Mr. Anderson provides us with information on four of the men who helped shape and observed the changes in the Middle East, how their lives often intersected, the various agendas they brought with them and how they put them into effect. These four--T.E. Lawrence, Curt Prufer, Aaron Aaronsohn and William Yale--all went to the Middle East to make their fortune, a name and other various reasons examined in this fascinating book.
Lawrence's role has been well documented but the role of the others in this book have not received as much attention. It was the various schemes and plans that these four (among others)put into effect that helped shape the Middle East. As the rest of the world tried to have its way with the Middle East for its rich oil reserves, the Middle East ultimately made them pay for their efforts (with the exception of Lawrence who, while serving Her Majesty, was interested in helping to forge an independent Middle East).
If you're looking for a Cliff Notes version of what occurred in the Middle East, this isn't your book but if you are looking for an engrossing, fascinating look back "Lawrence in Arabia" is something I can highly recommend.