Was Lawrence of Arabia the man you thought he was?

Lawrence of ArabiaSome famous person probably urged us never to delve too deeply into the lives of our heroes since we’re so likely to become cruelly disappointed. In any case, if you’ve cherished a vision of Lawrence of Arabia as one of the few genuine heroes of the 20th Century — a vision probably nourished by David Lean’s film masterpiece — you can’t read Scott Anderson’s study of Lawrence in the context of the First World War in the Middle East and emerge with that image unscathed. T. E. Lawrence — archaeologist, author, diplomat, warrior — was a piece of work.

In Anderson’s expert telling, Lawrence was moody, arrogant, deceitful, possibly masochistic, and even, in one dramatic episode, traitorous. Of course, he was also brilliant, courageous to the point of foolhardiness, and an extraordinary wartime leader of men.


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

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In Lawrence in Arabia, Scott Anderson views the man through a wide-angle lens. Though his focus is squarely on Lawrence himself, he explores the life and work of his subject from the years before the war until his death in 1933 in tandem with three other remarkable figures in the unraveling of the Ottoman Empire, the awakening of Arab nationalism, and the emergence of the Jewish state in Palestine.

  • Curt Pruefer was, like Lawrence, an academic thrown into the chaos of the Middle East; in the course of the war, he came to head German espionage activities in the region and was, effectively, Lawrence’s counterpart.
  • William Yale, an American descended from the founder of the university that bore his name, was an operative for Standard Oil turned State Department intelligence operative.
  • Aaron Aaronsohn, an eminent Jewish agronomist who developed and ran Britain’s largest spy network in the region, was so passionate an advocate for the establishment of a Jewish state that he openly sparred with the cautious Chaim Weizmann, the then-leader of world Zionism and the beloved first president of Israel.

On Lawrence’s meandering path through the region, he encountered both Yale and Aaronsohn, and in both cases the men took an instant dislike for one another, a disturbingly common circumstance in the Englishman’s life.

Don’t think for a minute that Lawrence stands out for his sins in comparison with his contemporaries in the region. Anderson’s subtitle refers to “war, deceit, and imperial folly,” and for good reason. Pruefer and Yale were deceitful to the point of treachery as well, and the British diplomats and military men surrounding Lawrence were, on the whole, so deceitful themselves and so patently incompetent that Lawrence’s behavior could sometimes be easily understood. In fact, the deplorable picture of war in the Middle East that emerges from Lawrence in Arabia is a worthy reflection of the senseless slaughter that characterized the war in Europe, with millions of young men needlessly dying from Gallipoli to the Somme as a result of the utter stupidity and stubbornness of the military leadership of the warring Great Powers.

Lawrence in Arabia is as dense a work of history as any academic study and eminently readable to boot. It casts a bright light on a frequently neglected aspect of World War One — Lawrence called it “a sideshow of a sideshow,” which greatly underrates its historical importance — and illuminates the forces that helped create the tragic state of the Middle East today.

Scott Anderson is an American magazine journalist and author.

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