By Michael D. Langan
NEWS BOOK REVIEWER
Read the title of war correspondent Scott Anderson’s book and you’ve caught his premise. One might ask what can possibly be new in this century’s old and inextricably mixed story of bravery and cruelty on the Arabian Peninsula.
Be prepared to be surprised. Scott Anderson is a great writer and I guarantee that you’ll be startled by what he’s uncovered about T.E. Lawrence’s role in what he himself called “a sideshow of a sideshow,” otherwise known as the Arab Revolt against the Turks in World War I.
Anderson’s publisher, not unsurprisingly, bolsters this view. Doubleday says that the author spent four years researching the book, thereby substantially revising “… the portrait of the creation of the modern Middle East. Lawrence was a man of great learning who was capable of pitiless brutality; a shy personality who could dominate fierce tribesmen with his charisma; and a man who realized the emptiness of heroism even as he exhibited stunning bravery.”
What isn’t well known is the fact that the earlier Arab Revolt was shaped not only by Lawrence but by “a small handful of adventures and low-level officers away from the corridors of power.”
These included characters that had peculiar character traits. Anderson recounts their charms, including cleverness, bravery and a talent for treachery. These “playboys in the Holy Land” included, among others:
• Americans William Yale and Rudolf McGovern, allegedly on a tour of pilgrimage but actually on a secret mission as agents of the Standard Oil Company of New York.
• German Curt Profer, fluent in Arabic and six other languages, Oriental secretary to the German Embassy in Cairo, who traveled across Egypt disguised as a Bedouin to foment anti-British sentiment among tribes.
• Aaron Aaronsohn, a Jewish émigré from Romania, anxious to wrest a swath of Palestine away from the Ottoman Empire and reconstitute it as part of the Jewish homeland.
These low-level operatives weren’t doing anything new. They were just the latest technicians trying to put the hustle on the Middle East. As Anderson describes this lesser part of The Great Loot, it was “The Lure of the East” – whether to conquer or explore or exploit, (that) has exerted a pull on the West for a thousand years.”
In three short years, from 1914 to 1917, Lawrence went from being an archaeologist excavating ruins in Syria to “riding into legend at the head of an Arab army.” Cue David Lean’s monumental “Lawrence of Arabia” 1962 film.
A reward seemed in order. In fact, Col. Thomas Edward Lawrence received a summons to Buckingham Palace on Oct. 30, 1918. King George V that morning requested his presence. The 30-year-old colonel thought he would consult about the postwar borders of the Middle East.
Instead, George V “fixed his guest with a smile: ‘I have some presents for you,’ ” he said.
Instantly, Lawrence knew what was next: he was about to become a Knight of the British Empire, a moment, our author says, that Lawrence long dreamed of. “Except Lawrence didn’t kneel. Instead, just as the ceremony got under way, he quietly informed the king that he was refusing the honor… . Under the baleful gaze of Queen Mary, Colonel Lawrence turned and walked away.”
Why did he do what he did? Thomas Edward Lawrence continues to be an enigmatic figure more than seven decades after his death. Even more to the point: how did he do it? Scott Anderson asks how a painfully shy Oxford archaeologist without a single day of military training becomes the battlefield commander of a foreign revolutionary army. Anderson thinks that Lawrence became “Lawrence of Arabia” because no one was paying much attention. But there is more to the mystery than this.
Anderson makes the point that there is no agreement among scholars as to Lawrence’s role. Part of the reason is that Lawrence was perceived to be one of the minions of the “Great Loot.” This was the nickname that covetous British leaders attached to their trying to gain a major foothold in the Middle East 100 years ago.
Perhaps the reason for the enduring fascination with T.E. Lawrence’s story is the series of painful “what if?” questions it raises. “What would have happened if, in 1918, the Arabs had been able to create a greater Arab nation … that they believed had been promised to them? How different would the Middle East look today if the early Zionists in postwar Palestine” been able to negotiate … ‘the racial kinship and ancient bonds’ that existed between Jew and Arab? And what of the Americans? … there was a time when the Arab and Muslim worlds were clamoring for American intervention in their lands … presented at the end of World War I?”
Even now, Anderson notes, “Lawrence has been alternately extolled and pilloried by all sides, sanctified, demonized, even diminished to a footnote, as political goals require.”
T.E. Lawrence (1888–1935) himself wished to wash away his past. He changed his name first to John Hume Ross and then to Thomas Edward Shaw, what Anderson calls a “psychological washing of hands” and a craving for anonymity on his part. Lawrence wrote to a friend during his 1921 service for Winston Churchill at the Colonial Office, “The Arabs are like a page I have turned over, and sequels are rotten things.”
Lawrence died May 19, 1935, of massive brain injuries. A week earlier he swerved his motorcycle to avoid two boys bicycling on a narrow road, “… clipping the back tire of one of the bicycles, he lost control and crashed, striking his head on the asphalt.”
Scott Anderson’s magisterial study puts a complicated picture in context, showing how major powers’ old follies led to the wars, religious strife and brutal dictatorships that now pollute the development of the Middle East.
Lawrence In Arabia: War, Deceit, Imperial Folly and the Making of the Modern Middle East
By Scott Anderson
576 pages, $28.95
Michael D. Langan was a senior expert for the United Nations dealing with Taliban and al Qaida issues after 9/11.