This book would be better called by its subtitle, “War, Deceit, Imperial Folly and the Making of the Modern Middle East” because it is more about World War I and what followed than Lawrence himself. During the first half or so, he plays a minor, but increasing, role in events.
Anderson begins with the start and course of the war in Europe, detailing the destruction and carnage. Gradually, he turns our attention to the war in the Middle East. He follows the fate of the Christian Armenians whom the Ottomans, or Turks, forced to leave Anatolia regardless of cost. One and a half million perished in the move. He shows us nations maintaining spy networks and watching their allies closely in the Middle East. Britain especially maintained a large intelligence and military presence in Cairo. He tells us about the selfish, egotistical, stupid, and non-adaptive behavior of the numerous generals, diplomats, and other officials of the various nations involved.
At the same time, the Zionist movement was working to enable Jews to migrate to Palestine and become citizens. Or to buy extensive tracts of land to live on by themselves. Or to take over all of Palestine, pushing out the natives, and making it their own homeland. Which purpose was correct depended on which Zionist you talked to. They were a force to be reckoned with, and Anderson deals with them closely.
Oh, yes, and what about Lawrence? He surfaces from time to time in the first part of the book. Thomas Edward Lawrence graduated from Oxford and in 1910 went with a team of archeologists to excavate a site in Carchemish, Syria. While there, he learned the Arabic language and culture.
When the war broke out, he tried to join the British Army, but because of his Arabic expertise he instead was assigned to the Cairo headquarters as a civilian intelligence cartographer. One day, he went to brief a general who was outraged that an officer had not been sent. As a result, Lawrence was made a second lieutenant, basically on the spot—no officer’s school or other military training required. Despite his new rank, he continued doing intelligence work. He also traveled to various mid-eastern places. Because of his Arabic language skill and knowledge of their culture, he became increasingly valued as a translator and a first choice to deal with the many Arabian generals, emirs, sheiks, and others.
Eventually, the U.S. entered the war on the Allied side, the Ottomans on the German side, and the Russians gave it up and made their peace. Thus ends the first part of “Lawrence in Arabia.”
The British and French had their own private struggle over the question of who would own which part of the Middle East after the war. While each would have liked to own the whole place, if it came down to it, the British preferred the southern part and the French preferred the northern.
In all of the Western fascination with land division, one group had more or less been ignored: the natives of the area, the Arabs. The British tried to find a way to use them against the Turks, but without at the same time giving them any power over their own affairs or any say in how their land would be divided after the War. Lawrence became invaluable organizing and leading the Arabian armies, finally capturing Damascus, the capital of Syria. By then, Lawrence was a lieutenant colonel. Thus ends the second part of “Lawrence in Arabia.”
After the War, the Paris Peace Conference divided and assigned the conquered territories. France got everything from Gaza north, Britain got everything from Gaza south, as well as Iraq. Turkey became a shadow of the former Ottoman Empire. And the Arabs—what did they get for their blood and effort? Basically, nothing. The Middle East became more or less the way it would be until relatively recently. Lawrence went back to England, an unhappy, disillusioned, and broken man. Arab leaders left unhappy and disillusioned, too. The epilogue tells us of all of this and more.
Anderson has researched many sources in his writing and has organized their threads into an easy to follow narrative, though it seems unnecessarily detailed at times.
Lawrence wrote “The Seven Pillars of Wisdom” after the war, telling of his experience. It is an impressive literary work which Anderson quotes frequently, so it is a good idea to read both books.
Anderson had the endpapers of “Lawrence” printed with maps of the Middle East, an invaluable reference for the reader, and a nice touch. The photos are interesting. The index is outstanding.Read “Lawrence in Arabia: War, Deceit, Imperial Folly and the Making of the Modern Middle East” more to learn what occurred generally than to learn about Lawrence himself. It is a long read, so be sure to allow yourself plenty of time.
Christopher Banner is a Manhattan resident and emeritus senior specialist in music at KSU.