My Review of Scott Anderson’s Lawrence of Arabia

“…the most beguiling riddle of Lawrence’s story [is]: How did 17262206 (2)he do it? How did a painfully shy Oxford archaelogist without a single day of military training become the battlefield of commander of a foreign revolutionary army, the political master strategist who foretold so many of the Middle Eastern calamities to come?” from the Introduction, page 3

Scott Anderson, veteran war correspondent, answers his question with an in-depth look at Thomas Edward Lawrence against the context of early 20th Middle East, the First World War, a number of men – American, German, French, Arab, and Jewish, with whom he clashed and worked with, the British military establishment, and the imperialistic politics which governed military and, after the war, political decision making. This is a book about the Middle East and how the developments, personalities, (Lawrence included) policies, and politics of Europe of nearly 100 years ago led to the geographical divisions in today’s Middle East.

While Anderson acknowledges the many views and debates among those who have written about Lawrence, he side steps them to focus on the wider picture of Lawrence’s role in both the politics of and the military campaigns in the middle east. He does this as he weaves Lawrence’s story within the stories of three other men – American William Yale, Standard Oil of New York (Socony) employee who becomes a key American spy and military operative: German diplomat Curt Prufer: Aaron Aaronsohn, a Romanian Jewish immigrant to Palestine who was an avowed Zionist, – as well a number of Arab leaders (some of whom Lawrence worked and fought alongside) whose names were to become well-known world wide almost century later.

Anderson makes a case that Lawrence became allied to the cause of Arab independence and self-determination to occur after the war would end and made desicions (often politically, militarily, and personally risky) to advance that cause only to be betrayed by his own country when the British and French Prime Ministers (David Lloyd George and Georges Clemenceau, respectively) agreed to British control of Iraq and Palestine and French control of Syria prior to the Paris Peace Conference. The result is a thorough portrait of Western military operations in a theater of war that is not discussed in wider circles and political machinations (notably The Balfour Declaration) which Anderson believes has led to the deeply intractable problems faced in the Middle East today.

But how did Lawrence do what he did nearly 100 years ago? Anderson answers his question, in part, by demonstrating that Lawrence worked to win “the hearts and minds” of the Arab leaders and help them become militarily and politically able be self-governing by working to understand who they were and how they functioned within the complex tribal dymanics of that time. A view,  Anderson notes, that caused American General David Petarus, C-in-C in Iraq in 2006, “to order his senior officers” to read Lawrence’s Twenty Seven Articles (written by Lawrence at the request of British officers in 1917 to “share his [Lawrence’s] secrets of success in a realm where so many others had come to crushing despair.”

If you like military history, this book describes the hit and miss successes and failures of the British and the fledgling Arab army, to dislodge Turkish forces from Palestine, Syria, Iraq, and the Arabian peninsula during the First World War. If you like political history, this book provides an often confusing portrait of the fluid political alliances and betrayals which occured and which has impacted geopolitical realities up to the present.

Well researched and very engaging, Lawrence in Arabia: War, Deceit, Imperial Folly, and The Making of the Modern Middle East provides some very important historical background reading to the current Middle Eastern situation. It enlarged my understanding of how the current nation map came into being prior to 1948.

I rate this book an outstanding read.

(I borrowed this book from my local library and chose to write a review of it.)

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