The Lawrence sideshow

Scott Anderson addresses some of the continuing controversies concerning T.E. Lawrence.

There’s no explaining the enigma of Thomas Edward Lawrence (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
There’s no explaining the enigma of Thomas Edward Lawrence
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Why yet another T.E. Lawrence biography to add to the scores of studies already published, and why now?
The answer to the second part of that question is signaled at the end of Scott Anderson’s subtitle: any additional insight we can glean about the origins of the current mess called the Middle East is welcome. (Quick quiz: Who was Sykes? Who was Picot?) In regard to the first question, despite all of the scrutiny to which the infinitely complex Lawrence has been subjected, no definitive picture has yet emerged, or is ever likely to.
Still, this newest biography draws on newly uncovered material and it is admirably detailed and nuanced. It also provides fascinating histories of Lawrence’s competing secret agents in the Middle East – German, American and Jewish.
In addition, Anderson writes with vigor, balance and clarity, skills he honed as an American correspondent covering wars in the Middle East, Africa, Northern Ireland, Chechnya, Bosnia, and El Salvador. But Anderson is no mere war hound. He’s also published several works of fiction and non-fiction, and his “Lawrence” exhibits considerable scholarship, as attested by the biography’s 10-page bibliography, its 30 pages of notes and its extensive archival research. The book also has good maps and excellent photos.
To a large extent there’s no explaining the enigma of Thomas Edward Lawrence (1888-1935). Educated as a historian and archaeologist, he was appointed a British army officer despite his having no military training whatsoever. Deeply conflicted about imperialism, he nevertheless risked life and limb to advance Britain’s imperial aims. Devoted to the cause of Arab independence from the Ottoman Empire, he often despaired of Arab culture and character.
Appalled by the brutalities of combat, he periodically became inured to bloodshed and arguably participated in what must be considered war crimes. Loathing political intrigue, he schemed and deceived with the best of them. Disdainful of military discipline, bureaucracy and tradition, he left the army in disgust near the end of World War I only to return to it soon after as an enlisted man, serving for the rest of his life chiefly as a paper-shuffling clerk. Entranced by military honor and glory, he declined to kneel before his king and refused a knighthood.
Added to all this is the fact that for many of us, our image of Lawrence of Arabia is strongly fixed by David Lean’s 1962 epic bio-pic of that name. Aside from quibbles about the film’s compression of events and its over-dramatization – unlike in the movie version, Anderson states, the important port of Aqaba was captured “with barely a shot fired” – our filmic vision of Lawrence is just about as valid as any.
Talk about nailing jelly to a wall. For example, Anderson maintains that Lawrence’s career was greatly molded by his boyhood love of Arthurian legends and tales of medieval warfare. An earlier biography that I read made the same claim for Lawrence’s boyhood fascination with the Rev. Alban Butler’s classic “The Lives of the Saints,” a book Anderson never mentions. To muddle matters further, Lawrence himself, in his autobiographical “Seven Pillars of Wisdom” and in many of his letters and military reports, was prone to obfuscation, fabrication and judicious omission.
Despite all these difficulties, Anderson presents convincing views addressing some of the continuing controversies concerning Lawrence. Yes, he was a patriot who helped advance Britain’s imperial objectives, but that was never his overriding concern and certainly not if those objectives were to come at the expense of Arab independence. Yes, he truly wished to help realize those Arab ambitions, but he also strongly doubted the Arab talent for self-governance.
No, he was not anti-Semitic, but he declined to endorse the Balfour Declaration because he believed it contradicted earlier British promises to the Arabs and would complicate the future course of the Middle East. (Lawrence met Chaim Weizmann a few times but neither seemed much to impress the other.)
Anderson further argues there is no evidence Lawrence was homosexual, but he surely developed deep attachments to certain individual Arabs. Lawrence was genuinely thrilled by combat, the author adds, but he was also viscerally sickened by such actions as the massacre of Turkish prisoners and hospital inmates and shared a deep sense of guilt for his role in such barbarisms.
And finally, Anderson maintains that Lawrence was proved again and again a more insightful military strategist than his commanding officers. Lawrence for instance argued in vain for the British to invade the Ottoman Empire at the poorly defended port of Alexandretta (Iskenderun) near the Turkish-Syrian border, but the British elected instead for the death-trap of Gallipoli.
The author also has little difficulty in documenting that Lawrence was brave to the point of recklessness; that his guerrilla exploits were valuable (by his own count Lawrence blew up no fewer than 79 bridges); and that his intense wartime activities left him with what today we call Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. (During the war and afterwards Lawrence evidently suffered several breakdowns and near-breakdowns.)
But as indicated above, “Lawrence in Arabia” is enriched with interlocking stories of other undercover agents operating in Lawrence’s territory. Among these was Curt Prufer, a shifty German diplomat who once had an affair with Chaim Weizmann’s sister Minna and recruited her to spy for Germany. (After the war Prufer become an early and enthusiastic member of the Nazi Party.) Another spy was William Yale, an American representative of Standard Oil of New York who, at one point, won oil concessions to some half-million acres of Palestine. Later he became an intelligence agent for the US State Department.
Then there was Aaron Aaronsohn, the Zichron Ya’acov agronomist who established the Nili spy ring that supplied valuable information to the British on the Turkish military presence in Palestine. (Lawrence met Aaronsohn a few times, but as with the Lawrence-Weizmann encounters, neither made much of their meetings.)
Best of all, for those like this reviewer who deceive themselves into thinking they know enough about Lawrence and the birth of the modern Middle East, Scott Anderson’s book is revelatory. Among other things, we learn that the Ottoman army, albeit with its German advisers, was a force to be reckoned with. Before Allenby’s triumphant capture of Beersheba and Jerusalem, for example, the badly outnumbered Turks turned back two previous invasions under Gen. Archibald Murray at Gaza at the cost of thousands of British lives.
We also learn that one of the motives for Britain’s announcing the Balfour Declaration was the belief that the Germans, in hopes of winning international Jewish support for their cause, were contemplating issuing their own endorsement of a Jewish home in Palestine. I was also amused by the propaganda efforts by the Zionists in 1917 to convince the world that the Turks had expelled all Jews from Jaffa and Jerusalem, and that the Jews likely faced the same exile and annihilation suffered by the Armenians in 1915. (The propaganda had considerable success despite none of it being true.)
I was also interested to learn that even before war’s end, many Arabs favored the notion of the non-imperialist Americans acquiring a mandate over Palestine and even over Greater Syria. But who at that time needed the Middle East, especially with all that sticky black stuff bubbling up and fouling the topsoil?
What with millions upon millions being slaughtered in Europe, the Middle East was of secondary concern during World War I, and the Arab Revolt, as stated in the David Lean film, was “a sideshow to the sideshow.” Few Westerners then considered the Middle East of much importance. Few hold such an opinion today. That change notwithstanding, the Middle East was a mess then and it’s a mess today.
Must it always be so? In his epilogue, Scott Anderson observes, “For the first time since 1918 the ‘Arab street’ is having a say in its own future, and however many roadblocks are thrown in its way, an element of civic participation and personal freedom is being spawned that likely can never be boxed back up.
“To the degree that genuine democracy and self-determination does take hold – and in a region that has been politically and intellectually stunted for so long it’s easy to only focus on the short-term chaos – the Arab world might finally embark upon the path envisioned for it by Lawrence and a handful of other dreamers a century ago.”