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Hero: The Life and Legend of Lawrence of Arabia

Nearly a century after Lawrence of Arabia’s fame, many of his ideas about the Middle East remain prescient.

By Erik Spanberg / February 17, 2011

Hero: The Life and Legend of Lawrence of Arabia By Michael Korda Harper 762 pp.

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First Tunisia, then Egypt. Who’s next?

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Those stunning liberations, driven by the so-called Arab street in recent weeks, seem poised to hopscotch to other countries in the Middle East, a prospect that would, no doubt, make Lawrence of Arabia smile.

Nearly a century after Lawrence became the most famous British military hero in World War I, many of his ideas and tactics in the Middle East remain prescient.

His guerrilla warfare strategies remain potent, as the improvised explosive devices of contemporary Iraq – a nation Lawrence created – make painfully clear.
And though Lawrence was political in his own way, he saw the need for Arab independence, pushing, in vain, for greater self-determination across that region during the Paris Peace Conference as the Western powers carved up the region with imperial interests at the forefront.

Those points resonate again and again in Hero: The Life and Legend of Lawrence of Arabia, Michael Korda’s lengthy new biography of Lawrence, a brilliant, idiosyncratic man who remains misunderstood despite (or because of) decades of biographies and the epic 1962 movie based on his life starring Peter O’Toole.

Lawrence spent three years in the desert during World War I, winning over hardened Bedouin warriors, serving as the military liaison to and securing the loyalty of Prince Feisal (the son of Sharif Hussein of Mecca) and, of course, leading the disparate Arab factions and clans as they toppled the Turks and overturned longstanding Ottoman Empire control of the region. He did all of this despite being outmanned by a wide margin, relying on his own ingenuity to develop tactics such as the hit-and-run guerrilla style favored by insurgencies of all kinds to the present day.

That an Oxford University-trained scholar and archaeologist with no formal military training achieved all of this makes the story all the more compelling.
Add in a flair for the dramatic, embodied by his penchant for eschewing British military attire in favor of flowing white robes and Arabian kaffiyehs, and it’s little wonder that the story of Lawrence morphed into what Korda convincingly describes as the first modern-day celebrity circus.

Indeed, in his post-Arabian pursuits, a time when Lawrence tried and failed to win anonymity – albeit with flamboyant and provocative hiccups – Korda compares him to Princess Diana in his love-hate relationship with the media. Lawrence, as his first and most prominent biographer once put it, was forever “backing into the limelight.”

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