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Lawrence in Arabia

Veteran war correspondent Scott Anderson traces the involvement of T.E. Lawrence and three other Westerners during a critical and turbulent period in the Middle East.

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But the agendas of two of Europe’s most rapacious colonial powers aligned only imperfectly with the interests of Arab tribesmen.  British officials actually referred to the Ottoman Empire as “the Great Loot,” and well before the war had ended, France and Britain had already carved up the Middle East for themselves in the infamous Sykes-Picot Agreement.  But in the Hussein-McMahon Correspondence, Britain had promised some of the same lands to Emir Hussein, the leader of the Bedouin tribes in the Hejaz region of western Arabia. 

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One of the few members of the British military elite who considered this duplicity a problem was a young colonel named Thomas Edward Lawrence.  Unlike Peter O’Toole, who played Lawrence in David Lean’s 1962 epic film "Lawrence of Arabia," the actual Lawrence was 5 feet 3 inches tall and had an uncannily youthful appearance:  Those meeting him for the first time often thought he was a teenager.  

Even before World War I, Lawrence lacked the colonial hauteur typical of his generation.  After living and working in Carchemish as an archaeologist, he complained of the arrogance of Europeans in the Middle East.  “The foreigners come out here always to teach, whereas they had much better learn.”

Once the war began, Lawrence left a desk job in Cairo to undertake a variety of missions throughout the Middle East.  His views of colonial ambition were only solidified by the experience of war.  Reflecting on the heavy casualties he witnessed in Iraq in 1916, Lawrence later wrote:  “All our subject provinces to me were not worth one dead Englishman.”  

To British military commanders, however, even the semblance of victory was worth a great many dead Englishmen.  At the Battle of Passchendaele, for instance, the 70,000 British casualties represented one dead man for every two inches of ground wrested from the Germans.

Lawrence fought a style of war very different from the entrenched exchanges that caused such carnage on the Western Front.  Leading small, mobile units of camel-mounted tribesmen, he sabotaged Turkish garrisons and supply lines throughout the Middle East.  Anderson suggests that one reason Lawrence quickly became a legend was the shattered British public’s desperate need to find some trace of grandeur and romance amid the desolate slaughter of the war.  

He also emphasizes Lawrence’s courage in defying the colonial policies of his superiors.  Lawrence had a convenient way of “not receiving” cables with orders contrary to his own plans, and when he learned that the British promises to Emir Hussein of an independent Arab nation were outright lies, he took the arguably treasonous step of revealing the contents of Sykes-Picot to Hussein’s son Faisal. 

Anderson interweaves the stories of Lawrence, Prüfer, Aaronsohn, and Yale to create a rich and detailed account of European machinations in the Middle East during a critical and turbulent period.  The subtitle of Lawrence’s sprawling autobiography "Seven Pillars of Wisdom" is "A Triumph," but it’s hard not to feel that his story is closer to a tragedy.  After the war ended, Lawrence was sidelined at the 1919 Paris Peace Conference as Britain and France lived out their fantasies of a “Great Loot,” dividing up the Middle East and ignoring their own promises as well as innumerable religious and political subtleties in the region. 

Anderson’s narrative clarifies the origins of some of the seemingly intractable struggles that still beset the Middle East.  It might seem surprising that contemporary American military leaders would appreciate Lawrence’s insights, but in 2006, General David Petraeus ordered his senior staff to read Lawrence’s "Twenty-Seven Articles," a short treatise offering advice on working with the Bedouin. 

What Petraeus missed, apparently, was Lawrence’s reminder that his advice applied only to the Bedouin, and the non-Bedouins, who represent nearly 98% of the Iraqi population, would require “totally different treatment.”  William Yale would have been proud.

Nick Romeo is a regular contributor to the Monitor's Books section.

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