Lawrence in Arabia is so geographically far-ranging that it needs to be read with an atlas of the Middle East close by—and perhaps a bottle or two of strong drink to get one through its more harrowing passages. Although the fabled T.E. Lawrence is the focal point of the narrative, author Scott Anderson casts a much wider net, sketching in the imperial designs, battles, political machinations and tribal rivalries that convulsed Turkey, Syria, Palestine and Egypt during WWI—and including those regions that would eventually become Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Lebanon and Israel.

Besides the diminutive, scholarly and strong-willed Lawrence, Anderson constructs his history around larger-than-life figures such as the agronomist, spymaster and ardent Zionist Aaron Aaronsohn; the blue-blood oil explorer William Yale; the German master of intrigue Curt Prufer; and Djemal Pasha, the military and political leader of half the besieged Ottoman Empire.

A major theme here is the incompetence and institutional cross-purposes of the British military establishment, failings that would have been comic had they not led to such massive loss of life (most infamously at Gallipoli). It’s little wonder that Lawrence, a schemer who worked his own plans at his own pace, was so effective initially in his campaign for Arab independence. His gifts for language, cultural understanding and diplomacy enabled him to assemble and lead native troops in a series of successful campaigns. And despite his Oxford education and finely tuned English sensibilities, he could—and did—spill Turkish blood as readily as his most savage underlings. In spite of the battles he won, though, he ultimately lost his private war to keep England and France from imposing their will on the conquered territories.

Following the war, Lawrence did as much to lower his profile as he had done to raise it during the hostilities. Working in a series of low-level military jobs, writing his memoirs and withdrawing further into seclusion, Lawrence exhibited all the symptoms, Anderson notes, of PTSD. He died in a motorcycle accident in 1935 at the age of 47.

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