The Conquering Hero

In the early chapters of Lawrence in Arabia—note the “in”—Scott Anderson describes how the young T. E. Lawrence reacted to the death of his brother. Though the book is named for the British intelligence officer who improbably led an Arab revolt against the Ottoman Turks during World War I, Anderson threads his expansive history with only a well-chosen few of his hero’s many personality quirks; he even resists the temptation to overquote Lawrence’s florid and funny 1922 autobiography Seven Pillars of Wisdom. Yet Lawrence’s curious cruelty to his mother gets considerable space, presumably because it tells us as much about the world in 1914 as it does about Lawrence.

The death of Lawrence’s brother Frank furnishes an especially revealing glimpse into how the well-known, high-Victorian Arabist dealt with a family tragedy. Frank had been killed on the western front by fragments from a German artillery shell. A month after he received the news, Lawrence, who was spending his days idling in Cairo editing an intelligence bulletin for the British military command—the circulation for which “increases automatically as they invent new generals”—finally replied to his mum in a short note: “Today I got Father’s two letters. They are very comfortable reading, and I hope that when I die there will be nothing more to regret. The only thing I feel a little is that there was no need, surely, to go into mourning for him? I cannot see any cause at all. In any case, to die for one’s country is a sort of privilege.” After his mother “upbraided him for not expressing his love for her in her hour of grief,” he replied: “You know, men do nearly all die laughing, because they know death is very terrible, and a thing to be forgotten till after it has come.”

Lawrence is indifferent and brazenly naive, but then, at the beginning of the twentieth century, so were his countrymen, his leaders, and his foes. The young soldiers of the Allied and Central powers went to war enthusiastically, proud to fight for a noble cause and desperate to add meaning to their lives—“war euphoria had gripped the populace” in Britain, as Anderson notes. But in the long tradition of imperial cheerleaders throughout the West, the British were also disastrously ignorant about what was to come. In the East, their judgment was so distorted by racist hatred for the Turks and their longings for the spoils of a conquered Ottoman Empire that not only compassion but consciousness disappeared. “In that summer of 1914, most everyone was overlooking a crucial detail: that the weapons of war had changed so radically over the previous forty years as to render the established notions of its conduct obsolete,” Anderson writes. “These new instruments of war had previously been employed almost exclusively against those who didn’t have them—specifically, those non-Europeans who attempted to resist their imperial reach.”

Europeans were not merely unprepared for the scale of vicious death and destruction that their reveries of conquest would call forth; they also badly misjudged the petty passions that fueled the bloodletting. In particular, Anderson writes, the Middle East’s European invaders were unable to see the absurdity of their own “family feud, a chance for Europe’s kings and emperors—many of them related by blood—to act out old grievances and personal slights atop the heaped bodies of their royal subjects.” And then there was the incomprehensible folly: the spy rings and small-bore deceits and devious egos of the many individuals who would, in the end, have some hand in seizing the lands of the Middle East and creating a catastrophic reordering of the world. It’s the latter theater of intrigue that Anderson has chosen to chronicle in entertaining detail.

The pleasure and heartache of books like Anderson’s are in the connections we can make between the past and the present—especially when they concern the Middle East. We all know that the Western powers made (and continue to make) the same mistakes over and over in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, but a skilled and perceptive writer like Anderson—a veteran war correspondent who has written six other books and contributes to the New York Times Magazine—can provoke a kind of intellectual astonishment, a feeling of revelation. In fact, his more analytical and sweeping passages often surpass the book’s intricate rehashings of battles and field strategy. Yet Anderson is first and foremost a storyteller. With this reconsideration of the controversial Lawrence, he is most interested in how Lawrence managed to pull off his many famous feats: “How did a painfully shy Oxford archaeologist without a single day of military training become the battlefield commander of a foreign revolutionary army, the political master strategist who foretold so many of the Middle Eastern calamities to come?” Anderson also puts Lawrence in a humbler context, placing him alongside four other extraordinary individuals who helped shape the events of World War I from behind the scenes: Mark Sykes, the British officer and author of the notorious Sykes-Picot agreement, which arbitrarily divided up the Arab world according to imperial interests; Aaron Aaronsohn, a Jewish agronomist and Zionist who spied for the British while agitating for a Jewish state; Carl Prufer, a German officer who manipulated Turkish and Arab interest in the war, among many other sleazy things; and William Yale, the blue-blooded American employee of Standard Oil who ventured to Palestine to strike black gold, and eventually became the United States’ first spy in the region. As Anderson observes, Yale’s story elegantly illustrates how World War I produced “a new imperial power—the United States—that, given the bad name its predecessors had attached to the label, would forever protest its innocence of being one.”

T. E. Lawrence dressed in Arab robes, ca. 1919.
T. E. Lawrence dressed in Arab robes, ca. 1919.

Lawrence in Arabia spans the length of the war, the arc of the book roughly tracing the outcomes of the Allied powers’ many early logistical blunders. There was the fateful, and disastrous, decision to attack the Turks at Gallipoli, rather than the more vulnerable Gulf of Alexandretta in Syria; and then the interminable and bloody Battle of Gallipoli (1915–16), which compelled the Turks to call up thousands of Arab reserves, many of whom had been ready and waiting to help the Allied cause by staging a revolt against their Ottoman oppressors. In addition to these well-known blunders, there were also countless mistakes and betrayals in ostensibly coordinating an Arab rebellion among the Hashemite tribes of the Hejaz, as well as in the aggressive campaign on the part of some British diplomats to found a Jewish state without understanding how volatile such an outcome would be.

As this litany of disasters gradually unfolded, Lawrence—who had spent years in the Arab world studying the language, land, and people—festered in frustration in Cairo as his compatriots did the opposite of what he had lobbied them to do. By 1916, when Lawrence finally acquired the power to leave his desk, don his Arab robes, and influence policy— specifically, by championing the leadership of Faisal bin al-Hussein in Arabia, and advancing the cause for Arab independence from the Turks—the war had become a different kind of monster. “This conflict was no longer about playing for small advantage against one’s imperial rivals,” Anderson writes, “but about hobbling them forever, ensuring that they might never again have the capability to wage such a devastating and pointless war.” Of course, that wasn’t the only aim: “All the slaughter was to be justified by a new golden age of empire, the victors far richer, far grander than before.” Under the Sykes-Picot agreement, approved in 1916, the Middle East had been secretly carved up into French and British protectorates—with Syria going to France and Iraq to England—even as the British were assuring the nation’s Arab friends of their incipient independence. In London, they called it “the Great Loot.”

The country that nobly stepped in to interrupt this plunder was the United States. By 1917, “the grudging respect with which the United States had initially been regarded by nearly all combatants, its annoying stance of neutrality offset by its efforts at peacemaking, had steadily eroded to something approaching disgust.” President Woodrow Wilson declared that the age of imperialism was over; America, he preached, would at last make “the world safe for democracy.” To this effect, Wilson put forth his “fourteen points” of global cooperation, eventually to be implemented by his internationalist brainchild, the League of Nations—a notion the European powers considered “quaint” until they realized that the naive American president was actually serious. According to one American commission’s report, the oppressed peoples of the Ottoman Empire did want the United States to intervene if they couldn’t have freedom. But it didn’t matter; Wilson had been ignorant of the complexity of the situation—and he was even more in the dark about the particular demands of an American occupation. This is all to say nothing, of course, about the manifest impossibility of wresting the Brits and French away from what they regarded as their hard-won treasure.

Nevertheless, America’s imperial entry into the region would assure Lawrence an ongoing following. In 2006, for example, General Petraeus ordered his officers to read Lawrence’s Twenty-Seven Articles (1917) “so that they might gain clues on winning the hearts and minds of the Iraqi people,” Anderson writes. “Presumably skipped over was Lawrence’s opening admonition that his advice applied strictly to Bedouin—about 2 percent of the Iraqi population—and that interacting with Arab townspeople ‘require[s] totally different treatment.’”

Indeed, Lawrence would never have imagined that a foreign power might invade an Arab country with so little knowledge of it. His own affection for the Arabs went so far that he committed treason in an attempt to save them. In 1917, France and Britain desperately wanted to take Aqaba from the Turks; the port would assure them dominance of the northern Arabian coastline, as well as easier supply lines to Egypt. Faisal, the leader of the Arab revolt tenuously allied with the British, needed Aqaba as a launching point for the Arab rebellion in Syria. Lawrence thought the invasion would be a Gallipoli-like disaster—and foresaw a still darker outcome for this adventure. Once Aqaba was conquered, he predicted, the Allied forces would block the Arabs from moving northward on their march to create a greater Arab nation, a maneuver that would establish France and Britain as the dominant military forces in the Middle East. Lawrence had read the Sykes-Picot accord; when both the Arabs and the French made claim to Syria, there was no question who would win. “So long as that treaty stood,” Anderson writes, “British betrayal of the Arab cause in deference to its French ally was virtually preordained.” Lawrence advised Faisal to avoid Aqaba entirely, and find an alternative path into Syria to lead his uprising. More astoundingly, he told Faisal the details of Sykes-Picot, thereby committing “a consummate act of treason.”