Review of Lawrence in Arabia by Scott Anderson

The full title of Anderson’s history is Lawrence in Arabia: War, Deceit, Imperial Folly, and the Making of the Modern Middle East and it is a thoroughly accurate description. For, this book is about precisely each of the topics mentioned, and it weaves them together in such a thoughtful way that it is impossible not to contemplate their impact on and relevance to the shape of the modern world.

This is no send-up of the gallant adventurer, though in less considerate hands it could certainly work as that story alone. Instead, as it relates to Lawrence, Anderson gives us a fairly intricate portrait of a young man who falls in love with a culture and attempts to help it find justice in an unjust world order. The book recounts Lawrence’s precocious, near-masochistic youth and his frustrations about serving as a mere map-maker as the inscrutable waves of World War I crash into each other in Turkey and splash out into the disunited and unformed desert nations of Arabia and the Middle East.  It recounts in well-researched detail the transition of, essentially, a functionary and somewhat disheveled clerk into an ardent critic of the British prosecution of the war against Turkey and eventually a unifier of diverse Arab interests who strives, but fails, to thwart the latent expansionist aims of the British and French, even as the Wilsonian notion of cultural self determination is beginning to break down the imperial world order.

Structurally, the book actually portrays T.E. Lawrence as the dominant portrait in a quadrich that encompasses a German spy named Curt Prüfer, an agronomist-cum-Zionist named Aaron Aaronsohn who spies in the interests of creating a Jewish homeland and a scion of a fallen American aristocratic family named William Yale who becomes at first a prominent oil explorer and later an American diplomat.  Bringing the activities of each of these individuals into the context of the developments of World War II, along with the exploits of Lawrence as he transitions from Oxford scholar into Arab warlord, Anderson manages to produce a fascinating and intensely insightful examination of how, thanks to the selfish arrogance, deceit and occasionally mind-boggling stupidity of the West, the Middle East became so screwed up.  At the same time, he links together intensely personal stories about his leading characters, as well as the many interesting people around them.  His description of Lawrence’s post-war years, filled with disappointment, agonizing PTSD and a not-quite-successful attempt to dwell in anonymity, serves to emphasize that this is a book about what really happened, not what one might wish to have happened.

I picked up Lawrence in Arabia on something of a hunch.  I’ve never seen the movie, but thought it might be interesting to learn something about a mythical figure from a period of American history in which I am not especially well-read.  What a great hunch it turned out to be.  Interestingly, this reflection on a renowned hero from a secondary theater of World War I tied together a body of unrelated reading about the pivotal first two decades of the 20th century to give me the most thorough understanding I’ve ever had of the dissembling of Europe, the surge of America and the reshaping of the 20th century world. And in that process, I’ve come also to understand my own time a century later much better.