Tag Archives: Scott Anderson

Biography Military Life

“Lawrence IN Arabia”: A Centenary Backwards Gaze

Wednesday, August 22, 2018

I have a stack of books of poetry I will soon begin listing and making some comments on, but first I want to encourage anyone concerned with the ongoing conflicts at the eastern rim of the Mediterranean Sea to read Lawrence in Arabia, the subtitle of which proves to be the thematic summary of the Ottoman Empire’s dissolution. Although this year marks the centenary of the final year of World War I, I have been struck by how little commentary seems to mark this juncture. World War I apparently has as little presence in the lives of present-day American citizens as the Napoleonic Wars. Anderson’s subtitle, “War, Deceit, Imperial Folly and the Making of the Modern East,” instructs us to reconsider our indifference. The consequences of World War I, after all, are more turbulent than ever. The decision of President Trump’s administration, for instance, to move the American embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem is a choice made possible because of the cast of characters who epitomize the drama of Anderson’s scintillating, extraordinarily acute, and easy to follow narrative.

The primary advantage of Anderson’s book in examining the historical origins of the current multi-national crisis in the Middle East is that people other than T.E. Lawrence are as equally vivid as the book’s titular, best known protagonist. I have a hunch that this book’s capacious point of view was the inspiring triggering point in the dinner conversation with his editor Bill Thomas that Anderson mentions in his acknowledgements. As one reads about the lives of the Zionist agronomist Aaron Aaronsohn, a German spy named Curt Prufer, and the American agent for Standard Oil, William Yale, in Lawrence in Arabia, one begins to comprehend the ground-level simultaneity of global economic and political determinations with local aspirations for land-based identity. Anderson’s book is an archeology of a volcanic eruption in the modern era of human civilizations; our imaginations have faltered in the past in fully comprehending the epic disintegration of the Ottoman Empire. With wit and precise detail, Anderson makes it all seem as if it were being told for the first time. Even those who believe they are familiar with this particular battle-front of “imperial folly” will finish this book with a renewed ambivalence about whether claims to self-rule have any substantial legitimacy outside of self-interest.

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If a panel could be assembled to discuss Anderson’s book, one participant I would recruit at the outset would be Albert Hourani, whose A History of the Arab Peoples acknowledges that however much legend might have distorted Lawrence’s account, at the very least Seven Pillars of Wisdom testifies “that for the first time the claim that those who spoke Arabic constituted a nation and should have a state had been to some extent accepted by a great power” (History, page 317).

“We could see a new factor was needed in the East, some power or race which would outweigh the Turks in number, in output and in mental activity. No encouragement was given us from history to think that these qualities could be applied ready-made from Europe … Some of us judged that there was latent power enough and to spare in the Arabic people (the greatest component of the Turkish Empire), a prolific Semitic agglomeration, great in religious thought, reasonably industrious, mercantile, politic, yet solvent rather than dominant in character.”

Lawrence ended up witnessing the imposition of colonial rule, either in a direct or indirect fashion, by the French (in Syria) and the British (in Iraq), two countries that did not exist before his intervention as one of the most enigmatic double agents of the twentieth century. If ever a hero was complicit with his shadow side, it was Lawrence, and he paid a price for it for which immortal fame is an insufficient ransom.