Book review: ‘Lawrence in Arabia’ tracks conflicts back to WWI

NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICESeptember 15, 2013 

  • ‘LAWRENCE IN ARABIA: WAR, DECEIT, IMPERIAL FOLLY AND THE MAKING OF THE MODERN MIDDLE EAST’ by Scott Anderson; Doubleday ($28.95)

Scott Anderson’s fine, sophisticated, richly detailed “Lawrence in Arabia” is filled with invaluably complex and fine-tuned information. This demanding but eminently readable account of the Middle East during World War I is certainly no T.E. Lawrence biography, as the tiny nuance coloring its title (“in Arabia,” not “of”) makes clear.

Anderson does not filter the tricky history of a crucially important era through any individual’s perspective. Nor does he see Lawrence as the only schemer trying to manipulate Arab destiny; this book has an assortment of principal players, only one of whom managed to become so famous.

As to why such acclaim elevated one renegade Briton and his feat of creating a guerrilla Bedouin army, Anderson writes that the short answer may seem anticlimactic. His reason: This was a time when the seed was planted for the Arab world “to define itself less by what it aspires to become than what it is opposed to: colonialism, Zionism, Western imperialism in its many forms.”

Clarity was hard to find, and so, after such wanton loss of life, were victors. But heroes were needed, and here was a shoo-in. According to the book, “Lawrence was able to become ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ because no one was paying much attention.”

That does not make Anderson’s account a debunking. For those already fascinated by Lawrence’s exploits and familiar with his written accounts of them, Anderson’s thoughtful, big-picture version only enriches the story it tells.

“Lawrence in Arabia” emphasizes the Gordian difficulties facing any strategist from any of the numerous contingents involved either in fighting for Arab freedom from the Ottoman Empire or looking to carve up Arab land once the fighting was over. He illustrates how difficult it was to have any foresight at all, let alone to see clearly, and he reserves his greatest interest for players whose imaginations were most fertile.

Lawrence was the best and most eloquent of these manipulators, but he was by no means alone.

“Lawrence in Arabia” is the best work of military history in recent memory and an illuminating analysis of issues that still loom large today. It’s a big book in every sense, with a huge amount of terrain to cover. So it is perhaps understandable that Anderson makes only passing and none too flattering reference to David Lean’s magnificent film about Lawrence.

But readers who know the movie are apt to summon it more than he does. Yes, it was history a la Hollywood, with moments of clear exaggeration.

But its effort to depict Lawrence, his military raids, the tribal leaders with whom he dealt, the inept British military effort and the sly French diplomatic one are all shown by this book to be unusually faithful to the facts. It’s high praise for both the film and this grandly ambitious book to say that they do have a lot in common.

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