LAWRENCE IN ARABIA, War, Deceit, Imperial Folly and the Making of the Modern Middle East. Review by Mark Barnes


A much younger me tried to read the Seven Pillars of Wisdom and failed. I suppose I was looking for a war adventure book of a wholly one-dimensional sort similar to many military biographies. But, of course, I did not know Lawrence. He was far from conventional and the inevitable volley of books about him seem to only agree on the point that nobody fully gets him.  For all it’s grandeur, the epic David Lean movie could only show us hints of his labyrinthine mind, but it did make him human and this is how most people of the right age will think of him, even if there is a fair bit of Peter O’Toole attached! The truth is Lawrence shrouded himself in half-truths and deceits as armour against his own crippling doubts as much as he did against the queue of detractors lined up against him.

Lawrence is a minefield for pursuers of simplistic historiography. He chopped and changed as his mental and physical powers waxed and waned in the face of the arduous regime he set himself. But one thing that never wavered was his conviction. Until, that is, he hit the invisible wall we all meet at some time on our journeys and knew the game was up. He was, perhaps, one of a kind, a unique man for remarkable times.

History is littered with the drama of coincidences. It implies a basis of truth in the power of fate or even divine intervention. The war in Palestine and Arabia gave this most unlikely of visionary fighting men a platform to immortality. Thomas Edward Lawrence could not escape himself, but who can? It all comes down to how hard you try and he never had any problem with persistence. Whether he achieved it right up to that moment his Brough Superior clipped a lad’s bicycle on a country road can never be confirmed. He remains an enigma. I assume he was a copper plated pain in the arse.

But the story of the Arab Revolt isn’t all about the machinations of a crazy mixed up genius we might easily write off with accusations of short man syndrome or jibes at his blurred sexuality. In life and death our hero Lawrence has been stabbed by people with a knife drawer full of agendas. His own was to make a nation of the Arabs. In this remarkable book by Scott Anderson we learn about Lawrence and the other men who shaped the Middle East that elbows other unhappy lands for space on your nightly TV news to this day. You will not like many, if any, of them.

I’ve had a really good experience reading this book and have revelled in the imagery of the characters, some known to me and many not; who turned a much trampled story into something fresh and meaningful. There is a temptation to treat the author, an American, as a neutral free of all the imperial baggage no European could avoid.  But he isn’t neutral at all because he left me with the feeling he loathed everyone he had written about at some time or another. Quite naturally he has a fair number of easy targets in the British and French imperialists lining themselves up like aunt sallies for him to throw half bricks at.  Sometimes it is easier to reach for a pump action shotgun. In a target rich environment like the British Egypt of those heady days it would be easy to damn everybody, but the author resists this; never falling in to a trap of placing our oh so enlightened modern mores on people of a physical century and a million light years ago.

The author reveals other players in the kaleidoscope of the Middle East with aplomb. As said, some are known; but there are people here who were new to me. On finishing the book I feel enriched, because my focus on the events of those years has broadened to take in the Turks, Germans and others who add layers missing before. There is so much colour, it is, at times, dazzling. While Lawrence is the anchor of the story, these other men are the waves breaking across her bows. Their role in the final outcome are sometimes a little bemusing, but the way the book knits together allows the context of their deeds to dovetail beautifully.

We see much more of the Arabs, a people riven with their own sectarianism, tribal clannishness, deceit and greed. These people didn’t need any lessons in these arts from Europeans. In some ways other accounts maintain a kind of imperialism the European powers were eager to impose. Ultimately, the subheading for this book sums up all the participants in the drama, not just the easy targets – the British and the French.

The vexatious subject of the road to the Balfour Declaration is explained with great care. I was struck by how fractious the Jews were amidst themselves and have to admit that the issue of Zionism is a closed book to me. I just see them doing what they had to do, just like anyone else then, as now. The sympathies in London for a Jewish homeland may have been tied to British desires to control Palestine. But they were sympathies nonetheless. We all know how anti-Semitic much of Europe was, dangerously so in Russia and most points east; and we all know what another twenty odd years would do for those notions. Nobody in the Jewish camp could agree on anything. I find this difficult to understand, but then my mindset defaults to our post Holocaust world and we are dealing in this story with people used to casual hatreds and restrictions, not the industrial elimination of a people. The Jews and everyone else with open eyes must have looked at what the Turks did to the Armenians and said to themselves there but for the grace of God, go I. Time would tell.

I don’t seek excuses for the actions of many of the Brits in this story.  Although perfidy was the acme of all the nations involved in this sorry saga, it is the double dealing and class riven ugliness of what was coming out of London and Cairo that sticks in my throat and seems to really annoy the author. The temptation is to fall into that easy chair of simplistic history, but there was none. There are layers and layers of crap to wade through.

The Arabs fascinate me and I can see in them all the problems that would lead us along a horrible road past Saddam to the nightmare of the modern Syria Feisal and his companions were so anxious to claim. The what ifs just keep stacking up and this is where this book wins. The author eschews them for telling us what was. There is no room for romance or conjecture. The Arabs are not one people, they are many with their own ways and traditions gold sovereigns, technology and weapons would only feed; not change. By chance they had the oil.  There is a bar room joke in their somewhere.

The end of the imperial age may have settled that one but now and again the crusaders come back for another pop. Even now, close on a century since the events in this story, how many ordinary people do you hear say just leave them to get on with it but we just can’t help ourselves, can we? The author points to the misinterpretation of the Arab Street by the wily Standard Oil man William Yale who conjured his way into the crazy Cairo machine playing at spies and soldiers in equal measure. We learn he set in train decades of misunderstanding in the halls of the State Department and across the Potomac.

I feel some sympathy for the Turks, saddled with their own rivalries at the moment of destiny. There is something sleazy about many of them, doing much to balance the books when we look into the darkest corners of the Anglo-French alliance.

And in the midst of all this is that man Lawrence. He was everywhere, running the show, directing minds and schemes, merrily pissing people off and often revelling in the fact. You want to like him and find yourself building your own Lawrence out of all the bits of his life you can get a handle on. He turned down a Victoria Cross and other baubles, upsetting the King and his courtiers. Because I don’t fully get him, even now, I find this action childish. But, I like the idea that he affixed French medals to the collar of his dog. The greed of the French matched the English, but to see why you have to look at the Western Front and the fact that so much French industry and territory was in the hands of the enemy. Paris wanted a big payback for the price it had paid and the Great Loot of the Ottoman Empire would foot some of the bill. If only the Brits, playing a dotty diplomatic version of Twister on their beautiful Turkish carpets in Cairo had just told them to sod off. But they didn’t. They had ambitions of their own.

So in the end this book is more than just the story of an awkward short arsed archaeologist from Oxfordshire who went out to Cairo to make maps and launched nations instead. He did not enjoy anything like a happy ending and nor has much of the land he fought for. He didn’t do it all by himself but he did a lot more than some care to acknowledge. He was heroic but not a truly fully-fledged hero in my book. He was too many things to be imprisoned in the body of one man. He never achieved closure and was always searching for new ways out, hiding behind aliases and playing at soldiers and airmen in the post Great War world.

On my to do pile is yet another new book about the Arab Revolt. Lawrence stares out from the plates section much as he does in this book and I can’t judge him with any more confidence than I did when I first bought my copy of Seven Pillars of Wisdom over thirty years ago. Perhaps I should try and read it again.

Review by Mark Barnes for War History Online

War, Deceit, Imperial Folly and the Making of the Modern Middle East
By Scott Anderson
Atlantic Books
ISBN: 978 1 78239 199 9










Mark Barnes

Mark Barnes is a longstanding friend of WHO, providing features, photography and reviews. He has contributed to The Times of London and other publications. He is the author of The Liberation of Europe (pub 2016) and If War Should Come due later in 2020.