Lawrence In Arabia: War, Deceit, Imperial Folly, And The Making Of The Modern Middle East, by Scott Anderson
It is probably best not to know how the modern Middle East was made. This book focuses on a small set of people whose actions helped create the conditions for the contemporary Middle East, and a lot of suffering was involved as well as a lot of folly. Whether the book looks at familiar figures like T.E. Lawrence, who helped lead an Arab revolt in support of an Entente whose war aims had already divided most of the Middle East into French and British spheres of influence, or more obscure people like William Yale, broke scion of a wealthy family who served as an oil man in Palestine and a US agent, Curt Prüfer, German jihadist agent, Aaron Aaronsohn, who created a spy ring that was exposed by British stupdity, or even the corrupt Ottoman governor who found himself struggling to stay in power and preserve Ottoman control over a rebellious land in the midst of war. If no one comes out of this book unscathed, a few people and the British effort in general come off the worst, as amateurish and wasteful of the lives of people and as being unjust in making promises to three different audiences that were in wild contradiction to each other and that could not ultimately be met, with tragic consequences.
This book is about 500 pages long and it is divided into three parts and eighteen chapters. Within each chapter the author jumps from one figure to another, giving a vivid portrayal of a vitally interesting sideshow in World War I that had immense consequences for the fate of the contemporary world. Beginning with an author’s note and introduction the author discusses playboys in the promised land (1), unusual types of people (2), the lure of nice things (3), the high cost of fighting that was ignored by the British and others (4), the mess that the British made of their commitments to the French and Russians, Arabs, and Jews (5), secrets (6), as well as treachery (7). After that the author discusses the spread of warfare in the Middle East (8), Lawrence as a wannabe kingmaker (9), the void (10) between communications, deceit (11), the audacity of the Arabs (12), and Aqaba (13) and its seizure. The book then ends with chapters on hubris (14), the gathering of people to the flame (15), the gathering fury that ended the war (16), solitary pursuits (17), and the collapse of the Ottomans as the English reached Damascus (18), as well as an epilogue about the Paris Peace Talks, acknowledgements, notes, and a bibliography.
One of the most interesting aspects of this book is the way that it reads like a political thriller that leads one to look at governments with a lot more skepticism. For example, the author makes a reasonable claim that Lawrence was both a closeted homosexual as well as a rape victim over the course of his experience during World War I, based on some very close reading of Lawrence’s memoir of his time in World War I as well as his letters to close friends. And while Lawrence is viewed as being a compromised traitor to his nation, he comes off far better than the glib and deceptive Sykes or the barbarously cruel Ottomans regarding their minority populations, or the calculating Germans. Indeed, everyone in these pages ends up compromised in some fashion by their political and personal ambitions and suffers a great deal of loss because of it, including the loss of one’s life, of one’s honor, of one’s hopes and dreams, and of one’s ambitions and goals, all of which created a mess that the world is still trying to recover from. And if the author is no Zionist, his portrayal of the ire of the Arabs of the Jews being given their own homeland suggests that the Zionists were right to believe that only a nation of their own could allow any hope of a safe life, and that requires continual vigilance against many foes.