Lawrence of Arabia

T.E. Lawrence Rides Again in Scott Anderson’s New History

Is there anything new to say about T.E. Lawrence? Yes, as Scott Anderson’s book on the making of the Middle East shows.


History has its fads. The Victorians looked to it for lessons in Empire and moral rectitude. Marxists mined it for material on class struggle and the great dialectical progress unfolding in their favor (hence the notion of “progressive” ideas). Fernand Braudel and the French Annales School told us the price of footwear in the 1500s or the median age of prostitutes during the Second Empire. These days, though, history must tell good stories first and foremost, preferably about “colorful” protagonists. Scott Anderson's Lawrence in Arabia falls squarely into this last category, having as its backbone the chronicle of T.E. Lawrence's celebrated adventures (1916–18) leading Arab tribes during World War I. Anderson is himself something of a picaresque adventurer, so it makes sense. He has made a career of the immersive first-person-narrative approach to war journalism along with Sebastian Junger, his friend and business partner in the Half King, the thriving Manhattan watering hole. Who better to write a book about Lawrence of Arabia as both a marketing idea and a practical one? Anderson knows about wars. He has authority.

Not to seem competitive, but for transparency's sake and the reader's interest, I should divulge here my own claims on the subject: I, too, have reported on Mideast conflicts, but more to the point, my grandfather and great-uncle were sent out from Istanbul under the Young Turks as chief engineers to manage the very railways Lawrence kept bombing—highly prestigious positions in a technologically backward society. My great-uncle died in the field repairing Lawrence's depredations, while my grandfather stayed on to administer parts of the region's infrastructure for the British, then the French, until after the next war. My grandfather took a dim view of British war making in the Hejaz campaign, involving as it did the destruction of vital supply lines and water sources for desert communities. The Ottoman side of the story in that conflict has yet to be told in the West, a not irrelevant topic these days: “neo-Ottomanism” and the “Turkish model” are all the rage as a possible panacea to the region's ills. Anderson's highly readable book doesn't attempt to correct the bias. That must await a different kind of historian.

History told as “one damn thing after another” did notch up some notable achievements. One thinks of Gibbon's great work or Steven Runciman's Byzantine histories or A.J.P. Taylor's treatments of the Great War. They had a lot to get through, and they did so at a clip. They had one overriding advantage—they could presume on a culturally cohesive audience. The historian of our day must presume the opposite, that the readership is likely to be multiethnic or multicultural and therefore to want diverse viewpoints onto momentous events. The good story formula, though, requires a structural us-and-them divide. Anderson's approach needs a “them,” and the Turks remain the “other,” allied with the Germans, who come in a close second. Nothing new here. He has enough complications to navigate with the “us” part. Lawrence's love of the Arab tribes may have played well to Anglophone readers for many years—up to and beyond Peter O'Toole's epic 1962 movie role—but these days many readers may harbor different sympathies. The very premise makes for a dodgy commercial undertaking, thus kudos to Anderson for venturing on it. He tries to solve the problem by diversifying his protagonists since no predictably “average reader” obtains in a multicultural audience for history. So he offers us Lawrence plus three other subprotagonists: a footloose American of good family, a Jewish Zionist activist, and a rarely likable German spymaster. Numerous other subsidiary characters feature prominently, not least my grandfather's boss Djemal Pasha, the Young Turk governor of Arabia. To Anderson's credit, Djemal Pasha, perhaps for the first time in Western historiography, comes across as a complicated, flawed character often trying to do the right thing, especially for the long-suffering Armenians.

Lawrence's life was widely known in the last century. A smallish, fair-skinned English lad with a will of iron and a flair for languages goes to Mesopotamia as a budding archeologist and, at war's advent, parlays his experience into a position liaising with local tribes on the Arabian front. There he ends up helping unite the tribes to wage a new kind of camelback guerrilla warfare against their colonial overlords (and co-religionists), the Ottoman Turks. His victories arguably spell the end of the kaiser's empire in Europe, and certainly the Ottoman Empire in the Middle East, while also shaming the West's generals by showing up the horrific futility of their attritional military doctrines in Europe. Lawrence's story is a tragic one, though, because he promised liberation to the Arabs, but the higher-ups instead deliver allied occupation and the Balfour Declaration, which ultimately leads to the creation of Israel. He loses his innocence in various ways: he is raped by a Turkish officer (so he claimed; improbable, it turns out), and he ends up tolerating the massacre of Turkish prisoners. Lawrence retires to obscurity and dies in a motorbike accident in 1935.

Anderson tells his tales with a great deal of surprisingly original material aided by his four-way narrative. The device feels awkward for nearly half the book as Lawrence's momentum keeps being interrupted by the others', but the whole ultimately feels right when the war gathers pace. The others really do have eventful lives, though rarely touching Lawrence's directly. Aaron Aaronson, the Zionist Russian settler, a brilliant agrarian scientist, turns against the Turks and sets up a Jewish spy ring. Through his storyline we learn of a seminal propaganda coup that went a long way to influence neutral world Jewry—a fictitious pogrom in Jaffa, news of which Aaronson helps propagate. As the British official in charge says, “Any spicy tales of atrocities would be welcomed, and Aaronson could send some lurid stories to the Jewish papers.” As the book points out, “the fiction repeated as fact by most historians writing on the period since would now become the Ur-myth for the contention that the Jewish community in Palestine could never be safe under Muslim rule, that to survive it needed a state of its own.”

The great advantage of the storytelling genre of history is that it allows the author to drop in huge shocking facts in midstream without the appearance of political ax grinding. The book never appears to be an argument for any particular cause or thesis. Anderson tells us what Aaronson thinks of Palestinian peasants (“squalid, superstitious, ignorant”), that he and his friends had no intention of sharing the land equitably, but elsewhere he reminds us in passing that many Arab tribes still had slaves, a detail Lawrence found surprisingly easy to overlook. We're also reminded that the Arab revolt had as its primary incentive British gold and the promise of loot. We learn that Anderson’s American protagonist, William Yale, wonders at the position he attains as the American point man in the region: “I lacked a historical knowledge of the problems, I had very little understanding of the economic and social system.” Anderson goes on to say, “Not that any of this caused him any anxiety ... William Yale also held to the belief, quite common among his countrymen, that ignorance and lack of experience could bestow an advantage.” Anderson doesn't even bother to bring up the disastrous occupation of Iraq almost a century later. He doesn't need to.

This is a long book, over 500 pages. It takes a while to get going. There’s almost as much in it about Lawrence's victories over British Army bureaucracy as over the Turks. The author doesn’t set out systematically to explicate the post-Ottoman origination of the region's enduring woes, a primary attraction for any potential reader. And yet we learn all we need to know and more without any of it being telegraphed as the narrative bowls along. Anderson carries his erudition lightly, but there's enough scholarship there to make an academic proud. As with the best kind of yarns, you don't realize what you've learned until the narrator goes silent.

Editor's note: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated the time period of Lawrence's death.