In a story befitting the annals of a modern Arabian Nights, the tale of T. E. Lawrence crisscrosses North Africa and the Arabian peninsula, spurring adventure and ultimate triumph. A young British officer rousts up recruits of the Arab Revolt that he helped to fruition, and with adroit clarity Lawrence leads them in victory after victory against the organized Ottoman forces, catalyzing an Entente victory in the Orient.
At least, that’s what Peter O’Toole would have you believe.
The storied Lawrence’s ability to slip in and out of enemy territory unnoticed, and after making considerable damage, is matched only by the real T. E. Lawrence epic escaped from world purview.
Scott Anderson smashes cinema with his three-dimension look not only at Lawrence, but a host of other secondary figures, the middlemen of The Great War and the 1914 Ottoman chess game that shaped world events for a century to come: The close of colonialism in the Middle East, imminent Israel statehood, and an Arab independence marred by a new imperialism that the world can’t seem to shake to this day.
The name of the game is primary sources. Anderson is loyal to no one, not even Lawrence himself, and relentlessly cites personal letters and secret cables in documenting the political maneuverings, the dishonesty, the motives, and subsequently the brutality of war. What is shown is how such gruesome theater can destroy the best of men and women, not simply through the destruction of body and mind, but by the incentives manifested in an individual’s own misdeeds.
But this is not a chronicle of the macabre; it reads more like a novel. Historical fact is interwoven in storied prose, and I personally have never been more engaged in a nonfiction book.
Despite being ostensibly written from a British officer’s perspective, near equal play is given, by proxy of a sole portrait, to the Turks, Americans, Germans, and Jews, with a cameo here and there from the French. Yet Arab voice is wholly under-represented in the conflict. I have been led to understand there is a lack of primary sources of Arabs in that time period; when letters are written from or to Faisal Hussein, they are quoted.
Or perhaps that lack of Arab voice is meant to underscore the ultimate betrayal of the Arab Revolt. Conjecture aside, it is something missed.
Scott Anderson’s attempts to characterizing his subjects go beyond what a conventional historian is wont to do. He delves into the somewhat deep psychological analysis in allaying gaps and contradictions in Lawrence’s memoirs (Seven Pillars of Wisdom) and his military reports and correspondence, as well as his comrades’ views of him. Anderson also at times challenges assertions of earlier historians of World War I and Lawrence, even those that knew him personally, yet when hypotheses remain speculative, he always concedes as such.
Written much in prose, but with a commanding style and vocabulary, Anderson will even proffer literary asides of his primary sources, resulting in zest not found in other texts.
All who have an interest in T. E. Lawrence, the underhanded early successes of Zionism and the creation of Israel, and ultimately, eponymously, the making of the Middle East as it stands today.