At this time of remembrance and national gratitude, a slew of books about the First World War, one of which is Lawrence in Arabia. In this, Scott Anderson aims to debunk the mythology, nay hero worship, that still accompanies Capt TE Lawrence.
When we think about Lawrence, most of us naturally gravitate to David Lean’s soaring cinematic masterpiece (minus the hackneyed portrayal of race) and Lawrence as a hero fighting the British military/governmental complex from within.
While he was undoubtedly a very brave man, this book also paints a picture of him as a rule breaker, a renegade, a traitor.
But it was not just Captain Lawrence speaking with a forked tongue. With peace in the Middle East today seeming further away than ever, it is now fitting to reevaluate the very real and duplicitous role played by Great Britain during (and after) Lawrence’s time in the region.
In the early 20th century Britain (as a nation) was far from being the honest broker, duelling honourably with other major powers. Already staring down the barrel of imperial decline, even if the government of the day didn’t (or chose not to) see it, this meant anything went for HM government.
Lawrence’s deep and abiding love and interest for the region and tribes is well documented here. Which likely also made it more painful as he saw first hand many of the supposedly solemn promises made by the British (and other powers) which were then rapidly broken as demanded by political expediency.
Promises were made to Jews in exile, about a Jewish homeland. These were reneged on. Promises were made to various Arab tribes for statehood. These diverse and often warring groups were encouraged, militarily and financially, then reneged on, even once hostilities had begun.
When we look at the current maelstrom in the Middle East it is not hard to see its roots in the turbulence which kicked off in the 1910s and feel that one chance after another was missed.
According to Anderson, Capt Lawrence was a man of paradoxes. Here was a man who didn’t just militarily support the burgeoning Arab “nation” but also actively committed treason, so the author claims, by releasing top secret documents to those he was supporting.
Here was a man who loved the cause of Arab nationalism and their fierce cry for self determination. Here was someone who saw a path to peace through war out to self rule. In the final analysis I came away feeling that here was a man thwarted by history but who still lived an amazing life.
This is a huge book, at nearly 600 pages, and as such as is a real pain to carry around. I also found it sporadic in parts with some brilliant passages, but others where the action dragged just a little. This was not fatal though to the overall story, which is very engaging and well written and I’d recommend this book to people looking to understand both the history and genesis of the current turbulence in the Middle East.
(Thanks to the team at Atlantic Books for the review copy).