Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Anderson - Lawrence IN Arabia

"Lawrence IN Arabia: War deceit, imperial folly and the making of the Modern Middle East" is about the famous young Brit, TE Lawrence, who took up the cause of Arabs in establishing a pan-Arab nation during World War I. It is also an incredible compilation of the deceit of Great Britain, paired with France as its ally, to manipulate the Arab tribes of the Middle East into pushing the Turks (Ottomans) out of the region in order to control German and Ottoman expansion. The sad truth that this book portrays is that the deceit perpetrated by Great Britain is largely why the region has suffered from religious, tribal, and national disputes ever since.

Lawrence OF Arabia made its debut and drew great attention in the 1962 Hollywood movie but it portrayed little of the detail covered by Anderson. As Anderson's title conveys, “war deceit and imperial folly,” he was not kind to Great Britain, based substantially on T.E. Lawrence’s own distaste for his country’s military elite, a disdain that led Lawrence to remark, “British generals often gave away in stupidity what they had gained in ignorance.” Although Lawrence’s critical importance to Great Britain earned him military rank and considerable notoriety, he was so derisive of Great Britain’s bungling and dishonest treatment of the Arabs that he refused King George’s private investiture of the Victoria Cross to him in 1918.

"Lawrence in Arabia" utilized many resources, including Lawrence’s own "Seven Pillars of Wisdom" and numerous letters and reports he filed. In addition, the memoires and records of several very prominent figures who were central to WWI maneuvers in the Middle East contribute to substantiating Anderson’s case. Some of those who were most notable include; Djemal Pasha, brutal Ottoman military leader responsible for the slaughter of Armenians and many others; William Yale (yes, of the family) whose lost family fortune brought him to explore for oil on Standard Oil’s behalf and then to serve as America’s only informant about the Middle East during WWI; Curt Prufer, German military hard-liner who attempted to draw the Arabs to the German/Ottoman side in the destruction of the Suez Canal and later joined Hitler’s Nazis in seeking their revenge for the stab in the back they believed they endured at the conclusion of WWI; Aaron Aaronsohn, agronomist who turned Palestine into a fertile region for agriculture, creator of Jewish spy networks, and whose ardent Zionism ultimately marginalized him from other more moderate advocates for a Jewish state; and Mark Sykes, hustler and co-author of one of the 21st century’s most debilitating documents - the Sykes-Picot Agreement - which betrayed the Arab cause in deference to Britain and France’s intent to maintain control in the Middle East (it was ultimately the Balfour Declaration that would follow and bring Great Britain into full complicity with the Zionist cause). Sykes would be described by Lawrence as “a man who could gain a hearing from his reckless ideas by virtue of his pedigree and the breezy confidence with which he voices them.”

Lawrence’s journey to celebrated hero of his time and later in movies was rooted in a romantic fascination with medieval times which was deepened through archeological exploration in Carchemish that introduced him to the hospitality and warmth of Arabs. These experiences cultivated a profound level of respect and eagerness to help the Arab tribes that, up until WWI, had been so disconnected that most military leaders viewed them as inconsequential. His view was not that of the “white man’s burden of civilizing others” but instead it was one of understanding and appreciating the Arabs and adapting strategies and expectations of them accordingly. This was especially important in light of the general Arab suspicion of Great Britain, and other Western powers, who were known to exploit, undermine, and leave little of value to those subjected to colonialism. It was ultimately Lawrence’s strategic insights for a flexible Arab force “drifting about like a gas” that destroyed the railroads used by the Ottomans in the Hejaz that would result in his being revered among Arabs, and tolerated by the British who knew Lawrence as an unruly, but singularly informed, sort. Lawrence’s ability to acutely observe and put into words what he saw was one of the things that insured his great prominence, and "Lawrence in Arabia" is peppered with Lawrence's colorful quotes.

Although there were many a sad turn of affairs in Lawrence’s heroic and epoch political and military story, the saddest were enveloped in the dying embers of imperial aspiration that brought the Prime Ministers of Britain and France together in the 1918 Paris Peace Conference to propose that they be granted dominion of the entire Middle East. That proposal denied and reversed agreements made with the Arabs to establish an Arab state that would include most of the land mass that the unified Arabs were able to capture in their repeated defeats of the Ottomans. More sadly, the 1918 Paris Peace Conference refused to consider the proposal brokered by Lawrence between British Zionist leader Chaim Weizmann (who would become Israel’s first President) and Faisal ibn Hussein (leader of the Arab coalition) to establish a combined Arab-Jewish state in Palestine. This final deceit has, in Anderson’s eyes, contributed to a modern day Arab perspective that tends “to define itself less by what it aspires to become than by what it is opposed to: colonialism, Zionism, Western imperialism in its many forms. This culture of opposition has been manipulated – indeed, feverishly nurtured by generations of Arab dictators intent on channeling their people’s anger away from their own misrule in favor of external threat.” (Epilogue)

Other reviews are much more skeptical about what I have posted here.  The serious reader will want to explore multiple perspectives of T.E. Lawrence's life, especially as his exploits might relate to current circumstances that exist in the Middle East.

No comments: