BOOK REVIEW: 'Lawrence in Arabia': Everything You Need to Know About T.E. Lawrence and Middle Eastern Front of World War I

Reviewed by David M. Kinchen

 Miniver cursed the commonplace

And eyed a khaki suit with loathing;

He missed the mediæval grace

Of iron clothing. -- From Edward Arlington Robinson's "Miniver Cheevy"

Thomas Edward Lawrence -- "Lawrence of Arabia" -- reminds me a lot of Robinson's Miniver Cheevy, a man born out of time.

As Scott Anderson describes him in the just-released  trade paperback edition of  last year's bestselling history/biography "Lawrence in Arabia: War, Deceit, Imperial Folly and the Making of the Modern Middle East" (Anchor Books, a division of Random House, 624 pages, maps,  photographs, notes, index, bibliography, $17.95)  Lawrence's early years saw him captivated by Arthurian legends, which he transferred to the Arab tribes of the Ottoman empire during World War I.

   BOOK REVIEW: 'Lawrence in Arabia': Everything You Need to Know About T.E. Lawrence and Middle Eastern Front of World War I


But the story of Lawrence is far more complex than that, as is the story of the Middle Eastern front of the Great War, later dubbed "World War I". Lawrence's war memoir "Seven Pillars of Wisdom" and the epic David Lean film "Lawrence of Arabia" are good starting points, but Anderson's account of the Arab Revolt in the Ottoman Empire is by far the best I've seen of what Lawrence himself called "a sideshow of a sideshow" in the context of World War I.

Because it took place far from the much publicized Western Front in France,  the conflict was shaped to a remarkable degree by a small handful of adventurers and low-level officers far removed from the corridors of power.

There are so many people in this book that it would have been a good idea to have a   dramatis personae -- a cast of characters --  at the beginning of the book.

Anderson presents us with four main characters, all young and with diverse backgrounds.

Leading off, of course would be Lawrence himself, born 1888, died 1935. In early 1914 he was an archaeologist excavating ruins in Syria; by 1917 he was riding into legend at the head of an Arab army as he fought a rearguard action against his own government and its imperial ambitions. And no, he wasn't the 6-foot-2 inch strapping character played by Peter O'Toole:  He was a slight man, 5-3 to 5-5, looking younger than his years.

The list of people figuring in the story would include William Yale, a young descendant of the founder of Yale University and an oilman/spy working for Socony -- Standard Oil Company of New York. Then, as now, oil played a big role in the Middle East, even though the big discoveries in present-day Iraq and the Arabian peninsula had yet to be made.

Curt Prüfer would be on the list of young men wandering around the Ottoman Empire "with suspect agendas," as the author puts it.  Prüfer was attached to the German embassy in Cairo but was basically a spy who wanted the Ottoman empire to join the Central Powers of Germany and Austria-Hungary in the war, which they eventually did.

Rounding out the list would be a Romanian-born Jewish citizen of the Ottoman Empire, an agronomist -- an agricultural scientist --  named Aaron Aaronsohn. He was famous throughout the region, with a reputation "cemented by his his 1906 discovery of the genetic forebear to wheat" writes Anderson. He was also a committed Zionist  with a base of operations in a Jewish agricultural  settlement at Athlit (now called Atlit) south of Haifa on the Mediterranean coast of present-day Israel who would go on to promote the cause of a Jewish homeland in the region. Like Prüfer, he was also a spy.

Based on four years of intensive primary document research, "Lawrence in Arabia" definitively overturns received wisdom on how the modern Middle East was formed. This aspect of the book reminded me of one on the Civil War that I recently reviewed, a book by Stephen M. Hood that aims to set the record straight on General John Bell Hood (my review: Anderson's book also aims to clear up the errors in the story of Lawrence and others in the Middle East. In my opinion, I think he succeeded. The story was much more complicated than a young British adventurer leading Arab revolutionaries against the Turks, although that was a part of the overall picture.

"Lawrence in Arabia" is also an important part of the centennial observance of a war that really never ended, continuing to this day.  The world has really attained the status of permanent war.

Anderson's portrait of a contradictory leader -- a very private person who at the same time was a charismatic leader of men -- is the best I've seen of one of the most remarkable men of the early 20th Century. It's no wonder that the 2013 publication of "Lawrence in Arabia" was greeted so warmly by the nation's critics, being named a Finalist for the 2014 National Book Critics Circle Award in Biography; and One of the Best Books of the Year by The Christian Science Monitor, NPR, The Seattle Times, St. Louis Post-Dispatch, and Chicago Tribune. It was also named a New York Times Notable Book.

One day I was looking longingly at the hardback edition on the new books shelf at our local public library and the next day, the trade paperback was at my back door! It took me a couple of weeks to devour the book, but I came away feeling that those four years of research by Anderson were worth it. 

Scott Anderson's book reads like a spy novel, but it's backed up by solid research. I recommend it to anyone interested in World War I history -- and especially anyone who wants to understand the Middle East.


Scott Anderson
Scott Anderson

About the Author

Scott Anderson, born 1959,  is a veteran war correspondent who has reported from Lebanon, Israel, Egypt, Northern Ireland, Chechnya, Sudan, Bosnia, El Salvador and many other strife-torn countries. A frequent contributor to the New York Times Magazine, his work has also appeared in Vanity Fair, Esquire, Harper’s and Outside. He is the author of yjr novels "Moonlight Hotel" and "Triage" and of non-fiction books "The Man Who Tried to Save the World" and "The 4 O’Clock Murders", and co-author of "War Zones" and "Inside The League" with his brother Jon Lee Anderson.

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Here's an excerpt from the book: