Lawrence of Arabia enjoys a prominent place in the mysterious and self-perpetuating realm of myth. This remarkable achievement has always depended on the impression he left of himself as both hero and victim. He was able to persuade influential friends and opinion-formers to take him at his word, and many still think it rather poor taste to ask awkward questions about whether he did more harm than good.
Realistically, Lawrence was a British intelligence agent of middling rank and demonic temperament operating in World War I in the Arab provinces of what was then the Ottoman Empire, Germany’s voluntary ally. Only a few experts knew anything about those provinces, and some of them, up to and including Lord Kitchener, secretary of state for war, devised a strategy of weakening the Turks by fomenting rebellion among their Arab subjects.
The principal Arab leader considered likely to fall in with the British strategy was the Sharif Hussein, a tribal chief in Mecca. His longstanding ambition had been to lay hands on enough of the Arab provinces to form an independent kingdom out of them. Without any rightful claim to such a kingdom or the necessary military force for conquest, he was reduced to scheming. The Turks had been on the verge of deporting him to Turkey.
Arab independence was a virtually unknown concept at the time. The tribesmen were willing to fight only on condition they were paid and allowed to loot. The Sharif and his sons Faisal and Abdullah expected the British to do the dirty work of making their plans come true. The Sharif exchanged letters with Sir Henry McMahon, the British high commissioner in Egypt, framing mutual expectations and future rewards. McMahon’s language was cautious, but the Sharif and his sons treated it as the warrant for Arab independence. Behind the backs of the British, they nonetheless continued to bargain for better terms with their Turkish overlords. The British also had secrets: The Sykes-Picot treaty, drafted in 1916, proposed to treat the Arab provinces as spoils of war and divide them between Britain and France. Covering all bases, the British were simultaneously supporting Zionism and Ibn Saud, another tribal chief in Arabia as power-hungry as Sharif. The British had a war to win, and kept every option open until victory.
There are things to be said in Lawrence’s favor. He withstood hardship. Brave, he rode into battle on a camel at the head of untrained Bedouin. He handled explosives well enough to dynamite Turkish railway lines, and could write a letter in Arabic. Not least, he was honest, disbursing the gold sovereigns indispensable to the tribesmen. (Harry St. John Philby, the intelligence agent supposed to be paying Ibn Saud, instead pocketed much of that subsidy.)
It says a great deal for the tolerance of senior officers and Arabist policymakers superior to Lawrence that they ordered him to carry the war to the Turks but left him free to act as he pleased. Their confidence was misplaced. Lawrence soon fantasized that he was responsible for future relationships between Britain and France, and between Britain and the Arabs, indeed that the Arab future and the British national interest lay in his hands.
Determined to go “biffing the French,” as he put it, Lawrence identified with the Arabs so singlemindedly that the cause of their independence became his cause, too. Lawrence informed the Sharif of the terms of the secret Sykes-Picot treaty. This breach of confidentiality might very well have landed him in a court-martial for treason. His campaigning for the Arabs culminated in a horror in Damascus, the city the Sharif intended to make his capital. After the Australian Light Horse had captured it but ridden on, Lawrence’s tribesmen took over and started butchering wounded Turks and prisoners by the hundred. Lawrence stood by and did nothing, while other British officers had to restore order by shooting the murderers and looters. By today’s standards, Lawrence was guilty of a war crime.
Written after the war in a spirit of resentment, Lawrence’s memoir, Seven Pillars of Wisdom, has the purpose of whitewashing his role in what happened to the Arabs. The Arabs had failed to gain independence through no fault of their own but because the British and French had stuck to the Sykes-Picot treaty and incorporated Arab provinces into their empires. Unwittingly, he had been instrumental in a great double cross and betrayal, and now atoned by spreading guilt.
#page#A writer of fiction and nonfiction, Scott Anderson mixes the two genres in Lawrence in Arabia. (The replacement of the expected pronoun in the title does very little.) The book rests on the idea that the Middle East at that time was awash with agents, spies, and dubious characters pursuing their own ends at the expense of honest Turks and Arabs. All were engaged in treachery, subterfuge, greed, and deception. Lawrence at least acknowledged what he had done, and Anderson holds him up as the exceptional example of virtue, in contrast to three others in the same trade: A German agent, Curt Prüfer, was an outright imperialist, and ultimately a Nazi; the Zionist Aaron Aaronsohn set up a spy ring in the belief that it was better for the Jews of Palestine to be ruled by Britain than by the Turks (no good came of this); the American William Yale chased concessions for Standard Oil, ruthlessly merging intelligence work and capitalism.
Anderson believes that history consists of small moments, and in novelistic style he reconstructs the encounters and conversations of his four selected protagonists, continually switching the narrative between them. In complete accord with Lawrence, he attributes to the Allies the low motive of going to war in the Middle East solely to satisfy “imperial cravings.” Adjectives like “grotesque” and “preposterous” litter these pages. British politicians are depicted as irredeemably duplicitous and British generals as irredeemably incompetent, all of them caught in “a toxic fusion of racism and British notions of military superiority.” In an outstanding example of his lack of proportion, Anderson says of Sir Mark Sykes that, after the treaty bearing his name, it’s hard to think of any figure without a nation or an army at his disposal who “was to wreak more havoc on the 20th century.”
“Not yet in Arabia a half day,” Anderson marvels at his hero, “he had taken it upon himself to calculate a new course for the Arab Revolt.” Still with a straight face, he credits the capture of the village of Aqaba by Lawrence and a handful of tribesmen as “a feat of arms still considered one of the most daring military exploits of modern times.”
Lawrence made the unusual boast that he had been “able to defeat not merely the Turks on the battlefield, but my own country and its allies in the council chamber.” The true patriot is the anti-patriot; but Anderson’s explanation of this paradox goes against the grain of the rest of his book. Despite his contempt for the British ruling class of that time, he nevertheless asserts that it held fiercely to the notion that their word was their bond, and that Lawrence embodied this sense of honor. In fact, no bond had been given, and in any case he was a junior officer taking upon himself political issues outside his remit.
Anderson ignores the possibility that Lawrence’s confused mix of self-hatred and the wish to dominate had psychosexual origins. He is known to have been a masochist who had himself birched by men otherwise forbidden to touch him. He furthermore claimed that he had fallen into the hands of a Turkish governor who had sodomized him. His accounts of this ordeal have details and a sense of self-reproach suggesting that this was something else that he needed to fantasize.
At the end of World War I, the Sykes-Picot disposition of the Middle East was put in place; Zionists were awarded their homeland; and Ibn Saud attacked Sharif Hussein, drove him and his sons out of Mecca, and incorporated their tribes and territory into the new state of Saudi Arabia. Doing the rounds of chancelleries and conferences in Arab dress, Lawrence pestered the great and the good to implement Arab independence, but tribal rivalries and customary autocracy were obstacles too entrenched to be overcome, for which the blame lies with the Arabs themselves. Embittered, Lawrence instead blamed the British. If an insider with his experience, authority, and fame said so, who were Arabs to disbelieve it? Thanks to him, it’s long been a truism for Arabs and Muslims everywhere that a lying and deceitful Britain laid the roots of every one of the ills afflicting the Middle East.
The balance of forces has changed, but not the cast of mind. If it were not for the West, millions of people believe along with Anderson, Islam would be doing just fine and there’d be no need to feel guilty. Of the making of such myths there is no end.
– Mr. Pryce-Jones, a senior editor of National Review, is the author of many books, including The Closed Circle: An Interpretation of the Arabs.