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The Myth Maker

by David Pryce-Jones

Lawrence in Arabia: War, Deceit, Imperial Folly, and the Making of the Modern Middle East, by Scott Anderson (Doubleday, 592 pp., $28.95)

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.

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