Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Lawrence in Arabia, by Scott Anderson

Today I'm looking at a book that deals with the history of the Middle Eastern front of World War I, Lawrence in Arabia, with T.E. Lawrence being the most famous of the various individuals involved in a largely overlooked theater of the Great War. However Anderson also includes individuals such as William Yale, an American aristocrat and Standard Oil man who becomes America's expert on the middle east. Curt Prufer, a member of the German diplomatic corps who sought to unite a pan-Islamic jihad against the imperialist ambitions of Britain, to no avail, and Zionists like Aaron Aaronsohn who sought to establish a permanent Jewish homeland in Palestine.

The Middle Eastern theater has been an interesting subject if only for the what-could-have-beens. The theater received very little attention from the European powers for most of the war, with most of the resources devoted to the Western Front. And a lot of the history and popular understanding of World War I has as a result focused on the Western Front as well. And in many ways the theater is a bit of an embarrassment for Britain as well. There's the disaster at Gallipolis in which almost nothing except for the evacuation went correct, and there's the Sykes-Picot agreement in which Britain and France calmly planned the division of lands of the Ottoman Empire that weren't even under their control yet into different spheres of influence, an act of imperialism so brazen that even contemporaries called it ''The Great Loot''. While imperialist mismanagement of the reason is not the only factor in causing much of the systemic problems in the region today, it certainly didn't help matters.

I am somewhat concerned about the accuracy of this book for a number of reasons. First and foremost Anderson subscribes completely to the ''lions led by donkeys'' narrative of leadership during World War I. In essence, countless good men died in futile frontal assaults on fixed positions because of the incompetence or stubbornness of general officers. While this has been the standard narrative for many years, there has been some reanalysis of this narrative in recent years. And while I may not agree with Hart's arguments I would agree that it's a little too simplistic to blame everything on the generals, which Anderson very roundly does. And since this is a recent book it concerns me that he seems out of step with some of the latest scholarship.

Anderson also seems very firmly to be on Lawrence's side in this work, to the point he seems to start losing objectivity. Lawrence was certainly a flawed individual and research about him is made all the more difficult because he tended to obfuscate his own history. Lawrence deliberately exaggerated or expanded his adventures in Arabia and may have fabricated some of the stories in his accounts. Which makes getting at what really happened all the more difficult. There's some evidence to suggest Lawrence was suffering from PTSD and had become increasingly detached from the violence of the war front, but I feel like Anderson glosses this over to talk more about Lawrence's accurate predictions about the state of the Middle East if the colonial powers had their way. Lawrence as a Cassandra is a powerful narrative, but I'm just not sure how accurate it is.

Finally I'm not sure how I feel about Anderson's use of the term Zionist. Within the context that he uses it, he is using it entirely correctly. The movement among Jews in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries to create a permanent homeland for the Jewish people in Palestine. This is what Zionism actually was and Anderson discusses it, as far as I know, accurately in his text. The problem is of course the other connotations associated with Zionism and the conspiracy-theory insanity that's all wrapped up in. New World Order, secret Jewish banking conspiracy nonsense. You know the type. So it's kind of a dilemma where what Anderson's doing is strictly correct, but it still seems to come with some unfortunate connotations. And I'm sure it's very difficult to get a completely accurate account of Jewish emigration to Palestine because of how sectarian this topic is.

For the most part the book deals with a variety of people operating in the Middle East leading up to and then during World War I, such as Lawrence, Yale, and Aaronsohn. While Anderson provides a pretty good chronicle of what happened during the time period he chose to focus on, I feel like I didn't understand the greater political implications behind the different decisions. For example, I understand the rationale behind Britain and France deciding to carve up the Middle East in the Sykes-Picot agreement, but I feel like Anderson didn't go as in depth into other nations response when the terms of Sykes-Picot became more well known. Also I feel like I would have benefitted from more knowledge about the fallout from the decision to divide the region into mandates. I know sort of vaguely that it didn't work out very well and that Sykes-Picot certainly didn't help but I'd like to know more about the specifics.

Overall this book is okay. It deals very broadly with a theater of the Great War that's often overlooked and when it isn't it often ends up romanticized or turned into an example of everything wrong with imperialism. And there are elements of all of that in there, but the truth is somewhere in a murky middle where a bunch of human people acting, usually short-sightedly, in their own self interest, make some bad decisions. I did learn some things but I feel like I need more information on this topic to truly get to grips with it.

- Kalpar

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