Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Lawrence in Arabia

It took thousands of years of history to arrive at our current Middle East, however some of the critical events played out with World War I and its aftermath.  T E Lawrence has become an heroic almost mythical person written about and immortalized in film.  Scott Anderson decided it was time to write a book about him that in fuller context would help explain the Middle East.

The movie, "Lawrence of Arabia" depicting his funeral  near the beginning demonstrates a dichotomy with some people adopting a hero worshiping attitude and others thinking he was up to something.  Lawrence came to the Middle East to work on archaeological projects.  When World I hit the Middle East he was known to have some valuable knowledge of the language and culture as well as some specific geographical awareness.  At some stage he stepped beyond being an adviser into being pro active.

One unique characteristic of Lawrence was that he could endure discomfort and pain.  He had little if any experience riding camels, but took part in very long treks on a camel to gain respect as well as achieve strategic goals.

Most believe that he was sympathetic to the Arabs while being aware of some double crossing by the English and French.  The author reminds us that the French were resistant to any plans to involve Arabs in what is known as Syria.  In fact because the French would have been unable to take part in a proposed invasion of Turkey close to Syria they supported the disastrous Gallipoli attack.  The French and English in secret wrote the Sykes-Picot agreement which essentially split up Syria, Lebanon, Iraq and Palestine amongst themselves.  He worked behind the scenes to support the Arab hopes to deciding their own destiny.   Some would accuse Lawrence of treason as he divulged some of this information to Arab leaders, notably Faisal Hussein.

One example of Lawrence's brutal practicality was when one fighter was killed by another fighter from a different tribe.  He learned that if revenge was enacted by the aggrieved tribe, it would lead to more retaliation amongst tribal members back at the home base.  So rather than permit an execution by one tribe on another he personally executed the killer.  It was common for Arab fighters to kill prisoners because they did not have the capacity to manage them.  In some instances Lawrence was forced to accept this.

There are many who thought Lawrence was a grand stander and he certainly made a lot of decisions behind the backs of his superiors.  Scott Anderson does concede that Lawrence had a well developed sense of fair play and felt the British and the French were not playing fair with the Arabs while trying to use them for their own ends.

Juan Cole, complains that the movie, "Lawrence of Arabia"  makes Faisal Hussein as not as sophisticated as he must have been in real life.  In general he didn't feel that Arabs were given enough credit for the Arab Revolt.

Although T E Lawrence is the dominating focal figure, a great deal of context missing from most accounts was added in.  Anderson has included a lot of details of other significant persons.   The Turks were in some cases humanized, but the Armenian massacre was noted.  There were Jewish factions, some Zionist and some not, but they did set up a spy network.  Even the British from India created their own pressures on the Middle East as they were anxious to avoid a Muslim rebellion. The British had different factions maneuvering amongst themselves.   The Americans did not declare war on the Ottoman Empire, but an oil man was there misleading the Turks and working towards American ownership.

The Russian Revolution changed the dynamics.  When the Russians withdrew from combat both the Germans and the Turks were able to shift troops to the front against the English, French, Americans and their allies.  However when the Americans gradually increased their numbers and their training the Germans and Turks succumbed. 

Lawrence after the war must have felt himself a failure as he had directed his efforts towards greater Arab independence and found himself impotent in that regard.  The creation of Jordan can be traced to some of Lawrence's efforts.  He fled to England where many regarded him as a hero, but he sought anonymity and no responsibility.  He refused a knighthood.

The author feels although there were many factors to arrive at today's Middle East much of it was cast during World War I and its aftermath.  We in the West tend to look down upon the inhabitants, but easily overlook at what was done to create the chaos on our behalf.

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