Saturday, February 15, 2014

LAWRENCE IN ARABIA by Scott Anderson (non-fic)

Even as child, Lawrence lived a double life.  His parents were unmarried and living under an assumed name.  Here we are seven decades after Lawrence's birth, and he is still a figure surrounded by myth and mystery.  Anderson, an expert on the mid-east conflict, has written a big, meaty, thorough biography filled with the history of the modern formation of the Middle East.  What was set in motion, during and in the aftermath of World War I, continues to have intense ramifications into the present day.  There is enough information in this volume to help the reader gain better insight into the present as well as the past.  There is so much to digest that it took me quite a while to read, sending me time and again on side searches to google names and maps.  Anderson is a masterful writer of both fiction and non-fiction as well as two books co-authored with his brother Jon Anderson, a familiar name to readers of The New Yorker and books on current politics, both writers equally brilliant. 

The book opens on the eve of World War I in 1913 and '14 with both British and American agents clandestinely posing as archaeologists, but really looking for petroleum deposits in the oil rich area of Palestine then part of the crumbling Ottoman Empire.  William Yale, a young American of patrician background was working for Standard Oil in the same capacity as Lawrence who was working for the British.  Standard Oil wished to gain a monopoly on the petroleum in the area, seeing opportunity to control and to sell to both sides in the conflict that had broken out in Europe.  The British were eager to control the area to feed their growing need for oil to power their navel fleet which was being converted from the old coal burning ships.  Beside scouting for oil, both men along with a German named Curt Prufer, were secretly mapping the outer reaches of the Ottoman Empire with the knowledge fighting would soon spill into the area.   These three men were instrumental for the fortunes of their nations throughout the war and into the peace process that followed.

Lawrence was a wayward genius with an Oxford degree in Medieval warfare.  He was not cut out for military life being stubborn, insubordinate, brilliant, and he did not suffer fools.  He was able to run laps around his less gifted superiors and play both sides against the middle, manipulating men more powerful than he, both friends and enemies.  He was loved, hated and feared in equal measure.  Despite his mission to make Britain supreme in the Middle East, he loved the area and had his own mission to help the Arabs unite under one leader to gain back supremacy once the Ottoman Empire crumbled. He quickly understood what no Western leader did, that conventional warfare would not win in this theater of war.  He was able to utilize his knowledge of medieval warfare to unite the Arabs under Faisal Hussein and use these tactics in deadly skirmishes striking at railways, and cutting off the Turks from food and water supplies, capturing important ports and towns along the way.

This is a long war and a long story.  The romantic movie "Lawrence of Arabia" telescopes events that stretched over years of one step forward, two back.  In reality what this all led up to after the defeat of the Germans and the Turks, was the broken promises the western powers had made to the Arabs; the shameful cutting up of Palestine into countries with no regard to ethnic sensibilities; and the setting up of a Jewish homeland in Palestine with no commitment to the sharing of power that was promised to the Arabs.  Today we bear the consequences of these diplomatic blunderings.  All this was too much for Lawrence to bear. All that he fought for was destroyed in the peace process largely brokered by President Wilson who had no idea of the history of the region and the mare's nest he was helping to form.  Lawrence quit the world stage, and went back to civilian life with no desire to take any part in the post-war governing of his beloved Middle East.

There are so many interesting characters that come into play in this huge fascinating history. Also of importance was Aaron Aaronsohn a Zionist agronomist and Chaim Weizmann who founded the state of Israel.  You must read the book to satisfy your curiosity and broaden your understanding of this complicated and complex area of the world.  It changed my understanding of World War I which had been largely formed on my concentrated readings of the war on the western front. The conflicts and wars in this oil rich region of the world have never diminished. In medieval times, wars here were fought over religion; after the first world war, they were fought over the petroleum needed to fuel the modern world.  This is not an easy read, but an essential one to better understand what is happening today in the Middle East and how its roots are seeded in the last century and long before.

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