A man with two coun­tries

The Washington Post Sunday - - BOOKWORLD - book­world@wash­post.com Jonathan Schneer teaches Bri­tish and Euro­pean his­tory at Ge­or­gia Tech and is the author, most re­cently, of “The Bal­four Dec­la­ra­tion: The Ori­gins of the Arab-Is­raeli Con­flict.”

HERO The Life and Leg­end of Lawrence of Ara­bia By Michael Korda Harper. 762 pp. $36

Few his­tor­i­cal fig­ures are as in­trigu­ing and enig­matic as T.E. Lawrence, the Bri­tish ar­chae­ol­o­gist, scholar and writer who be­came world­fa­mous for his ex­ploits in Ara­bia dur­ing World War I. In a new bi­og­ra­phy, Michael Korda cap­tures the in­domitable, tor­mented spirit of this ex­tra­or­di­nary man.

Lawrence’s path­way to fame opened in De­cem­ber 1914, when the re­cent Ox­ford grad­u­ate was posted to Cairo to serve in army in­tel­li­gence. Un­ex­pect­edly, the short, slight, fair-haired young man proved to be a ge­nius at mil­i­tary strat­egy and guer­rilla war­fare, and strongly in­flu­enced the Arab cam­paign. He cham­pi­oned Hus­sein ibn Ali’s war of in­de­pen­dence launched against the Ot­tomans in June 1916. While Bri­tish-led forces fought their way north from Suez up through Gaza and Jerusalem to Da­m­as­cus over the course of four years, Lawrence helped shape a com­ple­men­tary Arab ef­fort to the east in­volv­ing not only guer­rilla attacks on the rail­way from Da­m­as­cus to Me­d­ina — the Ot­toman life­line into Ara­bia — but even­tu­ally a north­ward drive to­ward Da­m­as­cus.

Korda is par­tic­u­larly good on Lawrence’s most fa­mous vic­tory: In July 1917, with the great Be­douin chief­tain Auda Abu Tayi, he led a now-fa­bled as­sault on the port of Aqaba, whose guns all pointed south and west to­ward the sea be­cause no one could con­ceive of an at­tack com­ing from the land­ward side — which was pre­cisely the side from which Auda, Lawrence and their sol­diers pounced af­ter an epic trek through the desert.

From Aqaba, Lawrence aimed his guer­rilla fight­ers at Da­m­as­cus. If they got there be­fore the Bri­tish, they could pro­claim it the cap­i­tal of an in­de­pen­dent Arab state. They did ar­rive first dur­ing the clos­ing weeks of the war, in Oc­to­ber 1918, but when the Bri­tish ar­rived a day later, the Arabs were brushed aside. A shat­tered Lawrence left im­me­di­ately for London.

War sick­ened T. E. Lawrence, de­spite his ex­tra­or­di­nary tal­ent for it.

For his wartime hero­ics Lawrence was pro­moted to lieu­tenant colonel and of­fered medals and hon­ors, which he turned down. War sick­ened him, de­spite his ex­tra­or­di­nary tal­ent for it. Still, Bri­tish gen­er­als and cabi­net min­is­ters sought his ad­vice; so did Arab sheiks and princes and kings.

Al­though Lawrence longed for ob­scu­rity after­ward, he also sought to salve his con­science and ex­pi­ate his sins. He ad­vised both the Arabs and the Bri­tish at the Paris Peace Con­fer­ence, and he co­op­er­ated with the Amer­i­can pro­moter Low­ell Thomas, who made him fa­mous in books and film. He also pub­lished a beau­ti­fully writ­ten mem­oir, “Seven Pil­lars of Wis­dom.” Korda as­tutely com­pares Lawrence at this stage of his life with Princess Di: Both were drawn to the lime­light even while protest­ing against it. His death in a mo­tor­cy­cle ac­ci­dent in May 1935 sparked an out­pour­ing that pre­saged the one af­ter her death.

Korda grip­pingly chron­i­cles Lawrence’s mil­i­tary ex­ploits and shows us bet­ter than pre­vi­ous bi­og­ra­phers how like­able and lively the man could be. Yet Korda doesn’t grap­ple suf­fi­ciently with the his­tor­i­cal con­text in which Lawrence op­er­ated. In par­tic­u­lar, he fails to ad­e­quately ad­dress Bri­tain’s im­pe­ri­al­ist am­bi­tions in the Mid­dle East. He writes that the Bri­tish For­eign Of­fice ad­viser Mark Sykes was “al­most com­pletely with­out racial or re­li­gious prej­u­dice.” Yet Sykes re­drew the map of the Mid­dle East in early 1916 with his French coun­ter­part, François Ge­orges-Pi­cot, di­vid­ing the Turk­ish Em­pire be­tween their coun­tries long be­fore it had been de­feated. Re­ar­rang­ing the Mid­dle East with­out con­sult­ing the peo­ple who lived there re­veals the racist ar­ro­gance that was en­demic among Euro­pean of­fi­cials of the era.

Korda is right to say that Lawrence did not share this ugly char­ac­ter­is­tic. But Lawrence was a loyal Briton. He fa­vored Bri­tish in­ter­ests in the Mid­dle East, im­pe­ri­al­ist though they were. The prob­lem was that he fa­vored Arab in­ter­ests, too, and the con­flict tore him apart.

Then there is Korda’s or­ga­niz­ing prin­ci­ple and con­ceit: that Lawrence strove con­sciously to fashion him­self as a hero, train­ing to ig­nore hunger, thirst, fa­tigue and phys­i­cal pain. Was that re­ally why he did it? Other bi­og­ra­phers have noted that Lawrence, the il­le­git­i­mate son of an Ir­ish aris­to­crat, al­ways seemed driven to prove him­self. He was also known to be a masochist.

Be­causeKorda is not a spe­cial­ist, he gets a few things wrong, most of them mi­nor. One mis­take is glar­ing, how­ever: The Bri­tish cabi­net un­der Prime Min­is­ter Asquith never dis­cussed the Bal­four Dec­la­ra­tion, and cer­tainly not on March 13, 1915, as Korda writes. It did so un­der Prime Min­is­ter Lloyd Ge­orge 2 1/2 years later.

“Hero” is the work of an ac­com­plished gen­er­al­ist. It is well crafted and ex­cel­lent in its de­pic­tion of T.E. Lawrence as a mul­ti­di­men­sional fig­ure. It is a fine bi­og­ra­phy, but it will not be the last.


T.E. Lawrence in 1928

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