An Intimate Look at Lawrence of Arabia’s Impact on History
An exclusive AUTHORLINK interview with Scott Anderson
Columnist Anna Roins
Lawrence in Arabia: War, Deceit, Imperial Folly and the Making of the Modern Middle East
by Scott Anderson
Buy this Book
Scott Anderson’s, Lawrence in Arabia, was the Finalist for The National Book Critics Circle Award 2013 in Biography. It was also nominated as one of the Best Books of the Year in The Christian Science Monitor, NPR, The Seattle Times, St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Chicago Tribune as well as voted a New York Times Notable Book.
In early 1914, T.E. Lawrence was an archaeologist excavating ruins in the sands of Syria but by 1917, he was battling both the Turks’ and his own government to bring about the vision he had for the Arab people.
The book is also about three other intelligence agents in the Middle East during World War I – an American, a German and a Jew living in Palestine – when Western powers created the ‘artificial’ boundaries for the modern Middle-East. The very arbitrary borders that are unravelling today.
|“The “what ifs” of history are always a great source of debate . . . “|
AUTHORLINK: Mr. Anderson, thank you for joining us to discuss your book, Lawrence in Arabia, which was a finalist for the 2013 National Book Critics Circle Award. Congratulations! T.E. Lawrence was a 28-year-old Oxford scholar without a single day of military training, yet he was the leader of the Arab rebels during World War I. He had committed himself to their cause for an independent nation as promised by Britain. His background interest in medieval military history helped him organise the disparate tribesmen into fighting units that posed a real threat to the Ottoman Turks. Had the whole world not been focused on the Western front in France at the time, he might not have gotten away with it.
In your opinion, would the war have ended differently if he had not? In what ways did Lawrence make a difference?
ANDERSON: The “what ifs” of history are always a great source of debate, and the history of World War I seems particularly replete with them. What if the German secret police hadn’t put Vladimir Lenin on a train to St. Petersburg to try to destabilize Czarist Russia? For that matter, if the British had been more forthright in July 1914 in telling the Germans they intended to honor their treaty obligations to France and Belgium in the event of war, would war have happened at all? In the case of TE Lawrence, I’ve very little doubt that, had he not become the chief liaison between the Arab rebels and their British military overseers, the Arab revolt would have foundered; he was simply uniquely suited to that role, and no one else could have performed it as well.
And what if the Arab revolt had collapsed? Without their Arab allies, it undoubtedly would have taken the British army longer to smash the Turkish armies in Syria, and since that Turkish collapse in September 1918 was the first “prop” that heralded the collapse of the entire Central Powers bloc over the next few weeks, it’s probably safe to assume the entire war would have continued for a good deal longer.
Would the ultimate outcome have changed? Probably not. With the American entry into the war, the eventual defeat of the Central Powers was almost certainly preordained.
All that said, I think where Lawrence’s impact on history is most keenly felt is in the postwar era. By fighting to uphold the promise of Arab independence, Lawrence not only became a pariah within his own British government but, through his growing fame, an early exemplar of the anti-imperialist crusader – quite novel for the time – and an enduring reminder to the Arab world of their betrayal at the hands of their European “allies.” We are obviously still living with the legacy of that betrayal today.
|“There’s quite a bit of nostalgia for the Ottoman Empire going on at the moment . . .”|
AUTHORLINK: Yes, very true. In 1916, the French and the British negotiated the Sykes-Picot Agreement, a pact to divide the Middle East between themselves – despite Britain’s promise to the Arabs. Britain reserved Palestine and Iraq for themselves, while the French, despite the lack of significant military presence on the Middle-Eastern front, were to be awarded Syria and Lebanon.
Would the ongoing strife to dismantle these 100 year-old borders, have been avoided if Britain had not reneged on its promise? Or is it not as clear-cut as that?
ANDERSON: I don’t think it’s as clearcut as that. There’s quite a bit of nostalgia for the Ottoman Empire going on at the moment, with people crediting its milliyet system, which gave a tremendous degree of autonomy to the empire’s various ethnic and religious minorities, for centuries of comparative peace. What tends to be overlooked, though, is that this system worked because you had a very small population stretched over a vast area – in 1914, the population of the entire Ottoman Empire was about 20 million – and that, outside of a handful of trading cities, these various minorities had little contact with one another. By the beginning of the twentieth century, that was all about to change no matter who was in charge. With the coming population explosion – today, the same region’s population is probably close to 200 million – joined to advances in communication and transportation that were making the world a much smaller place, it was inevitable that these various groups would come into closer contact, which also meant competition for natural resources and political primacy. In short, the Middle East was almost surely headed for the same struggles in the twentieth century that Europe had experienced in the eighteenth.
That said, the European imperial powers – and specifically, the British and French – most certainly exacerbated the situation by creating artificial national boundaries that took little notice of the region’s historical divisions and alliances, but that instead were designed to ease their own imperial control and exploitation. They then doubled down on their blunder by empowering certain tribes or religious sects to act as their local proxies – witness the French embrace of the Alawite minority in Syria – thereby setting the stage for future tribal or sectarian conflict between the haves and have-nots.
AUTHORLINK: That’s appalling. Lawrence considered the Sykes-Pikot pact as a betrayal of the promise made to their Arab allies and told King Faisal bin Hussein about it. He also subverted the designs of his own country when he helped the Arabs take over the port of Aqaba, before the British and the French arrived.
Even if Lawrence was, to an extent, protected by like-minded British military men who thought the pact was morally repugnant, how can it be possible that the British government was not aware of these, in effect, acts of treason and then issue him with a knighthood? Was that an attempt to placate him?
|“. . . it wasn’t really until the war was over that Lawrence’s “treason” was fully apparent. “|
ANDERSON: I think that actually quite a few senior people in the British government did know, or at least suspect, that Lawrence was passing information to the Arabs, but chose to look the other way for a variety of reasons depending on when they learned of it. Within a very short time of his arrival in Arabia, Lawrence had become the absolutely irreplaceable link between the British military hierarchy in Cairo and the Arab rebels in the field; if the British moved against Lawrence, they were also going to lose the rebels. In addition to that, and along with the deeply-held British notion of fair play that you mentioned, the British Empire in the early twentieth century had evolved into a fascinating constellation of semi-autonomous regional power blocs. British India or British South Africa could – and often did – forge local alliances or pursue regional policies that ran counter to the express wishes of London, and Lawrence certainly benefited from this tradition of institutionalized dissent. Finally, it wasn’t really until the war was over that Lawrence’s “treason” was fully apparent. By then, it didn’t matter – the Arabs had already been betrayed – and Lawrence was further protected by his celebrity status; then, as now, no government wants to put a war hero in prison or in front of a firing squad.
AUTHORLINK: Understandable. In your book, you write about Lawrence plus three other compelling sub-protagonists; Curt Prüfer, a German conspiring with the Ottomans to bring down the British; Aaron Aaronsohn, a Zionist agronomist of Romanian origin settled in Palestine; and William Yale, an East Coast aristocrat and an agent of Standard Oil.
Given that there is virtually nothing written about these three other men before your book, have any of their family members or descendants been in contact with you to commend or refute what you have written?
ANDERSON: Well, here’s something a bit peculiar, in that out of the four men I follow in the book, only one, Curt Pruefer, would produce offspring – in his case, a single son. That son, Olaf Pruefer, died just a few years ago, but I was able to get in touch with his widow, Trina, who kindly lent me several family photographs for use in the book. I had the chance to meet Trina personally during a reading I gave in Cleveland recently, and she’s been tremendously supportive of the book despite the rather checkered account I give of her father-in-law.
AUTHORLINK: How amazing to be able to speak with her. As the war progressed, it is evident from Lawrence’s letters and writings at the time that he deteriorated psychologically. He was not only beginning to put himself at risk but also his Arab followers, and conversely he was less inclined to spare the human life of any Turkish and German enemy.
Do you believe this was a result of a crisis of conscience and futility that had come about from Britain’s betrayal, or did other factors come to into play? Like when he was captured at Dera’a, and savagely beaten and tortured?
ANDERSON: I think it was a result of both deepening moral crisis, as you suggest, as well as a kind of physical and psychological exhaustion. Certainly, his ordeal in Dera’a didn’t help matters, but there’s another factor about World War I – and World War II, for that matter – that’s often overlooked, which is that soldiers didn’t have release dates. You stayed in the war until you died, or suffered an incapacitating injury, or the war ended. By the summer of 1918, the war had been going on for four years, the battle lines had barely moved, and most all predictions were that it was going to continue for at least two more years, maybe longer. I think by then, there were a lot of soldiers – and Lawrence was one of them – who were so completely burnt out and traumatized by their experiences that they’d reached a point of utter apathy, had adopted a kind of “let’s just get it over with” mentality.
AUTHORLINK: Those poor men. The longer Lawrence pushed to defend the Arab interests, the more he was marginalised and seen as a traitor. At the end of the war, the division of the Middle East went ahead between the British and the French with little thought about the consequences. Yet, a Lowell Thomas travelogue show was being screened all over Britain at the time and Lawrence was becoming a household name.
Do you think he enjoyed his matinee screen idol notoriety in view of his resentment at the ‘establishment’?
|“I think probably the closest one can come to finding a key to Lawrence’s contradictions is to recognize that he was both a physical and psychological masochist. . .”|
ANDERSON: Like most everything else about Lawrence, his relationship with celebrity was a complicated and contradictory one. He derided Thomas’s travelogue show as an American vulgarism, and yet went to see it at least a half-dozen times. He twice changed his name to get away from the press and fans who hounded him, but on certain occasions clearly liked being recognized and the adulation/awe that came with that.
I think probably the closest one can come to finding a key to Lawrence’s contradictions is to recognize that he was both a physical and psychological masochist, that just as he physically punished himself for showing weakness or desiring pleasure – whatever form that pleasure took – so he psychologically punished himself for the same reasons. It makes for a very strange psyche that’s hard to unravel, one in which pain and pleasure and guilt and redemption all tend to fuse and become inversions of one another.
AUTHORLINK: Lawrence was offered a knighthood (that he declined) by King George V almost exactly a month to the day he ordered a particularly gruesome massacre of Turkish and German prisoners. It seems providential that Peter O’Toole, who played Lawrence in the movie Lawrence of Arabia in 1962, was reportedly offered a knighthood in 1987, but also turned it down for personal and political reasons. Do you know whether they mirrored Lawrence’s reasons or not?
ANDERSON: I suspect O’Toole’s reason for turning down the knighthood stemmed from a general disdain for the whole concept of monarchy, which was quite different from Lawrence’s. Also, Lawrence’s refusal took a particular act of courage since, from all the research I did on the topic, it appears he was the very first Briton to ever refuse the honor to the king’s face. Nowadays, it’s almost a badge of honor among British intellectuals and leftists to turn down a knighthood.
AUTHORLINK: How do you think you have evolved creatively as a writer since your first non-fiction book, ‘The 4 O’Clock Murders,’ published in 1994? Does practise really make perfect when it comes to writing, or is it really only about talent?
|“The one commonality among those who’ve had success is that they stayed with it; they were disciplined . . .”|
ANDERSON: No, I think it really is almost all about practice, which is another way of saying dedication. To that point, in the early 1990s I was at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. As I imagine is always true in these kinds of programs, a kind of pecking order quickly developed; there were some writers there who I thought were simply phenomenal, others who were pretty good, and some not so good. Nearly twenty-five years on, though, I’d be very hard pressed to find any pattern among those who’ve gone on to be published and have critical success, and those who’ve never been heard from. The one commonality among those who’ve had success is that they stayed with it; they were disciplined, and just kept slogging away. Sure, talent is a component in all this – it’d be a pretty miserable way to spend your time if you didn’t have some shred of talent – but I think compulsion is the key.
AUTHORLINK: That gives some of us hope! You are the rare writer who has seen both commercial and literary success. Movies have been made from your writing, such as The Hunting Party (2007) played by Richard Gere and, Triage (2009) played by Colin Farrell. You’ve also had literary success with Lawrence in Arabia, which was a finalist for The National Book Critics Circle Awards 2013.
Are both equally as important as the other, do you think? Which do you prefer more (honestly)?
ANDERSON: Obviously the two open very different doors, but if things fall the right way – and I’ve been very lucky in this regard – they hopefully complement each other. Because of the commercial success I’ve enjoyed, I’ve the luxury of not having to do a book or a magazine article out of economic necessity. As a result, I’ve been able to pick and choose the magazine stories that really interest me or, in the case of Lawrence, to spend five years working exclusively on one project. The freedom to do that then puts one in a much better position, probably, to reap journalistic or literary success, because the end product is something you truly and deeply care about.
AUTHORLINK: In a September 2009 issue of GQ you wrote an article about Putin’s role in the Russian apartment bombings called, “Vladimir Putin’s Dark Rise to Power,” based in part on your interviews with Mikhail Trepashkin. The corporate owner of GQ, Conde Nast, then took extreme measures to prevent your article from appearing in the Russian media.
Do you have any other articles you wish to write about whose subject matter might be taboo? Are you working on your next book? What is it about?
ANDERSON: I’ve definitely written other articles that touched a raw nerve – and have ideas for others that might – but the Putin story was utterly unique in that I’ve never before or since been subjected to censorship by the very people I was writing for (and that article wasn’t just kept out of Russia, by the way; the Conde Nast lawyers blocked its resale everywhere). But for the very reason I outlined in my previous answer – that I don’t have to do stories because I need a pay check – I thought to myself, “you know, I’m not going to roll over for these weasels,” so I instead went public with what Conde Nast Legal was doing. What was the worst that could happen, I’d be blacklisted at Conde Nast? I should add that this wasn’t at all what happened; I received messages of support from a slew of Conde Nast editors, and even from some people at the corporate level.
As for my next book, the idea is still germinating, but it’s going to be on the early Cold War, that period between the end of World War II and the 1956 Hungarian Revolution when matters were still quite unsettled, and a lot of actual cloak-and-dagger stuff went on.
AUTHORLINK: That’s fascinating. We’re looking forward to reading it!
What is the most important thing you have learned in life so far in view of your first-hand experience in war zones, being a father and studying the lives of remarkable people?
|“. . . history – writ both large and small – really can turn on the actions of one person. “|
ANDERSON: This may sound trite, but probably the incredible degree to which one person can make a difference. This is fairly obvious in the case of someone like T.E. Lawrence – if someone other than he had gone off to Arabia to work with the Arab rebels, I’ve no doubt that history would be quite different today – but I’ve also witnessed it in a variety of ways throughout the world over the span of my career. In 2006, I was in a small village in Darfur that, days earlier, had been swamped by 25,000 desperate and malnourished refugees coming in from the bush. The only person in that village in a position to help them was a lone Dutch doctor with MSF, and over the course of the next few days that doctor singlehandedly saved hundreds, probably thousands, of lives. On a blacker note, I was once in Dizengoff Square in Tel Aviv when a group of young men turned on a middle-aged Palestinian man for some reason, and kicked him to the ground. A kind of mob frenzy took over – there was no doubt they were going to kick this man to death – until an elderly woman, the proverbial Jewish grandmother, pushed her way into the circle and shouted at them to stop. And they did. I think this is a vitally important thing for people to remember, and it’s something I hope to inculcate in my daughter, that history – writ both large and small – really can turn on the actions of one person.
AUTHORLINK: I think I too will impress this upon my own five-year-old daughter! Mr. Anderson, thank you so much for your time. It was so fascinating to talk to you. We wish you every success in the future.
|About the Author:|
Scott Anderson is an American novelist, journalist, and veteran war correspondent. He wrote novels Triage, Moonlight Hotel, The Man Who tried to Save the World, and War Zones. Anderson grew up in East Asia, primarily in Taiwan and Korea, where his father was an agricultural advisor for the American government. His career began with a 1994 article in Harper’s Magazine on the Northern Ireland events. The 2007 movie, The Hunting Party starring Richard Gere and Terrence Howard, is partially based on his work in Bosnia. The 2009 movie Triage starring Colin Farrell, Paz Vega and Sir Christopher Lee, is based on his novel. Lawrence in Arabia, his latest book, narrates the experiences of T. E. Lawrence in Arabia and explores the complexity of the Middle East. His brother is Jon Lee Anderson, author and journalist, and they have co-authored two books together. Anderson currently lives in Brooklyn, New York and is a frequent contributor to for the New York Times Magazine, GQ, Esquire, Men’s Journal, Vanity Fair and other publications. Click on the following links to learn more about Scott Anderson (http://www.amazon.com/Lawrence-Arabia-Deceit-Imperial-Making/dp/0307476413/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1406062221&sr=8-1&keywords=lawrence+in+arabia) (http://www.randomhouse.com/book/201116/lawrence-in-arabia-by-scott-anderson)
|About Anna Roins:|
: Anna Roins was a Senior Lawyer with the Australian Government Solicitor before she embarked on a career in writing six years ago. As a freelance journalist, she has contributed to numerous articles on social and community issues and edited a number of books, websites and dissertations. She has continued her studies in creative literature with The University of Oxford (Continuing Education) and the Faber Academy, London. Anna is currently writing her first novel and is a regular contributor to AUTHORLINK assigned to conduct interviews with bestselling authors. You can find out more about Anna Roins on https://www.facebook.com/anna.roins and https://twitter.com/Sophiabluestar
This post was written by Anna Roins