At 5 feet 5 inches and barely 135 pounds, Thomas Edward Lawrence did not exactly cut the figure of a likely warrior. Yet this “extraordinary pipsqueak,” as one official called him, blazed a trail through the Middle East during the First World War, playing a pivotal role in the Arab Revolt as adviser, tactician, and guerrilla leader. In a conflict that maimed and destroyed a generation of young men, Lawrence, who lost two brothers in the fighting, emerged from the Great War as a hero of heroes. Even if he wanted none of it — he spent his postwar years trying to hide from his fame — his legend grew, years later embellished and forever imprinted on the popular imagination by David Lean’s 1962 film, “Lawrence of Arabia.”
Lawrence has been debated and debunked; worshiped and condemned; blamed and praised for his actions in scores of biographies and historical studies. In journalist Scott Anderson’s thrilling new book, “Lawrence in Arabia,” a work as galvanizing and cinematic as Lean’s masterpiece, Lawrence again takes center stage in an account that moves from the halls of power in London to the crowded streets of Cairo to the vast desert wastes of the Arabian peninsula.
With the Arab Spring turning to winter, Anderson’s book could not be timelier. The history he recounts is grim, depressing, and almost unbelievable at times — his pointed subtitle conveys, in bullet point precision, the thrust of his account, which is how the clash between rival empires (the British and French on one side, the German and Ottoman on the other) determined the contours of today’s Middle East.
It’s a huge assignment, explaining the modern roots of the region as it emerged from the wreckage of war. But it is one that Anderson handles with panache. Lawrence has the lead in this production, but the author has cast his net wide, bringing in three other schemers around which he builds his teeming narrative. There is the US oilman turned intelligence officer William Yale, an upper-crust WASP whose declining family fortunes propelled him into the world in search of a vocation. We also become intimately acquainted with dandyish German scholar-spy Curt Prufer as he tries to stoke the forces of jihad against the British, and the Jewish agronomist and ardent Zionist Aaron Aaronsohn, who ran a spy ring in Ottoman Palestine and fed information to his English minders.
Working from a huge array of sources — the page notes are well worth paying close attention to — Anderson brilliantly evokes the upheavals and head-spinningly complex politics of an era. With the British stalled on the Western Front, they sought to take the war east, only to get bogged down in the disastrous Gallipoli campaign, where the allegedly ramshackle Turkish armies fought tenaciously. Ever more desperate, the British opened negotiations with restive Arab tribes who sought to break free of Turkish rule. Enter the unconventional Lawrence — an archaeologist in civilian life, and brilliant student of medieval history — who sized up the sons of Emir Hussein, the sherif of Mecca and tribal leader in Arabia’s Hejaz region. Lawrence, as he would later write in “Seven Pillars of Wisdom,” was looking for a leader who could spark “the flame of enthusiasm that would set the desert on fire.” He found him in one of the emir’s sons, Faisal.
Anderson details Lawrence’s exploits with precision and gritty detail. He comes neither to bury nor praise the legendary fighter, though he admires him sometimes through clenched teeth. For all of Lawrence’s reckless, even suicidal, courage, and his martial innovations (this, with no military training), his campaign of harassment and pin-prick strikes against crucial Turkish rail lines and bridges, the Arab forces “drifting about like a gas” and thus difficult to fight head-on, Lawrence made mistakes that cost men’s lives. Anderson’s portrait is fair and searching.
Looking at the Middle East, it is easy to throw up one’s hands in despair. Anderson’s book offers no comfort. His story is character-driven, exhilaratingly so — Prufer, Yale, and Aaronsohn’s stories are richly sketched, even if they are less decisive figures — but, if anything, he shows how individuals both shape history and are, at the same time, helpless before the dictates of great power politics.
Lawrence eventually found himself both fighting the Turks and undermining the British to advance the cause of Arab freedom — Anderson is quite certain that Lawrence revealed the details of the (still) notorious Sykes-Picot Agreement, a secret treaty that carved up Ottoman lands into French and British spheres, to Faisal. (If he indeed did so, it was a treasonous act). The double-dealing British were mired in a series of conflicting promises — to the French, to the Arabs — which, when the promise of a Jewish homeland was added to the mix, created the combustible beginnings of today’s Middle Eastern problems.
Matthew Price, a regular contributor to the Globe, can be reached at email@example.com.