This book by Scott Anderson, (copy write 2013 by Random House) is one of the most fascinating biographies you could ever hope to read. It is a commonplace today that most of the messy state of affairs in the Middle East today owes to the absurd political arrangements drawn up by the European powers at the collapse of the Ottoman Empire at the end of WWI. Those of us who've seen David lean's classic movie, "Lawrence of Arabia" were given some idea what these disastrous decisions were. But we were left in limbo as to why France and England made the decisions they did, and what alternatives might have been available.
But Anderson's meticulously researched book goes into a little more detail. This biography also corrects some misapprehensions in other parts of the saga of T.E. Lawrence. In the movie, we are given the impression that Lawrence arrives in Egypt as a complete newcomer to the desert. Actually, by the outbreak of war, Lawrence had already spent a couple years in the Arabian desert as an archaeologist. And in the last few months before the war, he was working for British intelligence, using his archaeology wanderings as a cover while making military maps of the region. By the time the war started, he probably knew the desert and its people and their languages better than any Englishman. In fact, at the war's outset, he was ordered by Lord Kitchener himself not to enlist in the Army----because they would need him as a civilian analyst in the Egypt office of British Intelligence. Later, for reasons of protocol, it was decided that he should be an officer, so he was given a uniform and told that commission papers would be drawn up.
But T. E. Lawrence was not the only young foreigner wandering around the Syrian and Arabian desserts before the war. There was Wm. Yale, an American oil man working for Standard Oil. And there was Curt Prufer, a German language expert attached to the German embassy in Cairo, who would later become a spy. And there was Aaron Aaronsohn, an agriculture expert at a Zionist settlement in Palestine. All of these outsiders had met before the war, and their paths would cross and re-cross several times over the next several years. Anderson's book not only gives a detailed biography for Lawrence's own career throughout the war, but follows the trajectory of each one of these four young men for several years, and in so doing, allows us to see the war from multiple perspectives. This allows us to see what happened and why, and see it in ways that would not have been obvious to any one of the players at the time.
T.E. Lawrence was a unique figure in history; there is really no one quite like him. And Anderson begins his bio with a couple chapters on Lawrence's childhood to give us an idea as to how became what he was. Beside the insights we gain about Lawrence himself, Anderson shows us the British WWI General Staff in all its breathtaking incompetence. (The events at Gallipoli beggar the imagination.) The movie let us know that besides fighting the Turks and quelling the squabbles of rival Arab tribes, Lawrence had to continually battle his own military
high command and even the British Diplomatic Corp----a task he did not enjoy at all. But Anderson shows that although he did not at all enjoy this activity---he was pretty good at it.