Lawrence in Arabia

War, Deceit, Imperial Folly and the Making of the Modern Middle East


  • Media: #Books #Books 2021
    • Author: Scott Anderson
    • Status: read
    • Date: 2021-02-18
    • Tags: #history #MiddleEast #ww1 #politics #militaryhistory
    • Rating: ★★★★☆
    • Idea richness: ★★★☆☆
    • Links: Highlights, Goodreads


"Thomas Edward Lawrence—“Lawrence of Arabia,” as he is better known—remains one of the most enigmatic and controversial figures of the twentieth century."

This is not a book about Lawrence of Arabia.

In fact, ignore the title altogether. A more apt description is the subtitle, 'War, Deceit, Imperial Folly and the Making of the Modern Middle East'. Anderson forgoes detailed battle reports or even wider military strategy to focus in on the overall imperial forces and a fascinating look at the backroom diplomacy, deceit, and 'paper combat' in the Eastern theatre of ww1 whose far-reaching consequences still shape today.

The book follows some of the key figures taking and shaping action in the area before and during the war, from a more objective look at the contradictory T.E. Lawrence (of Arabia) who ultimately lost as he fought against his government while working for their lie to the likes of William Yale (Standard Oil employee and only US operative in the area), Curt Prufer (German spy, jihad inciter, and future Nazi), Aaron Aaronsohn (hottempered agronomist, spy ring leader, and Zionist campaigner), and Djemal Pasha (Ottoman general and politician).

"In this titanic struggle waged for empire—protecting it, expanding it, chipping away at others’—four of the six great imperial powers of Europe would disappear completely, while the two survivors, Britain and France, would be so shattered as to never fully recover."

In summary, aristocrats were in charge of policy and poor choices while millions died. Everybody lied to everybody, cut multiple conflicting deals, and ultimately the British and French screwed everyone over for empire and oil. Regardless of whether or not the situation would truly have been more stable had they acted differently, their choices helped set up many of the conflicts that still plague the region and the world.

Things I loved...

  • The unexpected focus on the double dealings and delicate politics of WW1 was enlightening and I have not read a history book which so focused in on that crucial angle before. It helped explain (and reinforce the sadness of) many terrible choices as former imperial enemies became allies all while plotting how to divide the territorial spoils later (and getting millions killed in the process).
  • While the timeline could get muddled as we hop between so many different perspectives, I appreciated the scope of interesting characters and seeing their choices and interactions.
  • Anderson works hard to maintain an objective perspective, laying out facts and trying to offer multiple sides on disputed events and people (none more so than Lawrence).

Things I didn't...

  • The book is right on the edge of being overlong. I'd say a 15% shave could help (or cut down some of the perspectives to make room for others, see below).
  • While the book is intended to be from the Western/Entente perspective, the scope is already so wide that I wish we got a bit more from the Ottoman and Arab background and political dealings. People like Djemal Pasha and rebellion leader/future king Faisal play pivotal roles but we do not understand their motives nearly as much as the likes of William Yale or some of the others.

"War can kill all things except bad ideas."

[[!Further Reading]]

  • The Ottoman Road to War Mustafa Aksakal
  • the Playfair Cipher
  • Wilson’s “Fourteen Points for Peace” proclamation in January 1918.
  • Egyptian shadow plays - indigenous theatrical art form that catered exclusively to the Egyptian working class


[[!Language is a weapon]]

  • British used to fuel [[!Propaganda]] and keep true meanings impossible to pin down in the web of conflicting promises they made to Arab rebels and French.
  • "The ultimate beauty there was that with both sides believing they’d essentially tricked the other, neither would want to risk scuttling the deal by getting into specifics."
  • Reports and what was written down as important as what wasn't.
  • "In war, truth is whatever people can be led to believe."
  • "Earlier than most, Lawrence seemed to embrace the modern concept that history was malleable, that truth was what people were willing to believe."

An abundance of problems make it difficult to identify true crisis

  • Europe's ongoing royal family feud obscured the start of the war. "Amid this din of complaint and trivial offense, how to know what really mattered, how to identify the true crisis when it came along?"
  • [[!The average person becomes desensitized to horror remarkably quickly]], which only compounds the problem.
  • Everyone thought the war would be over soon. Only Kitchener predicted the horrible reality. "One reason Europe’s imperial powers missed the warning signs was that these new instruments of war had previously been employed almost exclusively against those who didn’t have them."
  • [[!Crises expose existing deficiencies]]. The inept British commanders succeeded when only they had the machine gun, but not in this new crisis. Likewise the perpetually teetering Ottoman empire finally pushed over the brink as inequalities and deficiencies laid bare.

WW1 a tragic example of [[!Mission Creep]]

"Although the term “mission creep,” with all its negative connotations, didn’t exist in 1915, it probably should have."

  • Important to [[!Know when to admit failure]]. But what do you do when so many lives have already been spent? How do you admit it was for nothing? "Since such an admission is unthinkable, and the status quo untenable, the only option left is to escalate."
  • “From the experience of war, and experience of recent campaigns, it is absolutely clear that you start and you grow." - Cyril Wilson (Wingate's deputy)

[[!Pleasing everyone pleases no one]]

  • The Young Turks new Ottoman government "by trying to find something to appeal to every segment of their polyglot society, the Young Turks were giving all of them something to hate and fear."
  • Likewise the British seemed to have no definite policy and told almost everyone what they hoped to hear, weaving a complex web of lies and betrayal bound to fracture.
  • But [[!Attention is endearing]] and the British kept up the facade by seeming to give whoever they were currently negotiating with a good deal and plenty of attention.
  • Everyone strove to draw lines and carve up the region in a way that made everyone (especially them) happy. But [[!Borders exist on two planes]]: what the map says and how people divide themselves. Sectarian and ethnic lines clashed with the arbitrary colonial mapmaking (similar to B-The Hidden History of Burma), while ownership was already being argued. The crucial point, Lawrence wrote, was that Faisal was now “a tribal leader, not a leader of tribes.” Without that unity and with a legacy of imperial betrayal, fractures were bound to ensue.

[[!Arrogance is dangerous]]

"Throughout history, there have been occasions when a vastly superior military force has managed, against all odds, to snatch defeat from all but certain victory."

  • Arrogance, political interference, and tunnel vision can all independently or together turn certain victory into defeat.
  • Likewise your success metrics matter. [[!Be willing to adapt]], rather than just pouring more manpower and resources into the same methods, millions died unnecessarily in the British campaigns against the Ottomans.
  • "The mark of a master strategist is his or her utter adaptability to circumstance, the pursuit of advantage divorced from sentiment."
  • "Lawrence would later remark, “British generals often gave away in stupidity what they had gained in ignorance.”

Actions dictate policies

  • In "one of the most successful subversion operations in world history", the Germans arranged for leftist Russian exiles to return home as the czar abdicated. Among them was Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov, better known as Lenin.
  • "Events are determined not at peace conferences, but by actions during hostilities preceding the peacemaking process ... The ‘deus ex machina’ of international affairs is not he who waits to act at some dramatic crisis, but he who consistently acts in ways which are constantly determining the course of events."
  • US administration had nice sounding ideas of freedom and self-determination unheard of in imperial, colonial world but ultimately did not help as "Wilson administration was more interested in dictating solutions to the rest of the world than in assuming any responsibility of its own."

[[!Do not define yourself by what you are opposed to]]

  • [[!A culture of opposition is easily manipulated]], channeling anger to external threats and removing aspirations.
  • This has been capitalised on and nurtured in Middle East since WW1 in the wake of colonialism, imperialism, and Zionism, fueling conflict.


  • How did a painfully shy Oxford archaeologist without a single day of formal military training become the battlefield commander of a foreign revolutionary army, the political master strategist who foretold so many of the Middle Eastern calamities to come? The short answer might seem somewhat anticlimactic: Lawrence was able to become “Lawrence of Arabia” because no one was paying much attention.
  • "Victory carries a moral burden the vanquished never know, and as an architect of momentous events, Lawrence would be uniquely haunted by what he saw and did during the Great Loot."
  • Lawrence’s peculiar skill at polite belligerence
  • a common denominator in European wars going back to the Crusades—no matter who won or lost, the one fairly reliable constant was that Jews somewhere were going to suffer
  • In it the united forces of the past are so strong that the city fails to have a present;
  • "But Lawrence was nothing if not resourceful, and he had next thought to put one of his more pronounced personality traits to good use: the ability to annoy."
  • "With that dispatch he was establishing a tradition of fundamentally misreading the situation in the Middle East that his successors in the American intelligence community would rigorously maintain for the next ninety-five years."
  • "In a fittingly obscene finale to this most senseless of wars, a number of Western Front units continued to fight right up until that eleventh hour was struck, with the result that some four thousand more soldiers died on the last morning of the war."
  • "Britain and France had taken the discredited Sykes–Picot Agreement and fashioned something even worse;"
  • By the 1960s, with the era of European imperialism drawing to its unceremonious close, the Middle East resembled the shambles the colonial powers were leaving behind in other parts of the globe, but with one crucial difference: because of oil, the region had now become the most strategically vital corner on earth, and the West couldn’t walk away from the mess it had helped create there even if it wanted to.
  • "Certainly, blame for all this doesn’t rest solely with the terrible decisions that were made at the end of World War I, but it was then that one particularly toxic seed was planted. Ever since, Arab society has tended to define itself less by what it aspires to become than by what it is opposed to: colonialism, Zionism, Western imperialism in its many forms. This culture of opposition has been manipulated—indeed, feverishly nurtured—by generations of Arab dictators intent on channeling their people’s anger away from their own misrule in favor of the external threat,"
  • "due to the unfinished business of the Paris Peace Conference, a strong argument could be made that Germany hadn’t truly been defeated at all; instead, the Allies had created perhaps the best possible breeding ground for future conflict by simultaneously burdening their former enemy with crushing war reparation debts and leaving her ruling apparatus largely intact."
  • Seven Pillars remains one of those books that, as even an admiring critic acknowledges, “is more often praised than read.”

Scrapbook Concepts

  • the Old City #locations
  • According to popular folklore, the agent of their destruction was a pigeon.
  • A party of Arab warriors, an Indian machine-gun unit, and one demolitions expert on semi-invalid status after being shot in the head. #characters
  • A massive, hot-tempered agronomist #characters
  • crypto-imperialist #factions
  • "Gilbert Clayton. By the autumn of 1916, the spymaster was simultaneously the head of the Arab Bureau (answerable to McMahon), the “Cairo Agent of the Sirdar” (Wingate), and the chief liaison officer between EEF (Murray) and the British Egyptian civilian administration (McMahon). In his spare time, he also directed an internal spying network that kept watch on both local dissident leaders and representatives of the indigenous Egyptian government, a task simplified by the fact that the two were often one and the same. As Lawrence would later write of Clayton, “It was not easy to descry his influence. He was like water, or permeating oil, creeping silently and insistently through everything. It was not possible to say where Clayton was and was not, and how much really belonged to him.”" #characters