In an interview with The Platform, author and veteran war correspondent Scott Anderson discusses Lawrence of Arabia and explains how the structural ramifications of World War I continue to determine geopolitics in the Middle East one hundred years on
It’s been 100 years since World War I. In your view, what have been the defining moments of the last 100 years and the key shifts in power?
What is very striking when you study World War I is how it set into motion virtually all the major historical shifts that followed over the next 100 years, and that still shape our world today. The clearest follow-on is World War II, of course, that due to the “unfinished” nature of World War I – ending with an armistice or ceasefire rather than an outright military victory for one side or another – it created the groundwork for the rise of a man like Hitler in Germany and for a very similar war to occur all over again. From that conflict, however, we can also trace the final collapse of the old European empires, the rise of anti-colonial and pro-independence movements throughout the developing world, as well as the titanic struggle between the “new empires” of the United States and the Soviet Union in the Cold War. Nowhere is the legacy of World War I more apparent than in the events of the Middle East today. By dividing the region into imperial spheres of control or influence at the end of the war, which also meant ignoring the desire of the Arab world for independence and the creation of artificial borders, the European imperial powers – specifically Great Britain and France – laid the seeds for the turmoil we see today. You can’t place all the blame on the European powers, but they certainly got the destructive process started.
What made you study the life of Lawrence of Arabia?
I’ve spent a lot of time reporting from the Middle East, and in every detailed conversation I’ve had with someone in the region, no matter their political or religious affiliation, they’ve always traced the roots of the region’s problems back to the “peace” that was imposed on it at the end of World War I. As I really didn’t know much about that period of history, it was always my idea to go back and gain an understanding of it. What added to my curiosity was knowing that TE Lawrence had played a pivotal role in that history, and I had always been intrigued by trying to get to the bottom of what was true and what was fiction about this very enigmatic figure. So I’d say I came to Lawrence because I wanted to gain a better understanding of the area I had spent so much time covering journalistically, rather than starting out with the idea of studying Lawrence himself.
How did a painfully shy UK graduate go on to join a Muslim rebel army?
Lawrence was one of those unusual cases of a rather ordinary man who, through an improbable sequence of events, found himself thrust into a unique situation where he could affect – and in fact, cause – history-changing events. Prior to the war, he had spent four years working on an archaeological site in northern Syria where he came to a deep appreciation of Arab society and how its clan and tribal structure worked, which was crucial to his success once he started working with the rebels in the Hejaz. What’s more, at Oxford he had studied medieval European military history, and the way war was fought in early twentieth century Arabia looked an awful lot like the battlefields of fourteenth century Europe. All of this was knowledge that a conventionally trained European military officer at the time wouldn’t have had a clue about, so it was Lawrence’s very lack of conventional training that made him so effective.
Did Lawrence inadvertently pave the way for the Sykes-Picot Agreement, even though it was anathema to his vision?
No, I don’t think you can say that. The Sykes-Picot Agreement was forged in secret in early 1916, and at the senior levels of the French and British government. Because of his position with British military intelligence in Cairo, Lawrence learned about the Agreement – and was appalled by it – but he played no role in its creation. Also, Sykes-Picot was already in place prior to the outbreak of the Arab Revolt in the summer of 1916, and long before Lawrence’s involvement in that revolt.
What would Lawrence say about the make-up of the Middle East today, including Egypt and Iraq as of July 2014? Would he join a cause, do you think, and whose?
I’m often asked what Lawrence would say of the Middle East today, and the answer that immediately comes to mind is, “I told you so.” Lawrence foresaw disaster if the Europeans tried to impose their imperial rule in the Middle East, and worked energetically to try and derail it. He did so both because he wished to uphold the wartime promise the British government had made to the Arabs regarding independence, but also because he saw how badly trying to extend its colonial rule into the region was going to backfire on the British. He was clearly right.
How does Lawrence contend with other influential contemporaries?
After spending five years studying this whole period of history, I can really only identify three historical figures who were truly “self-made” – that is, they weren’t kings or prime ministers or generals, but rather ‘commoners’ who, through their sheer brilliance or endurance or luck or some combination of the three, were able to impose their will on the world. Those three are Mustafa Kemal (Ataturk), Karl Marx and TE Lawrence.
Do you think there is a risk of an excessive focus on Lawrence – a western male – as a political agent in the region at the time, at the risk of neglecting local forces?
Yes, I think there is a very great risk in that, and I think there is a quite understandable resentment of Lawrence in much of the Arab world for the degree to which he always occupies “centre stage” in the narrative of the Arab Revolt. There is undoubtedly an element of cultural chauvinism at work here, in much the same way that most any Hollywood movie about Africa, for example, usually has a white American character at its centre. That said, Lawrence was the absolute crucial liaison between the Arab rebels in the Hejaz and their British military suppliers and advisors in Cairo; without Lawrence, it’s highly doubtful that pipeline would have been sustained – which also means that the Arab Revolt would have foundered. Also, historians naturally have to rely on the written record; the British archives of World War I in the Middle East are vast, whereas there is virtually no surviving records from their Arab rebel allies.
What have been the most memorable moments of your war correspondent career and did this influence your outlook on Lawrence?
It’s hard to pinpoint specific moments that were most memorable, but I would say that after covering some dozen wars around the world, I think I have a greater appreciation of the psychic exhaustion Lawrence clearly experienced as a result of his wartime ordeals, the desire to just go off and be alone and removed from the world. In reading of Lawrence’s post-war life – which, frankly, was a rather sad and dreary one – I probably saw traces of things that I’ve sought to avoid in my own.
Tell us what’s more satisfying: writing fiction or non-fiction? Are the experiences really that different?
They actually are very different, and hard to compare. One thing I love about writing fiction is that I get to create my own little universe and live inside my own head. If I do that for too long, however, I start to yearn for the “real” world again! I will say that I find writing nonfiction a bit easier in a way. Since you have the external guideposts of real events you’re moving along in an established stream, whereas with fiction the only guideposts are those of your own creation, so it’s more like a lake – or a swamp!
What next for you?
I’m nosing around about doing a nonfiction book on the early years of the Cold War, that period from about 1945 to 1956 when the world chessboard was still quite unsettled and a lot of skulduggery went on. I haven’t totally figured out the narrative yet, though; I think I’m still a bit exhausted from “Lawrence.”
Scott Anderson’s new book Lawrence in Arabia: War, Deceit, Imperial Folly and the Making of the Modern Middle East (Atlantic Books: 2014) is available to purchase here.
Image from: http://www.cliohistory.org/thomas-lawrence/
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