A man with two countries

T.E. Lawrence in 1928
T.E. Lawrence in 1928
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Sunday, January 9, 2011

Few historical figures are as intriguing and enigmatic as T.E. Lawrence, the British archaeologist, scholar and writer who became world-famous for his exploits in Arabia during World War I. In a new biography, Michael Korda captures the indomitable, tormented spirit of this extraordinary man.

Lawrence's pathway to fame opened in December 1914, when the recent Oxford graduate was posted to Cairo to serve in army intelligence. Unexpectedly, the short, slight, fair-haired young man proved to be a genius at military strategy and guerrilla warfare, and strongly influenced the Arab campaign. He championed Hussein ibn Ali's war of independence launched against the Ottomans in June 1916. While British-led forces fought their way north from Suez up through Gaza and Jerusalem to Damascus over the course of four years, Lawrence helped shape a complementary Arab effort to the east involving not only guerrilla attacks on the railway from Damascus to Medina - the Ottoman lifeline into Arabia - but eventually a northward drive toward Damascus.

Korda is particularly good on Lawrence's most famous victory: In July 1917, with the great Bedouin chieftain Auda Abu Tayi, he led a now-fabled assault on the port of Aqaba, whose guns all pointed south and west toward the sea because no one could conceive of an attack coming from the landward side - which was precisely the side from which Auda, Lawrence and their soldiers pounced after an epic trek through the desert.

From Aqaba, Lawrence aimed his guerrilla fighters at Damascus. If they got there before the British, they could proclaim it the capital of an independent Arab state. They did arrive first during the closing weeks of the war, in October 1918, but when the British arrived a day later, the Arabs were brushed aside. A shattered Lawrence left immediately for London.

For his wartime heroics Lawrence was promoted to lieutenant colonel and offered medals and honors, which he turned down. War sickened him, despite his extraordinary talent for it. Still, British generals and cabinet ministers sought his advice; so did Arab sheiks and princes and kings.

Although Lawrence longed for obscurity afterward, he also sought to salve his conscience and expiate his sins. He advised both the Arabs and the British at the Paris Peace Conference, and he cooperated with the American promoter Lowell Thomas, who made him famous in books and film. He also published a beautifully written memoir, "Seven Pillars of Wisdom." Korda astutely compares Lawrence at this stage of his life with Princess Di: Both were drawn to the limelight even while protesting against it. His death in a motorcycle accident in May 1935 sparked an outpouring that presaged the one after her death.

Korda grippingly chronicles Lawrence's military exploits and shows us better than previous biographers how likeable and lively the man could be. Yet Korda doesn't grapple sufficiently with the historical context in which Lawrence operated. In particular, he fails to adequately address Britain's imperialist ambitions in the Middle East. He writes that the British Foreign Office adviser Mark Sykes was "almost completely without racial or religious prejudice." Yet Sykes redrew the map of the Middle East in early 1916 with his French counterpart, Franois Georges-Picot, dividing the Turkish Empire between their countries long before it had been defeated. Rearranging the Middle East without consulting the people who lived there reveals the racist arrogance that was endemic among European officials of the era.

Korda is right to say that Lawrence did not share this ugly characteristic. But Lawrence was a loyal Briton. He favored British interests in the Middle East, imperialist though they were. The problem was that he favored Arab interests, too, and the conflict tore him apart.

Then there is Korda's organizing principle and conceit: that Lawrence strove consciously to fashion himself as a hero, training to ignore hunger, thirst, fatigue and physical pain. Was that really why he did it? Other biographers have noted that Lawrence, the illegitimate son of an Irish aristocrat, always seemed driven to prove himself. He was also known to be a masochist.

Because Korda is not a specialist, he gets a few things wrong, most of them minor. One mistake is glaring, however: The British cabinet under Prime Minister Asquith never discussed the Balfour Declaration, and certainly not on March 13, 1915, as Korda writes. It did so under Prime Minister Lloyd George 21/2 years later.

"Hero" is the work of an accomplished generalist. It is well crafted and excellent in its depiction of T.E. Lawrence as a multi-dimensional figure. It is a fine biography, but it will not be the last.


Jonathan Schneer teaches British and European history at Georgia Tech and is the author, most recently, of "The Balfour Declaration: The Origins of the Arab-Israeli Conflict."


The Life and Legend of Lawrence of Arabia

By Michael Korda

Harper. 762 pp. $36

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