11:02am

Mon August 19, 2013
Author Interviews

'Lawrence' Of Arabia: From Archaeologist To War Hero

Originally published on Mon August 19, 2013 2:52 pm

One of the most intriguing figures of 20th-century warfare is T.E. Lawrence, the British army officer who immersed himself in the culture of the Arabian Peninsula's Bedouin tribes and played a key role in the Arab revolt against the Ottoman Turks during World War I. He became a well-known and romanticized figure in post-war England, and was immortalized in the 1962 film Lawrence of Arabia.

Scott Anderson spent four years researching Lawrence and three other young men who were involved in the momentous events of the Middle East during and after the war. (Those other men include an American, a German and a Jew living in Palestine.) What Anderson discovered about Lawrence is different from, but every bit as interesting as, the popular image of the man.

As a journalist, Anderson has covered conflicts in Lebanon, Israel, Egypt, Northern Ireland, Chechnya and Sudan. He's written two novels, two books of nonfiction and has co-authored two books with his brother, journalist Jon Lee Anderson. He joins Fresh Air's Dave Davies to talk about his new book, Lawrence in Arabia: War, Deceit, Imperial Folly and the Making of the Modern Middle East.


Interview Highlights

On Lawrence's affinity for and understanding of Arab culture

"He spent three or four years as an archaeologist in northern Syria. He was one of those people ... that goes to a foreign place and just seem[s] to have an instant recognition and affinity for a foreign culture, and Lawrence certainly had that with the Arabs.

"... He really studied the whole idea of the way society worked, the clan structure and the tribal structure. When he got to Arabia, those same structures and the lines of what land belonged to which tribe were even more ferocious ... and Lawrence really understood this in a way that virtually no other British officer in the area understood it."

On how Lawrence's medieval military knowledge helped him in the Arabian Peninsula

"One of the reasons why Lawrence is considered such a brilliant military strategist — even today he's still studied at West Point — is that before he went into archaeology, his field of intense interest was medieval history and specifically medieval military history.

" ... What's fascinating is the way war was being waged at the beginning of the 20th century in Arabia ... was very similar to the way war was in 14th-century Europe. It was war on its most primal level — where you went, who you attacked and when was determined by where there was water, where there was forage for your animals and even how you recruited armies, because you didn't have a national army so recruiting a rebel force of Arab tribesmen in Arabia meant going to the different sheikhs and often forging a rapprochement between two rival sheiks.

" ... That was very much the way armies were formed in medieval Europe, so I think Lawrence had an innate understanding of how to wage war in the Middle East that a regular military officer of the time who had studied Napoleonic wars, or even trench warfare, it would've been utterly alien to them."

On Lawrence and the British military

"He didn't [fit in]. He was openly contemptuous of the whole regimentation and the climate of puffery. ... I think he felt he knew the region better than almost anybody else and just saw how wrong-headed the approaches were. The military hierarchy also didn't like him. ... His uniform was always a mess; he would forget to salute; he would forget his belt. It was a pretty antagonistic relationship in both directions."

On why Lawrence wore Arab clothing

"Lawrence realized if he was in a British Army uniform he would always be the outsider and distrusted because Arabs were not convinced that the British did not want to grab the whole [Ottoman Empire] for themselves. So by wearing Arab dress he could come and go from [Iraq's future King] Faisal's tent and people would just think he was just another sheik visiting Faisal.

On Lawrence turning down knighthood after the war

"He declined to accept [knighthood], and he turned around and walked out of Buckingham Palace. Actually, I tried to research if anyone prior to Lawrence had ever refused a knighthood, and many have since then, but I wasn't able to find anyone who had done it prior to that. And because of that there was no protocol on what to do, so apparently the king and queen just kind of stood there slack-jawed as he walked away."

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross, who's off this week. One of the most intriguing figures of 20th-century warfare is T.E. Lawrence, the British army officer who immersed himself in the culture of Bedouin tribes in the Arabian Peninsula and played a key role in the Arab revolt against the Ottoman Turks in World War I.

He became a well-known and romanticized figure in post-war England and was immortalized in the 1962 film "Lawrence of Arabia." Our guest, Scott Anderson, spent four years researching Lawrence and three other young men who played significant roles in the momentous events in the Middle East during and after the First World War - an American, a German and a Jew living in Palestine.

As you'll hear, what Anderson discovered about the real-life Lawrence is every bit as interesting as the popular image of the man. Scott Anderson is a journalist who's covered conflicts in Lebanon, Israel, Egypt, Northern Ireland, Chechnya and Sudan. He's written two novels and two books of nonfiction and co-authored two authors with his brother, journalist Jon Lee Anderson. Scott Anderson's new book is "Lawrence in Arabia: War, Deceit, Imperial Folly and the Making of the Modern Middle East."

Well, Scott Anderson, welcome to FRESH AIR.

SCOTT ANDERSON: Thank you, Dave.

DAVIES: Tell us, how well-known was T.E. Lawrence in England as World War I ended? How big a figure was he?

ANDERSON: As the war ended, he wasn't a public figure yet. He was certainly very well-known within the British military and political hierarchy. He was already a legendary figure within the Middle Eastern branch of the British army. He became very famous in England the following year, in 1919, when Lowell Thomas did this travelogue about the war in the Middle East, and he realized he had something of a matinee idol in T.E. Lawrence.

DAVIES: And what did English people think of him? What did - how was he regarded?

ANDERSON: Yeah. I think this travelogue show that Lowell Thomas put on became an instant hit. By the time it finished running, I think over a million Britons had seen it, including the king and queen of England. I think the reason it was so popular is that it was this idea of the war in Arabia being this clean war, this romantic war and Lawrence being this dashing figure in Arab robes charging over the sand dunes, in contrast to, of course, the war on the Western Front.

There was virtually no way to romanticize, you know, the ghastly trench warfare which had killed so many, you know, young English soldiers.

DAVIES: Now your book kind of tries to get at the real Lawrence, as well as some other figures operating in the Middle East in and around World War I. Let's talk about Lawrence's background. What kind of kid was he?

ANDERSON: Lawrence was second-eldest of five boys, upper-middle class. The family moved to Oxford and Lawrence ended up going to Oxford University and being a kind of an outstanding student. The most interesting thing about Lawrence's childhood, though, is that his parents weren't married. His father was actually an aristocrat of the Anglo-Irish ascendancy in Ireland and had an earlier family, and that family would not - he started having an affair with the governess, and his wife would not give him a divorce.

So, the father basically ran off with the governess, and the governess was Lawrence's mother. So at the end of the Victorian Age, this was an incredible scandal. So the parents were really living as fugitives. And Lawrence by the time, by the age of eight years old, he had lived in six different places, which is highly unusual for the time.

And so the parents had this deep, dark secret that they kept from the whole world around them, but also from their own sons. At a certain part in Lawrence's early, probably when he was about 12 or 13, he partially figured out the secret. He had the details wrong, but he knew that there was something illegitimate about his parents' relationship.

And it kind of tells you what a kind of emotionally constricted family it was. Even though he figured this out, he never shared that info with any of his other brothers. So I think this idea that his family was living this sort of fugitive existence and he himself was, by the mores of the day, illegitimate, I think it had a huge influence on him as he grew older.

DAVIES: He also had a habit, you write, of, you know, subjecting himself to real tests of endurance, even pain.

ANDERSON: That's right. From a very early age, one of his teachers, when he was in the eighth grade, noted this tendency of Lawrence to test himself to the point of almost self-torture. He would try to stay awake for days at a time. He would deny himself food, deny himself water, but again, you know, not for a few hours but for as long as he could physically endure. Incredibly long bicycle rides through the countryside to where he would be to the point of exhaustion.

So, there was this streak of what I think can really be called masochism that started showing itself in Lawrence from a very early age.

DAVIES: Now as a young man, he ends up in the Middle East and there of course becomes involved in momentous events. And his life is portrayed in the David Lean film "Lawrence of Arabia." And I wanted to just play a scene from that. This is early in the film, and in the film, the Peter O'Toole character we see here, this Lawrence of Arabia, is at a desk job in Egypt and then gets sent off to assist in the Arab revolt against the Ottomans.

And he kind of goes off thinking this will be great fun. And this is a scene where a guide and he have stopped to drink - get a drink of water, and it happens to be at a well owned by a tribe different from his guide. And another tribesman comes up, who's played by Omar Sharif, and shoots Lawrence's guide dead.

And in the scene we're about to hear, this tribesman who's, as I said, played by Omar Sharif is about to ride off on his camel, and he has this exchange with a very angry T.E. Lawrence. And we hear the tribesman speak first.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "LAWRENCE OF ARABIA")

OMAR SHARIF: (As Sherif Ali) He was nothing. The well is everything. The Hasimi may not drink at our wells. He knew that.

PETER O'TOOLE: (As T.E. Lawrence) Sherif Ali, so long as the Arabs fight tribe against tribe, so long will they be a little people, a silly people; greedy, barbarous and cruel as you are.

DAVIES: And that's Peter O'Toole and Omar Sharif from the film "Lawrence of Arabia." Scott Anderson, can you imagine the real Lawrence speaking to an Arab like that?

ANDERSON: No, actually, I can't.

(LAUGHTER)

ANDERSON: From the time he spent in Syria, he spent three or four years as an archeologist in northern Syria, he was one of those people - we've all met them, that go to a foreign place and just seem to have an instant recognition and affinity for a foreign culture.

And Lawrence certainly had that with the Arabs, and from his time prior to the war in Syria, he really studied the whole idea of the way society worked and the clan structure and the tribal structure. And when he got to Arabia, those same structures and the lines of what land belonged to which tribe were even more ferocious in Arabia. And it is true that if you transcended those lines, you risked being killed, or someone in your clan risked being killed as a result.

And Lawrence really understood this in a way that virtually no other British officer in the area understood it.

DAVIES: He went to the Middle East in 1909, right. He was a serious archaeologist, spent long periods of time out in the desert, got to know the cultures and customs of many of these tribes. And then of course when he became involved in military activities, his goal then was not to force people to abandon these customs but then to understand them and use them as - negotiate them, right?

ANDERSON: That's right, that's right. And I think one of the reasons why Lawrence is considered such a brilliant military strategist - even today he's still studied at West Point - is that before he went into archaeology, his field of intense interest was medieval history and specifically medieval military history.

And what's fascinating is the way war was being waged at the beginning of the 20th century in Arabia and the Middle East was very similar to the way was in 14th century Europe. It's war - it was war at its most primal level, where you went, who you attacked and when was determined by where there was water, where there was forage for your animals and even how you recruited armies because there - you didn't have a national army.

So, recruiting a rebel force of Arab tribesmen in Arabia meant going to the different sheiks and forging a rapprochement between two rival sheiks, and then they would hand over, say, 15, 20, 75 men to engage in this raid. And that was very much the way armies were formed in medieval Europe.

So, I think Lawrence had an innate understanding of how to wage war in the Middle East that a regular military officer at the time who had studied Napoleonic wars or even trench warfare, it would have been utterly alien to them.

DAVIES: Right, and this of course stood in sharp contrast to mechanized war as it was fought in the First World War, where there were machine guns, heavy artillery, you know, caused enormous loss of life and were run by highly regimented armies.

ANDERSON: That's right, that's right, and they even brought that concept of war, these frontal assault attacks, against entrenched men with machine guns, which was so disastrous all across Europe, but it was also disastrous in the Middle East. And on three different occasions, the British army attacked a vastly smaller and disorganized and ill-equipped an hungry, starving Turkish army and were slaughtered.

Just the lack of imagination of - the lack of coming up with any other sort of tactic in which to wage this war, it was stunning how long it took the British military hierarchy to start adapting.

DAVIES: We're speaking with Scott Anderson. His new book is "Lawrence in Arabia." And we'll talk some more after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, we're speaking with Scott Anderson. He's a historian, writer and novelist. He spent several years researching events in the Middle East around World War I. His book is called "Lawrence in Arabia: War, Deceit, Imperial Folly and the Making of the Modern Middle East."

I'd like you to just set the scene for us, as World War I approached. I mean, which powers controlled what in the Middle East, and what interests were contending as the war broke out?

ANDERSON: Right. Virtually the entire Middle East was ruled by the Ottoman Empire based in Turkey, with the capital being Constantinople. There were a few little emirates that had quasi-independence along the edge of the Arabian Peninsula. But virtually everything we think of as the Middle East - all the way over to Iran - was the Ottoman Empire, including Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, current-day Israel, and what is today Saudi Arabia.

The British were in control of Egypt. So the British were sitting on the southwestern flank of the Ottoman Empire. Russia, which was another enemy of the Ottoman Empire, was to the north. So those are the kind of powers vying at the time.

DAVIES: And you write in the book that when the powers that were involved in World War I looked at what might justify the enormous sacrifice, what they as nation-states might get out of it, their way of thinking about it was, well, colonies, empire. And that was one place they could grab territory is - was the Middle East, when the - if they beat the Ottoman Empire and it collapsed.

So the British and French had future interests, as well.

ANDERSON: That's right. And there were - people in the British Foreign Office called the - they euphemistically called the Ottoman Empire the big loot, or the great loot. It was the loot that was coming at the end of the war, a very cynical view of things. The other thing that is really fascinating, that as World War I went on, and as more and more men died and countries were becoming more and more bankrupt, the idea of searching for compromise, actually, everything went in the opposite direction. People's demands for settlement increased.

And you really saw this playing out in the Middle East, where - because all this suffering, all this sacrifice, all this loss of life had to be for something. And so their demands - and, again, the demands were especially - you saw the territorial demands were especially directed at the Middle East. They actually became more intransigent and more grand between the British and the French as time went on.

So, I mean, the French in particular, control of Syria, control of Lebanon, their presence in the Middle East became the cause for - they would sort of redeem this ghastly tragedy that had been visited on France. So they became more intransigent in their demands, their territorial demands, their colonial demands as the war went on.

DAVIES: So you have Lawrence, with little regard for the British military. But the military, you know, it's hierarchical. I mean, it's - following orders is seen as critical, in addition to which you have this overlay of traditional British class structure, which meant that people tended to know their place and do as they were told. How did Lawrence fit in?

(LAUGHTER)

ANDERSON: Yeah, he didn't, in a word. He was openly contemptuous of the whole regimentation and the climate of puffery. And it wasn't just the British army. I think it was all armies at that time. I think he felt he knew the region better than almost everybody else and just saw how wrongheaded approaches were. And the military hierarchy also didn't like him.

(LAUGHTER)

ANDERSON: He was upbraided a number of times for - his uniform was always a mess. He would forget to salute. He would forget his belt. And it was a pretty antagonistic relationship in both directions.

DAVIES: And he actually wasn't ever trained as a soldier, right? He...

ANDERSON: No, he had never had - he never had a single day of military training. And there's a great story of that, of how he became a military officer. Before he came out to Cairo for the British military intelligence, he was working for the mapping room of the British military headquarters in London. And the mapping office, so many men had gone to the Western Front in France and Belgium, that it basically consisted of Lawrence and one other man.

And a general who was about to go off to fight in France came to the mapping room to see the maps of the front, the battle front that he was going to be going to. And he was so incensed at being briefed by a civilian, Lawrence, that he demanded - that he demanded that he be briefed by an officer. So the only answer was to make Lawrence a second lieutenant and have him go out to the army-navy store and get kitted out. So that's out Lawrence became a military officer.

DAVIES: So Lawrence, T.E. Lawrence, is in - with the British military in Egypt. The rest of the Middle East is in the hands of the Ottoman Turks. And the British see it as their advantage, if the Arabs - particularly the Bedouin tribesmen in what's now Saudi Arabia - will rise up and revolt against the Ottomans, and therefore harm the Ottoman and British war effort.

How did the Arab leaders themselves - particular Emir Hussein - see their interests?

ANDERSON: Hussein was really the - he was the spiritual leader of the Arab revolt. And even more crucially, he was the recognized guardian, the religious guardian of the holy cities of Mecca and Medina. So for the British to peel away Hussein to fight for them was a tremendous coup, because it negated any idea of the British as they advanced into the Middle East, this idea of the British coming as Christian crusaders. So...

DAVIES: And we should say that when the war begins, these folks, they're neutral. I mean, they've lived under Ottoman rule for a long time. They don't immediately revolt.

ANDERSON: That's right. They don't revolt. And what Hussein did was, through a series of secret letters back and forth to the British high commissioner in Egypt, he basically cuts a deal. And he says in return for a revolt, we want independence. We want Arab independence - and not just independence in what we would call Arabia today, but virtually the entire Middle East: Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, which then was a part of Syria. So a vast area of the Middle East.

And the British were so desperate to somehow change the stalemate, to change the quagmire that they were in, that they had agreed to almost all of Hussein's terms. They kept a couple of little enclaves that the French insisted on, like the Lebanon enclave and some areas for British control, but virtually agreed to all of Hussein's demands.

DAVIES: So Hussein and his sons - one of whom was Faisal, who becomes an important military leader - are in this thinking that they are looking at Arab independence after the war, and they believe that the British are prepared to grant that. What were the British really up to? Because they had other things going.

(LAUGHTER)

ANDERSON: They had a lot of other things going. Within - so within months - the deal with Hussein was really cut in late 1915. Within two or three months, the British and the French sat down and made a secret concord called the Sykes-Picot Agreement, which, in complete contrast to what had just been promised Hussein, divided up virtually the entire - anything in the Middle East with any commercial or - commercial value between themselves.

And the way the British were able to get away with this was that the French didn't know anything about the agreement with Hussein, and Hussein certainly didn't know anything about the Sykes-Picot Agreement. So they just compartmentalized information and tried to get away with it for as long as they could.

DAVIES: So we're not talking about, like, what we would see in modern terms, like a Camp David agreement, where there's an announcement, and everybody knows what it is. We're talking about completely secret deals, which parties are misled about what they're in for.

ANDERSON: That's right. That's right. And there was a series of these, and it wasn't just the British and French. They were a maze of secret deals between different nations and different parties throughout World War I.

DAVIES: OK. So the Bedouin tribesman, Hussein, his sons prepare - are prepared to revolt against the Ottomans. How does Lawrence get involved in this?

ANDERSON: The revolt started - finally started in the summer of 1916. And very quickly, they took Mecca, took a couple of little towns on the coast, but very quickly bogged down into a stalemate. So the British started supplying them with weapons. And that October, in October of 1916, Lawrence came over on kind of a junket. He accompanied a friend over who was going over to meet with King Hussein and to talk about the future course of the war.

And in the space of - Lawrence was only there for about 10, 12 days on this first trip. And in that time, he met all four of Hussein's sons. He interjected himself as a kind of an intermediary between the British and the Arab rebels. He goes back to Cairo, and then within - very shortly afterwards, he is sent back again on a temporary basis. But within about three months, he had very much attached himself as Faisal - Faisal being Hussein's son, who was the primary battlefield commander - as Faisel's right-hand man.

And Faisal actually urgent requests Cairo to return Lawrence to him, that he's such an important figure for him. And from that time on, he's - Lawrence is there permanently.

DAVIES: Scott Anderson's book is "Lawrence in Arabia: War, Deceit, Imperial Folly and the Making of the Modern Middle East." He'll be back in the second half of the show. I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross, who's off this week. we're speaking with journalist Scott Anderson, who spent four years researching events in the Middle East during the First World War, focusing in part on the legendary British army officer T.E. Lawrence, who helped lead the Arab revolt against Ottoman Turk forces. Anderson's book is called "Lawrence in Arabia: War, Deceit, Imperial Folly and the Making of the Modern Middle East."

When we left off, Anderson was explaining that Lawrence had immersed himself in Bedouin culture and had become a close adviser to Prince Faisal, the key military leader in the Arab revolt.

So we see Lawrence, who has spent years learning the Arabic language and customs and the culture of the Middle East so he understands the British allies in the way that the British commanders don't. Did Lawrence see himself as a visionary figure leading the Arab revolt?

ANDERSON: I think he certainly saw that having spent so much time in the region that his role was to act as an intermediary, and that how you get these feuding groups together, feuding clans, feuding tribes, it almost does require an outsider - a kind of the neutral observer. So I think he saw himself as a pivotal role - pivotal figure that way. But also his conception of how the war needed to be fought, and it was very different from the hit-and-run tactics, the kind of raids that the Bedouins would have done in the past. Certainly, they had never seen airplanes before, they were terrified of artillery. So Lawrence brought this expertise about the outside world and the tactics that needed to be used to fight in that environment. So he also became very quickly a battlefield commander.

DAVIES: At what point did he get rid of his army khakis and wear Arab dress?

ANDERSON: Pretty quickly on. I think the first chance he got. And one of the reasons why he did was because he was so indispensable to Faisal in the field. The war committee - the so-called war committee of the Arab revolt - was a bunch of sheiks sitting around and having long discussions at Faisal's tent over meals, you know, meetings that could go on for hours. And there's days, in fact, in which there's this very languorous pace in which things were decided. And Lawrence realized that if he was in British army uniform he would always be the outsider, he would always - and distrusted because the Arabs were not convinced that the British didn't want to grab the whole thing for themselves. So by wearing Arab dress he could come and go into, from Faisal's and people would just think he's was just another sheik visiting Faisal.

DAVIES: He's a short guy, wasn't he - like 5'5"?

ANDERSON: He was five foot four. He was very small, yeah.

DAVIES: So he just fits in, he becomes embedded.

ANDERSON: Right.

DAVIES: And the interesting question that arises is - I don't know if there's a clear answer to this but - was Lawrence there pursuing the interests of the British Empire, and that is to say getting these Arab allies to revolt against their common enemy, or to what extent was he really thinking about and promoting Arab independence, fell in love with the idea?

ANDERSON: Well, I think this gets to the absolute core of why Lawrence is such a fascinating figure. Very quickly he became conflicted by his role there and he became a man really torn between loyalties. Yes, he was a British officer in the field. But because he was in military intelligence in Cairo, he knew of the betrayal that was coming; the way the British and the French have divided up the Middle East between themselves, detail that the Arabs knew nothing about. And the longer he spent in the field, and he's recruiting men to go on missions with him and he's fighting alongside them and they're dying alongside him, the more I think he felt just a crushing sense of guilt about his role in the war. And in "Seven Pillars of Wisdom" he talks about feeling like he was a charlatan. And this is one of the most interesting things. With Lawrence, he quite early on, he found his position morally untenable and he took Faisal aside and he told him about the existence of Sykes-Picot. He basically...

DAVIES: Sykes-Picot is the secret agreement between the British and the French...

ANDERSON: Yeah...

DAVIES: To whack up the Middle East amongst themselves, regardless of what anybody told the Arabs.

ANDERSON: That's right. And his motive in doing so was basically to tell Faisal, look, do not trust in my government, you know, do not trust that what they've promised they're going to uphold. If what you want for the Arab people is, for an independent Arab nation, you have to fight and get on your own. By telling Faisal about the Sykes-Picot Agreement, Lawrence was technically committing treason. I mean, he was divulging the existence of a secret agreement to a third party in wartime. And it almost any military in the world that would certainly get you court-martialed, if not put in front of a firing squad.

DAVIES: Well, that was pretty indiscreet. I mean, other people must have known. Was he ever accused? I mean how did he escape accountability for that?

ANDERSON: Lawrence was a master at using the communications of the day as a weapon. A favorite of his was to say that he never got a message, he never had a telegram, that something was lost in transmission. He would do this circuitous route of giving information to a higher up who supported his ideas against the immediate superior who was opposed to them. I think the way he was able to get away with it - I think certainly people had some suspicions but no one was really sure how much Lawrence really knew about Sykes-Picot. And, in fact, he knew it very, very well, even though in "Seven Pillars of Wisdom" he suggests he didn't know very much about it.

It's not a complicated document. It's two pages long. I think he certainly he swore Faisal to secrecy. Faisal knew that if it ever got back to the British that he knew about Sykes-Picot and that he had learned it from Lawrence that that would've been the end of their relationship and it might very well mean he would lose British support. So I think he got away with it by being very careful in who might have known or might've suspected that he had passed this information on to Faisal.

DAVIES: Now there is a critical battle and that was to take a port called Aqaba - which is on a little finger of the Red Sea. And we don't have a map here. We can't go into all the details, but it was a critically important port city held by the Turks. And the British would loved to have gotten it, could have attacked from the sea. Lawrence manages with a group of his Bedouin tribesmen to take the port from the land. Tell us what was so remarkable about that military campaign.

ANDERSON: There are kind of two things remarkable about Aqaba - one being military, and one being political. Aqaba, as you said, it's situated at the top end of this 100-mile long finger of water. But immediately behind Aqaba is this towering mountain range that goes for 60 miles in. So as much as the British wanted to take Aqaba, what Lawrence kept telling them was, OK, sure, taking Aqaba is no problem. The problem is then getting over the mountains, because what the Turks had done was build trenches and blockhouses all through those mountains. So sure, they could get on the beach, but how were they ever going to get off the beach? So militarily, what Lawrence came up with was he had this brainstorm. He said, well, it has to be taken from inland. And so instead of a 200-mile journey from the lowest rebel outpost closest to Aqaba, he took a group of 45 followers on a 600 mile trek, deep into Syria and then circled back and came across the mountains from behind on Aqaba. And he describes in wonderful detail in "Seven Pillars of Wisdom" how as they were going over the mountains all these Turkish blockhouses, you know, gun placements, they're all pointed in the wrong direction because no one ever imagined that Aqaba would be attacked from behind. So Aqaba really fell without a shot.

Politically, what's fascinating about Aqaba is by taking Aqaba, you know, we don't have a map, but it's basically at the bottom of Palestine. And taking Aqaba and getting over the mountains, it's a gateway into the heart of what today is Israel. And the reason the British and the French wanted to take Aqaba is that if they got there before the Arabs than they could bottle up the Arabs in Arabia and they could prevent them from spreading the revolt into Syria and places where the British and the French wanted to grab for themselves. So by coming of his own idea of taking Aqaba and taking - having the Arabs take it before the British and French got there, basically Lawrence was trying to subvert the designs of his own country. So he set off for Aqaba again, with only 45 followers, recruited more people along the way, but have not told anybody in the British military that this was his plan. He just told them he was going off into a reconnaissance trip in southern Syria. So nobody knew what was coming in Aqaba until Lawrence had seized it.

DAVIES: This was a stunning victory. It made him a star. But, you know, there's a fascinating part of what you just said. I mean the British, who presumably were allies with the Arabs in this revolt, in fact wanted to contain them to certain parts of the country. They didn't want the Arabs to go marching into what is now Syria and Jordan because they had imperial designs on those territories.

ANDERSON: That's right. There was a lot of duplicity that went on throughout the region in all the powers, and certainly the British. And I think there's actually an interesting thing about Lawrence, there really was and I think that the British military was unique in this. There was this notion within the British military that a man's word was his bond. And so other people certainly felt distasteful about what London was planning on doing to the Arabs - what the politicians were planning to do. And I think there were certainly people within the local hierarchy of the British military in Egypt who knew that Lawrence was working against British, stated British interest. But I think he was somewhat protected because I think a lot of the British military men involved in that area felt what was being done to the Arabs was really morally repugnant, and if Lawrence could actually bring about a more just settlement for them then he should be supported.

DAVIES: We're speaking with Scott Anderson. His new book is "Lawrence in Arabia." And we'll talk some more after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR, and if you're just joining us, our guest is writer Scott Anderson. His new book is called "Lawrence in Arabia: War, Deceit, Imperial Folly and the Making of the Modern Middle East."

We were talking about this remarkable victory at which Lawrence and these Arab tribesmen executed by taking the Port of Aqaba. After that, Lawrence led these tribesmen on many, many military operations and eventually took them north into Syria, and eventually, with a British offensive, captured Damascus. But, you know, this was a long stretch at which Lawrence led parties and blew up something like, you know, 79 rail bridges or something like - a lot of really difficult, dangerous, hard-fought military operations. And it struck me that this is a young man who had never had basic military training. I mean, I assume that you learn things like, you know, how to handle weapons and how to take cover in an open field...

ANDERSON: Right...

DAVIES: ...and the basics of hand-to-hand combat. How did he become such a - I mean it wasn't like he was directing things from a tent, he was out there in the field leading people. How'd he do it?

ANDERSON: Right. I think that as the war goes on, part of what I was talking about earlier, this sense of Lawrence feeling that he was a fraud, that he was a charlatan, that he was there and he was getting the Arabs to fight under false pretenses, it's very clear that this ate at him. And it's not just in his book "Seven Pillars of Wisdom," it's also in his correspondence of the day. At one point he wrote a note back to his commander in Cairo and he said, we can't keep doing this to the Arabs. This cannot go on and I'm going off hopefully to get myself killed. I'm paraphrasing slightly, but he, and he then went off on what was a virtual suicide mission.

So I think the risk that Lawrence took - and he increasing we took them as the war went on - it kind of ties into this idea that he was involved in such a shameful act of perfidy that if he died then in some way it would be atonement for the betrayal that was being perpetrated. And you really see this kind of psychic degeneration in Lawrence as the war goes on and he's taking more and more risk, not just to himself, but also putting his Arab followers in these situations where at the beginning of the revolt he tried everything possible to minimize casualties and he's now taking them into battles where it's guaranteed there's going to be a high body count. So I, and I think it's something that the movie actually gets very well - David Lean's movie - is you see this unraveling that's happening over the last days of the war for Lawrence.

DAVIES: You know, the fighting was really savage. I mean, you describe this in some detail. To what extent was Lawrence himself complicit in or did he participate in atrocities?

ANDERSON: Directly. He directly participated. In the last days of the war, as the Turkish army was fleeing towards Damascus, as they were passing through villages, they were slaughtering villagers, they were raping women. There's nothing more dangerous than an army that's beaten, that's, you know, still on the road. And so as Lawrence and his followers were following this group of about 6,000 Turkish soldiers who were just fleeing for their lives, he orders his followers forward and said no-quarter should be given. In other words, no prisoners should be taken. So they slaughtered people in this one day on the road towards Damascus. And that evening, that afternoon as he doubled back, he came across one group of rebels who had not heard the no-quarter order and they had taken, I believe it was 250, Turkish and German soldiers prisoner. And they were just sitting on the side of the road. And Lawrence ordered them machine gunned. And he wrote it in the official report of the day.

He said, I ordered the Hotchkiss. The Hotchkiss is a type of machine gun. I ordered the Hotchkiss turned on the prisoners and we made an end of them. So he - no, he directly participated in it and I think he was one of the - again, it got more gruesome and closer and closer together towards the end of the war. And I think almost exactly a month to the day he ordered these prisoners being massacred is the day when King George V tried to give him a knighthood.

And Lawrence refused it. So going through that experience, you know, you talk about PTSD or the difficulty of soldiers adjusting, you know, coming back to civilian life. I mean, imagine that contrast in one month from you're machine gunning prisoners and then a month later you're at Buckingham Palace and the king is trying to give you a knighthood.

DAVIES: And, too, the king and everyone else was surprised Lawrence simply declined the honor.

ANDERSON: That's right. He declined to accept it and he turned around and walked out of Buckingham Palace. I actually tried to research if anybody prior to Lawrence had ever refused a knighthood and many have since then, but I wasn't able to find anyone who had done it prior to that. And there was such a - because of that, there was no protocol of what to do.

So apparently the king and queen just kind of stood there slack jawed as he walked away.

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DAVIES: You know, there was one incident during the war that you write about that Lawrence wrote about where he was captured at a place called Dera'a and was subjected to some cruelty. What do we know about what happened?

ANDERSON: It's one of the most enigmatic, probably the most enigmatic, episode in Lawrence's life. He was doing a reconnaissance mission in this very crucial town of Dera'a, which was a railway junction. And the railway was the lifeline of the war effort in the Middle East, and this was where two railways came together. It was absolutely a crucial place.

And Lawrence wanted intelligence on it so he dressed as an Arab, as he usually did, and he just walked into Dera'a, and according to his version in "Seven Pillars, " he was grabbed by a Turkish sergeant and kept for the day and then taken basically to be raped by the local Turkish governor general. And Lawrence resisted it and so he was just savagely beaten, savagely tortured, to the point where the people torturing him supposedly - again, this is in "Seven Pillars."

DAVIES: "Seven Pillars."

ANDERSON: Left him for dead.

DAVIES: That's his memoir, right? Yeah. Yeah.

ANDERSON: Right. So, yeah. Basically left him for dead. And then Lawrence - he left him in this little lean-to shed and he crawled out a window. He walked four miles. He found the people he had come into Dera'a with. He rides back to his desert sanctuary in this very kind of improbable way. I mean if he had been tortured as badly as he says in his memoir - whipped scores and scores of times. And the really common thing, if somebody's whipped, it's very difficult to walk. You kind of lose control of your nerves in your legs. And yet, within a few hours Lawrence is doing this kind of Errol Flynn escape from Dera'a. In "Seven Pillars" he says he resisted the governor's sexual advances and then - so he was tortured because he resisted and then he was discarded, essentially.

He gave a slightly different version to a friend a year later. And then after the war, he became very good friends with George Bernard Shaw and Shaw's wife Charlotte, and Charlotte became something of a mother confessor to Lawrence. And he wrote her a letter, I believe it was about 1925, where he said, you know, the things that happened that day, I just have never been able to write about but it's a stain that I've lived with forever.

Implying that he actually was raped. And so kind of taking these very different versions of what happened, what I - it's just an educated guess - I think probably what happened was he was - maybe went through a little bit of torture but then at some point just succumbed. And submitted to the governor's advances. It's kind of the only version that, to my mind, kind of makes sense. Because I do believe something happened.

There are some biographers out there that say, oh, Dera'a was completely fictitious. Nothing happened there. I do believe something happened there because it was in Dera'a where Lawrence came back a year later and where he committed his worst atrocities. What I was talking about earlier took place just a few miles outside of Dera'a, of the machine gunning of prisoners. And his behavior, Lawrence's behavior, in that same geographic area, it was certainly the most kind of savage of any time during the war.

DAVIES: Scott Anderson's book is called "Lawrence in Arabia." We'll be back to conclude our conversation after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.

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DAVIES: We're speaking with Scott Anderson. His new book is "Lawrence in Arabia." This is, of course, all told in some detail in the book, but at the end of the war, despite whatever promises had been made to the Arabs who were involved in it and despite their military successes and contributions on the field, what happened when it was time to decide who would rule the Middle East?

ANDERSON: It was decided in a five minute conversation between Lloyd George, the British prime minister, and Georges Clemenceau, the French prime minister. They met in a townhouse in London and Lloyd George said, so what do you want, and Clemenceau said what he wanted in the Middle East. And Lloyd George said, fine, and this is what we want. And Clemenceau said fine.

And the way they divided it up actually was even worse than what had been outlined in the Sykes-Picot Agreement. And so Lawrence went to the Paris Peace Conference as a liaison to Faisal and tried for months to try to get a fair deal for the Arabs, not knowing that this deal had already been put in place between Clemenceau and Lloyd George.

The longer Lawrence pushed in trying to defend the Arab interests, the more he became a fly in the ointment to the British government. Because they just wanted this thing resolved and they wanted Lawrence just to drop things, to the point where they started openly talking about him in the highest ranks of the British government as a traitor.

And the incredible irony is that at this very same time that Lowell Thomas' travelogue show was coming out that was making Lawrence a household name throughout Britain, he was being marginalized within the British government to the point where they stripped him of any role at Paris, at the Paris Peace Conference, and forbid him from consulting with Faisal.

And so he was basically completely pushed to the side and the division of the Middle East went forward between the British and the French as they had planned all along.

DAVIES: What did Lawrence do after the war?

ANDERSON: Within about two years, I think he became very depressed. He ended up changing his name. He legally changed his name twice and rejoined the British army, specifically as a private. By the time of the end of the war he was a lieutenant colonel. And, again, because he was now a national figure, if he had wanted to return to the military, he certainly could've gone as a full colonel, if not even higher.

But he specifically wanted to go back as a private. And he went in under an assumed name. His first assumed name, a journalist blew his cover after about a year so he went into hiding and then changed his name again. And, I mean, at one point he was the quartermaster officer at a remote base in India and basically running the base store. Became increasingly reclusive, cut off a lot of friendships.

It's very clear he suffered from what we would call today PTSD. Had nightmares, had bouts of depression almost to the point of suicide. And really just did everything possible to avoid the limelight. And I think he was a very unhappy and sad and lonely man.

And finally - he finally left the RAF, the British military, in early 1935 and actually it was on May 6th, I believe it was, in 1935, he wrote a note to a friend saying I'm bereft. I feel like what a leaf must feel after it's fallen from a tree. And I hope this doesn't become my permanent condition. And a week later he died in a motorcycle accident.

DAVIES: And did he ever return to the Middle East?

ANDERSON: He did come back to the Middle East a couple years later but he never went back to Syria. He never went back to Damascus and he'd used Damascus as a battle cry. It's like, you know, on to Damascus. He'd used that for two years with the Arab rebels. Two days after it fell, he got in a car and left and never came back.

DAVIES: And did he maintain any contact with, you know, the tribes that he'd spent, you know, endured such hardship with?

ANDERSON: Very little. It's interesting. When Faisal later went on to become the king of Iraq and he came to England at least twice on state visits. And at this time Lawrence was a private in the British military. And he desperately wanted to see Lawrence because he considered Lawrence one of his closest friends and they had to all but order Lawrence to show up to meet with Faisal.

And Lawrence basically just wanted to turn the page of that whole period in his life and never look back at it.

DAVIES: Well, Scott Anderson, thanks so much for speaking with us.

ANDERSON: Thank you, Dave. My pleasure.

DAVIES: Scott Anderson's book is "Lawrence in Arabia: War, Deceit, Imperial Folly, and the Making of the Modern Middle East." You can read an excerpt on our website, freshair.npr.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.