Small Wars Journal

Book Review: Hero...Lawrence of Arabia

Mon, 01/03/2011 - 11:26am

Hero: The Life and Legend of Lawrence of Arabia

by Michael Korda.


by HarperCollins, New York. 784 pages, 2010.

Reviewed by Commander Youssef Aboul-Enein, MSC, USN

Understanding the complex and contradictory political arrangements of the

Middle East can be best understood by reading the biography of T. E. Lawrence.

In addition, no total understanding of guerilla and irregular warfare tactics

will be complete without a study of this British officer, better known as

Lawrence of Arabia. There have been movies, documentaries, and many books about

Lawrence and the Arab Revolt. Initially, I was concerned about the title of

Michael Korda's new book on T. E. Lawrence. Hero gives the impression of delving

into the mythology of the person, and not their complexities. I am glad to have

not been dissuaded, and delved into the 702 pages of text, and found an

important biography of Lawrence. Korda balances Lawrence's significant

accomplishments as solider, diplomat, warrior, and writer, with his deep

insecurities beginning with his upbringing as an illegitimate child of a minor

British nobleman and governess who simply chose to live together unmarried for

the rest of their lives. Chapters go into the relationship Lawrence had with his

mother and father, his accomplishments designed more to please his mother and

less himself. Of note, Korda has written excellent biographies of


Ulysses S. Grant and

Dwight D. Eisenhower.

Korda covers how Lawrence, while at college, was recruited by British

Military Intelligence. D.H. Hogarth would be one of a handful of mentors keeping

an eye out for potential officers with language, travel, and archeological

experience in the Middle East. Archeological expeditions between Germany,

Britain, and France not only brought prestige, but served as a cover for

intelligence collection and political influence in the ailing Ottoman Empire.

Entire chapters reveals the hazards Lawrence endured while conducting months of

excavations in modern day Syria, Lebanon, and Palestine. The book describes an

eccentric intellectual who did not fit in the conventional army, but his

knowledge of the Middle East cultivated over decades caused key leaders to

overlook his uniform and unmilitary bearing.

In the outbreak of World War I, Lawrence would be detailed to Egypt, there he

would use his knowledge of Arabic to interview Ottoman Prisoners of War, and

co-produced the Arab Bulletin, an all-source intelligence journal read by

military and political leaders who shaped British policy in the Middle East. You

will be introduced to a complex array of personalities, biographies, and biases

through the eyes of Lawrence from General Edmund Allenby, Commander of British

Forces in Egypt, who used Lawrence to guard his right flank, as he pushed

through to Jerusalem to the mercurial Auda abu Tayi, the leader of the Howeitat

Tribe, who was an important personality in the Arab Revolt. Korda even treats

Lawrence's vicious sexual assault by Ottoman military personnel in the village

of Der'aa.

Lawrence would be a catalyst in getting hundreds of tribes to rally around

the Sherief of Mecca Hussein ibn Ali, revolting against Ottoman oppression, and

tying down 50,000 Ottoman troops in Arabia that could have been used to threaten

England's hold on Egypt and the Suez Canal. He used the Bedouin proficiency at

hit and run raids to harass and keep Ottoman troops pinned down in such cities

as Medina. In addition, he cut their communication links by destroying rail and

telegraph lines linking the Ottoman garrisons in Arabia to Damascus. Korda

discusses how Lawrence knew of the infamous Sykes-Picot Agreement dividing the

former Ottoman Middle East dominions into British, French and Russian spheres of

influence, and how Lawrence would manage his dual loyalties as a serving British

officer, and one of the leaders of the Arab Revolt. Lawrence would turn down

decorations from King George V, and go on to advocate on behalf of Prince Feisal

the creation of an Arab Confederation made up of Jordan, Iraq, and the Red Sea

region of Arabia known as the Hijaz. He would be made famous by American

journalist Lowell Thomas, part showman, he turned millions would see Lawrence's

exploits in a slide show complete with orchestra, and costumes. Lawrence would

write, "Seven Pillars of Wisdom," and was torn about his fame and the betrayal

of the Arabs by the British government after the war. He escaped into the Royal

Air Force as Airman Shaw, and the Royal Tank Corps as Private Ross. Lawrence

died of injuries sustained while riding his motorcycle in the English

countryside in 1935. He was buried at Saint Paul's cathedral in London. The one

item one can disagree with in the book is Korda's assessment that Lawrence's hit

and run tactics with Arab tribes targeting the Ottoman rail and communication

links in Arabia introduced the notion of what we would call improvised explosive

devices (IEDs) to Arabs. There are no indication militant Islamist strategists

or al-Qaida tactical operatives drew inspiration from T. E. Lawrence tactically.

However, this biography ranks among the important ones on Lawrence of Arabia.

Commander Aboul-Enein is author of "Militant

Islamist Ideology: Understanding the Global Threat," published by Naval

Institute Press in 2010. His book was recently reviewed in the December 2010

edition of "Soldier," the

official magazine of the British Army. Commander Aboul-Enein is working on an

essay introducing American military readers the memoirs of Egyptian War Minister

Saleh Harb (1939-1940) and his involvement in the Libyan Desert insurgency

against the Italians in World War I.


You may be interested in this online exhibit, "Lowell Thomas and Lawrence of Arabia,"
which features archival photos, audio clips, and film, a lively and informative narrative, and an extensive bibliography, providing a wide variety of viewpoints on the two men, their actions, and their legacy. We quote Mr. Korda several times in our "Other Perspectives" sections.

Mark Pyruz

Mon, 01/03/2011 - 1:56pm

Thank you for publishing this review. I have made a purchase suggestion to my local public library for the acquisition of this new book.