February 21, 2008

Setting the Desert on Fire

Seen from today's perspective, then, Lawrence's story looks less like a chivalric romance than like a case of imperial arrogance run amok. Only by taking advantage of the incredible carelessness and cynicism of the men who ran the British Empire was a junior officer able to remake the Middle East according to his own whims. It is enough to make one glad that there is no more British Empire, even if it means that there will never be another Lawrence of Arabia.

Do any of you ever read the New York Sun? Of course not. Set up in 2002 as a conservative, broadsheet alternative to the New York Times -- uh, isn't there already a newspaper called the Wall Street Journal out there? -- the Sun has a circulation of maybe 150,000 and a devoutly neoconservative editorial slant that, well, isn't as popular in 2008 as it presumably was in 2002.

That said, Abu Muqawama often reads the reporting of Eli Lake on national security issues, and he really enjoys the Sun's consistently excellent arts coverage. The book reviews and arts reviews that run in the Sun are, more often than not, quite good. What was it that Tony Judt said about the New Republic? That the first half was worthless and the second half (the arts and literature section) was genius?* That comment probably applies to the Sun as well. Book reviewer Adam Kirsch is especially good, and today he has a very nice review of a new T.E. Lawrence history.

Lawrence's desert war was "such a play," such "fun," because it was, to a really amazing extent, like a boy's idea of war, all exploits and highjinks. "There aren't any returns, or orders, or superiors, or inferiors," he exulted. All that was back in Cairo, where the British had their headquarters, and where Lawrence worked on the intelligence staff until 1916. He had never been happy there, or popular: One of his superiors described him as "a bumptious young ass who spoils his undoubted knowledge of Syrian Arabs etc by making himself out to be the only authority on war, engineering, running HM's ships and everything else. He put every single person's back up I've met." In fact, the 28-year-old captain was so sure of himself that he had already developed his own strategy for winning the war in the Middle East: "I want to pull [the Arabs] all together, & to roll up Syria by way of the Hijaz in the name of the Sharif."

*The exact quote was, "The front of The New Republic is a catastrophe; it’s run by smart young men out of Yale who know nothing about the world and think they know everything and are completely blocked on the Israel question. The back of the magazine is culturally fantastic, one of the best things going, and I think Leon [Wieseltier] does a great job there." Not that Judt himself, whose work Abu Muqawama generally admires (especially his book on Aron, Camus, and Blum), isn't able to write some pretty naive stuff himself. And save your fingers from writing any angry comments below -- we are not not not endorsing the views Judt articulates on the Israel-Palestine question. Relax.