“Lawrence In Arabia” Latest Attempt For Understanding Absurdity Of WWI


One of the most absurd chapters of world history is the events leading up to and during WWI. One can have the facts and chronological order of events, know the leaders and military playbooks, and still walk away without understanding how the picayune and narrow-minded tiffs and slights emerged so that in Europe bloody trench warfare will kill millions.

It is ridiculous, but true, to state that bureaucratic fumblings, spies of every kind, along with heroes and villains galore can be studied and examined, and still the loss of 40 million people, in a war that never needed to happen, can still not be fully understood. How the Middle East had a most tortured outcome due to the Sykes-Picot Agreement, which was crafted with betrayal along with a zeal to obfuscate at every comma, can be read about but the sheer gall of it is so stunning it seems hardly believable.

What happened between 1914-17, along with the events leading up to the bloodshed and mockery of common-sense is something I wade into from time to time. The senseless loss of so much life over the most illogical of reasons is a mystery that just demands an understanding. After decades of reading books in pursuit of wrapping my mind around the events, it comes down to the realization that perhaps there is no understanding to be had. It was just pure lunacy.

During the pandemic, I landed on some books about the war which intrigued me, three of them from the Middle East perspective, a region I love to learn more about from history. The author of Lawrence in Arabia: War, Deceit, Imperial Folly and the Making of the Modern Middle East stood out to me from his work in the New York Times. Scott Anderson is a veteran war correspondent who has reported from Lebanon, Israel, Egypt, Northern Ireland, Chechnya, Sudan, Bosnia, El Salvador, and many other strife-torn countries. He brings the view of the region to life as we follow T. E. Lawrence the man and intellect as opposed to the legend. It needs noting the book is not a biography of Lawrence, but a story of the war as it encompasses the land of the Ottoman Empire.

The Sykes-Picot Agreement was a bullet point in my high school class but as with almost every point of history, the details of each story are where the intrigue and wonder lies. Sir Mark Syke surely spun about in his grave several times as Anderson wrote, re-wrote, and edited the chapter where his shameless actions are laid bare. Not for the first time, of course, does his actions rankle me as he is central to so much of the history that has followed. But the pointed and pithy way of Anderson’s writing about him in this book does make for clenched hands on the covers.

If there is an upside to staying home while adhering to medical advice as we work to stem the spread of the virus it is that attempts can be made again to learn something more about what seemingly cannot be answered.

Why did WWI happen? I will certainly not be bored with the reads and will gain new insight. But at the end of the books, the fact will remain the most base reasons led to the most outrageous loss of life. One of the most absurd chapters of world history….