If you’ve been following the blog for a while, you’re doubtless aware I have a bit of a fascination with Lawrence of Arabia. After watching the movie in 2015, I set off to read Seven Pillars of Wisdom and anything else by or about the guy I could find. Which, as it turns out, is quite a lot. Five years later, I’m still on this journey and not bored yet, a testimony to the depth of his personality and the talent of various writers.
To Begin the World Over Again (2009) is more of a history lesson than a biography. True, it maps out his life from childhood to early death, referencing the character traits and events found in the movie and in other biographies. However, Hulsman glosses over many points of T. E. Lawrence’s life—such as his capture and torture by the Turks—in favor of his main theme. The gist of the book is discovering what lessons modern-day leaders such as Obama (whom the author calls out by name) can learn from the successes and failures of Lawrence and other WWI figures.
Without recapping the whole book, I want to mention a couple things that jumped out to me.
First, the failures of the post-war “nation building,” at least as relate to the Middle East, had their roots in much earlier problems. At the very beginning of the Arab Revolt against the Ottoman Turkish Emipire, Hussein bin Ali—King of Hejaz and the father of Prince Feisal—had been trying to find a path between a rock and a hard place: that is, the Turks and the Entente. Meanwhile, the British had taken huge hits in Gallipoli, Kut, and other battles. As Hulsman describes it, the coming together of the British and Arab sides was as much about self-preservation than anything else. It put both parties in a mutual dependency that was particularly disadvantageous to Hussein (p. 43).
Second, the power of interpersonal relationships on the world stage can’t be overstated. This is something I’ve sensed from every Lawrence biography I’ve read, but it’s especially visible here. Lawrence, famously, was a charismatic man who could win over allies on both sides of the political spectrum, such as Winston Churchill and George Bernard Shaw. Likewise, the brothers-in-arms friendship Lawrence developed with Prince Feisal, coupled with an emphasis on personal honor, was crucial to his motivation for joining the political scene in Versailles and supporting Feisal throughout the negotiations.
Hulsman’s theme is that this charisma and genuine connection with people was Lawrence’s double-edged sword. As a strength, it meant Lawrence stood by Feisal even against the British authorities (p. 141). As a weakness, it led Lawrence to forsake his own socio-political principles—evident in his Twenty-Seven Articles—to place his personal duty to Feisal over a greater duty to the people living in what became Iraq (p. 180). Hulsman posits that the construct of Iraq created by figures such as Churchill, Lawrence, and Gertrude Bell resulted in an illegitimate government (p. 182) which ended in tragedy and long-term affects such as the rise of Saddam Hussein (p. 206).
Much of this information can also be found in the Korda and Mack biographies, but I felt like Hulsman’s book was more laser focused on the Versailles era, successfully so. Parts of the book seemed a bit repetitive—he tends to say the same things multiple times in only slightly different ways. Overall, though, this is a worthy read for those interested in Lawrence. Hulsman neither idolizes nor villainizes him, leaving you at times inspired and other times disturbed by what transpired. Other biographers seem to focus on Lawrence’s state of mind during this era, which is no less important, but I appreciated this focused look at the inconsistencies in his political ideals and actions (doubtless influenced by his likely PTSD).
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