An Officer and a Bedouin

An Officer and a Bedouin

Mini Teaser: Lawrence of Arabia, that romantic, kaffiyeh-wearing, desert-dwelling symbol of Arab nationalism, was nothing more than the ringleader in a sideshow of a sideshow.

by Author(s): Benny Morris

Michael Korda, Hero: The Life and Legend of Lawrence of Arabia (New York: Harper, 2010), 784 pp., $36.00.

THOMAS EDWARD Lawrence, commonly known as Lawrence of Arabia, famously called the Arab Revolt during World War I, which for a time he orchestrated, a “sideshow of a sideshow.” Of course, he was (at least partly) speaking in his customary self-deprecating voice, which he very successfully deployed alongside an even-more-powerful baritone of self-aggrandizement (his memoir of that rebellion, Seven Pillars of Wisdom, is nothing if not self-promoting). Over time, observers began to speak of his wont of “backing into the limelight.” No one ever did it more consummately.

[amazon 0061712612 full]But Lawrence’s definition, taken simply, of the revolt’s place in the Great War was spot-on, in flagrant contrast with Michael Korda’s repetitive-to-the-point-of-tedium implicit inflation of the episode as the core military enterprise in the Middle Eastern theater of operations—where the Allies were slugging it out with a crumbling Ottoman Empire seeking to regain territory lost to the Russians nearly forty years earlier—if not in the Great War itself. It goes without saying that most historians believe that the key military episodes of World War I were the giant land battles on Europe’s western and eastern fronts. Center stage in the Middle East were the to-and-fro of Ottoman-Russian encounters in the southern Caucasus and in the eastern provinces of Anatolia (now, Turkey’s border with Iran, Azerbaijan, Armenia and Georgia), not to mention the protracted battle in Gallipoli during which Allied forces tried to reach Constantinople and secure a route to Russia through the Black Sea, as well as the Anglo-Turkish confrontations in Mesopotamia, Sinai and Palestine.

Indeed, the revolt led by the Hashemite princeling, or sharif, Husayn ibn Ali that began in June 1916 in Hejaz, the area of present-day western Arabia that includes the principal Islamic holy sites of Mecca and Medina, was never more than a minuscule affair and nuisance for the Ottoman armies.

It is difficult to quantify, but the Hejazi revolt probably diverted and commanded the energies of no more than one Turkish army division. (Korda speaks of “two,” sometimes even “three,” divisions, but this is a gross exaggeration. And Ottoman “divisions” were as a rule badly undermanned, perhaps a third or even one-quarter the size of the fifteen- to twenty-thousand-man divisions of the Allies.)

Which all means that at most, several thousand poorly disciplined, militarily incompetent camel- and horse-borne bedouin tribesmen, in the later stages supported by a handful of British imperial artillery batteries and armored-car squadrons along with one or two airplanes, participated in the revolt. In fact, at low points in the campaign only several hundred Arabs were actually in the fight.

Rebel numbers, as Lawrence often admitted (and Korda echoes him on this point, again, repetitively), were entirely dependent on the arrival of sackfuls of British gold sovereigns; no sovereigns, no rebels—and no rebellion. Loyalty being at the mercy of the highest bidder, periodically tribes withdrew from the fray when offered or given slightly larger sacks of gold by Ottoman agents. For most of the participants, it was not ideology (Arab nationalism, overthrowing the Turkish tyrant, the Allied “cause”) but loot that was the motivating factor. Lawrence, in Pillars (and its shorter version, Revolt in the Desert), described, with a sad shake of the head, how upon capturing a Turkish outpost, his “soldiers” almost invariably melted away in a mad dash for the spoils, which included the surrendering Turkish troops’ shoes, clothes, cigarettes, etc. (Often throats of the conquered were subsequently slit, as was the custom.)

IN GENERAL, twentieth-century Arab and pro-Arab historians have tended to predate the emergence of Arab nationalism and the Arab national movements. Rashid Khalidi, for example, in Palestinian Identity, marks the emergence of a separate Palestinian-Arab national consciousness and aspiration somewhere in the nineteenth century. Baruch Kimmerling and Joel Migdal, in their The Palestinian People: A History, place the ascendance at 1834, an obvious absurdity. In reality, there were glimmerings of a modern Arab nationalist consciousness and a low-key separatist (from the Ottomans) impetus in various towns of the Levant, initially among a very thin stratum of the more educated Christian Arabs, in the second half of the nineteenth century. But they had not matured by the outbreak of World War I into anything describable as a nationalist movement; indeed, in the famous Arab activists’ gathering in Paris in 1913, “decentralization” of the empire—some form of autonomy for the Arabic-speaking regions, but not independence or Arab sovereignty—was the stated objective. It was only after the defeat of the Ottoman armies and the installation in the Fertile Crescent of far-more-liberal Western-imperial mandatory regimes that concrete nationalist thinking and popular nationalist movements emerged, each focusing on sovereignty in its own territory (Syrian nationalists seeking rule in an independent Syria, Iraqi nationalists seeking Iraqi independence and so on).

It is no surprise then that the revolt’s leaders, Husayn and his Hashemite clan, were also driven primarily by nonideological motives. For almost two years, from late 1914 until mid-1916, they dithered. And when, at last, they took to arms, they did so, mainly, to preempt the Ottomans who had decided to oust and replace them in Mecca with more reliable satraps. During the following months and years, Husayn’s primary goal was to obtain, for himself and his kin, a larger, more powerful realm. It was only by default—the fact that the Arab nationalists in Greater Syria and Mesopotamia failed to rise up against Constantinople, as the British and French had hoped—that the Hejazi camel riders came to embody the voice and will and drive of “Arab nationalism” (a narrative immortalized in Lebanese-Palestinian historian George Antonius’s 1938 The Arab Awakening, a powerful though often fanciful reading of history). Most of the rebels—say, 90 percent—had no idea what “nationalism” meant.

What the Hejazi rebels did manage to do in 1916 and 1917 was take a string of Saudi coastal sites along the Red Sea, including Aqaba, an action immortalized in David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia camerawork, the romanticized British officer leading the dash into the dusty southern Transjordanian township. But these coastal towns (villages really), besieged by British gunboats, were an irrelevance in terms of victory or defeat for the Ottomans. The rebels even failed to take Medina, not—initially at least—for lack of trying. And Damascus, the rebels’ and Lawrence’s holy grail throughout the campaign, was in the end taken (the Turks fled without a fight) by General Sir Edmund Allenby’s Australian cavalrymen—part of the Egyptian Expeditionary Force under his command which was composed of British and imperial troops—though, for political reasons, he then ordered them out and let Husayn’s troops, led by the sharif’s son Faisal (and Lawrence), make the triumphal entry.

Otherwise, the rebels occupied most of their time with tribal feuds and intrigues, periodically blowing up the Turkish rail line and occasionally blasting trains between Damascus and Medina—all worthy and highly photogenic pursuits, but hardly the stuff of decisive military victory.

When all was said and done, the rebels’ accomplishments were slim indeed. It was Allenby’s men, thrusting from Sinai into southern Palestine in October 1917 and then northward into Galilee and Syria in the fall of 1918, that demolished Ottoman military power and brought Constantinople to its knees. Husayn’s troops contributed almost nothing to this denouement. Indeed, the rebels’ lackadaisical advance northward through Transjordan (today’s Kingdom of Jordan, then a godforsaken patch of the Ottoman province of Damascus) during 1917 and 1918 was made possible only by Allenby’s engagement of, and successes against, the Ottoman armies in Palestine and Syria. Korda seems to believe the opposite: that Allenby’s successes were made possible, or at least vastly facilitated, by the rebel army’s operations across the Jordan River. This is sheer nonsense.

KORDA, IN the footsteps of British military historian B. H. Liddell Hart, paints Lawrence as a “military genius.” Korda repeatedly compares him to Napoléon (and occasionally to other great captains—the first Duke of Marlborough and General William Tecumseh Sherman), with Napoléon coming up short. (At one point Korda, quoting Liddell Hart, compares Lawrence to Sherlock Holmes—which to me seems more apt; Lawrence, too, was something of a fictional character. Reading Korda, after a while you begin to think: Am I missing something?)

Korda again repetitively (and adoringly and breathlessly) describes Lawrence’s appreciation (and utilization) of guerrilla tactics—that it was better to hit-and-run, and ravage the Turks’ lines of communication, than to attack major Turkish strongpoints head-on—as nothing less than radically innovative. This seems strange for someone who has previously written biographies of major military figures Ulysses S. Grant and Dwight D. Eisenhower. Nonetheless, I suspect that the basic tenets of guerrilla warfare predate Lawrence (vide the Romans fighting Hannibal, Judah the Maccabee fighting the Seleucid armies, Spartacus fighting the Romans, the Spanish guerrilleros fighting Napoléon, etc). Moreover, Lawrence’s band was facing a third-rate (and otherwise heavily preoccupied) army—and, what’s more, failed to defeat it (unlike, say, the Vietnamese, who more recently faced formidable enemies and bested them).

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