The Conquering Hero
A new look at the colorful career of T. E. Lawrence reveals a troubled legacy
In the early chapters of Lawrence in Arabia—note the “in”—Scott Anderson describes how the young T. E. Lawrence reacted to the death of his brother. Though the book is named for the British intelligence officer who improbably led an Arab revolt against the Ottoman Turks during World War I, Anderson threads his expansive history with only a well-chosen few of his hero’s many personality quirks; he even resists the temptation to overquote Lawrence’s florid and funny 1922 autobiography Seven Pillars of Wisdom. Yet Lawrence’s curious cruelty to his mother gets considerable space, presumably because it tells us as much about the world in 1914 as it does about Lawrence.
The death of Lawrence’s brother Frank furnishes an especially revealing glimpse into how the well-known, high-Victorian Arabist dealt with a family tragedy. Frank had been killed on the western front by fragments from a German artillery shell. A month after he received the news, Lawrence, who was spending his days idling in Cairo editing an intelligence bulletin for the British military command—the circulation for which “increases automatically as they invent new generals”—finally replied to his mum in a short note: “Today I got Father’s two letters. They are very comfortable reading, and I hope that when I die there will be nothing more to regret. The only thing I feel a little is that there was no need, surely, to go into mourning for him? I cannot see any cause at all. In any case, to die for one’s country is a sort of privilege.” After his mother “upbraided him for not expressing his love
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