The book covers World War I in the middle east, with a focus on four characters: William Yale, raised as an aristocrat, an employee of Standard Oil Company, and the only American field intelligence office in the Middle east during World War, who was to strongly influence American opinion about the Middle East after the war, Aaron Aaronsohn, a Jewish scientist who was a fervent champion for creating a Jewish homeland in Palestine and established a spy-ring in Turkey to help fulfill his goal, Curt Prufer, a German scholar who sought to foment an Islamic Jihad against the western colonial powers, and of course T.E. Lawrence, who, although a loyal British subject, acted to help the Arabs remain independent of the colonial powers, believing that such an outcome would be preferable both to the area and to Britain.
Lawrence became famous by “going native” and leading successful guerrilla forays which accomplished things that the British army, weighed down by tradition and lack of knowledge of the area and its people, could not. Interestingly enough, he was a fan of “The Art of War”, by Sun Tsu. The photo at the left, taken from his Wikipedia page shows him in his British army garb. The second shows him in his preferred fighting configuration.
As the book beautifully argues, the results of the Paris Peace Conference, — major control by the British and French in the area, decreased power for the Arabs, encouragement for Jewish immigration into Palestine with no agreement about what that might mean, were the precursors of present problems. As the author states in the epilogue to the book “Certainly blame for all this (the unrest in the Mid East) doesn’t rest solely with the terrible decisions that were made at the end of World War I, but it was then that one particularly toxic seed was planted. Ever since, Arab society has tended to define itself less by what it aspires to become than by what it is opposed to: colonialization, Zionism, Western imperialism in its many forms. This culture of opposition has been manipulated—indeed feverishly nurtured— by generations of Arab dictators intent on channeling their people’s anger away from their own misrule in favor of the external threat, whether it is “the great Satan”, or the “illegitimate Zionist entity” or Western music playing on the streets.”
Read the book. It will help you understand where we are.
But I also found the book interesting because it portrays the differences and similarities of politics and war in the almost 100 year period since World War I. In a sense international politics have not changed a great deal, despite the existence of the United Nations, increased globalization, and improved communication. It is still about perceived power and pecking order, although nations seem to be becoming a bit more thoughtful before they move from arguing to fighting.
But we are slowly learning that our beloved “Western” theories of war no longer seem to work very well. We in the U.S. should have learned that in our own Civil War, fought with large numbers of equally armed people confronting each other at close range. But we didn’t, with the result that over 600,000 of our own people died. World War I is now famous for its slaughter in the trenches and a settlement that undoubtedly played a role in causing World War II. We certainly should have learned it during the 20th century. Estimates are that 160 million people were killed in war during that period. And what was accomplished?
The U.S. has been involved in several wars (police actions) since World War II, and as time goes on has learned to place less and less faith on fixed battles. The present fascination with “smart” weapons, drones, and cyber- war seems to show an aversion to wholesale killing of non-combatants and armies of millions fighting battles of attrition. Or maybe it just shows our love affair with technology.
But unless strong institutions develop that are respected by all countries (international laws that are agreed upon and enforced) wars /police actions will continue. And our history in establishing such institutions has not been too impressive. So what form will these wars/police actions take? There are many opinions, but I am not sure anyone knows. The “rules” for what we call traditional warfare are well known. We are now in new territory. Keep your eye on the U.S. response to Syria’s use of poison gas. It may be a portent of the future.