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David W. Straight
- Publié sur Amazon.com
There's a great old song from 70 years ago called "Perfidia", and the title and lyrics seem quite appropriate to this fine new historical work. The war in Arabia conjurs up all kind of heroic and romantic visions, almost all centering on T.E. Lawrence. WW I was, for the most part, a hell of trench warfare and attrition. The individual counted for little here, and the death toll was huge. There was a longing for heroic figures during the war, and between the wars, and there were basically only two kinds of such figures. Both kinds were men who could act on their own (as opposed to the slog of trench warfare) and who could achieve visibly important deeds. One kind was the fighter pilots (two-seater recon pilots didn't count, even though on the English side this was about 2/3 of the pilots), and the other kind was Lawrence. Lawrence became a legend during the war: very few other English officers in WW I could roam about pretty much at will. Oxford-educated, independent-minded, ambitious, fluent in Arabic and sympathetic to Arab causes, charismatic, and, most importantly, a fine soldier with a good strategic and tactical mind, Lawrence was a natural hero, a natural legend.
Lawrence's story--Seven Pillars of Wisdom (abridged as Revolt in the Desert) helped keep the legend alive after WW I. But being a legend, creating a legend, and narrating legendary deeds (in a sometimes self-serving way) isn't always as enjoyable as you might think. Lawrence had to become Private Shaw to achieve anonimity. For a long time, the legend was the history: Seven Pillars of Wisom was the historical reference. Then there were books from the Arab point of view, often belittling many of Lawrence's claims. And, of course, we have Peter O'Toole on camelback. What is needed is a sorting-out. What actually happened? What was the larger picture? Barr's book does an exemplary job here.
Barr puts everything in perspective: how Lawrence got involved (he nearly didn't get involved at all in the conflict), the incessant tribal conflicts and loyalties, the clashing personalities on both the Arab and British sides, and, most of all, the politics. Arabia was a sideshow to the Western Front, but it had vital strategic importance. The Suez Canal was gravely threatened, and immense turmoil could have been caused among the Moslems in British India. So the British wanted a strategic victory, or at least a strategic stalemate in the area. They also wanted to maintain control after the war ended. The French had an interest in Syria, and felt that they would have to control Syria after the war. So the British were happy to make lots of promises which they figured they could renegotiate or break after the war, and were willing to supply money and a few supplies and an advisor or two--such as Lawrence. They also made agreements with the French, often diametrically opposite of what they had promised the Arabs.
So what you get here is a well-written tale of deeds, setting mines under railroad tracks, politics, promises, personalities. Barr visited many of the sites to get a firsthand feel of the area, and there are plenty of photos showing remains of trains blown up by Lawrence during the war. You get the overall picture, and you get a balanced perspective. Barr will tell you when he thinks Lawrence is exaggerating or dissembling. Lawrence remains a magnificent figure in the book--it's not anti-Lawrence. We need to put the legend in context, and we've needed this book for a long time!