DB641026 500 words  1. can you identify what some of these problems were or would later become? Chapter 22 FANTASIES REVIVED ALMOST AN ENTIRE GENERATION

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DB641026 500 words 

1. can you identify what some of these problems were or would later become? Chapter 22

FANTASIES REVIVED

ALMOST AN ENTIRE GENERATION OF EUROPEAN MEN HAD been butchered and those who survived were maimed, physically or emotionally or both. An estimated 10 million civilians died as well, victims of hunger and disease, rapine, and genocide. Though American troops entered the fighting a mere half year before the armistice, over 53,000 of them were killed—almost as many as in the entire decade of the Vietnam War—and some 320,000 wounded. In spite of the talk of “hallowed dead” and “sacrifices for democracy,” there seemed little or nothing ennobling about the carnage. The great modern age that had given birth to the automobile, the aircraft, and moving pictures also produced tanks, warplanes, and machine guns. The same Flanders fields that were once mellifluous with lavender and poppies now lay sodden, a morass of shell holes and trenches, barbed wire and body parts, a landscape as hellish as any painted by Hieronymus Bosch.

But then, just as World War I threatened to leave the human imagination as indelibly scarred as those battlefields, another image arose—dashing, masculine, principled, and, above all, premodern. Instead of limping in mire-encrusted fatigues, he seemed to flow in spotless robes, with a gold-plated kaffiyeh rather than a helmet on his head and a dagger in his belt in place of a pistol. He rode out of the Middle East, a region renowned for its saviors, and with a face that was pale and boyish, intensely blue-eyed and flaxen-haired—a visage that many Westerners associated with Christ’s. They could not have picked a more unlikely candidate for messiah.

Thomas Edward Lawrence was the illegitimate son of a minor British aristocrat and a descendant of Sir Walter Raleigh. Immature and sometimes described as effeminate, short (five feet, four inches), with an overlarge head and a high-pitched voice, he hardly seemed the swashbuckling type. Yet he was determined to remake himself into one and, to that end, spent untold hours testing his endurance and building his physique, mastering riflery and Arabic. “As other men lust for power or wealth or women,” the historian David Fromkin wrote of him, “he craved to be noticed and remembered.”

In 1916, the twenty-eight-year-old Lawrence was sent to Cairo as an army cartographer and intelligence officer, but soon found himself attached to Prince Feisal and the pro-British Arab Revolt against the Turks. If politically valuable in muffling the Ottomans’ call for jihad, the rebellion had proved incapable of dislodging the Turks from any part of the Arabian Peninsula. Lawrence also produced no victories, but with the help of insurgent Bedouin tribes he did manage to capture the Red Sea port of Aqaba. British ships were consequently able to transport Feisal’s forces from Arabia to Transjordan, where they could harass the enemy’s supply lines to Damascus. The British hoped that Feisal would liberate the city, declare a pro-British Arab kingdom, and deny control of Syria to the French. But even that plan went awry when Australian troops reached Damascus first. The British dream of ruling Syria through Feisal was finally dashed at the peace conference, where the French succeeded in realizing their demand for a mandate. Lawrence, who played a double game of publicly encouraging Arab independence while manipulating Feisal for Britain, ultimately failed at both.

A success neither as a military commander nor as a statesman, Lawrence might well have slipped into obscurity. But the world at that funereal moment was desperate for heroes and the nonconformist colonel who wore a green silken scarf and an Arab headdress to the Paris talks seemed ripe to fill that need. “The younger successor of Mohammed,” Professor James Shotwell, an adviser to Wilson, called him, “the most interesting Briton alive.” Lawrence quickly became a focus of public attention, a favorite of the press, and the friend of outstanding literary figures such as Robert Graves and George Bernard Shaw, who likened him to a prima ballerina followed by “the limelight of history.” He made no effort to deflect this attention; on the contrary, he cultivated it, with increasingly embellished versions of his exploits. “On the whole I prefer lies to truth, particularly when they concern me,” he admitted. “History is but a series of accepted lies.”

Proof of that preference was furnished in Seven Pillars of Wisdom (1922), Lawrence’s highly literate account of the Arab Revolt, in which historical facts served as launching pads for flights of personal fantasy. The many setbacks of the desert war were all but forgotten amid the exhilarating descriptions of camel charges, spying missions, and Turkish trains blown skyward by tulip mines planted by the valorous author.1 The book was ebulliently received, yet for all of his gifts at self-promotion, T. E. Lawrence could not have metamorphosed into the mythic Lawrence of Arabia without the help of a hype-wise American journalist.

Lowell Thomas, a specialist in manufacturing legends, was himself rather larger than life. Raised in Cripple Creek, Colorado, he worked as a gold miner and a cook before getting hired as a reporter for the Chicago Journal. Lanky and rakish-looking with a thick black pompadour and pencil-thin mustache, he procured a name for slickness and innovation, experimenting with slide shows about faraway places like Alaska. He next moved to Princeton University, where he studied and taught oratory, and where President Wilson found him in 1917 and asked him to make propaganda films favorable to the war. Thomas, camera in hand, departed for Europe, but the trenches and no-man’s lands proved too dismal a subject. In search of a more inspiring story, he continued eastward to Palestine, to document the British advance under General Allenby.

Traveling first to Jerusalem, Thomas stayed with the Spafford family at the American Colony and wandered through the Old City’s alleyways. On one of these jaunts, while rounding a corner, Thomas suddenly glimpsed the nobly robed colonel. “He walked rapidly with his hands folded, his blue eyes oblivious to his surroundings,…wrapped in some inner contemplation…. My first thought…was that he might be one of the younger apostles returned to life.” Gripped by the “power of…[this] fantasy,” Thomas requested permission to visit Lawrence and his rebel Bedouin and to accompany them on some of their raids.

Thomas spent a mere two days in the desert, yet they sufficed to produce a hefty memoir, With Lawrence in Arabia, published in 1924. Though he probably never saw Lawrence in actual combat, Thomas nevertheless painted him as utterly fearless under fire, capable of picking off “400 Turks” with a “heavy American frontier model weapon,” but also of showing compassion toward his prisoners. Lawrence, for Thomas, was a character culled from A Thousand and One Arabian Nights, a “reincarnation of a prophet of old” and “one of the most picturesque personalities of modern times” who was destined to be “blazoned on the romantic pages of history.” 

 Most crucially for the hustling American journalist, Lawrence was “a great scoop.”

Dissatisfied with merely creating a hero, however, Thomas managed to transform his thoroughly English subject into an American-style champion. Thus, the same Lawrence who assured his superiors that the Arab Revolt would “break up the Islamic ‘bloc’” and render the Middle East “a tissue of small jealous principalities incapable of cohesion” became, in Thomas’s telling, a freedom fighter who “united the wandering tribes of the desert” and persuaded them to “die willingly for the liberation of the whole Arab world from Ottoman oppression.” The same Lawrence who chided the missionary schools that “quite without intention…taught revolution” to their Arab pupils, and who “chuckled in the desert” upon hearing of Wilson’s Fourteen Points, was portrayed as the “George Washington of Arabia,” struggling to forge a United States of the Middle East founded on constitutional ideals. From a lapsed Anglican with little patience for his own religion and even less for that of the Jews, Thomas refashioned Lawrence into a modern-day crusader for the Holy Land and an enthusiast for Zionism.

With Lawrence in Arabia met with prompt commercial success, but the former prospector from Colorado knew when he struck a lode. With the aid of projectors and magic lanterns, he mounted an early version of the sound-and-light show based on his book. “Come with me to lands of history, mystery, and romance,” Thomas began, offstage, to the strains of Arabic music. “What you are about to see is an untold story, part of it as old as time, and part history in the making.” Then, stepping into the spotlight, he narrated the Lawrence tale as only he, Thomas, had witnessed it—the passion and the blood. In London alone a million people saw the show, but it was in the United States that the Lawrence fad became a national frenzy. The performance packed the largest theaters in New York and San Francisco and even drew huge audiences in remote midwestern towns. Not since the belly dancers and camel rides at the Chicago exposition thirty years before had so many Americans been exposed to the gossamer charms of the Middle East, to the same alluring aura that had surrounded Feisal in Paris.

Of all the myriad viewers of Thomas’s act, only one was notably dissatisfied. “I saw your show last night and thank God the lights were out,” Lawrence wrote to Thomas, rebuking him for his flagrant exaggerations and lies. The peculiar cipher who became a master of self-invention could not abide his fabrication by anyone else. “I don’t bear him [Thomas] any grudge,” he confessed to an old army friend. “He has invented some silly phantom thing, a sort of matinee idol in fancy dress, that does silly things and is dubbed ‘romantic.’”

Unrepentant, Thomas continued staging his Lawrence of Arabia extravaganza to full houses for nearly a decade. He would go on to write an astonishing fifty-five books and to gain celebrity as a correspondent for CBS News, a position he held for almost half a century. Lawrence, on the contrary, sought anonymity, joining first the Tank Corps and then the Royal Air Force as a simple soldier, each time changing his name. He died in 1935, the victim of a motorcycle accident and a refugee from the fiction on which he had partly collaborated.

The Lawrence myth had by that time taken on a life of its own, particularly in that part of the United States most adept at mythmaking. As early as 1915, the Hollywood screenwriter and director Cecil B. DeMille produced The Arab, a tawdry melodrama about the love between a Bedouin herdsman and an American missionary girl. The tale drew on the popular nineteenth-century perception of the Middle East as a realm of the senses and of the Arab as a manly paragon. The plot appeared to be less titillating for twentieth-century audiences, however, who judged the movie a flop. But then came Lowell Thomas and the Lawrence craze, and suddenly Americans were reawakened to the urge for Arabian romances. Consequently, The Sheikh, made in 1921 with essentially the same story line—sensual nomad seizes innocent Western lass—became an overnight bonanza and catapulted its leading man, Rudolph Valentino, to stardom. Hollywood rushed to capitalize on the success, churning out The Sheik of Araby, the Son of the Sheikh, and The Thief of Baghdad, each with its profusion of harem girls, defenseless maidens, and cruel but lascivious Arabs.2

The Orientalist trend started by Lawrence soon permeated many areas of American culture, not just the movies. In her 1918 classic, My Ántonia, the novelist Willa Cather described one character, festooned with fraternal pins, as “more inscribed than an Egyptian obelisk,” and another with “the beard of an Arabian sheik.” The fad was further animated by the discovery, in 1922, of the treasure-packed tomb of Tutankhamen—King Tut. Flappers suddenly started sporting Cleopatra-like hairstyles and public buildings were adorned with Egyptian deco. And when not giving vent to Middle Eastern fantasies in their fiction, fashion, and art, Americans indulged them in song:

I’m the Sheik of Araby,

Your love belongs to me.

At night where you’re asleep

into your tent I’ll creep. 3

Films and recordings had, by the 1920s, replaced travel literature as the principal media for conveying impressions of the Middle East to Americans. And in contrast to Europeans, so many of whom were disillusioned by the war, Americans could still dream. Over the coming decades, myths surrounding the Middle East would continue to excite and even inflame the American mind, coloring public opinion and influencing policymakers. The country’s material investments in the area meanwhile multiplied. In addition to building missionary schools and embarking on cruises up the Nile, Americans would engage in erecting oil rigs and signing treaties with Arab rulers. The pursuit of American ideals in the region would have to be reconciled with mounting strategic and economic interests. Progressively, the hallmarks of more than a century of American faith and fantasy in the Middle East would be replaced by the trappings of twentieth-century power.

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