A good book on a perennially popular theme; it is scholarly and thorough, without being bookish or dull. James Barr writes compellingly and well, while still including plenty of original material and quotes from authentic sources. Crucially, he does not commit the cardinal sin of making his book less interesting or more serious than the events he explores, and manages to tread a fine line between writing a dry analysis of governmental policy and a 'boys' own' adventure story of romantic warfare in the desert. He discusses both aspects in an appropriate register, dealing lucidly with the complex political and strategic issues, while still injecting excitement into his narrative of the raids on the Hijaz railway, but without trivialising them.
The book really succeeds in showing the desert campaign in its context. This is no hagiography of Lawrence; Barr manages to see past Lawrence to all the other British officers involved, and also to the Arabs themselves, more usually seen as a picturesque backdrop to daring Public School escapades behind enemy lines. Equally, this is no revisionist history, attempting to cut Lawrence down to size. It is clear that he was a major figure, and a fascinating one, but not the only man involved. He shows Lawrence as a complex character; difficult, self-publicising, occasionally unreliable and troubled, but brilliant and the right man in the right place. It is also clear from the original sources quoted that there was an element of dashing amateurism in the Arab revolt; the raids are often described as 'stunts' and so on. Barr is good on allowing these sources to speak for themselves, while explaining the context and thus allowing the readers to judge for themselves how much credence to give to them.
Another strength is the recurrent theme of the contradictory statements issued by the British government at the time; in particular the Sykes-Picot agreement (imperialist and pro-French), the Balfour Declaration (pro-Zionist and one of the founding documents of modern Israel) and the various more or less explicit undertakings given to the Arabs concerning their self-determination after the war. The changes in opinion, the rival camps with different aims reflected in the three different policies alluded to above, the view from the British Raj in India and US statements condemning imperialist war aims are all dealt with clearly and comprehensively. Barr shows how these competing aims led to confusion and acrimony, but also how later generations have made more of these rather vaguely worded diplomatic formulae than was probably intended at the time.
In all, an excellent book which is deeply readable and well balanced. It has achieved some degree of objectivity in an area obscured by all kinds of myths, both personal and political. One small complaint, however: more maps accompanying the text, in the same manner as the original editions of The Seven Pillars of Wisdom, would have been helpful.