Small Wars Journal

Lawrence and his Message

Sun, 04/27/2008 - 9:28pm
Lawrence and his Message

By Robert L. Bateman

"Do not try to do too much with your own hands. Better the Arabs do it tolerably than that you do it perfectly. It is their war, and you are to help them, not to win it for them."

~ T.E. Lawrence

Of late there are quite a few people who have taken to quoting T.E. Lawrence, better known as Lawrence of Arabia. The quote presented above is seen almost every day now, on military briefings and in State Department papers, in quotes in news articles and in public statements from people involved in all aspects of our effort. In the eyes of many Lawrence, it seems, holds the answer to our dilemmas both in our efforts to suppress an insurgency and helping develop a democracy.

Unfortunately, as seems to happen too often, almost everyone who uses this particular quote does so without understanding the context in which it was written. Many people, for example, assume that it comes from his 1922 classic, The Seven Pillars of Wisdom. Unfortunately, not so many of those who use the quote have actually read The Seven Pillars of Wisdom in all of its sometimes mind-numbing "Oh aren't these rocks and the shadows of the desert beautiful" glory. Even fewer realize that the quote is actually from a collection tidbits of advice Lawrence penned during the war in a British publication known as The Arab Bulletin. This particular quote was number fifteen (of twenty-seven) pieces of wisdom published under his byline on 20 August 1917. The salient points regarding the relevance of the citations are actually twofold. This is an issue is because, especially when quoting Lawrence, the context is important.

Today we are confronted with a unique set of problems. The regional strategic situation hangs in the balance upon the success, or lack thereof, of the mission of the Coalition and Iraqi government to gain positive control over the country against the opposition presented by several different forms of insurgencies. Yet we of the Coalition have taken to quoting Lawrence, apparently without much concern for the fact that from 1916 through 1918 Lawrence was the insurgent.

He helped channel money and weapons to an Arabic insurgency, and more specifically as he himself was very explicit in pointing out, this support went to a Bedouin Arab insurgency. During the course of operations in which he supported (and occasionally directly led) the guerilla operations nominally led by the future King of Iraq, Faisal I, Lawrence explored and romanticized the deserts of Arabia. His notes, dispatches, and personal journal formed the foundation for his culminating account. Yet it was in that first published collection of tidbits that Lawrence included the most important disclaimer. At the very top of the "27 Articles" published in The Arab Bulletin Lawrence made it explicit.

"The following notes have been expressed in commandment form for greater clarity and to save words. They are, however, only my personal conclusions, arrived at gradually while I worked in the Hejaz and now put on paper as stalking horses for beginners in the Arab armies. They are meant to apply only to Bedu [Bedouin, the tribal nomads of the deserts]; townspeople or Syrians require totally different treatment. They are of course not suitable to any other person's need, or applicable unchanged in any particular situation. Handling Hejaz Arabs is an art, not a science, with exceptions and no obvious rules."

Taking his quote out of context, of course, we have done the exact opposite of what Lawrence recommended...and are trying to apply his observations unchanged, yet in a completely different situation. It is enough to cause a historian to tear out his hair. Fortunately, there is wisdom to be extracted from Lawrence's experiences, even almost ninety years later, for he did hit upon some fundamentals which obtain, but only if we place his observations in their proper experiential context and then seek wisdom through this study. We must therefore start with the context.

For those unfamiliar with either his life or his work, T.E. Lawrence was very much a product of his era. He was born in the late 19th Century, academically he was classically trained in the British "public" school system, and was fluent in Arabic. By the time the First World War started he already had long experience (for his age) in the Middle East. He was not, significantly, a professional military officer. Originally brought into the King's Service to work with British Military Intelligence section in Cairo (his duties initially limited to cartography), in 1916 he was dispatched to the Arabian Desert to investigate the potential in a nascent Arab revolt against the Ottoman Turks. (The Ottomans were allied with the Germans.) After making contact and developing ties with their leadership, Lawrence then became the de facto primary link between the riches of the British Empire and the potential manpower of the Bedouin tribes of central Arabia. Lawrence, twenty-eight years old at the time, immersed himself in the culture of his hosts. Upon Lawrence's advice, rather than directly confronting the Ottomans, the Beduin tribes with whom he was allied sought to envelop their Turkish opponents.

Starting from their base in the Arabian city of Mecca, the Bedouin forces of the Sharif of Mecca first advanced westward to the Red Sea. In general they met with great success given their limited assets and indeed their movement resulted in the Turks calling off their plans to move southward against the Sharif directly. But Medina, to the north of Mecca, remained an Ottoman bastion. Rather than make futile assaults with his desert raiders against a numerically and militarily superior force, Lawrence instead advised moving up the coastline. The Sharif initially ignored his recommendation and instead attacked Medina. That was a failure. Lawrence, meanwhile, continued on his own with his small detachment.

It was at this point, during a bout of illness when even Lawrence's prodigious reserves of strength were utterly sapped, that he developed his epiphany regarding the route to victory in the desert. Over the course of a few days he developed the guiding principals which helped him bring his Arab forces to the apogee of success. Thus it was not in his abilities as a cultural polymorph, but in the clarity of thought which he brought to the military problem he faced, that we may derive something useful today.

At the moment of crisis Lawrence discarded the linear thought of conventional British military thinking of the period. That he did so with the inordinate glee of an outsider who by his own admission was only "playing" at soldiering, does not detract from his epiphany. On his own Lawrence developed a vision for the employment of his uniquely gifted, and limited, forces. This is what Lawrence saw (original spelling):

"The first confusion was the false antithesis between strategy, the aim in war, the synoptic regard seeing each part relative to the whole, and tactics, the means towards a strategic end, the particular steps of its staircase. They seemed only points of view from which to ponder the elements of war, the Algebraical element of things, a Biological element of lives, and the Psychological element of ideas.

The algebraical element looked to me a pure science, subject to mathematical law, inhuman. It dealt with known variables, fixed conditions, space and time, inorganic things like hills and climates and railways, with mankind in type-masses too great for individual variety, with all artificial aids and the extensions given our faculties by mechanical invention. It was essentially formulable.

Here was a pompous, professorial beginning. My wits, hostile to the abstract, took refuge in Arabia again. Translated into Arabic, the algebraic factor would first take practical account of the area we wished to deliver, and I began idly to calculate how many square miles: sixty: eighty: one hundred: perhaps one hundred and forty thousand square miles. And how would the Turks defend all that? No doubt by a trench line across the bottom, if we came like an army with banners; but suppose we were (as we might be) an influence, an idea, a thing intangible, invulnerable, without front or back, drifting about like a gas? Armies were like plants, immobile, firm-rooted, nourished through long stems to the head. We might be a vapour, blowing where we listed. Our kingdoms lay in each man's mind; and as we wanted nothing material to live on, so we might offer nothing material to the killing. It seemed a regular soldier might be helpless without a target, owning only what he sat on, and subjugating only what, by order, he could poke his rifle at.

Then I figured out how many men they would need to sit on all this ground, to save it from our attack-in-depth, sedition putting up her head in every unoccupied one of those hundred thousand square miles. I knew the Turkish Army exactly, and even allowing for their recent extension of faculty by aeroplanes and guns and armoured trains (which made the earth a smaller battlefield) still it seemed they would have need of a fortified post every four square miles, and a post could not be less than twenty men. If so, they would need six hundred thousand men to meet the ill-wills of all the Arab peoples, combined with the active hostility of a few zealots." [i]

From this observation Lawrence proceeded on and ultimately and hit upon what we might refer to as an "Economy of Force" mission, albeit one conducted with de facto guerilla forces. The operational situation he faced however, while complex, was not apparently perceived at all by his Regular Army superiors. Lawrence recognized the disposition of the Turkish forces for what they were, not a strength, but the dilution of strength. A simple glance at any map illustrates his observations.

At the time of Lawrence's epiphany the majority of the conventional forces controlled by the British faced conventional forces fielded by the Turks in what was then called Palestine. These armies were deployed, initially, along a line running south and east from Gaza. To the right of the British lines, as their forces advanced from their base of Egypt, was the open desert. In earlier operations Lawrence had already demonstrated the vulnerability of the Turkish controlled city of Medina to interdiction of its logistical supply line via the single track railway which ran through the Hejaz desert. His new contribution was to note that, seemingly counter-intuitively, the possession of Medina by a Turkish garrison of some 20,000 was advantageous to British.

In simple terms, the more Turkish soldiers he could force into holding Medina and the Hejaz railway which supplied it, the fewer Turkish soldiers there would be to face the conventional strength of the main British forces. Lawrence's vision allowed him to stop seeing Medina as an objective to be taken, and instead see it for what it was, an inexorable drain upon the Turks which ultimately limited their options everywhere else, and most critically, in front of the British Army on the battle lines. Thus, while he realized that by cutting the extremely exposed railways at multiple points he could have forced the Turks out of Medina purely out of logistical want, he also came to see that this would be counterproductive to the larger goal. Not bad for a college-boy.

Bringing Lawrence Forward

First, remembering that Lawrence was the insurgent, not the counterinsurgent, is an important first step. It is also significant that he was dealing with nomadic tribes of Bedouin, not city dwellers. Both of these suggest that it might be useful to toss the quote which starts this article out of the window. But is there something that we can draw from his experiences? Is there perhaps some greater lesson available? How might Lawrence look at Iraq? Naturally, one would have to assume that he was a strategist for the other side.

Iraq has six neighbors, 2,281 miles of borders, and some 254 border forts. Of those neighbors four are decidedly or effectively classified as friendly to the United States, if not necessarily to Iraq, one of those neighbors was declared by the Administration to be a part of the infamous "Axis of Evil," and the other is a Baathist régime with a fairly well confirmed stockpile of weapons of mass destruction (in the form of chemical agents) and a history of both committing political assassinations beyond their own borders and supporting groups identified as terrorists by the US Department of State. In other words, to her East and West, Iraq is bordered by countries which do not harbor much goodwill for the United States. Therein lies the strategic dilemma, and the parallel to Lawrence. Transliterate "the Coalition" for "the Ottoman Turks" and "the borders" or, if you prefer, "the oil pipelines," for "the Hejaz railway" and the picture snaps into view.

Iraq itself has a total area of 167,975 square miles, which easily exceeds the land-mass calculated by Lawrence to need more than 600,000 troops. While his sophomoric equation is not really a valid tool (the idea is to control people after all, not land) when analyzed with rigor, the point remains the same. Right now two countries which most definitely do not have a friendly outlook towards the United States most of the time, have a vested interest in sustaining, and if need be fomenting, a certain level of violence within the boundaries of Iraq.

If Lawrence were still around, working as a strategist for the Iranians, for example, he would certainly be advocating this position. After all, so long as the greater part of the land combat power of the United States is consumed in attempting to squelch violence in Iraq, those forces cannot be used elsewhere. He would, as he did along the Hejaz railway, recommend calibrated support to agitated elements inside Iraq. His advice to his higher command would be that they never allow the pressure to drop so much that we withdraw after declaring a victory, nor raising the pressure so high that we actually quit the place. Iraq, through the eyes of Lawrence, is our Medina.

[i] T.E. Lawrence, Seven Pillars of Wisdom, (New York, NY: Random House edition), pg. 192.


SWJ Editors' Links

Lawrence of Iran? - Noah Shachtman, Danger Room

Channeling Lawrence - Jules Crittenden, Forward Movement

Discuss at Small Wars Council

Categories: Lawrence Forward


Perhaps another quote from "Seven Pillars of Wisdom" is an appropriate bookend to this discussion. In Chapter XIV, Feisal says to Lawrence: "Your good and my good, perhaps they are different, and either forced good or forced evil will make a people cry with pain. Does the ore admire the flame which transforms it?"

Simply as a point,the author is incorrect in stating that Lawrence was educated at a"Public" school.He was not and as part of his background this informs much of his subsequent behavior.To misrepresent his background in this way,over a well known detail of Lawrence's life,throws into question the accuracy of his various conclusions.

Rich Knapton (not verified)

Fri, 05/02/2008 - 4:43pm

Getting T. E. Lawrence Wrong

Once again Lt. Col. Bateman was written a rather myopic historical analysis. In this case it involves T. E. Lawrence and his involvement with the Arab Bedouins during WWI. According to Bateman, Lawrences epiphany was to tie down as many Ottoman soldiers as possible trying to protect supply lines to insure fewer troops available to oppose the British.

Bateman: "In simple terms, the more Turkish soldiers he could force into holding Medina and the Hejaz railway which supplied it, the fewer Turkish soldiers there would be to face the conventional strength of the main British forces. Lawrences vision allowed him to stop seeing Medina as an objective to be taken, and instead see it for what it was, an inexorable drain upon the Turks which ultimately limited their options everywhere else, and most critically, in front of the British Army on the battle lines."

Batemans analysis is a good old Clausewitian focus on battle. Lawrence was to tie down as many Ottomans as possible so they will not be available for the inevitable battle with the British. This may have been Lawrences epiphany but it was already an acceptable military technique. Only fifty years previous, two great commanders of irregular light cavalry, John Moseby and Bedford Forrest, performed sterling service for the Confederate army with these types of actions.

There is only one thing wrong with Batemans analysis: its all wrong. My discussion of what Lawrence was attempting to do is taken from a paper Lawrence wrote called "The Evolution of a Revolt." It can be found at

Ill let T. E. Lawrence explain what he was trying to do. Lt. Col. Bateman is too tied to his Clausewitzian paradigm to see what Lawrence was really up to. To begin with, Lawrences plan was for the total destruction of the Ottoman army in Palestine based on his approach to war. Far from the British attack led by General Allenby being the culmination of Lawrences efforts, it represented a failure to allow Lawrence to prove the efficacy of Lawrences approach to war. His approach was to fight a war without battles.

"By careful persistence, kept strictly within our strength and following the spirit of our theories, we were able eventually to reduce the Turks to helplessness, and complete victory seemed to be almost within our sight when General Allenby by his immense stroke in Palestine threw the enemy's main forces into hopeless confusion and put an immediate end to the Turkish war. We were very happy to have done with all our pains, but sometimes since I have felt a private regret that his too-greatness deprived me of the opportunity of following to the end the dictum of Saxe that a war might be won without fighting battles."

Lawrence was on the verge of showing a war can be won without battles when General Allenby butted in and ended the war. Lawrences thought was a bit more sophisticated than Bateman alluded to. Lawrence had set to prove that a war could be won without ever fighting a battle. His approach was not that of "Economy of Force" but rather "Killing by a Thousand Cuts." [Not one of the nine Principles of War employed by the United States Armed Forces and which was based upon Carl von Clausewitz' writings.] The killing by Lawrence was not individuals but the Ottoman army itself.

Lawrence succinctly stated: "Our aim was to seek its weakest link, and bear only on that till time made the mass of it [Ottoman army] fall." Lawrence realized the dictums of war could be applied material as well as humans. The weak spots represented material not soldiers to Lawrence. "Yet to limit the art to humanity seemed to me an undue narrowing down. It must apply to materials as much as to organisms." He wanted to hit them hard enough to discomfort them but not hard enough to force them to relocated their troops in more efficient distribution.

"If he showed a disposition to evacuate too soon, as a step to concentrating in the small area which his numbers could dominate effectively, then we would have to try and restore his confidence, not harshly, but by reducing our enterprises against him. Our ideal was to keep his railway just working, but only just, with the maximum of loss and discomfort to him."

Lawrences purpose was to gradually starve the Ottoman army of materials. "The contest was not physical, but mineral, and so battles were a mistake." "Our tactics were always tip and run, not pushes, but strokes. We never tried to maintain, or improve an advantage, but to move off and strike again somewhere else. We used the smallest force, in the quickest time, at the farthest place."

The idea was to make the Ottoman army die from a thousand cuts of their material. Finally exhausted from the loss of supplies and materials, the Ottoman army would collapse. Allenby, however, never let Lawrence see the fruit of Lawrences efforts.

Obviously we have no idea how Lawrence would lead an insurgency in Iraq. But he left the requirements needed for his type of warfare:

* "It seemed that rebellion must have an unassailable base, something guarded not merely from attack, but from the fear of it."

* "It must have a sophisticated alien enemy, in the form of a disciplined army of occupation too small to fulfill the doctrine of acreage."

* "It must have a friendly population, not actively friendly, but sympathetic to the point of not betraying rebel movements to the enemy."

* "The few active rebels must have the qualities of speed and endurance, ubiquity and independence of arteries of supply."

* They must have the technical equipment to destroy or paralyze the enemy's organized communications, ... , of attack where the enemy is not.

As you can tell, his approach is a bit more sophisticated than the simplistic approach that Lt. Col. Bateman suggests of equating the Iraqi oil pipeline with the Hejaz railway. Of course, the real problem lies with the Clauswitzian paradigm clouding Batemans and the US military thinking. If one were to use Lawrences approach of a thousand cuts in Iraq, it would be directed at Coalition personnel. It would not be the military that would collapse but rather political support in the US and else where. It worked in Vietnam.



Thu, 05/01/2008 - 2:47am

Points that are missing:

1) Lawrence notes, immediately, that he is talking about bedouins and not urban populations. They require something else. Iraq's population is largely existent in urban centers. the problem would have been if we had concentrated only on securing Baghdad (as we did in the beginning) and not any other population centers. Baghdad would have been Medina.

Strangely, though, it turned into Zarqawi's Medina. The why of it is very simple and applies to the greater reason why Iraq and Baghdad are important.

Historically, Baghdad has been the center of the Islamic empire for many more centuries than Istanbul. It has a significance, both historically and ideologically, for any group, be that Al Qaida or Shi'ite Tehran. Much more so for the AQ variety because a good portion of their ideology is based on both real and mythological history. (One reason that they resemble Nazis and their quest for the third Reich).

I would say that, simply put, to lose Baghdad or to never gain it, is to lose Baghdad permanently. For the Salafists, anyway. The Iranians, if they are at all pragmatic, would consider the back door approach through politics and economic ties would give them leverage at a later date to "win" Baghdad.

2) One might note that the Bedouins of Lawrence's time had a significant advantage over, say, foreign fighters. Aside from the fact that they came from the tribes that were banned together, you can't say that the Bedouins drove into villages and massacred all the local people in horrific ways. Unlike, say, the AQ folks or even some of the hold overs from the Ba'ath or their own.

In fact, historically, it's the Turks that are more comparable to the AQ types in that regard. I recall two memorable moments, highlighted in the movie on Lawrence, both circling around the massacre of innocent villagers. One results in Lawrence, et al, attacking a column of Turks and giving back as good as the Turks had given. The second is the Bedouin who charges the Turks by himself. The shiehk explaining that the man was the last of his tribe that was earlier massacred by the Turks.

In short, there are some parallels, but it would take a pick up stick master to put all the pieces in some sort of context from the historical acts of others compared to recent acts to come up with a true comparison.

But, reversing what Bateman said, had the Bedouin set about massacring anyone they thought was even remotely connected to the Turks, threatened any tribe or village that had not joined them against the turks with complete destruction, etc. Would they have received the same protection and been revered as the liberators?

And, if the Turks had, instead of putting their boots further on the necks of the Arabs, in turn protected the populations and tribes from these roving bands of criminal murderers, then we would have had a Mao moment.

You know, where Mao explains that, if a guerrilla army cannot turn itself into an actual army with its discipline and real political concepts accepted by the population, they would be considered roving bandits that prey on the population, not legitimate representatives of the aspirations of the people.

If I was looking for a parallel to Iraq, that would be much closer to reality.


3) Who's Medina is Iraq? Who has to own it at all costs? Many here are certain that it is not the United States. That may be true, but I have rarely, if ever, seen anyone talking about why anyone else, rather AQ or Tehran might need to own Iraq.

In fact, AQ spent a lot of human, material and monetary resources to gain Iraq. To no avail, it would seem.

Does the United States lose out in its long term goals or does it win? I'm not talking about Iraq. I am talking about the long term goal to discredit, disrupt and, ultimately, destroy Islamic terrorism. Or, more succinctly, the Salafist ideology that foments the the kind of terrorism we have been subjected to.

I am not going to say that its perfect or that that long term goal is simply met and succeeded in Iraq, but it is an excellent start.

Ken White

Tue, 04/29/2008 - 1:08pm

A beautiful example of confusing raw military capability with political direction...

<i>"If LTC Gentile wants to draw eerie parallels to of my early mentors was a SF Advisor in 1965. He said at the time of LBJ's major infusion of troops the Army officers of Company and Field Grade rank thought they would drive into North Vietnam. We know what happened instead."</i>

The two are rarely synonomous.

Historical parallels suffer frequently from the same deficiency.

arifJAA (not verified)

Tue, 04/29/2008 - 1:53am

Excellent article, excellent points.

With the Iranian youth largely anti-regime why we can't do the same to them eludes me. It's more than justified.

I have a confession...when I came back in 2003 I thought Iraq was the toehold and we were going to sweep the least Iran and Syria. As the Iranian youth rose in spontaneous revolt at the time of the 2003 invasion I may not have been as foolish as I feel now, or perhaps I was not the only one fooled.

Anyone else care to share?

"*The American Army's seduction over Galula
*The Straight line drawn between Generals Abrams and Petraeus"

If LTC Gentile wants to draw eerie parallels to of my early mentors was a SF Advisor in 1965. He said at the time of LBJ's major infusion of troops the Army officers of Company and Field Grade rank thought they would drive into North Vietnam. We know what happened instead.


Mon, 04/28/2008 - 2:19pm

Another lesson can be drawn from the example of T.E. Lawrence - the negative effect of a disconnect between military success at a tactical and operational level and diplomatic and political efforts at a strategic or grand strategic level.

Lawrence was harrying the Ottomans but he was also part of a larger British imperial policy that favored the Sharif of Mecca, over his local rivals the al-Saud and al-Rashid, in his ambitions to become "King of the Arabs".

Had Lawrence been an utter failure, it would have made no difference to the outcome of WWI and Lawrence would simply have been a historical footnote. His success arguably strengthened British commitment to the despotic and incompetent Sharif to the point of - when the Sharif was defeated by Abdul Aziz ibn Saud -putting one of his sons on the throne of newly created Iraq and installing another in Transjordan.

Perhaps without the legend of Lawrence of Arabia and his Hashemites, the Brits might have drawn some ethnographically sensible borders in the Mideast.

Ken White

Mon, 04/28/2008 - 11:37am

Now there's a remark that cuts both ways...

<i>"The perils of turning history into sound bites of "lessons learned" applied with unobstructed straight lines to the present."</i>

I can agree with that.

Steve Blair

Mon, 04/28/2008 - 10:28am

It's an interesting piece, but I would have to say that it does skirt the fringes of what a previous commentator said it doesn't do: "The perils of turning history into sound bites of "lessons learned" applied with unobstructed straight lines to the present."

In terms of historical context, one has to look not only at the military capability of the Turks, but the limitations in their supply lines and the technology available to them to improve their lines of communication (and the ability of the army in the field to respond to and survive any sort of defeat). Lawrence also had the advantage of operating during a world war, so there was little political chance that the Turks would declare victory and leave (since they had a British army poised and ready to attack along their border).

Interesting piece, and it does bring up some good points for discussion and thought. But it also shows how easy it can be to take parts of history without considering the whole that created those parts. Would Lawrence's techniques have been as effective if the Turks had been able (or felt able) to abandon Arabia? Would they have worked without the pressure of a British field army behind them? Historical thought here is varied, with some contending that Lawrence would have succeeded no matter what while others point to the fact that Allenby's troops mounted the final effort and finally broke the Ottoman field army.

Gian P Gentile

Mon, 04/28/2008 - 8:13am

Brother Bob:

Great piece; I really liked this one.

I am jealous; I wish I had written it; but then if I had it would not have been nearly as good as yours.

It superbly points to:

The perils of turning history into sound bites of "lessons learned" applied with unobstructed straight lines to the present.

Request you take on these next two cases of the same problem.

*The American Army's seduction over Galula
*The Straight line drawn between Generals Abrams and Petraeus


Mark Pyruz

Sun, 04/27/2008 - 11:49pm

I would just add that there are aspects of the current Iraq War that certain Iranians view as a continuation of the Imposed War (Iran-Iraq War 1980-88), only this time it is the Americans engaged with various elements of the Iraqis, while Iran occupies the role the US enjoyed during the previous encounter.

Mark Pyruz

Sun, 04/27/2008 - 11:32pm

"If Lawrence were still around, working as a strategist for the Iranians, for example, he would certainly be advocating this position."-->Bateman

Three weeks ago, I provided a similar perspective on the Iranians for the same T.E. Lawrence quote. I agree with you, LTC Bateman.