Small Wars Journal

Understanding Lawrence's Article 15

Sat, 11/28/2009 - 7:33pm
"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, Twenty Seven Articles, Article 15

T.E. Lawrence's quote has become quite possibly the most over-used quotation by the U.S. Army in recent memory. Nearly every military presentation regarding our recent conflicts has some form of it embedded in the text. Nearly all U.S. military officers can parrot it with rote precision. However, application of Lawrence's wisdom in the field remains spotty. One doesn't have to look far to find accounts of U.S. soldiers and advisors emulating Larry the Cable Guy's "Git r' Dun" philosophy to prevent failure in Iraqi (or Afghan) forces. Sometimes this is required, but too often our own hubris and self-perception as the all-knowing American military overcomes the wisdom of listening to the host nation.

I learned this lesson the hard way in Tal Afar, Iraq. From March-May 2006, my company engaged in a difficult struggle for control of the Hai al Sa'ad neighborhood in the northwest part of the city. We established a platoon base in mid-March to take back neighborhood from the insurgents. Over the following month, my soldiers engaged with the enemy daily in the form of IED's, suicide bombs, and mortar attacks. The perpetrators of the attacks were elusive, escaping into the urban landscape as quickly as the IED detonated. Frustration built among the troops I had sent to secure the neighborhood, as they could garner no useful information from the local citizens they were trying to protect. The insurgents seemed to move freely in the neighborhood, crossing along a winding and deep wadi connecting to an adjacent insurgent dominated neighborhood. We knew they moved back and forth to conduct attacks in Sa'ad, but my scout/sniper teams and reconnaissance assets were unable to find them. I considered erecting a barrier along the length of the wadi, but I did not have enough troops to watch any barrier emplaced. It had been beat into my head since I was a lieutenant that "any obstacle that cannot be watched is not an obstacle to the enemy." So I decided against emplacing the wire.

In early April the mayor of Tal Afar offered the assistance of 50 newly trained Iraqi Police (IP) to assist in pacifying the neighborhood. He placed them under the command of his IP motor pool chief, Lieutenant Colonel (LTC) Ali. LTC Ali was a fit and personable individual, and spoke English well. A former officer in Saddam's army, he was the nephew of a prominent local sheik. His police were brand new, and I didn't have a clear read on LTC Ali's competence. At our first meeting, he suggested erecting a barrier along the wadi that was giving us trouble, saying it would curtail the attacks. I demurred, citing my military education. Since we didn't have forces to constantly secure it, I saw it as a waste of time and resources. LTC Ali smiled and demurred to my obvious superior wisdom.

Over the following two weeks our patrols continued to be attacked. We incurred more casualties, including the loss of one of my soldiers to an IED while on foot patrol. Frustrated, I met with LTC Ali, now a trusted confidant, and sought his advice on the seemingly intractable problem. Predictably, he advised me to emplace the barrier along the wadi. Exasperated, I agreed and resourced the concertina wire and pickets from battalion. Two days later a combined force of Iraqi Army, Iraqi Police, and U.S. Army combat engineers erected 400 meters of triple strand concertina wire along the winding wadi through its scrub vegetation. We cautioned the local populace that tampering with the wire meant arrest or possible engagement by our forces.

Emplacing Sa'ad Wire

Following emplacement of the wire, attacks dropped to zero. Insurgent activity disappeared in Sa'ad. Combined with growing security patrols, the neighborhood became a model of success. LTC Ali's IPs expanded and provided the backbone of the expanding security. Dumbfounded, I swallowed my pride and asked LTC Ali why the barrier worked when everything in my military education said it shouldn't. "Simple," he replied, "in Saddam's era you would never tamper with a barrier. To do so meant death. Even today, Saddam's legacy carries with us and influences the people's behavior." I then realized that in counterinsurgency, the locals often know the best and most relevant solution, which may not match the book solutions or conventional wisdom. In my arrogance, I failed to take into account the powerful social and cultural forces at play in the area. The meaning of the second half and often-omitted part of Lawrence's 15th Article hit me like a baseball bat - "Actually, also, under the very odd conditions of Arabia, your practical work will not be as good as, perhaps, you think it is."


Niel (not verified)

Tue, 12/01/2009 - 3:10am


I am always too hard on myself. As you know, worrying about the lives of your soldiers daily drives you to some form of perfectionist OCD. I also simplified this story a great deal to keep it blog length, so key details are omitted. But the bottom line is the IP's secured the success in Sa'ad at the end of the day, not US or even IA soldiers.

I could write volumes about what I learned from LTC Ali, his IP peer LTC Hussein, and my partnered IA CDR and XO. Once we got them off the ground and logistically supported, they were more than capable of handling security themselves.

Bottom line, I should have placed them up front sooner.

(BTW, story was in Tal Afar, not Ramadi)

Wise words Niel. Thank you for taking the time to share them so that we can all learn; however, I will take issue with your suggestion that,

"In my arrogance, I failed to take into account the powerful social and cultural forces at play in the area."

I find this admission dismissive and irrelevant.

- In what manner were you arrogant?
- Did you make your decision based on self-promotion or to gain an immoral advantage? Certainly not.
- How did you come to your decision? You used every manner of thought and reason instructed to you throughout your military career. Your answer was of sound thought, sober-minded, and reasoned judgement.

Maybe, in the bigger scheme of things, your answer was wrong. Maybe not. Physical barriers may work at certain times in Iraqi society, but they are not a silver bullet solution. I can name about 567 suicide bomber that overran barriers to achieve their goals.

So, let's go back to LTC Ali. If he was wise and all-knowing, why did you and your men have to deploy to Ramadi to help him?

Maybe this type of discourse is what TE Lawrence was referring to.



James Harris (not verified)

Sun, 11/29/2009 - 6:00pm

Herewith a small tangent to the main article -- I would add that even a "bayonet charge" (or tomahawks, or whatever) -- whether by an individual or any size group -- is more of an "intellectual" exercise than it might appear. As a physical killing device, it is puny, especially in the modern context. But its real power is psychological. There's more respect/fear of the guy willing to do it close and personal.

Umar Al-Mokhtār

Sun, 11/29/2009 - 12:37pm

I agree with CavGuy that too often many statements like this are misinterpreted or wrongly applied. Another trite COIN saying that I feel is overused is TEL's "irregular warfare is far more intellectual than a bayonet charge." This from a man who, prior to 1914, had spent no time in uniform and had zero formal military training when commissioned on the General List through the efforts of acquaintances from his days spent as an archaeologist in the Middle East. As to leading the Arab Revolt that too is a huge stretch made of his role primarily as a liaison and adviser to the Hashemite forces of Sayyid Hussein bin Ali (unfortunately too many people seem to formulate their view of Lawrence by taking David Lean's film as history, Lowell Thomas' reporting as gospel, and from a superficial reading of Lawrence's Seven Pillars). This view also ignores the contributions of several other regular British officers seconded to the Arabs who rendered support on par with TEL (but without the best selling book.

I do not mean to denigrate TEL's accomplishments, I admire what he did in advising the Arab forces supporting Allenby's campaign in Palestine. However, one must keep his contribution in its proper historical perspective. If anything, Lawrence's role post-war was much more significant. He was a principle player in assuring that Hussein's son Fisal was able to participate in the post war partitioning of the world at Versailles. This ensured that the effects of Sykes-Picot were somewhat watered down for the Arabs. Yet the "insurgency" of the Arab Revolt proved to be a failure, even Hussein's self proclamation as King of the Hejaz and malik bilad-al-Arab was soon rendered irrelevant when he was driven from Mecca by the forces of ibn Saud.

Lawrence's statement is currently bandied about as if it is a celebrity endorsement for today's advocates of COIN (the COINdinistas) while ignoring that it really is comparing apples to oranges. While a bayonet charge, in and of itself, may seem a simple thing (Fix bayonets! Charge!) it is only a very small part of the entire effort of leading in combat. Lawrence's statement pointedly ignores the often Herculean mental effort it takes to bring armies into contact. I take TEL's statement more as one wherein he deftly places his accomplishments, as a well educated amateur no less, far above those of professional British officers, like Haig, who have often been portrayed as too simplistic in tactical thought to "think out of the box" and thus blindly ordered repeated bayonet charges across No Man's Land on the Western Front (the first day on the Somme being the archetype).

A more eloquent deconstruction of the statement is posted here:

It is unfortunate that much of our national strategy is influenced by early 20th Century versions of "sound bites."

Mike (not verified)

Sun, 11/29/2009 - 4:29am

An excellent tactical example we are wise to consider extrapolating to the operational and strategic level. Arguably, the conditions in Iraq began to improve after we were humbled and set aside our hubris; we set aside our designs on the imposition of a Jeffersonian democracy in favor of a pragmatic leverage of existing tribal power structures in order to win over critical spheres of influence, culminating in an open engagement and relationship-based dialogue that led to the success we've enjoyed there. It's a wonder that we can't even see it in our own nation's capital, where so much of what really matters when trying to accomplish stated or unstated ends depends on ones ability to leverage relationships, that we seem so eager to ignore this crucial aspect of those cultures with which we are now engaged.

I've never been to Afghanistan, so the following words I type are barely worth the bits they consume to send. Nonetheless, it seems to me that the best way ahead is not a blank check of resources measured in men and money written to those who are mired in the daily struggles of necessity and challenge, but rather a comprehensive analysis of the personalities that truly matter in that country, and the pursuit of key leverage points we can access through careful application of all the resources the strongest nation in the history of the world can bring to bear. With any luck, that's what the painful decision-making process at the highest levels has concluded as well.

Paul (not verified)

Sun, 11/29/2009 - 12:16am

Sometimes, “why” is a very time-saving question.

Paul from Canberra (not verified)

Sat, 11/28/2009 - 10:07pm

A very good article that clearly shows your point.

That rule about "any obstacle that cannot be watched is not an obstacle to the enemy." is not only a rule in the American army but also the Australian Army.

I would have made the same decision as well.

I think this shows that you need to be open minded about everything including your military training. Its hard questioning your training as it has been developed over many conflicts.

I reckon if you had deploying commanders read this article they would be more receptive to listening to their Iraqi/Afghanistan colleagues.