Small Wars Journal

Lawrence Forward

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

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