Monday, January 18, 2010

T. E. Lawrence, American Strategist

A fine article by Bertram Wyatt-Brown, "Lawrence of Arabia: Image and Reality," in The Journal of the Historical Society, December 2009, pp, 515-48, traces the reputation of T. E. Lawrence (1888-1935) through the near-century since his remarkable exploits during World War I and his famed recounting of those events in Seven Pillars of Wisdom (1926).

Wyatt-Brown's account of Lawrence's role since 2006, when he had a deep impact on the American expeditionary force in Iraq, came as news to me.

He focuses on Lawrence's 2,800-word summary of lessons learned in war, published in The Arab Bulletin, August 20, 1917, and bearing the supremely modest title, "Twenty-Seven Articles."

In it, Lawrence offers his "personal conclusions, arrived at gradually while [he] worked in the Hejaz and now put on paper as stalking horses for beginners in the Arab armies." He adds that the rules "are meant to apply only to Bedu [Bedouin]; townspeople or Syrians require totally different treatment." His advice includes such insights as "Win and keep the confidence of your leader," "Be shy of too close relations with the subordinates," and "Cling tight to your sense of humour."

Wyatt-Brown explains the recent role of this slight, archaic document:

A renewed attention to Lawrence's military understanding of Middle East­ern insurgency may have been helpful in the reform of U.S. policy in Iraq, once General David Howell Petraeus took charge. According to journalist Linda Robinson, before assuming that command, the general had stud­ied Lawrence's writings at night.

He took special notice of the difficulties Lawrence had faced in organizing the Bedouins. Petraeus had his senior officers read "The Twenty-Seven Articles" and Seven Pillars of Wisdom. …

The chief reform under Petraeus's orders was in the conduct of officers and soldiers toward Iraqi leaders and civilians and in making armed alliances with Sunnis willing to break with Al Qaeda. …

Petraeus soon recognized that the Iraqi power struc­ture was rooted in tribal politics. Policies had to accommodate that Middle Eastern arrangement. … He adopted a major corner­stone of Lawrence's understanding of guerilla warfare. In the Army War College at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, Petraeus, David Kilcullen, and other strategists tirelessly worked out the new strategy, with Lawrence's observa­tions providing a helpful point of departure.

Like Lawrence himself, Petraeus used lavish distributions of money as the lubricant of good relations with the Iraqi tribesmen. He also adhered to Lawrence's dictum, "Do not try to do too much with your own hands" even if you can perform the mission better than the native forces. The general recast it as "the host nation doing something tolerably is normally better than us doing it well.

"Twenty-Seven Articles," writes Wyatt-Brown, "has become something of a bible for current American military experts dealing with the problems of occupying and controlling" Iraq. Indeed,

Lawrence earned the compliment of being almost plagiarized with­out a line of acknowledgment in the U.S. Army field manual for counterin­surgency. With Petraeus offering the Foreword, the document was compiled at Fort Leavenworth in 2005. Conrad Crane, a War College historian, and Lt. Col. John A. Nagl led a team of experts. When the University of Chicago Press published an edition, it received wide coverage that nearly made it a bestseller. A considerable number of passages, however, were paraphrasings of Lawrence's work, according to anthropologist Roberto Gonzalez.

Petraeus himself was willing to credit Lawrence for helping him develop his counterinsurgency ideas. The general pointed out in an article in Military Review that Lawrence had given this advice: "It is their war, and you are to help them, not win it for them," a notion, Petraeus declared, as "relevant in the 21st century as it was in his own time in the Middle East during World War I."

Wyatt-Brown sees the Lawrence-inspired shift as hugely consequential, perhaps saving "an enormous number of American and Iraqi lives." Ironically, "Lawrence's insights, though far less prominent, were more significant in [the American] Middle Eastern engagement than they had been in his own day."

He credits Lawrence's deep insights into tribal culture to several factors: "years of training in the study of the Near East, its history, and its traditions," learning colloquial Arabic, visiting the region in 1909 and traveling over 1,100 miles mostly by foot. These interests, Wyatt-Brown concludes, "grew out of his unconventional love of the Bedouins and their habitat."


(1) Traveling "over 1,100 miles, mostly by foot" in the Middle East constitutes an enviable education in itself.

(2) Great strategists sometimes have unusual, even eccentric backgrounds.

(3) The most difficult thing for a Westerner to learn about the Middle East – even more so than the Arabic language – is the abiding role of tribal culture. For a recent study, see Culture and Conflict in the Middle East (Prometheus) by Philip Carl Salzman, a book I have highly recommended.

(4) Military technology changed so much over the past century that contemporary warfare appears completely unlike World War I. But the human dimension hardly changed; thus does a Clausewitz or a Lawrence retain his importance.

Daniel Pipes

(See also this piece previously posted )

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