T. E. Lawrence, American Strategist
by Daniel Pipes
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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:
"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,
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.
Jan. 18, 2010 update: Mea culpa. No sooner did this article get posted and mailed than I realized that Lawrence is being invoked not as a strategist but as a tactician.
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