Lawrence of Arabia on war: How the past haunts the present

The Lawrence legend continues to win new devotees while his pragmatic contribution to warfare is neglected.

Thomas Edward (of Arabia) Lawrence riding a camel
(Original Caption) Thomas Edward (of Arabia) Lawrence riding a camel. Photograph.

The past haunts the present. Everywhere one looks, there are relics, some physical, some institutional, and others intellectual. Thomas Edward Lawrence, better known through the epithet Lawrence of Arabia, was a military intelligence officer, sent to liaise with Arab irregular forces fighting the Ottoman Empire in the First World War. He is considered the intellectual wellspring of guerrilla warfare, and his reputation became legendary, but his ideas were, in fact, specific to his context. It was thanks to the publicist Lowell Thomas that Lawrence became a media sensation. He is now the subject of hundreds of publications. His own memoir, Seven Pillars of Wisdom: A Triumph is much acclaimed, but Lawrence has subsequently appeared in films, comic strips, and a video game, and he is often cited by military personnel, most especially in recent conflicts against insurgents.

There are three major approaches to Lawrence which indicate the power of the past to haunt the present. The first is ‘Lawrence of legend’, where his personality and war experiences have been the subject of intense scrutiny. The second is ‘Lawrence as a military thinker’, a rather misunderstood legacy. The third is the ‘contemporary Lawrence’ and how his ideas are borrowed, reshaped, and reused for the purposes of the present.

The Lawrence legend was constructed in the aftermath of the First World War. For a public coming to terms with the severe casualties of an impersonal, industrial war, which had been characterised by long periods of stalemate on all the fronts, Lawrence represented the restoration of individual human agency. He was, for the war generation, a heroic figure, not unlike the air aces, and a man upon whom values and courageous attributes could be endowed. For the new generation of the 1920s, Lawrence’s admission of his anti-heroic flaws and a degree of anti-establishment rhetoric in his writing had an appeal too. Lawrence could speak across generations and the style of his memoir was more akin to Chaucer, Malory, and Shakespeare than contemporary war literature.

Lawrence represented a pre-war and pre-industrial idyll, and his writing gave a glimpse of exoticism in its portrayal of Arabia that was tantalising. It captured the sentimentality towards an imagined Biblical Middle East. The Bedouin he described were heathen and sometimes barbaric, but redolent of a lost civilisation, and somehow familiar, fraternal, and stoic. Lawrence’s visualisation of the desert was artistic and escapist. He made elaborate and evocative observations about the landscape, but also about the nature of war, the nature of humanity in war, and nature itself.

While there may be traces of fine travel writing in Lawrence’s description of the desert, the appeal of his Seven Pillars was far more human. His work is arresting because it is a story of failure: hints of personal failure, of a failure to unite Arabs or to gain their independence, and a failure to be honest with his comrades about their relative value compared with the great global issues at stake. There is a wide appeal here, since Lawrence articulated that sense that we are all, at times, buffeted by vast events beyond our control, by the pain of loss, and suffer the sense of shame at personal failings.

Before the war, Lawrence was a student at Oxford with a deep fascination for archaeology and medieval fortresses. The ancients gave him a style of writing to emulate, and Homer’s Odyssey was undoubtedly a favourite. Lawrence’s description of feasting in the desert in 1917 is a replica of the Homeric dining of Odysseus. His interest in the medieval era also conferred on Lawrence a strong desire to live up to the standards of the chaste, courageous knights of Malory’s Morte D’Arthur, with a powerful sense of personal mission. Lawrence gave himself physical tests. He also set himself apart from his fellow students to study, to dissect, and to reconstruct decision-making by historical figures. Here was no passive reader of history, but someone eager to understand how actions were taken and why. He famously claimed to have ‘refought the campaigns of [the Duke of] Marlborough’, through this critical method of examining process rather than just the outcome.

Lawrence read extensively the works of military history, citing Belisarius, Hannibal, Caesar, Guibert, Jomini, Bourcet, Napoleon, and Maurice du Saxe and Clausewitz, and learnt about the concept of a revolutionary, people’s war. This was also the foundation of Lawrence’s focus on the human dimension of war. He picked up on the ideas of Ardant du Picq, the French officer of the 1860s who had penned Battle Studies

Man is the fundamental instrument in battle … Nothing can be prescribed … without knowledge of the fundamental instrument, man, and his state of mind, his morale, at the instant of combat.

Breaking the enemy’s will to resist by inflicting casualties is the goal of the Clausewitzian conception of war, but it is extremely difficult to achieve. By contrast, du Picq seemed to suggest that degradation of will, and accumulated fears and anxieties, can, over time, create the same effect. Material degradation can also have an impact on the willingness of combatants to sustain operations, although the relationship is far from mechanistic. Of this revelation, Lawrence later wrote: ‘Napoleon … first gave me the idea: Ardant du Picq widened its application’.

When war came in 1914, Lawrence had already travelled extensively in the Sinai, Levant, and Syria on archaeological expeditions and he was assigned to what became the Arab Bureau in Cairo on intelligence and mapping duties. In 1916, he was despatched to work as a liaison officer with the Hashemites and other divided Arab clans of the Hejaz who were in revolt against the Ottoman Empire. Faced with a well-equipped, mobile and more powerful enemy, the Arab revolutionaries of Mecca stood little chance of success. The Ottoman army was far too strong for the Arab irregular forces to apply the conventional doctrines of war. Their inexperience in modern arms made defeat inevitable. After the first setbacks, Lawrence knew that he had to reconceptualise how his Arab partners could fight.

Lawrence recognised that the traditional military emphasis was on concentrating maximum force against the strongest element of the enemy, to bring about a decisive battle, and to complete operations in the shortest time in order to avoid the exhaustion of limited resources. Lawrence stood this idea on its head. He minimised the algebraic aspects of physical force, numbers and equipment, in favour of pressure on the bionomic necessities (food, water, rest) of the enemy and greater stress on the diathetic or hecastic elements, that is, the cognitive and psychological. Lawrence intended to use space and time to his advantage, to make his Arab partners elusive by using the depth of the desert, and, ultimately, to make the Ottoman soldier afraid of his environment.

Rejecting his ‘pompous, professorial beginning’, Lawrence ‘took refuge in Arabia[‘s context]’, and wrote:

I was getting through my subject. The algebraical factor had been translated into terms of Arabia and fitted like a glove. It promised victory. The biological factor had dictated to us a development of the tactical line most in accord with the genius of our tribesmen. There remained the psychological element to build up into an apt shape. I went to Xenophon and stole, to name it, his word diathetics, which had been the art of Cyrus before he struck.

The war in the desert was a hard struggle, primarily against the environment but also involving great nerve against a more numerous and better-armed Ottoman adversary. Lawrence encouraged raiding against the railway lines that supplied Ottoman forces, while trying to keep his partners out of reach of patrols or larger formations. The campaign was thus one of hit and run raids, dynamiting, and sniping. Crucially, the Arab fighters could not be entirely certain of the allegiance of their own people so there was a constant threat of betrayal. The Ottomans attempted to undermine the revolt by recruiting Arab partners of their own and by references to Islamic obligations or loyalties to the Caliph. Alignments in the campaign were thus fluid. This was a conflict where maintaining morale and local intelligence were critical to survival.

Lawrence’s greatest triumph was in July 1917, when the Arab force under Feisal, the son of Sharif Hussein of Mecca, emerged from the greater hinterland of Arabia’s desert and seized the strategic port of Aqaba, an event which seemed to indicate that this hitherto insignificant revolt had great potential. Yet the autumn of that year was a bitter disappointment. Lawrence’s mission from Aqaba into Syria was a disaster. That winter, the Arab cause began to fragment, and morale was at a low ebb. Indeed, the entire revolt lost momentum. Worse was to follow. At Amman in the spring of 1918, rival Arab clans betrayed the Sherifian forces and their British allies, which led to a significant setback. The defeat of the Arab fighters at Ma’an seemed to seal the fate of the Hashemite revolt.

Nevertheless, returning to guerrilla operations, Lawrence continued to harass his enemy’s railway lines. The Ottomans responded with brutal reprisals. There was a period of stalemate: Arab revolutionaries could not take the defended settlements the Ottomans chose to hold, but, equally, the Ottomans could not spare the manpower to inflict a decisive defeat on the Arabs. The stasis was broken in 1917–18 when British Imperial forces under General Allenby, defeated the Ottomans at Gaza, in the Judean Hills, and finally at Megiddo (the Biblical Armageddon), which turned the tide. While the Arab forces in the south maintained their blockade of the Ottoman Medina garrison, Lawrence and northern Arab forces, now equipped with supporting armoured cars, machine gun teams, and aircraft, severed the crucial rail links to the south, made assaults on some defended railway junctions, and then attacked the retreating Ottoman forces in the final stages of the campaign.

Lawrence had been successful at winning and sustaining a network of fighters by working through local leaders, while his campaign of deception and demoralisation through attacks on the fabric and infrastructure of enemy resources had contributed to keeping the resistance alive. But raiding was a high-risk activity. Local forces were often very unreliable and there were frequent disputes between them. Ultimately the success of the revolt was really dependent on General Allenby’s vast Egyptian Expeditionary Force in Palestine. If the Allied conventional forces had been defeated, it is unclear how Lawrence’s resistance could have survived. The war in the Middle East was won by hard power and mass, not by Lawrence’s guerrilla campaign.

Nevertheless, Lawrence’s ideas on guerrilla warfare or insurgency, and his deductions about war, have had a lasting influence. First of all, Lawrence believed war was not entirely a random and chaotic activity, for there were systems, or principles, which could be applied. He admitted the importance of a grounding in military theory when he was so inexperienced and had not the intuition of veteran officers. Despite making use of a great variety of classical, medieval and modern texts on war, Lawrence believed there were common linear steps and a necessary sequential approach to strategy and operations. He wrote:

Of course, I had read the usual books (too many books), … but I had never thought myself into the mind of a real commander compelled to fight a campaign of his own.

The battlefield was therefore Lawrence’s most important teacher. He noted: ‘The practice of war which followed on my book study seemed to clarify my sight, and I thought I could see war whole.’

Lawrence admitted his initial ideas were wrong. He thought one Arab ridgeline position was inviolate, but: ‘The Turks suddenly put my appreciation to the test … They broke through my impregnable hills in 24 hours.’ Lawrence deduced: ‘They proved to us the second theorem of irregular war – namely, that irregular troops are as unable to defend a point or line as they are to attack it.’

This changed his entire view of the conflict in the region:

In the emergency it occurred to me that perhaps the virtue of irregulars lay in depth, not in face, and that it had been the threat of attack by them upon the Turkish northern flank which had made the enemy hesitate for so long.

Soon after, Lawrence advised that the Arab irregulars move the base of their operations up the coast to Wejh, and noted that this manoeuvre forced the Ottomans to pull back all the way to Medina lest their flank was threatened. The ‘threat’ of Arab irregular attack was to be used to create an ever-extending flank against the Ottomans. If the Turkish commanders felt that their lines of communication, which ran from Medina to Syria, were under threat, they would be compelled to post larger and larger numbers of men to protect them. If the Arabs could remain concealed, and strike at points along this elastic line, then Lawrence believed he could fix the Ottomans and absorb their greater mass in inert defence.

Lawrence reversed the dictum that victory depended on ‘the destruction of the organised forces of the enemy’. He wrote:

… and as I thought about it, it dawned on me that we had won the Hejaz war. We were in occupation of 99% of the Hejaz… This part of the war was over, so why bother about Medina? … The Turks sat in it on the defensive, immobile, eating mules, the transport animals which were to have moved them to Mecca, but for which there were no pastures in their now restricted lines.

Lawrence argued that the guerrilla strategy had compelled the Ottomans to stay on the defensive in the Hejaz, without mentioning the fact that the Ottomans regarded the region as a low priority. The Arabs did not ­constitute a serious threat, compared with the presence of a large British army in Palestine. Lawrence tended to downplay the importance of conventional­ military power which had enabled the success of the Arab insurgents. He did so for well-known political reasons: his objective was to try and show that the Arabs were capable of operating without Western support and this autonomy reinforced the claim to independence. This shows that subsequent attempts to follow Lawrence’s maxims to the letter are erroneous: it certainly calls into question Lawrence’s claims about the impunity of the guerrilla.

The Ottomans retained a garrison in Medina, not because Lawrence and the Arabs had ‘fixed’ them, but to deter any further movement the British might consider into Palestine, to threaten Arab homelands, and to act against any British thrust from their foothold at Aden. Even the British forces in Mesopotamia were of greater concern than the Hashemite uprising. The Ottomans maintained their Sixth Army on the Tigris to prevent any further British advances towards Baghdad, and they detached elements of this force to assert control in Persia. This context is important because Ottoman and British military planners had a far more extensive field of view than Lawrence who operated along narrow avenues into the Hejaz, Jordan, and Syria.

Lawrence’s observations on the psychological effect of guerrilla operations are far more reliable. He claimed that the unfavourable military situation he had observed compelled him to reconsider the relative importance of material and psychological factors. He wrote:

In each [tactics and strategy] I found the same elements, one algebraic, one biological, a third psychological. The first seemed a pure science, subject to the laws of mathematics, without humanity.

This element dealt with time, space, fixed conditions, topography, railways and munitions. Lawrence calculated that the Ottomans could not defend the 140,000 square miles of Arabia, particularly if the Arab forces were ‘a thing invulnerable, intangible, without front or back, drifting about like a gas’.

He surmised that armies were

like plants, immobile as a whole, firm rooted, nourished through long stems to the head. We [the Arab forces] 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 perhaps we offered nothing material to the killing.

Lawrence was saying, in effect, that as long as a population and a revolutionary force was free to manoeuvre and remain concealed, appearing as ephemeral ‘as a gas’, it could retain the initiative. The ability to strike at any point would act constantly on the mind of the enemy, but would not trouble the insurgent, who could choose the time and place of his brief exposure to risk. Where, in conventional war, Lawrence noted that: ‘both forces [are] striving to keep in touch to avoid tactical surprise’, by contrast, he noted that, in guerrilla warfare:

Our war [was] a war of detachment: we were to contain the enemy by the silent threats of a vast unknown desert, not disclosing ourselves to the moment of attack.

This risk element was important. Lawrence believed the Arabs ‘would not endure casualties’. To him, the loss of an individual not only left a hole in the thin ranks of his guerrilla force, it also extended ‘rings of sorrow’ through the population. While they were prepared to fight for territory, he felt they were also fighting for freedom, ‘a pleasure only to be tasted by a man alive’. He was critical of the notion of ‘absolute war’, advocated by the likes of Clausewitz or Foch, and argued that there were other forms, dynastic, expulsive and commercial, which achieved the goal of winning without necessarily a great deal of fighting, in the manner of Maurice du Saxe, ‘to reach victory without battle, by pressing our advantages mathematical and psychological’.

The ‘ways’ of minimising casualties, while still creating the psychological effect, fostered the ‘unconscious habit of never engaging the enemy at all’ and thus the Ottoman troops would be deprived of targets. The prerequisite was excellent intelligence, and judgment whether to make a strike, or wait until better opportunities arose. In the guerrilla phase of his campaign, in 1917 and early 1918, this was largely true, although he was engaged in some minor skirmishes, and then, in later 1918, his Arab partners were involved in much more sustained conventional fighting.

Bionomics, the supply question, had a part to play in the campaign. Soldiers must eat and drink, and the Ottomans’ supplies were scarce and precious: consequently, Lawrence’s objective was to destroy not the army, but its material support. This included railway lines and bridges, livestock, or water sources to inflict ‘wear and tear’ on the enemy. The biological needs of an army, when affected, could reinforce the ­psychological effects, which Lawrence believed took precedence. Short of supplies, the Ottoman soldier had to endure the heat, hunger and oppressive silence of the wastes before him, peering endlessly into the shimmering haze or blank night, remaining constantly vigilant, and aware of the ever-present possibility of attack.

Lawrence aimed to reinforce the psychological element, believing the mental preparation of his fighters was vital. Lawrence asserted:

We had to arrange their minds in order of battle, just as carefully and as formally as other officers arrange their bodies; and not only our own men’s minds, though them first; the minds of the enemy, so far as we could reach them; and thirdly, the mind of the nation supporting us behind the firing line, and the mind of a hostile nation waiting the verdict, and the neutrals looking on.

Preparing the mind of ‘the crowd’ was solely to get it to the point ‘where it becomes fit for action’.

He spoke of the cultivation of ‘what in them profits the intention’, that is, in other words, exploiting the latent beliefs that already existed.

But action also had a part to play. As the campaign evolved, so the balance between risk and the need for tangible and material success increased. Lawrence wrote that Allenby had ordered the Arabs to move against Deraa, but there were insufficient forces available in time to meet his deadline:

The truth was, he cared nothing for our fighting power, and did not reckon us part of his tactical strength. Our purpose, to him, was moral, psychological, diathetic; to keep the enemy command intent upon the trans-Jordan front. In my English capacity I shared this view, but on my Arab side both agitation and battle seemed equally important, the one to serve the joint success, the other to establish Arab self-respect, without which victory would not be wholesome.

The motivation of the Arab forces occupied much of Lawrence’s time as an advisor. He concluded, somewhat romantically:

We were a self-centred army without parade or gesture, devoted to freedom, the second of man’s creeds, a purpose so ravenous that it devoured all our strength, a hope so transcendent that our earlier ambitions faded in its glare. As time went by our need to fight for the ideal increased to an unquestioning possession, riding with spur and rein over our doubts.

To answer the critics who pointed to the divisions amongst Arabs and their lack of national sentiment, Lawrence claimed Arab nationalism was distinct. It did not manifest itself in institutions, but in small, parish-scale communities. There was little sympathy among the Bedouin for nationalists in Syria. Lawrence was told by his men that, if the Ottomans had not killed all the Syrian nationalists during a clampdown in 1915, then it ‘would have been our duty as Arabs to do the work’, since they were seen as too close to Western notions of governance. Lawrence concluded that educating the population, so they were ‘taught to die for the cause of freedom’, was sufficient for success.

Since the Arab fighters were all volunteers, any of them could return home whenever they felt so inclined. Lawrence noted: ‘Our only contract was honour.’ Consequently, ‘we had no discipline, in the sense in which it is restrictive, submergence of individuality, the lowest common denominator of men.’ Lawrence believed:

The deeper the discipline, the lower the individual efficiency, and the more sure the performance. It is a deliberate sacrifice of capacity in order to reduce the uncertain element, the bionomic factor, in enlisted humanity.

But Lawrence’s critique of discipline reflected more his personal preferences for freedom of action. He made no mention of the value of unison, synchronisation, or the ability to withstand the pressures of war. Even in disciplined armies there was always still room for individual creativity and exhibitions of courage.

In stressing the simplicity and individuality of Arab fighters and making the claim that ‘the efficiency of each man was his personal efficiency’, Lawrence elided over the shortcomings of Arab irregular fighters. In doing so, he romanticised all revolutionaries, ignoring their violence and brutality. This was especially true when it came to the psychological motivation of his guerrillas. When attacking Ottoman posts, trains and settlements, including Damascus, there were reprisals and looting. Money was much more important as a motivation for the fighters than Lawrence was prepared to admit.

The Arab factions were also divided by feuds and jealousies at times, despite Lawrence’s emphasis on the unity of the cause, but he did his best to make a virtue of the issue to maintain effect. He wrote:

The distribution of the raiding parties was unorthodox. It was impossible to mix or combine tribes, since they disliked or distrusted one another. Likewise, we could not use the men of one tribe in the territory of another. In consequence, we aimed at the widest distribution of forces, in order to have the greatest number of raids on hand at once, and we added fluidity to their ordinary speed, by using one district on Monday, another on Tuesday, a third on Wednesday. This much reinforced their natural mobility. It gave us priceless advantages in pursuit, for the force renewed itself with fresh men in every new tribal area, and gave us always our pristine energy. Maximum disorder was in a real sense our equilibrium.

Lawrence could not see that the local leadership was using him for its own ends. Far from being a nationalist struggle for the sake of Arabism, this was a bid for dynastic security by Sharif Hussein of Mecca and an opportunity to replace the Ottoman secularists in Istanbul with a Caliphate under his leadership. Hussein believed that the war was opening up the opportunity to fulfil a long-cherished ideal, but he knew he lacked the means to fulfil it unless he could get the British to assist him.

Lawrence knew that encouraging pan-Arabism could help overcome some of the social divisions that plagued the Arab revolutionary cause. But it was Allenby who provided the resources and the psychological breakthrough at the Battle of Megiddo in September 1918, without which the Arab cause would probably have failed. Lawrence’s forces had been defeated in their attempt to capture the railway junction at Ma’an, which damaged the image of an invincible progress towards victory, underscoring the importance of actual and continued military success to any psychological momentum. The Hashemites were discredited amongst many Arabs by being in league with the British and French; they were accused of rebellion, criticised by other prominent leaders, including Ibn Saud, and seen as militarily ineffective without substantial British backing.

Allenby saved the resistance by making use of the Arab forces, seeing their value not in assaulting fortified towns but in creating deception. On 16 September, covered by aircraft of the Royal Air Force, Lawrence’s Arab irregulars conducted a series of guerrilla actions against Deraa, which inspired more local Arab tribes to join the revolt and drew in Ottoman reinforcements. While Allenby broke three Ottoman armies in Palestine, Deraa was taken by the Arabs on 26 September, and, joined by the British, they set off immediately towards Damascus. British and Indian cavalry cut off Ottoman forces making for Beirut and Homs, while Lawrence’s partners conducted a vigorous pursuit of their own. By 30 September, the combined British and Arab force was at the Syrian capital.

Despite the attention focused on this victory, Lawrence argued that his approach was not really ‘war’ in its classic sense. He speculated that a purely ‘revolutionary’ method might have yielded greater results:

The Arabs nearly made shipwreck through this blindness of European advisers, who would not see that rebellion was not war: indeed, was more of the nature of peace – a national strike perhaps. The conjunction of Semites, an idea, and an armed prophet held illimitable possibilities; in skilled hands it would have been, not Damascus, but Constantinople which was reached in 1918.

The war of detachment, the mobilisation of peoples, and the emphasis on setting an example as the means to educate a population, all these were seized upon by subsequent revolutionary war theorists and some practitioners. Lawrence’s fundamentals of guerrilla warfare have been copied, emulated, and adapted ever since, with varying degrees of success. Interestingly, Lawrence’s operations were less successful than that of the Irish insurgents in 1919–21, where violence was a costly failure but passive resistance produced independence.

Part romantic, part political pragmatist, Lawrence was guided by a sense of chivalric mission from an imagined past, but he struggled with his own personal failings and weaknesses. By the mid-1920s he was a disappointed man, not least because the cause he had embraced, namely the creation of a territory for all Arabs, was unrealisable in the face of local divisions.

It suited Lawrence’s generation, and many since, to allege betrayal and bad faith by Western leaders, not least because of the contradictory blueprints they produced during that war. Many of the allegations stemmed from Lawrence’s own doubts about his role. He never resolved the differences between his identity as a British officer, working within intelligence, and the proximity of the Arabs he was charged to guide. His personal difficulties also came from his sense of collective obligation and the more egocentric desire to seize opportunities thrown up by the First World War. Yet, in the end, it was the agency of the Arab peoples themselves that determined the divided space of the Middle East region. Lawrence was familiar with the minds of the men in the Near East, but it was a relationship limited by time and the extraordinary pressures of the war.

For Lawrence’s ideas to be transmitted from the past, he didn’t just have publicity, he had a champion in the form of Basil Liddell Hart, the most prolific British military writer of the twentieth century. Liddell Hart is synonymous with the concept of indirect warfare, with the substitution of manpower on the battlefield with manoeuvring armoured forces and combat aircraft, all of which can be traced from his engagement with Lawrence after the First World War. Even the centrality of the psychological dimension, diathetics, can be found in Liddell Hart’s work. He wrote, for example: ‘The indirect approach is closely related to all problems of the influence of mind upon mind’, an echo of Lawrence’s reference to having to organise the minds of one’s own forces and then influence, where they can be reached, the minds of the enemy personnel. Liddell Hart’s emphasis on the indirect approach, seeking to avoid heavy casualties, led him to ignore the exceptions to his rule, a fault that Lawrence would not permit of himself. Similarly, for all of the enthusiasm for partisan forces operating against the Nazis, they could not achieve the same strategic effect as the conventional armies of the Allies. Lawrence’s legend had a distorting effect on the appeal of romantic guerrilla fighters.

The greater frequency of insurgencies and guerrilla conflicts after 1919, through to recent times, also gave Lawrence’s ideas longevity. As soldiers, revolutionaries, and political leaders sought to understand the mechanisms of revolutionary warfare, so Lawrence’s ideas were evoked again and again. Lawrence’s views on insurgency and partnering with local forces were especially influential in the United States’ campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan after 2001. John Nagl, a champion of the doctrine of counter-insurgency, noted:

What Lawrence gave us was an appreciation of how difficult the task is in understanding that we have to work through our local allies.

Lawrence was added to the military curriculum of the United States Army, and one could not escape references to the 27 Articles, especially the oft-cited 15th, which states:

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.

The unfortunate consequence of this mantra is that it may have created a reluctance to act decisively, lead, or direct when appropriate. The problem with all doctrinal codes is that they can be applied dogmatically rather than as a guideline or suggestion. Lawrence’s ideas are invoked at moments that seem far outside of their context. Locals don’t always know best, and Lawrence was all too aware that local forces can be unreliable or pursue their own agendas. Like axioms on war, derived from other thinkers of the past, they cannot be applied unthinkingly.

Herein lies Lawrence’s greatest contribution to military thought and practice. He argued for the understanding of war through intense study and condemned slavish adherence to doctrine. He was compelled to adapt his own theory when confronted by the harsh reality of war. He identified the value of confidence and morale and understood the importance of intelligence. He accepted that guerrillas could only be a distraction and that alternative ways and means had to be found to have the remotest chance of success. His approach was not limited to psychological warfare and an indirect approach, but a deeper consideration of the situation. He believed in challenging assumptions and made use of a wide variety of historical cases to seek out the optimum solution. If, in his age, conventional war favoured the defensive, in time, he said, it would eventually shift to the offensive, and orthodox assumptions would have to be rethought. ‘Back and forth we go’, he concluded wryly. He cautioned against simplified and confident assertions based on a handful of selected cases, claiming that his own ideas were the result of ‘hard brain work’ leavened by equally hard experience.

Lawrence was an advocate, not only of irregular war, but of the diplomacy that was required to convert military action into lasting political change. He was compelled, by force of circumstance, to adapt his approach. This was the essence of war. In both the conflict and in the peace-making, he was dependent on a particular context, namely the scale and influence of the British Empire, to achieve his ends, as his own efforts were not successful. Making use of Lawrence in a superficial way can miss this important aspect of the way in which he operated. Ultimately, as he reminded Liddell Hart, he was an advocate of the comprehensive study of war. Knowing human limits and adapting to the context were his critical contributions to our understanding of war. It is for this reason he concluded that, if we must fight, with two thousand years of experience behind us, there are no excuses for not fighting well.

Lawrence of Arabia on War: How the past haunts the present by Rob Johnson was first published in Past and Present, 2020, Axess Publishing


Rob Johnson