T. E. Lawrence and the Art of War in the Twenty-First Century

Posted on July 13, 2011
By George W. Gawrychl

If there were a hall of fame for modern military theorists, Thomas Edward Lawrence would deserve a place in it. In his dual role of theorist and practitioner of the art of war, Lawrence demonstrated the power of military theory for developing appropriate strategy and tactics in war. In working effectively with the leaders of the Arab Revolt in World War I, he left insights for forging a successful coalition to defeat a common adversary. By embracing the Bedouin Arab way of war, he was able to develop a theory of guerrilla warfare that still holds relevance today. In light of the above achievements, Lawrence should stand as a model for military officers as they prepare intellectually and emotionally to face the challenges of the twenty-first century.Ljohnpencil

Lawrence’s exact role in the Arab Revolt, it must be noted, remains a subject of much controversy. Lawrence certainly has had his many detractors and skeptics. There is no denying, however, that Lawrence is worthy of commendation for his service in Arabia. Not only did he see extended combat in one of the harsher environments of the world, the Arabian desert, but he clearly played an important role in a number of significant military operations. For assisting the Arabs in capturing the port of Akaba in July 1917, for example, Lawrence received a promotion to the rank of major from the British Army and the Croix de Guerre avec palme et citation a l’ordre de l’Armée from the French government. The Ottomans, for their part, offered a five thousand pound reward on his head.

Overall, Lawrence did help coordinate Arab military operations with the British war effort against the Ottoman army in Palestine. Yet his exact achievements will always be subject for disagreement. But as Jeremy Wilson, the leading British authority on Lawrence, has noted: “After the war, fellow officers who had seen his work at first-hand said that his contributions had been outstanding. Although some of these witnesses may have exaggerated, others were men of high integrity. Their testimony cannot be entirely groundless.” Whatever his exact role in the military operations, Lawrence proved a keen observer and a gifted writer. This is the legacy that concerns us here.



By the time of his arrival in the Hejaz in October 1916, T. E. Lawrence was ready to carve for himself a place in modern military history. At the age of fifteen or sixteen, Lawrence began reading books on military history and theory. He entered Jesus College at Oxford University in 1907 with a view of studying modern history. His passion for military subjects led him in 1909 to spend four months in Syria and Lebanon conducting research on Crusader castles. After returning to England, he completed his bachelor thesis in 1910, entitled The Influence of the Crusades on European Military Architecture—to the End of the XIIth Century, which was eventually published as Crusader Castles. From 1910 to 1913, Lawrence conducted archaeological research in the Middle East at Carchemish on the Upper Euphrates.

With war in Europe on the horizon, the British Army enlisted his service in helping map the Sinai Peninsula, a project that resulted in the publication of a book entitled The Wilderness of Zin (1915). The fieldwork, conducted under the supervision of a regular British officer, exposed Lawrence to a systematic evaluation of the military value of terrain.

The outbreak of World War I found Lawrence fully engaged in London completing his study of the Sinai. Upon its completion, Lawrence joined the army as a lieutenant. Because of his experience in the Middle East, within a short time the British Army assigned him to its intelligence branch in Cairo. There he renewed his acquaintance with Gertrude Bell (1868–1926), whom he first met in May 1911. This Englishwoman came to Cairo to work in the British intelligence service because of her extensive experience living and traveling in the Middle East. She proved an invaluable source for firsthand knowledge of Arab tribes and tribal chiefs, no doubt providing Lawrence with useful insights into Bedouin society for his future assignment in Arabia. Her information complemented that which Lawrence had gained from his own readings on Arab history and society, including the famous work by Charles Montague Doughty (1843–1926), Travels in Arabia Deserta, originally published in 1888. Doughty has been regarded as the greatest of all English travelers in Arabia, and he certainly commanded Lawrence’s great admiration.

Lawrence’s assignment to the intelligence branch in Cairo proved an excellent final step in preparation for work among the Arabs. Here, for almost two years, Lawrence was able to amass “an encyclopaedic knowledge of the Ottoman Empire, and also of the Turkish army and its dispositions. Each day an immense amount of military and political information passed through his hands.” This steady flow of information attuned Lawrence to the higher issues of warfare, the interplay of policy and military operations, especially beginning in August 1915 when Sherif Hussein, the emir of the Islamic holy cities of Mecca and Medina, first offered the British an Arab alliance against the Ottomans.

By October 1916, Lawrence was well prepared for his assignment to Arabia. As a result of serious study, extensive travel, and several years of residence in the Middle East, Lawrence was proficient in the Arabic language. He also possessed an impressive knowledge of Arab society, a knowledge that served him well in Arabia as a British liaison and advisor to the Arabs in revolt against Ottoman rule. His intelligence work gave him a good understanding of the strategic background for the British-Arab alliance. As a citizen-soldier, he found it easier to transcend the general conservatism of professional officers and to coordinate Arab military operations with the British campaign in Palestine and Syria. Well-read in military literature, Lawrence possessed the intellectual sophistication necessary to articulate his military experiences and observations into a coherent theory of irregular warfare. All this stands as no mean accomplishment for even a regular officer.


Lawrence and Military Theory

When Lawrence landed in Jidda on October 16, 1916, the Arab Revolt was in full swing. Sherif Hussein, the emir of the Islamic holy cities of Mecca and Medina, had revolted, with British and French assistance, against Ottoman rule in Arabia. Arab tribes loyal to Hussein had already captured most of the Hejaz, including Mecca but not Medina. Hussein commanded his tribal armies through his four sons Abdullah, Feisal, Ali, and Zeid. Initially, British command in Cairo sent Lawrence to Arabia in order to gather intelligence on the revolt. Rather quickly, however, he gained the confidence of Sherif Feisal and remained in the Hejaz to serve as his British liaison.

In advising the Arabs, Lawrence came to appreciate the importance of military theory, the power of placing under one yoke intellect and action. Basil Liddell Hart, his most famous military biographer, claimed that “As a boy T. E. always thought that he was going to do great things, both ‘active and reflective’—‘I hadn’t learned you can’t do both’—and determined to achieve both.” Certainly by the time he reached Arabia, Lawrence realized that successful action demanded critical thought. Effective thinking, in turn, required an appropriate theory or philosophy of war. There in Arabia during World War I, Lawrence turned to military literature for understanding and guidance. His successful service in the Arab Revolt attests to the importance of theory for sound action in war.

Advising the Arabs demanded a sophisticated understanding of war. As a military advisor, Lawrence, now a captain, faced more than a tactical problem. Politics and strategy weighed more heavily than tactics in such an assignment. Lawrence had to link the Bedouin style of warfare with the Allied goal of defeating the Ottoman army in Palestine and Syria. This task required him to strike a harmony between discordant interests and strategies, a formidable undertaking even for a regular officer. Yet Lawrence proved up to the task.

Fortunately, Lawrence possessed the intellectual background necessary for this work. His studies in modern history included a solid foundation in both military history and military theory. “In military theory, I was tolerably read,” Lawrence once remarked. This statement is quite modest, but his professional reading was impressive by the standards of any day. Indeed, he was familiar with the works of Clausewitz, Jomini, de Saxe, Moltke, du Picq, Guibert, von der Goltz, and Foch. These theorists were all noted for their insights into conventional warfare.

Sound military theory is essential for conducting war at a level higher than the tactical. Without it, officers must rely only on their own training, experiences, and intuition. Sound military theory, on the other hand, develops the intellect. It provides an intellectual framework for analyzing the essence of war. It allows officers to analyze war in its various forms, such as conventional war, guerrilla warfare, civil war, or people’s war. It develops their critical thinking and judgment; officers learn how to think, rather than what to think. This is exactly what Lawrence needed in his role of liaison to the Arab Revolt: a theoretical framework from which to conduct a systematic analysis of his theater of operations.

Initially, Lawrence had little time to reflect seriously and critically about his theater of operations. Upon arriving in the Hejaz, Lawrence saw “a crying need for action,” so he uncritically relied too much on instinct in developing his initial courses of action. However, in March 1917, a combination of boils, dysentery, and malaria laid him up in a tent in Abdullah’s camp in Wadi Ais for some ten days. During this rather lengthy convalescence, Lawrence turned to serious thought and critical analysis. He searched, in his own words, “for the equation between my book-reading and my movements.” He sought to connect theory with practice, the abstract with the concrete. Only then could a compass be found with which to negotiate through the Bedouin world of warfare.

Maurice de Saxe (1696–1750) provided Lawrence the theoretical foundation for his own theory of guerrilla war. Writing nearly two centuries earlier, in 1732, de Saxe found that generals were too preoccupied with tactics, marches, and formations and that they therefore ignored the intellectual aspects of war: “very few men occupy themselves with the higher problems of war. They pass their lives drilling troops and believe that this is the only branch of the military act.”14 As a result of this preoccupation, these generals were neglecting critical analysis of “the higher problems of war,” including those of strategy and campaign planning. Like Lawrence, de Saxe had difficulty finding time to dwell on these higher problems. And like Lawrence, de Saxe had to suffer illness to gain the time necessary for serious reflection and writing. During thirteen days of convalescence, de Saxe wrote My Reveries Upon the Acts of War, a treatise on war that remains a classic today. This work provided Lawrence with a theoretical framework for appreciating of the Bedouin way of war in Arabia.

Lawrence left his own body of military literature, perhaps modest in quantity but certainly impressive in quality. His Seven Pillars of Wisdom stands out among all his writings. Unlike most military memoirs, which are mainly a record of personal challenges and triumphs, Seven Pillars of Wisdom can be read as an insightful study of Arab tribesmen and their way of war. Lawrence also left for future generations of officers a significant article entitled “The Evolution of a Revolt,” published in 1919. In only fifteen pages, Lawrence succinctly articulates his theory of guerrilla warfare, one that also appears in expanded form in Seven Pillars of Wisdom. In addition, in 1917, while in the midst of his assignment in Arabia, Lawrence filed “Twenty-Seven Articles,” a report in which he offered principles for working effectively with Arab Bedouins in coalition warfare. Together, these three writings constitute excellent professional reading for the intellectual development of officers, especially in the art of irregular and coalition warfare.

The United States Army should place a premium on military theory in the education of its officer corps. From a safe distance, it appears to do so. “Know thyself and know thy enemy” goes the famous dictum in the profession of arms. The military academy at West Point, the staff college at Fort Leavenworth, and the war college in Carlisle Barracks stand as august educational institutions with global reputations. The staff and war colleges are meant to prepare officers for the higher levels of war, and military theory should have a prominent place in the curriculum of both schools. A close examination of the United States Army, however, reveals a very different reality. American military culture enshrines technological superiority as the United States Army’s magic bullet in warfare. Officers generally shun military theory, and the army values field experience over schooling in promotion of its officer corps. “Those who can’t [command], teach” has been a popular attitude in the army. This anti-intellectual statement suggests a dichotomy between thought and action, a dichotomy that the best officers have always sought to overcome.

The Vietnam War stands as a tragic example of this anti-intellectualism in the armed forces. Professor Douglas Pike, a noted expert of that conflict, evaluated the attitude of the United States military toward the Communist Vietnamese as “vincible ignorance”: one does not know, one realizes one does not know, and yet one feels no need to change the fact that one does not know. Pike summarized the lack of critical thought thus: “No high-level permanent institution was created to analyze enemy strategic thinking. . . .No significant biographical studies of enemy leaders were done. . . . One can search the voluminous Pentagon Papers in vain for extended discussions of the other side, any discussion at all. . . . Work on order of battle generally was good; politics of the Politburo was hardly touched.” General Bruce Palmer, Vice Chief of Staff of the United States Army from 1968 to 1973, concurred with Pike’s assessment: “Yet, the truth is that the US was basically ignorant about the enemy’s character and strategy” (my italics). According to this line of reasoning, the enemy was all tactics and no strategy, and American technology and idealism would defeat his national will. No hard, critical, reflective thinking was necessary. Rather, the quest for maintaining the initiative and seeking a decisive battle remained the holy grail of United States military operations. Superior technology would provide the means for victory.

Despite the tragedy of the Vietnam War, anti-intellectualism remains a part of American military culture today. The profession of arms in the United States is generally not a reflective one. In an article published in 1984, Huba Wass de Czege, then a colonel in the United States Army, underscored that American military culture encourages its officers to be doers rather than thinkers, disposing them to seek practical solutions to problems rather than rely on theoretical approaches to problem-solving. Practical knowledge and personal experience far outweigh the importance of military theory, and the latter is often viewed as too abstract to have any concrete value. In direct response to this general attitude in the United States Army, Wass de Czege, who eventually rose to the rank of brigadier general, argued that military theory should serve as a foundation for meeting the challenges of reform and innovation.

Little has changed in the United States Army since the publication of Wass de Czege’s article some sixteen years ago. Personally, with each passing year at the United States Army Command and General Staff College (at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas), I am more and more surprised at the general lack of serious reflection or analysis by individual officers or by the larger military institution on how the United States Armed Forces, together with its allies, defeated the Iraqi army in the Gulf War. In fact, today, the United States Army is too busy integrating new technologies into its force structure in preparation for its next major war to encourage critical examination of how the Gulf War experience might unconsciously be shaping that preparation. Critical introspection suffers as a result of a heavy reliance on technology for solving military challenges in the future.

Lawrence’s service in Arabia, however, stands in sharp contrast to the general bias against military theory in American military culture. Lawrence demonstrated the importance of linking theory to practice. His insights into the nature of guerrilla and coalition warfare warrant serious consideration.


Military Theory of Irregular Warfare

To help him fulfill his mission in Arabia, Lawrence had to appreciate the Arab way of war. As underscored by Clausewitz nearly a century earlier, “The first, the supreme, the most far-reaching act of judgment that the statesman and commander have to make is to establish . . . the kind of war on which they are embarking, neither making it for, not trying to turn it into, something that is alien to its nature. This is the first of all strategic questions and the most comprehensive.” Lawrence fulfilled this need admirably.

Warfare falls into two broad categories: conventional and unconventional. Conventional warfare refers to wars fought between regular armies in traditional battles, with the primary military objective being either to defeat the adversary’s army or to seize and hold strategic terrain. To ensure victory in conventional war, commanders are expected to bring large forces together in mass and firepower in order to defeat an opponent’s army. Battle becomes the centerpiece of strategy and tactics. Unconventional warfare, on the other hand, refers to irregular warfare, people’s wars, or guerrilla warfare. This kind of war requires a very different mindset and very different tactics and strategy. Irregular forces lack the men and material to engage a regular army in a major battle, and therefore they resort to a strategy of defeating small parts of the main army, most often with hit and run tactics. Bedouin Arabs were centuries-old practitioners of guerrilla warfare.

To achieve success in Arabia, Lawrence needed to understand the nature of guerrilla warfare. Here, he came to embrace de Saxe as his military mentor. Lawrence regarded the eighteenth-century Austrian general and theorist as “the greatest master of this kind of war.” De Saxe offered a theory of war based on the model of a general who practiced the dictum that “a war might be won without fighting battles.” Whether Lawrence was aware of this or not, others had presented a similar ideal. Some 2,500 years earlier, Sun Tzu, the most famous Chinese theorist of war, wrote that “the highest excellence is to subdue the enemy’s army without fighting at all.” By arguing for a military strategy based on maneuver without battle, de Saxe provided Lawrence with a theoretical framework for negotiating the Arab world of war with purpose and direction.

Lawrence could see direct application of de Saxe’s theory of avoidance of battle to the unconventional warfare of Arabia in the twentieth century. In Bedouin society, battle carried an importance markedly different from that of European mass armies waging war on the continent. The Bedouin generally nurtured a sensitivity to high casualties. Europe’s bloody battles of World War I waged over weeks or months made no sense in an environment where the population was scarce, the desert vast, and the organization tribal. In Arabia, seizing fertile ground, maintaining personal honor, or capturing prize booty often carried more weight in developing military strategy than the conventional aim of defeating an army in bloody engagements.

De Saxe’s theory of war without battle as a centerpiece of military strategy gave Lawrence a theoretical base from which to analyze and appreciate the Bedouin way of war. Inspired by de Saxe, Lawrence developed his own concept of a “war of detachment.” Avoid seeking the enemy’s strength in battle; instead, conduct a strategy based on raids by 100 to 200 tribesmen against targets designed to unbalance the adversary. “Our tactics were always tip and run, not pushes, but strokes.” To deny the Turks lucrative targets, the Arabs naturally resorted to the principle of employing “the smallest force, in the quickest time, at the farthest place.” In other words, the Arab strength lay in employing a raiding strategy. Battle should be engaged only under the most favorable conditions. This was the essence of Bedouin warfare.

The main elements in Lawrence’s theory of irregular warfare may seem obvious and simple today. In his day, Lawrence experienced an institutional bias in the British Army toward conventional strategy and tactics: “We all looked only to the regulars to win the war. We were obsessed by the dictum of Foch that the ethic of modern war is to seek for the enemy’s army, his center of power, and destroy it in battle.” Although Sherif Hussein wanted European weapons and technicians to help him defeat the Ottoman army at Medina in a major battle, the Bedouin Arabs couldn’t be transformed into a Western army. They rejected formal discipline and the training programs designed to break individuality for the purpose of forming cohesive combat units. Instead, the tribes preferred to fight under their own sheikhs as individual warriors and as members of tribes. Even an adept Arab leader such as Feisal could not easily mix tribes together. And when Arab regular units were imported from Egypt, Syria, or Iraq, tensions between them and the tribes often hampered military operations.

Lawrence understood these limitations and was frustrated by them at times. In August 1917, after the capture of Akaba by the Arabs, he wrote in a letter to Clayton: “Of course it would be nice and much simpler for us if the Arab Movement emerged from the bluff-and-mountain pass stage, and become a calculable military problem: but it hasn’t yet, and isn’t likely to.” Despite all the Arab military weaknesses, Lawrence still found much to be admired in the Bedouin way of war: “Do not try to trade on what you know of fighting. The Hejaz confounds ordinary tactics. Learn the Bedu principles of war as thoroughly and as quickly as you can, for till you know them your advice will be no good to the Sherif. Unnumbered generations of tribal raids have taught them more about some parts of the business than we will ever know.” Where others focused on Arab weaknesses, Lawrence saw, in the words of General Palmer, “character and strategy” among the Bedouins.

In developing his own theory of irregular warfare, Lawrence identified three key elements for analysis: the algebraic, the biological, and the psychological. In understanding the interplay of these three elements, he was able to appreciate the strategy and tactics that would allow the Arabs to play a complementary role in the British effort to defeat the Ottoman army in Palestine and Syria. A careful reading of his short analysis helps officers sharpen their own analytical skills.

“The algebraic element of things” refers to the physical environment that has shaped warfare in the Hejaz. For Lawrence, this was the decisive element. Here war is part science, depending on mathematical calculations with which to analyze the fixed condition of time, space, and terrain. Using simple math, Lawrence calculated the size of territory held by the Arabs in relation to the number of Ottoman troops in theater. The Ottomans, with only 16,000 troops in Arabia and with a shortage of staunch Arab allies among the tribes, lacked enough soldiers in order to establish effective control over 140,000 square miles of territory. Geography, the vast desert, gave the Arab Revolt sanctuaries that the Ottomans could not seize and hold for any length of time. As noted by Lawrence, “to make war upon rebellion is messy and slow, like eating soup with a knife.” The Arabs possessed safe havens in the vast desert and therefore had the time to conduct a protracted struggle. They received critical assistance from the British Army, an army that posed a serious threat to Palestine. Consequently, the Ottoman High Command felt it could ill afford to spare additional troops to quell the Arab uprising. Foreign assistance and a distracted enemy proved a window of opportunity for the rebellious Arabs.

Lawrence was right in his systematic analysis. Safe havens, foreign assistance, and an undermanned opponent are important factors in helping an insurrection achieve success. The Vietnamese communists used safe havens in Laos, Cambodia, and North Vietnam to defeat the United States; the Afghans, for their part, relied on Pakistan and the mountainous terrain of Afghanistan to place a nail in the Soviet coffin. In each case, one superpower provided vital assistance to a smaller ally to help defeat the rival superpower.

Moreover, both the United States and the Soviet Union limited their war efforts. Each, for example, set limits on its troop levels so as to not overstrain the home front. Neither superpower, therefore, committed enough troops to secure the countryside. By placing major constraints on themselves, both superpowers played to the enemy strengths based on geography, time, and will. Meanwhile, both the Vietnamese and the Afghans were committed to total war and thus were willing to engage in bloody battles.

After analyzing geography, Lawrence next addressed the human dimensions of warfare, which he called “the biological element of lives.” Here, war is part art, for human beings are involved in waging it. Intangibles such as genius, fear, heroism, and morale lay outside the domain of quantitative analysis. The irrational exerts its own powerful influence over military operations. Biologically speaking, Arab tribesmen were masters of the raid, capable of employing strategic mobility across vast stretches of desert. However, unlike the Vietnamese or the Afghans, the Bedouins were disinclined to wage bloody battles with heavy casualties in a total war effort.

Yet the art of war includes both the human and the material. The Ottoman Empire was beset with economic woes so that, according to Lawrence, the loss of material proved a greater drain on resources than the loss of soldiers. The Arabs could turn the Ottoman material weakness into their own strength. Without a heavy reliance on a base of operations for logistics, Bedouin warriors could easily disappear into the vast desert, only to appear suddenly elsewhere to destroy a bridge, cut the railway, seize a supply train, or overrun an outpost. In a bolder move, the Arabs could, through a strategic maneuver, suddenly attack and defeat an Ottoman garrison. Such was the case when, much to the surprise of the British, slightly over five hundred Arabs seized Akaba on July 6, 1917, after having traversed inhospitable desert to attack the port city from an unexpected direction. The Arabs could move with stealth through the desert, appearing at the appropriate time for an attack. The result was, in the words of Lawrence, “a vapor, blowing where we listed.” Strategic mobility was an Arab strength, offsetting their weakness in sustaining casualties. “Our cards were speed and time, not hitting power, and these gave us strategical rather than tactical strength. Range is more to strategy than force.”

But against what specific target or targets should these raids focus? In Cairo, Lawrence had spent much of his time analyzing the Ottoman army in Arabia. Initially, he viewed Medina as the locus of Ottoman military power whose conquest would give Sherif Hussein a decisive victory. But a well-entrenched Ottoman garrison defended the second holiest city in Islam, and the Arabs lacked the conventional power and will to seize this prize at a price of heavy human loss. After the Ottomans failed to take Rabegh en route to capture Mecca, Lawrence and the Arabs captured Wejh, a small town some two hundred miles north of Rabegh. From here, the rebellious Arabs posed a direct threat to the Hejaz Railway, the only communication and supply link between the Ottoman garrison at Medina and Palestine. Some five hundred miles of railway separated Medina from Ma’an in Transjordan. The Hejaz Railway thus served as the lifeline of the Ottoman army in Arabia, a lifeline vulnerable to attack.

In order to protect his only line of communication, the Ottoman commander had to divide his force in two, one to protect Medina and the second to guard the railway. By this decision, he effectively lost a maneuver force to challenge the Arab tribes with offensive operations. The desert thus became an even greater sanctuary for the Arabs as the strategic initiative now clearly passed to Sherif Hussein. As Lawrence noted at this juncture of the war effort, “perhaps the virtue of irregulars lay in depth, not in face.” The mere threat to the railway, backed by sporadic raids, was enough to pin down some sixteen thousand Ottoman troops in Arabia. The Ottomans saw their military power immobilized as they placed their main effort on defending Medina and the railway. The Ottoman garrison at Medina held out until the end of the war, left to wither on the vine of the Hejaz Railway.

Finally, the third element in Lawrence’s military theory was “the psychological element of ideas.” Initially, Lawrence failed to grasp this dimension: “I had not seen that the preaching was victory and the fighting a delusion . . . as Feisal fortunately liked changing men’s minds rather than breaking railways, the preaching went better.” Here was the imperative of gaining and maintaining legitimacy for a rebellion through spreading the word. The use of force or threats to convince tribes could lead only to internecine tribal warfare. Propaganda, whenever appropriate, was a more effective tool. According to Lawrence, psychological warfare had to target three main audiences: one’s own troops, those of the enemy, and the civilian population, in this case the townspeople and the tribes. Their guerrilla warfare had to be presented as a struggle based on a noble cause: Arab independence from Turkish rule. Propaganda helped forward the Arab Revolt; the printing press served as a useful instrument in this regard. Today, CNN and the Internet have replaced the printing press, but the nature of the problem is much the same. In a rebellion, ideas are important in the quest for legitimacy and loyalty.

In irregular warfare, the importance of national will, or, in this case, tribal opinion, is hard to exaggerate. Lawrence thus came to understand and appreciate the importance of this psychological element. After all, war is a social phenomenon, and irregular warfare takes on the dimension of a struggle for the hearts and minds of the people. Lawrence, however, was under no illusions. He understood that the Bedouin tribes were often won over to the cause not so much by words as by the money provided by the British to the tribal chiefs. Primary loyalty remained with the tribe, and its collective action could often be bought for a price.

In developing his theory of irregular warfare, Lawrence embraced the Bedouin world unlike his peers. The tribes taught him much about warfare in the desert. He came to understand the limited nature of his conflict and avoided trying to transform the Arab Revolt into something alien to its nature. He learned to appreciate the interaction of the material, the human, and ideas in such warfare. He gave proper attention to the factors of safe havens, foreign assistance, a dispersed enemy, and a friendly population. In the end, Lawrence proved quite successful in articulating the essential features of guerrilla warfare.


Coalition Warfare

True to his desire to marry action and contemplation, Lawrence gave serious thought to his mission within a British-Arab coalition. He came to admire the Bedouin warriors and recognized their character and strategy. Many British officers, however, failed to share his admiration for the Bedouin and instead affected a superior attitude and behavior. Others were willing to learn, but needed instruction. To address this general problem, Lawrence felt compelled to offer advice on bridging the cultural gap between the British world and that of Arabia. In his “Twenty-Seven Articles,” he offered practical wisdom for those British officers assigned to Arabia. He published this report a month and a half after the Arabs had captured Akaba. The underlining message was quite clear: the Bedouins were worthy of admiration for their unique way of war. Despite particular circumstances, many of his principles for dealing with the Bedouin serve as excellent advice for officers assigned to work in any coalition.

In his report, Lawrence underscored the necessity of openness and flexibility. His introduction cautioned that “handling Hejaz Arabs is an art not a science, with exceptions and no obvious rules.” One could make the same statement for any coalition partner. There are no easy answers or shortcuts to gaining an understanding of a foreign society. To be effective in Bedouin society involved acquiring as much information as possible about the region’s leaders and the tribes themselves. Near the end of the report, he emphasized that “the beginning and ending of handling Arabs is unremitting study of them. . . . Your success will be just proportional to the amount of mental effort you devote to it.” In conducting his own intelligence assessments, Lawrence stressed the importance of learning power relationships among the Bedouins. British officers, for example, had to appreciate the difference between a sherif and a sheikh in Bedouin society. And Lawrence remained true to his own advice. As late as June 1918, he was hard at work gathering and analyzing material on the political loyalties and history of the northern tribes as the Arab Revolt moved north from Akaba to Damascus. Military commanders generally do not seek such knowledge, though publicly all would champion its value. Over eighty years later, for example, General Norman Schwarzkopf, the commander of Western forces in Operation Desert Storm, would fall short on this score. Khaled bin Sultan, who commanded the Arab coalition in the Gulf War, wrote of the American general: “the people, the leading personalities of Arab politics, the families, the customs, attitudes, language, history, religion, way of life—indeed all the complexities of our Arab world—were as foreign and unfamiliar to him as they are to the average American.” As commander of United States Central Command responsible for the Middle East, Schwarzkopf should have possessed some depth of knowledge on these subjects, at least enough to impress his Arab hosts. But in this regard, he failed.

In addition to cultural knowledge, Lawrence argued for a proper attitude toward one’s ally in order to avoid unnecessary friction and problems. He counseled patience, respect, tact, and even a good dose of humility. The foreign officer had to take time to ingratiate himself into the inner circle of a tribe in order to gain its trust. He had to resist the temptation to give orders or to seek the spotlight at the expense of his hosts. Tribes would naturally resist following foreigners, and it took effort and skill to have them coordinate their military action with that of a Christian nation. To help maintain the coalition, Lawrence advised the sharing of glories with an ally, if at all possible: “Strengthen his prestige at your expense before others if you can.” He championed common courtesy in dealings with the Arab: “If we are tactful, we can at once retain his goodwill and carry out our job.” Writing years later, Khaled bin Sultan unknowingly confirmed much of Lawrence’s advice. The Saudi general found some fault with Schwarzkopf’s attitude and behavior in dealing with Arabs during Desert Shield and Desert Storm: “I believe he never fully grasped my overriding concern to ensure that we did nothing during the war that might compromise out postwar future.” For instance, there could be no hint that Saudi sovereignty was in any way compromised in deference to American power. As Khaled noted, “My public appearance as the Saudi commander had to be as impressive as his, down to the smallest detail.” Meetings between the two commanders, for example, had to take place in Khaled’s office. Schwarzkopf could not have more bodyguards or vehicles in his entourage than those possessed by his Saudi counterpart. Such seemingly little things mattered much to the Saudis. They were deeply concerned about legitimacy of the Saudi regime, which already had been compromised, to some degree, by the king inviting Western troops into his country. Had Schwarzkopf read Lawrence’s “Twenty-Seven Articles,” he would have better prepared for dealing with Saudi leaders.

No doubt, many of Lawrence’s insights into the nature of coalition warfare derived from direct observation. Feisal was attempting to organize a coalition of Arab tribes that failed to see themselves as a single nation. Tribal chiefs guarded their independence fervently. In reality, Feisal lacked unity of command. Rather, he commanded by the consent of the Bedouin tribal chiefs. In such a fragile coalition of Arab tribesmen, Feisal had to be more of a diplomat than a commander. He had to be careful not to alienate tribal leaders with orders but rather to coordinate military operations through verbal persuasion, often laced with monetary and material incentives. He was, in fact, attempting to lay the foundations for a future state as well as waging a war against the Ottomans. Maintaining this all-important coalition proved his main effort.

Arab tribesmen expected Feisal to play the traditional role of tribal sheikh. In this regard, Lawrence merely depicted his patron as that ideal. According to Lawrence, Feisal gave access to all, never cut short petitions, showed extreme patience and self-control, demonstrated goodwill and humor, and exhibited tact by never allowing anyone to leave his presence “dissatisfied or hurt.” Cynics and skeptics have criticized Lawrence as a Western imperialist who portrayed Feisal as a “noble savage.” Yet Lawrence’s description conformed to the tribal leader idealized by the Bedouins themselves. Moreover, this style of leadership makes sense in coalition warfare. Dwight D. Eisenhower practiced it to some degree as supreme Allied commander in Europe during World War II. He, for example, demanded collegiality and courtesy from subordinates and staff, tried to reach decisions by consensus, and devoted most of his time to coalition politics. To avoid unnecessary friction, American soldiers received a booklet instructing them on British customs and habits. For demanding deference to the British, Eisenhower received criticism from fellow Americans for catering, in some instances, to the British at the expense of the Americans.

Lawrence approached his assignment with a mindset similar to that of Eisenhower in World War II. He also stressed flexibility, adaptability, and collegiality in dealing with the Bedouin. His guidelines, however brief and focused on Bedouin society, remain a valuable source for addressing proper attitude and behavior in any coalition. National arrogance and cultural insensitivity remain sources of friction and antagonism in any multinational war or peace support operation. American officers, as they study the nature of coalition warfare, should give serious thought to Lawrence’s insights on the subject.

Study of Lawrence’s military career in Arabia does point to one major challenge in coalition warfare: competing interests among allies. On this score, Lawrence found himself serving two masters. He represented British interests to the Bedouins but also attempted to champion the cause of Arab independence, especially as the rebellion moved north toward Damascus and, after the war, in the peace negotiations in Paris. Lawrence felt duplicitous for his part in negotiating the labyrinth where these two worlds—British and Arab—intersected politically and militarily. The effort left Lawrence with guilt. He came to believe that he had failed the Arabs. American officers might learn from Lawrence that they must be prepared to strike a harmony between competing interests in multinational operations. The stakes are always high, and they are often personal as well as political.



Much to his credit, Lawrence demonstrated the importance of military theory in warfare. Officers today should study his career and writings for the ways in which they challenge the profession of arms.

First, officers should set aside time for serious reflection on their profession, and military theory is an important tool in this endeavor. Reading the military classics is essential for intellectual development in peacetime. Second, coalitions, whether in war or peace support operations, will remain a feature of the United States’ military deployments in the future. Lawrence offered some necessary principles and guidelines that are indispensable for officers who are assigned to work with an allied army.

Third, officers should study Lawrence’s theory of guerrilla warfare and the way he arrived at it. As the only superpower left after the Cold War, the United States Army continues to focus its main effort on preparing for conventional warfare. Currently, however, peace support operations absorb much of the army’s time and resources, and the military establishment rather reluctantly embarks on these missions. Meanwhile, army education devotes little attention to unconventional warfare. In preparing for the challenges of the twenty-first century, the United States Army must educate its officers in the entire spectrum of conflict, from global war to peacekeeping. It can ill afford to be selective in its preparations. For his part, Lawrence offers a military theory that effectively addresses guerrilla warfare, that part of spectrum between conventional wars and peace support operations.

Regardless of the controversies about his personal life, Lawrence stands a model of the importance of wedding theory and practice in warfare. The United States Army relies too heavily on technological superiority to compensate for the anti-intellectualism of its military culture. Lawrence’s military career in World War I attests to the importance of intellectual preparation of officers. The twenty-first century promises to have many surprises across the spectrum of conflict. Studying Lawrence will help prepare American officers for the unexpected challenges of the profession of arms in the future.



Excerpted from The Waking Dream of T. E. Lawrence: Essays on His Life, Literature, and Legacy by Charles M. Stang.

Copyright © 2002 by the author and reprinted by permission of Palgrave Macmillan.



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