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Most have heard of ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ as an Oscar-winning movie or perhaps, more recently, as the tough character who fights the Ottoman Turks in the Xbox game Battlefield One. An American military officer at a conference a couple of years ago in Kentucky told me: ‘I had no idea this guy was real; I mean, it’s just a legend, right?’
It is no accident that we see Thomas Edward Lawrence this way. He was a young misfit British Lieutenant who advised Arab insurgents on how to fight the Ottoman regular army in the deserts of Arabia. He was one of dozens of officers tasked with this mission, fighting deep behind enemy lines. It was the forerunner of Special Operations Forces. But Lawrence’s dynamite raids on Turkish railroads caught the attention of Lowell Thomas, an American entrepreneur in the entertainment industry.
Lowell Thomas went out to the Middle East during the war, taking pictures and moving images of General Sir Edmund Allenby’s British Imperial Army in 1918. Despite the awful conditions for filming, he could at least make use of the constant light and the drama of the Biblical backdrop to his story. He spent a few days amongst the Arab contingent that worked out on Allenby’s right flank, deep in the desert and discovered Lawrence at Aqaba (Jordan). After the war, Lowell Thomas made a visually stunning son et lumière show, his dramatic lectures illustrated with stills and movie clips. It soon became clear to him that the first part, on Allenby’s army, was a story that was dramatic, but familiar. Yet the second part, Lawrence and his Arabs, had star appeal.
Travelling the Western world, Lowell Thomas’s shows drew in thousands. The depiction of Lawrence in his flowing white robes, waging his personal war, appealed to an audience that wanted escapism and heroism in dark times. The notion that an individual could change destiny was a powerful motif. It was the same idea that captured the imagination of David Lean, the British filmmaker who produced the blockbuster movie Lawrence of Arabia in 1962.
The real Lawrence was a shy, awkward individual, intellectually gifted and personally ‘driven.’ There are many fine biographies of this enigmatic man, and a dedicated ‘T.E. Lawrence Society’ that examines every aspect of his life and works. But his military experience has had a greater appeal to modern soldiers and marines. Put simply, Lawrence is considered the grandfather of guerrilla warfare who provided a successful model of how to defeat a regular army.
The problem is that, in the First World War, he was dependent on the intervention of much larger air and land forces led by General Allenby. Lowell Thomas had it right in presenting the achievements of the British regulars and Arab forces together: this was hybrid warfare, not guerrilla war. The model was analogous to the US-led crushing of the Taliban in 2001 or the defeat of the Saddam regime in Iraq in 2003 rather than the insurgencies that followed.
So, Lawrence is useful to those who want to study armed conflict and hybrid operations, and it is his ideas that deserve greater recognition, but there is a warning: they also need context.
Lawrence believed war was not an entirely 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.
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 tried 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.
Lawrence used the threat of Arab irregular attacks on logistics lines to create an ever-extending flank against the Ottomans. If the Ottoman commanders felt that their lines of communication could be cut, 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’s observations on the psychological effect of guerrilla operations then developed. 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 if the Arab forces were: ‘a thing invulnerable, intangible, without front or back, drifting about like a gas’. He surmised that: 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.’ 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.’
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 practitioners. Lawrence’s fundamentals of guerrilla warfare had been copied, emulated, and adapted ever since, with varying degrees of success.
The greater frequency of insurgencies and guerrilla conflicts in the 20th century gave Lawrence’s ideas longevity. Lawrence’s views on insurgency and partnering with local forces were especially influential in the United States’ campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan after 2001. In the United States Army, one could not escape references to Lawrence’s ‘27 Articles’: his advice for working with indigenous forces. There was an emphasis on the 15th Article, which stated: ‘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. Lawrence’s ideas are invoked at moments that seem far outside of their context. He 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.
But here 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 rules. He was compelled to adapt his own theory when confronted by the harsh reality of war. He believed in challenging assumptions and made use of a wide variety of historical cases to seek out the optimum solution. 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 more than a celluloid legend: he was an advocate for thinking, learning, and adapting. That is good advice in any crisis.
Dr Rob Johnson is the author of Lawrence of Arabia on War (Oxford: Osprey, 2020) and the Director of the Changing Character of War Centre at the University of Oxford.
Lawrence of Arabia on War offers a high-paced evaluation of T. E. Lawrence and the British military operations in the Near East, revising conventional narratives in order to tell the full story of this influential figure. It is also a study of warfare and the manner in which Lawrence assessed of what was changing, what was distinctive, and what was unique to guerrilla warfare in the desert. Setting Lawrence in his historical context, Dr Rob Johnson examines the peace settlement he participated in, and describes the ways in which his legacy has informed and inspired those partnering and mentoring local forces today.