What We Need to Learn From T.E. Lawrence
From the drawing of national boundaries to the use of IEDs, T.E. Lawrence’s impact on the Middle East was tremendous, writes his biographer Michael Korda—and says we must follow his example to fix the region.
T. E. Lawrence was far more than a glamorous, swashbuckling, heroic figure in flowing robes mounted on a camel, leading the Arab tribes against the Turks in World War One. Those who only know him as he was played—brilliantly—by Peter O’Toole, in David Lean’s masterful 1962 epic Lawrence of Arabia, do not know the story of Lawrence’s life before 1917-1918, the two-year desert campaign that turned him into an enduring legend overnight, still less the pivotal role he played after the First World War in the creation of the modern Middle East. Today, when the Middle East is the main focus of our attention, and when Muslim insurgency, his specialty (and to some degree his invention) is the main weapon of our adversaries, the story of Lawrence’s life is more important than ever.
Much of what we face today in the Middle East (and even in Afghanistan) has its roots in Lawrence’s doomed struggle to get the Arabs what he (and they) thought they had been promised and deserved for rising in revolt against the Ottoman Empire, and in the betrayal of their hopes and his at the Paris Peace Conference in 1919. Therein lies the birth of the many grievances and bitterly disputed frontiers that still divide the region fatally, and which in the last 90 years have caused enough bloodshed to stain the sands of the desert red, with no sign that it will stop any time soon. But neither have we turned back to Lawrence to see where the Western world went wrong, or to learn from him how to understand and deal with the roots of Muslim anger at the West, or with the wars of terrorism and insurgency of which Lawrence was to some degree the inventor. It was not for nothing that he was known to the Arabs he rode with as “Emir Dynamit” (Prince Dynamite), the man who more than any other introduced them to novelty of high explosives, and to their use as a weapon and a political statement.
Lawrence’s whole life was one of extraordinary achievement and determination: one of the five illegitimate sons of an Anglo-Irish aristocrat who gave up his home, title, and fortune to run away with the young Scottish governess of his four daughters. Despite this unpromising background, Lawrence was a scholar whose “First” at Oxford was so brilliant that his tutor hosted an unprecedented dinner for the examiners to celebrate it, a daring and gifted young archeologist (whose exploits in what is now Syria and Iraq suggest that he might have served as the model for Indiana Jones), a military hero of the first rank, a strategist and writer of genius, and a diplomat and kingmaker who despite his youth dealt with presidents and prime ministers as an equal, and played a significant role in shaping the modern Middle East, as well as warning where its stress points would be—warnings that were ignored at the time, and, worse, are still being ignored today.
Nothing in the Middle East is ever forgotten or forgiven. Hebron is a bone of contention between Israeli settlers and the Palestinians in part because Abraham is buried there, in the Tomb of the Patriarchs. Gaza, now a seething slum and the red-hot center of Palestinian resistance toward Israel, is where Samson, blinded, chained and in captivity, pulled down the temple on the heads and idols of his Philistine captors. It is not therefore surprising that one of Osama bin Laden’s chief complaints against the West—one which often mystifies Westerners—is “ the Sykes-Picot Agreement,” the 1916 secret treaty between Britain and France (and Imperial Russia before it collapsed) to divide up the Arab lands of the Middle East between them once the Ottoman Empire was defeated. This conflicted with “the McMahon/Hussein correspondence” between Britain and the Sharif of Mecca in 1915-1916, in which the British agreed, reluctantly and with some significant exceptions, to a single, unitary Arab state, and also, after November 1917, with the famous “ Balfour Declaration,” establishing a Jewish homeland in Palestine. In short, the British promised both the Arabs and the Jews more than they could deliver—or that they and the French were prepared to deliver, once the war was won.
On this subject, at least, Osama bin Laden and T. E. Lawrence would have stood as one. Lawrence fought against the Sykes-Picot Agreement, attempted to undermine it, drove the Arabs on in a desperate race to capture Damascus and declare an independent Arab state before the British Army could get there, argued against the Sykes-Picot Agreement vehemently with Wilson, Lloyd George, and Clemenceau after the war in Paris at the peace conference, as well as face to face with King George V at Buckingham Palace, and with the Marquess of Curzon at the War Cabinet. Even at the most courageous and daring moments of his service in the desert, Lawrence was gnawed by these doubts. When he rode off to enter Damascus in 1917, alone and with a price on his head, he wrote an agonized note to his chief in Cairo: “Clayton, I’ve decided to go off alone to Damascus, hoping to get killed on the way... We are calling them to fight for us on a lie, and I can’t stand it.”
It was his view then and later that the Allies had persuaded the Arabs to take up arms against the Turks with a false promise, and that even as the Arabs were fighting, the British and the French were secretly laying claim to the spoils of war in advance, and sharing between themselves the areas that the Arabs had been promised: Lebanon and Syria for France, Palestine, what is now Jordan, and what is now Iraq (with its rich oil reserves) for Great Britain, leaving for the Arabs only a few worthless strips of desert, without major ports or sensible frontiers, like throwing them the carcass of a chicken once the meat had been carved away.
It was his view then and later that the Allies had persuaded the Arabs to take up arms against the Turks with a false promise.
It was not shame at having been beaten and gang-raped by the Turks when he was briefly captured at Deraa (fortunately for Lawrence, they did not recognize him) that caused him to refuse the Distinguished Service Order and the insignia of a Companion of the Bath from the hands of King George V, and also the king’s offer of a knighthood or the Order of Merit. Rather it was Lawrence’s guilt over the fact that the Allies had broken their promises to the Arabs that led him to reject all honors, give up his rank, and join the Royal Air Force in 1922 as an aircraftman second class, the equivalent of a private, under an assumed name, “solitary in the ranks.”
It is not necessary to agree with the Arab point of view about their own history, but it is foolish to ignore it. In the eyes of Arabs, the West (including the United States, which acquiesced to the brutal and cynical British and French partition of the Middle East) is responsible for the fragmented reality of the area today, and for its artificial frontiers. This is the unforgivable “original sin” to Arabs, and the subsequent partition of Palestine is merely a further extension of it, exacerbating wounds that were already there.
Many of the problems that exist in the area—including, but by no means limited to Syrian-armed interference in Lebanon, the failure to create a viable “Kurdistan” for the Kurd people, the hostility between Arabs and Jews in Palestine, the future of the West Bank—were addressed by Lawrence in the map he prepared for the British War Cabinet and the Paris Peace Conference, but brushed under the table by the great powers. Indeed, it is typical of Lawrence that he managed to get Prince Feisal, the leader of the Arab Revolt, and Chaim Weizmann, the Zionist leader, to sit down together in January 1919 and sign an extraordinary agreement (largely drafted by Lawrence himself) that would have created a joint Arab-Jewish government in Palestine, with unlimited Jewish immigration. Feisal conceded that Palestine could contain 4 million to 5 million Jewish immigrants without harm to the rights or property of the Arab population, a number not greatly different from the number of Jews living in Israel today. Had Wilson, Clemenceau, and Lloyd George been willing to agree to Arab demands, an Arab-Jewish state might have existed that could have absorbed the bulk of the European Jews whom the Germans would slaughter between 1933 and 1945, as well as producing a state with advanced agriculture, industry, and education, in which Jews and Arabs might have proved that they could live together peacefully and productively.
Lawrence’s advanced and radical ideas about the future of the Middle East were matched by his understanding, based on practical experience, both of how to fight an insurgent war, and how to defeat one. One of the most respected books about counterinsurgency in military circles is Colonel John Nagl’s Learning to Eat Soup With Knife—a play on Lawrence’s famous comment about guerrilla warfare, “To make war upon rebellion is messy and slow, like eating soup with a knife.” Nobody understood better than Lawrence how a small, highly mobile group of insurgents could immobilize, exhaust, and eventually defeat a much larger and better equipped modern army by an endless series of “pinpricks,” small raids in which high explosives—the equivalent of today’s IED, or “improvised explosive device” in Iraq and Afghanistan—were used to destroy key objectives, bridges, roads, railway lines, water towers, and telegraph posts, keeping the larger force constantly on the alert, never knowing where the next strike would occur, and tying up thousands of enemy soldiers in useless guard duties.
The Turkish Fourth Army was well-equipped and well-trained, its officers were professionals, they were supported by German and Austrian advisers and specialists, they had airplanes, heavy artillery, German machine guns, all the paraphernalia of modern warfare, but again and again Lawrence and the Arab army swept out of the desert, wrecked havoc on an isolated outpost, and vanished back into the desert again, to reappear and blow up something else hundreds of miles away a few days later. Nor did the Turks have any way to distinguish Lawrence’s Bedouins from other Bedouins peacefully tending their flocks, so that they were obliged to resort to cruel punishments, bombardments, and massacres, all of which angered the tribesmen and merely produced more recruits for Lawrence. If this sounds familiar, it should be. There is no book that tells the reader more about the nuts and bolts of insurgency than Lawrence’s classic account of the Arab Revolt, Seven Pillars of Wisdom, copies of which might usefully be spread around the White House and the Pentagon.
Lawrence also took the trouble to think about how to defeat an insurgency as well as waging a successful one himself. He advised strongly against bombing insurgent villages (drones did not yet exist, but he imagined them), since that would inevitably involve killing innocent women and children, and would make revenge for their death a duty for every surviving family member, as well as for their clan and tribe. He recommended dropping leaflets warning the villagers that something of value and importance to them would be bombed and allowing them time enough to remove their families and flocks before doing so. He also took the view, as he had in the Arab Revolt, that it was easier and cheaper to buy the tribes off than to fight them: gold was as important weapon to him as explosives. He was in favor of the use of fast armored cars operating far behind the enemy lines, and supplied by aircraft, roving at will and attacking by surprise.
Lying on his cot in a barracks at an RAF station in what is now Pakistan, Lawrence wrote to his old friend Air Chief Marshal Sir Hugh Trenchard, the Chief of the Air Staff (this was the equivalent of a private writing to a four-star general and member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff), of a troublesome insurgent leader in Iraq (Sunni insurgency against a Western occupier in Iraq is not a new phenomenon): “The fellow you need to influence is Feisal el Dueish... If I were at Ur, my instinct would be to walk without notice into his headquarters. He’s not likely to kill an unarmed, solitary man. . . Such performances require a manner to carry them off. I’ve done it four times, or is it five? A windy business. . .”
Note that the suggestion of fearlessly walking unarmed into the headquarters of an insurgent leader implies an understanding of the Muslim tradition and obligation of hospitality toward a guest, even an enemy guest, and also a willingness to listen to the other person’s grievances, an important point. Bombing people will seldom change their mind, and certainly not about their own government, whether done by the Turks against the Arabs in 1918, or by the British against the Iraqis in the 1920s, or with drones in Afghanistan today.