THE RIDE FROM Palestine took eight days over a “rough track . . . through a harsh no-man’s land where water was scarce and brackish when found, and nothing grew except the thorny scrub growths of the desert.” Finally on April 9, 1918, the Egyptian Camel Corps, a hundred soldiers strong, reached Aqaba, a town on the Red Sea that had recently been liberated from the Turks by an Arab offensive.
The corps’ commanding officer, Lieutenant Colonel Frederick W. Peake, found a “sleepy little port,” described by another soldier as “a few mud huts and a broken down castle,” whose normal population of four hundred had been swelled by a vast influx of military personnel. In the port were ships unloading stores. West of town several aircraft were parked on a newly cleared airfield. All along the shore were tents, a mixture of the white canvas favored by the British army, the “ornate oriental tents” of the Arab officers under Emir Feisal, and the “black goat-hair beyts of the assembled Bedouin.”
These unlikely allies—Christians from northern Europe and Muslims from the deserts of Arabia—had been brought together by a shared interest in fighting the Ottoman Empire, an ally of Germany that was the imperial overlord of the Middle East. For the Arab Revolt to succeed it would need to overcome not only that enemy but also the mutual suspicions among these disparate fighters. “We hate the Arabs,” admitted one British soldier, and the feeling was richly reciprocated.
Peake got a first taste of the “maddest campaign ever run” when a noncommissioned officer announced a party of Arabs to see him. At the head of the delegation was a blue-eyed man, only five feet five inches tall but muscular and lean, “dressed in extremely good and expensive Bedouin clothes.” His feet were bare, the Arab custom being to take off one’s sandals when entering a tent. Strapped to his belt was a beautiful gold dagger. In his hand was “the usual almond-wood cane that every Bedouin camel rider uses.” His face was partly covered by his kaffiyeh. Peake imagined that this “regal-looking person . . . must be the Emir Feisal himself.” He rushed over to greet him with “the usual flowery Arabic words of welcome and greetings.” He was in for another shock when this “Arab,” evidently bemused by the spectacle, cut him short in “perfect” English: “Well, Peake, so you have arrived at last. We have been waiting some time for you and your braves, and there is plenty of work for you up country.”
Only then did Peake realize that he was speaking to Lieutenant Colonel T. E. Lawrence, a liaison officer and adviser to Feisal. But even that realization would not have meant much to him, for Lawrence was not yet famous. The mystique of “Lawrence of Arabia”—an appellation coined by a Chicago newspaperman—was to be a postwar phenomenon. In 1918 Lawrence was just another officer operating in great secrecy behind enemy lines to disrupt Turkish operations in the Holy Land. But the raw materials of his legend were already in place.5
LAWRENCE WAS A misfit from the start because of what his Victorian and Edwardian contemporaries would have called his “illegitimate” birth. His father, Thomas Chapman, was a wealthy Anglo-Irish aristocrat who had abandoned his dour wife and their four daughters to run away with their much younger governess, Sarah Lawrence, who herself had been born to an unwed mother. Chapman never formally divorced his wife, so he and Sarah, “Mr. and Mrs. Lawrence,” lived a cloistered existence as they raised four boys, including Thomas Edward, who was born in 1888. Ned, as he was known to his family (later simply “T.E.” to his friends), became aware of this family secret as a child and feared ostracism and social ruin if it were revealed. Thus he grew up feeling an outsider to English society even as he earned a first in history from Oxford.
His alienation was heightened by his complete lack of interest in sports such as cricket or football. Nor did he partake in the rarefied British university social life so luxuriously depicted, in its 1920s incarnation, in Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited. He preferred solitary pursuits such as photography, bicycling, and collecting archaeological relics. Often he would stay up all night reading obscure books in Latin, Greek, or French. He trained himself to endure great privation, on one occasion going forty-five hours without food or sleep “to test his powers of endurance.” That he was able to pass such tests was a testament not only to his extraordinary willpower but also to his physical fitness. As a teenager he would bicycle a hundred miles a day while touring France.
In 1909, in the summer before his senior year, Lawrence visited the Middle East for the first time to research his thesis on Crusader castles. He returned after graduation in 1910 and stayed nearly continuously until 1914 working at an archaeological site in Syria. Here he improved his Arabic and learned how to manage Arab workers.6
When war broke out in August 1914, he joined the Geographical Section of the General Staff in London, first as a civilian, then as a freshly commissioned second lieutenant. By the end of the year he was in Cairo working in military intelligence. He remained a staff officer—what he wryly called a “bottle-washer and office boy pencil-sharpener and pen wiper”7—until 1916, when the Arab Revolt broke out. Lawrence was a supporter of Arab aspirations to have their own nation stretching from the Persian Gulf to the Mediterranean, and he was feeling bored and restless with office work. A feeling of guilt crept in after two of his brothers were killed on the Western Front in 1915 and he was still safe in Cairo. So in October 1916 he applied for ten days’ leave to accompany a British diplomat on a mission to assess the situation in the Hejaz, the western coastal region of Arabia where the revolt originated.
What they found was that the Arabs had been successful in driving the Turks out of the holy city of Mecca and, with the help of the Royal Navy, in seizing several Red Sea ports, including Jeddah, where they now landed. But more than fifteen thousand Turkish troops were still deployed around Medina.8 The rebellion was “standing still,” Lawrence noted, “which, with an irregular war, was the prelude to disaster.” He believed the problem was a lack of the right kind of leadership—the kind needed to “set the desert on fire.”9 The titular head of the revolt was Sharif Hussein, emir of Mecca, who aspired to be “King of the Arabs,” but he was too old to take an active part in military operations. Lawrence was unimpressed by his sons Abdullah, Ali, and Zeid. He pinned his hopes on another son, Feisal, whose forces were operating far from the sea in an area seldom visited by Europeans.
To meet Feisal, Lawrence set out on a camel accompanied by a couple of guides, the first of many such journeys he would undertake over the next two years. It was also the first time during the war that he donned Arab clothes so “that I might present a proper silhouette in the dark upon my camel.”10 Lawrence found that the “long monotony of camel pacing” tired his “unaccustomed muscles” and “the pestilent beating of the Arabian sun” blistered his skin and made his eyes ache.11 (Sunglasses were not yet commonly available.)12 All he had to eat en route—typical of the fare he would consume during the revolt—was unleavened bread dough cooked over a fire, “moistened with liquid butter,” and “scooped up like damp sawdust in pressed pellets with the fingers.”13
Lawrence was exhausted by the time he reached Feisal on October 23, 1916, but he was elated to find that he “was the man I had come to Arabia to seek—the leader who would bring the Arab Revolt to fully glory.”14 The shy, “supercerebral”15 twenty-eight-year-old English archaeologist forged a lasting friendship with the “hot-tempered, proud and impatient” thirty-one-year-old descendant of the Prophet whom he judged to be “far more imposing personally than any of his brothers”: “A popular idol, and ambitious; full of dreams and the capacity to realize them.”16 So firm was their personal bond that Feisal persuaded the British authorities to send Lawrence back after a short sojourn in Cairo to act as his adviser. He would stay for the rest of the war.
LAWRENCE’S CHALLENGE WAS to utilize up to fifty thousand Bedouin tribesmen effectively.17 They were a “tough looking crowd” who went “about bristling with cartridge-belts, and fire off their rifles when they can.” “As for their physical condition,” Lawrence wrote, “I doubt whether men were ever harder.”18 But like all nomadic raiders going back to the days of Akkad, they had no discipline or cohesion. “One company of Turks firmly entrenched in open country could have defied the entire army of them; and a pitched battle, with its casualties, would have ended the war by sheer horror,” Lawrence wrote.19
Other British officers had made similar observations and had concluded that the Arabs were useless as a fighting force. Many wanted to send British regulars to push the Turks out of Arabia. This Lawrence adamantly opposed, because he thought that the Arabs would be demoralized by the presence of large numbers of Christian troops. More than his fellow advisers, he understood the Arabs and identified with them. He was in favor of sending British weapons and British advisers, but he wanted the bulk of the fighting to be left to the Bedouin utilizing their age-old methods. “Arabs were artists in sniping,” he noted; “their real sphere is guerrilla warfare.”20 “In mass,” he explained, “they were not formidable, since they had no corporate spirit, nor discipline, nor mutual confidence. The smaller the unit the better its performance. A thousand were a mob, ineffective against a company of trained Turks: but three or four Arabs in their hills would stop a dozen Turks.”21
He determined to eschew a “war of contact” in favor of a “war of detachment” focusing on the chief Ottoman vulnerability—the Hejaz railway running from Anatolia down the Arabian Peninsula, which was used to keep Turkish forces in the region supplied. The Arabs, Lawrence vowed, would be “a thing intangible, invulnerable, without front or back, drifting about like a gas,” and they would be as hard to defeat as “eating soup with a knife.”22
Lawrence took an active hand in raids against the railway, notwithstanding his lack of formal military training. “In military theory,” he noted, he was “tolerably read.” At Oxford he had studied authors such as Clausewitz and Jomini, but his “interest had been abstract, concerned with the theory and philosophy of warfare.”23 Now in Arabia he had to learn small-unit tactics on the fly, or rather on the camel ride.
ONE OF HIS lessons began at 7:50 a.m. on Monday, March 26, 1917, when he rode with thirty men from a desert camp to attack a railway station outside Medina. After a halt at midmorning at an oasis that “proved almost luxuriant with its thorn trees and grass,” they mounted again and rode for another couple of hours before camping for the night. At 5:35 a.m. the next day they were on the move again. On the afternoon of Wednesday, March 28, they finally reached their target—the railway station at Abu el Naam.
To scout out the enemy, they “lay like lizards in the long grass” atop the “glistening, yellow, sunburned” hills that ringed the station. The Turkish garrison, they saw, consisted of “390 infantry, and twenty-five goats.” On Thursday, March 29, they received Arab reinforcements—“300 men, two machine-guns, one mountain-gun, and one mountain howitzer.” Lawrence judged the Arabs, though now almost as numerous as the Turks, incapable of capturing the fortified station. Instead he decided to destroy the rail and telegraph lines.
He set off just before midnight with a small party to lay a mine on the tracks. Then Lawrence had to shimmy up a telegraph pole himself because the Bedouin “proved unable to climb.” He was so weak from a recent bout of dysentery and malaria that he lost his grip and fell sixteen feet to the ground, suffering “cuts and bruises.” He slept for an hour, then arrived back at camp at daybreak, rubbing “sand out of red rimmed aching eyes,” just in time to see the Arab artillery open fire on the station. “One lucky shell caught the front wagon of the train in the siding, and it took fire furiously,” he recorded. “This alarmed the locomotive, which uncoupled and went off southward. We watched her hungrily as she approached our mine, and when she was on it there came a soft cloud of dust and a report and she stood still.”
The train was derailed but managed to limp away, “going at foot pace, clanking horribly.” Lawrence had hoped to fire a machine gun at the locomotive, but the unreliable Arab machine gunners had left their assigned ambush point to join in a more general attack on the railway station that was soon called off. Lawrence summed up the results: “We had taken thirty prisoners, a mare, two camels, and some more sheep; and had killed and wounded seventy of the garrison, at a cost to ourselves of one man slightly hurt.”
It was not much of a battle in the conventional sense. The most Lawrence would say of it was that “we did not wholly fail.”24 But the cumulative effect of such actions was greater than their individual parts. For each raid forced the Turks to further concentrate their forces in a few entrenched garrisons, ceding the countryside to the Arabs. Before long it “dawned” on Lawrence “that we had won the Hejaz war”: “Out of every thousand square miles of Hejaz nine hundred and ninety-nine were now free.”25 True, the Turks still held Medina, but so what? The Turkish garrison was trapped, and it was cheaper to keep it there than in a prisoner-of-war camp in Egypt. Lawrence counseled Feisal to make no further attempts to capture Medina but rather shift his focus to the Levant, where he could link up with a British army that was thrusting into Palestine from Egypt.
THE KEY TO moving north would be the capture of Aqaba, the last Turkish-held port on the Red Sea and the port closest to the Suez Canal. From there Feisal’s forces could be supplied as they moved into Syria. A more conventional officer would have planned an amphibious assault, but Lawrence rejected this approach because, while British troops “could take the beach,” they would be “as unfavorably placed as on a Gallipoli beach,” for they would be “under observation and gun-fire from the coastal hills: and these granite hills, thousands of feet high, were impracticable for heavy troops.”26 Lawrence decided that Aqaba “would be best taken by Arab irregulars descending from the interior without naval help.” This would require a “long and difficult” trek to surprise the Turkish garrison from the rear—“an extreme example of a turning movement, since it involved a desert journey of six hundred miles to capture a trench within gunfire of our ships.”27
Lawrence did not bother consulting his superiors before he set off from the port of Wejh on May 9, 1917; he was, a fellow officer said, “a law unto himself.”28 He was accompanied by fewer than fifty Arabs. They brought with them the essential tools of their trade: four hundred pounds of gold that would be used to buy the allegiance of tribesmen and six camels loaded with explosives that would be used to destroy railroad tracks and bridges. Two months later, on July 6, Lawrence rode with two thousand Arabs into Aqaba “through a driving sand storm.”29 Another British adviser later commented that “Lawrence could certainly not have done what he did without the gold, but no one else could have done it with ten times the amount.” He was so successful because he had “established himself by sheer force of personality as a born leader and shown himself to be a greater dare-devil than any of his followers,” able to “shoot straighter, ride harder, and eat and drink less.”30
In the course of his exploits Lawrence was constantly getting sick or wounded. By the end of the Aqaba expedition he was “burned crimson and very haggard” and weighed less than a hundred pounds.31 But even with a 20,000-pound bounty on his head, he was “absolutely without fear.”32Sometimes he positively courted death, writing in June 1917, “I’ve decided to go off alone to Damascus, hoping to get killed on the way.” Later, in an early edition of his memoirs, he wrote that “a bodily wound would have been a grateful vent for my internal perplexities.”33
He was under great strain (“nerves going, and temper wearing thin”)34 not only from the demands of combat but also because he felt himself torn between two masters. The Arabs wanted independence, but Lawrence knew that Britain and France had concluded a secret treaty, the 1916 Sykes-Picot Agreement, to divide much of the Middle East between them. “We are calling them to fight for us on a lie,” Lawrence complained, “and I can’t stand it.”35
Adding to his anguish was an incident that occurred on the night of November 20–21, 1917. While on a solitary reconnaissance of Daraa, Syria, in his usual white Arabic robes, Lawrence was captured by Turkish troops and hauled before Hajim Bey, the local Turkish commander. An “ardent pederast,” the bey took a “fancy” to his captive who pretended to be a fair-skinned Circassian—one of the natives of the Caucasus forced by the tsar’s armies to relocate to the Middle East. When Lawrence resisted his advances, he recalled, the bey called over his men to beat him savagely and to “play unspeakably” with him, meaning, probably, to rape him. Afterwards Lawrence was “too torn and bloody” for the bey’s bed (his place was taken by a “crestfallen” corporal), so he was dumped in a makeshift prison. Less hurt than he appeared, he was able to run away, but he would never escape the trauma of what had transpired, especially because he later admitted to feeling a frisson of forbidden excitement during his ordeal—“a delicious warmth, probably sexual, was swelling through me.” For the rest of his life he would express shame that “the citadel of my integrity had been irrevocably lost.” He would subsequently find himself repelled by physical contact and unable to develop intimate ties with anyone.36
For the time being Lawrence kept quiet about his ordeal and went back to fighting the Turks. He did take care, however, to travel with more than two dozen Arab bodyguards—“a fine tough-looking band,” in the words of one British soldier, any one of whom “would have given his life for Lawrence.”37
By the end of 1917 the Anglo-Egyptian army under General Sir Edmund Allenby was breaking through Turkish defenses. Jerusalem fell on December 9. The next eleven months would be spent in driving the Turks out of the rest of the Levant, with the Arabs operating as a partisan adjunct on the right flank of the Allied advance. The campaign culminated on October 1, 1918, when the Allies entered Damascus down streets “aflame with joy and enthusiasm.”38
The Arabs under Lawrence’s guidance contributed to this victory by disrupting Turkish communications and tying down Turkish troops, making it impossible for Ottoman commanders to concentrate all of their 100,000 men in Palestine and Syria against Allenby’s 69,000. By the end the Bedouin irregulars were supplemented by British armored cars and aircraft as well as by 8,000 Arab regulars, mostly former Ottoman soldiers, but it was still primarily an unconventional fight—and a vicious one.39 The Arabs, enraged by Turkish atrocities, slaughtered Turkish prisoners on several occasions, and Lawrence was unwilling or unable to stop them.40
AFTER THE WAR Lawrence attended the Paris Peace Conference as an adviser to both the Arab and the British delegations. He caused a sensation by wearing an Arab headdress along with a colonel’s uniform. One American attendee described him as “the most interesting Briton alive . . . a Shelley-like person, and yet too virile to be a poet.”41
Lawrence came away deeply disillusioned after the French took Syria and Lebanon while the British helped themselves to Palestine, Iraq, and Transjordan. He went on, however, to play an important role as an adviser to Winston Churchill at the Colonial Office in 1921 in remaking the map of the Middle East. In his dealings with Churchill, and in his memoir, Seven Pillars of Wisdom, which he was then in the process of revising, he exaggerated the role played by his friend Feisal during the war, while glossing over the weakness of the Arabs and the extent of the British aid they received. He wanted to convey the impression that Britain owed the Arabs and especially the Hashemites a major debt that had to be repaid.42 Partly as a result of his machinations, Feisal was crowned the first king of Iraq, a new state cobbled together from three Ottoman provinces. His brother Abdullah was installed in Transjordan, yet another new state. Their father, Hussein, was left to rule the Hejaz until 1924 when he was defeated by Ibn Saud, founder of Saudi Arabia. Lawrence, who did not believe that the agendas of Arab nationalists and Zionists were incompatible, even used his influence with Feisal to persuade him to give up his family’s claims to Palestine, which, under the terms of a League of Nations resolution approved in 1922, became a “mandate” governed by Britain with the intention of turning it into a “Jewish National Home.”43
Feisal’s grandson would be overthrown and killed in Baghdad in 1958, but the state of Iraq still exists and the Hashemites still rule Jordan. Palestine, of course, was to be divided into Israel, the West Bank, and the Gaza Strip. Thus Lawrence may be said to have played an important role in creating the modern Middle East. Indeed, near the end of his life, he would cite his role in crafting the postwar settlement, “which still stands in every particular—if only other peace treaties did!” as being more important than what he “did in Arabia during the war.”44 The results of that settlement turned out, however, to be far more problematic than Lawrence had foreseen. As the historian David Fromkin pointed out in his magisterial history A Peace to End All Peace, by 1922, shortly after Lawrence had finished his work at the Colonial Office, “the Middle East had started along a road that was to lead to the endless wars (between Israel and her neighbors, among others, and between rival militias in Lebanon) and to the always-escalating acts of terrorism (hijacking, assassination, and random massacre) that have been a characteristic feature of international life in the 1970s and 1980s.”45 And in the 1990s and 2000s and 2010s.
ONCE HIS WORK at the Colonial Office was done, Lawrence sought to hide “out-of-sight,”46 but he found this increasingly hard to accomplish because of an enterprising showman named Lowell Thomas. A former Chicago newspaperman, Thomas had spent a few days with Lawrence in Aqaba in 1918. Out of this thin material he created a popular book and lecture, accompanied by a slideshow, on “Lawrence of Arabia.” His subject found Thomas’s presentation to be “silly and inaccurate,” but it played to packed houses from New York to London, month after month. Four million people were said to have viewed the show around the world,47 lured by a romantic tale of derring-do that offered a welcome respite from the aftermath of the mass slaughter of the trenches. To escape the public klieg light, “the Uncrowned King of Arabia,” as he was dubbed by Thomas,48enlisted under an alias as a lowly airman in the Royal Air Force to serve, in his own words, as a “cog of the machine.”49 Later he legally changed his name to T. E. Shaw. “Damn the Press,” he fulminated, decrying intrusions into his privacy.50
In truth T.E.’s attitude to fame was ambivalent. While professing a passion for anonymity, he struck up high-profile friendships with literary giants such as George Bernard Shaw and Thomas Hardy, published a memoir, and sat for numerous portraits by leading artists. When his charade was discovered by the press in 1925, he had to leave the RAF temporarily and join the Royal Tank Corps, but, thanks to his friendship with the RAF chief of staff, he was allowed to rejoin the air force—“the nearest modern equivalent to going into a monastery in the Middle Ages,” he explained to a friend, the poet Robert Graves.51 Here he felt a sense of comradeship in the ranks with his fellow mechanist-“monks.” He had only just left the RAF and settled in a small cottage in Dorset when he died in a motorcycle accident in 1935 while hurtling at top speed down a country lane as he loved to do. Winston Churchill called his death at age forty-seven the greatest blow the British Empire had suffered in years. He told reporters, “In Lawrence we have lost one of the greatest beings of our time.”52
Not until much later did one of the more sordid details of his last years emerge. Between 1923 and 1935 he had found some perverse satisfaction in occasionally hiring a younger soldier to whip him—apparently as penance for his ordeal at Daraa. This is what psychiatrists call a “flagellation disorder.” Lawrence’s friends and family had no idea about this private behavior; the beatings became public only when the soldier who administered them sold his story to a newspaper in 1968. Contrary to the widespread assumption, however, there is no evidence that Lawrence was a practicing homosexual; he consistently professed his own “sexlessness” and in all likelihood never entered into a sexual relationship with anyone, man or woman.53
OPINION ABOUT THIS “strange character,” who admitted that “madness was very near” for him, has been sharply divided over the years.54 Some have derided him, with scant evidence, as an “unfortunate charlatan” who “lied compulsively,”55 while boosters have compared him, rather preposterously, to Napoleon, Marlborough, and other “great captains” of history.56 Lawrence never claimed such importance for his own work in a “side show of a side show.” “My role was a minor one,” he wrote with excessive modesty.57
A more balanced judgment was rendered by Franz von Papen, a future German chancellor and ambassador to Istanbul who as a junior officer served as an adviser to the Ottoman army. “The British can indeed count themselves fortunate to have had the services of a man with such understanding and affection for the Islamic world,” Papen wrote. “From the military point of view his activities were probably not of great importance, but politically and economically they were of priceless value.”58 (By “economically” Papen was presumably referring to the access to oil that Britain secured.)
Lawrence’s most lasting influence was as a glamorous practitioner of guerrilla warfare who was to inspire numerous imitators. A writer of the first chop, as well as a “witty and enlightening” conversationalist with an “impish sense of humor,”59 he left copious guidance for latter-day Lawrences. What he called “my beastly book,”60 Seven Pillars of Wisdom, which was not widely published until after his death, was rightly acclaimed as a great work of literature. The condensed version, Revolt in the Desert, became a best seller in his lifetime. Just as influential, for soldiers if not for the general public, were two of his articles.
“The Evolution of a Revolt,” published by the Army Quarterly in 1920, was Lawrence’s attempt to use his own experiences to expatiate on the subject of irregular warfare. It would form the basis of an entry called “Science of Guerrilla Warfare” compiled by a friend, the military strategist Basil Liddell-Hart, and published under the initials T.E.LA. in the Encyclopaedia Britannica in 1929. In it Lawrence coined numerous aphorisms that are still widely quoted: “The printing press is the greatest weapon in the armory of the modern commander”; “Irregular war is far more intellectual than a bayonet charge”; “Rebellions can be made by 2 per cent active in a striking force, and 98 per cent passively sympathetic.” His conclusion was a direct challenge to the conventional military mindset: “In fifty words: granted mobility, security (in the form of denying targets to the enemy), time, and doctrine (the idea to convert every subject to friendliness), victory will rest with the insurgents, for the algebraical factors are in the end decisive, and against them perfection of means and spirit struggle quite in vain.”61
Those words have formed a rallying cry for guerrillas and their acolytes ever since, but Lawrence’s claim is less far-reaching than it appears on a quick read. Note all of the caveats: success is certain only if guerrillas have “mobility,” “security,” “time,” and “doctrine.” Few insurgencies have ever been vouchsafed all of those advantages. How many insurgents are able, after all, to call on the aid of the Royal Air Force, Army, and Navy? As one of Lawrence’s fellow advisers to the Arabs noted, “Seldom has a force had greater liberty of action or greater security.”62 Lacking these advantages, most guerrillas fail to achieve their goals. Even the Arab Revolt was hardly an unalloyed success, insofar as the insurgents were not strong enough to prevent their European allies from grabbing most of the Ottoman possessions for themselves.
Reservations must also be kept in mind when reading Lawrence’s other enduring essay, “Twenty-Seven Articles,” written on August 20, 1917, a month after the capture of Aqaba. In it Lawrence offered some of his secrets for being an effective adviser. His shrewd advice included the following:
Never give orders to anyone at all, and reserve your directions or advice for the C.O. [commanding officer], however great the temptation (for efficiency’s sake) of dealing with his underlings. . . . Formal visits to give advice are not so good as the constant dropping of ideas in casual talk. . . . The less apparent your interference the more your influence. . . . Do not try to do too much with your own hands. Better the Arabs do it tolerably than you do it perfectly. It is their war, and you are to help them, not to win it for them.63
All of these aphorisms have been cited ever since by Western soldiers engaged in advisory work. The suggestion to “not . . . do too much” was especially popular with American and British soldiers in Iraq from 2003 to 2007 when it encouraged a destructive hands-off policy that allowed the fighting to spiral out of control. Only when General David Petraeus decided to do more to secure the populace did the tide start to turn. Those who might be tempted to quote Lawrence dogmatically—something that would have horrified him—should keep in mind his admonition that the “Twenty-Seven Articles” “are meant to apply only to Bedu: townspeople or Syrians require totally different treatment.” He might have added, but did not, because it was self-evident, that his advice was meant for insurgents, not (as in Iraq) counterinsurgents.
Lawrence’s most important achievement was not in crafting a template of guerrilla warfare or even military advising that could be transposed to any situation. Rather, by his own example he showed how hard any soldier fighting an irregular war must work to understand and adapt himself to local conditions. He made empathy into a powerful weapon of war, striving to understand the actions of both enemies and allies. “I risked myself among them a hundred times, to learn,” he wrote of the Turks. He later attributed his success to “hard study and brain-work and concentration.” His example, he declared, was at odds with the “fundamental, crippling, incuriousness” of so many of his fellow officers who were “too much body and too little head.”64
Lawrence was a rare combination of body and head, “active and reflective.” In some respects he resembled Marshal Lyautey, another misfit who approached the subject from the other side as a fighter against guerrillas but reached, as we have seen, similar conclusions about the need for “adaptation” and “elasticity.”