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Lawrence of Arabia
The story behind the myth
To many, Lawrence of Arabia is a myth, a story that has appeared in movies and books that seem almost too remarkable to believe. Yet the truth is T.E. Lawrence was a real person who became the first and arguably the most trusted non-believer ever to be accepted by the Arabs. He invented modern Guerrilla warfare and even more speedboat design. He led a great army and walked through thousands of miles of desert. He broke cultural as well as physical boundaries and changed the region forever. This is his story.
A hero is born
As a child Lawrence yearned for greatness and dreamed of be a knight by age 30; oddly enough if he had not turned down that honor he would have made that dream. Even as a youth Lawrence showed himself to be different from others. Intensely interested in history and architecture, at age 15 he visited via bicycle virtually every church in England to study their architecture and antiquities. He was the kid that would hang around construction sites for new buildings and whenever something old was found, would document it and turn it into the local museum. He turned in so many valuable finds he was actually called out in the museum's annual report. It was no surprise then that he went on to college to study archeology. As part of his undergraduate degree he intensely studied the numerous medieval castles and fortifications throughout Western Europe. This is where he discovered another unique and powerful gift, the ability to look at a landscape or a building and intuitively understand how best to either defend it or attack it. This ability to read a map or a landscape as easily as others read a book would come in quite handy as a military leader.
While pursuing his undergraduate degree Lawrence had the opportunity to make a trip to the Middle East to work on an excavation site. While there he fell in love with the region that so many feel is forbidden in its extremes. Lawrence had always shown a remarkable fortitude to withstand pain, extreme temperatures, and lack of food and water and here was a region tailor made to test that endurance. He was not a large person, just under five and a half feet, yet the physical acts he was able to accomplish were nothing short of remarkable. For his undergraduate theses he walked over 1000 miles by himself, on foot in the wild of the desert, throughout what is now Syria to examine and document fortifications used during the crusades. Imagine yourself in 1909 when camel and horse was the only way to travel through the desert, without modern communication or even modern sanitary tools to sterilize water, and decide to walk through a desert. Multiple times he came close to death from Malaria or other illnesses, yet continue to persevere. This was the level of fortitude of even the youthful Lawrence.
While pursuing advanced degrees at Oxford, Lawrence returned to the Middle East to help at an archeological dig in what is now Iraq. Wile teaching himself Arabic he had to work with local Bedouin tribes to; resolve labor disputes, coordinate permits while minimize government interference or attempts to extract bribes, not to mention actually keeping track of the archeological work going on the dig site. Keep in mind at this point he was only 22 years old! He developed such a good relationship with the Bedouin people, that when there was fighting on the railroad that was being built by the Germans he came to their aid and saved the lives of the German foreman. Under the auspices of archeological research he used his remarkable eye for detail to help create maps in some of the most remote places in the Middle East most of the time traveling alone. This was done specifically at the request of the British government and military as they saw early signs of war in Europe and potentially against the Turkish Empire. Protecting himself simply with a letter authorizing him to be in the country by the government and his trusty sidearm he ventured out alone over thousands of miles where it was extremely common for Bedouins to rob and kill travelers. Thankfully an extremely good shot and his ability to go with limited food and water for days brought him out safely on the other side, although not without some close calls. But this is also whereas a westerner he developed more hands-on (or rather feet-on) knowledge of the Middle East than any other person alive.
"In war, as in prostitution, the amateur is often better than the professional"
A new type of fighting is invented following David and Goliath's example
When WWI started in Europe, the Turkish Empire sided with Germany and thus came into direct conflict with Britain. Lawrence was posted in Cairo as part of military intelligence (not to mention civilian foreign affairs intelligence division). Although only an extremely junior officer, with his knowledge of the culture and the land he knew more than most senior officers and thus took an overall casual air when addressing generals and regional military commanders. The smart ones overlooked this breech in protocol quickly realizing that he could provide extremely valuable services to them. In fact, after multiple failed attempts by the British to defeat the Turks in Palestine via traditional means, Lawrence, with very sympathetic views to the Arabs he had spent so much time living with, suggested a native Arab revolt. The Arabs had been chafing under Turkish rule who not only ruled with an iron fist, actually committed some of the worst acts of genocide against the Armenian people in modern history. While the British were happy to help finance this revolt, there was no one the Arabs trusted (or even allowed into their camps) to help coordinate their actions as part of a larger campaign. Lawrence volunteered and was the first non-believer (non-Arab) to literally walk into the palaces of Sharif Hussein and later his son Emir Faisal to create a formal alliance. In fact so strong was the hatred of Arabs to non-believers that even under the protection of Sharif Hussein he still initially needed to travel disguised through the desert. Yet he walked straight into Faisal's military camp unarmed and unwelcome and succeeded in forming a lifelong trusted relationship helping to lead his people into battle.
But what Lawrence found in the Bedouin army led by Faisal was something that had led to derision by the British military establishment. While extremely brave to go into battle, during traditional battles they would not obey formal orders and would retreat at early signs of fatalities. Witnessing a number of terrible encounters in traditional battles, Lawrence realized they needed to fight differently. He realized as with David and Goliath that the smaller army has the ability to be nimble and quick. They could do a better job destroying an army with a thousand pinpricks rather than a single battle. He postulated that the Bedouins could quickly attack an outpost, and then just as quickly melt back into the desert that a larger military could not enter without leaving its flank exposed. Considering the Turkish occupying military was trying to protect a huge area including rail lines through the dessert, trying to react to each small attack would stretch their resources to the breaking point. Thus the military strategy of an insurgency or guerrilla was invented by Lawrence and has been used in the region ever since.
Lawrence led the Bedouin army with Faisal to great success taking on almost mythological powers with the Arabs for not only his military abilities but also his ability as a non-Arab to withstand extreme conditions in the desert. One ride was so hot with such a strong sun reflecting from the sand that one of his companions actually went blind when the sun burned his corneas. He was constantly living two lives with western culture and morals as well as Arab morals. Knowing the Turkish torture on any prisoners of war, Arabs would kill a wounded comrade if they could not bring him out of danger before the Turks arrived. Lawrence had to do this to one of his closest companions at a price of much personal anguish. Another time when a slight occurred between two tribes of Bedouins that threatened to turn into a blood feud, Lawrence chose to kill in cold blood the offending party himself as an outside member to ensure that revenge was served without starting a blood feud. This was the culture of the people Lawrence was leading that clashed with his own morals yet garnered so much respect by the Arabs.
The results were remarkable. Between the regular British military and the Bedouin army working in loose alliance, the Turkish Empire was destroyed and Damascus and Palestine liberated. Unfortunately, the promises that Lawrence made to the Arabs of having an independent state for themselves, was reneged on by the French (who had almost no role in the fighting) and the British leadership. Faisal spent years in France and Britain trying to win the right for an independent Arab state, much of it with Lawrence at his side, to no avail. The war they fought long and hard for was to be won on behalf of the Western nations. Much of the boundaries in the Middle East for modern Iraq, Syria, Israel, and Jordan were actually drawn arbitrarily and against Lawrence's recommendations as they ignored cultural and water barriers. Sadly the effects of Britain and France's arbitrary carving up of the Middle East and forming artificial kingdoms have led to some of the worst violence and several wars in modern history.
A typical view of the Bedouin army
Living with guilt and shell shock following a war
Following the end of the war and many months of traveling with Faisal serving as an advisor and translator trying to help convince Western leaders to honor their agreements to the Arabs, Lawrence was in many ways left without a job or a purpose. It is easy to imagine the guilt that Lawrence felt after conveying the promises of his government and leading those to battle and sometimes to their death only to see those promises fought and bled for being broken. Seeing terrible mutilations and killings led to what we would normally called PTSD, yet was not even understood as a true disease in his day. He was simply thrust back into civilian life. So strongly did he feel this guilt that while he received top military decorations from both the French and British military he turned them all down. Even when the King of England offered him an extremely prestigious knighthood in-person, Lawrence still turned it down. Due to an American named Lowell Thomas, a reporter turned huckster, Lawrence became immortalized in newspaper articles and early films. In his day he became so famous as a modern day hero of the desert that he would be followed by what would now be considered paparazzi. His myth and legend had begun.
Lawrence made a conscious decision that even though he was on first name basis with virtually every top British military leader and top government leader, and was offered extremely prestigious leadership positions in the military, he wanted to never have to lead again. He wanted to melt into the background and simply take orders from the lowest levels of the military. And thus under an assumed name with a slight bit of help from the top Royal Air Force (RAF) commander he joined the RAF as an enlisted man. He went through boot camp (in his 30s) and all other trainings trying to hide is background and past. As one of the most famous faces at the time, this was no easy feat and each time he was discovered by a supervisor it caused problems and anger. Many felt that he had come to spy on them especially since he kept regular correspondence with friends at the top military levels. It did not take long until his secret was out (published on the front page of several newspapers) and was asked to leave the RAF. He tried again joining the Royal Tank Corps and while that ruse lasted longer he was in love with the RAF and continually petitioned to be able to return. At long last he was able to rejoin and was sent to northern India to serve in a remote outpost. Unfortunately, the very posting that helped him escape press almost became an international incident when rumors started that he was posted near Azerbaijan to help lead another Arab uprising. He was quickly returned home.
Some would have given up, yet Lawrence was not the type of person. As seaplanes were just coming into practice the need for fast rescue boats was quickly becoming clear. Lawrence was stationed at a British base where he singlehandedly designed a vastly superior boat design that was optimized for speed and maneuverability. In fact the modern PT boats from WWII all take after his design which was about lifting a boat up over waves versus laying flat and pushing through them. Here is a desert hero who created modern guerrilla warfare, now inventing modern naval architectures. We can easily regret that if doctors had been able to recognize PTSD and depression and helped him learn to cope, there would have been no limit to what he could have accomplished. Alas Lawrence died at a relatively young age of 46 in a motorcycle accident where he was swerving to avoid two kids bicycling on a country road. A life snuffed out in its prime.
What we can learn from this story
If we look at why Lawrence was more successful working with Bedouins and Arabs as a whole than any other westerner in history (before and since), it is partly due to his deep respect for the people and the culture. He recognized very early on that their morals and culture had been built for their environment after decades of struggle and adaptation. Things that might not seem normal to him as a Westerner, he needed to learn to accept based on that environment. Even from the earliest moments when Lawrence adopted their dress realizing it was far better suited to the environment, he took the visible steps to accept that which is foreign and truly embrace it. Sadly that respect was not taken into consideration by the superpowers that divided out the region following the war. If there is one thing we can take away from this story, is that when a superior group (financially or militarily superior) is dealing with a culture, an ethnic group, or animal species, they need to look beyond what is best for themselves but also for those they are impacting. While we are lucky enough not to have had major conflicts that have led to major border changes in recent years, we have seen many modern conflicts that have involved moving great numbers of people, from the Russian Diaspora, to India and Pakistan population swap, to even the great white migration out of occupied Africa. Many times victors fail to consider what is best for the native population with impacts showing up decades or even generations later. If there is one thing we can learn from Lawrence it is to respect those that are different and try to find ways to accommodate even that which you don't understand.
My overall review of this book
Do not be intimidated by the size of this book for the story telling abilities of Michael Korda are remarkable. This book reads closer to an epic movie script than a dry historical book. It probably helps that the content is quite interesting and that the life of Lawrence of Arabia is almost too fantastical for any of us to believe. Slower readers will take more time to get through the book, but I believe by the end you will find it well worth your time.
A few of my favorite quotes
"Mon centre cede, ma droite recule; situation excellente. J'attaque!" (My center is giving way, my right is in retreat: situation excellent, I shall attack) -- Marshall Foch, WWI French general.
"If I were your wife, I'd put poison in your coffee" ... "And if I were your husband, I'd drink it" --Exchange between Lady Astor (first woman elected to Parliament) and Winston Churchill
"In war, as in prostitution, the amateur is often better than the professional" -- Napoleaon
"To make war upon rebellion is messy and slow, like eating soup with a knife" -- T.E. Lawrence
"All men dream: but not equally. Those who dream by night in the dusty recesses of their Minds wake in the day to find that it was vanity; but the dreamers of the day are dangerous men, for they may act their dream with open eyes, to make it possible. This I did. --T.E. Lawrence