Lawrence of Arabia, guiding US Army in Iraq and Afghanistan

Lawrence of Arabia's life and writings still give counterinsurgency experts in the US guidance on how to conduct operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.

By , Contributor

In a passage from his "Seven Pillars of Wisdom," T.E. Lawrence recounts days spent struggling against illness in the unforgiving deserts of Arabia. As he lay in his tent, "suffering a bodily weakness which made my animal self crawl away and hide till the shame was passed," the man known later as "Lawrence of Arabia" began to appraise the dynamics of the Arab revolt against the Ottoman Turks – breaking down his ideas of guerrilla warfare into a concept that pitted two opposing forces head-on.

The lessons of the Arab revolt, which Lawrence helped start in 1916, continue to reverberate today.

For Lawrence, who died 75 years ago last month, the Turks "were like plants, immobile, firm-rooted, nourished through long-stems to the head," and his own band of Arab irregulars were "an influence, an idea … drifting about like a gas … a vapour blowing where we listed."

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In just two years, this perceptive vision of warfare would hand Lawrence a stunning victory.

Ninety-four years may have passed since the British intelligence officer put into practice his theories of campaigning in Arabia, but as the United States pursues its campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan, it is to Lawrence that some of its leading military thinkers turn for inspiration and guidance.

"What Lawrence gave us was an appreciation of how difficult the task is in understanding that we have to work through our local allies," says John Nagl, president of the Center for a New American Security, and a coauthor of the 2006 US Army/Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual, which incorporates some of Lawrence's writings. "And also a sense of the independence of thought and action that is required both for good insurgent leaders and, in many cases, for good counterinsurgency leaders."

Lawrence on the syllabus

In Britain, the land of his birth, Lawrence is still revered, a man whose reputation as the force who galvanized the Arabs and propelled them to victory was undoubtedly enhanced (and some say grossly exaggerated) by the 1962 epic film "Lawrence of Arabia."

But observers like Dr. Nagl see him as more than a romantic figure from a vanished age. The counterinsurgency (COIN) manual that Nagl co-wrote in response to the insurgency that threatened America's early occupation of Iraq cites Lawrence's famed 27 Articles, penned in 1917 as a brief cultural guide for British officers working with Arabs, alongside the work of other notable military theorists such as David Galula, the French counterinsurgent who fought in Algeria.

At the US Army Command and General Staff College in Fort Leavenworth, Kan., Lawrence is on the syllabus. "I've been introduced to Lawrence's 27 Articles a few times in my Army career," says Maj. Mike Gorreck, who served as an Iraq police adviser in 2007-08 and is now studying at Leavenworth. "We've done further reading in my course of some of his other work within 'Seven Pillars of Wisdom.' One chapter – Chapter 33 – is particularly impressive, and it gets you to think about one's own thinking, about other countries and other armies that are foreign to us, how they see themselves, how they see us. And Lawrence provides a great narration of all that."

Gorreck also flags the 15th of the 27 Articles, which begins, "Do not try to do too much with your own hands. Better the Arabs do it tolerably than that you do it perfectly" – as particularly pertinent. Gorreck said that taught him to step back and look on Iraq as a country with "problems that were inherently theirs, and which they had to get through in their own way."

Patron saint of US Army advisers

For Nagl, a veteran of both Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Desert Storm, Lawrence's writings are a valuable component of modern COIN literature, albeit a bit out of step.

"Lawrence is one of very few insurgent leaders who survived to tell the tale. Most insurgents don't succeed, and many also tend not to be literate, but Lawrence was an extraordinarily literate and successful insurgent leader. The biggest disadvantage, of course, was that Lawrence was an insurgent – not a counterinsurgent. He does not break down how to defeat an army that fights as he recommends – as his insurgents fought – like a 'vapor.' "

Maj. Niel Smith, operations officer for the US Army and Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Center from 2007 to 2009, says care is needed when applying Lawrence's lessons to today's Middle East.

"The temptation is reading too much into Lawrence's characterization of Bedouin Arabs in World War I. He was dealing with a specific subset of Arab culture at a specific time, which has changed immensely. But T.E. Lawrence has in some ways become the patron saint of the US Army advisory effort in Afghanistan and Iraq.

"I think there are many more examples of effective advisers in military history, but none as influential," Smith continues. "There are many stories of effective advisers in Vietnam, such as John Paul Vann. However, none have quite the dramatic scope of Lawrence's experience in Arabia."

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