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A Review of T.E. Lawrence Thinking On War and Education

By Arnel P. David

"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 on their dreams with open eyes, to make them possible." — T.E. Lawrence

The man we know as “Lawrence of Arabia” has been studied the world over. T. E. Lawrence is an enigmatic figure, who draws enormous curiosity. Yet, like other iconoclasts from the past, there is a tendency to invoke his ideas inappropriately, disconnecting them from their original context and using them to support (not so) new buzzwordy concepts. A long-dead Prussian is constantly turning in his grave for this continued injustice. Lawrence shares some of this pain today, as the US resurrects his ideas to counter insurgencies and advise indigenous forces, using his ’27 Articles’ as dogmatic gospel rather than a guide for critical thinking.

In Lawrence of Arabia On War, Dr. Rob Johnson diligently sets the record straight. He provides an innovative study on T.E. Lawrence and his thinking, on and off the battlefield. Using scrupulous research, Dr. Johnson provides an honest assessment, and highlights the good and bad with T.E. Lawrence. Throughout the book, he demonstrates that Lawrence’s thinking on war remains instructive for present-day challenges.

“…with 2,000 years of examples behind us we have no excuse when fighting, for not fighting well.”

Lawrence was ahead of his time. After an examination of his operations with the Arab regular and irregular forces, it can be said that he was not only conducting unconventional warfare, he was bringing hybrid war to bear against a formidable enemy in the Ottoman Turks. Long before tabs, berets, and beards, Lawrence was conducting special operations in the Middle East, using psychological warfare and guerilla tactics with great effect.

Similar to Mao, Lawrence understood the importance of people in politics and war. “Above all it is the local view,” Lawrence believed, which mattered most. Winning allegiance was of supreme importance. Dr. Johnson highlights the “similarity with Lawrence’s suggested ‘arrangement of the minds’ of local forces, the population, and the enemy,” with Mao’s theory of Revolutionary Warfare as “uncanny.”

Off the battlefield, Lawrence had strong and unique views on professional development. In correspondence with Liddell Hart, he warned of the “mentally cramping effects of military professionalism and the tendency of British soldiers to acquiesce unduly in the hierarchy of seniority.” Lawrence called for ‘hard study’ and ‘brain work,’ acquiring a ‘human intelligence’ through creative professional education, not mechanistic training. This debate is still alive and well today.

Dr. Johnson captures Lawrence’s reflections of war with depth, and yields new insights not known to many. After reading this book, it is clear that Lawrence valued leadership, and he urged rigorous study of war in all its manifestations to properly prepare “for the stress, urgency, and intensity of decision-making in conflict.” As he once reminded Liddell Hart, “with 2,000 years of examples behind us we have no excuse when fighting, for not fighting well.”

Perhaps the greatest story from the book is one of moral courage. To be sure, Lawrence was disruptive and disliked discipline, that is, he did not like blind obedience. He did not simply command the band of Arabs to do the King’s bidding, rather he advocated for an ‘arranging of the minds’ and evoked a sense of passion and honor that inspired these fighters to work together with common purpose. At times he acted with defiance, and did not easily succumb to conventional thinking. The virtue of such patience and vigor is timeless in war.

There are eager leaders who wish to ‘go it alone’ for speed of action and control, taking a unilateral approach to our nation’s problems by focusing narrowly on lethality. Lawrence would caution and remind that winning allegiance and the geography of the mind are essential in war, and most importantly, it is these networks of allies and partners that serve as the centerpiece of modern deterrence.

About the Author

Arnel P. David is a US Army Strategist serving in the United Kingdom as an exchange officer. This review is his own and does not reflect the views of any US or UK government entity.

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