Wrapped in a Mystery inside an Enigma
T. E. Lawrence
Years ago, I started to read
about T.E. Lawrence; he fascinated me. He went
to Oxford and became an archeologist just over a century ago. Then he traveled to
Carchemish in northern Syria on his first dig. However, WWI broke out a couple
years later. Lawrence got a commission by the British Army and surveyed the
Negev Desert, which the British Army needed during WWI. The Ottoman Turks would
have to cross the Negev in order to attack the British in Egypt.
Thus began the emergence of this enigmatic
person who we know as Lawrence of Arabia. Over the next decade, he matured into
a military celebratory of sorts. It is interesting that his personality
consisted of many opposites. He became known throughout the world, but he was
very shy. He was very open and outgoing while being reclusive. When he went to
the Middle East, he had no military experience but was a military guru during
the Arab Revolt a couple years later. Finally, he had extremely limited
political background, however, he predicted the political future of much of the
Lawrence wrote about his time in
the Middle East in Seven Pillars of Wisdom
in the early 1920s. That book has also intrigued me for years including its odd
title. You will find in Proverbs 9:1 where he gleaned the title, Seven Pillars of Wisdom. "Wisdom hath builded
her house, she hath hewn out her seven pillars...." (KJV)
This is one of the sites most
often called the Seven Pillars. We know that Lawrence was stationed in the
British Army at Wadi Rum where these pillars are located. Some historians
assume that this biblical place was the basis for Lawrence's title. What intrigues
me is why he used an OT term for what essentially was about an Arab revolt in
the 20th century.
For many years, I have admired T.
E. Lawrence. In fact, he is one of my mentors in my personal
life. Nonetheless, as I discover more about him, I discover how much I have yet
to grasp fully who he was. Lawrence reminds me of Churchill's phrase about
being "wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma." While a mentor of mine, he is
precisely that for me.
Regardless of the difficulty, this
essay is my attempt to put some of the pieces together so that I can get closer
to understanding one of my mentors. I realize, at the end of this essay, that I
will still have a radically limited picture of one of my mentors. Nevertheless,
I will gain by applying what I learn about T. E. Lawrence to my life.
Therefore, let us begin. While
Lawrence's personality was a vast dichotomy, I have listed over a dozen contradictions
about which he held in tension, which makes him a true leader.
While the British and French were
allies during WWI, Lawrence wanted to protect the British from French
geopolitical control in the Middle East, which would adversely affect Britain. Lawrence
and the British needed the French during the war, but he did want to allow the
French to expand in the Middle East as a result.
The Sykes-Picot Agreement was
signed in secret during WWI to determine the political spheres of influence
that both Britain and France would possess in the Middle East after they defected
Ottoman Turks, who were a part of the Central Powers in WWI. While Lawrence was
not privy to Sykes-Picot, he was pro-British. He did not want to allow any type
of French geopolitical dominance, especially in the Middle East.
While Lawrence was British, he
certainly had dual loyalties when his Arab allegiances were factored into his
equation. He was determined to help the Arabs, especially Emir Faisal. Lawrence's
dedication to the Arab Revolt helped provide Faisal the means to become the
head of Iraq.
Also interestingly, even though
Lawrence was very successful in assisting the Arabs fighting the Turkish
Ottoman Empire, he did not want the Turks totally defeated. He knew that it
would be better to engage the Turks in a war of attrition rather than complete victory.
Waging a war of attrition in the Middle East tied up thousands of Turkish
soldiers and kept them from reinforcing their army in the Baltic war front
Another dichotomy issue for
Lawrence was that he wanted to protect the use of the Suez Canal while he also
wanted Arab political rights. If the British kept complete control of the canal,
it would be in juxtaposition to political rights of the Arabs.
While a junior grade military
officer, Lawrence was not privy to what London possessed. Regardless, he
still understood the situation that neither the British nor French understood
while deciding issues back in their capitals of London and Paris. Being present
in the Middle East, he understood things firsthand.
Lawrence, while a British
military officer, did not wish to follow their military strategy certainly during
WWI. He understood the need for guerrilla tactics rather than what other
British military officers were doing on the Western Front during WWI in Europe.
The Allies were bogged down in trench warfare and were not getting anywhere for
years. In fact, he was more successful fighting the Turks on a war front longer
than the 800-mile Western Front in Europe.
Lawrence also was well aware of
asymmetry in warfare. The British were not, but he was. He was able to wage war
during WWI and the Arab Revolt using asymmetric tactics against the Turks. The
Arabs and he understood that limited numbers of soldiers did not necessarily
limit their ability to wage an effective war.
Additionally, Lawrence did not
often wear his British military uniform. He identified with the Arabs and their
cause by dressing in their fashion. He and the Arabs knew that by wearing their
style of clothing did not make him an Arab. Merely dressing like an Arab did
not cause him to understand them fully. Nonetheless, his dress code benefited
both him and the Arabs. He was not merely some European in their territory. Lawrence
identified with their concerns and wanted to assist them.
Beyond the wearing apparel issue,
Lawrence understood his place in the Arab world. His book, Twenty-Seven
Rules, published in 1917 was an attempt to help the British to
deal better with the Arabs. This is his 15th rule:
Do not try to do too much with
your own hands. Better the Arabs do it tolerably than that you do it perfectly.
It is their war, and you are to help them, not to win it for them. Actually,
also, under the very odd conditions of Arabia, your practical work will not be
as good as, perhaps, you think it is.
In addition to knowing the locals
very well during WWI, Lawrence saw the future of the Middle East well beyond the
Great War. Much of what he wrote about the area was true throughout the rest of
the 20th and into the 21st century. T. E. Lawrence was a visionary in his time.
Lawrence was also a dreamer like
another of my mentors, Bobby Kennedy. He wrote
while in the Middle East, "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." Lawrence dreamed during
Finally, much of the Western
world knew T. E. Lawrence during WWI, which was a time of millions of nameless
soldiers dying during that war. Part of this was due to the American
broadcaster, Lowell Thomas. However, Thomas would not have spent time interviewing
him unless he was well known, especially in the Middle East. While millions
died unknown, he fought both WWI and assisted in the Arab Revolt. T. E.
Lawrence is a mentor to millions including myself. I hope that he becomes a
mentor to you.