Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Learning from T. E. Lawrence

We’ve all seen (hopefully) the stunning visual masterpiece, Lawrence of Arabia. I definitely remember the great scenes of “El Lawrence” running atop the broken Turkish train with his white Arab robes flapping in the wind, or leading the Beduoin Arabs across the desert to assault Akaba.

I recently finished reading his masterpiece, Seven Pillars of Wisdom. It is the story of the Arab Revolt in which he played a key role, in his own words. T.E. Lawrence is experiencing a new renaissance in his historical importance with the War in Iraq and the new Counter-insurgency strategy championed in FM 3-24. T.E. Lawrence served as a modern day ODA (Special Forces team) to the Beduoin Arabs. He helped train and mold them into a fighting force that was able to wage a war that threatened the Turkish logistical lines and railroads through Guerilla War.

One of the most famous T.E. Lawrence quotes, so often used to discuss proper counter-insurgent tactics was: “Better the Arabs do it tolerably than that you do it perfectly”. It certainly is a true statement that it is important to put a Host Nation face on operations. We are doing that right now in our Operating Environment (OE). We are partnered with the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) and working through, with, and by them in order to increase the level of security in the area. With the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA), we are taking a secondary and assisting role to the ISF. They might not be as capable as our own forces, but they are capable of conducting operations with our assistance.

The quote used above actually comes, not from Seven Pillars of Wisdom but from The 27 Articles of TE Lawrence, which were a guide to how British officers assisting the Arab Revolt were to conduct themselves. It is the 15th Article in this guide: “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”. Yet, T.E. Lawrence did not feel that these rules were universal. He wrote that these rules “are meant to apply only to Bedu; townspeople or Syrians require totally different treatment. They are of course not suitable to any other person’s need, or applicable unchanged in any particular situation”.

Article 15 has a lot to say about the proper strategy for counter-insurgency. It is important to put the Host Nation forces in the lead. Ultimately, the Iraqis are fighting for their own country and freedom. We are their guests now (as SOFA indicates) and it is our job to assist them. We are excellent at killing the enemy, but sometimes, our methods, might not be the best, as is sometimes indicated in Afghanistan. We have a lot of history available to us to learn from. The 27 Articles of T. E. Lawrence is an excellent document on how to operate with Host Nation forces. The rules as written by T. E. Lawrence are designed for operating with the Bedu Arabs, yet, some of the rules, applies to working with other Host Nation forces who are not Bedu Arabs.

It is always dangerous to try and push a square peg into a circular hole. At the same time, it is dangerous to not take some of the lessons of the past that worked, and try them in our modern circumstances. SOFA and COIN put the Iraqi Security Forces up front with their Coalition Partners (us) to improve security, but to do so in such a way that we emphasize the legitimacy of the Government of Iraq. It can be difficult because the GOI is not nearly as efficient as the US Government (though, let's be honest, the US Government is a money pit too), yet, every success the GOI has, raises up its legitimacy amongst the people. It is better that the Iraqi Arabs do it, sometimes, we must assist them in doing it. But we must do it through, with and by them.

So, if you haven’t seen Lawrence of Arabia, go to Blockbuster, rent the movie, and watch Peter O’ Toole, Omar Sharif, and Alec Guinness in that cinematic masterpiece.

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