I first read Seven Pillars of Wisdom, T.E. Lawrence's autobiographical account of the Arab Revolt and his role in it, during my junior year of college in 1987. A pristine copy of the book–the 1938 "De Luxe Edition"–had sat on my parents' bookshelf all my life. While home during Christmas break I picked it up and idly perused it; very soon I was poring over it. I immediately knew that I had discovered a text essential to my future.
At the time, I was an ROTC cadet zealously devoted to becoming an infantry officer. I had already attended the Army's Air Assault School at Ft. Campbell, Kentucky two summers prior. There, at the home of the 101st Airborne Division, I learned the finer points of planning and executing "airmobile operations," which is to say, how to integrate the Army's decades-long love of helicopters into infantry maneuvers. I set up landing zones, rigged vehicles for sling-loading via helicopter, and memorized the capabilities of the Army's various transport and attack helicopters: their ranges, maximum occupancies, and armaments. There was even time to master rappelling out of the UH-1H, a precarious alternative to exiting the aircraft after it lands.
As a junior, I was already thinking about my senior thesis, a history of the elite counterinsurgency unit MACV-SOG–Military Assistance Command, Vietnam, Studies and Observation Group–that fought in North Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, and even parts of southern China. Seven Pillars of Wisdom would prove a valuable primary source in my introduction to guerrilla warfare.
But my application of Lawrence's Seven Pillars of Wisdom was retroactive; I saw the book through the lens of Vietnam and how the Arab Revolt's strategy and tactics, as skillfully directed by Lawrence and others, stood as precursors to those of the Viet Minh/Viet Cong.
In assessing his enemy, the Ottoman Empire, Lawrence isolated the Turks' weakness as material in nature:
In Turkey things were scarce and precious, men less esteemed than equipment. Our cue was to destroy, not the Turk's army, but his minerals. The death of a Turkish bridge or rail, machine or gun or charge of high explosive, was more profitable to us than the death of a Turk.
In fighting the United States, just the opposite applied. Since World War II, America's "arsenal of democracy" churned out an endless supply of armaments and materiel. The Viet Cong realized that there was no sense in targeting American munitions dumps or motor pools. Human life, on the other hand, ranked supreme, and the resources dedicated to preserving it reflected that philosophy. Killing a G.I. added more weight to the American public's opinion against the war; wounding him tied up more resources and often provided the opportunity to kill or wound additional soldiers in medevac operations.
The one thing common to both conflicts was the need to garrison even the tiniest village against the insurgent. In his Little Red Book (another primer on guerrilla warfare), Mao Zedong likened insurgents to fish and the people, or peasantry, to water, the implication being that if you deny the fish their water, very soon they will be flapping about dying. In Seven Pillars of Wisdom, Lawrence looks at the situation from the other direction, the dauntingly massive, long-standing commitment of personnel in order to outlast an insurgency by denying the enemy new recruits:
And how would the Turks defend all that? No doubt by a trench line across the bottom, if we came like an army with banners; but suppose we were (as we might be) an influence, an idea, a thing intangible, invulnerable, without front or back, drifting about like a gas? Armies were like plants, immobile, firm-rooted, nourished through long stems to the head. We might be a vapour, blowing where we listed. Our kingdoms lay in each man's mind; and as we wanted nothing material to live on, so we might offer nothing material to the killing....
Then I figured out how many men they [the Turks] would need to sit on all this ground, to save it from our attack-in-depth, sedition putting up her head in every unoccupied one of those hundred thousand square miles. I knew the Turkish Army exactly, and even allowing for their recent extension of faculty by aeroplanes and guns and armoured trains (which made the earth a smaller battlefield) still it seemed they would have need of a fortified post every four miles, and a post could not be less than twenty men. If so, they would need six hundred thousand men to meet the illwills of all the Arab peoples, combined with the active hostility of a few zealots.
Six hundred thousand men garrisoning fortified posts every four miles–indefinitely: that's the kind of math that would make any insurgent leader smile, especially if his "army" consists of, at best, a few hundred men on camels with nothing heavier in firepower than belt-fed machine guns.
The United States faced the same massive commitment of personnel in Vietnam, a commitment it refused to make. While approximately one million soldiers rotated through tours over the thirteen years of U.S. involvement, most of the actual combat forces spent their time in "fire bases," a concept which essentially turned an infantry unit's camp (from platoon-sized on up to division) into a fortified artillery position. It was a concept which General William Westmoreland, commander of all U.S. forces and an artillery officer by training, readily embraced.
In newsreel footage so emblematic of the war, one sees helicopters in formation, either heading to or returning from combat. In keeping with the artilleryman's mindset, those helicopter sorties substituted for howitzer rounds heading downrange at the enemy. Certainly, the Viet Cong and even the North Vietnamese Army were loath to tangle with the indisputable superiority of focused American firepower. But after American forces won the field, they climbed into their helicopters and gave it all back to the enemy.
Only the Marine Corps would attempt to fight the war properly by permanently garrisoning soldiers in small villages via its CAP program, or Combined Action Platoons. Of course, the Marine Corps had plenty of experience in fighting insurgencies, or what later came to be called Low-Intensity Conflict; its 1940 Small Wars Manual, an incisive distillation of everything the Corps had learned in fighting guerrillas, was utterly ignored by the Army in Vietnam.
After Vietnam, the Army tried to banish the stinging memory of its defeat. Army doctrine focused exclusively on fighting a conventional war with closely coordinated maneuvers between armored ground forces and air forces. The strategy was called AirLand Battle, a Cold War update of the Germans' World War II concept of Blitzkrieg. In 1987, when I reread Seven Pillars of Wisdom, the Army was still wedded to the concept of airmobile operations; just two summers prior, at Air Assault School, I had been inculcated as a cadet into the doctrine's practical aspects.
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Recently I reread Lawrence's prescient classic. With over twenty-five years of reading under my belt, I had a far greater appreciation of just how compelling the book is purely as literature. George Bernard Shaw deemed it a masterpiece. Reviewing it in The New York Times Book Review in 1935, John H. Finley began by proclaiming: "This is an amazing book–amazing in the story that it tells but amazing, too, that it could ever have been written at all."
Among other things, Lawrence was a poet and that poetic sensibility informs much of his prose. Who can resist lines such as these?
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 dreams with open eyes, to make it possible. This I did.
But the intervening decades with two wars in Iraq and one in Afghanistan made me read Seven Pillars of Wisdom in a retroactive mindset yet again.
The lessons of Lawrence (and Mao and Giap and General Harold Briggs in Malaysia and the Soviets in Afghanistan) are starting to finally dawn on the American military. In 2007, the Department of Defense commissioned the Dupuy Institute in Annandale, Virginia to study insurgency. After analyzing 63 post-World War II examples, it turns out that most insurgencies last an average of more than 10 years and that the insurgents win 41% of the time. Nearly 80 years prior, Lawrence wrote that, "war upon rebellion was messy and slow, like eating soup with a knife."
I followed up my reread of Seven Pillars of Wisdom with Frank Herbert's 1965 science fiction classic, Dune. Herbert patterned much of his story on the Arab Revolt and his main character, Paul Atreides, on T.E. Lawrence. If you're not familiar with the book, the Atreides family moves from their planet to take control of the desert planet Arrakis, sole source of melange, or "the spice," a valuable commodity which is vital to the conduct of interplanetary travel and commerce. Amidst the intrigues of other powerful foreign families and the Emperor Shaddam, an unforeseen force arises: the inhabitants of Arrakis, a deeply religious desert people called the Fremen.
Arrakis. Shaddam. A commodity vital to transportation. Sound familiar?