"Messy and slow, like eating soup with a knife"

Lawrence of Arabia's brilliant memoir reminds us that the hard part is not defeating Iraq, but occupying it.


Joel Turnipseed
April 15, 2003 11:35PM (UTC)

The war with Iraq's military is over. Saddam's Republican Guard and fedayeen paramilitaries are scattered, captured or dead. Donald Rumsfeld has a slight cheer to his avuncular growls, slyly reminding us that in our more nervous editorials, the words "Vietnam" and "Grozny" and "Lebanon" were briefly hushed before being set aside by our romps into downtown Basra and Baghdad. We even, briefly, raised a few American flags in the cradle of civilization.

Still, the speculative unease persists even as the statues are being toppled, and there's a very curious roundabout to it all. We may as well track it backward as it arose, through our experience in Vietnam. Or that of Israel (and our own Marine Corps) in Lebanon. In Vietnam, it was Ho Chi Minh's left-hand military man, Gen. Vo Nguyen Giap -- more than Ho Chi Minh himself -- who devised the logistical and political mastery of war that caused us so much trouble. The general, whose own papers are now studied at West Point and Annapolis, learned his tactics from, above all, T.E. Lawrence. "My fighting gospel is T.E. Lawrence's 'Seven Pillars of Wisdom,'" he said. "I am never without it."

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For all the attention to books by Bernard Lewis and Kenneth Pollack, and all the caffeinated hyperactivity of the retired generals with their plastic tanks and linoleum geographies, it's surprising that no one mentions Lawrence and his masterpiece. It's especially surprising given his striking role in this conflict's provenance: As aide to Winston Churchill, and friend to Prince Faisal Hussein, T.E. Lawrence was one of the creators of Iraq, and Prince Faisal the first ruler. It was Lawrence who helped channel the Arab nationalism led by Hussein and his forces into a coherent fighting doctrine, a doctrine of a people's guerrilla war -- a doctrine whose first followers ruled all the states of the Middle East upon their creation after World War I. Laid out in Chapter 33 of his famous book, Lawrence's ideas are a more coherent (and deeply thought) analysis of the coming battles for the future of Iraq than any offered by our talking heads.

Let's start with a plain fact: The standing military of Saddam Hussein was no match for our forces. In 1991, it was a freshly supplied, well-maintained force -- the fourth largest in the world. In 2003, it was a ragtag band of conscripts running broken-down equipment. The United States has suffered fewer combat casualties in four weeks of this conflict than we did in four days of ground fighting during the war in Kuwait. We are not done -- and our casualty tally is almost certain to grow before we are finished -- but the conventional military outcome of our march into Iraq was never really in doubt. Indeed, several embedded reporters have mentioned the guilt felt by the young soldiers and Marines: the guilt of human slaughter.

Lawrence, knowing well what was happening on the western front and having seen first-hand what happened to the Arab forces when they ran up against the mechanized Turkish forces, had a strong distaste for the kind of industrial war we are wrapping up in Tikrit:

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"To me [absolute] war seemed only an exterminative variety, no more absolute than another," he wrote. "One could as explicably call it 'murder war.'"

Rather than fight on such gruesome terms, Lawrence devised a war-fighting strategy that supposed the enemy was allowed to occupy territory -- as much as possible, in fact. In such a scenario, the true battle for Iraq starts once Saddam's forces are defeated: the twin battles, actually, of our occupation -- one to establish immediate order and humane conditions in Iraq, and another to create a stable government that the Iraqis and the rest of the Arab people feel is genuinely their own. We cannot fail at either, for it is against just such an unwelcome occupation that Lawrence's theories are meant to work.

The logic is impeccable. Lawrence estimated that the Turkish-occupied Hejaz was approximately 140,000 square miles (Iraq, by comparison, is 168,000), then asked:

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"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?"

This was the first realization on Lawrence's way to formulating guerrilla war fighting: You don't need to win the war but merely make it unwinnable. Lawrence figured the Turks would need 600,000 -- an impossibility -- to put down his revolt. For our present campaign, the Army Chief of Staff, Gen. Eric Shinseki, wanted 200,000 troops to hold and police Iraq. There aren't even that many fighting. Invading Syria would not, in this view, decrease the threat but increase it, by expanding the geography of our defense. It might also help to remember that the group that actually attacked us on 9/11, al-Qaida, attacked us three other times, none of which occurred on our soil, but rather that of Kenya, Tanzania, and Yemen.

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Tactically, Lawrence realized that it was just not possible to overwhelm positions, or to keep a large force supplied (something that, by contrast, Gen. Giap did brilliantly). Instead, he decided that guerrilla warfare required three tactics: attacking neither the strongest nor the weakest points but rather the most accessible; nearly perfect intelligence; and finding just one aspect in which the guerrilla forces were stronger, even if this meant that in all other respects his Arab forces were vastly inferior. This mix of lightweight forces, strong intelligence, and ad hoc technical means, however inferior in traditional battles, provided Lawrence with one of the greatest tactical advantages:

"The decision of what was critical would always be ours."

For the convoy no longer supported by Bradley fighting vehicles and Cobra escorts, a rocket-propelled grenade will do just fine -- or a .23-caliber machine gun mounted to one of the Toyotas used by nearly every Bedouin shepherd, just the sort of "technical" vehicle that took out two Abrams tanks by firing through the rear grills. The Russian-made Koronets may yet prove deadly, however, since they are easily smuggled at just 63 pounds. For a small, opportunistic group, perfect intelligence will be easily obtained once we become an occupying and not a highly mobile liberating force. How many tanks will we need to lose per week until we decide we've had enough? How many U.S. administration personnel assassinated? And then?

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And then we arrive at the crux of Lawrence's genius, the psychological aspect of guerrilla warfare and its relation to the strategic and tactical. He began with doubts about the ideological basis for Faisal's rebellion, and whether it would spread to the other Bedouin tribes:

"Abdulla's words were definite. He contrasted his hearer's present independence with their past servitude to Turkey, and roundly said that talk of Turkish heresy, or the immoral doctrine of Yeni-Turan, or the illegitimate Caliphate was beside the point. It was Arab country, and the Turks were in it: that was the one issue."

This necessary but insufficient condition had to overcome the obstacle of death, however, as man who is already free, such as the Bedouin, gains little by rebellion and even less by death. Lawrence did not anticipate the urbanization of the Arabs, their long desperation, or their intense conflict with Israel. The idea of the suicide bomber would surely have shocked him, though he would have recognized its use as an extension of this theories. What he did know, even then, was that he needed only one or two in a hundred to be active -- the rest could be merely passive -- and that the minds of all must be taken to battle beyond their initial passions:

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"We had to arrange their minds in order of battle just as carefully and as formally as other officers would arrange their bodies. And not only our own men's minds, though naturally they came first. We must also arrange the minds of the enemy, so far as we could reach them; then those other minds of the nation supporting us behind the firing line, since more than half the battle passed there in the back; then the minds of the enemy nation waiting the verdict; and of the neutrals looking on; circle beyond circle.

"There were many humiliating material limits, but no moral impossibilities; so that the scope of our activities was unbounded."

This moral element, requiring not so much action as mere apprehension, except for the few who would carry the fight, is why Bush's failure to get U.N. approval could prove to be so devastating, especially in the wake of the largest war protests in the history of the world. It is why it doesn't matter if the people in the United States and Great Britain aren't galled that our coalition was made up of such minor partners as the Solomon Islands and Guam -- and not the U.N. Security Council, or G8 nations such as France, Germany, Russia and Canada. We are fighting a new kind of war here, and it's not the one on the ground in Iraq we should be worried about. Of his new guerrilla war fighting, Lawrence wrote:

"We kindergarten soldiers were beginning our art of war in the atmosphere of the twentieth century, receiving our weapons without prejudice."

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Well, there is no longer any prejudice in the world's armed forces against guerrilla warfare and the politics of a people's war -- by the time the long and bloody 20th century had played out, the world's dispossessed had earned their Ph.D.'s at Bay of Pigs College and Dien Bien Phu U. If any of this rings true, then it is not Saddam's tactics or Baath party thugs we should be looking around for, but Osama bin Laden -- or his successors. It is not the increasingly comic -- and now silenced -- rants of Iraq's minister of information, Mohammed Said al-Sahaf, we should fear, but the stern warning of Egypt's moderate president, Hosni Mubarak: that we are going to create "a hundred bin Ladens."

Lawrence's "Seven Pillars of Wisdom" is not a masterpiece because of his strategy, however, but because of his writing. He is a master. His powers of description and the extended scene (the entire theory above is proposed as a fevered dream as he lies sick for a week in his tent) are almost unrivaled. He published his book as a novel, though it is, of course, a memoir -- and in tone and feel it precedes the ambiguities of truth and genre in the works of guys like Tim O'Brien and Frederick Exley.

It also preceded Hemingway's first war novel, "A Farewell to Arms," and Remarque's "All Quiet on the Western Front." Thus, Lawrence was a creator of both the individual soldier tormented about the aims of his war and his loyalties, but also, in his dual role of soldier and spy, the entire stock of Graham Greene and John le Carré characters. Lawrence could share with Chris Hedges a thing or two about how the corruscated beauty of war can burn out our souls, and when all the books are written on our latest Gulf War -- the one at hand and the decade-plus ellipsis that will ultimately join the adventures of 1990-91 and 2003 -- "Seven Pillars" will be remembered as the greatest Gulf War memoir.

Whether or not our occupation of Iraq -- and, possibly, Syria -- ends with a more democratic Middle East, or in a long, protracted people's war, is anybody's guess. So much depends upon the behavior of the 19-year-old lance corporals, and the ability of Bush and Blair to force a settlement on Israel and the Palestinians. Even Lawrence was aware that his guerrilla efforts required time:

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"A province would be won when we had taught the civilians in it to die for our ideal of freedom. The presence of the enemy was secondary. Final victory seemed certain, if the war lasted long enough for us to work it out."

Of course, the long-held rhetoric of men such as Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz seems to promise just such a protracted situation, and not just in Arabia. With the notion that we are going to be the world's police force, and an active one at that -- taking the "war on terror" to the streets of Baghdad and where next? Damascus? Pyongyang? Manila? Tehran? We would do well to keep in mind that -- with the technologically and economically dispossessed, the militant religious sects, and the terrorists who act from the age-old truth that when there is no future, nothing is forbidden -- we are entering an age of global crisis and we should choose our weapons carefully. As Lawrence wryly remarks,

"War upon rebellion is messy and slow, like eating soup with a knife."


Joel Turnipseed

Joel Turnipseed is the author of "Baghdad Express: A Gulf War Memoir"

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