Friday, February 22, 2013

T.E. Lawrence in Arabia and After (1934, B.H. Liddell Hart)

Publishing Info:
Liddell Hart, Basil H. Lawrence of Arabia. New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1989. 406 pp.

Originally published as T.E. Lawrence in Arabia and After. London: Jonathan Cape, 1934. US publication: Colonel Lawrence: The Man Behind the Legend. New York: Dodd, Mead & Company, 1934.

Introduction:
Many consider T.E. Lawrence in Arabia and After the first "serious" Lawrence biography after the sensationalism of Lowell Thomas and Robert Graves. Written by England's foremost military theorist, it provides valuable insight into Lawrence's achievements as a strategist "who had the vision to anticipate the guerrilla trend of civilized warfare" (382). Despite his sober bearings, Liddell Hart proves no less susceptible to hero worship than his predecessors.

The Author:
Captain Sir Basil Henry Liddell Hart (1895-1970) was an influential writer of military history and tactics. Among his many works are The Strategy of Indirect Approach (1929); biographies of Scipio Africanus, Napoleon, William T. Sherman and Ferdinand Foch; edited The Rommel Papers; and one-volume histories of the First and Second World Wars. His writings on the "indirect approach" to warfare, emphasizing maneuver, concentrated firepower and tanks, provided an intellectual model for Germany's blitzkrieg tactics during the Second World War.

The Review:
The balance of Liddell Hart's book analyzes Lawrence's military campaigns. Liddell Hart views Lawrence as a brilliant leader, worthy of comparison to "great captains" like Clausewitz, Napoleon and Marlborough. Using minimal resources against a numerically and technologically superior foe, Lawrence "turn(ed) the weakness of the Arabs into an asset, and the strength of the Turks into a debit" (383).

Liddell Hart draws uncritically on Lawrence's writings, often to the point of paraphrase. But his strategic and tactical analysis frequently proves unassailable. Consider his analysis of Lawrence's most famous military achievement: (pp. 166-167)

Tactically, the Aqaba operation had inflicted a permanent loss of some 1,200 men... on the Turks - at a cost of two men killed in the conquering force... By the strictest canons of orthodox strategy... it was an unrivaled achievement. The British forces in trying unsuccessfully to capture Gaza [under Murray]... had only succeeded in killing or capturing 1,700 Turks at a permanent cost to themselves of 3,000 men... They had sacrificed roughly two men to kill one Turk, the same number that the Arabs sacrificed to kill 1,200 Turks!
Liddell Hart broods on Lawrence's interlude at Wadi Ais, one of Seven Pillars' more dubious (though beautifully written) passages. Liddell Hart takes it at face value, marveling at Lawrence formulating "a new theory of irregular warfare" (138) while racked with fever. He emphasizes Lawrence's campaign against the Hejaz Railway, but downplays the Royal Navy's decisive role in capturing Wejh. He views Lawrence's ephemeral victory at Tafileh as a "gem" (215), while skimming over his failed 1918 Dead Sea Campaign. The Arabs become a feverish mass, indecisive until Lawrence prods them into action.

Liddell Hart's analysis deserves qualification. In 1929 he wrote The Strategy of Indirect Approach, thanking "T.E.S." in the foreword and dissecting the Arab Revolt. In another book (Great Captains Unveiled, 1927) he highlights Lord Allenby as a great modern general. Later in life Liddell Hart headed the so-called "Lawrence Bureau," ferociously defending Lawrence's reputation against Richard Aldington, David Lean and others. (He did collaborate with Terence Rattigan on his play Ross: A Dramatic Portrait (1960).) Along with his disparagement of Great War leadership, Liddell Hart clearly views Lawrence as exemplifying his pet theories.  

For all that, Liddell Hart's overall assessment is shrewd. It's possible to overstate Lawrence's tactical achievements, but he undeniably influenced military theory: guerrilla leaders from Orde Wingate to Vo Nguyen Giap drew inspiration from Seven Pillars, while American troops in Afghanistan and Iraq study Lawrence's 27 Articles. Those scoffing at the small number of Arabs joining King Hussein's revolt miss the point of asymmetrical warfare, so beautifully elucidated by Liddell Hart. For minimal casualties and lucre, the Arab Revolt provided the British an extremely useful sideshow.
Liddell Hart (right) with TEL at Hythe, ca. 1934.

Liddell Hart proves less shrewd otherwise analyzing his subject. He seems just as credulous to Lawrence's tall tales and evasions as Thomas or Graves. He sketches Lawrence's early years thinly, omitting Lawrence's illegitimacy or tense relationship with his mother. Even this early in Lawrence literature, inconsistencies emerge. For one, Lawrence's pre-war ambush by a Syrian bandit (9) differs significantly from Graves: in this telling, Lawrence thwarts the bandit by dissembling his pistol. More notably, Liddell Hart downplays Lawrence's complicity in the Tafas Massacre (287-288), when Lawrence himself is shockingly forthright.

Liddell Hart notes Lawrence's artistic interests, highlighting his "process of swift mental appreciation" (12), "extraordinary charm" (13) and "ha[ving] an instinctive shyness born of a sense of difference" (258). He relates amusing anecdotes like Lawrence's confronting an imposter: "Had he stuck to his statement I should have begun to question myself," says his subject (369). There's also his passage on Lawrence's postwar military service, finding "a sense of fulfillment, reinforced by a sense of futility" in being a gentleman ranker (330), and proving rare in 'adjusting his opinions to his knowledge" (375). These passages provide valuable insight into Lawrence's personality.

But Liddell Hart's views of Lawrence often prove simplistic or worse. The author's "reasoned belief in the benefits of British administration" (309) distorts Lawrence's efforts at Paris and Cairo to reconcile British, French and Arab war aims. Nor can we credit his view of Lawrence as a "Crusader" (374), a melodramatic flash out of Lowell Thomas. When all else fails, Liddell Hart falls back on starry-eyed hagiography. He melodramatically ends by announcing that "in [Lawrence] the Spirit of Freedom came incarnate to a world in fetters" (390), a messiah cut down in his prime.

It's perhaps unfair to conclude, like Stephen Tabachnick, that Liddell Hart views "Lawrence as a potential dictator" (Images of Lawrence, 40). Liddell Hart discussed the idea with Lawrence but both seem to view it as a lark. It was proposed seriously by novelist Henry Williamson, who imagined Lawrence leading "a whirlwind campaign which would end the fearful thought of old Europe" (Genius of Friendship, 75). Lawrence also complained of being approached by Oswald Mosley's Blackshirts, repeatedly rebuffing them. "I don't want to be considered... as a philosophic system, or a paragon... of conduct," he told Graves.

Rather, Liddell Hart seems profoundly awed by Lawrence, a common reaction among friends. Winston Churchill proclaimed Lawrence "one of the greatest beings alive in our time." Vyvyan Richards compared him to Alexander the Great and St. Francis of Assisi; Williamson to Jesus Christ. All of them, not unreasonably, thought Lawrence an extraordinary man with a calling greater than RAF anonymity. Perhaps there lies the true measure of Lawrence's greatness: not his military genius or literary skill, but his ability to befriend and bewitch such a diverse lot of people. 

Even this benign reading points up T.E. Lawrence in Arabia and After's primary shortcoming. Liddell Hart the historian can scrutinize Lawrence's campaigns with clarity and insight. But Liddell Hart the man can't see Lawrence as anything but a friend, seemingly lacking guile or fault. The resulting tome merely cocoons the Lawrence myth in a scholarly patina, begging for skeptics to bust it open.

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