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"Guerilla Leader: T.E. Lawrence and the Arab Revolt" By James J. Schneider

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Best unintentionally funny line in the book: "After which he traded in the Ford for a used camel..."

Considering the turmoil we have seen in our lifetimes, it's somewhat astounding to consider that about 90 years ago nearly the entire Arab culture of the Middle East was almost unified under the guidance of a single man. A gangly Brit at that.

That man was T.E. Lawrence, better known as Lawrence of Arabia. For as little many as Americans know about history, this is one piece of it that some know well. However, credit shouldn't be given to our sterling educational system but rather to Hollywood. That, of course, is because of the 1962 epic film starring Peter O'Toole, Alec Guinness and Anthony Quinn. In general, the film stays true to the real story, mainly because the real story is quite amazing.

"Blowing up trains and harassing supply lines with dynamite and audacity, Lawrence drove the mighty armies of the Ottoman Turks to distraction and brought the Arabs to the brink of self-determination." But how did an obscure junior officer with no knowledge of the art of any type of war gain the trust and respect of a "loosely affiliated cluster of desert tribes" and unite them in a single cause? It's because he learned – one might say he intuited it immediately – that any type of Western military hierarchy would be a recipe for disaster in a world of tribal systems where warriors lead entire communities, not just other warriors.

This book provides a detailed account of the Arab revolt Lawrence led during World War I, from the attack on the port city of Aqaba to his bloody victory at Talifeh, the only battle of the war that was Western in nature. For two years Lawrence led the Arab warriors as they battled Turks unconventionally through desert raids on camels and by dynamiting trains. By harassing and making life for the Turks uncomfortable, to say the least, Lawrence helped pave the way for the British push northward. He and his Arab warriors ultimately linked up with the British army, led by General Edmund "Bull" Allenby, for the final push to Damascus, toppling the Ottoman empire.

The British and French manipulated and outright lied to Arab clan leaders, convincing them that if they rose up against their occupiers – the Turks, who happened to be allied with the Axis powers – they would help them achieve independence and self-determination. It would also knock the Turks out of the war and open a strategic route to Romania and Russia for the Allies. In actuality, the Arabs were merely a means to an end in the cold world of war.

Neither the French or the British had any plans to give up their foothold in the region if they succeeded (Google "Sykes-Picot Agreement" and/or "Balfour Declaration"), let alone reduce their influence especially in a newly formed region called "Beirut". The British wanted to "pluck Jerusalem from the reeling Turks" as a "Christmas present" to its Catholics. The Jerusalem connection was purely and utterly religious on both sides of the equation.

Also, Palestine was important to the British both economically and strategically. It "would act as a buffer to Egypt and the Suez Canal and ensured a tight link to the eastern reaches of the empire. It also provided an entree to the oil-laden regions on the Middle East." That last bit has had lasting effects. However, amongst all the lies and double dealing, Lawrence was one Brit who truly and honorably worked towards Arab independence on the front lines.

Seeing Lawrence, in his white robes that were given to him as a gift, surrounded by his bodyguards was striking to say the least. He looked like an "ascetic Templar knight leading a band of renegade Muslim raiders in a holy war." His bodyguard was composed mainly of outcast warriors from 30 or more desert tribes. They were able to reclaim a type of tribal identity by being Lawrence's bodyguards and thusly were incredibly loyal. The bond was so strong that 60 (nearly half) died in the protection and service of Lawrence.

Lawrence was a pioneer in bringing guerilla warfare into the framework of a Western military. Guerilla warfare goes back to the very beginning of war itself. It's the type of warfare that inevitably occurs any time a major organized army tries to take over any organized city of a decent size. It's the essence of defending one's turf.

The primary strategy is attrition and your tactics aren't so much meant to kill as to create day-to-day discomfort for the enemy. After all, a dead combatant can be used to inspire other would-be combatants, whereas a living combatant deprived of food, water, rest and creature comforts can create demoralization within the ranks. It occupies the occupiers, creating the impression (or paranoia) that there is a large enemy force "just over that hill" when in actuality there are only 5 to 10 armed guerillas stirring things up and ready to move at a moment's notice.

It was probably as difficult a balancing act one could undertake during a war. Show the Arab raiders the benefits of restraint and rudimentary Western military strategy (e.g. the strategic advantage that can occur from NOT attacking, even if you are sure to overwhelm) and teach the rigid (to say the least) British military the advantages of raiding through guerilla attacks.

This was a time when "strategic Western warfare" involved crawling out of trenches and marching directly toward your enemy and hoping to win through a different kind of attrition – by forcing your enemy to use all of its ammo. Of course, that results in quite a few dead soldiers and the killing fields of World War I were some of the most gruesome of any 20th century war. Lawrence also had to prove that "an active native contingent, provided it was well led, could achieve significant military results against a conventional army."

Guerilla warfare was also effective over wide spaces. In the Middle East, there really was no such thing as "centralized battle", where two well-armed forces stake out opposing plots of land, size one another up and attack accordingly. The idea of "trench warfare" was not only foreign, it was antithetical.

This type of warfare is similar to the early rounds of a heavyweight fight, where one fighter tries to soften his opponent for a late-round knockout punch. Guerilla warfare softened the Turks and almost broke their will. But almost was good enough with the British army providing the late-round knockout punch.

At one point, Lawrence – who had undergone tremendous physical strain and stress – almost broke. It was after the battle of Tafileh, in which a large contingency of Arabs faced off against a large body of the Turk army. It was the first battle that resulted in mass death – 600 out of 1,200 Turks but only 30 out of 600 Arabs. There were also 300 Turkish POWs. Seeing the dead that day struck Lawrence at his core and pushed him to the brink. After the battle and following an incident of failed trust with one of the Arab warriors, Lawrence hastened to Allenby's headquarters to be relieved of his duties. He felt he would be unable to support the British offensive and had lost faith in his warriors. "I had no trick left worth a meal in an Arab marketplace and wanted the security of custom; to be conveyed; to pillow myself on duty and obedience; irresponsibly."

But when he met with Allenby he swallowed his objections and could not refuse "the Bull". He would lead the Arabs in the British offensive. Incidentally, Lawrence wasn't the only beloved Brit who was beloved by the Arabs. Allenby became a hero and his name was adapted to "Allah en Nebi", which means "Prophet from God".

After the victory in Damascus, Lawrence did something not even our best military leaders have been able to do – he created a successful provisional government that lasted without intervention for two years. What's even more impressive is that he did it literally overnight. Through his authority and charisma he was able to again unify the Arabs, this time into a single government body.

The book is highly researched and written in a crisp manner — with a story such as this it's best to let the words move the story forward. After reading it, I'm most struck by Lawrence's incredible charisma and his ability to gain the trust and respect of multiple rival and warring Arab factions. It makes one think: what would have happened if a "T.E. Lawrence" had showed up among the Native Americans in the early 1800s?

"Guerilla Leader: T.E. Lawrence and the Arab Revolt" By James J. Schneider
307 pg. Bantam Books
$28.00

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