Wrapped in a Mystery inside an Enigma
T. E. Lawrence

Years ago, I started to read about T.E. Lawrence; he fascinated me. He went to Oxford and became an archeologist just over a century ago. Then he traveled to Carchemish in northern Syria on his first dig. However, WWI broke out a couple years later. Lawrence got a commission by the British Army and surveyed the Negev Desert, which the British Army needed during WWI. The Ottoman Turks would have to cross the Negev in order to attack the British in Egypt.

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T. E. Lawrence

Thus began the emergence of this enigmatic person who we know as Lawrence of Arabia. Over the next decade, he matured into a military celebratory of sorts. It is interesting that his personality consisted of many opposites. He became known throughout the world, but he was very shy. He was very open and outgoing while being reclusive. When he went to the Middle East, he had no military experience but was a military guru during the Arab Revolt a couple years later. Finally, he had extremely limited political background, however, he predicted the political future of much of the Middle East.

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Lawrence of Arabia

Lawrence wrote about his time in the Middle East in Seven Pillars of Wisdom in the early 1920s. That book has also intrigued me for years including its odd title. You will find in Proverbs 9:1 where he gleaned the title, Seven Pillars of Wisdom. "Wisdom hath builded her house, she hath hewn out her seven pillars...." (KJV)

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This is his book about his involvement in the Arab Revolt in 1916-1918.

This is one of the sites most often called the Seven Pillars. We know that Lawrence was stationed in the British Army at Wadi Rum where these pillars are located. Some historians assume that this biblical place was the basis for Lawrence's title. What intrigues me is why he used an OT term for what essentially was about an Arab revolt in the 20th century.

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The Seven Pillars at Wadi Rum

For many years, I have admired T. E. Lawrence. In fact, he is one of my mentors in my personal life. Nonetheless, as I discover more about him, I discover how much I have yet to grasp fully who he was. Lawrence reminds me of Churchill's phrase about being "wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma." While a mentor of mine, he is precisely that for me.

Regardless of the difficulty, this essay is my attempt to put some of the pieces together so that I can get closer to understanding one of my mentors. I realize, at the end of this essay, that I will still have a radically limited picture of one of my mentors. Nevertheless, I will gain by applying what I learn about T. E. Lawrence to my life.

Therefore, let us begin. While Lawrence's personality was a vast dichotomy, I have listed over a dozen contradictions about which he held in tension, which makes him a true leader.

  1. While the British and French were allies during WWI, Lawrence wanted to protect the British from French geopolitical control in the Middle East, which would adversely affect Britain. Lawrence and the British needed the French during the war, but he did want to allow the French to expand in the Middle East as a result.
  2. The Sykes-Picot Agreement was signed in secret during WWI to determine the political spheres of influence that both Britain and France would possess in the Middle East after they defected Ottoman Turks, who were a part of the Central Powers in WWI. While Lawrence was not privy to Sykes-Picot, he was pro-British. He did not want to allow any type of French geopolitical dominance, especially in the Middle East.
  3. While Lawrence was British, he certainly had dual loyalties when his Arab allegiances were factored into his equation. He was determined to help the Arabs, especially Emir Faisal. Lawrence's dedication to the Arab Revolt helped provide Faisal the means to become the head of Iraq.

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Emir Faisal

At the end of the war, Faisal and Lawrence attend the peace conference.

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Faisal and Lawrence at Versailles (Lawrence is standing to the right of Faisal)

  1. Also interestingly, even though Lawrence was very successful in assisting the Arabs fighting the Turkish Ottoman Empire, he did not want the Turks totally defeated. He knew that it would be better to engage the Turks in a war of attrition rather than complete victory. Waging a war of attrition in the Middle East tied up thousands of Turkish soldiers and kept them from reinforcing their army in the Baltic war front during WWI.
  2. Another dichotomy issue for Lawrence was that he wanted to protect the use of the Suez Canal while he also wanted Arab political rights. If the British kept complete control of the canal, it would be in juxtaposition to political rights of the Arabs.
  3. While a junior grade military officer, Lawrence was not privy to what London possessed. Regardless, he still understood the situation that neither the British nor French understood while deciding issues back in their capitals of London and Paris. Being present in the Middle East, he understood things firsthand.
  4. Lawrence, while a British military officer, did not wish to follow their military strategy certainly during WWI. He understood the need for guerrilla tactics rather than what other British military officers were doing on the Western Front during WWI in Europe. The Allies were bogged down in trench warfare and were not getting anywhere for years. In fact, he was more successful fighting the Turks on a war front longer than the 800-mile Western Front in Europe.
  5. Lawrence also was well aware of asymmetry in warfare. The British were not, but he was. He was able to wage war during WWI and the Arab Revolt using asymmetric tactics against the Turks. The Arabs and he understood that limited numbers of soldiers did not necessarily limit their ability to wage an effective war.
  6. Additionally, Lawrence did not often wear his British military uniform. He identified with the Arabs and their cause by dressing in their fashion. He and the Arabs knew that by wearing their style of clothing did not make him an Arab. Merely dressing like an Arab did not cause him to understand them fully. Nonetheless, his dress code benefited both him and the Arabs. He was not merely some European in their territory. Lawrence identified with their concerns and wanted to assist them.

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T. E. Lawrence, aka Lawrence of Arabia

  1. Beyond the wearing apparel issue, Lawrence understood his place in the Arab world. His book, Twenty-Seven Rules, published in 1917 was an attempt to help the British to deal better with the Arabs. This is his 15th rule:

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.

  1. In addition to knowing the locals very well during WWI, Lawrence saw the future of the Middle East well beyond the Great War. Much of what he wrote about the area was true throughout the rest of the 20th and into the 21st century. T. E. Lawrence was a visionary in his time.
  2. Lawrence was also a dreamer like another of my mentors, Bobby Kennedy. He wrote while in the Middle East, "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 on their dreams with open eyes, to make them possible." Lawrence dreamed during the day.
  3. Finally, much of the Western world knew T. E. Lawrence during WWI, which was a time of millions of nameless soldiers dying during that war. Part of this was due to the American broadcaster, Lowell Thomas. However, Thomas would not have spent time interviewing him unless he was well known, especially in the Middle East. While millions died unknown, he fought both WWI and assisted in the Arab Revolt. T. E. Lawrence is a mentor to millions including myself. I hope that he becomes a mentor to you.

This link is a PBS article regarding T. E. Lawrence. It contains a great deal of information.

An old man and his grandson

An Old Man and His Grandson

Visit The Mentors and Me page to read more about this topic.