For Want of a Book

By streiff Posted in Comments (6) / Email this page » / Leave a comment »

Promoted from the Diaries.

Lessons of Arabia

In this episode, the Washington Post's star defense reporter discovers T. E. Lawrence wrote a book but is too lazy to read it and uses the DVD as a substitute to teach the US military a thing or two about tactics and doctrine.

Over the years I'd tried several times to read T.E. Lawrence's "Seven Pillars of Wisdom," a great memoir of World War I in the Middle East. Each time I faltered and put the book down, put off by Lawrence's obscure vocabulary, baroque style and equally twisted personality [...]

A few days later, outside Najaf, I saw Lawrence's book in a new light, as an account of Arab guerrillas attacking the supply lines of a modern, conventional Western military. That was what I had just experienced -- from the wrong end of the gun -- 80 years after Lawrence wrote [...]

Let me emphatically state here that I am not likening the cause of the Iraqi insurgents to that of Arab rebels against the Turks. I was reading this as a tactical manual of military operations against another military, not of terrorist attacks on civilians [...]

Read on . . .
The last paragraph alone is a flag that Ricks is a reporter who barely hits dilettante on the knowledgeometer. If you have read Seven Pillars of Wisdom it is obvious that if you are not comparing the Iraqi insurgents to Faisal's army and us to the Turks then there is no basis for the article. The book isn't a tactical manual and has nothing uniquely tactical to say that hasn't been said much better by Mao, Giap, and many others. The book speaks to two subjects: operational art and leading irregulars. Once you move beyond those subjects then Lawrence is describing specific tactics for a specific place (Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Syria) at a specific time (1917-18).

In fact, it is far from clear that the insurgents are following the tactics of the Arab army under Lawrence.

In those terms, the tactics employed by Lawrence and his Arab tribesmen were strikingly similar to those used against U.S. forces today in Iraq. American truck convoys constantly come under attack, sometimes by rocket-propelled grenades but most often by anonymous roadside bombs [...] Lawrence wasn't interested in direct confrontations with the Turkish military. Rather, he strove to avoid the set-piece slugfests...such as the recent battle in Fallujah (comment: who does he think was defending Falluja?). He relentlessly chipped away at the railroad that supplied Turkish forces deployed deep in what is now Jordan and Saudi Arabia, dropping rail bridges and blowing up locomotives.

This statement is pretty much contrary to the facts. While there are a lot of attacks by IED it is just not the case that that is the enemy's preferred means of attack. Just the opposite is true. Whenever the enemy can field a military force of even a few men they engage in military operations. Usually to their detriment. They try desperately to establish sanctuaries (Falluja, Ramadi, Samarra, Baquba and various neighborhoods in Baghdad and Mosul). Whenever a town appears to be safe for insurgents they can't resist patrolling the streets, creating a nuisance, and congregating. And when the town comes under attack some few leaders may flee but the lion's share of the followers try to defend their turf. In Falluja the number of killed insurgents is approximately 2,000 with over 1,200 captured. If anything, the evidence indicates that IEDs are set by common criminals for cash. Nothing I have seen indicates that any significant attacks have been made against the road and bridge network in Iraq.

His rebellion, he wrote, faced "a sophisticated alien enemy, disposed as an army of occupation in an area greater than could be dominated effectively from fortified posts." Meanwhile, his side was supported by "a friendly population, of which some two in the hundred were active, and the rest quietly sympathetic to the point of not betraying the movements of the minority."

Again a misrepresentation of the situation. More information is here but let's leave it to Zarqawi to describe what it is really like as reported by ABC News:

The problems, the message [from Zarqawi] says, are the result of losing the insurgent safe haven of Fallujah to U.S. troops. It says the insurgency was hampered as checkpoints and raids spread "to every city and road." Communications broke down as insurgents were forced to spread out through the country.

The arrest of some of their military experts, more "spies willing to help the enemy," and a dwindling supply of arms also added to the organizational breakdown, it reads.

And so we end up with his bottom line. The US military can barely tell its butt from a hot rock, however, Ricks, who has never spent a nanosecond in the military, can make a cogent analysis from misreading a book that none of those morons in uniform have ever heard of.

As I read that, I thought with regret that if the U.S. military had done more thinking and less fighting in Iraq in 2003, we probably would be in a better position there today [...] Whether they will learn Lawrence's lessons remains to be seen.

There you have it folks. Again proving my point: the people in the military are just stupid.

Seven Pillars is much harder going than anything in the Curious George series.

I have a couple of copies. One to read. One for the library (a 1936 printing). I first read it in high school and I found it fascinating. Sort of speaks to my high school career more than Lawrence's literary talent I suppose.

trying to tell armies how to fight. Journalists are good at writing "stories." That's it. They aren't even good at making sense half the time. Why? They don't get paid to make sense. They benefit by making false analogies and stirring up emotions.

Comparing Lawrence's attacks to Zarqawi's in Iraq is embarrasing to the journalist in question. It is intellectual suicide. Lawrence's mission wasn't to defeat the Turks....ever. He was to be a distraction...a enable the REAL armies to fight and win.

I wonder who the real army will be that will come to the rescue of Zarqawi and his band of bloody murderers? I wonder how many heads Lawrence cut off or how many women he shot with 7.62 rounds at point blank range?

Give me a break. This is another example of a journalist selling a story at the price of intellectual honesty.

The fact that Lawrence's book is difficult to read hardly qualifies as justification to use it in an argument that the US military is stupid.

I'll lay money that more US military commanders have read 'Pillars' than Ricks would expect. Anyone who thinks that all they do at West Point, Annapolis, Colorado Springs, the National War College and the Naval War College is march around and play football doesn't understand what's going on.

Ricks is your archetype 'journalist' --- 'if you knew anything you would be one of those stupid soldiers'.

In military tactics or history, but even a neophyte with the ability to keep his eyes open long enough to watch the action in Iraq could have told this pillar of the journalistic arts that his arguments were lodged in his fundament.  Thank you for doing it so much more competently than that.

The only thing that I can guess is that all of the cellphone antennas and the Navy's X Project by the Potomac are to blame for this -- they have apparently generated a reality distortion field which has made it possible for journalists like Ricks to misconstrue history and reality in the service of twisting the contents of a book in the service of his preconceived notions.

These are the experts?  Ohhhh, we are in trouble.  ;)

I'd just add that Lawrence greatly overstated the case for his Bedouin irregulars, and his Arab officers who'd defected from the Ottoman army were a real problem, both facts Elie Kedourie nicely illustrates in his review of Lawrence's biographers. These were hardly the crack forces Lawrence makes them out to be, which has been glossed over by history--and the Great Powers themselves as they let Faisal's Arabs march into Damascus first for political reasons. But of course the French dispatched with Faisal himself pretty quickly. A much more interesting book about Arab warfare is Glubb's The Story of the Arab Legion, by a man who spent much more time around Arab fighters and turned some of them into real soldiers. It's also interesting to see in the narrative how Glubb came to understand the way Arabs fought, what they prized and what disciplined them, lessons I suspect much of the coalition forces are learning now as well, but still, alas, lost on much of the press.

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