T. E. Lawrence on Strategy and Tactics, and the Power of Ideas

13 03 2015

57936Right now I’m working my way through Seven Pillars of Wisdom: A Triumph, T. E. Lawrence’s memoir of his adventures in the Middle East. I’m enjoying it a good deal more than I anticipated. Lawrence was, it appears to me, a jerk. For instance, he spelled the names of places and people differently intermittently, and on purpose. He explained that this was because they were frequently spelled differently, which doesn’t help the reader much. But I suspect he really wasn’t writing for the reader. In fact, he says:

There are no lessons for the world, no disclosures to shock peoples. It is filled with trivial things, partly that no one mistake for history the bones from which some day a man may make history.

The edition I’m reading includes the historiography of the book, which is an adventure in itself, as well as some correspondence between Lawrence and his editor, in which you can see that not only was Lawrence a jerk, but he knew he was a jerk, he knew his editor knew he was a jerk, and moreover he knew that the editor needed him so badly that Lawrence had no motivation whatsoever to curb his jerk tendencies.

Enough of that – let’s get to it. In Chapter 33 (there are many short chapters – Lawrence anticipated the People Magazine approach to article length), Lawrence recounted the thoughts running through his head as he lay prostrate with illness, or as he described it “in impotence upon my face in this stinking tent.” I won’t get into the insight provided regarding the situation in the area then and its applicability to the world today, but will say if you’re interested you should really check the book out. This is the pivotal chapter (I think) where Lawrence hits upon the secret to “victory.” Not really being a military man by his own admission, Lawrence nevertheless found himself in a position of high command. So, with time on his hands, he started to think back on what he had read, beginning at Oxford, from “Napoleon to Clausewitz and his school, to Caemmerer and Moltke, and the recent Frenchmen” to “Jomini and Willisen” to “Saux and Guibert” to “Kuhne and Foch.”

Now, if there’s one thing I’ve learned about strategy and tactics and operations and goals and objectives, it’s that no matter how smart or well-versed you are, whatever your thoughts on them may be, somebody – somebody really smart and well versed – is going to tell you you’re thinking about it all wrong. If you’re really unlucky, they’ll toss about a few acronyms and initials to boot. So keep that in mind as you consider Lawrence’s thinking, which I’ve transcribed selectively.

But first, click on this link to give a little background music to the rest of the read:

When it grew too hot for dreamless dozing, I picked up my tangle again, and went on ravelling it out, considering now the whole house of war in its structural aspect, which was strategy, in its arrangements, which were tactics, and in the sentiment of the inhabitants, which was psychology; for my personal duty was command, and the commander, like the master architect, was responsible for all.

The first confusion was the false antithesis between strategy, the aim in war, the synoptic regard seeing each part relative to the whole, and tactics, the means towards a strategic end, the particular steps of its staircase. They seemed only points of view from which to ponder the elements of war, the Algebraical element of things, a Biological element of lives, and the Psychological element of ideas.

The algebraical element looked to me a pure science, subject to mathematical law, inhuman. It dealt with known variables, fixed conditions, inorganic things like hills and climates and railways, with mankind in type-masses too great for individual variety, with all artificial aids and the extensions given our faculties by mechanical invention. It was essentially formulable.

Lawrence went on to do the math with regards to the size of the area he wished to “deliver” and how his enemy was likely to defend it. Then he hits upon his true weapon, that of ideas:

…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? Armies were like plants, immobile, firm-rooted, nourished through long stems to the head. We might be a vapour, blowing where we listed.

(When it comes to Bull Run, I think this notion of an idea or ideal as a weapon needs to be explored. At this point of the war, the possibility of an ideological impact was greater than it would ever be again. In the north, some – even Lincoln – still held out hope that southern unionists were the key to bringing the wayward sisters home, so highly did they value the idea of “Union.” How, if at all, did this belief or hope affect Union strategy? There’s not much documentation to go on, but you have to wonder…)

Then Lawrence calculated the number of men his enemy would require to defend the ground, and the number required to achieve his aims. He moved on to the biological factor and makes some keen observations with regard to reserves.

[I] plunged into the nature of the biological factor in command. Its crisis seemed to be the breaking point, life and death, or less finally, wear and tear… A line of variability, Man, persisted like leaven through its estimates, making them irregular. The components were sensitive and illogical, and generals guarded themselves by the device of a reserve, the significant medium of their art. [Military theorist Colmer Freiherr von der] Goltz had said that if you knew the enemy’s strength, and he was fully deployed, then you could dispense with a reserve; but this was never. The possibility of accident, of some flaw in materials was always in the general’s mind, and the reserve unconsciously held to meet it.

The ‘felt’ element in troops, not expressible in figures, had to be guessed at…and the greatest commander of men was he whose intuitions most nearly happened. Nine-tenths of tactics were certain enough to be teachable in schools; but the irrational tenth was like the kingfisher flashing across the pool, and in it lay the test of generals. It could be ensued only by instinct (sharpened by thought practising the stroke) until at the crisis it came naturally, a reflex.

This last bit touches on the popular belief, which some claim was predominant at least in the North, that great military commanders are born, not made. That a military education and experience might sharpen those with the innate ability to excel in command, but that it could not provide it. That the great, natural soldier who would lead the armies to victory could emerge from any walk of life. Some of this would come to a head in the debate over the value of West Point in the wake of the defeat at Bull Run.


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13 03 2015
Susan Evelyn McDowell Cole

I think the greatest thing the US Army ever did was train all the people who went thru the US Military Academy as Civil Engineers and get them away from the mindsets of the likes of Lawrence of Arabia.

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