Ever since the “surge that worked,” I’ve been wondering about General Petraeus, and even more about those Leavenworth colonels, the ones of whom so much was made as the army’s intellectuals. These were the people who, during the “surge,” discovered and used lessons offered by previously overlooked “experts” on insurgency – David Galula, in the French campaign in Algeria, comes immediately to mind. They asserted that one could find general principles or laws that could apply to all insurgencies (which, they concluded, “on average last about ten years”).
Yes, it was those colonels who were made so much of, because in Anbar, so the story goes, the American army after many false starts was at long last in Iraq “getting it right. ” And what they were “getting right” was, above all, an understanding of the subtleties of Iraqi society, and particularly of its tribes. In so doing, they had hit, it was said, on the “key” to understanding Iraqis, and dealing with its many competing groups successfully.
Yes, for quite some time, you will remember, we were treated to stories about the brilliant and “unorthodox” colonels who were thinking outside the box, that sort of thing. They included mediagenic personalities, such as Colonel Kilcullen, seconded from the Australian army, who impressed for a number of reasons – his language, clearly strine, his expertise (he was said to have studied the sociology of Indonesia and helped thereby to put down rebellions there), and – who knows? – possibly even his rakish Australian hat, if he was allowed to wear it, brim up on one side, all Breaker-Morant and Crocodile-Dundee. What, however, his training in sociology in Indonesia could contribute to the situation in Iraq is unclear. That training was a far cry, I suspect, from what C. Snouck Hurgronje studied, and felt was important, as an advisor to the government of the Dutch East Indies, to bring to the attention of those trying to keep local Muslims under control. Nonetheless, read the recent crop of books on Iraq – such as those by Thomas Ricks – and see what a prominent role is given to these people, the advisers who plucked victory from what looked like certain defeat.
Now let’s get back to David Galula. Certainly Galula, who was a Jew born in Tunisia, and who later joined the French army, knew Arabic and knew the psychology of those with whom the French Army had to deal. But the French Army in Algeria was also dealing with a situation in which there were more than a million non-Muslims (French, along with Spanish, Italians, even Maltese) in Algeria, whose support could be called on. In Iraq, there was no such non-Muslim local presence (the terrified Assyrians and Chaldeans hardly count), and the “insurgency” was not easily identified (as in Algeria), because there were many different groups in Iraq — Sunni Arabs, Shi’a Arabs, Kurds — all of whom had their own interests. And all of these groups, at various times, could find it advantageous to make temporary common cause with the Infidel Americans – not in order to promote American or Infidel interests, but to promote their own sectarian or ethnic interests inside Iraq.
I wrote about those I dubbed the “Galula-ites” several times. Here’s one of those times, in a fleeting comment on a thread in May 2007 (here edited a bit for clarity):
The Galula-ites will make much of this [the killing of an Al-Qaeda-in-Iraq leader by other Jihadists]. They think that the fact that Sunni tribes, or some of them, have turned against, and are prepared to act against, Al-Qaeda, is a sign of some great change. It isn’t. There was always a division between the local Sunnis and the outsiders who came to join Al-Qaeda in Iraq. And if there is now a clash between them, that clash is to be welcomed but not given exaggerated importance (as one intelligent Iraqi blogger — possibly one of the Fadhil brothers at Iraq the Model — noted a month or two ago).
The American “counter-insurgency” experts around Petraeus, and Petraeus himself, need to focus on Islam. They need to see the worldwide problem and ask themselves how the outcome in Iraq can or can not contribute to weakening the Camp of Islam internally, through the sectarian and ethnic fissures that it offers. They need to see how that outcome would help to encourage, elsewhere in Dar al-Islam, the spectacle of intra-Muslim aggression that would offer Infidels a Demonstration Project (akin to that going on in Gaza) of the behaviors of Muslims, in societies thoroughly suffused with Islam, and not held in check by a despot or a collection of despots (as the Al-Saud in Saudi Arabia).
If they do so, they will stop making jejune pronouncements about the “laws of counter-insurgency” of the “on average, insurgencies last ten years” variety, and come to comprehend that Islam here is the key, Islam that explains why there is not one but many insurgencies. Islam is the only thing that is held in common by the various insurgents: Al-Qaeda, the much larger population of Sunnis (including the Sunni tribesmen now being killed, and killing, Al Qaeda members), the Shi’a groups from those of Dawa and SCIRI to the lower-depths troglodyte Moqtada al-Sadr and his Jaish al-Mahdi, and the Kurds, with their own quite distinct interests. All of the Arabs (not the Kurds) share a common hostility, a permanent hostility, to the Americans — a hostility that is rooted in Islam. At the moment, 98% of the Sunnis polled support attacks on Americans, whereas “only” 70-95% of the Shi’a do so. Great.
When will Petraeus and those who apparently think the “strategy” of David Galula in Algeria would have worked, “if only” the French government and people had allowed it to do so, see this? (And that too must be factored in, must be understood — the American people, though not its semi-demented government, do not wish to pour another few hundred billion dollars into Iraq. They do not wish to see first the civilian army, and then the regular army, become ever more shredded and demoralized and relieved of its best potential recruits and its younger officers, who are now leaving in noticeable and disturbing, but quite understandable, numbers.)
Petraeus and those experts need to ask themselves some hard questions when they read something as shallow as Arthur Herman’s attempt to liken the insurgency situation in Algeria faced by the French with that faced by the Americans in Iraq. They should not be delighted with such a piece, but should ask themselves how an intelligent man could write something so oblivious to the very deep differences between the two cases, beginning with the fact that France had a million civilian French in Algeria and had ruled the country for 132 years, and its aim was to stay, and there was no larger context for it to consider, whereas in Iraq, the context is a worldwide Jihad, whose instruments are not, pace Bush, only terror, but rather the money weapon (the ten trillion dollars received by Muslim nations from oil and gas sales since 1973), campaigns of Da’wa (carefully-targeted and well-financed, all over the Western world), and demographic conquest (which is finally being noticed, but with shrugs of despair, or pollyannish determination to ignore grim Islam-based realities).
Those who blithely assign, and blithely invoke, Galula or any other supposed magical guide or solution are jejune in their understanding of Islam, of Iraq, of what in Iraq can be turned to our advantage, and what goals are attainable and make sense, and what goals are unattainable, and were they to be attained, would make no sense.
We need such people as these to be in charge in Iraq, and to start telling the truth to what appears to be a hallucinating, obstinate, semi-demented leadership: Bush, Cheney, and those who insist upon doing their bidding, and repeating their every word of miscomprehension and terminal confusion.
But until a few days ago, I was unaware that those colonels working under or for General Petraeus had also consulted not only an unknown officer in the French army – David Galula – but also someone else. And that someone turned out to be quite well known. He is someone whose baleful influence, whose mythomanic and pseudo-poetic memoirs, have done such damage to British (and Western) policy toward the Arabs (and, by extension, toward other Muslims). That guide to dealing with the Arabs, apparently much consulted by those Leavenworth colonels, turns out to be T. E. Lawrence, known to many – and especially to young Americans who first encounter him on the silver screen, in David Lean’s entertaining fantasy, and then grow up to be officers in the American military – as “Lawrence of Arabia.”
A new article, by Bertram Wyatt-Brown, recently published in The Journal of the Historical Society, titled “Lawrence of Arabia: Image and Reality” and brought to my attention in a piece by Daniel Pipes, maintains – according to Pipes’ synopsis — that T. E. Lawrence was the figure most consulted by some of the colonels who formed General Petraeus’ celebrated brain trust. Wyatt-Brown maintains that Lawrence has served as a talismanic guide for these American strategists. In particular, they saw him as an expert who could provide them with the knowledge they would need, based on the vast wisdom he had presumably accumulated in organizing Arab (Bedouin) tribesman for that famous “Arab Revolt” we have all heard so much about, the one that some think really inflicted great damage on the Turks, and was – they think — of such importance in the Allied war effort in the Middle East. They have been particularly impressed, Wyatt-Brown maintains, with a piece he wrote based on his dealings with the Arab sheikhs and tribesmen, called “Twenty-Seven Articles.”
But before we get to those “Twenty-Seven Articles,” let’s remember Lawrence, the myth, and the man. T. E. Lawrence was an indifferent junior archaeologist at the Ashmolean, who arrived in the Middle East. There he managed to engage in activities whose military importance we shall discuss below, but who in the main spent his time creating a myth about himself, and his significance. That myth, tiny at first, grew and grew, when back in England, in a country hungry for heroes, and the more exotic their locale, the further away from the stench of the bloodsoaked trenches of World War I, the better. And here was T. E. Lawrence, with his stirring tales of Arabs riding their camels and fighting the Turks in the cause of their own liberation. And who organized them, who made them a fighting force of such importance? A slight Englishman, an intellectual, a writer, with a pseudo-poetic style that some found so winning – T. E. Lawrence, himself seemingly a learned man (he was to translate Homer), who “understood” the essence of that admirable thing, “The Arab,” or rather, “The Bedu,” the noble version of the Arab, the desert warrior, leather faced, hawk on hand, able to ride for days without stop or sustenance, and so on.
In England some well-known people welcomed the myth of Lawrence. George Bernard Shaw and Robert Graves were among them; Churchill was for a while taken in. But the “cool and skeptical” men who knew the Middle East, and knew Lawrence personally, never fell for this stuff.
Here, from a review of “The Selected Letters of T. E. Lawrence” by the celebrated scholar of modern Arabia (particularly in relation to Great Britain), J. B. Kelly, are some telling observations:
…when I was taking my own first unsteady steps in the study of Arabian history and politics, the head of my institute at Oxford, who had a had a lengthy career as a diplomat in the Middle East before he became an academic, happened one day to mention that he had worked with Lawrence for a time in the early 1920s in the Middle East Department of the old Colonial Office in London. When I asked him what kind of impression he had formed of the man, he replied tersely, “A butterfly, Ornamental but useless.”
The intervening years have only confirmed to me the accuracy of that judgment, which is why I have watched with wonder the growth and continuing fertility of the sprawling Lawrence industry…The vast edifice of Lawrenciana has been erected upon his adventures during World War I, more specifically upon the part he played in the Arab Revolt of 1916-18. Without those exploits he would have acquired no public reputation, there would have been nothing from which to create the Lawrence myth; for his achievements after the war were not of an order to earn him even the slightest measure of repute or fame.
The war, then, the Arab Revolt, and his role in it, are crucial to the Lawrentian production line; and yet – and this is perhaps the most curious aspect of the whole enterprise – not one of his biographers, editors or publicists has possessed the requisite degree of knowledge of the political and military events of the war in the Middle East to evaluate properly the importance of Lawrence’s exploits or the worth of the Arab Revolt itself.
Kelly then goes on to quote the editor of The Letters, Malcolm Brown, as describing the sharif of Mecca’s four sons as “his [Lawrence’s] field commanders in the Arabs’ armed struggle against Turkey, which was now being conducted with the support of Britain and France.” Brown then claims that the capture of the port of Aqaba from the Turks “brought about a major shift in the Arab war and in Lawrence’s career. The Arabs would thenceforth conduct their campaign in close alliance with the British…as the right wing of an advancing army.”
Now Kelly comments on what Brown has written:
To say the least, this is a most peculiar interpretation of the relative importance of the British Expeditionary Force in Egypt and Palestine, and the forces of Sharif Husain. It also gives a misleading impression of the origins of the Arab Revolt. The truth is that for nearly two years after the outbreak of war with Turkey, Sharif Husain sat on the fence, craftily assessing which way the war was going. He was only lured down from it onto the British side by means of large political gains and even larger bags of gold.
His subsequent revolt was never more than a sideshow, and of debatable military significance. He was unable, for example, to take Medina, the southern terminus of the Hijaz railway, where the Turkish garrison held on until the war was well and truly over.
In his assessment of Lawrence’s importance to the Arab Revolt, Mr. Brown [Malcolm Brown, editor of “The Letters of T. E. Lawrence” under review] takes his hero at his own valuation, averring that official documents in the British archives (of which he quotes a bare score) support his submissions about ‘the central importance’ of Lawrence’s role. A more thorough examination of the official records, I believe, would lead to a contrary conclusion.
Mr. Brown also accepts at face value Lawrence’s occasional description of himself (“in a throwaway line,” Mr. Brown notes admiringly) as being accepted by the Arabs as “an Emir of sorts.” Is this really credible? Why should the Emir Faisal and his brothers, Sharifian nobles and descendants of the Prophet, consider an infidel of junior military rank worthy to be accorded the dignity of the title which they themselves held? Is it not more likely that they looked upon Lawrence as a somewhat gullible paymaster, the provider of lavish supplies of arms, ammunition, high explosives and, best of all, gold sovereigns – “the light cavalry of St. George”? As time went by, Lawrence gradually came to realize the awful truth of his situation; he then started to go to pieces.
It is impossible in so limited a space as this to examine the many claims that Lawrence made about his exploits between 1916 and 1918 and which Mr. Brown, as editor of his letters [Malcolm Brown also wrote a biography of Lawrence tellingly titled “A Touch of Genius”], seems to accept unquestioningly. One instance will have to suffice to test Lawrence’s veracity, but a highly important one – the capture of Damascus in October, 1918.
Although the fall of the city represented the high point of the Arab Revolt, and of Lawrence’s career, Mr. Brown gives only a meager account of the event. He prints only one document, a report by Lawrence dated October 1, 1918, the import of which is that Damascus had fallen earlier that day to the Sharifian forces. Mr. Brown does nothing to correct this impression. The truth of the matter, however, is that Damascus was taken, not by the Sharifian army but, almost inadvertently, by the 3rd Australian Light Horse Brigade of the Desert Mounted Corps.
The final battle of the Palestine campaign, which broke the back of the Turkish army’s resistance, was fought at Megiddo in the third week of September. The 3rd Australian Light Horse Brigade was subsequently ordered to cut the Turkish retreat northwards to Hama but without entering Damascus, the honor of whose capture had, for political reasons and by order of Sir Edmund Allenby, the general officer commander of Palestine, been reserved for the Sharifian army under Emir Faisal.
The Turks evacuated Damascus on the night of Sept. 30. The next morning the commander of the 3rd Australian Light Horse, finding that the quickest way to reach the Hama road was through the northern quarter of Damascus, entered the city at first light, to be met by a delegation of Damascene notables who formally surrendered the city to him. The Australian commander did not tarry long over the formalities (report has it that he did not even dismount), but within a short time had ridden out with his brigade through the Hama gate in pursuit of the retreating Turks.
Later that morning the Sharifian army, Lawrence prominent in the forefront of the cavalcade, rode into Damascus from the east.
Almost immediately the Bedouin ran wild, looting, killing, destroying. Alec Kirkbride [who later worked with Glubb Pasha in the Arab Legion in Jordan, and wrote a memoir, “A Crackling of Thorns”], another British officer with the Sharifian forces, later recounted how he had come across Lawrence leaning against a wall outside the Turkish military hospital, vacantly giggling, while inside the hospital the Bedouin were ripping the bandages from the Turkish wounded and putting them to the sword. Kirkbride drew his revolver on Lawrence and told him that if he didn’t call off his jackals, he, Kirkbride, would attend to them himself.
A day later Allenby ordered the 4th Australian Light Horse Brigade into Damascus to restore order and protect the civilian population from the Bedouin. None of this is to be found in Lawrence’s writings, or in Mr. Brown’s editorial remarks. Instead, one finds in the “Seven Pillars” a disgraceful attempt by Lawrence, albeit couched in his usual ambiguous and evasive style, to smear the Australians by implying that it was they who had been killing and looting, and that it was his Bedouin who had to be called into impose order!
When Allenby arrived a couple of days later he told Lawrence to leave Damascus immediately, out of compassion, so Lawrence insinuates, for his broken state of heath. Mr. Brown evidently accepts this explanation, though one would have thought that here, surely, was ground worth exploring. Why, if Allenby thought so highly of Lawrence, as Mr. Brown claims elsewhere, did he have virtually nothing to do with him after 1918?
The answer, as it happens, may well lie in a letter Mr. Brown prints from Lawrence to Mrs. Shaw in March 1927. Despite the self-exculpatory gloss put upon it by Lawrence, it may be the most truthful thing he ever wrote about the war and his part in it.
“You see,” he explained to Mrs. Shaw, “my campaign and fighting efforts were entirely negligible in [General Allenby’s] eyes. All he required of us was a turnover of native opinion from the Turk to the British, and I took advantage of that need of his, to make him the stepfather of the Arab national movement: a movement which he did not understand, and for whose success his instinct had little sympathy. He is a very large, downright and splendid person, and being publicly yoked with a counter-jumping opportunist must often gall him deeply.”
And Kelly ends with a one-word comment: “Exactly.”
Now if I have quoted at such great length from J. B. Kelly, it is because he, and Elie Kedourie, are the two greatest experts on British diplomatic history having to do with the Arabs; Kelly’s “Britain and the Persian Gulf, 1795-1880” is a historical masterpiece. Kelly spent nearly a half-century, intermittently, in the Arab states; he was the great expert on the “Frontier Question” in Eastern Arabia. And when Sheikh Zayed of Abu Dhabi needed to hire a foreign expert to help prepare the case against the territorial encroachments of Saudi Arabia, that expert was J. B. Kelly. No one was more familiar with the archives in the Records Office than J. B. Kelly. It was more important to quote him exactly, on the subject of Lawrence, than to attempt to paraphrase them.
What we learn from Kelly, and Kedourie, and from Richard Aldington, whose biography of Lawrence in 1956 blew up, one would have thought for all time, the myths created by, and around, T. E. Lawrence, is that Lawrence was a serial liar. What the few hundred troops that his Arab sheikhs commanded [the Arabs wildly claimed to have “tens of thousands” or even, at one point, a “hundred thousand” troops] accomplished was of little military value. They could not even remove the Turkish garrisons. Their famed “Revolt” consisted in the main of harrying the Hejaz Railway here and there. General Allenby himself understood exactly how minimal was the contribution of Lawrence and his Arabs – whose loyalty was bought-and-paid-for, mainly a matter of gold and military supplies furnished by the British – to the war effort.
Why does this matter? Why should we care? Well, if Colonel Nagl, and Colonel Kilcullen, and other unnamed colonels, if even General Petraeus himself, took – as Wyatt-Brown says they did — the myth of Lawrence of Arabia seriously, if they did not know that that myth was exploded long ago, then they may have been deluded into thinking that Lawrence had something important to offer them, and that they, these modern day followers of Lawrence, could indeed do as he did, and “win over the Arab tribes” (he never did) and accomplish with them something of “great and lasting military significance” (he, and the Arabs whose loyalty and temporary cooperation he bought, never did). In their Anbar venture they might still think that they had somehow made a permanent difference, when all they did is rent, for a short time, the temporary loyalty of some Sunni tribes who had their own good and sufficient reasons for opposing Al Qaeda in Iraq. But that temporary overlapping of interests did not mean that the Sunnis, or any of the other Arab Muslims, could be, or should be thought of as being, true allies of the American Infidels.
And not for one second should those colonels, or General Petraeus, have believed that reading what turn out to be more-or-less obvious bromides – the “Twenty-Seven Articles” that Lawrence wrote – in dealing with Arab tribes, somehow offered an open-sesame into the permanently-sealed hearts of Arab Muslim tribesmen.
Like Lawrence, the Americans too supplied weapons and money, money, money, to the local Arabs. Those local Arabs, for their own reasons, took on Al Qaeda. But there was never any intention, by those Sunni Arabs, to acquiesce in the New Iraq, the Iraq where power had been transferred from Sunni Arabs to Shi’a Arabs. The money and weapons the Anbar tribesmen, and above all some of their remarkably corrupt leaders, obtained, were to be kept as useful in the future campaign, should a campaign prove necessary, against the Shi’a Arabs. Did General Petraeus, did Colonels Nagl and Kilcullen, not realize that the Anbar “surge” meant, in the greater scheme of things, very little? Do they know even now that what happens in Iraq, in the worldwide Jihad, means far less than, say, the response in Europe to the trial, beginning today, of Geert Wilders in The Netherlands? Do they realize, do they allow themselves to realize (how could they, really?), that the men, money, materiel spent in Iraq were largely squandered? Do they realize that the outcome in Iraq is almost certain to be a place of permanent unsettlement, for the Arabs and the Kurds will not make peace, and the Sunnis will never acquiesce in their loss of power, and the Shi’a Arabs have no intention of ever giving up the power they now possess? And could they further come to the conclusion that the very goals that they tried to achieve, of a stable and unified Iraq, are not only unattainable but, from the long-term perspective of Infidel and American interests, exactly the wrong goals?
That would require a kind of willingness to admit that one had misspent one’s time, that one had not sufficiently grasped the nature of a conflict that, by and large, will remain unaffected by what happens in Iraq. It would have made better sense to get out far earlier, to forget about the “lessons” offered by David Galula, lessons not relevant to the American situation in Iraq because Galula was describing a single insurgence, the war in Algeria against the French. The goal of the French was not to get out, but to remain, while in Iraq the “insurgencies” are many, and are directed at other groups within Iraq as well as against the Infidel Americans for being Infidels. The Americans had no desire to stay. They wanted only to bring peace and tranquility and prosperity – crazily unattainable goals — to Iraq.
But worse, by far, than the business with David Galula is the business, if Wyatt-Brown has it right, of American colonels and other officers taking seriously, as a guide to anything, the life and career of that self-promoting mythomane, whose military value was almost nil, T. E. Lawrence. It is a pity that those who took Lawrence seriously in the American army were unfamiliar with Richard Aldington’s biography, or the meticulous work of J. B. Kelly and Elie Kedourie, and of many others. Apparently, young boys who then grew up to join the American military took David Lean’s movie seriously, and they never checked to find out what the current reputation, among real scholars, of Lawrence is. General Allenby took the measure of Lawrence, and those who take a cool and skeptical view of things, not the naÃ¯ve enthusiasts, should have prevailed.
One more time, from Lawrence’s own summing-up in a letter:
You see, my campaign and fighting efforts were entirely negligible in [General Allenby’s] eyes. All he required of us was a turnover of native opinion from the Turk to the British, and I took advantage of that need of his, to make him the stepfather of the Arab national movement: a movement which he did not understand, and for whose success his instinct had little sympathy. He [General Allenby] is a very large, downright and splendid person, and being publicly yoked with a counter-jumping opportunist must often gall him deeply.
That was Lawrence on Lawrence: ” a counter-jumping opportunist.” A pity that at West Point, where they surely now must say a word or two about Lawrence, they don’t get him straight, not even as straight as he, in a rare moment of candor, once got himself.
As for the “Twenty-Seven Articles” – in the main, the most obvious bromides, worthy of Polonius – they will be examined in the second part of “Arabia Petraea, or General Petraeus’ Middle East.” Meanwhile, however, have a preliminary look yourself – you can find Lawrence’s “wisdom” right here.
See what I mean, about “obvious bromides” and Polonius?