A sideshow of a sideshow: Fever Dreams and Diathetics

Center: Winston Churchill, Gertrude Bell, and T.E. Lawrence in Cairo, 1921

Great book review over at the Modern War Institute.

The iconic figure of T.E. Lawrence remains draped in myth. He appears to modern observers as the pensive Englishman photographed in flowing white Arab robes, or the hero portrayed by Peter O’Toole in the Academy Award–winning 1962 film Lawrence of Arabia. His writings on guerrilla war and on advising indigenous forces, meanwhile, are perhaps best known today for their brief appearances to buttress American and British counterinsurgency theory and doctrine.

Seven Pillars Revisited: The Myths and Misreadings of T.E. Lawrence – Modern War Institute

Outside of Clausewitz and Sun Tzu, I’m not sure there is a figure that is mined for knowledge more than T.E. Lawrence.

He is an endlessly fascinating figure, whose popular image has surpassed the actual man. This makes understanding the “real” Lawrence difficult.

Seven Pillars of Wisdom, Lawrence’s account of his role in the Arab Revolt, is an amazing read. The flowery prose can be frustrating, and you get the sense that Lawrence enjoyed flaunting his intellect.

The book, written some years after World War I, is his attempt to categorize the Arab Revolt as a new form of warfare while atoning for the failure of the Arabs to achieve self-determination (and his role in that). He meanders, at times seemingly remorseful for the way the Arabs are treated in the end.

He also clearly understood that the Arab Revolt was just a tiny piece in a much greater game – a “sideshow of a sideshow.”

There are many ways to read Lawrence. In the linked piece, Wilkins writes:

…he [Lawrence] sought to downplay British support for the Arab revolt and emphasize Arab contributions. In doing so, Lawrence sought to highlight what he perceived as the betrayal inflicted on the Arabs in the postwar settlement—in which the Western powers carved former Ottoman territories into French and British mandates, frustrating Arab dreams of self-determination—and to assuage his own ever-present guilt over this outcome.

Lawrence reveled in his role as advisor to the Arabs. But he also knew that his true role – the reason he was there in the first place – was to serve as a shaping operation to General Allenby’s main strike.

The truth was, he cared nothing for our fighting power, and did not reckon us part of his tactical strength. Our purpose, to him, was moral, psychological, diathetic; to keep the enemy command intent upon the trans-Jordan front. In my English capacity I shared this view, but on my Arab side both agitation and battle seemed equally important, the one to serve the joint success, the other to establish Arab self-respect, without which victory would not be wholesome.

Seven Pillars of Wisdom

Here, Lawrence discusses his “English capacity” and his “Arab side.” Out there in the desert, Lawrence is a warrior with his warriors. They have power and tactical strength, but Allenby doesn’t care for it. You can read this passage and come away thinking Lawrence felt sidelined by Allenby.

But the totality of Lawrence’s thoughts and writings points to his acceptance of this fact. His role (and that of the Arabs) was not to fight but to serve a “diathetic” purpose (more on that later).

It’s difficult to determine exactly what Lawrence was “feeling” out in the desert, but it wouldn’t be a stretch to imagine that at the time, he felt that he could do more with his irregular forces, and he may have felt frustrated with being out there on the edge. This was World War I and heroes were being made in Europe. The war in the Middle East was led by Allenby while Lawrence was getting sick in tents. Lawrence was ready to strike, but had to follow orders from the boss:

Weather and strengths might be matters of opinion: but Allenby meant to attack on September the nineteenth, and wanted us to lead off not more than four nor less than two days before he did. His words to me were that three men and a boy with pistols in front of Deraa on September the sixteenth would fill his conception; would he better than thousands a week before or a week after.

Seven Pillars of Wisdom

While you may sense some frustration here, it seems that Lawrence understood his purpose. He enjoyed the opportunity to experiment with irregular warfare in the desert but lamented that there wasn’t more time to go further.

By careful persistence, kept strictly within our strength and following the spirit of our theories, we were able eventually to reduce the Turks to helplessness, and complete victory seemed to be almost within our sight when General Allenby by his immense stroke in Palestine threw the enemy’s main forces into hopeless confusion and put an immediate end to the Turkish war. We were very happy to have done with all our pains, but sometimes since I have felt a private regret that his too-greatness deprived me of the opportunity of following to the end the dictum of Saxe that a war might be won without fighting battles.

T.E. Lawrence, The Evolution of a Revolt

It is here where I think there is still room left to mine a little bit more out of Lawrence. Wilkins mentions it in his review:

These irregular raids also played on the “diathetics,” or psychology, of the opponent, leading soldiers to desert, cower in fixed positions, or conduct counterproductive reprisals against the local population. 

For the past year I’ve been working on a much larger research project focused on what Lawrence meant by “diathetics” or “diathetical.” It’s related to psychological warfare, but it’s not quite the same. As quoted above, Lawrence writes “Our purpose, to him, was moral, psychological, diathetic; to keep the enemy command intent upon the trans-Jordan front.” Lawrence here is making a distinction between moral, psychological, and diathetic.

What did he mean there? Is it just him showing off his Greek or was he actually on to something?

I think he was. And I think that’s why he laments the end of the war.

That said, it’s important to remember that these writings are Lawrence’s attempt to categorize his activity after the fact. He’s reflecting and doing his part in his own myth-making.

And while there may be something here, it may all be the imaginings of just another kindergarden soldier.

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