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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Major, you are the most insubordinate officer I have ever met!

The headline here is the top search term of the week, which led the searcher(s) to my reaction to American Spartan, the book that chronicles the journey of retired Major Jim Gant in Afghanistan. It’s odd, because I don’t use the phrase in the article and I’m not even sure it turns up in the book. The phrase also reminded me of something that may have been in Lawrence of Arabia, but a Google search turned up nothing on that.

Incidentally, as far as I can tell, the quote is actually from the 1996 movie SGT Bilko starring Steve Martin. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen the movie, but considering I’ve written before about how movies of that genre – making fun of the military – have become less appropriate (which is a bad thing), it might be worth watching.

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Thomas Edward Lawrence Control Other’s Affairs

peter_otoole

Week Ending December 22, 2013

“Thomas Edward Lawrence Control Other’s Affairs,” that was the top search of the week. I’m fairly certain that this search term brought them to my post where I quoted T.E. Lawrence from Seven Pillars of Wisdom regarding getting caught up in other people’s business. He writes:

“All these peoples of Syria were open to us by the master-key of their common Arabic language. Their distinctions were political and religious: morally they differed only in the steady gradation from neurotic sensibility on the sea coast to reserve inland. They were quick-minded; admirers, but not seekers of truth; self-satisfied; not (like the Egyptians) helpless before abstract ideas, but unpractical; and so lazy in mind as to be habitually superficial. Their ideal was ease in which to busy themselves with others’ affairs.”

The post was about my on-again-off-again battle with using social media. It can, at times, be strangling. Given Peter O’Toole’s recent death (he famously played Lawrence in Lawrence of Arabia) it is no surprise that people when out Googling things in that orbit. That quote is one of my favorite, and one not normally channeled.

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Veterans Day

“Some of them had obeyed the instinct of lawlessness: some were hungry: others thirsted for glamour, the supposed colour of a military life: but, of them all, those only received satisfaction who had sought to degrade themselves, for to the peace-eye they were below humanity.”
-T.E. Lawrence

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T.E. Lawrence and my social media revolt

Originally published in 2013.

“Their ideal was ease in which to busy themselves with others’ affairs.”

T.E. Lawrence, Seven Pillars of Wisdom (1926)

Seven Pillars of Wisdom can be a chore to read. It’s massive, and Lawrence at times muses like Holden Caulfield.

But there are many gems found throughout that have stayed with me, like this, his thoughts on the military man, the veteran:

“Some of them had obeyed the instinct of lawlessness: some were hungry: others thirsted for glamour, the supposed colour of a military life: but, of them all, those only received satisfaction who had sought to degrade themselves, for to the peace-eye they were below humanity.”

Most of my favorites, though, have little to do with military matters, language, or his travels. The one that sticks with me most is the end of the quote I opened with. Lawrence, in pure orientalist fashion, expresses his thoughts on the Syrians:

“All these peoples of Syria were open to us by the master-key of their common Arabic language. Their distinctions were political and religious: morally they differed only in the steady gradation from neurotic sensibility on the sea coast to reserve inland. They were quick-minded; admirers, but not seekers of truth; self-satisfied; not (like the Egyptians) helpless before abstract ideas, but unpractical; and so lazy in mind as to be habitually superficial. Their ideal was ease in which to busy themselves with others’ affairs.”

“…busy themselves in others’ affairs.”

It was 2006. I was still fresh out of the Army and I shot out like a rocket ship. I had a full time job and I went to community college full time, trying to catch up with my education while not sacrificing my livelihood. I exercised daily and had a healthy social life. I was busy and happy.

“You should start a Facebook account,” my fiancĂ© said.

“Why? I have a MySpace,” I replied.

I held out for a year. I just wasn’t interested.

Eventually, I relented and created a Facebook account, my modest little garden on the internet. I started connecting with ‘friends.’ Old friends and new. I was in college and meeting lots of people. It was fun. I have always enjoyed socializing online. AOL chat rooms. Internet forums. Online video games. This was a natural evolution of that.

I’d meet someone and say before leaving “Are you on Facebook?”

I enjoyed it. Pictures and comments and the opportunity to display your best self in a steady parade of best selves.

But something changed. The whole experience is no longer fun. It’s exhausting and depressing and it’s making me nuts.

More and more I’m finding myself rotating through a digital cycle of Facebook and Twitter, clearing out my ‘reds,’ those cruelly painted notifications designed to excite my brain and grab my attention. I’ll sit down at my computer to do something and find myself some time later staring at three open tabs that each say ‘Facebook (1)’ and I wonder what the hell it was I meant to do in the first place.

Or I find myself staring at a Twitter avatar, a brilliant, tiny photograph next to a quip, some moral grandstand that dares me to respond. I click ‘reply’ and tap out a response and stare at it, cursor blinking, asking me, “done?”

I think, and delete it. I almost always delete it. I don’t want to get sucked into a whole thing.

Except sometimes I send it and get sucked into a whole thing. Then comes the reply, an electric torpedo from the dark. And I’ll send another one back. And then I have to go out and actually do something in life.

I’m at lunch, checking my phone. My wife rolls her eyes. I’m waiting for a reply. Pitifully, my phone allows for ‘push notifications,’ allowing someone to reach me like a vine growing out of my phone and wrapping around my neck.

My day can be ruined by what someone says on the Internet. And I’m tired of it.

I’m tired of writing little notes and pressing enter, sending it into the ‘stream’ and watching it get carried away, or rather, pushed away by other peoples’ notes. I hate waiting and wanting those other people to look at my note and think it is so great that they’ll pass it along to their people, all sending their own little notes.

I’m tired of the ridiculous conspiracy theories from people I respect, and trying to gently make the correction.

Mostly, I’m tired of the unending gazing. The incessant scrolling. The comparing and wondering. The constant tugging from the social media ether-space, beckoning me to check again, to see what’s going on.

I can no longer stand to have people I don’t know or with whom I share some limited, past experience, suck me into their world. It’s too much.

Aa Lawrence hints: is it wrong to be interested chiefly with one’s own affairs?

Don’t get me wrong. I love social media. I wholeheartedly believe in it as a tool for fun and personal growth as well as a platform for mobilization. I’ve made some of my best friends through it and it allows me to maintain and develop relationships in a way not as readily available in the past. I wrote my undergraduate thesis on the role of social media in an Egyptian social movement, using Facebook to reach out to and interview some of its leaders.

No, social media is great. Just not for me. I can’t survive in it. It’s quicksand. Others, I’m sure, walk along like it’s a gorgeous beach, waving and smiling and enjoying the sunset

I take a few steps and sink.

That’s my problem.

So, I’m in rebellion. I declare war on social media. I’ve deleted Facebook and Twitter from my phone and I’ve resolved to checking them both just once a day. From my computer.

Oh I’ll still post. To withdraw completely would be to lose. To win is to control this beast. To use the space and turn their weapons to my own use. To pillage the trains left smoldering on their tracks, as Lawrence did with the Arabs.

Take back your day. It’s a revolt.

“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.”

T. E. Lawrence

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