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Last Updated: Friday, 9 April, 2004, 09:07 GMT 10:07 UK
Lessons from Lawrence of Arabia
By Ryan Dilley
BBC News Online Magazine

Sales of a book by Lawrence of Arabia, the British officer who united desert tribes against the Turks during World War One, have risen sharply since the war in Iraq. Why?

Lessons from Lawrence of Arabia
"War upon rebellion is messy and slow, like eating soup with a knife." This grim assessment of quelling an armed insurrection must prey on the minds of at least two of the Westerners grappling with Iraq's upsurge in violence.

It comes from the book which graces the otherwise sparse office of Rory Stewart, the British diplomat who runs the province around the city of Amara, where coalition troops killed 15 Iraqi fighters on Tuesday.

The same book is also a favourite of Major John Nagl - one of the US Army's top counter-insurgency experts - who is based near the troubled town of Falluja. The West Point professor even subtitled his own thesis on how to beat guerrilla tactics Learning to Eat Soup With a Knife.

The author of the book both so admired is a man who set foot in Iraq when it was still called Mesopotamia, a man who died 68 years before the ousting of Saddam Hussein.

That author is Thomas Edward Lawrence, better known as Lawrence of Arabia. The book, Seven Pillars of Wisdom.

The autobiographical work - the basis of David Lean's 1962 film Lawrence of Arabia - tells of his involvement in the Arab Revolt of World War One, when a handful of crudely armed, camel-mounted tribesmen took on their Turkish imperial rulers.

Of its time?

But given the passage of time and the advances in military technology, does this guerrilla's eye perspective have anything to teach today's rulers of Iraq?

Ours should be a war of detachment - we were to contain the enemy by the silent threat of a vast desert, not disclosing ourselves until we attacked
Seven Pillars of Wisdom
"I didn't realise how right Lawrence was," Major Nagl has told the New York Times. "Even when I was writing that insurgency was messy and slow, the full enormity of that did not sink in on me."

But it seems that it's not just soldiers and administrators looking for answers in Lawrence's writings. Sales of Seven Pillars of Wisdom in the UK have increased sharply since the fall of Saddam.

Wordsworth Editions - one of several UK publishers of Lawrence's book- has sold almost twice as many copies in the past year as it did before the war. Sales have risen to 5,657 - "certainly a significant increase for a title such as this", Wordsworth's Dennis Hart told BBC News Online. Total sales for are expected to top 10,000 this year.

Stereotypes of old

Will modern readers find anything enlightening in a book which broadly concludes that the Arabs are "a limited, narrow-minded people, whose inert intellects lay fallow in incurious resignation"?

If [the Arabs] suspected we wanted to drive them either they were mulish or went away; if we gave time and trouble to make things tempting to them, then they would go to great pains for our pleasure
Seven Pillars of Wisdom
Security consultant Charles Blackmore, a former British Army counter-terrorism expert, has just returned from Iraq. He is familiar with Seven Pillars, having in 1986 published his own account of recreating Lawrence's camel journeys across the desert. For him, much in the book has not dated.

"In essence it offers a classic understanding of the differences between feudal tribes and the need to harness their strengths to bring them around. The book is still relevant since Iraq is still feudal and tribal."

Mr Blackmore says Lawrence articulated the complex, and often overlapping, religious and tribal loyalties and motivations which can make Arab society seem exasperatingly fractious to an outsider trying to win the confidence and co-operation of local people.

"It is a unique account of the strengths and weaknesses of the Arab people, which can only enrich the reader. For those currently trying to rule Iraq, it is a prerequisite to understand the people and their history."

From his own experiences, Mr Blackmore - who commends the British forces especially for their grasp of local politics - says another lesson on offer in Seven Pillars may not have been learned by the US-led coalition.

"You cannot be heavy-handed with these people, they are proud. Lawrence understood this and was very aware of Arab sensitivities, which is something the Americans at least have not been very good at."

Limited lessons

If Seven Pillars remains so apt, it is perhaps little surprise that The Guardian newspaper recently pronounced it to be "almost required reading for diplomats in post-war Iraq".

Lawrence of Arabia's book
More people are getting their noses into the Seven Pillars
However, Hilary Synnott, the Coalition Provisional Authority's regional coordinator for South Iraq until January, has his reservations about its usefulness.

"It's a fantastic book," says Mr Synnott, who read it in preparation for a diplomatic posting to Jordan in 1985. "But I'm not sure if it's quite 'required reading'. It is something you could read alongside others classics, such as Wilfred Thesiger's book on Marsh Arabs."

While he says it is "never a bad thing to look into the history of such a complex and proud country as Iraq", it can only teach us so much.

"You can learn from the mistakes of history, but history cannot tell you want to do. You have to look at every new situation and deal with it accordingly."

[The Arabs] would follow us, if we endured with them and played the game according to their rules; the pity was that we often broke down with exasperation
Seven Pillars of Wisdom
Mr Synnott is also cautious of Lawrence's broad generalisations about the Arab character. "I'm not sure you can lump the people of the region's extremely complicated nations together."

So would Arabs themselves be horrified to hear that Lawrence's book continues to be consulted for its insights into their thinking?

"It has to be read in the context of the time in which it was written, but I didn't find it at all offensive," says Safa Mabgar of Al Saqi Bookshop, the UK's largest Middle Eastern bookseller.

"Many Arabs have read it and consider it a classic which still has relevance."

However, it is not Seven Pillars which has been flying off the shelves at Al Saqi. Customers seem more keen to find answers in Why Do People Hate America?



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