It is Remembrance Day in Canada and other Commonwealth countries. Veteran’s Day in the US. Armistice Day in the UK. All of them originated in a single event, the end of the Great War of 1914-1918, but have come to be a day of recognition for those who have served and died in military service for their country.
I believe the origins in the Great War are significant and should also not be forgotten. The Great War was a catastrophic and complicated affair, a global war that has become symbolized with the trenches, barbed wire, and millions of dead that stretched across Western Europe. But the war did not look the same in the East, or in Asia, or on the seas, the skies,or the Africa or, indeed, the Middle East. It was a war of dynamic change that in it’s awful way birthed the modern age at a horrific cost.
It was from this conflict that arose the legend of T. E. Lawrence “of Arabia.” Lawrence remains a controversial figure even seventy odd years since his untimely death in a motorcycle accident that denied the British his genius during the next global war. Some say he was just a tool of British imperialism. Others deny he was as sage a strategic and tactical thinker as his many admirers claim.
Having read a number of works on him, I’m more of a fan than a detractor. Lawrence, like the war he orchestrated and fought with Prince Faisal against the Turks in the Levant, was complicated and unconventional. An odd duck who certainly marched to his own drum. And who’s talents for fighting as an insurgent should be studied in detail by those who wish to understand insurgencies.
He was also a wonderful writer, exceptionally well read, and with a fierce and wide intellect. Many of my own students (all soldiers) have asked me why they should read about Lawrence. The following quotes are for their benefit (and anyone else’s), wisdom from a man who executed one of the great successes of the Great War and did so without the brutal mass casualties of the western front. Even if his desires of a independent Arabia were destroyed in peace, on this day I think Lawrence’s wisdom is worthy of remembrance.
“When I took a decision, or adopted an alternative, it was after studying every relevant – and many an irrelevant – factor. Geography, tribal structure, relation, social customs, language, appetites, standards –all were at my finger-ends. The enemy I knew almost like my own side. I risked myself among them a hundred times, to learn.”
““Do make it clear that generalship, at least in my case, came of understanding, of hard study and brain work and concentration. Had it come easy to me I should not have done it so well. If your book could persuade some of our new soldiers to read and mark and learn things outside drill manuals and tactical diagrams, it would do a good work. I feel a fundamental crippling incuriousness about our own officers. Too much body and too little head. The perfect general would know everything in heaven and earth.” Lawrence to writer and strategist Basil Liddell Hart.
“So please, if you see me that way and agree with me, do use me as a text to preach for more study of books and history, a greater seriousness in military art. With 2,000 years of examples behind us we have no excuse, when fighting, for not fighting well.” Lawrence to Liddell Hart
“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 their dreams with open eyes, to make it possible.”