Saturday, February 21, 2009

A Look at Lawrence

Young CPT Burke has posted a pretty good look at TE Lawrence through the lens of "what individual characteristics did Lawrence possess that made him so good that we should strive to replicate in today's counterinsurgents?" over at the Small Wars Journal.
I enjoyed Burke's article, and as usual will pick at it to tease out those few things that I disagree with IOT refine my own thinking. First up, Burke describes Lawrence's attributes as those required of the counterinsurgent, but Lawrence didn't fight a counterinsurgency; he spawned, fostered, and directed an insurgency. I'm not saying that those two different sides of the same coin (no pun intended) require different personal attributes and characteristics in order to succeed, but there should be a great deal of thought and analysis done before one concludes that this is, in fact, the case. One can look at Lawrence's success in occupying and pacifying Damascus as appropriate and declare that his actions prevented a reactionary insurgency by the denizens of Damascus, and that this provides the necessary creds to declare him a counterinsurgent. I would submit that the counterinsurgent needs to be a bit more stayed, methodical, and deliberate than the insurgent. Over- or under-reacting to the insurgent's provocations can both lead to disasterous results for the counterinsurgent. The insurgent, on the other hand, doesn't need to win so much as demonstrate that the established government is losing and incapable of winning. The insurgent can also put his more risky courses of action into the hands of fronts and splinter groups that will allow him to pursue his aims of delegitimizing the state without having to take responsibility for any operations or endeavors that go wrong. The counterinsurgent, necessarily tied to the state and its elements of power, will be tagged with any counterinsurgency failures--even those in which the narrative is false. I don't know if these differences mandate different personality types in the individuals responsible for formulation and execution of the respective campaigns. A quick and easy (and therefore flawed but adequate) analogy is that the insurgent is the Destroyer, the counterinsurgent is the Builder. The differences in effort and resources required of one over the other are intuitive. Does the personality of those executing the strategy need to also be so bifurcated?
Another theme of Burke's paper that needs to be parsed is his declaration that all Armies (Great War British Army, post-Cold War US Army) suffer bouts of anti-intellectualism. I don't think that this is quite accurate. I would posit that, at least in the case of the US Army, we've never been anti-intellectual--but we have been anti-academic, with some justification. I can imagine--and to an extent agree with--the CDR who looks at one of his young studs, and demures sending him to advanced academic study after looking at our institutions of higher learning, thinking to himself, what good comes of my turning over this stud to a bunch of long-haired, maggot infested, patchuli-smelling, dope smoking, Birckenstock-wearing, tree hugging, close minded examples of arrogance embodied? Anyone who thinks that Army officers can be egomaniacal, inflexible, and overconfident should rub elbows with the upper crust academics for a little while. I commented on the value of advanced learning for Army officers here, and I stick to that. Also, in my (long and storied) career in the military, the officer corps has always been manifestly eager to produce Rennaissance men, I guess what Burke calls pentathletes. And I think that this has been to the Army's detriment, because in typical Army fashion, the first thing we do is 'gin up a list of everything we think a Rennaissance man should know, have read, and have done, and then we steadfastly pursue ensuring that our officers get this checklist jammed down their throats, and we end up with guys that have wave-top knowledge of a lot of different subjects, many of which the guys have no passion for.
Were I to decide I needed in-depth analysis and assessment of a possible future geopolitical hotspot, and had to choose a military professional or an academic to go in, walk the ground, and render the product, I'd choose the military guy every time. In fact, I've spent a significant portion of my career getting sent to various far-flung shitholes to do just that, and have then had to come back, brief, and generate product for military, academic, and political audiences. As an aside, what I found was that I really like shitholes, with the glaring exception of Haiti.
Academic credentialing aside, Burke also seems to imply that we should seek out our military misfits IOT exploit their unique individuality and operational perspective. Lawrence, apparently, was a long-haired, slovenly dresser whose lack of regard for organizational standards of appearence (and his disdain for those who hewed to them) put him at odds with his chain of command. I'm a little torn commenting on this, since as an eternal foe of bureacracies, I'm loath to find myself defending bureacracies. But, maybe we've got it just right. Maybe if one wants to be different, one must be better, an exceptional performer whose exploits compensate for the lack of professional comportment. Also, truly brilliant operators are smart enough to evaluate their operational environment and modify their appearance so that aesthetics alone don't derail the mission. What I get from Burke's treatise is that Lawrence was smart enough to walk into a meeting with Sheiks and Mukhtars dressed in Arab robes, but he wasn't smart enough to look sharp when he reported to his commanding officer. Hmm. And I'm offering this criticism as a guy who is generally long haired and slovenly.
The military, as a bureaucracy and as a human organization, will be to some extent sloppy and inefficient when it polices itself, but police itself it must. For every TE Lawrence, Ord Wingate, orDavid Smiley, there are five thugs, three proponents of waste, fraud and abuse, two sexual perverts and a guy who resembles "Pyle" from Full Metal Jacket. Maybe miscreants, oddballs, and non-conformists need to be held at arms length until they establish beyond a reasonable doubt that they will do more good than harm. I think, more important than matriculating and empowering our TE Lawrences, is training and cultivating our Edmund Allenby's, leaders who can put the right guy in the right place and at the right time, and aim and constrain them so that their individuality and niche brilliance enhances organizational success.
I wonder how effective Lawrence would have been without Allenby there to empower him--and without the conventional forces that Allenby could use in tandem with Lawrence's desert raiders to effect a campaign of compound warfare, a fatal knot that defeated the Turks. I wouldn't mind seeing an analysis of the one-two combinations that Lawrence's unconventional and Allenby's conventional capabilities generated in the desert campaign. Of course, I'll have to wait for someone like Burke to write it, cause I'm long-haired, slovenly, and lazy.

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