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 all was vanity: but the dreamers of the day are dangerous men, for they may act their dream with open eyes, and make it possible. This I did. T. E. Lawrence, Seven Pillars of Wisdom
In the fall of 1946, two men sat facing each other across a green, felt-clad library table.1 The location was Hanoi, in French Indochina. The first man was General Raoul Salan, sent as part of a diplomatic mission to negotiate the return of French authority to the land that would be known to history as Vietnam. The other man gazing across from Salan was the wily Vietnamese guerrilla leader Vo Nguyen Giap. The leaders conducted a wide-ranging discourse that lasted several hours into the waning afternoon. Toward the end of the meeting, discussion turned toward Giap’s success in resisting the Japanese occupation of Indochina since 1940. Salan wanted to know the source and inspiration of Giap’s success. Without hesitation, Giap reached behind his seat and withdrew from a shelf a heavy book and laid it before Salan, who recognized the author immediately. Giap gestured toward the book, saying, “My fighting gospel is T. E. Lawrence’s Seven Pillars of Wisdom. I am never without it.”
Salan became intrigued and wondered aloud how a book about guerrilla warfare in the desert could possibly find expression in the jungles of Vietnam. “Ah,” Giap replied. “Is that your assessment of Lawrence?” Salan nodded a casual affirmation: “Of course.” “Then you have missed the whole point of Lawrence,” said Giap. “He is less about fighting a guerrilla war than leading one. And leadership,”Giap emphasized, “is applicable in any context: desert or jungle, military or civil.” Perhaps, thought Salan . . . but the hour was growing late and there was much work to be done. In parting, the two vowed to continue the dialogue about Lawrence and his leadership at the next opportune time, but that time would never arrive. In the end, Giap would continue his application of Lawrence’s methods against an even more implacable foe than the French; the United States would learnand forgetmany of the same lessons as the French, though the outcome would be the same.
Like many notable leaders, T. E. Lawrence appears to have been a child prodigy. He could read before he was five. Recollections of family and friends describe an active boy who enjoyed running and climbing trees. He was also “frightfully bossy; he used to order us about, but in a very nice way.” There was also a sense of aloofness, another leadership quality: of being in a group, but also above it. Lawrence was never good at group games, not because he disdained their irrelevance, but because he had to be the leader in all things. The element of aloofness was perhaps reinforced by a pervasive aura that “there was always something he was not satisfied with, even as a child . . . a secret something of unhappiness.”
When the family relocated to Oxford, they moved into a redbrick, typically Victorian home at 2 Polstead Road in a middle-class neighborhood on the outskirts of town. In this new environment, Lawrence began to develop and demonstrate key qualities of a dynamic military leader: extraordinary energy, personal courage, profound curiosity, keen powers of observation, and an aptitude for novelty and innovation.
The powerful amalgam of energy, courage, and curiosity became the lifelong source of Lawrence’s leadership abilities. Since leadership is fundamentally a careful blend of character and competence, energy, courage, and curiosity as character attributes bear especially on a leader’s competence, because they generate the desire and need to learn in order to overcome incompetence. For Lawrence, an initial curiosity about the Middle Ages led him to delve deeply into the military art, architecture, and organization of the period. He also used the character and qualities of the medieval knight as a kind of role model that continued to evolve with his learning and practical understanding.
Psychologically, the energy and curiosity served his appetite for excitement in the discovery of new things. It also served his sense of humor, as his exploring curiosity directed him into corners of mischief. In Lawrence’s day, the chief outlet for the curious mind was found in books. From about the age of sixteen, Lawrence unharnessed his voracious reading appetite on the broader study of military history. Here he began a more formal and systematic study of not only the Middle Agescastles, armor, uniforms, heraldry, religion, original manuscripts, artifacts, coins, and the languages of the period, Latin and Greekbut also the lives of the great generals, especially Belisarius, Maurice de Saxe, and Napoleon. Placed in a larger military context, the investigation led to his deeper understanding of the feudal, romantic, and chivalric traditions and outlook of the culture that would lead to his particular fascination with the Crusades and the heroic leader. Out of these early studies grew a self-motivating desire to “free a people.”
The great gear that drove Lawrence’s personal motivation began to turn during his formative adolescence. “I had dreamed at the City [High] School in Oxford, of hustling into form, while I lived, the new Asia which time was irreparably bringing upon us.” The “new Asia” was the emergence of what we now know as the Middle East. The development of such a yearning in most people would merely have remained a curious fantasy, but with Lawrence this fantasy became a motivational reality.
Lawrence’s progression as a military leader began with what we might term “the militarization” of his mind. By the time he completed studies at Oxford, he had written a highly original contribution to the history of medieval military architecture entitled “Crusading Castles.” Lawrence’s development during the period can be understood as two interrelated phases. The first concerned his three-year immersion into the literature and culture of the medieval period; the second phase embraced his periodic research travels that culminated with his journeys through the Middle East before the war. During these years, Lawrence developed the rarest of leadership skills: the ability to lead people from another culture. He developed a capability to use his knowledge and understanding of other peoples to move beyond his own cultural framework and biases and embrace an alien reality.
For Lawrence, medieval (mostly French) literature opened a whole new vista. As a form of interest it also became a means of escape, a kind of epic fantasy world that would be the wellspring for such post-World War I writers as J. R. R. Tolkien, C. S. Lewis, and E. R. Eddison. His interest in the material was intense. From his study of the medieval knight culture, Lawrence developed a portrait of courtly society where romantic interests could flourish, refinements of life could emerge, and the embodied martial character could grow. After three years of extended study, Lawrence’s interests began to disrupt his university work in general. He confronted the reality of having to complete his degree, and since his field was history that meant a substantial research project. And the topic was obvious and simply a continuation of his chief military interests.
During his early adolescence, Lawrence began touring English castles and churches with his father by bicycle. Later he would often travel alone or with a friend or family member in tow. By the end of the year, Lawrence had seen all the English castles of note, including the great twelfth-century fortresses built by Edward I in Wales. He soon decided to carry his explorations to France. A summer month was spent in 1906 as an initial excursion that included visits to old family friends in France but ended up with visits to castles in Brittany, at Saint-Malo, and in Dinant. During Easter 1907, Lawrence went back to north Wales to visit castles like Conwy and Caernarvon. Around his nineteenth birthday, he went along with his father to photograph and sketch the castles of the Loire Valley in France. The following year he began his first exploration of French medieval architecture with the express purpose of gathering research material for his undergraduate thesis. Here he covered most of southern France by bicycle in one great circle. He contracted malaria when he reached the Mediterranean Sea. During the course of his touring through France, Lawrence logged several hundreds of hard miles by bike. The toughening process that molds any good leader would continue its work throughout the rest of Lawrence’s life. He was less spartan than some kind of fighting monkfor Lawrence, like the Crusading monk, valued the role of learning and intellect as central to his avocation as a leader.
In letters from France, he began to display the great descriptive powers that he would later express in Seven Pillars of Wisdom. He married his literary qualities with highly developed photographic and graphic skills: all three would place him well in advance of most staff officers in his day. The conjunction of Lawrence’s creative qualities was drawn together in France through his keen focus on the stone and mortar of military architecture. He saw the strengthsand weaknessesof fortifications as well as the importance of geography and logistics in the conduct of military operations. He would carry all these insights with him as a leader through an exquisite realization of his self-motivation.
It is not precisely certain when Lawrence chose his thesis topic. Certainly by the end of 1908 at the age of twenty, he decided to study the role the Crusades played in influencing Western European military architecture. It had generally been accepted that the Crusades carried architectural influence back to Europe from the Middle East. Lawrence challenged the accepted view by arguing that the Europeans modeled their castles on preexisting, pre-Crusade Norman structures that evolved simply to suit the needs of the designers. Lawrence found little marked influence from the Crusading East, where the builders simply carried the Norman designs with them to the Holy Land and made basic modifications accordingly. The thesis, however, meant a difficult comparative study. It further entailed that Lawrence, who had already surpassed most standards of undergraduate field research, must now go to the Middle East to study the Crusader castles as well.
Lawrence’s journey began in the middle of June 1909 aboard the steamship Mongolia, taking him through the Straits of Gibraltar into the Mediterranean and the ports of Said, Jaffa, and Beirut. He would spend the next four months traveling on foot through the region he had long dreamed and fantasized about. Although ostensibly studying the area for its Crusader architecture, Lawrence for the first time became acquainted with an alien yet romantic culture that in many ways remained unchanged since the days of Richard the Lion-Hearted and Saladin. The Arabs, especially the desert Bedouin, captured Lawrence’s imagination completely.
He arrived in the Middle East at Port Said around July 4, also visiting Beirut before heading south by foot on July 6 to Sidon and across the Jordan to Banias. Upon reaching Safed, he headed south along the Sea of Galilee to Tiberias. After a short rest, he headed west to Nazareth and tracked across Mount Carmel to the sea. A brief stop on the coast placed Lawrence on his way again north through the great Crusading towns of Haifa, Acre, and Tyre and on to Beirut, where he completed the circle in early August. The swing through Palestine was a prelude to the next and most ambitious leg of his journey as he plied his way ever northward into Syria and visits to the famous military sites at Tripoli, Latakia, and Antioch. He reached the strategic fortress of Aleppo at the beginning of September. After a short break, Lawrence headed by car to Urfa and the gateway into Mesopotamia. On September 30, he was on his way to Beirut by train. A few days later, he was back on board ship for the long journey home. During his travels, Lawrence logged over eleven hundred miles alone and mostly by foot.
In preparation for his trip while still at Oxford, Lawrence, in his usual fashion, spared no pains in immersing himself in the region. He began by learning to speak Arabic before his departure from Oxford. Although his vocabulary was smallhe admitted to one of his biographers of knowing eighty or so words of ArabicLawrence possessed a natural knack for learning languages that he had fostered initially while traveling throughout France. During his Middle Eastern sojourn, he stayed with many private families throughout the area and was deeply affected by the simple and sincere hospitality of the local people. On August 15, he wrote to his father from Tripoli: “This is a glorious country for wandering in, for hospitality is something more than a name: setting aside the American and English missionaries, who take care of me in the most fatherly (or motherly) way:they have all so far been as good as they can bethere are the common people, each one ready to receive one for a night, and allow me to share in their meals: and without a thought of payment from a traveler on foot. It is so pleasant, for they have a very attractive kind of native dignity.” As always, his letters are filled with meticulous details and accounts of everything he encountered, including the people and their culture, as well as his bouts with malaria and a potentially deadly incident with local highwaymen who robbed and nearly murdered him.
This perceptive acumen went beyond the ability to see the tangible; it permitted him to see the invisible: in the case of the Arabs, their fears, habits, beliefs, customs, and tribal relationships. He saw things as assemblages and systems, not as pieces and parts; not as puzzles and events, but as problems and processes. He saw their social and cultural edges, their patterns and points of leverage. Lawrence began to see the Arab world in a new way and would soon come to believe he could move and bend it to his will: that his Crusader musings were more than an adolescent fantasy.