(Military) ideas have consequences

I’m happy to find that my interest in T.E. Lawrence’s military writing puts me in pretty good company. No less than David Petraeus is a devotee of Lawrence, whose famous work The Seven Pillars of Wisdom is one of his favorite books. Here’s an excerpt from another article:

“With his Princeton Ph.D. in international relations, Petraeus is the closest thing the Army has to its own Lawrence of Arabia, a comparison he does little to discourage, as he seems to identify with the British colonel’s experiences in the region during the First World War and the enduring wisdom of his advice to those military officers caught in similarly trying circumstances (Lawrence’s legendary book, Seven Pillars of Wisdom), which Petraeus appears to know by heart…”

Lawrence is apparently even on the syllabus of the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College in Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. That’s a pretty compelling case for the continuing relevance of Lawrence’s thought.

The interest in Lawrence’s works among modern military professionals is not surprising. Lawrence wrote eloquently from a perspective that has received little literary expression. Guerrillas are only rarely the sort of people who sit down and write out their experiences – and The Seven Pillars of Wisdom may be the first major English work written about the experience of irregular warfare. Its importance – and the importance of Lawrence’s other works on military subjects – is difficult to exaggerate. Lawrence’s writing certainly had significant, if limited, influence between the world wars.

His influence is limited because it seems to have been confined to only one major reformer, Captain B.H. Liddell Hart. But since Liddell Hart was one of the leading proponents of mechanization during the ’20s and ’30s – and was acknowledged by many of the most thoughtful generals and military critics as the greatest living military theorist, if not the greatest of all time – the fact that Lawrence had an influence on Liddell Hart means that he may have had, indirectly, a very broad influence indeed.  The question that I am grappling with at the moment is whether T.E. Lawrence was used by Liddell Hart simply a superb example of the practical application of his theories, or whether Lawrence should be credited with inspiring those theories in the first place. At this point in my reading I’m inclined towards the former interpretation – Liddell Hart’s excessive praise of Lawrence as a greater military commander than Napoleon notwithstanding – but I’m hardly convinced.