Lawrence of Arabia is probably the most famous name to come out of the First World War. It was a long grinding, muddy war in the trenches that ended more with exhaustion than victory, leaving nobody covered with glory. T. E. Lawrence was the exception, the lone individual who made a difference, an Englishman riding a camel out of the golden desert sands of the Middle East. Everywhere else, the generals are hard to remember, and the politicians ended up with reputations of blame rather than accomplishment. Other than Lawrence of Arabia, the only name of a WWI hero that is remembered is the Red Baron-- the top German flying ace. He wasn’t one of the good guys, but he was the heavyweight champion everyone else tried to beat. And like Lawrence, he was away from the dirty trenches, flying solo in the open sky, dog-fighting at a few thousand feet where everyone could watch his exploits from the ground.
Lawrence is remembered for organizing the Arab revolt in the desert that drove the Turks out of Palestine and Syria, bringing down the Ottoman Empire and putting in its place the Middle East that we know today: the arbitrary partitions that became Iraq, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Syria, and Israel. Anyone who has seen the Academy Award-winning film (seven Oscars in 1962) Lawrence of Arabia, will know that Lawrence was full of good intentions for the Arabs, but was frustrated by the diplomats, especially the dirty deals between the French and the British. Although Lawrence did his best, the politicians always mess things up and the result was the endless series of illegitimate regimes whose resentments and infighting have lasted down to today. Peter O’Toole, the tall handsome actor who plays Lawrence, drives off sadly in a car (leaving his camel behind) after his last victory at Damascus, while Alec Guinness, who plays King Faisal (who in real life became the first ruler of Iraq) folds his hands and smiles cynically about these Western people who lack the simple honour of the desert.
We need to keep reminding ourselves that movies aren’t reality, and that just because you see it on the screen doesn’t mean that is the way it happened. Movies pick out a few exemplary scenes, chosen for their dramatic qualities, and fold years into a few hours. Add the film ethic of show-don’t-tell, and the result is that what we see on the screen sticks in our memory, but what gets lost is the tangled web of motives and the thousands of players that determined what went on. For the reality, there is no substitute for reading long books.
So how did we get to the towering Peter O’Toole image from the original T. E. Lawrence?
The real Lawrence, as of 1916 when he went off on his mission into the desert, was not only barely five feet six inches tall, but was just one of the British officers who could speak Arabic, went out on missions, rode camels, wore desert robes, and led guerrillas behind enemy lines. How did he get to be the famous one?
The problem is universal. There are many more capable people than the small number who get into the narrow spot-light of fame; and that is true in the intellectual world, in Hollywood, and in most other things. Most big enterprises take teamwork, with dozens of prime movers and thousands who contribute; no single hero accomplishes anything without all those other people. The spot-light on some necessarily puts many others in the shadows. So how does a particular individual get the chance to be the one in the spot-light? The career of T. E. Lawrence tells how.
Myths: Lawrence as isolate and rebel
The film image of Lawrence gives the impression that he was a loner. He didn’t like people, and the British military establishment didn’t like him. He is the true existentialist hero, who answers to himself alone. Lawrence tells the visiting American journalist that he likes the desert because it is clean-- while most of the world isn’t. And Lawrence feels uneasy about the dirty politics he has to get involved with; he feels uneasy about all sorts of things, whether he is coming to enjoy killing, whether he is homosexual and likes being flagellated (homosexuality barely peeping out of the closet in 1962). Lawrence is just plain uneasy because he is the last honest man in a world full of people who aren’t.
All of this is not exactly false; and the way he behaved in the 1920s after he became famous, up until his mysterious death in 1935, certainly shows he was a complicated person. But the impression that he was a loner, that he went off and did things by himself and against all authority, is extremely misleading. Lawrence was an agent of British policy. He was very familiar with political factions inside the army and the government, and he strongly agreed with some policies and opposed others. Lawrence was quick to devise plans for achieving goals that high-ranking people were glad to hear. He kept getting his chances because he was the bringer of good news in a war that was full of disasters, and he offered practical ways to carry out policies that sincere British imperialists also believed were right-- and cheap at that, since they could use native Arab troops without putting British boots on the ground. Lawrence was known for speaking his mind, but the way he spoke to key people went with the flow, not against the grain.
Throughout his life, Lawrence had extremely good networks. He started out as a protégé of the most important British archeologists, and excavating with them is how he became fluent in Arabic. He quickly moved into the center of British intelligence-gathering for the Middle Eastern Theatre, and soon had the ear not only of the local High Commissioner and the military Commander-in-Chief, but of top cabinet officials in London, the Foreign Office, and the Secretary of War. He became a confidant of Winston Churchill. It was not a case of who-you-know rather than what-you-know; that stupid cliché misses the key point that you have to know how to talk to important people, and that means having something important to say. Lawrence built his networks by leveraging the importance of what he could say to them. And vice versa.
Lawrence avoids Emotional Energy-draining scenes
Charismatic persons, as I have shown elsewhere* are highly energetic. They are dynamos at getting things done, and they get other people energized around them. But they are also good at picking their spots. Charismatic leaders don’t waste their time and energy on encounters that lead nowhere and only cost them emotional energy (EE).
Jesus, the most charismatic of all, told his disciples “shake the dust from your shoes” and leave a village behind once you see that they aren’t going to receive you.
*Napoleon Never Slept: How Great Leaders Leverage Social Energy. http://maren.ink
From quite early in his career, Lawrence avoided energy-draining social scenes. As a student at Oxford, he saw no point in trying to get into the aristocratic circles with their luncheons and drinking parties, or even dining in college. The posh social life depicted in Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited fitted neither Lawrence’s personality nor his middle-class background. He knew where he wasn’t wanted. That doesn’t mean he was simply a grind or a timid person. He liked excavating Roman ruins in the countryside and bicycling in foreign countries. He would carry a pistol on the streets of Oxford in solitary wanderings late at night and fire it off in the underground sewers to alarm passersby above, and outside friends’ room to announce his arrival. There was a long-standing tradition of drunken carousers climbing into their colleges over the roofs after the gates were locked; Lawrence was not one of these, as he lived at home, but he had his own way of raising a little hell breaking rules. Unlike many a college toff, Lawrence never got caught and was never reprimanded by the college authorities.
Stationed in Cairo during the war, Lawrence stayed away from the stilted social life of the British community. Cairo was the headquarters for the High Commissioner, the center of the British Empire in the Middle East. The round of formal dinners and receptions presided over by wives of high officials continued unabated after 1914. Lawrence had invitations, too, as his reputation grew and his intelligence work made him friends among fellow Arabists. But he turned down opportunities when his friends entertained the so-called smart set. The pecking order of titles and social precedent would be condescending to him at best, and the rigid protocol and bright chatter in platitudes and subtle put-downs would only bring down his EE. Later in his life, after his return to England in the 1920s as a famous man, he attended such events sometimes but had nothing but scorn for vapid sociability. On such an occasion, an aristocratic lady seated next to him at dinner said, after a series of conversational sallies, “I’m afraid I don’t interest you very much.” Lawrence replied: “You don’t interest me at all.”
Formality for its own sake Lawrence avoided. It gave a taste of social membership and rank, but he was determined not to play that game. He disliked the rituals of dressing for dinner and other polite occasions, with their panoply of white-tie, black-tie, sashes and decorations, and he disliked army protocol of saluting, marching and donning the prescribed uniform for the different events of military routine. Regular army “spit and polish” referred to the amount of time soldiers were required to do things like polishing their boots with their own spit preparing for inspections. Lawrence would have none of it. Regular army officers were offended by his sloppy appearance and neglect of military ceremony.
It seems ironic that he made his fame as a soldier, and a British officer. In fact, he became an officer by coming in through a side door. He never underwent officer training, much less graduated from any of the famous military academies. His training consisted of weekend exercises at Oxford with the student Signal Corps, something like an advanced version of Boy Scouts. But he was an outdoorsman, and even more to the point, a Middle-Eastern explorer, and his Arabic skills got him into the Intelligence Section at Cairo, first as a civilian, then with an army rank as lieutenant. When he was sent to advise Faisal in the desert, with every success he got a more impressive title, and ended as Colonel Lawrence by the time his Arab levies entered Damascus.
Military rituals and formalities of self-presentation-- saluting and being saluted to demonstrate respect for rank, holding one’s posture rigidly for hours, officers shouting peremptory orders and expecting prompt submission-- were for Lawrence both superfluous and energy-killing. As he learned from experience, they were the opposite of effective in motivating Arab warriors in the desert. But even before then, Lawrence thought military formalities were useless. Certainly for his own career they were. He became a competent combat soldier, but he learned it by first-hand observation, a self-directed apprenticeship rather than basic training in a Western-style army, where formalities were primary. Every drill sergeant repeats the tradition that automatic obedience to orders is the essence of being a soldier, and marching in step and being shouted at by NCOs is the way to learn it. For Lawrence, war was about the realities of dealing with the enemy and motivating one’s own side; formalities got in the way.
For Lawrence, military formalities were like aristocratic ladies’ receptions: a lot of showing off of rank, while deadening one’s perceptions and lowering one’s energy. One reason he became a charismatic leader was that he avoided energy-draining situations as much as possible. What remained was to find stimulating encounters that pumped up his energy.
He already was beginning to find them, among the intellectual leaders at Oxford, and among his fellow Arab experts in Cairo.
From Oxford outsider to archeological insider
Lawrence came from an economically comfortable middle-class family, but they were far from wealthy.
One advantage was that they lived in Oxford, and all the brothers won Oxford scholarships; they could not have afforded to attend the University otherwise. Lawrence did not go to a “public school” (i.e. the private boarding schools where the English elite acquired their networks), and instead attended Oxford city high school. In other words, Lawrence was just the kind of day-boy that aristocratic students wouldn’t bother to notice. But he did have a head start on his career. Already as a teen-ager he was an amateur archeologist, digging up pottery fragments and other artifacts from the ancient Roman period of Britain. Lawrence would take these to the Ashmolean Museum at the University, and became known to the curators. By the time he was an undergraduate, he was accompanying famous archeologists on digs in the Middle East. When he graduated in 1910 he was granted funds to carry out his own excavations.
The period before WWI, and continuing again in the 1920s, was a Golden Age of archeology.
Research teams from universities in England, France, Germany and the United States competed to dig up remains of the ancient Biblical civilizations, and made sensational finds like Pharaohs’ untouched tombs. Like rival Great Powers, archeologists divided up sites from Egypt to Mesopotamia. Lawrence had a good four years in the field, eventually heading his own expedition on the upper Euphrates River at the border of what is now Syria and Iraq. (The same territory became the stronghold of the Islamic State militants in 2014, a little more than 100 years later.) Lawrence encountered French and German archeologists, consuls and railroad-builders, the whole face of contemporary imperialism. It was good for his self-esteem and his emotional energy.
Foreign archeologists and other important visitors traveled under official permission from the Ottoman Empire, which was severely in debt to the Western powers. Lawrence, like others, got an escort of Turkish soldiers to guard against robbers and local troubles. He carried a pistol and showed off.
Lawrence also found that he could get along well with the natives. He was in daily contact, hiring and firing, giving orders for the grunt work of digging and excavating. He became fluent in colloquial Arabic, learning from the ground up rather than in school. He had found a place where he could be a leader.
Learning to go semi-native
Lawrence became expert in Arabic manners. He observed the differences among urban townsmen (who he didn’t like), rural peasants, and the nomadic Bedouin of the desert. When the war broke out, Lawrence as an intelligence officer had great success interrogating prisoners. He didn’t threaten them, but guessed where they came from by their dialect, and chatted about local personalities and gossip. This quickly earned their trust, and he heard all sorts of information from the point of view of low-level soldiers in the Turkish army. Lawrence got to be good at small talk with the natives, just the kind of sociable chit-chat that he avoided with his British compatriots. The difference was that chatting with the natives had a purpose-- it brought information, and it gave him an important status both among the people he talked to, and his colleagues in Intelligence. Chatting at polite English dinner just underlined his own marginal position.
Among the Arabs, chatting was energy-gaining; in English society, it was an energy-drainer.
What Lawrence was doing was going semi-native. No one ever mistook him for a native, except for unperceptive European outsiders. His accent and his facial complexion would label him immediately. But being able to deal with Arabs of all ranks on a daily basis gave him a special status as a go-between, the advantages of which were recognized on both sides. Above all, he acquired the manners for it. Lawrence avoided the style of the arrogant colonial official shouting orders at the natives. He once commented about such an officer that any self-respecting servant would murder him. (Later, he was.) By the time he was leading Arab troops in the desert, visiting British officers noticed that Lawrence preferred to spend his spare time with the Arabs. Riding with Arab soldiers in the desert, Lawrence would spend endless hours as they did, repeating family genealogies, gossiping about old feuds, reciting Arab poems and songs.
Lawrence was not the only European to go semi-native. It was fairly common for officers in the hot Middle East to don at least part Arab dress, sometimes full robes, but often the head covering against the sun. A British officer in the Gallipoli campaign had extricated himself and his troops from being overrun in the trenches by calling out commands to attacking Turkish troops in their own language, successfully pretending to be a Turkish officer. A German consul at a diplomatic post in Iran acquired the reputation of “a German Lawrence” by recruiting an army of tribesmen to fight the British.
In short, not all European officers were arrogant colonialists cut off in their aloof superiority and their cocoon of upper-class manners. Lawrence worked with officers like Colonel Stewart Newcomb, who accompanied him into the desert to meet Faisal, and who later commanded his own guerrilla forces behind enemy lines.
British officers in Arab garb, 1917
The Arabist circle at Cairo GHQ
Lawrence was acquiring networks. When war broke out in 1914, he was soon recruited by his archeologist connections into intelligence work. There was already a circle of scholars and diplomats, skilled in Arabic language and affairs, attached to the headquarters of the High Commissioner in Egypt. Lawrence, 26 years old, was low in rank but well-positioned to be noticed for his skills as an Arabist.
The Arab Bureau became his support group and an important part of his identity.
They shared the view that the Arabs’ perspective must be taken into account. The Ottoman Empire was multi-ethnic, and the Young Turk reformers then in charge had a tricky ideological problem. On the one hand, they were trying to reform Turkey into a modern, European-style power, including a military alliance with Germany.
On the other hand, they posed as defenders of the Islamic world from Christian Europe, painting the English as imperialists. The Turks attempted to leverage the fact that the holy cities of Mecca and Medina were part of their territory, and maneuvered to have their war against England declared a jihad. To counter this, the Arab Bureau favored recruiting Arab tribes to rise against their Turkish overlords, the British supplying them with arms and support. On the ideological front, the Islamic message had to be countered by stirring up Arab national identity.
The trick was to offer some Arab leader a kingdom, under benevolent English tutelage: in short, to get them to opt for the liberal British Empire against the oppressive Turkish one.
Lawrence did not create the idea of an independence movement for the Arabs. He picked it up from his colleagues at the Arab Bureau, and did everything he could to further the plan. His own skills at getting along with the Arabs meshed with the grand strategy of his team.
The career accelerator: advantages of staff expert over line authority
Although Lawrence was an inexperienced civilian with a temporary rank in the Army, his connections through the Intelligence Section and the Arab Bureau led closely to the top. His boss in Intelligence, Clayton, became the Chief of Staff to Wingate, the Army chief confronting Turkish forces threatening Egypt from Palestine. His own Oxford professor Hogarth became head of the Arab Bureau. The Minister of War, Kitchener, was an army hero, famed for his victories in the Sudan, who had made Egypt his base before being promoted to London. The Turkish war was a side-show to the Western front, but the war in France was a costly stalemate, with little hope for a decisive victory. If a breakthrough was going to happen, it might well come through the weaker flank, Germany’s Turkish ally. Winston Churchill thought so, and as Lord of the Admiralty had pushed the Gallipoli campaign to take Istanbul from behind. It proved another costly failure. Still, something might be started by an Arab revolt, that would roll up the Turkish empire and shift the balance in Europe. At any rate, higher-ups were primed to listen and give support.
By early 1916, with everything going wrong in France and the Gallipoli campaign a disaster, Lawrence was given an important mission. Troops had mutinied in the Turkish army in Iraq. The British had sent an army to support them, but it advanced too far inland and was cut off.
The Turks counter-attacked and now there was a danger that the British force itself would be lost. From the Cairo point of view, the problem was made more intricate by inter-agency rivalry.
The British government in India-- which had its own semi-autonomous standing and its own Minister in the Cabinet-- regarded Iraq as part of their expanding sphere of influence; and most of the 10,000 soldiers surrounded there were from the Indian army, led by British officers. The Cairo and India offices did not trust each other, but now India was looking for Cairo to bail them out. Lawrence was sent with two other officers to investigate the situation and see what could be done. Lawrence sent confidential messages to his chief that the India staff in Iraq were incompetent and that the force could not be extricated before supplies and ammunition ran out. Indian army officers tried to evade blame for the disaster, which was being compared to the surrender at Yorktown that concluded the American revolution.
Lawrence, as an outsider, was given authority to negotiate whatever terms could be reached with the Turkish commander. This was a strange situation: a young lieutenant sent on an intelligence-gathering mission from the British Middle Eastern GHQ was put in charge of negotiating the surrender terms of an Anglo-Indian army under the Government of India.
But Lawrence was a linguist and the agent-on-the-ground, while the India Office was content to let someone else take the disagreeable duty off their hands. The situation at the battlefield was hopeless, and Lawrence was unable to get more than assurances from the Turks that the British prisoners of war would receive decent treatment. He had been given dirty work to do, but his superiors knew where the blame lay. On his return to Cairo, he was promoted to captain, with a reputation as a clever agent who could make good decisions in the field, however eccentric he might be.
It was an advantage that Lawrence was a staff officer. He had no command over anything.
If that were the case, he would have been in a chain of command, controlling a small number of troops below him, while carrying out orders from a series of officers above. But as a staff officer, he was attached to a collegial group of intelligence experts and strategists, where his ideas could go directly to the top. A military officer holds two different statuses: one is the rank (until recently, lieutenant), the other the position of command.
Lawrence had none of the latter, but it also meant he was not tied down to a specific position in the hierarchy. His working network trumped his rank, and made it an unimportant formality.
Already in the previous year (September 1915) Lawrence’s ideas had reached the top levels. With Gallipoli a disaster, Lawrence and his Intelligence Section boss Clayton worked out a plan to hit the Turks in a more vulnerable place: a naval attack to seize the port of Alexandretta in northern Syria. This would take advantage of Britain’s naval superiority and could be linked to a national uprising of Arabs against Turkey. The plan was approved by Kitchener and the top generals and admirals, and was favorably received by the War Cabinet. But the French Commander-in-Chief angrily rejected it; we are pouring out our blood against the Germans, and you English want to take the land of Syria that should be France’s reward for her sacrifice! French-English rivalries over their respective empires, as well as their respective battlefronts, would continuously strain the Arab Bureau’s plans. For Lawrence and his colleagues, it was always a multi-sided struggle, and the Turks were not the only enemy.
Go-between opportunities: native revolts and indirect rule
Lawrence’s opportunity to act as go-between was ideal for increasing his freedom of action. We have already seen how distrust between the India and Cairo branches of the British Empire put Lawrence in the position to negotiate the end of the Iraq campaign with the enemy. Another opportunity was built into the British structure of indirect rule.
The technique was to find a figurehead ruler who would keep up native traditions while being directed behind the scenes by a British advisor controlling the military, treasury, and administration.
Lawrence in Arabia was sent to set up just such an arrangement. If he improvised and exceeded his authority, he would not be the first.
Much of the Empire had been created by British agents in far-away places who took the initiative, made ad hoc alliances, and led natives troops in conquests that the British government would accept as fait accompli; Clive in India during the 1740s and 1750s was the pattern for many others.
The power of negotiating agents was highest in multi-sided situations with many players, and especially where alliances were volatile, and fortunes of the players rose or fell depending on whether the coalition they joined did well or badly. This was the situation of the Ottoman Empire. But native revolts were inherently ambiguous; a local leader might just as well be playing for a better title, or for his tribe, his family, or just plain money. The plan of the Cairo Arabists was to detach the Arabs from the Turks and ally them with the British Empire.
But all sides could play that game; just who comes out on top is still to be decided.
In Persia when the war broke out, a German consul with good language skills, Wilhelm Wassmuss on his own initiative recruited 3000 native tribesmen to revolt against the Persian puppet government, leading them in guerrilla warfare and wrecking havoc with the British sphere of influence.
In Arabia, all eyes were on Hussain, Sharif of Mecca, who refused to call a jihad against the British and took the holy city into revolt against the Turks.
But that was hardly the end of it. The Germans believed Hussain could be bribed back into loyalty. Hussain was in the favorable bargaining position of getting offers on all sides, and could sit back and consider among them while the bidding mounted. Sit there he did, satisfied to wait and see what developed, frustrating the British who hoped he would raise an army to drive the Turks out of the entire Arab-speaking crescent.
On top of everything, there were the French. Since the British seemed to be accomplishing nothing, and the French didn’t trust them when it came to empire-building,
they decided to steer their own Arab revolt with a pro-French figurehead. The French already had an enclave in Lebanon, and sent forces down the Red Sea to Jeddah, the port nearest to Mecca.
The French leader Colonel Cadi, was even ahead of Lawrence at this point, wearing Arab robes and carrying a gold dagger, although he also annoyed the British by raising the French flag over Jeddah. He offered arms and money to Hussain, and to bring in more troops to beef up Hussain’s forces (and keep their loyalty with the French). The Arabist faction in Cairo had to act. They sent a mission to Jeddah, including their best field agent, Lawrence.
Lawrence chooses the network bridge and shapes the Arab Revolt
Sociological theory of networks says that the best position to be in is where networks are separated, and you get to be the only bridge between them. Two different networks cut off from each other are distinct pools of information. If you can make the unique connection from your own network to the other, you can use information that no one else has. You are a step ahead of the competition; you can get the job, make the investment, publish the big news story, put together the invention and announce the discovery first. Ron Burt calls this the theory of structural holes; his research on business careers shows that the advantage goes to the person who becomes the bridge across the hole.
But in the volatile situation of multiple possible alliances that Lawrence found himself in, it wasn’t just a matter of establishing a bridge to the other network.
In this fluid situation, it wasn’t clear who was the key person to contact on the other side. Most people thought it was Hussain. But when Lawrence arrived in Jeddah, he quickly concluded that Hussain was the wrong person to lead a revolution. * Hussain’s son Abdulluh was in Jeddah to meet the British emissaries. But Lawrence sized him up too: Abdulluh was too timid, wouldn’t make a move without his father, as Lawrence observed that he held up negotiations repeatedly to call his father. Lawrence heard there was another son (Hussain had plenty of wives and children), camped with his forces in the desert. Lawrence got permission to go inland to visit this son, Faisal, and soon decided he was the man.
* Lawrence was right. Even after the Ottomans were defeated, Hussain did not end up as ruler of Arabia. A rival tribe led by Ibn Saud, which had been hanging in the background all the time, stepped in and took over the new state, now called Saudi Arabia.
Faisal was impressively fierce looking, a warrior, with the prestige and ambition to lead the revolt the British were looking for. His main problem was his father. Lawrence’s job was to insinuate that a connection with the British would be better than relying on Hussain.
Faisal may not have been convinced; like other Arab leaders, he thought that the British might lose (they were doing poorly in the World War up to this point), and there had been feelers from the other side. Lawrence’s task was to buck him up, to build a strong tie between themselves personally that would carry them along together in the joint enterprise. Of course there was a lot in it for Faisal; he had the promise of being set up as King of all the Arab-speaking people, from Arabia around to Iraq. But he had to have confidence in the British that it would really happen. And that meant having confidence in Lawrence, who was the point of contact.
Lawrence was building a bridge, all right, but it was more than just seeing where there was a hole in the network and making a connection across it. He had to choose who to connect with; and he had to make the connection strong enough so that it worked.
It wasn’t just a conduit of information but an alliance for joint action. Advantageous network ties are sometimes referred to as “weak ties,” because it is easier to get new information from someone you don’t know well, someone in a different social circle than your immediate friends who all know the same things. But Lawrence had to build the connection with Faisal into something that was emotionally strong. This is often referred to as “trust” or “social capital,” but the terms are too pallid. What Lawrence had to do was generate emotional energy: to energize his new contact, Faisal, with feelings of confidence, aggressiveness, initiative, to pick up the ball and run with it. And the mechanism of emotional energy, as I have explained elsewhere, is the art of energizing other people while simultaneously energizing yourself.
Lawrence building up Faisal was also building up himself. He couldn’t do one without the other. His networking skills put him on the path to becoming Lawrence of Arabia.
Once Lawrence became Faisal’s advisor, the process repeated itself. He didn’t rest on a static network.
Faisal had to become the leader of a movement, the symbolic point around which the Arabs would rally. Concretely, this meant recruiting tribes to join his army. Lawrence himself became the recruiting agent. Now besides being a network link between Cairo and Faisal, Lawrence becomes the network link between Faisal and one tribe after another. The tribes were wary, waiting to see which way the shoe would fall. Lawrence had to convince them. He did this in the name of Faisal. But he was the one who improvised, concocted schemes, found military targets they could handle, promised them spoils. He made promises for the future. To build confidence in the uprising, Lawrence had to invent a good deal as he went along.
And this was the way Lawrence operated with his British superiors as well. The further he got into the desert, and the more tribes he assembled, the more balls he had to keep in the air. What Lawrence and the Arab Revolt were doing was always a matter of propaganda and myth. This was not a trait of Lawrence, although his detractors later said he was a mendacious personality.
That wasn’t the way he came across early in his career, as an archeologist and as an intelligence expert at Cairo, where his reports were regarded as the most reliable information. It was the structural position as network bridge, out in the blowing sands of Arab politics, that made him blow with the winds. Better said: that made the winds appear to blow the way Lawrence told it. The bridge who builds networks out of shifting alliances has to become a whirlwind of emotional energy. Lawrence was on his way to becoming a charismatic leader.
Flows of network resources-- to the Arabs: money, weapons, information, impressiveness
What did Lawrence have to offer? First of all, money. His government knew that Arab loyalty wouldn’t be cheap, and they were ready to provide what was needed. Since the Arabs did not trust paper money, Lawrence carried gold coins from the British treasury in Cairo.
On campaign, he rode with gold in bags of a thousand pounds sterling. As his success in recruiting Bedouin tribes grew, his subsidy from the Foreign Office grew to 200,000 pounds per month-- about $10 million today. [Fromkin 223]
The money translated into the weapons and accoutrements of war. Lawrence could deliver thousands of camels in full harness, a sign of great wealth and power in the desert. Guns and ammunition were also provided; as the war progressed, machine guns, artillery and armored vehicles also arrived, with British military crews to operate them.
The British empire was wealthiest state in the world at the time; they could afford the expense.
Between 1914 and 1918 Britain spent as much on the war as all the other Allies combined. It was their pattern to use money rather than their own troops, where possible.
As Lawrence’s ad hoc army moved north towards the Turkish strongholds, he had complete authority to distribute gold to whichever tribes he chose. Ceremonially it was Faisal’s army, but it was Lawrence who built up network connections and kept them operative with his monthly deliveries of gold. Network theorists take note: what was passing through this bridge was not primarily information, but money. The most effective networks provide a flow of material payoffs, where the paymaster keeps his partners on the hook because they rely on him repeatedly.
The same principle operates in high finance.
True enough, Lawrence also had information to provide. The Arabs were amazed at the details Lawrence could tell them about the disposition of the Turkish army.
Lawrence was relying on the British intelligence service back in Cairo, with its far-flung agents, its electronic communications, and its success in breaking Turkish codes. But he didn’t explain this; his own support network was all the more impressive because invisible. In fact, Lawrence’s information was of little practical use to the Arab tribes, except as he organized them, paid them, armed them, and led them to fight. In that sense, his information was more theatrical display than a real exchange of advantages.
Remarkably, although Lawrence was carrying huge sums of gold coins in the desert, he was never robbed. This shows in how much respect he was held, even by tribes outside the alliance. His reputation preceded him, and when he arrived, his charisma did the rest.
Lawrence wore white robes, with a gold dagger and gold headpiece, given to him by Faisal. It was the costume of a sharif, although of course the Arabs recognized he was a European and not a Muslim religious leader. Faisal did not like Lawrence to appear among them wearing his British army khaki; as his deputy, he provided Lawrence with the outward signs by which Arabs would immediately recognize him as a man of wealth and power. When Lawrence reported back to Cairo, however, he generally resumed his army uniform.
The film shows a famous scene when Lawrence arrives from the desert with news of his military triumph, shocking British officers by entering headquarters in his desert robes. But on the whole Lawrence played both ends of his network in the locally appropriate way; one could see immediately by his outfit which role he was playing.
Lawrence (left) reports in Cairo, March 1918
Flows of network resources -- to the British High Command: good news in bad times; cheap victories; support for the Arabist faction against French imperialism
Lawrence was not shy about approaching the highest British authorities with his reports of success among the Arabs. As soon as he reemerged from the desert in November 1916 after fingering Faisal as the leader of the Arab revolt, Lawrence went immediately to visit all the top British officials in theatre. Without specific orders, he went to Khartoum in the Sudan to confer with the pro-consul, then back to Cairo to inform the commanding general that an Arab army could be raised. He crafted his message to what they wanted to hear. No British troops would be needed; it wasn’t even desirable to send them into the Muslim holy land. All it would take was money, some weapons, and above all Lawrence’s connections in the desert. Almost immediately he was sent back as liaison to Faisal, carrying everything he asked for.
The time was auspicious for an enterprise like this. War on the Turkish front had been an expensive disaster; 250,000 troops lost at Gallipoli. War on the Western Front was even worse; a million casualties in the bloody stalemates at Verdun and the Somme during 1916 had convinced many top leaders that the war could not be won, that a peace would have to be negotiated. The British cabinet was in crisis; the Prime Minister was about to thrown out. The Germans were winning in the East, and the Russians were soon in revolution and withdrawing from their Western alliance. Through this dark period-- from the British war-aims of view-- Lawrence’s successes in the desert were the one bright spot.
In reality, for many months his successes were hazy and exaggerated. Not until June 1917 when his Arab forces took the port of Aqaba did Lawrence have something palpable to show. But he was his own best promoter, and for the British, the sole source of information about what was going on with this Arab army forming in the desert.
And of course Lawrence’s home base of supporters was cheered and energized. It was their program he was carrying out. The Arabists knew what the French were demanding in the Middle East; knew that a secret protocol had been signed in January 1916 between ministers, the Sykes-Picot agreement to divide up the Ottoman lands. Like Lawrence, the Arabists in Cairo GHQ were playing a double game. In Cairo, they pushed to make the promises to the French null and void. In the desert, Lawrence had to convince Faisal and the Arabs that the agreement with the French was nothing but Turkish propaganda: that the British really were going to carry through what Lawrence was promising them: an Arab kingdom of their own. Double game though it might be, Lawrence had a firm hold. His own networks, in Cairo and in the desert, believed in him; and he told them what to believe.
Lawrence’s interactional Style
Lawrence made an unusual kind of charismatic leader. To his British colleagues, he was quiet, efficient, and to the point. His informality and lack of military manners marked him as eccentric, but his reports and advice were always welcome. He never threw his weight around: how could he? He was a relatively low-ranking officer. Everything depended on his off-the-books success as go-between.
Charisma in the desert: quiet, undomineering, steering the indecisive
With the Arabs, Lawrence adopted another style. He was a uniquely important person, the sole conduit to British gold, weapons, and promises of future rule. But although Lawrence was always in the center, he played it low-key. In Faisal’s presence, Lawrence treated him as the revered leader, giving him all expected deference and flattery. Faisal was actually a rather poor military strategist, and politically he was still wavering as to whether to ally with the British or let the Turks and Germans buy him out. Lawrence knew Faisal, like the rest of the Arabs, would only become enthusiastic for the British war effort when the bandwagon was growing and victory looked inevitable.
Lawrence’s first task was to strengthen Faisal’s prestige. Lawrence never disagreed with Faisal, never pointed out weaknesses in his ill-considered plans. An observer noted that Lawrence in conference with Faisal always spoke softly, “carefully choosing his words and then lapsing into long silences” [James 183]. No need to stand on ego; everyone knew who he was, and his magnificent clothes marked him out as someone they would have to listen to sooner or later. He made himself indispensable, Faisal’s halo shining ever brighter as Lawrence expanded the war-coalition in his name.
Away from Faisal, with the tribal leaders and with his own soldiers in the desert, Lawrence followed much the same style. He never gave orders; in a memo to his British colleagues, he told them that the European mind-set of a drill sergeant would backfire.
The very fact that Faisal had no skills at military tactics left a vacuum for Lawrence to step into. But he stepped quietly and indirectly. Meetings were free-flowing discussions. Arab tribes were rather egalitarian, inchoate democracies in the sense that it was hard for anyone to give orders; the chief got flattery and deference but rarely obedience. Lawrence would patiently let them talk, starting divergent plans, flaring with momentary enthusiasms and denials. In the end, when everyone had had their say and indecision remained floating in the air like smoke, Lawrence would make his suggestion for action and the meeting would end. Usually they rode with him.
It was the charisma of action more than the charisma of authority.
Like other charismatic leaders, Lawrence was a good micro-observer of individuals. He carefully studied the Arab leaders and soldiers, discerning which way they were tending. A master of timing, he sensed the moment when they would move.
Lawrence’s mastery at indirect control came under test in his final battles, when the Turkish front was collapsing in the north, and his Arab soldiers were capturing large numbers of prisoners. Flushed with victory over an emotionally dominated enemy, Arabs often plundered and killed their prisoners. At times, Lawrence himself was able to put a stop to it. On one occasion, he prevented a massacre by calling the warriors to debate over what to do with 200 prisoners. Another British officer accompanying Lawrence made a speech, in Parliamentary style, that the Arabs thought was hilarious. The meeting broke up in good humor, the passion for killing having passed.
In violence, as in most situations of exerting power, emotional momentum is of the essence. Lawrence interrupted the timing and broke the emotional tone. Again, it was quiet charisma. Quiet, but not mysterious for a micro-sociologist. Charisma is mastery of the micro-interactional details.
Network speed: Lawrence as modernist
To many people, Lawrence was a romanticist, harking back to the past. He was anti-bureaucratic and disliked cities and crowds. He seemed like a wandering knight escaping the modern world in the desert. But Lawrence was ultra-modern in one respect: he liked modern technology, and especially the technology of speed.
Assigned to Faisal in the desert, Lawrence took a wireless apparatus with him, and a crew to operate it. He could communicate directly with headquarters, above all to guarantee the smooth flow of money and weapons. And he controlled the communications link; when he was off with his troops on camels in the desert, he alone could decide when to call in. Similarly with airplanes. As his Arab army grew larger and engaged the Turks more directly in Palestine and Trans-Jordan, Lawrence recognized the value of air strikes to hit fortified Turkish positions, and to give a psychological lift to his troops. Airplanes could land at improvised airstrips in the desert, bringing him ammunition and money. Lawrence made friends with the pilots, got them to carry out impromptu raids for him, and used planes to ferry him in and out of the desert. Lawrence could be an isolate, but only when he wanted to be. As his influence and reputation grew, he frequently made flying visits to Cairo. He worked his networks actively for maximal resources and support.
Lawrence as anti-modernist modernist?
It wasn’t such an unusual combination in the 1920s, when literary and political alienation from modernity became a prominent theme, indeed a hallmark of “the lost generation” after the war. Lawrence just had it a little earlier.
Aircraft were still quite new, and WWI greatly expanded their prominence. Lone pilots were heroes, both as fighters and as explorers. This was part of the attraction for Lawrence, but above all they gave him network speed.
Similarly with motor vehicles. Camels had their advantages, especially their ability to cover hundreds of miles without roads,
go several days without water, and of course without motor fuel. Where camels were the speedy way to move, Lawrence used them. But he also added automobiles and armored cars to his repertoire. When he entered Damascus triumphantly in October 1918, he was wearing his Arab robes, but riding in an armored car.
Lawrence’s career shows two crucial ingredients of becoming a charismatic leader: the micro-interactional techniques that made him impressive to the people he dealt with, and enabled him to recruit and expand his networks. But also, he rose above all potential rivals by his network speed. He found the crucial bridge-position in the networks, and exploited it to the full. As he grew more powerful, he moved faster and faster, keeping connected with all the different parts of his far-flung networks: Arab politicians like Faisal, the multifarious tribal warriors that made up his army, the British army that supported him; his connections with the High Command in Cairo and increasingly on the far-flung battlefields of the Middle East; his connections with the Arab Bureau and through them to top politicians in London. At the height of his career, Lawrence became a demon of network speed. He was visible everywhere: here and then gone, reappearing unexpectedly. How fast the network operated was up to him.
The facade of Arab guerrilla war
The truth of the matter is that Lawrence’s Arab army was not very important. The main action in the Middle Eastern Theatre was a regular-style war near the coast, where the British army had 150,000 men guarding the Suez Canal against a Turkish army threatening Egypt. In 1916-17, Lawrence had a few hundred Arab warriors intermittently raiding the Turkish railroad connection down into the Arabian peninsula. These raids occupied the attention of a few thousand Turkish troops, but in fact the railroad was never broken. Turkish railroad troops were quick to repair the line, and they had plenty of materials stockpiled from pre-war plans to build more railway lines. Nevertheless British GHQ were happy with Lawrence’s periodic reports, and assured the War Office they were getting good returns on all the gold they were pouring into Arabia.
Although it was a military side-show, it was becoming a political snowball. Lawrence had seized his informal role as Faisal’s free-lance recruiting officer and was beginning a gathering avalanche of emotional energy, energizing the desert tribes and himself at the center of it. Lawrence’s Arab raiders largely confined themselves to destroying trains and railroads. Lawrence himself carried the dynamite and set off the fuses. The desert tribes regarded these explosions as a great show, and enthusiastically rushed to the scene. Lawrence himself commented that whatever its military effect, “the noise of dynamite explosions we find everywhere the most effective propaganda measure possible.” [James 212]
The Arab troops were not effective in conventional warfare. Their style of fighting was that of tribal forces everywhere, ambushes and raids upon unsuspecting enemies. Faced with determined resistance, their traditional tactic was to retreat, using mobility of their horses or camels to get away. Lawrence quickly understood this. Desert warriors would “attack like fiends,” shouting and firing in the air, especially when they spied booty like a derailed railroad car. [James 180] When the emotional momentum shifted, they would fade away just as quickly. The Turks had a disciplined modern army, accustomed to holding ranks and taking orders, and the Arab raiders were no match for them when it came to sustained firepower. Lawrence soon acquired the Arabs’ attitude about taking casualties; even a few men killed in a raid was considered too high a price, and a battle of attrition was out of the question.
Lawrence eventually saw that he needed propaganda victories more than anything else.
He began to shift his recruiting campaign among the desert tribes further and further north. Raiding the railroad to Medina, 500 miles down the Arabian peninsula, was becoming repetitious, and too far from the grand objective, which was to liberate the entire Arab-speaking crescent in Palestine and Syria.
The plan of the Arab Bureau had been to foment an Arab revolt behind enemy lines, but this never happened; local populations were too cautious, awaiting military events before they changed overt allegiance. Lawrence decided to push his recruitment campaign as Faisal’s agent northward out of Arabia.
The target became Aqaba. On today’s map, it is the bottom-most outpost of Israel, at the head of a narrow gulf forming the eastern side of the triangle of the Sinai desert-- the western side of the triangle being the Red Sea, with the Suez canal at the top. In 1917, there was no state of Israel, just a large British army east of Suez, facing off against a large Turkish army in Palestine.
GHQ agreed that taking Aqaba would give the British an alternative line of advance, a back door into Palestine, Trans-Jordan, and Syria. But a naval assault would be costly. The Turks had big guns covering the water approaches. Troops could be landed on the beaches to take the guns; but this looked like a repeat of the Gallipoli campaign to take out the guns on the straits of the Dardanelles, that had ended in a disaster of trench warfare. While the planners wavered, Lawrence took matters into his own hands. Leading a small column of 36 men, he recruited among tribes in the northern desert, with his usual gold and his growing reputation. A 14-day circuitous journey through remote deserts brought his little army into Aqaba from the land side, where the Turks had no defenses, never expecting anyone would attack from that direction.
The Arab army took 600 prisoners and Lawrence immediately set off across the Sinai by camel to bring the news to Cairo. Four days later the British navy was in Aqaba with supplies and weapons.
It would become Lawrence’s new base of operations-- and not incidentally, for the flow of gold that he would use to recruit a far larger army, as many as 4000 tribesmen, for the advance into Syria.
Lawrence at maximal freedom of action
Lawrence’s arrival in Cairo in July 1917 with news of the conquest of Aqaba created a sensation. The Arabs were advancing out of Arabia, and now it was “Lawrence’s Arabs.” Full of his own emotional energy, Lawrence presented a new plan to the C-in-C of British forces in Egypt, General Allenby.
The regular army would advance along the coast; the Arab army would operate inland, distracting the Turks; the two armies would converge on the major objects of attack, Jerusalem, and then Damascus. Allenby agreed.
In reality, it always remained unclear just what the Arab army contributed. The size of its forces fluctuated from week to week, depending on local fortunes and Lawrence’s on-going recruitment. Nominally the chain of command was from Faisal, but Lawrence as liaison to Faisal had all the initiative. Lawrence was placed directly under Allenby’s command, but everything depended on when Lawrence would show up from the desert and what he would report.
Now that Lawrence was operating in closer conjunction with the main British army, the character of his own army began to change. It became a pseudo-Arab army, in part high-tech weapons and troops to operate them, in part camel warriors from the desert. Through the port at Aqaba came a stream of equipment, British officers, even regular army troops. “Lawrence’s Arab Army” acquired supporting forces in signals, supply, transport, armored cars, mobile artillery. Lawrence’s raiders were not just hitting railroads and isolated Turkish outposts, but confronting well-armed garrisons. It was not the kind of warfare the Arabs were good at; and the brunt of the serious fighting was carried out by the non-Arab forces and their heavy weapons.
Lawrence, although not a trained military officer, learned on the fly; soon he was a reasonably competent battlefield commander, who knew the limits of his Arab troops, managed forces held in reserve, called in artillery support and RAF air strikes. Even so it was touch and go. The Arab army made slow going in the latter half of 1917 and into 1918 up the backside of the Palestine front, attacking Turkish bases in what is now Jordan.
There were more British officers with Lawrence now, and they saw the weaknesses of the Arabs, calling them “fickle and feckless,” [James 290] and noting their inability to fight disciplined Turkish troops. At best, it was becoming a war of attrition against the Turks, a war where regular army forces were carrying most of the load.
Nevertheless, even as the character of the war was becoming less romantic, Lawrence’s legend was growing. Access through Aqaba and by plane allowed a considerable number of British officers and even civilians to visit him in the desert.
One of his friends, an aristocratic Member of Parliament, rode 300 miles with him on camels. The officers assigned to desert duty came to adopt Lawrence’s ways, dispensing with army regulations, growing beards and dressing in make-shift uniforms or even in Arab robes They were charmed by Lawrence’s non-directive, egalitarian style and the aura of success that swirled around him as he disappeared and reappeared. In reality, there were many military failures on remote battle sites, but “a few famous successes made up for many unspectacular failures.” 
The British field staff with the Arab Army nicknamed themselves “Hedgehog” (from a complicated military acronym) and acquired the camaraderie of an exciting adventure. Like the retinue of a charismatic leader, those who had personally been around Lawrence became disciples propagating his legend.
Ordinary British enlisted men (what the Brits call “other ranks”) called him a “wizard” and were astounded by his informality with them.
Among the Arabs, Lawrence always made a dramatic appearance. He would ride up with 20 bodyguards, mounted on the best thoroughbred camels and splendid in coats of many colours, his approach greeted by excited shouts. It was the gold, of course, and the growing tide of victories; but more than that, Lawrence rode among them in an aura of charisma. Stories about him were circulating as more and more tribes joined in: his reputation for courage, his exploits behind enemy lines, the exciting things that were always happening around him.
Lawrence with Arab troops, 1917
It was during this period that an enterprising American newsman, Lowell Thomas, flew in to interview him. Thomas’s film would make Lawrence a transatlantic hero.
Lawrence’s Emotional Energy struggles and his quest for dangerous adventures
Lawrence’s time was becoming increasingly taken up with administration, as de facto commander of Faisal’s army with a large and crucial contingent of modern British forces. He often traveled by car or lorry rather than by camel, for greater speed and to keep up with the far-flung claims on his attention. He reported to headquarters by plane and boat. Nevertheless, at this very time, Lawrence became even more adventurous, going off on missions on his own.
Although he could have stayed back in his role as commander-- given his rank and responsibilities, should have stayed back-- Lawrence led train attacks in person. He still set dynamite fuses himself, was grazed by bullets, and on occasion was knocked unconscious. He reconnoitered and raided with small groups far behind enemy lines, around the expected line of advance towards Damascus. Alone except for his Arab servant boy, disguised in robes borrowed from gypsy prostitutes, Lawrence followed a group of prostitutes into Amman (now capital of Jordan) to look around; stopped by Turkish soldiers, he was barely able to escape.
On the way back, his servant was badly wounded by a Turkish patrol, and Lawrence finished him off with a pistol so that he wouldn’t fall into Turkish hands.
What was going on? First of all, how was he able to do it? Lawrence was in the extremely unusual position of being able to free-lance anywhere he wanted. He still had no official position or command responsibilities; it was all in his informal network, and he could go anywhere in it at any time. And he had all the resources he needed to move anywhere. He could travel by camel, with his magnificent escort, or by himself in disguise. It was his reputation to pop up anywhere, and he did. He could travel by car, order a plane, or hitch a ride with a pilot who happened to land nearby. At the British end, this was what they were used to. His visits were always welcome, upbeat; although he played his role more quietly there (and switched back into his khaki uniform), he had an aura with the British too, of military advances out beyond the horizon towards their common goal. Then he was off again.
Second question: why did he risk himself so much? Just at the time when he was becoming more successful, when most careers settle into greater responsibility and organizational routine, Lawrence was becoming reckless.
One reason was that in fact things were not going well everywhere in his war zone.
During the period from his triumph at Aqaba in July 1917, until the great offensive launched by Allenby to break through the Turkish lines in September 1918, results with the Arab Army in the desert were spotty. This was covered up by his aura, but Lawrence himself, as a careful observer, certainly knew that his Arab troops often failed against the Turks, especially when he wasn’t there to lead them personally. So he took advantage of his enhanced mobility and moved rapidly from one place to another, always initiating something, always generating some action.
Why would he push the envelope, disappearing for weeks at a time, making huge journeys in the desert, scouting out Turkish strongholds as if he were a low level native lookout?
A clue is in conversations he had with a British companion on one of his desert rides.
“... as he told me last night, each time he starts out on these stunts, he simply hates it for two or three days until movement, action and the glory of scenery and nature catch hold of him and make him well again.” [James 198]
His emotional energy was not always high; it fluctuated. The down times came when he had to think about the political web he was in; the strain of keeping up his enthusiasm with Arab leaders like Faisal, hiding his doubts about what the outcome of the war eventually would be, hiding his doubts about the equivocal role he was playing in it. As the end came more closely in view, the strain grew stronger.
Lawrence always had an escape: action. Out at the forward edge, his Arab followers pumped him up with charisma.
It was his emotional-energy magnet.
The down times came in the moments of transition, when he had to move from his British connections back to his Arab network. As he related, there would be a bad two or three days, feeling the strain of his double life, then the flow of being the cutting edge of action got him energized again.
Lawrence became an action junkie, hooked on danger. It was his way of avoiding the fate of successful leaders, of being trapped upstairs in the formality and the hypocrisy of power.
It fed his personal charisma even more.
The height of ambition, the height of ambiguity
Lawrence by now was acting contrary to official British policy, and misrepresenting that policy to Faisal and the Arabs. Why didn’t the British rein him in? Because the policy that embarrassed the British with their Arab allies was their agreement to divide up the Middle East with the French. Lawrence as liaison to Faisal had to keep assuring him that the Arabs would get the independent kingdom promised them.
Presumably Lawrence knew better, but the only way he could keep operating with the Arabs was to deny that an agreement with the French existed. One might call this the dirty world of foreign agents and secret deals; the British needed to have an agent whom they could let go at arms length. The British probably knew that Lawrence was out of their control, but this was in their best interest. Whatever Lawrence said or promised could be denied; just as, out in the desert, whatever the British diplomats had said could be denied. The arms-length structure was needed by both links in the chain.
Whoever plays the bridge between far-flung-- and dynamic-- networks has vast freedom of action; but also, if there are strong feelings of loyalty, much psychological strain.
The regular British army along the coast advanced in slow phases. In December 1917, Allenby pushed back the Turks in southern Palestine and took Jerusalem.
In September 1918, a long-awaited offensive routed the Turks and sent them retreating in disorder across the northern hills and into Damascus. The Arab Army’s part of the plan was to cut off Turkish railroad links, and trap the Turkish army in a bottleneck. Lawrence’s troops accomplished their part well enough, although the deciding factor was the massive artillery and aerial bombing Allenby had assembled.
The Turks fell back in disarray, just the kind of target the Arabs were good at attacking, and there was a great deal of looting and massacring wounded and retreating troops.
Damascus, according to diplomatic agreement, was slated for the French. They had a small battlefield contingent, and a colonial base in Lebanon, on the coast west of Damascus. Nevertheless, Lawrence sensed an opportunity for an Arab coup. He sent for Faisal to hurry to the front. As Allenby’s liaison, Lawrence was in a position to know exactly what was happening. He had hoped the Arabs would get to Damascus first, and get the credit for liberating it; and this would be the prelude to setting up Faisal as King. But Australian troops from the British command got to Damascus first; finding the city empty of enemy forces, they continued on through chasing the fleeing Turks.
Next morning, Lawrence showed up at the Australian division headquarters and heard that Damascus was undefended. He immediately got an armored car and had himself driven into Damascus. At the town hall, there was pandemonium as rival factions argued over who was the legitimate local government now that the Ottomans had gone. Using all his charisma, backed up by armed force, Lawrence threw his choice behind a local supporter of Faisal’s father. When British and French forces arrived, Lawrence presented them with a fait accompli: a governor in favor of the Arab Bureau’s plan, whom he represented as having been elected by the will of the citizens. For a moment at least, the plan had succeeded.
Next day Allenby arrived and official reality set in. The diplomatic agreement still held. Faisal would not get what he had been promised. As a symbolic token, Arab troops could lead the parade into Damascus, but the Arab governor would be under French command. Lawrence as liaison to Faisal would henceforth report to the French. Lawrence immediately asked for leave to go back to England. It was accepted and his war was over.
His network bridge was broken.
Reputational networks and the travails of celebrity
Although Lawrence was on the losing side of the diplomatic struggle, his reputation was made. If fame was what he was seeking, he had it. His superiors in Egypt and in the Army never held anything against him, and lauded his performance (which implies that they applauded his role as ambiguous go-between). Back in England, the British elite treated Lawrence as a man to know. His pro-Arab and anti-French stance had much sympathy at home, but what could be done? Lawrence attended the Versailles peace conference, continuing to act as Faisal’s advocate and joining in his entourage. To no avail. Lawrence was not the only sophisticated participant at the Versailles treaty conference (others included Max Weber and John Maynard Keynes) who thought its results disastrous. To get an idea of the tone of the conference, consider that the French Prime Minister, Clemenceau, proposed to fight a duel with the British PM, Lloyd George, over the Arab/Syria issue. [Fromkin 289] The Arabs lost again. Lawrence was photographed again, wearing his Arab robes in Versailles.
In 1922 Lawrence was at another disastrous treaty conference, the Middle Eastern settlement made in Cairo, which drew the boundaries of the modern Middle East that have been objects of contention ever since. Lawrence now attended as a confidant of Winston Churchill. They had their picture taken in front of the Great Pyramid, just two camels away from each other, along with Gertrude Bell, another friend of Lawrence from the Arabist circle. Lawrence is back in civilian clothes, disguised in the black suit of a minor civil servant.
from left: Churchill, Gertrude Bell, Lawrence 1922
From the time he had arrived back in England in late 1918, Lawrence was a popular media hero.
The American newsman Lowell Thomas had been sent to Europe to stir up enthusiasm when the US entered the war in April 1917.
Finding nothing encouraging on the Western front, he went on to the Middle East and heard about Lawrence’s exploits. In early 1918, Thomas filmed interviews with Lawrence in his Arab robes.
Movie theatres showing full-length features were just coming into popularity; newsreels were being invented. Film of Lawrence were shown in the US and Britain in spring 1918.
Next year, Thomas launched a two-hour spectacular in a New York theatre, including film of the Palestine campaign accompanied by a symphony orchestra (it was the time of silent movies). Thomas himself gave the narration, playing up his discovery of Lawrence in the desert. It was the launch of his own career as well; Lowell Thomas went on to become the first of the new impresarios, like the TV anchors and interview hosts from that time until today.
Thomas took his show to London, where it ran for six months in 1919-1920.
Lawrence, Lowell Thomas, 1918
All this was just prior to the frenzy for all things Arab, reaching its height with Valentino’s 1921 film, The Sheik. For years during the 1920s, American college boys at dances referred to themselves as “sheiks.”
Rudolph Valentino, The Sheik, 1921
Modern-style publicity was creating a new phenomenon, the celebrity: not merely someone in public life, or the old-fashioned nobility taking deference as a matter of course. The celebrity attracted the attention of crowds and fans, not because s/he was doing anything, but because of the self-reinforcing effects of media attention.
Lawrence was one of the first celebrities in the modern sense; and he quickly found he didn’t like it. Fame and recognition among the Arabs in the desert was one thing; there he wasn’t a passive recipient of curiosity, but a leader of action. The Arabs who shouted when he approached surrounded by his bodyguard on camels energized him. But being recognized on the street, asked for autographs and invited to dinner parties didn’t energize him; he was just a passive object for others’ curiosity.
He began to take disguises, seeking shelter in country hide-outs, using assumed names.
Being a recluse wasn't what he wanted, but success on his own terms. He had always had literary ambitions, and now he had an epic topic to write about. His personal memoir of the desert campaign, Seven Pillars of Wisdom, was privately circulated in 1922, and published in a large edition in 1927. It is a beautifully written book, capturing the sight and feel of the desert, the personalities of the people. It tells Lawrence’s adventures with self-deprecating modesty, and concludes on the ironic note of the prize of Arab freedom taken away from them at the end. There is no bragging and no rhetoric, but Lawrence is always at the center. What is omitted is crucial for the actual pattern of success: there is no mention of the gold Lawrence used to buy loyalties in the desert; little mention of the high-tech weapons Lawrence increasingly relied upon. The narrative is about his movements with his Arab army, so that an uninformed reader would scarcely know that Allenby’s regular army carried most of the fighting and broke open the way to Damascus.
It was another network triumph for Lawrence as his manuscript circulated among the literary elite. He became friends with its aging patriarch, George Bernard Shaw, whose name Lawrence used as one of his pseudonyms, T.E. Shaw. To gather material for another book, as well as to
escape public attention, Lawrence enlisted in the RAF in 1922 under an assumed name. In effect, he was seeking further adventures in a foreign land; but now it was in the underclass of ordinary British soldiers, who almost never came into intimate contact with the officer class in which Lawrence moved. The book drawing on his experiences, called The Mint, is an account of the rough, authoritarian military training camp. Lawrence himself thought it was a better book than Seven Pillars of Wisdom, but it was never popular. Because it was virtually the first book to record the obscene language of ordinary working men, it was regarded as offensive and never published in his lifetime. His adventure in the social class underground could not keep up the level of his adventure as network bridge and charismatic leader in Arabia.
Of course. The moving structures that supported his charisma were not replaced.
Not surprisingly, in the years after the war Lawrence continued his quest for the latest technologies of speed. He became enamoured of high-speed motor boats, which he tested for the navy. He joined the RAF to see the world of planes from the mechanic’s point of view. He liked fast motorcycles. He was riding one of them in 1935 when he was killed in an accident. He was 46 years old, recently discharged from the RAF, his action network behind him.
Charisma without speech-making
We generally think of charismatic leaders as great speech-makers: Lincoln, Martin Luther King, Churchill, and even on the dark side of the force, Adolf Hitler.
For most of them, what is best-remembered are the speeches they made.
But if the key to charisma is generating high emotional energy in masses of people and rallying them around oneself, Lawrence shows there is another way to do it.
A charismatic leader energizes other people, and thereby energizes oneself. Lawrence did this by talking quietly, observing silently, never giving orders, waiting his time and then making suggestions that others accepted. Of course there were other reasons why he was in a position to get attention even with his quiet style: his unique network bridge, where both ends depended on him alone to give them something they really wanted; his success in delivering things: gold, hope for future plans, a growing coalition, victory. His network made Lawrence.
But also vice versa.
One lesson of Lawrence’s career is that networks are most powerful when they are dynamic. Static networks don’t make careers; they certainly don’t generate charisma. Networks build and contract; and the attracting force that unites them best is emotional energy. Lawrence had the micro-interactional style to generate EE; and thus to grow his networks with enthusiasm. He always had the sense to avoid networks where he lost EE.
Perhaps we should say, he had that sense most of the time, until the moment he left Damascus in political defeat.
After that, he kept looking for new networks, but the flashier ones did little to energize him further; and the more adventurous ones he tried to substitute just brought him down.
His life was like an experiment demonstrating the power of networks, high and low.
How charismatic leaders build their careers in war, politics, or business:
Randall Collins and Maren McConnell. 2015.
Napoleon Never Slept: How Great Leaders Leverage Social Energy
published as an E-book at
“Collins has channeled his deep knowledge of human violence and the intricacies of combat into a taut and compelling what if fantasy that takes the cultural fissures of our nation to full scale rupture."
– Alice Goffman, author of On The Run: Fugitive Life in an American City
T. E. Lawrence. 1926. The Seven Pillars of Wisdom.
T. E. Lawrence. (posthumously published 1973) The Mint.
David Fromkin. 1989. A Peace to End All Peace: The Fall of the Ottoman Empire and the Creation of the Modern Middle East.
Lawrence James. 2008. The Golden Warrior. The Life and Legend of Lawrence of Arabia.
Max Boot. 2013. Invisible Armies. A History of Guerrilla Warfare from Ancient Times to the Present.
Bruce Kuklick. 1996. Puritans in Babylon. The Ancient Near East and American Intellectuals, 1880-1930.
[on the golden age of archeological exploration]
on advantages in networks:
Ronald Burt. 1992. Structural Holes: The Social Structure of Competition.
John Levi Martin. 2009. Social Structures.
Randall Collins and Mauro Guillèn. 2012. “Mutual halo effects in cultural production networks.” Theory and Society 41.