When I was six years old and living in Japan, my brother, sister, and I went to the movies screened at the air force base near Yokohama once a week. One day we sat through all 216 minutes of Lawrence of Arabia, a haunting biopic by master filmmaker David Lean and starring then-unknown actor Peter O'Toole. It was a revelation. T.E. Lawrence, a British captain who dressed in traditional Arab clothing and rode a camel, stuck with me like chewing gum on my shoe.
I have read five books on T.E.'s life, including his masterpiece The Seven Pillars of Wisdom. Ben Franklin once wrote, "If you would not be forgotten as soon as you are dead and rotten, either write things worth reading, or do things worth writing." Mr. Lawrence did both. The third of five boys, he was born in 1888 to a middle-class family and grew up in England. He was an exceptional student, but only in topics that interested him: history, geography, military history, and language. He eventually spoke French, Arabic, and German. The posthumous comments about him include adjectives such as "genius," "powerful," "influential," "brilliant," "driven," "charming," "charismatic," "crazy," "magnetism," and "power over life." His youngest brother said, "I received over 500 letters after his death. He had a disdain for worldly success. He wanted it when he was young; he got it; and came to despise it." He was a poet, warrior, scholar, best-selling author, diplomat, and soldier. At 5'5" and 130 pounds, he was not an imposing figure. Yet, when pressed to describe him in one word, "GENIUS" comes up more than any other word. It begs the question, WHY? What were his admirable qualities?
- He was a Monomaniac with a Mission. His focus on a goal was total and complete.
- He possessed superhuman endurance, braving the most inhospitable elements.
- He was a deep thinker, planner, and strategist, conceiving military plans that were uncommon and unique.
- He was a world class active listener, speaking only when asked.
- He was fiercely independent from a very young age.
- He was a voracious reader in his areas of interest: military history, language, geography, topography, classic literature (Shakespeare, Dante, Spenser) intelligence, and photography.
- He was an inveterate journal keeper and artist, often recalling things he had seen years before with incredible accuracy.
- He was a man of letters, writing thousands of letters to people like Winston Churchill, George Bernard Shaw and his wife, Charlotte, E.M. Forester, and Thomas Hardy.
- He was a Long-Term Thinker, often delaying gratification if it meant achieving his objectives.
- He had "Brains and Dash, Guts and Grit!"
The old maxim, "I shall prepare myself and my time will come," applied to T.E. From a young age, he searched for a cause he could commit to. He searched for a noble and challenging cause that would feed his desire and brilliant mind. By age 25, he fell in love with Arab culture, history, and their plight. To put an end to Turkish tyranny was his aim. The rather austere way of life in an Arab all-male community suited Lawrence's puritanical nature. He did not drink or smoke and always ate sparingly. He grew to love the harshness and beauty of the desert landscape.
He knew in order to unite the disparate tribes of Arabia he would need to find a leader, a man of vision, ambition, keen personal insight, and one who was both proud and popular. He found that man in Emir Feisal. This hot-tempered, often impatient, but well-educated man would be the person to lead in a near impossible objective: unite the tribes and overthrow the Turks. Writing to a fellow officer, "The situation is so interesting that I think I will fail to come back. I want to rub off my British habits and go off with Feisal for a bit. Amusing job and all new country. It is by far the most wonderful time I have had. I have become a monomaniac about the job in hand, and have no interest or recollection except Arabian politics just now."
His brilliant strategy to take the critical port city of Aqaba from the desert side was the turning point in this revolt. It was the hinge on a giant door of military success. Writing to a friend, "After the capture of Aqaba, things changed so much that I was no longer a witness of the Revolt, but a protagonist in the Revolt." From there he turned to guerrilla warfare, and with his small army he blew up bridges, cut lines of communication, and almost single-handedly defeated the Turks. He eventually became the Hero of Damascus, but by then he was disillusioned with the infighting and politics. His extraordinary journey ended with him being promoted rank of colonel, then diplomat. After France and England divided up the spoils and broke most the promises made, Lawrence, feeling guilt and remorse, returned to England, changed his name and joined the RAF as a private, repairing motorcycles!
In 1935, at age 46, T.E. Lawrence died in a motorcycle accident.
George Bernard Shaw said, "Lawrence was a genius, nothing more and nothing less and therefore not to be judged or analyzed by the standards applicable to more normal persons, however competent or distinguished."
Winston Churchill said, "Being out of sympathy with those who have sought, by diminishing him as a scholar, a writer, and a military leader, to cut him down to their size, I maintain my conviction that was an exceptional human being."
Quotes from T.E. Lawrence:
"The printing press is the greatest weapon in the armory of the modern commander."
"Nine-tenths of tactics are certain, and taught in books: but the irrational tenth is like the kingfisher flashing across the pool, and that is the test of generals."
"All men dream, but not equally. Those who dream by night in the dusty recesses of their minds wake in the day to find that it was vanity, but the dreamers of the day are dangerous men, for they may act their dream with open eyes to make it possible. This I did."
Would you look at that! I still have gum on my shoe. I guess it's time to watch Lawrence of Arabia again. I have four hours to kill on my next flight; might as well study a GENIUS.