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I had one craving all my life—for the power of self-expression in some imaginative form—but had been too diffuse ever to acquire a technique. At last accident, with perverted humour, in casting me as a man of action had given me place in the Arab Revolt, a theme ready and epic to a direct eye and hand, thus offering me an outlet in literature, the technique-less art. Whereupon I became excited only over mechanism. The epic mode was alien to me, as to my generation.

—T. E. Lawrence, Seven Pillars of Wisdom1

Isn’t it just faintly possible that part of the virtue apparent in the book lies in its secrecy, its novelty, and its contestability?

—Lawrence, in a 1923 letter to Lionel Curtis2

Modernism from Insurgency to Counterinsurgency

The history of the prolonged drafting and subsequent reception of Seven Pillars of Wisdom: A Triumph (1922, revised 1926), T. E. Lawrence’s account of the 1916–18 Arab Revolt, cannot be separated from the ways the text has been used since even before its publication. One of World War I’s signal narratives, Lawrence’s book seemed to offer the postwar British public a heroic and adventurous foil to the Western Front’s imaginary of gruesome, futile trench combat. It solidified Lawrence’s place as “the first media legend” within British popular culture and helped to establish a veritable industry of Orientalizing cultural production across the Atlantic.3 Along with the narrative frame-work [End Page 297] for David Lean’s Academy Award-winning biopic Lawrence of Arabia (1962), the text has also provided thematic material for writers as diverse as George Bernard Shaw, Victoria Ocampo, and Wu Ming 4 and fueled philosophical investigations of imperial and state power in the work of Hannah Arendt, Edward Said, and Gilles Deleuze.4

With the publication of numerous Lawrence biographies and revisionary histories in the last few decades, Seven Pillars has found something of a new life.5 The text has recently been taken up by a generation of US military officers trained in the humanities and social sciences at institutions like West Point and Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs. Turning their attention from the Cold War to the so-called “War on Terror,” this group has attempted to interweave the traditionalist strands of the US military with a more “progressive” understanding of social life, working at the convergence of war, politics, and economics. Their collective return to Lawrence and other guerrilla theorists culminated in the 2006 Joint Forces Counterinsurgency manual, co-authored by an interdisciplinary set of officers and academics including John Nagl and David Petraeus of the US Army.6 Outlining the current style of asymmetrical warfare practiced across the Middle East and Afghanistan, the Manual openly traces the roots of its counterinsurgency theory back to “the small wars of the nineteenth century that were so critical an element in shaping the culture of the British army.”7 These “small wars,” of course, were those fought across the British Empire well into the twentieth century, including various conflicts on the colonial periphery during World War I. Seven Pillars’s depiction of a particular type of guerrilla combat adjusted to suit desert environments—animated by popular images of Lawrence as a white savior at the unusual nexus of imperial loyalties and insurgent operations—serves as a source of inspiration for the US military’s new “learning organization” and informs its handbook.8

The Manual’s scouring of Seven Pillars and other Lawrence texts for contemporary insights (particularly accounts of a war waged with tactics like disengagement, intelligence, and propaganda, the destruction of enemy materiel rather than human life, social flexibility, and the decentralizing of military authority) reemphasizes the political aspects of the US military’s current warfare paradigm. But while Lawrence’s text effectively theorizes anti-imperial revolt from the perspective of an insurgency, the manual sets out to annex and institutionalize guerrilla tactics for counterinsurgency operations, to categorize “recognizable revolutionary campaign plans” with the hope of combating and redirecting them toward US political...

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