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Lawrences of America

How Westerners see their heroes in the Middle East isn’t necessarily how people in the region see them — a misconception that is one of my central themes in Dining with al-Qaeda. A story posted on Inside Defense on 12 November 2009 showed that this problem is alive and kicking in relation to one of the most famous actors in the Middle East in the last century, Lawrence of Arabia.

Senior leaders at U.S. Special Operations Command are laying the groundwork for a program designed to enhance and sustain regional and cultural expertise among elite U.S. combat forces. Work on the effort, known as “Project Lawrence” is still at the conceptual phase, essentially consisting of a “loose collection of initiatives” focusing on language skills and cultural awareness development for the myriad locations U.S. special forces operate in worldwide, SOCOM spokesman Ken McGraw said.

The project is named after Lt. Col. T.E. Lawrence, aka Lawrence of Arabia, author of The Seven Pillars of Wisdom, his version of how he helped stir up the Arab revolt against the Ottoman Empire during the Second World War. SOCOM spokesman McGraw continued:

The program aims to develop skilled linguists and regional experts, or “Lawrences” within SOCOM and the service special operations commands…During assignments to their focus country, they will develop their skills to enable them to understand the nuances of the language, customs, and culture and a thorough understanding of regional issues.

The story is headlined with the idea that Project Lawrence is an exercise in “cultural awareness.” Unfortunately, nobody seems to have made the Pentagon generals aware that in the Middle East itself, Lawrence is a decidedly controversial character.

In the Arab world, his promises of a united, independent Arab state proved to be treacherously empty, and his intervention is thus viewed by many Arabs as a great betrayal.

lawrenceIn Turkey, which, despite plenty of difficulties is one of the United States’ most reliable and long-term partners in the region, Lawrence is viewed as a trouble-making, hostile agent who made the Arabs knife the Ottoman Empire in the back. To this day, Turks keep Lawrence’s name alive as a symbol of infamy: once when I was setting out my thoughts on a Turkish TV show a message flashed up on the screen from an angry viewer: “Who do you think you are, Lawrence of Arabia?”

Indeed, when Lawrence’s famous picture in Arab dress appeared on an Istanbul street near my house as a poster for an exhibition of Orientalist paintings in Istanbul, I watched as it was first defaced with the words “English Spy” and then ripped apart with a knife so violently that it looked like a grenade had blown up behind it.

As part of the Pentagon’s new cultural awareness offensive, it seems, Arabs and Turks will not be the only ones to enjoy new Laurentian moments.  Admiral Eric T. Olson, Commander of the United States Special Operations Command, told the Senate on 18 June 2009:

We do have a number of initiatives—I euphemistically call it Project Lawrence, inspired by Lawrence of Arabia, but certainly not limited to Arabia—Lawrence of Pakistan, Lawrence of Afghanistan, Lawrence of Columbia, Lawrence of wherever it is—that we are operating around the world, or assisting, or working with our partners.  (p. 6)

Lucky world, lucky Lawrences of America. Perhaps it is wise to remember that Lawrence certainly polished up his role to make his brilliant narrative glow, and that our image of him is indelibly bound up with the grace of Peter O’Toole in the classic David Lean film. Indeed, playwright Noel Coward noted wryly at the film’s premiere that if they’d made O’Toole any prettier, Lean would have had to call the film “Florence of Arabia.”

Now, there’s a gender-aware warfighting project name for the Pentagon to juggle with.

Categories: Mr. Q's News
  1. November 24, 2009 at 11:28 am

    Oh happy day, Hugh Pope has a blog! Congrats.

    Excited about this book, Hugh. Saw an advance copy last week and thought I read on the cover something about you being a latter-day Lawrence of Arabia? How does that work? Or is it simply publishing-speak and once we read the book you’ll have your chance to refute the description?

  2. hughpope
    November 24, 2009 at 2:48 pm

    Yes, a blog is born, which is like having a baby – it looks at you and smiles sweetly, and you love it, but then suddenly it needs feeding again!

    And you’re right – the publishers’ original back flap copy, catalogues etc do refer to the author “following in the footsteps of Sir Richard Burton and Lawrence of Arabia”. The publisher did not consult me about this. Perhaps it does look too much like a comparison with the great man.

    In the end I let it go for the final version, partly giving in to existing momentum and partly because it correctly suggests that I follow up on on Lawrence’s actions – indeed my book underlines how shamed I have been by British policy in the region. Also, I do make the point in Dining with al-Qaeda that writers like Lawrence and Burton capture more of what I think is the true spirit of the Middle East than a dozen dry tomes of theory about political Islam.

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