February 16, 2006

Research Notes: T.E. Lawrence and Abu Ghraib – the necessary consequences of war

I have just read the first few chapters of The Seven Pillars of Wisdom, quite a stunning and vital work. The consequences of a political delusion are becoming clear in Iraq (Abu Ghraib and elsewhere). The war machine is incompatible with civil society, even if it is a necessary condition for its possibility. The logic behind these mistakes was explicitly the subject of Lawrence's book. The revolting images aired today could have come from the torture chambers of the Ottoman Empire, as easily as from the orgiastic simulation of liberated desire that is now America (as Baudrillard described just after Gulf War I). Lawrence must be studied.

A note on the myth

A failure to understand T.E. Lawrence is commonly symptomatic of a failure to understand the nature of the war machine and its incompatibility with the beaurocratic machine of civil society. He was not a leader, but rather an advisor who recognised that, given favourable conditions and a few appropriately selected techniques, a powerful idea could sweep across fronts far out of proportion to its physical force.

It was in fact the idea that was the hero of the story. And the idea was no ordinary one, but rather a special type of idea capable of taking on a life of its own. What we might today call an "abstract machine" following the terminology of Deleuze and Guattari. To see Lawrence's work as successful leadership, as the imposition of a chain of command and control, is to misunderstand both Lawrence and the war machine. Both were sucessful when they attained a velocity and immediacy requiring no such beaurocracy. Indeed they were successful only when they broke free from beaurocracy. As soon as they become sedimented, they become bored and subject to delusions and perversions. Any reading of Seven Pillars of Wisdom would render this misinterpretation impossible. Perhaps the author of this should actually read Lawrence.

The Seven Pillars of Wisdom

T.E. Lawrence placed himself within a nomadic war machine of the kind exclusively possessing the power to destroy regimes and constitue a new earth (nations, religions, whatever). He demonstrated just how far these forces must separate themselves from civil society in order to attain the required freedom of movement (physical, cultural and moral), and how that separation may result in extraordinary horrors and pleasures.

The relationship between the Arabs and the Turks is of critical importance. Lawrence analyses it early on in the book. The Turks represent a decaying empire. But more importantly, they stand for a machine that has no self-motivating (self-positing) idea. No one within the empire knew of a reason for the empire, other than it just seemed to always have been there. Occassionaly someone would discover a new way of making a short term gain (the New Turks for example), but that would quickly be lost in the corrupting mass. In comparison, the Arabs were capable of attaining ideas that could whip them into a frenzy. They were, Lawrence claimed, people of the idea, always making a fresh start, always looking to move into a new desert.

This is how Lawrence defines the difference between a nomadic war machine and an empire decaying into its own beaurocracy and inertia.

Is there a moral distinction? That's the big question to pose to Lawrence, who would normally be taken to favour the nomad. As a literary writer he has ambiguities. As a historian, the conclusion is simple: the empire is doomed. But the villain (whether desired subliminally or despised) is most usually the urban. In the second chapter he talks of its diseases and overcrowding. In the desert he remains inviolate. In the town he is raped. The urban sedimentation is the place in which filthy dark forces accumulate, and convoluted perversions grow: Abu Ghraib. In the desert there is no time or space for such development. Everything is essential and laid bare.

Blood was always on our hands: we were licensed to it. Wounding and killing seemed ephemeral pains, so very brief and sore was life with us. With the sorrow of living so great, the sorrow of punishment had to be pitiless. We lived for the day and died for it. p.31

The nomadic force thus became a register upon which intensities of sorrow and pleasure could rise and fall, while all the time being absorbed and dissipated internally by the unit, with no lasting effect or principle. There was simply no time for the intensities to be assigned a greater principle or meaning, other than their subservience to the idea. And the idea was itself to attain a speed of movement capable of escaping principles. As in Kant's Anticipations of Perception, judgement is at the mercy of and a product of speed.

The nomads were thus capable of becoming an abstract machine, self-motivated, self-positing, independent but at the same time forming a genuinely connected response to every and any possible experience. The nomad, for example, finds the continuation of the journey as a way of life itself. The journey is the purpose of the journey. The narrower objective being to merely keep circulating within a space that encourages the continuation of the journey, making sedimentation impossible.

Each individual nomad had his revealed religion, not oral or traditional or expressed, but instinctive in himself…The desert dweller could not take credit for his belief. He had never been either evangelist or proselyte. He arrived at this intense condensation of himself in God by shutting his eyes to the world, and all the complex possibilities latent in him which only contact with wealth and temptations could bring forth. p.41

In the interior deserts of Arabia, according to Lawrence, the Arab nomads had found a space that would keep them necessarily circulating – self-perpetuating circulation. Few customs and conditions were accumulated. There was a simple rule of hospitality, which itself shifted as required.


A war machine cannot be a police force: it is far too fast and indiscriminate. When a war machine becomes sedimented, boredom and indifference sets in, opening up room for all kinds of dark horrors to be manifested. The power of the war machine, the sophisticated and brutal weapons necessary for its speed, take those perversions to frightening degrees.

But at the same time, only a liberating force is capable of constituting the break, the new earth, from which a nation can be built. And so a war machine of some kind is necessary. This is the politicians dilemma, as it was also that of Lawrence.

We should consider, as perhaps Lawrence later did, whether the nomadic war machine (or revolutionary force) is equipped with such brutal weapons out of necessity, or as a means to develop and test tools for the decaying empire? – the revolutionary force as a threat to be held perpetually against civil society.

- 2 comments by 1 or more people Not publicly viewable

  1. Robert O'Toole

    The British Army in Northern Ireland. Exception? They have done well over the years. Could you imagine what it would be like if the Americans were there?

    16 Feb 2006, 00:18

  2. Robert O'Toole

    The British Army in Northern Ireland. Exception? They have done well over the years. Could you imagine what it would be like if the Americans were there?

    16 Feb 2006, 00:18

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