T.E. Lawrence, or Lawrence of Arabia, is one of the most well-known figures of World War I.
But in a new biography, Hero, Michael Korda argues that Lawrence was more than just a colorful character. Korda believes his struggle to create solutions in the Middle East could have made a difference in today's conflicts.
"Lawrence trained himself, throughout most of his youth, to be a great hero," Korda tells NPR's Neal Conan. "He had in mind the liberation of Arabia." Not only did Lawrence strongly advocate for it, "but he also went through every possible training that he could inflict on himself to play that role," says Korda.
"He didn't wander into the desert by accident, and emerge out of it as a hero. He wandered into the desert deliberately."
Korda calls Lawrence a "remarkable combination of a man of extraordinary modesty and humility, coupled with enormous arrogance and an absolutely uncanny ability to talk as an equal to generals, kings and presidents." So though he entered the desert as a junior officer, his rank never held him back.
"He had an almost unbelievable manner of getting his own way, even when he was an Oxford undergraduate."
Lawrence's confidence served him well when he chose to go around Medina, instead of focusing on it as his superiors had wished. Korda says Lawrence recognized something that no one else had: "That so long as the Arabs kept an entire division in Medina, and another division protecting the hundreds of miles of single-line railway that linked Medina to the rest of the Ottoman Empire, that it was, as he put it, 'all flank and no front.' "
With the hundreds of exposed miles of "flank" — or the division protecting the railway — the strategy required "only six or a dozen Arabs and somebody who knew something about explosives to blow up the railway line."
But Korda credits Lawrence with another realization. "Not only could he keep on blowing up the railway line, and of course, killing Turkish soldiers who were guarding it," he knew not to blow it up completely. "Because if he did, the Turks might withdraw their division from Medina, and add it to the division in Gaza and guarding Jerusalem and the more important parts of the Turkish Empire."
Lawrence's "aim was always to inflict just enough damage to inconvenience the Turks, without ever inflicting so much damage that they were forced to retreat," Korda says. Lawrence was a great student of military history, but he also "understood instinctively how a small group of men, armed with high explosives, could incapacitate, isolate and keep in position a vastly stronger modern army."
In this way, it's much like what's going on in Afghanistan and Iraq, Korda says. "This is, to a very large degree, Lawrence's invention, for better or worse."