• Thursday, March 05, 2015



By Asrar Chowdhury
T.E. Lawrence (right) at Aqaba with Damascene Nesib el Bekri (centre), who was part of the original band that set forth to capture the strategic port. Photo: Photo: Marist Special Collections
T.E. Lawrence (right) at Aqaba with Damascene Nesib el Bekri (centre), who was part of the original band that set forth to capture the strategic port. Photo: Photo: Marist Special Collections

From the end of the 19th Century, Ottoman (Turkish) influence on Arabs in the peninsula started to become sour. By the beginning of World War I, the Arabs started to revolt against Ottoman authority. One of the causes of Arab discontent was the strategically important railroad that ran from Damascus in Syria deep into the Hejaz desert. Seizing the opportunity, one colonial power, Britain, decided to help the Arabs because Germany and the Ottomans were 'natural' allies.
The Arabs were nomads. They were Bedouins who had no formal training in modern warfare. On the surface, they were disadvantaged and were no match against the might of a professionally trained Ottoman army. The British sent one of their best officers, the Welsh born, T.E. Lawrence (1888-1935). Lawrence was well versed in the history and the people of Arabia. He was also an exceptionally good writer. He was soon to be known as 'Lawrence of Arabia'. Peter O' Toole (1932-2013) would make T.E. Lawrence and himself live for generations through the 1962 film by the same name Lawrence of Arabia.  
Lawrence of Arabia acknowledged that the Ottoman army had advantages over the Bedouins. Centuries before, the Chinese military strategist, Sun Tzu wrote a treatise, The Art of War. In it, he reminds us: to fight a mighty enemy, non-conventional warfare is more effective than conventional warfare. Instead of going to the enemy to their advantage, it would be more pragmatic to bring the enemy to your own advantage. This could become a disadvantage for the enemy. That's exactly what Lawrence of Arabia did. He brought the Ottomans to the Arabs' advantage.

The sands of the deserts made the Bedouins tough and mobile. A Bedouin soldier could carry a rifle, hundred rounds of ammunition and 20 KG of food. They could travel up to 180 KM per day on camel or horse even in the summer. They carried minimum water because they knew how to find water in the desert. For many of them the bow and the arrow was more effective than rifles. The Bedouin didn't need maps to read the desert. They knew the desert.
By now, it's slowly becoming clear that the underdog, the Bedouins, may have an outside chance against the Ottomans. Lawrence of Arabia's masterstroke was the attack on Port Aqaba (today's Jordan near the Red Sea). The attack came from a direction the Ottomans had least expected: from the desert in the east. No army would be crazy enough to attack from the heart of the desert. Rightly so! Lawrence of Arabia and his several hundred men arrived from the east in the desert, killed or captured twelve hundred Turks, and lost only two men.
Having lots of trained soldiers, weapons and resources made the Ottoman army strong. For ages they appeared as giants to the Bedouins. This advantage had one serious disadvantage. It made them immobile. Moving an army requires supply of two vital elements: food and water. Finding these two to feed an army in the desert made the mighty Ottomans more vulnerable than ever to the mobile, water savvy Bedouins. Is it now becoming obvious why and how underdogs have the potential to defeat giants?

In How the Weak Win Wars: A Theory of Asymmetric Conflict, Ivan Arreguin Toft (2005) analysed wars in the last two hundred years between big nations and large nations or big armies and large armies. The winning percentage of the underdogs was 28.5 (almost one third of the time). Toft then re-framed his analysis. How many times did the underdog win when they did what Lawrence of Arabia did: bring the giant to them to their own advantage? Hold your breath. The percentage rises to 63.6 (almost one half of the times).
Malcolm Gladwell's latest book David and Goliath shows Lawrence of Arabia as one of the many historical and real world examples where an underdog challenges a giant and wins by converting a disadvantage into a potent advantage. If you're still thinking you're an underdog somewhere in life and the giant is standing in front of you, think again. Which one is more powerful: 100 mosquitoes (giant) at night or just that one mosquito (underdog)?

Asrar Chowdhury teaches economic theory and game theory in the classroom. Outside he listens to music and BBC Radio; follows Test Cricket; and plays the flute. He can be reached at: asrar.chowdhury@facebook.com

Published: 12:00 am Thursday, March 20, 2014

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