During World War II some of our American dads fought in Europe in what are called civilized countries in the same sense that my Irish-American dad called me a fine young gentleman: i.e., advisedly but not always. My U.S.-By-God-Marine uncle fought against a wide assortment of Asian civilizations. A non-veteran (I’d be called a contractor today) I had a perfectly good Cold War against godless communism. In a reverse stolen valor situation my in-country confreres say: “You were there—I saw you!” And yes I wore faded ripstop fatigues with a namestrip on them, but nothing else, so I didn’t stand out in a crowd.  T.E. Lawrence in Arab garb chose to stand out.

I was young and enjoyed myself in the Far East, with apologies to Filipinas: but I always paid for our most likely unpasteurized San Miguel beers. Thus I feel sort of bad for my relatives and friends who are serving in Southwest Asia, Africa, and elsewhere today. “Women in tents”—veils, burqas, ecch!—so not the Vietnamese ao dai, although they too sometimes tote AK-47’s: “the preferred weapon of your enemy” as my Main Man Clint Eastwood growled in the movie Heartbreak Ridge. Even given the AKs I feel the quality of our enemies has declined. Not that I denigrate their courage. “Sir Charles VC” (Viet Cong) cured me of that. Yet the Saladin of the Crusades is not the same as a hairball raghead living in a cave. The “isms” are at least modern—Islam is so Stone Age that they stone stones. Enough already! Bombing Persians would be a step up! That said I have read books by Sir Richard Burton (The First as I call him), Charles Doughty, and of course T.E. Lawrence on Arabia and the Arabs and keep an eye out for new publications. I found a good one.

Thoughts on reading Hero: the Life and Legend of Lawrence of Arabia by Michael Korda (2010). In 1968 I joined the ROTC/Ranger unit at what was then the Ogontz Campus of Penn State University in Abingdon, PA (now Abington—with a “t”) swearing my hoary and bloody soldier’s oath under the Johnson administration during the height of the Vietnam War. This branch campus just north of Philadelphia is the former home of the Ogontz School for Girls whose most notable alumna is aviatrix Amelia Earhart. Her airplane mysteriously disappeared in an attempted circumnavigation of the globe in 1937. The eponymous Chief Ogontz was a Sandusky Indian.  If “Penn State” and “Sandusky” ring a bell—during my salad days in State College Joe Paterno was the newish Nittany Lions head football coach and Jerry Sandusky was his assistant. In 2011 Sandusky was arrested following allegations of child sexual abuse. I suspect that Joe Amendola, his defense attorney, and I were contemporary Ogontz Rangers, our ROTC unit’s nickname. In 2012 Joe Paterno died.

I dub at least some of my schoolboy days the “Lawrence of Arabia period” (like Picasso’s Blue Period). The 1962 movie starring Peter O’Toole caught my imagination. In high school I did book reports on Lawrence, the French Foreign Legion, and all and sundry military history topics, my favorites being medieval warfare and mercenaries. Blessed with a decent memory enough of this early learning stuck to the wall to be of later use.

An avid Boy Scout and Explorer I learned marksmanship, field craft, and outdoor skills including horseback riding, and went west to the Philmont Scout Ranch in New Mexico. As a Blood Brother Order of the Arrow I studied Indian sign-language and Native American hunting and warfare techniques. But I found pursuit of Eagle Scout rank a bit precious (I later refused an invitation to join Phi Beta Kappa for the same reason) while working my way through school plus doing homework. I was a junior member of the University Museum (now Penn Museum) focusing on archaeology and anthropology and the Philadelphia Museum of Art not least for the arms and armor collections. My cousin and I had a business dealing in military miniatures (toy soldiers), dioramas, and militaria. 

Consciously and subconsciously “E.T.” (my first and middle initials) mirrored “T.E.” (Lawrence). Likewise anachronistic with an active if not overactive, imagination I identify with The Dangerous Book for Boys by Gonn Iggulden (2007), still have my original Boy Scout Handbook and the beat-up pocket New Testament I carried in various and sundry adventures and misadventures around the world. I’m still “residually religious” but not hair-shirt.
Portrait of T. E. Lawrence without his usual arab head dress

Reading Korda I find the parallels in E.T.s and T.E.s interests and life paths to be striking: anti-authoritarian, dislike of team sports, keeping a ledger of spending during solo travels (I was equally Spartan but more impecunious); correspondence and diaries—mine were John Wanamaker spiral bound red covered yearlies—lost over the course of many moves as was Lawrence’s original manuscript of Seven Pillars of Wisdom during a train trip in England. On and on. But I’m neither a little guy like Lawrence, they were the Tunnel Rats in Vietnam, nor much of a showman. I’m what they call in the intel business ”wallpaper”. Disclaimer: I too had a great relationship with my father but no major issues with my mother. One of my colleagues asserted that his mother made him a good spy—we boys kept a lot of things secret and undercover! But this is thin gruel for Freudians.  I’m half-Irish: the drinking half, but that’s not nothing and Irish enough. Freud sagely observed: “This is one race of people for whom psychoanalysis is of no use whatsoever.” So moving on…

Penn State’s grading system in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s was A, B, C, D—and Vietnam. I recruited for ROTC/Rangers from the first day of freshmen orientation. Drawing upon scholarly abilities I became a military studies undergraduate teaching assistant and won the Military History Book Award my sophomore year as well as receiving the highest score to date in map reading and land navigation. I was ordered to review the ROTC reading list compiled from our library catalog in order to supplement our Army field manuals. English-language readers didn’t have much literature to choose from on insurgency/counterinsurgency warfare. I found limited material on guerilla warfare ranging from the Boer War to World War II and on the French Indochina and Algerian conflicts. All were dated. 

I then located and recommended for purchase translations of writings by Fidel Castro’s lieutenant Che Guevara and by the victor of Dien Bien Phu North Vietnamese General Vo Nguyen Giap, and even got a newer translation of Sun Tzu. Sympathetic English professors expanded their syllabi from the Iliad and Odyssey (I got a copy of Lawrence’s translation years later) to at least include Joseph Conrad, Andre Malraux, and the wartime works of Hemmingway and Orwell. The “Oriental” (not yet Far Eastern let alone Asian) studies professor assigned the Vietnamese epic national poem Tale of Kieu and some quotationsof Chairman Mao. Political Science syllabi were as sharply divided on the war as was the nation. And contemporary journalism was a minefield for the student novice, causing all sorts of sharp debates among faculty and administrators.

I took on the daunting task, given my honors history course load, of reading and evaluating Seven Pillars of Wisdom by T.E. for possible use by ROTC cadets. I started it on the commuter train. Fascinated I looked up from the text to find that I had ridden two stops further down the line than my stop. I finished the book elsewhere but began looking out the train window while planning for guerilla warfare in my hometown and environs: who can be trusted, what infrastructure should be targeted, where to stash weapons and munitions, when to strike, why to fight. Sort of a “reverse Rotary Club”—how do I take a town apart instead of build it up.

Korda notes what great good fun it is to blow things up. The bigger the bang the better. I was considered too tall for demolitions but too light for heavy weapons. Our Green Beret CO gave a flame thrower to one guy nicknamed “Ratso” who proceeded to run around our fake collection of twig hootches and improvised booby traps screaming “Sterilize!” That’s a natural demo man. We thought concussions were fun: take two aspirins and some shots of whiskey. I trained as a communications specialist and cross-trained as a medic specialist. Medic got you targeted right after the commo man with the antenna.

We were preparing for counterinsurgency—but in the jungle. Desert warfare? Oh but to ride in a camel charge! Be still my beating heart! Running around in robes I could do; running around barefoot not. I didn’t even like to wear shorts. And those knee-socks the Boy Scouts wore? Never. But the Rangers of that era wore black berets and I got me one.

By the time I finished and completely annotated Seven Pillars I had a wealth of excerpts ready for selection, typing, and mimeographing. These I proudly presented to our (full bird but leg) Colonel. He glanced at the first page and remarked: “I can’t read this stuff!” And I’m sure he couldn’t. T.E. had his issues with regular Army types too.

So there it died. My budding military career ended shortly thereafter when I flunked a physical exam (long story). I went off to main campus at University Park the next term, I got my degree in March 1971, spent St. Patrick’s Day in New York City, and then I launched: it was April in Paris. My shadow never darkened PSU doors again.  

My interest in Lawrence however remained strong. We kept running into each other, figuratively, on my many trips to London, and oddly enough during my travels in Mexico and Central America. On my bookshelf sits a tome that Korda does not like, a Pelican Books paperback: Lawrence of Arabia: a Biographical Inquiry by Richard Aldington (1971). I purchased it at The Bookshop S.A., San Jose, Costa Rica in November 1974 with whom I later developed a business relationship. I carried guidebooks and other reading material in an Army surplus gasmask bag I kept slung over one shoulder: in Mexico I used it as a mace to keep wild dogs at bay on isolated archaeological sites. This was before Indiana Jones.

Aldington’s book is “contrarian” but it brought me good luck. I was browsing it on the dawn bus from San Jose to Panama City, Panama, my carryall loaded with fresh-baked bread and jar of marmalade for breakfast with warm tea and brandy in my canteens. The bread’s aroma attracted a young Austrian lady sitting across the aisle. She wasn’t making it on tortillas and said she hadn’t smelled anything that good since leaving home last month. Then she spotted the book cover and exclaimed “Lawrence! In San Jose? Oh may I read it?” Here’s looking at you kid; it was the best bus journey of my trip.

Although Lawrence died following a motorcycle crash in 1935 Lowell Thomas, whose lecture series and book With Lawrence in Arabia contributed hugely to his legend, lived on until 1981. I continued to buy and read books by and about him. While working for a current events and public policy database I wasn’t a Middle East regional specialist. I didn’t have a dog in that fight as I did in the Northern Ireland “Troubles” but I never missed a publication on T.E.L.

Now our country is heavily involved in Southwest and Central Asia. Guerilla war, terrorism, suicide bombers, not to mention the very political geography itself: Korda links it all back to Lawrence. Having finished his book I now feel current on the scholarship and conclude still channeling my inner Lawrence of Arabia.
Michael Korda, HERO: The Life and Legend of Lawrence of Arabia, copyright 2010 by Success Research Corporation, Harper Collins Books, ISBN 978-0-06-171261-6.