In his biography of Orde Wingate (1903-1944), Christopher Sykes recounts the life of one of the great practical and theoretical progenitors of unconventional warfare within the British military. Wingate’s tactical innovations still proliferate military training manuals around the world, but the innovations came at a great cost in men and material—and possibly Wingate’s sanity. His eccentricities bloomed from a feverish compost of aristocratic upbringing and dogmatic Evangelical religiosity. With a brand of pride and whip of faith, he learned "to assert the right of the exceptional man over the beliefs, conventions, hopes, and even the morality of 'the herd.'" Despite his enduring dislike for conventional behavior, Wingate joined the British officer corps, and then spent the rest of his short life fighting against its every tradition. He quickly demonstrated an eccentric degree of originality, including a moment in which he sat naked in the desert sun for hours to conduct "an experiment in endurance, ascertaining the point at which sunstroke might be expected to intervene." His subsequent actions equally astonish. Despite Wingate's taste for the irregular, the chaos of the Second World War allowed Wingate to use his keen intelligence, quick anger, and fierce determination to successfully implement new methods of operating behind enemy lines. Sykes’ biography relates the beginnings of a Zionist army, the restoration of the Ethiopian empire, a knife-point suicide attempt, dinners with Churchill, exhaustive training, and decimating campaigns into the jungles of Burma. His life ended with a mysterious plane crash during the second Chindit expedition, his demise just as inexplicable as his life.
It is one hell of a story. As a veteran of the British special operations, Christopher Sykes’ 1959 biography ably navigates Wingate's boyhood and military life. Yet a few problems arise as well. First, Sykes' Wingate makes an effort to disparage the character and methods of T.E. Lawrence, an unconventional warrior of the previous generation. Given the similarities in the work of Lawrence and Wingate, a close examination of the actual differences in their theories and methods would help delineate each soldier's unique brand of combat operations. Lawrence, for all his troubles, led a virtuous life—one cannot necessarily say the same for Wingate, an impossibly difficult man with few sustained friendships. Wingate stands accused of war-crimes in some circles, as well as ruthlessly spending the lives of his men for minor victories of questionable merit. Furthermore, Sykes' incessant use of weak verbs and the passive voice slow the writing to an awkward trot. And yet, while the amendment of the just mentioned shortcomings would make for a better book, Skyes' work nevertheless compels due to its riveting subject matter and the author's instinct for placing anecdotes within a wider moral and philosophical perspective. The author successfully proves Wingate's ambition, and his unique brand of eccentricity that Churchill called "genius." "This is a moment to live in history," Wingate tells us. "It is an enterprise in which every man who takes part may feel proud one day to say I WAS THERE."
I originally wrote this review a few months ago, and I want to flesh out a few of my concerns regarding Orde Wingate and T.E. Lawrence. Have you ever looked in the mirror, and wished that you were a little leaner, stronger, or tougher? Perhaps a touch more beautiful, or more distinct looking? Or maybe less dependent on others, or more friendly to other people. We all search for a better version of ourselves. We can also project a part of ourselves onto other figures, and so when we critique the other we really critique ourselves. Did Wingate do this Lawrence? Did he see someone like himself, and so reject the 'other' even as he attempted to sculpt his own persona? Perhaps, but such "construct building" obscures the underlying mechanisms that operate on more familiar ground.
Why did Orde Wingate denigrate the work of T. E. Lawrence, rather than argue Lawrence as a successful model for conducting insurgency operations? In the latter approach, Wingate could go to his superiors, point to the success of Lawrence, and then draw resources towards a successful approach. When reading Sykes' account, the opposite occurred. Wingate denigrated the methods of Lawrence as wasteful and ineffective. Denigration occurs in every day life on a regular basis. In front of spouses, friends, and partners, human beings denigrate potential rivals to sculpt their own status position relative to that of the rival. "He's not that good of a writer." "If only her talent could keep pace with his ambition." "She's pretty, but she doesn't have taste." Denigration occurs for other reasons, however, besides status. Other possibilities include 1) Strategy. 2) Jealousy over Rex Wingate’s knowledge and/or affinity of/for Lawrence. 3) Status. 4) Everyone always talking about that damned Lawrence. Or some combination thereof. I wonder if Cousin Rex, Orde’s relation and supporter, actually disliked (or was jealous of) both Allenby and Lawrence, and if his opinions influenced Orde. I travel to London in a couple of weeks, and hope to sort some of this out.