Writing on the Inner Workings of the Arab Militaries

In January I talked at length with a journalist from an Arab network.  He was impressed with my article on “Why Arabs Lose Wars”(recently touted as the most read article in the  20 year history of the  Middle East Quarterly).  The journalist told me that he could not find anyone who has written so extensively on the culture of Arab armies.  Unfortunately this  seems to be true. There are tons of articles, books and media presentations about Arab militaries, but usually they are about the impact of the military on economics, political factors, their operations, some depicting their failures, some making excuses, but few that I know of, in English at least, that have analyzed why Arab armies do so poorly in conventional operations.  In his book, Arabs at War, Kenneth Pollack surfaced a number of factors depicting the poor performance of Arab armies, e.g., poor tactical leadership, unit cohesion, etc.  But why are these factors always present throughout the Arab world?  My emphasis has been on the cultural reasons for these deficiencies.  For example, Arab officers do not delegate authority, therefore Non-Commissioned Officers tend to have little responsibility.  Why don’t officers delegate their authority?  Primarily it is        because they fear losing their grip on power, and secondarily they do not trust their NCO’s, resulting in usually poor unit cohesion. It goes to the extent of withholding information because in Arab society exclusive possession of information is power.  Contributing to this poor management of information is their paranoia about secrecy.  The Egyptians and Arabs in general are excellent in security matters, down to the lowest details, but this penchant for secrecy has its down side as well.  In his memoirs President Sadat related how just a few days before one of the dates for the October war was to be launched, high commanders had no knowledge of it. (See Search for Identity)

training egyptians

top pic  Me third from right. pic beneath it  me in white shirt and sunglasses Two bottom Pics: Egyptian soldiers training on HAWK missile system

Just as there is an American way of war, (read The American Way of War by George Weighly  there is an Arab as well.  This seems elementary to me.  So why is so little written?  Well, from the Arab world the answer is fairly obvious.  No Arab journalist is going to detail cultural reasons for Arab military failures. They tend to be either puff pieces or simply contrived excuses for failures. Few have military experience.  No one in his right mind would want to serve as an enlisted man in an Arab army.  Arab journalists generally come from upper middle class  families who are  able to buy their way out of conscription or serve in non-combat roles.

eg soldiers trng

Egyptians Training Demonstration by commandoes

I met an American-Syrian at a bar some years ago in Damascus and asked him how he  had managed to avoid the draft.  He said he was unable to do so because he did not have the amount of cash required. He went on to say that he was, however, able to buy himself a position in the Syrian Army band. What instrument do you play, I asked. None, he replied.  As he said many simply bought their way into organizations such as the Syrian Army band, a normal practice throughout the Arab world.

One of the rare books about serving as an enlisted man in an Arab army was written by an Armenian Egyptian.  It is tough enough  for anyone, Muslim or Christian, to  serve as a private in the Egyptian army but much more difficult for an Armenian in a very conservative Muslim institution like the Egyptian army. Most of the book is about his escape from Egypt and the army, but the more interesting part is about the lengths he and his family went through to bribe officials or Wastas (intermediaries) to get out of serving, and the pervasive corruption he found to be intrinsic to the Egyptian military.  It was the same corruption Winston Churchill found and wrote about in his book River Wars over a hundred years ago.

I once gave a lecture to Arab military attaches at a conference, basically using the analysis from my article, “Why Arabs Lose Wars.” At the conclusion of the briefing the Arab attaches all walked out in a huff, all except one, the attaché from the United Arab Emirates, who came up to me smiling, saying,”What you said is all true but we don’t like to hear it. We live in our own world.” That is human however, as we never like to hear our culture denigrated by outsiders. I recall very well having to listen to the usual British  patter about uncultured Americans.  General Dan Bolger, in his book “Why We Lost,”  comments on his experience with that in Iraq.  Sometimes it is a bit hard to stomach.  I did not like it but at times I had to admit they made some good points. The American military turns every occupation into a giant Post Exchange with all sorts of amenities that add nothing to combat efficacy or effectiveness.  I remember from my time in Vietnam the ice runs, helicopters bringing in Carling Black Label beer and free cigarettes. The Battalion Sergeant Major was wounded by an improvised explosive device (no, they are not new) on an ice run, i.e., bringing ice from Saigon into the battalion area.   We also tend to hand out medals like confetti. The British often remarked that our officers, festooned with ribbons and badges, look like Latin American dictators.

So we all have warts, but the difference being that while there is no shortage of very critical inside critiques of our military and officer corps, you will not see that self-criticism in the Arab media.  Writers like Tom Ricks, Andrew Bacevich and Paul Yingling have written searing critiques of American leadership in Iraq. Some illustrious Arab writers, like Ali Al Wardi and Tareq Heggy have dissected Arab culture but, generally speaking, the military is an untouched sacred cow.

I am sure that there are a number of British and American officers, who have spent more time than me in Arab militaries, but since the time of Glubb Pasha there has been very little in print.  I can only assume they had no particular enthusiasm for writing about it,  or as I believe more recently, most are contractors working in Arab defense establishments who have no desire to bite the hand that feeds them.  Moreover, I doubt few have been motivated to follow the subject matter of Arab military culture for over four decades as I have.  It is not exactly a topic that appeals to many.  When I do read of Western advisors or trainers with Arab militaries they tend to express a sort of sarcastic treatment of the  Arab culture in general.  In his book, We Meant Well, Peter van Buren wrote, “The Iraqis were gleefully a Third World organization, in the opinion of the soldiers who worked with them, and were considered sloppy about discipline, casual with weapons, and adamantly trainable.”  This is a clear case of Westerners trying to impose their military values on a culture that cannot assimilate them.  I have written previously about the inability of the Arab military culture to become modeled after a Western one.  See my article  http://www.rubincenter.org/2013/03/western-influence-on-arab-militaries-pounding-square-pegs-into-round-holes/.  In a few cases Western trainers became so enamored of the culture that they lost perspective.  A cardinal rule for Western trainers or observers with Arab militaries is that no matter how close you may be with them or certain individuals, you will never be one of them.  Mostly it tells me that these trainers had very little in the way of cultural education before they went out.

The Arab journalist  I mentioned earlier related recent observations of the poor training of Egyptian recruits, reinforcing my view that improvement in the quality of Egyptian training or changes in military culture have been marginal at best.  It is instructive and also ironic to note that Winston Churchill wrote of the great beneficial changes that came to the Egyptian army with the arrival of British trainers.  But a hundred years later  when I was working with the Egyptian army, the same  deficiencies, supposedly cured by the British, were still there.  Culture does change, but ever so slowly.  The renowned American  Foreign Service Arabist, Hume Horan wrote:

  “Modern Arab societies lack a tradition of self-criticism, of rational analysis. Without the    ability to analyze successfully the doings of the world around them, or even of their own societies, the Arab public ego has experienced many reverses.  It has become defensive and insecure. Public discourse is dominated by a zeitgeist that attributes any bad news to the workings of various exterior, malevolent powers:  British intelligence, the Zionist conspiracy, the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency – but never to one’s own shortcomings.  Such an alibi absolves Arab egos from any blame or responsibility for every setback.”



About Tex

Retired artillery colonel, many years in a number of positions in the Arab world. Graduate of the US Military Academy and the American University of Beirut. MA in Arab studies from the American University in Beirut along with 18 years as Middle East Seminar Director at the JFK Special Warfare Center and School, Served in Vietnam with 1st Inf Division, Assignments in Lebanon, Jordan and Egypt, plus service with Trucial Oman Scouts in the Persian Gulf. Traveled to every Arab country on the map including Iraq, Syria, Kuwait, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco.
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