Checking the Blocks. Presentation to the 2016 ASMEA Conference

By Norvell DeAtkine. For presentation to 2016 ASMEA conference

Checking the Blocks: Cultural Preparation for Deployment to the Middle East

Probably no aspect of the Iraqi war has been more discussed and thoroughly dissected than the political and strategic background of the U.S. intervention in Iraq. Lost among the recriminations and finger-pointing, the cultural aspects have been only superficially researched.. In reality it remains one of the most misunderstood and least applied lessons learned of the war. Far too much of the cultural preparation for the war consisted of “check the block “ briefings, that harried battalion commanders had to somehow insert into a training schedule crowded with requirements of marginal importance to the combat readiness of the troops.

As a battalion commander deploying troops to Germany  in 1979, and deploying with the  1st Infantry Division to Vietnam in 1965, I can only imagine how much more difficult it is to deploy a battalion to a combat zone in this era of social engineering. The personnel requirements are horrendous, with family waiting programs, soldiers suddenly becoming non deployable, and having to integrate new troops. They are usually not very happy to be suddenly jerked out of a CONUS unit and sent to a deploying unit overseas with no family accompaniment allowed. Thus I understand very well the eye rolling of commanders when yet another classroom requirement is foisted upon them.

I briefed units and individuals deploying to the Middle East from 1989 to the present, 18 of those years teaching at the US Army John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center and School (JFKSWCS). In this paper, I am attempting to capture my experience and lessons learned and how we might better use the time available to educate our leadership and train soldiers to operate in an Middle Eastern or similar environment.

For the most part our cultural classes to the troops were of the superficial aspects of the culture, such as do not show the bottoms of your shoes to Arabs, or ask about their wives, etc. These are all useful for those soldiers who will have minimal contact with the civilian population, but woefully inadequate for those who will be in regular contact with the population. Some of our military leadership understood this.
The importance of a culturally educated soldier has been advocated by a more imaginative military leadership to produce the “strategic corporal,” a term used to describe the expertise required of low ranking soldiers operating in urban low intensity conflict within crowded cities. The soldiers will be required to fight a three block war, with a low ranking non-commissioned officer likely to be in charge. It involves humanitarian aid, peacekeeping, and fighting, all within a three-block area. The concept of a strategic corporal recognizes that a soldier doing something stupid or criminal may have international repercussions. A most blatant example was the acts of a few lower ranking reservist soldiers at Abu Grayb. They acted not out of intended cultural malice but more of personal baseness, ignorance, and lack of unit discipline. The problem here was not lack of cultural training but rather non existent military discipline and supervision. For the older soldiers like myself it is instructive to remember how one CBS report by Morley Safer witnessing the burning of a Vietnamese village by a small army unit began the long and intense media campaign against the Vietnam war, heavily influencing the adverse domestic view of the war.

There is a need for more intensive training and education in producing an American soldier operating in a three – block war. The American soldier, in his training for these type wars, however, is faced with old problems: micromanaging and zero defects concepts. This has always been an issue but in today’s heated political environment commanders who value their careers are very cautious about giving subordinates too much latitude. Allowing your subordinates to make mistakes and learn from them is great in talking points but rarely practiced. It is all the more needed, however, with the millennial generation, growing up in an increasingly dependent environment, cushioned from failure in school and work. They need greater creative and challenging training to become the independent thinker with the initiative once considered a strong attribute of the American soldier. Moreover the concept of the strategic corporal is largely dependent on the continuing influx of quality recruits. This is by no means assured.

While producing this strategic corporal, who can operate in a three-block war is becoming more difficult, that is not the main problem. The main problem is lack of strategic cultural understanding among American officials and military leadership. They- with a few exceptions -fail to study the cultural mindset of the adversary and their people. Cultural mistakes of the strategic corporal can cost lives and international condemnation but the lack of a cultural approach to operations among the military leadership can be far more disastrous for the operation, or perhaps the entire war.

As an example of how this plays out at a lower level, in 2003 I was assigned to do a three- day instruction period at Ft. Jackson to culturally educate a task force built around a basic training battalion preparing to train the Free Iraqi Forces (FIF). At the briefing I gave there was one lieutenant and the battalion chaplain. The other officers were absent.

Partially as a result of total ignorance of the Iraqi culture, the training of the FIF in Hungary was a disaster. The training was done conducted as if they were infantry basic trainees. Also disappointing was the Free Iraqi Forces after – action report, which in consonance with most American Army after action reports, is laden with elaborate discussions of command structural and equipment problems, but very little on the lack or effectiveness of cultural education received by the trainers.
In class after class, including one I gave to the military police company deploying to Guantanamo to guard terrorist prisoners, no officer or senior NCO was present.

This points to a specific problem of the priority given to cultural education in the U.S. Army. It is not the cultural education of the enlisted soldiers, which is the biggest problem: it is the officers, who are too busy (or pretend to be) to invest their time in cultural education. As one moves up the chain of command the lack of attention to the cultural aspect of military campaigns becomes even more glaring. In fact much of what are termed intelligence failures are, in actuality, strategic cultural failures. The information was often there but misinterpreted or ignored. One must be very diligent in researching the memoirs by Iraqi war architects and operators to find much relating to the cultural aspects of the war. More prescient leaders like Daniel Bolger got it right, , pinning the blame on the military leadership and their lack of counter-guerilla and cultural knowledge.

In almost 27 years of cultural instruction my assessment of the training given the soldier or marine has been lacking in so many respects that it is a matter of admiration that the American soldier has done as well as he has in the Arab world. Investing in his cultural education has simply never been a priority of the military.

The Army leadership has attempted to correct this deficiency, but attempts to create a cultural component to bridge the gap between the soldier and the local population has, so far, been marginal at best. One was the creation of Human Terrain System (HTS), featuring a team of social scientists assigned to combat units to provide cultural knowledge to the units. Notwithstanding a great deal of initially favorable hype, It had mixed success at best, with some teams doing stellar work and others, too many others, being of doubtful usefulness. Many unit commanders saw them as a liability and a burden, thrusting an unwanted responsibility to protect them in combat operations. Its demise was hastened by allegations of widespread sexual and fiscal misconduct. Moreover the leftist American Anthropological Association (AAA) made it clear to the anthropologists attached to military units that employment after their service with the military units would be problematic.

The Army has long had the Foreign Area Officer program (FAO), earlier known as the Foreign Area Specialty program, an immensely valuable and useful program to the army but it requires a lot of time and money. Constant violence in the Middle East has limited the immersion aspect of the program, which is essential to a truly proficient regional specialist. The limited number of these officers means that they are usually used as military attaches or in advisory capacity at higher levels. As a graduate of that three- year program I can only sing its praises despite the fact that it is not a career enhancing program with the Army.

The massive problems of US counter-insurgency efforts in Iraq were never truly recognized (at least not by the top military and civilian leadership, until later in the war) as a result of poor cultural awareness and education. Attempts to remedy this situation were made in the careful scholarship put into the writing of the Army 3-24 Counter-insurgency Manual. The writing, involving a number of experts and experienced officers, produced an excellent manual, well written and with ground tested content. However it appeared too late in the war and was of minimal assistance. As a number of officers told me it required too much time to read and digest the heady scholarly verbiage in which it was written.

The saga of my experience as an instructor at the USAJFKSWCS instructor of Middle Eat studies fairly well illustrates the overall problem of cultural instruction in the US Army. The program I began teaching in 1988 was a remnant of the FAO course, which had been taught at the school. Over the years it was whittled away and then handed over to a college to restructure the course. They renamed it the Advanced Military Analysis Course, which was trumpeted as creating “systemic” thinking and a “system of systems” approach to supposedly produce a more intellectually adept officer. As it moved through various iterations it became less and less regionally oriented, and much less useful.

There have been a number of books written which conveyed the issues confronting American soldiers operating in a very strange environment (to them) Many observers depicted the soldiers’ bewilderment at the cultural aspects of the Iraqi people, particularly their ingratitude for liberation from the Saddam regime .

The real problem was that the American political, diplomatic and military leadership, was often clueless in assessing the Iraqi cultural environment. Having spent over 25 years presenting briefings to troops deploying to the Arab world there was never enough time or a proper command environment to get beyond the most superficial depictions of the Arab cultural environment.

The libraries of books and articles on the Iraqi invasion/liberation point out in nauseating and repetitive detail the mistakes, wrong assumptions, poor military leadership, and others, in ideologically oriented terms, the supposed nefarious motivations for the invasion of Iraq, rarely mention the cultural environment of that country. The lack of a broad strategic cultural vision leaves a vacuum on the ground that superficial cultural tips or two – hour cultural awareness classes could not fill.

The stark reality was that the lack of cultural understanding and a sense of direction provided by policymakers and their regional advisors not only made their interaction with the Iraqis more difficult but was often counterproductive, leaving soldiers and government officials on the ground to explain what seemed to be inexplicable policies to bewildered Iraqis. This lack of strategic direction was certainly apparent in the U.S. military, as Thomas Ricks and Paul Yingling have vividly pointed out. Probably a very apt summary of the basic American problem was written by Ali A. Allawi, a not totally unbiased observer, but essentially correct when he wrote; ,
“There was a fundamental misunderstanding about the nature of the Iraqi society and the effects on it by decades of dictatorship. Each strand of American thinking that combined to provide the basis for the invasion were isolated from any direct, even incidental engagement with Iraq.”

Allawi is correct in wondering how so little was known or taken into account in the invasion and post invasion planning, in view of the many missions, embassies, WMD inspection teams that swarmed over Iraq.

My observations over the years of involvement with cultural studies of the Middle East was that independent observers were often a better source than the studies presented by think tanks, which seem to be written more for policy makers, with their political orientation in mind. For instance the greatest insights on the Iraqi society I gained from the first Gulf war were from reports of Sergeant First Class (now CWO 2) Mark W. Shulert, who worked as an interpreter and general intercessor with a civil affairs unit between the Americans and Iraqis. After the first Gulf war he wrote,

“Revolution in Iraq will be unlikely to succeed without a guarantee in advance that it will succeed. Saddam has demonstrated he can deal brutally with revolutionaries whether they be involved in coup attempts or popular uprisings. One thing that every Iraqi knows is that you do not want to be on the losing side when the dust settles. You cannot afford to back the loser. Because of this as long as Saddam is in power everyone is afraid not to support him. Many will assist in suppression of opposition so that the wrath of Saddam is not turned against him. ”
This type of assessment was lost amid the prognostications that invading Americans would be greeted as liberators, a belief even among exiled Iraqis. No doubt that was based on Western reasoning, i.e.,the fairly well established fact that the majority of the Iraqis hated the Saddam regime, would translate into support for the Western invasion. The Republic of Fear mentality was recognized by people like CWO Shulert but not the policymakers or most intelligence agencies.
Preparing the troops culturally for Iraq was poorly done but the American troops, by and large, did well enough under the circumstances of working with a population that was generally hostile, or more to the point, fearful of being too close to American troops inviting retribution by the Islamists and Ba’athists. The lack of cultural intelligence and knowledge of the deep culture evident within the military and civilian leadership was the primary factor in that fatal flaw in our planning for Iraq.
The first and most important step for any future deployments to the Middle East is to shift emphasis from the strategic corporal, which is still critical, to the education of the field grade and general officers, and advisers to political leaders. It is an illusion to hope that political leaders will assume office with a sound cultural knowledge of any particular region, but not their military advisers. There is no good reason why American military leadership was not educated into the deep culture of the Arab/Middle Eastern world. After all, for over 25 years almost every major deployment was to the Middle East. In 1986 the BDM Corporation tried to interest the Army component of Central Command in creating a data bank of military officers, active and retired, contractors, civilian personnel with long experience in the Middle East, and keep it updated. There was no interest in such a project. In 1990, when the war was looming, the military put out appeals for linguists and cultural experts to volunteer for work with the Defense Department. It was much too late.
The army needs to grow its own experts and not, as recent trends indicate, outsource this important part of an officer’s education. Academic assistance is obviously needed and should be sought, but over the years the tendency has been to hand over programs to academic or commercial contractors with a resultant out of sight, out of mind attitude. The scholarly community needs to support the military, not vice versa, particularly in view of the fact that much of Middle East academia is not sympathetic to U.S. policies or the military.
Growing our own (Army) experts, and concentrating on a more thorough education delving into the deep culture of the Middle East /Arab world for our leadership are the two overall tenets to building a more effective military experience in Middle East campaigns.
In particular, the cursory or totally wrong understanding of the critical importance of Islam on the Iraqi culture was one critical element of U.S. problems in Iraq. The lack of appreciation for the impact of Islam even on a supposedly “secular state” like Iraq was a recipe for disaster. There was a lack of recognition that Islam is truly an “exceptional religion” One can search in vain for any particular importance attributed to Islamic culture in the memoirs of the leadership in preparation for the war. Preparation for any future operation in the Arab/Islamic world must emphasize the religious aspects of the deep culture and specifically those aspects of that culture that affect military operations. Obviously there are hundreds of elements of the “iceberg” attributes, below the surface, which could be discussed and thoroughly dissected, but in this paper I am concentrating on some of the most important that my experience with the Arab world, mostly with the military, that are the most important.
In almost every situation the soldier in a foreign culture will only observe the surface behaviors of the people he is with. Very often he will interpret the meaning of the behavior he observes through the lens of his own culture…and more often than not he will be wrong. Probably the first principle of navigating through a foreign culture is to understand that you do not know the values or thought patterns that actuate the behavior. A little knowledge can often be worse than none because misinterpreting an action can be much more damaging than doing nothing. The tip of the iceberg is the surface characteristics of behavior, the music, food, dress, etc. while below the water line and unseen is the motivation, the belief and value systems, etc. indeed what makes people tick. This is the deep culture. When the U.S. culture in the person of an American comes into close contact with that of an Arab culture the result is a cultural collision with many misunderstandings. Striving to understand the roots of your counterpart’s behavior is the principal objective of the education of the military officer in a leadership position. It is in this context that understanding the following deep cultural aspects of Arab/ Middle East military sub-cultural are essential to a U.S. military officer’s basic education,.
Before launching into a discussion of the Arab military culture that needs to be emphasized, it is necessary to point out that treading in the subject of culture and religion is always a minefield, usually met with responses of stereotyping or essentialism by a certain segment of pundits or academics. I simply say these attributes are based on almost 40 years of observation and study. Some points surfaced in this paper may seem unduly harsh, but over the years I have acquired a deep respect for Arab resilience, animation, quick wit, generosity, hospitality and devotion to family life. Their flair for communication skills and warm interpersonal relations are traits from which Americans could learn much.
Islam has a profound influence on every aspect of Arab culture. A rereading of the orientalist classics such as Philip Hitti, Ellie Kedourie and Bernard Lewis, all attest to this fact. Raphael Patai’s book, The Arab Mind, which is still by far the best explanation of Arab deep culture in the English language, delves deeply into this aspect of culture. The two aspects of the Islamic influence that has the most impact on military operations are fatalism and the view of the future.
Fatalism is a deep and abiding aspect of Arab culture. Observing Arabs on a firing range, manning artillery pieces, or doing pre- operation checks there always seems to be a lackadaisical attitude to safety. While many attribute this to simply poor training and a lack of supervision, which is part of the problem, it is also something deeper. The Arab officer has the rather uneasy feeling that by taking all these safety precautions you are challenging the will of God. The epitome of this deep -rooted value was illustrated to me when I got in a taxi in Jordan and fastened my seat belt. The driver laconically said to me, “If Allah wants you dead do you think that strap will keep you alive?” The best antidote to this is not repeated exhortations to use safety precautions but rather an appeal to higher professional standards, “True professionals handle their weapons in this manner.” Fatalism often inhibits the exercise of initiative in a crisis situation, falling back on the premise of God’s will shall prevail in any case. Fatalism also provides an easy answer to failures and a lack of “lessons learned.” If God has willed the result of a battle who could change that? Moreover lessons learned may implicate commanders as incompetent.
The second all- important aspect of Islam on coalition coordination with Arab officers is the problem of planning. The future belongs to God. The attitude toward life insurance and “saving up for a rainy day” are often seen as challenging God’s dominion over the activities of man. Plans tend to be perfunctory, rudimentary and to coin a phrase based on the “audacity of hope.” Certainly the Saddam plan for the defense of Baghdad is an example of that. The only antidote to this cultural barrier is constant attention and emphasis on the planning, otherwise it will fall prey, as did the Saddam plan for Baghdad, to mubalagha. (hypocrisy and wishful thinking).
When planning is done in response to the Western adviser it will often reflect a desire to implement ideas of the adviser that are incompatible with Arab culture. Or it will be done to please the advisor with no real intent to implement it. In fact the desire to emulate Western concepts (often superficially) into the Arab military establishments have been counterproductive to Arab conventional warfare. A very important characteristic of this factor is the predilection of Arab commanders and leaders to seek large amounts of end items (tanks, artillery etc.) with inadequate attention given to the spare parts and logistics.
Finally, in terms of Islam, even the most seemingly secular Arab officer, who enjoys alcohol, and has thoroughly Western behavior, will in times of crisis or stress, return to his roots. Putting too much stock in the apparent Western characteristics of a particular officer can be ultimately misleading. It is an aspect of the “exceptionalism” of Islam: its abiding hold on its adherents.
Arab Military Deep Cultural Characteristics.
Sociologists and anthropologists often use the terms of a “to do” and “to be “ culture, There is much to be learned from defining the American culture as a “to do” culture and the Arab culture as a “to be” culture. In my experience I have found this a very good model for understanding the cultural barriers. I draw on these attributes and others to illustrate the most salient factors in understanding the Arab military culture.
The Strong Horse
It is a simplistic argument to presume that Arabs understand only power, but it is foolhardy to dismiss it as simple stereotyping. As Sania Hamady wrote ,”Arab society is ruthless, stern, and pitiless. It worships strength and has no compassion for weakness.” It is difficult to find any phase of Arab history in which authoritarianism and exercise of raw power was not the prevailing political system. With the introduction of Western models, including Nazi and Communist models of population control, it has become more severe. Certainly the history of the Saddam regime is the modern example of Hamady’s observation. The writings of Kenan Makiya on Iraq exemplify the reality between power and fear that Lee Smith captured in observing, “that violence is central to the political society and culture of the Arabic-speaking Middle East…” .
When working with the Arab military absolute authority must be maintained, and expected, with no allowance for doubt or ambivalence. The instructor is always right. He brooks no challenges. If he does not know the answer to a question he does not admit it. Subordinates do not push their superiors for decisions. The Commander does not query his subordinates for their opinions. Nor does he delegate authority. The command system is a stovepipe. Orders flow top to bottom without challenge. Lateral communications are rare. A common weakness is that units adjoining each other do not have communication. This is all part of the “balanced conflict” system, otherwise known as divide and rule. All part of the fact that Arab armies are a two-edged sword with one edge facing the external enemy and the other facing the regime’s capitol. This is exemplified by the existence of two totally separate military ground forces in most Arab countries, such as the Saudi Arabia Land Forces (regular army) and the Saudi Arabia National Guard. They exist to balance one another.
This mentality translates down to the lowest level of the Arab military structure. Unless in the midst of combat the American adviser cannot be seen as giving any advice to his counterpart in front of the men. Generosity and hospitality are prize attributes in the Arab world but at the same time the dividing line between what may be termed “kindness” or magnanimity in Western society and “weakness” in an Arab society can be narrow. American advisers are well advised not to interfere when observing “ill treatment” of enlisted personnel. The Arab officer will be outraged and the enlisted soldier will be bewildered instead of grateful.
Saddam and his coterie of followers saw the gesture of magnanimity by the US commanders at the 1991 surrender of the Iraqi armed forces, allowing the Iraqis to continue flying helicopters in no fly zones, as weakness. Similarly, Gulf allies, saw the lack of an American strong response to the Iranian humiliation of American sailors as a manifest weakness of the American military and political leadership.
The power factor also transmits into a reluctance to delegate authority. Seldom do commanders trust their subordinates, especially non -commissioned officers who are generally not well-trained or respected (but often feared) by enlisted men. Officers in charge of supply depots are reluctant to let go of items needed by units. Having these supplies in their possession gives them power to dispense in a way that benefits their own interests, while giving them away diminishes their power. This results in units having to buy parts for equipment on the commercial market while their depots are bulging with spare parts. In short Arab military officers do not delegate authority nor will they accept more responsibility.
Ascribed Status
Arab officers’ status and reputation are usually based on the reputation of his family status, not his individual achievement. One of the most heard phrases in Arab society is “he/she comes from a good family.” It trumps individual achievement and deeply affects Arab conventional military operations. What creates a noble or “good family” is a complicated formula, not necessarily dependent on wealth, but an all important one.
Nothing can be more illustrative of the family factor than the way the Saddamist Ba’ath apparatus used the family institution as an instrument of regime power. Family sectarian and social affiliation determined benefits and punishments. At one point Saddam decreed that all people include their tribal affiliation with their family name. Since many urban Iraqis had long ago stopped using their tribal name there was a scramble to even buy a tribal affiliation from “noble tribes.” A factor that accentuates the importance of family status is the lack of class mobility. Unlike American culture wherein one can move from one class to another based on money, the Arab class system does not allow this, except over a long period of time. Exceptions to this are the ruthless military dictators like Saddam and Kaddafi who seized power through charisma, extreme ruthlessness, and military support with a political environment of fortuitous circumstances.
Self Reliance vs. Dependence
An American character attribute, which we extol perhaps more than deserved, is one of individualism. That we are captains of our ship, the master of our own fates epitomizes this belief. In Arab society this is considered an aberration. While the old Bedouin culture manifested individualism , in the modern era, Arabs know they are dependent on family, associates, and their ability to secure intermediaries, in a system pervasive in the Arab world called wasta. It results in a sort of collectivism that inhibits initiative and a reluctance to do anything without clear authority preferably written. It is encapsulated by the saying that the nail that stands up gets hammered down. In fact becoming identified as a hard charging, independent officer with a degree of baraka (loosely meant as lucky, appeal, personal magnetism) can be a real danger for an ambitious officer. In the always-suspicious political environment of the Arab world, this ambitious officer will be identified by the regime as a future danger and removed. The high – ranking Arab officer is often there by virtue of their family connections, sectarian and political affiliations, not necessarily competence.
Arab society has long been identified as marked by shifting alliances and loyalties. This is both an element of a trait of survival in an area where being on the wrong side of a political issue can spell death and disaster. Often we do not understand that, as in Vietnam where U.S. troops controlled areas during the day but passed control to the Viet Cong at night, those who cooperated with us too fervently could expect retribution at night. So it was, and is, in Iraq and throughout the Middle East. The tribes of Iraq were depicted as “men of all seasons” as they shifted easily and effortlessly from anti Coalition to supporters. From the time of the Prophet Muhammad, the changing of loyalties was frequent and expected. Hafez Assad, former president of Syria has been quoted as saying that as he shakes hands with an ally today he views him as tomorrow’s enemy, This sort of sophisticated thinking escapes the American mind-set. American naïveté explains the venomous American media attack on Ahmad Chalabi’s seemingly chameleon-like conduct prior to and after the invasion of Iraq.
Order and Chaos.
One of the mistakes we so often made is the observation that the seemingly chaotic way of life of the Arabs and their military leadership is indicative of Arab society. In fact, despite the appearances of disorder, Arab society and the military establishment, which reflects it, is a very orderly and in many ways rigid society. Everyone has a place and knows it. Everyone knows where he stands in the society pecking order and accepts it. For example the meetings with Arab officers tend to be marked by confusion and a lack of purpose. The commander will be answering his phone, talking to his family, greeting officers as they come in and out if his office, soldiers serving tea and coffee. Between the serving of tea and coffee there will be side discussions, among the officers and guests. The monochromatic American officer with his stated purpose is likely to become very frustrated as the meetings seem to be simply a social gathering, but the truth is that the Arab officer is a product of a polychromatic society and business is always mixed with the social. At some point they will get to the subject at hand, but not always.
In the streets of old parts of Arab cities with their teeming populations, going in all directions, car horns, vendors shouting, seemingly it is the very definition of a chaotic society. But it is a deceiving picture. People know where you are from by your dress, your dialect, your mannerism, and if you are from outside the neighborhood you may be stopped by the police and asked your identity card and what business you have in this neighborhood. Arabs, masters of lingual abilities, can quickly identify the region, even city the outsider comes from. The idea of personal anonymity among the people of American cities is virtually unknown in the Arab world.
The major point here is not to quickly size up a situation as being out of control or the Arab personality being totally disorganized. Often the Arab military operation or event can be likened to a mystery play in which all the pieces, confusing, and contradictory come together in the final scene.
Charismatic vs. Institutional leadership.
There has never been a question that the Arab soldier can be as brave, intelligent, and effective as a soldier from any country. In fact, being inured to privation and hardship, gives him an advantage over Western soldiers in that respect. The ordinary soldier does not expect much. What he has generally lacked is leadership. It is often either toxic or missing altogether. Among the many issues related to military leadership is the problem of the predilection of the Arabs to glorify charismatic leadership to the detriment of producing leadership institutionally created. A charismatic leader tends to create great expectations among his troops and fellow officers. His presence and orders are always required. He is venerated as a leader who knows all and can solve any problem. The effectiveness of the unit depends on his continued command. Should he become a casualty in combat, or be removed by the regime, unit effectiveness plummets. The impact on the charismatic leader is equally dangerous in that with the omnipresent coterie of followers and minions he begins to believe in his own infallibility and acts accordingly. Of course as previously mentioned, should the charismatic leader come to the attention of the regime too often, he will be removed.
The Split Personality
The Iraqi historian and social scientist, Ali al Wardi wrote extensively on the split personality of Iraqis. I have found that his description and consequences of this trait extend across the Arab World. It is a clash of the nomadic lifestyle and that of the townsman. Al Wardi calls it dualism. He saw the history as one of the Bedouin gradually overcoming the townsmen and imposing their thinking on society. The townspeople became the ruled and the Bedouins the rulers. From the Bedouin culture comes love of power, courage, individualism, love of fighting, and the mentality of a warrior. The townspeople manifest the traits of the hydraulic society, patience, submission to authority, hard work, and “grief.” Al Wardi opined that these clashes continue to the present day. My observations certainly support that.
The result of this clash of cultures is that Iraqis and other Arabs who have experienced the same phenomena in history (which includes the vast majority) have two personalities that may emerge at any time in any individual. Thus the Arab officer, who is brutal in treatment of his men, becomes meek and submissive in the face of greater power. As al Wardi wrote,
“Iraqis call for certain principles that they can never carry out. They call for goals they can never carry out. That is why they encourage their leaders to do miracles but when the time comes (for them to assist) they turn their backs, giving excuses and blaming bad luck.”
So the Arab officer will be a personality of contradictions. Love of poetry and sad songs, compassion at times, but at others, brutality and indifference to human life. At times, he may be extremely individualistic but at others unable to do anything without approval from his boss. He may volatile at times over relatively insignificant matters and immobile and stoic when the world is falling down around him. He will never accept responsibility for failure, not just out of pride but because to do so may put him in jeopardy. When things go wrong, he will manifest a rather disagreeable habit of blaming equipment or other people. So the American counterpart has to be aware and prepared for these swings in personality.
Multiple Identity
It is no surprise that Bernard Lewis identifies this trait in his book, The Multiple Identities of the Middle East. Everywhere in the world, people may carry different identities, nationality, race , religion etc.
In the Arab world it takes on severe manifestations in that individuals may assume different identities depending on the circumstances and the trends in the world around him. One day he nay be an Arab, next day an Iraqi nationalist, then later, a Muslim, and finally a Shi’a or Sunni. Religion is the primary identity, but often-secular ambitions or tools of achieving power will trump religious affiliation. On a tactical basis Islamists and Ba’athists have no problem operating against a common enemy, or as a result of perceived threats from the outside world. As against the British and Americans they are all Iraqis, against the Islamic State they are Iraqis, or more likely Shi’a. But fundamentally the problem is as Lewis wrote,
The modern Westerner has great difficulty in understanding a culture in which not nationality, nor citizenship, nor descent, but religion, or more precisely membership of a religious community, is the ultimate determinant of identity.
That is why Catholic Christians of the Arab world reject the idea they are Arabs or the Shi’a have always rejected the concept of Arab nationalism because they have always seen it as a Sunni movement.

Racism is the elephant in the room. It is a buried subject in the Arab world and any hint of racism is hotly denied by Arab intellectuals and their Western apologists. It is true that color consciousness as evidenced in the Western world is not present in the Arab world, but it is seen in family origins. A man is not low class because he is of a certain color but because his origins are that of a lower class society, the slaves of the earlier Islamic civilization. I have found Arabs to be very “racist” in many respects. Recent historical examples abound. The first president of Egypt after the revolution, Mohammed Naguib is one example. The ability of the “Free Officers” to remove Naguib so easily was partially due to the fact he had a Sudanese mother. I traveled in the Arab world in 1995 with a black American officer. His observations were that the Egyptian prejudice against Africans runs very deep. It is also manifest in Iraq in which the Zanj revolt, a revolt of Black slaves in 869 A.D. against the Abbasid empire, was one of the bloodiest in Middle Eastern history.
Today, particularly among middle and upper class Iraqis, their condescension toward those recognized as of African descent is palpable. The best source for the history of the race question in the Middle East is again Bernard Lewis. In exploring the works of the early Islamic writers and philosophers it is clear that Arab history is replete with embedded racism toward Africans, with the exception of Ethiopians. A point Americans should be aware of in the interaction with Arabs. A very forthright (and rare) article in an Egyptian newspaper some years ago was headlined, ”Obama could never be elected in Egypt.” Once in awhile this trait is discussed but usually buried. While traditional Arab hospitality and subtlety may disguise this factor, it is very much an attribute in Arab military culture.
Al Wardi has quite a bit to say about the place of women in Arab society and how it has contributed to the “dualism” of the Iraqis. This is true throughout the Arab world. As he wrote, men and women live their lives in separate spheres, the women spending their time at home, and the men outside at work or in the cafes. Meanwhile the children grow up in the streets. It is indisputable from personal observations, that the restrictions on women have increased greatly, as it has on all segments of society.. There are a number of individuals who by strength of character have bucked these trends, but the increasing influence of traditional and conservative Islam has resulted in a more repressive environment in most Islamic countries. The U.S. and Western world has chosen to unilaterally ignore this trend, sending female diplomats and soldiers to the region but should, at least, be aware that the culture has not changed.
Ostentation and Appearances
One of the traits American officers will encounter, and be confused and misled by, is their theatrical talent, a sort of thespian characteristic that carries over into the military sphere. It manifests itself in several ways. The first one is an ability to put on an impressive “dog and pony” show for VIPs that can be very convincing and misleading as to the combat effectiveness of the unit. They are excellent at choreographing an event, at times, disregarding safety features that would be required for a Western army demonstration of the same type of scenario. This absence of safety cautions gives it a more impressive capability. I watched many demonstrations presented by the Egyptian counter-terrorism units, 999 and 777. They were excellent soldiers, well conditioned and enthusiastic. The visiting American VIP were quite impressed. So was I. But in 1978, when the 777 unit attempted to free hostages from an aircraft parked at the Larnaca airport in Cyprus, it was a disaster. A number of the Egyptians were killed, not by the hijackers, but rather the Cypriot forces, who did not know for sure what was going on. All too often, bravado replaces planning and prudent caution.
The second trait that has military significance is the proclivity for ostentation and a sort of oriental opulence. One will encounter Arab officers in classy uniforms with a myriad of badges and medals, and offices over-furnished, often with refrigerators or other appliances that do not work. A well-appointed office and appearance is the mark of a man of substance. Personal appearance in terms of dress and deportment is critical. Not only do they try to be as well dressed as possible but expect guests coming to their office be well dressed as well.
Concern for Ordinary Soldiers
The American and Western concept is that officers have privileges, but must share the hardships of the soldier. This is not prevalent in the Arab world.
Frequently the officer will be in his office while his troops are in the field training (or a facsimile of it.) He will not be uncomfortable leading from the rear. Manuel labor is very distasteful to Arab officers and getting their hands dirty is considered an affront to their station in life. Since there is not a functioning Non Commissioned Officer Corps in most Arab armies, the checking of equipment is not routinely accomplished. It is not so remarkable that General Liman Von Sanders , the German commander of Turkish troops in WWI was appalled at the indifference and callousness of Turkish officers toward their men. The Egyptian officers were content to get in their cars and drive to Cairo on Thursday leaving their men in rudimentary fortifications and no way to get home for the weekend. The Iraqi officers were brutal in dealing their men, one of the primary reasons the Iraqi Army collapse during the American assault and the ISIS attack on Mosul.
Under the Spell of the Language
Raphael Patai used this heading to discuss a major problem when the Western iceberg collides with the Arab. Arabic is described by many Arabs (and Westerners) as the most expressive language in the world, and the language of creation, as many devout Muslims believe…but it is also a curse. In the Sapir -Whorf concept people think in their language. Certainly I have found that to be true using my street Arabic. Arabic not only has many dialects, but also very different levels of learning and use. While this has created problems for Westerners trying to learn Arabic, and Arabs as well, this is not the major issue. It is such a rich language that the indulgence in it has created a fantasy world.

As Ali Al Wardi described it,
“As Iraqis, we use two languages, so we actually use two kind of thinking. In our daily life we speak slang but whenever we are in a middle of a big celebration, we shift to classical Arabic and the same goes for writing an article or a letter. By doing so, we are adopting two characters and thinking according to two different styles. Today, we listen to hundreds of speeches and read hundreds of articles filled with poetic rhymes and grammatical decoration, nevertheless those speeches and writings fail to touch the essence of our agonies and sufferings. What mostly concerns the speaker is to pick up unique synonyms instead of giving a brief but useful description to what he is tackling. Some listeners judge the speaker according to his grammar. They might underestimate him just because he did not use powerful words. ”
The result of this is obfuscation, exaggeration, repetition, and rhetoricism, with balagha as a sort of definition for eloquence. It permeates society and particularly the military. Eloquence frequently overwhelms clarity and coherence. Sometimes intentions are substituted for action. It is not always easy to know the difference and gentle probing may be called for. The detrimental effects of this cultural trait have plagued recent Arab military history. As Major General R. Dare Wilson, commander of the 6th Airborne Division, conducting operations in Palestine wrote,
The habit of falsification and exaggeration, which was practiced to such an extent by the Arabs, rarely affected the British troops on way of the other.: when it did the effect could be either amusing or exasperating.”
The disastrous 1967 war feature a dreary rendition of exaggerations, dissimulation, rodomontade. General Amin Tantawi, a company commander in the 4th division wrote,
“Nasser’s Speeches gave me confidence that the day of liberation had arrived and that we would attack first and destroy Israel in a matter of hours.”
In the 73 war it was the bellicosity and “amazing disingenuousness” of President Sadat toward the threat posed by General; Sharon’s crossing of the canal that led to a reversal of Egypt’s political fortunes . The Saddamist Iraqi command structure was an epitome of lies, wishful thinking, exaggerations, and manipulation of information,
Honor and Self Respect
This is a much discussed and mostly misunderstood aspect of Arab society. Everywhere one hears the words (sharaf) honor, the honor of the Arab nations, the honor of the Egyptian people, the honor of the Iraqi Army etc. In essence it is about self- respect. Arab society and the individual has an exaggerated sense of self-respect. It denies introspection and self – criticism and therefore hinders improvement in military proficiency. The cultural emphasis of avoiding shame takes many forms and extends to mistakes, however circumstantial they may have been. The problem goes very deeply and is not conducive to immediate fixes. Refusing to take responsibility but also refusing to delegate it poses particulate problems. One U.S. officer told me that his Saudi counterpart wanted him to rate the subordinate officers. Or the instance when the Saudi Commander in the first Gulf war tried to get General Schwarzkopf to take responsibility for the Saudi withdrawal from Khafji and allow the Iraqis to enter unopposed.
What is to be done? The longer-term solution to the tribulations of Arab Muslim civilization must be found in the inner resources and recuperative powers of Islam itself. But here we encounter another problem: the passive, rigid, uncreative way in which Islamic culture has been transmitted since the Islamic Middle Ages. 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.
In typical fashion, Field Marshal Hakim Amer, who was primarily responsible for the Egyptian 1967 debacle, tried to pin it on his old friend, President Abdul Nasser, quietly disseminating the idea that he was psychologically disturbed, and a “political virtuoso” who led Egypt into war to assuage his own ambitions.
The Saddam regime, not surprisingly, learned very little from its defeat (which in fact Saddam turned deftly into a “victory”) in the 1990 war. In its lessons learned they only commented on enemy weaknesses and Iraqi strengths, obviously leaving out the most important part…Iraqi weaknesses. At all levels one will see that the danger of making a mistake or a perceived political gaffe creates inertia of action, fearing the loss of respect from his peers, or more importantly, his superiors.
Probably no quotation has been used so often and yet ignored as the admonition of Lawrence of Arabia, “better the Arabs do it tolerably than you do it perfectly.” The essentially American proclivity to want visible results quickly, and inability to stand back and watch Arab trainees do things haphazardly, always presents a cultural problem. For American trainers in the Arab world, their superiors in the U.S. who do not understand that trainers do not lead but only try to influence, make this issue more difficult. This often leads to inflated reports of progress being made when it was marginal at best.
An example of over-estimating American influence on the ground was the Downing Report covering the Khobar Towers bombing attack. While the overall conclusions depicting lack chain of command attention to the terrorist threat may have been correct, a distinct impression was that the U.S. commanders on the ground had the power to do pretty much whatever they wanted without Saudi approval. The same ideas seemed to be prevalent in the media as well. The Western media viewed the collapse of the Iraqi army in Mosul as a failure of our training. There were far more factors involved, primarily the old Arab regime custom of placing regime loyalty far above competence.
The travails of the Arab world has increased over the years, many times since Lawrence of Arabia rode with the tribes, yet his words are more true than ever.
They (the Arabs) think for the moment and endeavor to slip through life without turning corners or climbing hills. In part it is a mental and moral fatigue, a race trained out: and so to avoid difficulties they have to jettison so much of what we think honourable and brave: and yet without in any way sharing their point of view, I think I can understand it enough to look at myself and other foreigners from their direction, and without condemning it. I know I’m a stranger to them and always will be: but I cannot believe them worse, any more than I could change their way…”


By Norvell B. DeAtkine to be presented at 2016 ASMEA conference.
Written in August 2016 Supply NC 28462




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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