Some years ago I presented to a number of classes at the Special Warfare School one of the subjects that has interested me greatly for half a century…the cultural aspect of war, specifically the Arab way of war. From my studies and observations on the ground for many years, the impact of culture on warfare is of primary importance, and one which is all too often forgotten or drowned in a morass of stereotypes and wishful thinking. A basic and excellent source of the fateful error of stereotyping our enemies and overestimating ourselves is found in the book Knowing Ones Enemies by Earnest R. May. Certainly the Americans have been prime offenders in this regard. Example: Read Andrei Martyanov, LosingMilitary Supremacy. The recent pollyanna statements by Sec Def Lloyd Austin to a reporter is the most recent example of the heads in the sand ( or elsewhere)of our military leadership. Endless repeating that we have the best army in the world does not make it so. We remain unprepared for what is known as the Eastern way of War.
To be clear the cultural impact on the martial capabilities of a nation or ethnic group have nothing do, with intelligence, courage, or genetics.
But to quote John Keegan, a foremost expert on this issue, ” culture is a prime determinant of the nature of warfare, as the history of its developments in Asia clearly demonstrates.” The Arab way of war is coincidental to the “eastern way of a way, which is fundamental in studying the tenets of warfare as presented by Sun Tsu, (The Art of War) and Miyamoto Musashi, The Books of Five Rings.
The Arab way of war can be summarized as greatly controlled by the political context, the employment of evasion, indirection, delaying tactics,, attrition, the use of standoff weapons, deception, the preference of defense over offense, and most of all – psychological warfare.
The strengths of Arab militaries can be summarized as the low soldier maintenance required, the tolerance for austere living conditions, obedience to authority, the impact of Islam and the spoken word to galvanize and motivate, their history of dug in dogged defense, and a history of ‘rising from the ashes.’
“War is a continuation of politics by other means,” thus wrote Carl Von Clausewitz. To the Arabs this is instinctive. They did not read that in a book. As Raphael Patai wrote, the Arabs are “conflict proneness,” the closer the neighbor the more prone the Arabs are to fight them. From the beginning of Arab history, with the absence of foreign enemies to fight, internecine warfare was always present. As it was put by a Yemeni noble,” They (Arabs) fight first and ask later about the cause of the fight. We fight our own relatives, the brother would fight his own brother, the son his own father…” ( Raphael Patai The Arab Mind.
The Arabs, as I have written, are far better at unconventional or irregular warfare. See https://americandiplomacy.web.unc.edu/2009/09/the-arab-as-insurgent/ and integral to that method of warfare is evasion and indirection. Gazan terrorists had limited territory from which to evade Israeli attacks but made up for it with indirect warfare, using not strategic attacks to cripple the Israeli infrastructure and defeat the military in the field, but to instill fear in the civilian population population. The lack of lateral depth was compensated for by building a military infrastructure underground – which they did very well.
While delay is applicable to the Arab conventional way of war, the irregular is not except in the sense that the Gaza officials have always worked on their internal time schedules and inevitably find reasons to step back, delay or obfuscate the process from making decisions when they are in a negative political position. As any sensible Middle East historian will tell you the Hamas/ Muslim Brotherhood in an existential war with the Jewish state and simply delay any attempts to bring any lasting peace to this war-stricken region. Hassan Al Banna, the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, the primary ideology of Hamas, wrote that, “there is no solution to the Palestinian problem except by Jihad.” Altruistic (or many not so ) Western diplomats often spend inordinate amount of time and effort trying to effect some eternal peace settlement to the Palestinian Issue. It is insolvable at present but does provides a process of interminable peace negotiations and Nobel Peace prize considerations.
The factor of attrition is paramount to Gaza strategy…. the recent rocket war was then fourth Israeli Gaza war. The Gaza Arabs in the true Eastern fashion employ the fight, peace, fight, peace strategy. Within Eastern warfare there is no place a permanent peace, only a lull. Moreover in the nature of Islamic warfare as depicted by Pakistani general S.K Malik in his famous piece, The Quranic Concept of War, correctly states that between “infidels” and Muslims, there may be armistices but no permanent peace.So the current lull is simply a period of resupply and reconstitute.
Arabs have also always preferred the standoff method of war, using arrow, javelins, and today missiles and rockets. Victor David Hanson, a preeminent scholar compares the Western “Face to Face” warfare as exemplified by the Greeks, charging into the enemy with short swords to the Eastern way of war of deception, propaganda and often mass terrorist attacks The Arab insurgency in Iraq was largely a war fought with improvised explosive devices and mines combined with long range sniping. The primary point is to wear down the enemy and induce war fatigue.
Deception is integral to the Arab way of war. The Gaza terror leadership has employed it very well. While Israeli forces claimed extensive damage to the underground infrastructure, other sources say that equally extensive system of tunnels were created for the main purpose of drawing Israeli air attacks. Certainly the Israelis did not know the extent of the rocket weaponry and their ability to get above ground , fire the rockets, and return to their burrows. ( Quickness being a main principle of Oriental warfare.) Using apartment buildings as rocket launching sites were part of the deception program…and also of course very useful for prime propaganda, depicting Israeli “war crimes,” with the assistance of the press, which is an inordinate number of cases were very favorably disposed toward Hamas.
Arab defense, usually fixed as was the Gaza defense structure, has historically been more effective than their offensive measures. Partly as a result of the lack of individual initiative, and necessary dependance on higher authority, fighting from fixed portions is culturally more adaptable to Arab culture, as opposed to fast moving offensive movements in which delegation of authority and individual initiative are prerequisites.
Arab Soldier Strengths
The Gaza fighters evidenced the strengths usually found in Arab warfare. Low soldier maintenance is a primacy one. No gyms, craft beer establishments, PX’s, cozy lodging or problems of hot meals. Particularly in warfare waged from their homes and neighborhoods., in which they launch rockets and retire for a meal at home. They, like most Arab peasants and low income people, live close to the ground. They expect very little from their government and receive even less. In fact among many Arabs the ultimate strategy is to remain anonymous and unknown by the rulers. Unlike the Arabs rocket attacks on Israel, where the dense urban and highly sophisticated infrastructure, is very vulnerable to relatively unsophisticated Arab terror attacks, The Gaza urban is distinctly third world and public utilities low grade. Also Israeli fear of world wide condemnation of their attacks on a distinctly third world infrastructure. In short, unlike the Israelis , the Gaza people have much less to lose than the Israelis.
One other aspect of Arab culture works to their benefit their in those war of attrition and that is then clan, tribal c societal structure. It would appear that the Hamas bosses are not overly concerned about the civilian casualties…… and basically they are not….unless the casualties are members of their clan.
With a totally authoritarian, close to totalitarian government, the upper class clans have little to fear from civilian insurrection. The martyrs are glorified , always important feature of the Arab mentality, and become part of the propaganda effort,
Finally as David Holden of the Sunday Times, observed some years ago, the Arabs have an uncanny ability to rise from the ashes, just when one thinks they are vanquishes they arise again. Of course, as he also observed, when the Arabs are on the pinnacle of success, they tend to fall apart.
Tex, excellent article! You have stated these viewpoints for many years now and hopefully people can appreciate how accurate you have been and use that to make changes in strategy of warfare in the ME
Thanks Tony. I appreciate your comment