Kenneth Pollack’s New History of Arab Armies

February 10, 2019 Topic: Security Region: Middle East Tags: WarMilitaryArmyPoliticsCulture

Kenneth Pollack’s New History of Arab Armies

Why have Arab armies performed so poorly? Kenneth Pollack offers an answer.


Kenneth M. Pollack, Armies of Sand: The Past, Present and Future of Arab Military Effectiveness (New York: Oxford University Press, 2019). 676 pp., $34.95.

Why have Arab armies performed so poorly? Whether fighting Israelis in 1948, 1956, 1967 and 1973, Iranians in the 1980s, American coalitions in two Gulf Wars or being clobbered by the army of Chad in 1987, Arab forces have generally failed to achieve their military objectives. Kenneth Pollack, a respected veteran observer of Middle East political and military affairs, attempts to identify the underlying reasons in his compendious Armies of the Sand: The Past, Present, and Future of Arab Military Effectiveness. The result is an informative, if somewhat flawed, book.


Pollack focuses on politico-cultural factors as the greatest determinant of Arab military failures. He makes a strong historical case for Arab weakness on the battlefields of the past century. Pollack argues that

[w]ithout question, the greatest, most consistent and most persistent problem of Arab armed forces in battle since 1945 has been the poor performance of their junior officers. From war to war and country to country, Arab tactical commanders regularly failed to demonstrate initiative, flexibility, creativity, independence of thought, an understanding of combined arms integration, or an appreciation for the benefits of maneuver in battle.

Pollack later adds several other shortcomings that applied to Arab ground and air combat: “…miserable air-to-air combat skills, negligible air-to-ground capabilities, minimal weapons handling skills, and poor maintenance practices.”

The bulk of his book is dedicated to explaining why this is the case. He dismisses as myths the four primary explanations given for Arab military failures: the notion that Arab armies lack initiative because of the influence of Soviet training on their officer corps from the mid-1950s until the collapse of the Soviet Union; the politicization of Arab militaries by their despotic governments; the impact of economic underdevelopment on Arab military performance; and Arab cowardice on the battlefield.

Pollack offers a powerful case against those who would argue that it was the rigidity of the Soviet way of war that undermined Arab tactical and operational initiative. He points out that none of the five Arab armies that were defeated by the outnumbered, outgunned and poorly trained Jewish fighters in the 1948 Israeli War of Independence had been trained by the Soviet Union. The most professional of the five, the Jordanian Arab Legion, was trained by Great Britain’s John Glubb; other armies, to the extent that their soldiers were trained at all, received some variant of Western—French, British and even Ottoman warfighting doctrines. Pollack does not outline the nature of those doctrines, tactics and training; he implies, however, that these were the opposite of how the Arabs operated on the battlefield.

By the time of the Six-Day War in 1967, the Egyptians and Syrians had been receiving Soviet equipment for several years. Nevertheless, Pollack points out that the Egyptians and Syrians had not yet fully absorbed Soviet tactics and doctrine, while Jordanian operations and tactics continued to reflect those of Great Britain. In the event, the outcome of the war was the same as that of 1948, and, one might add, of the 1956 Sinai Campaign. Israel, by now fielding a far more sophisticated and modern force, decisively destroyed the Arab air forces within forty-eight hours and Egyptian, Jordanian and Syrian land forces within a few additional days. Arab forces may have been humiliated once more, but it was not the fault of the Soviets or their warfighting doctrines.

It was during the 1973 Yom Kippur War, when Egyptian forces fully adopted Soviet doctrine and tactics, that they were most successful. That the Israelis were able to surround and cut off the Egyptian Third Army inside Egypt itself was due to Israeli resourcefulness and the failure of the Egyptian High Command to go beyond the formulaic planning that underpinned the military’s initial success in surprising the Israelis, rather than to the shortcomings of Soviet doctrine.

Similarly, it was the excessive caution of the Syrian tactical commanders that undermined what had initially been the Syrian army’s successful penetration of Israeli lines on the Golan Heights. Had Syrian forces continued onward and seized the three bridges that spanned the Jordan River, they would have been in an excellent position to retain the Golan or advance beyond the so-called Green Line into Israel itself. But Syrian commanders did not attempt to seize the bridges, thereby affording the Israelis valuable time to position reinforcements that ultimately made it possible to push the Syrians back toward Damascus.

Pollack does not offer any explanation as to why the Syrians elected not to press forward and seize the bridges, other than to note that

Syria’s Soviet advisors were incredulous that the Syrian brigades would halt without taking the bridges when they were so close, they faced so little Israeli resistance, and the bridges were the key to the entire war. This was entirely contrary to the most basic tenets of Soviet doctrine.

Instead, in a footnote from an article that appeared four decades ago, Pollack quotes then-Defense Minister Mustafa Tlas, who himself voiced surprise that the commanders on the ground misjudged the situation so badly.

One would have thought that Pollack might have found a more recent evaluation of the events he describes, and perhaps not relied solely on Tlas’ word, especially as Tlas was known to be essentially a political hack and rather incompetent. Tlas could well have simply been protecting himself by assigning blame to junior officers, a not uncommon practice in the Arab world and elsewhere.

That Pollack did not cite any more recent study to explain why the Syrians acted as they did—or, more accurately, refrained from acting—reflects the fact that, as he himself acknowledges, large parts of his volume draw heavily upon both his work as a graduate student and studies that he produced decades ago. It would have been helpful if he had cited more recent analyses of the historical events he describes.

Having made a powerful case that it was not Soviet training and doctrine that compromised Arab military effectiveness, Pollack devotes an entire chapter to reiterating his position by offering a detailed discussion of North Korean and Cuban military effectiveness respectively during the Korean War and the Angolan civil war. He argues that while both militaries relied even more heavily on Soviet doctrine and tactics than Arab armies, they nevertheless performed far more capably on the battlefield. Pollack’s case may be valid, though it includes analytically unsupported assertions such as the contention that North Koreans “handled their tanks adequately” and “North Korean artillery was quite good.” Yet even had he included serious quantitative findings to support those assertions, Pollack need not have devoted so much space to North Korean and Cuban operations in a book about Arab military performance. Having already proved his point, his discussion of these non-Arab militaries is essentially tangential and distracts from his primary theme.

Pollack opens his discussion of politicization of Arab armies with a rather sweeping assertion: “I tend to believe,” he writes, “that there really is no such thing as good civil-military relations, just different versions of bad.” He appears to include civil-military relations in the West, as well as in the Arab world and elsewhere. This is unpersuasive.

Despite recent tensions, the American system of civilian control generally has worked well. As a result, civil-military relations tend to be stable. When those relations break down, it is primarily due to a set of unique circumstances, such as Truman’s firing of General Douglas MacArthur for insubordination during the Korean War, rather than a material deficiency in the system itself. Pollack’s source for his eye-opening assertion is Samuel Huntington’s 1957 classic study, The Soldier and the State, which appeared only a few years after MacArthur was fired; much has taken place and has been written, since then. Vietnam, the subject of former national security advisor and three-star general H.R. McMaster’s 1997 landmark study, Dereliction of Duty, demonstrated that the system could indeed break down, as it clearly did again during the first years of the American occupation of Iraq.

Nevertheless, in general, the American system of civilian control has functioned as it was supposed to, arguably even in the case of Vietnam, as former Assistant Secretary of State Leslie Gelb and Richard Betts, a leading expert on military affairs, wrote in their 1979 classic, The Irony of Vietnam: The System Worked. Indeed, while there is a gap, possibly a growing gap between those Western militaries that rely on volunteers rather than conscripts and the publics they defend, the system itself does function as intended, as I can personally attest on the basis of more than four decades working in and with the Department of Defense. In any event, Pollack should have buttressed his case with more recent works like those of Peter Feaver, or the plethora of volumes on the Iraq War, rather than relying on the studies that underpinned his doctoral thesis.

His views on the malign nature of civil-military relations aside, Pollack postulates that politicized armies are those “where there are major malfunctions in the relationship between the civilian and military chains of command.” He organizes what he terms “politicization” into three sub-categories: “praetorianism,” after the Roman Praetorian Guard that seated and unseated emperors; “commissarianism,” the Soviet system of embedding political overseers in the military; and “palace guardism,” the employment of the military primarily to guard and protect the regime from internal threats. Pollack argues that the characteristics of each of these sub-categories have a negative effect on military performance, notably morale, but none is a determining explanation for Arab military ineffectiveness.