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.

The educational methods of a given society need not influence military training, however. For example, American basic training, especially in the Army and Marine Corps, differs markedly from that of the way the rest of American society is educated. Again, American military analysts have long noted that Latin American navies, for example, operate only “by the book,” and show little initiative and imagination; is Latin American educational culture identical, or even similar, to the manner in which Arab children are educated? Though he addresses non-Arab military performance with respect to politicization and economic development, he does not do so when discussing culture. The presumption is that Arab culture and its impact of the military is unique, but Pollack adduces no supporting evidence in that regard.

To further underpin his case, Pollack looks at the linkage between Arab culture and the experiences of civilian organizations in the Arab world, both governmental and non-governmental. Basing himself on numerous studies of Arab organizational behavior, Pollack demonstrates that Arab state bureaucracies exhibit the same culturally-driven behaviors as their military counterparts. The same applies to behaviors in factories, universities, corporations and small businesses. And, as with the military, there is a variance between the impact of culture and other factors on lower levels of bureaucracy (or businesses, or universities) and upper managerial levels.

Pollack’s overall thesis certainly explains Arab military performance in the twentieth century. What is less evident is whether the various factors he identifies as the causes of Arab military failures can be weighted in the same way in the present or the future as they were in the past. He may speak of culture and military behavior appearing to be “perfectly correlated,” but runs no regressions, and never derives any coefficient of correlation, much less a perfect one.

His assertion that culture is the dominating factor that explains Arab military failures may or may not still be true, but Pollack’s sources tend to be dated and therefore of questionable value in explaining current or future battlefield performance. Indeed, more than in any other section of his book, Pollack’s discussion of Arab culture, which he himself acknowledges can change over time, fundamentally rests on findings of studies that appeared decades ago.

For example, his studies of Egyptian and Jordanian village life, by Hamed Ammar and Abdullah Lutfiyya respectively, appeared thirty-six and fifty-three years ago. His quote from the Syrian poet Mounah Khouri appears in a decades-old volume. The RAND study by Anthony Pascal that found that Arab students cheat more than their American counterparts was published in 1980. Indeed, a surprisingly large number of Pollack’s citations both in his discussion of Arab culture, and to only a somewhat lesser extent throughout his book, are drawn from work that can truly be said was published in a very different era.

Surely, there may have been some changes in Arab culture and behavior over the past several decades. Pollack does not address any such changes, however. Yet if culture is the primary driving force behind the failure of Arab militaries to dominate the battlefield, any changes in cultural behavior should have been reflected in Arab military performance, and if not, then perhaps culture is not as important a factor as Pollack would have one believe. Moreover, if there have been no changes in Arab culture since the bulk of his sources were published, that too is an important finding that Pollack should have addressed.

Pollack does devote two chapters to what are in effect exceptions that he trusts will prove the rule. He first examines the performance of state armed forces and then turns to those of non-state actors. The first of his categories includes the Jordanian Arab Legion’s operations in the 1948 Israeli War of Independence; Syrian commando operations in Lebanon in 1982; Egypt’s initial successes in the 1973 Yom Kippur War; and Iraq’s Republican Guard actions against Iran between 1986 and 1990. In all four cases, he argues that the armed forces were able to mitigate the normal effects of culture. The Arab Legion developed its own British-derived subculture. The Syrian commandos and the Republican Guard “benefited from the advantages of eliteness.” The Egyptian forces succeeded as long as they took decisionmaking out of the hands of their tactical commanders. Nevertheless, as his previous discussion already demonstrated, at the end of the day, none of these circumstances led to significantly different results on the battlefield.

Pollack then turns to Hezbollah’s performance in its various bouts with Israel culminating in the 2006 conflict, and the initial successes of ISIS in both Iraq and Syria. He first argues, without producing any direct evidence, that for every successful non-state Arab actor there have been “a dozen” that failed. He then goes on to explain Hezbollah’s success in terms of religious zeal and ideology and reliance on family and clan—both of which he previously had argued undermined Arab military effectiveness. He tends to minimize the importance of Iranian support for Hezbollah, though it clearly has become a dominant motive for Israel’s ongoing strikes in Syria. And he points to Hezbollah’s elite nature as another reason for its success, though he previously asserted that “eliteness” had but a marginal effect on Arab military performance.

As for ISIS, Pollack again points to religious zeal as a major factor in its initial successes. So too, he asserts, has been the movement’s absorption of foreign fighters, its cellular organization, its conduct of operations that are best described as irregular warfare and the group loyalty and bravery that are essential elements of Arab culture. He also notes that ISIS has faced poor adversaries—the very Arab forces that have been the subject of his study.

Pollack argues that Hezbollah and ISIS, like the militaries in the four cases he had just previously described, achieved success by overcoming long-standing cultural predilections. Yet his own analysis points to the positive impact on their performance of some elements of culture, whether religious zeal, bravery or group loyalty. Since he offers no quantitative multivariate analysis, there is no way of knowing the degree to which positive cultural factors or non-cultural ones were most important in explaining the performance of these two quasi-terrorist groups.

As a historical analysis, there is much to be gleaned from Pollack’s volume, though relative to the long list of nearly fifty wars that he presents near the opening of his book, the number of conflicts he discusses and to which he returns in chapter after chapter is surprisingly small. His argument that culture is the most important of these factors lacks the quantitative support to render it decisive. One could also conclude from his discussion of the impact of various forms of politicization that it is at least as important as culture in expanding poor Arab battlefield performance, especially as it too lacks quantitative analysis. Indeed, the volume as a whole is essentially qualitative, the presence of several tables notwithstanding.


Nevertheless, Pollack convincingly outlines the various reasons for Arab military failures in the twentieth century. Moreover, few, if any, analysts have previously examined the various aspects of Arab military operations and tactics to the degree of depth that Pollack provides in this volume. To that extent, Armies of Sand belongs on the bookshelf of anyone seeking to understand why Arab militaries fared as badly as they did in the six decades after World War II.

What the book does not really offer, however, is a guide to explain current and future Arab military operations. Why are Saudi air strikes failing in Yemen, given American training and until recently, ongoing military support? Why are the Houthis successful there? What can be expected of future Hezbollah operations given the lessons its fighters have learned in Syria? Pollack does not say. Perhaps he has another book in the offing.

Dov S. Zakheim was an under secretary of defense (2001–4) and a deputy under secretary of defense (1985–87). He is vice chairman of the Center for the National Interest.

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