Why Arab Armies lose Wars?

With US forces poised to invade Iraq, most of us are hoping against hope
that they will face stiff resistance and pay for the crime of invading a
sovereign nation despite the fact that it is led by a dictator like Saddam
Hussain. In 1990 we had hoped and prayed for the same. In 1973, and earlier
in 1967, 1956, and of course 1948, people around the world had hoped for an
Arab victory, but our hopes were dashed. Massive armies, hundreds of
thousands of soldiers, thousands of tanks, scores of aircraft, yet the Arab
Armies stood defeated. The question is Why?

Why is it that Hizbollah, a rag tag group of volunteer guerillas in South
Lebanon managed to defeat the Israelis, but the so-called Elite Republican
Guard crumbled without a fight? Is it possible that valour and courage have
little value in modern warfare, and that we as a people simply don’t have
the management skills to conduct large scale deployment of troops?

If that is true, are we on the precipice of another humiliating defeat?

Here is a report from 1999 that some of you may find offensive and
insulting. However, it is an analysis of why Arab Armies fail so miserably
when individually Arab soldiers display unmatched courage and fighting

The author, a retired U.S. Army colonel, draws upon many years of firsthand
observation of Arab armies in training to reach conclusions about the ways
in which they go into combat. His findings derive from personal experience
with Arab military establishments in the capacity of U.S. military attaché
and security assistance officer, observer officer with the British-officered
Trucial Oman Scouts (the security force in the emirates prior to the
establishment of the UAE), as well as some thirty years of study of the
Middle East.

In this report, Col. Norvell Tex de Atkine observes that the fault is not
with the fighting spirit of the Arab soldier, but with the senior officer
corps. He writes: “A regular Jordanian army infantry company, for example is
man-for-man as good as a comparable Israeli company; at battalion level,
however, the coordination required for combined arms operations, with
artillery, air, and logistics support, is simply absent.”

Read and reflect.

Tarek Fatah

December 1999

Why Arabs lose Wars?
Fighting as you train, and the impact of culture on Arab military

By Norvell Tex de Atkine
Middle East Quarterly, Vol. 6, No. 2.
Re-produced in “American Diplomacy”



ARABIC-SPEAKING ARMIES have been generally ineffective in the modern era.
Egyptian regular forces did poorly against Yemeni irregulars in the 1960s.
Syrians could only impose their will in Lebanon during the mid-1970s by the
use of overwhelming weaponry and numbers. Iraqis showed ineptness against an
Iranian military ripped apart by revolutionary turmoil in the 1980s and
could not win a three-decades-long war against the Kurds. The Arab military
performance on both sides of the 1990 Kuwait war was mediocre. And the Arabs
have done poorly in nearly all the military confrontations with Israel. Why
this unimpressive record? There are many factors – economic, ideological,
technical – but perhaps the most important has to do with culture and
certain societal attributes which inhibit Arabs from producing an effective
military force.

False starts

Including culture in strategic assessments has a poor legacy, for it has
often been spun from an ugly brew of ignorance, wishful thinking, and
mythology. Thus, the U.S. Army in the 1930s evaluated the Japanese national
character as lacking originality and drew the unwarranted conclusion that
that country would be permanently disadvantaged in technology. Hitler
dismissed the United States as a mongrel society and consequently
underestimated the impact of America’s entry into the war. American
strategists assumed that the pain threshold of the North Vietnamese
approximated our own and that the air bombardment of the North would bring
it to its knees. Three days of aerial attacks were thought to be all the
Serbs could withstand; in fact, seventy-eight days were needed.
As these examples suggest, when culture is considered in calculating the
relative strengths and weaknesses of opposing forces, it tends to lead to
wild distortions, especially when it is a matter of understanding why states
unprepared for war enter into combat flushed with confidence. The temptation
is to impute cultural attributes to the enemy state that negate its superior
numbers or weaponry. Or the opposite: to view the potential enemy through
the prism of one’s own cultural norms.

It is particularly dangerous to make facile assumptions about abilities in
warfare based on past performance, for societies evolve and so does the
military subculture with it. The dismal French performance in the 1870
Franco-Prussian war led the German high command to an overly optimistic
assessment prior to World War I. Then tenacity and courage of French
soldiers in World War I lead everyone from Winston Churchill to the German
high command vastly to overestimate the French army’s fighting abilities.
Israeli generals underestimated the Egyptian army of 1973 based on Egypt’s
hapless performance in the 1967 war.

Culture is difficult to pin down. It is not synonymous with an individual’s
race nor ethnic identity. The history of warfare makes a mockery of attempts
to assign rigid cultural attributes to individuals – as the military
histories of the Ottoman and Roman empires illustrate. In both cases it was
training, discipline, esprit, and élan which made the difference, not the
individual soldiers’ origin. The highly disciplined and effective Roman
legions, for example, recruited from throughout the Roman Empire, and the
elite Ottoman Janissaries (slave soldiers) were Christians forcibly
recruited as boys from the Balkans.

The role of culture

These problems notwithstanding, culture does need to be taken into account.
Indeed, awareness of prior mistakes should make it possible to assess the
role of cultural factors in warfare. John Keegan, the eminent historian of
warfare, argues that culture is a prime determinant of the nature of
warfare. In contrast to the usual manner of European warfare, which he terms
“face to face,” Keegan depicts the early Arab armies in the Islamic era as
masters of evasion, delay, and indirection. Examining Arab warfare in this
century leads to the conclusion that the Arabs remain more successful in
insurgent, or political, warfare – what T. E. Lawrence termed “winning wars
without battles.” Even the much-lauded Egyptian crossing of the Suez in 1973
at its core entailed a masterful deception plan. It may well be that these
seemingly permanent attributes result from a culture that engenders
subtlety, indirection, and dissimulation in personal relationships.

Along these lines, Kenneth Pollock concludes his exhaustive study of Arab
military effectiveness by noting that “certain patterns of behavior fostered
by the dominant Arab culture were the most important factors contributing to
the limited military effectiveness of Arab armies and air forces from 1945
to 1991.” These attributes included over-centralization, discouraging
initiative, lack of flexibility, manipulation of information, and the
discouragement of leadership at the junior officer level. The barrage of
criticism leveled at Samuel Huntington’s notion of a “clash of
civilizations” in no way lessens the vital point he made – that however
much the grouping of peoples by religion and culture rather than political
or economic divisions offends academics who propound a world defined by
class, race, and gender, it is a reality, one not diminished by modern

But how does one integrate the study of culture into military training? At
present, it has hardly any role. Paul M. Belbutowski, a scholar and former
member of the U.S. Delta Force, succinctly stated a deficiency in our own
military education system: “Culture, comprised of all that is vague and
intangible, is not generally integrated into strategic planning except at
the most superficial level.” And yet it is precisely “all that is vague and
intangible” that defines low-intensity conflicts. The Vietnamese communists
did not fight the war the United States had trained for, nor did the
Chechens and Afghans fight the war the Russians prepared for. This entails
far more than simply retooling weaponry and retraining soldiers. It requires
an understanding of the cultural mythology, history, attitude toward time,
etc.; and it demands a more substantial investment in time and money than a
bureaucratic organization is likely to authorize.
Mindful of walking through a minefield of past errors and present cultural
sensibilities, I offer some assessments of the role of culture in the
military training of Arabic-speaking officers. I confine myself principally
to training for two reasons:

. First, I observed much training but only one combat campaign (the
Jordanian Army against the Palestine Liberation Organization in 1970).

. Secondly, armies fight as they train. Troops are conditioned by peacetime
habits, policies, and procedures; they do not undergo a sudden metamorphosis
that transforms civilians in uniform into warriors. General George Patton
was fond of relating the story about Julius Caesar, who “in the winter time.
. . so trained his legions in all that became soldiers and so habituated
them to the proper performance of their duties, that when in the spring he
committed them to battle against the Gauls, it was not necessary to give
them orders, for they knew what to do and how to do it.”

Information as power

In every society information is a means of making a living or wielding
power, but Arabs husband information and hold it especially tightly. U.S.
trainers have often been surprised over the years by the fact that
information provided to key personnel does not get much further than them.
Having learned to perform some complicated procedure, an Arab technician
knows that he is invaluable so long as he is the only one in a unit to have
that knowledge; once he dispenses it to others he no longer is the only font
of knowledge and his power dissipates. This explains the commonplace
hoarding of manuals, books, training pamphlets, and other training or
logistics literature.

On one occasion, an American mobile training team working with armor in
Egypt at long last received the operators’ manuals that had laboriously been
translated into Arabic. The American trainers took the newly minted manuals
straight to the tank park and distributed them to the tank crews. Right
behind them, the company commander, a graduate of the armor school at Fort
Knox and specialized courses at the Aberdeen Proving Grounds ordnance
school, promptly collected the manuals from those crews. Questioned why he
did this, the commander said that there was no point in giving them to the
drivers because enlisted men could not read. In point of fact, he did not
want enlisted men to have an independent source of knowledge. Being the only
person who could explain the fire control instrumentation or bore sight
artillery weapons brought prestige and attention.

In military terms this means that very little cross-training is accomplished
and that, for instance in a tank crew, the gunners, loaders and drivers
might be proficient in their jobs but are not prepared to fill in should one
become a casualty. Not understanding one another’s jobs also inhibits a
smoothly functioning crew. At a higher level it means that there is no depth
in technical proficiency.

Education Problems

Training tends to be unimaginative, cut and dried, and not challenging.
Because the Arab educational system is predicated on rote memorization,
officers have a phenomenal ability to commit vast amounts of knowledge to
memory. The learning system tends to consist of on-high lectures, with
students taking voluminous notes and being examined on what they were told.
(It also has interesting implications for a foreign instructor, whose
credibility, for example, is diminished if he must resort to a book.) The
emphasis on memorization has a price, and that is in diminished ability to
reason or engage in analysis based upon general principles. Thinking outside
the box is not encouraged; doing so in public can damage a career.
Instructors are not challenged and neither, in the end, are students.

Head-to-head competition among individuals is generally avoided, at least
openly, for it means that someone wins and someone else loses, with the
loser humiliated. This taboo has particular import when a class contains
mixed ranks. Education is in good part sought as a matter of personal
prestige, so Arabs in U.S. military schools take pains to ensure that the
ranking member, according to military position or social class, scores the
highest marks in the class. Often this leads to “sharing answers” in class –
often in a rather overt manner or in junior officers concealing scores
higher than those of their superiors.

American military instructors dealing with Middle Eastern students learn to
ensure that, before directing any question to a student in a classroom
situation, particularly if he is an officer, the student does possess the
correct answer. If this is not assured, the officer may feel he has been
deliberately set up for public humiliation. In the often-paranoid
environment of Arab political culture, he may then become an enemy of the
instructor, and his classmates will become apprehensive about their also
being singled out for humiliation – and learning becomes impossible.

Officers vs. soldiers

Arab junior officers are well trained on the technical aspects of their
weapons and tactical know-how, but not in leadership, a subject given little
attention. For example, as General Sa`d ash-Shazli, the Egyptian chief of
staff, noted in his assessment of the army he inherited prior to the 1973
war, they were not trained to seize the initiative or volunteer original
concepts or new ideas. Indeed, leadership may be the greatest weakness of
Arab training systems. This problem results from two main factors: a highly
accentuated class system bordering on a caste system, and lack of a
non-commissioned-officer development program.

Most Arab armies treat enlisted soldiers like sub-humans. When the winds in
Egypt one day carried biting sand particles from the desert during a
demonstration for visiting U.S. dignitaries, I watched as a contingent of
soldiers marched in and formed a single rank to shield the Americans;
Egyptian soldiers, in other words, are used on occasion as nothing more than
a windbreak. The idea of taking care of one’s men is found only among the
most elite units in the Egyptian military. On a typical weekend, officers in
units stationed outside Cairo will get in their cars and drive off to their
homes, leaving the enlisted men to fend for themselves by trekking across
the desert to a highway and flag down busses or trucks to get to the Cairo
rail system. Garrison cantonments have no amenities for soldiers. The same
situation, in various degrees, exists elsewhere in the Arabic-speaking
countries – less so in Jordan, even more so in Iraq and Syria. The young
draftees who make up the vast bulk of the Egyptian army hate military
service for good reason and will do almost anything, including
self-mutilation, to avoid it. In Syria the wealthy buy exemptions or,
failing that, are assigned to noncombatant organizations. As a young Syrian
told me, his musical skills came from his assignment to a Syrian army band
where he learned to play an instrument. In general, the militaries of the
Fertile Crescent enforce discipline by fear; in countries where a tribal
system still is in force, such as Saudi Arabia, the innate egalitarianism of
the society mitigates against fear as the prime mover, so a general lack of
discipline pervades.

The social and professional gap between officers and enlisted men is present
in all armies, but in the United States and other Western forces, the
non-commissioned officer (NCO) corps bridges it. Indeed, a professional NCO
corps has been critical for the American military to work at its best; as
the primary trainers in a professional army, NCOs are critical to training
programs and to the enlisted men’s sense of unit esprit. Most of the Arab
world either has no NCO corps or it is non-functional, severely handicapping
the military’s effectiveness. With some exceptions, NCOs are considered in
the same low category as enlisted men and so do not serve as a bridge
between enlisted men and officers. Officers instruct but the wide social gap
between enlisted man and officer tends to make the learning process
perfunctory, formalized, and ineffective. The show-and-tell aspects of
training are frequently missing because officers refuse to get their hands
dirty and prefer to ignore the more practical aspects of their subject
matter, believing this below their social station. A dramatic example of
this occurred during the Gulf War when a severe windstorm blew down the
tents of Iraqi officer prisoners of war. For three days they stayed in the
wind and rain rather than be observed by enlisted prisoners in a nearby camp
working with their hands.

The military price for this is very great. Without the cohesion supplied by
NCOs, units tend to disintegrate in the stress of combat. This is primarily
a function of the fact that the enlisted soldiers simply do not have trust
in their officers. Once officers depart the training areas, training begins
to fall apart as soldiers begin drifting off. An Egyptian officer once
explained to me that the Egyptian army’s catastrophic defeat in 1967
resulted from of a lack of cohesion within units. The situation, he said,
had only marginally improved in 1973. Iraqi prisoners in 1991 showed a
remarkable fear of and enmity toward their officers.

Decision-making and responsibility

Decisions are highly centralized, made at a very high level and rarely
delegated. Rarely does an officer make a critical decision on his own;
instead, he prefers the safe course of being identified as industrious,
intelligent, loyal – and compliant. Bringing attention to oneself as an
innovator or someone prone to making unilateral decisions is a recipe for
trouble. As in civilian life, conforming is the overwhelming societal norm;
the nail that stands up gets hammered down. Decisions are made and delivered
from on high, with very little lateral communication. Orders and information
flow from top to bottom; they are not to be reinterpreted, amended, or
modified in any way.

U.S. trainers often experience frustration obtaining a decision from a
counterpart, not realizing that the Arab officer lacks the authority to make
the decision – a frustration amplified by the Arab’s understandable
reluctance to admit that he lacks that authority. This author has several
times seen decisions that could have been made at the battalion level
concerning such matters as class meeting times and locations referred for
approval to the ministry of defense. All of which has led American trainers
to develop a rule of thumb: a sergeant first class in the U.S. Army has as
much authority as a colonel in an Arab army.

Methods of instruction and subject matter are dictated by higher
authorities. Unit commanders have very little to say about these affairs.
The politicized nature of the Arab militaries means that political factors
weigh heavily and frequently override military considerations. Officers with
initiative and a predilection for unilateral action pose a threat to the
regime. This can be seen not just at the level of national strategy but in
every aspect of military operations and training. If Arab militaries became
less politicized and more professional in preparation for the 1973 war with
Israel, once the fighting ended, old habits returned. Now, an increasingly
bureaucratized military establishment weighs in as well. A veteran of the
Pentagon turf wars will feel like a kindergartner when he encounters the
rivalries that exist in the Arab military headquarters.

Taking responsibility for a policy, operation, status, or training program
rarely occurs. U.S. trainers can find it very frustrating when they
repeatedly encounter Arab officers placing blame for unsuccessful operations
or programs on the U.S. equipment or some other outside source. A high rate
of non-operational U.S. equipment is blamed on a “lack of spare parts” –
pointing a finger at an unresponsive U.S. supply system despite the fact
that American trainers can document ample supplies arriving in country and
disappearing in a moribund supply system. (It should be added, and is
important to do so, that this criticism was never caustic or personal and
was often so indirect and politely delivered that it wasn’t until after a
meeting that oblique references were understood.) This imperative works even
at the most exalted levels. During the Kuwait war, Iraqi forces took over
the town of Khafji in northeast Saudi Arabia after the Saudis had evacuated
the place. General Khalid bin Sultan, the Saudi ground forces commander,
requested a letter from General Norman Schwarzkopf, stating it was the U.S.
general who ordered an evacuation from the Saudi town. And in his account of
the Khafji battle, General Bin Sultan predictably blames the Americans for
the Iraqi occupation of the town. In reality the problem was that the light
Saudi forces in the area left the battlefield. The Saudis were in fact
outgunned and outnumbered by the Iraqi unit approaching Khafji but Saudi
pride required that foreigners be blamed.

As for equipment, a vast cultural gap exists between the U.S. and Arab
maintenance and logistics systems. The Arab difficulties with U.S. equipment
is not, as sometimes simplistically believed, a matter of “Arabs don’t do
maintenance,” but a vast cultural gap. The American concept of a weapons
system does not convey easily. A weapons system brings with it specific
maintenance and logistics procedures, policies, and even a philosophy, all
of them based on U.S. culture, with its expectations of a certain
educational level, sense of small unit responsibility, tool allocation, and
doctrine. The U.S. equipment and its maintenance are predicated on a concept
of repair at the lowest level and therefore require delegation of authority.
Tools that would be allocated to a U.S. battalion (a unit of some 600-800
personnel) would most likely be found at a much higher level – probably two
or three echelons higher – in an Arab army. The expertise, initiative and,
most importantly, the trust indicated by delegation of responsibility to a
lower level are rare. Without the needed tools, spare parts, or expertise
available to keep equipment running, and loathe to report bad news to his
superiors, the unit commander looks for scapegoats.

All this explains why I many times heard in Egypt that U.S. weaponry is “too
delicate.” I have observed many in-country U.S. survey teams: invariably,
hosts make the case for acquiring the most modern of military hardware and
do everything to avoid issues of maintenance, logistics, and training. They
obfuscate and mislead to such an extent that U.S. teams, no matter how
earnest their sense of mission, find it nearly impossible to help. More
generally, Arab reluctance to be candid about training deficiencies makes it
extremely difficult for foreign advisors properly to support instruction or
assess training needs.

Combined arms operations

A lack of cooperation is most apparent in the failure of all Arab armies to
succeed at combined arms operations. A regular Jordanian army infantry
company, for example is man-for-man as good as a comparable Israeli company;
at battalion level, however, the coordination required for combined arms
operations, with artillery, air, and logistics support, is simply absent.
Indeed, the higher the echelon, the greater the disparity. This results from
infrequent combined arms training; when it does take place, it is intended
to impress visitors (which it does – the dog-and-pony show is usually done
with uncommon gusto and theatrical talent) rather than provide real

Three underlying factors further impede coordination necessary for combined

. First, the well-known lack of trust among Arabs in anyone outside the
ir own families adversely affects offensive operations. In a culture in
which almost every sphere of human endeavor, including business and social
relationships, is based on a family structure, this basic mistrust of others
is particularly costly in the stress of battle. Offensive action, at base,
consists of fire and maneuver. The maneuver element must be confident that
supporting units or arms are providing covering fire. If there is a lack of
trust in that support, getting troops moving forward against dug-in
defenders is possible only by officers getting out front and leading,
something that has not been a characteristic of Arab leadership. (Exceptions
to this pattern are limited to elite units, which throughout the Arab world
have the same duty – to protect the regime rather than the country.)

. Second, the complex mosaic system of peoples creates additional
problems for training, as rulers in the Middle East make use of the
sectarian and tribal loyalties to maintain power. The Alawi minority controls Syria, east bankers control Jordan, Sunnis control Iraq, and Nejdis control Saudi Arabia. This has direct implications for the military, where sectarian considerations affect assignments and promotions. Some minorities (such the Circassians in Jordan or the Druze in Syria) tie their well-being to the ruling elite and perform critical protection roles; others (such as the Shia of Iraq) are excluded from the officer corps. In any case, the
careful assignment of officers based on sectarian considerations works
against assignments based on merit. The same lack of trust operates at the
inter-state level, where Arab armies exhibit very little trust of each
other, and with good reason. The blatant lie Gamal Abdel Nasser told King
Husayn in June 1967 to get him into the war against Israel – that the
Egyptian air force was over Tel Aviv (when the vast majority of planes had
been destroyed) – was a classic example of deceit. Sadat’s disingenuous
approach to the Syrians to entice them to enter the war in October 1973 was
another (he told them that the Egyptians were planning total war, a
deception that included using a second set of operational plans intended
only for Syrian eyes). With this sort of history, it is no wonder that there
is very little cross or joint training among Arab armies and very few
command exercises. During the 1967 war, for example, not a single Jordanian
liaison officer was stationed in Egypt, nor were the Jordanians forthcoming
with the Egyptian command.

. Third, Middle Eastern rulers routinely rely on balance-of-power
techniques to maintain their authority. They use competing organizations,
duplicate agencies, and coercive structures dependent upon the ruler’s whim.
This makes building any form of personal power base difficult, if not
impossible, and keeps the leadership apprehensive and off-balance, never
secure in its careers or social position. The same applies within the
military; a powerful chairman of the joint chiefs is inconceivable. Joint
commands are paper constructs that have little actual function. Leaders look
at joint commands, joint exercises, combined arms, and integrated staffs
very cautiously for all Arab armies are double-edged swords. One edge points
toward the external enemy and the other toward the capital. Land forces are
at once a regime-maintenance force and threat to the same regime. This
situation is most clearly seen in Saudi Arabia, where the land forces and
aviation are under the minister of defense, Prince Sultan, while the
National Guard is under Prince Abdullah, the deputy prime minister and crown
prince. In Egypt, the Central Security Forces balance the army. In Iraq and
Syria, the Republican Guard does the balancing.

No Arab ruler will allow combined operations or training to become routine,
for these create familiarity, soften rivalries, erase suspicions, and
eliminate the fragmented, competing organizations that enable rulers to play
off rivals against one another. Politicians actually create obstacles to
maintain fragmentation. For example, obtaining aircraft from the air force
for army airborne training, whether it is a joint exercise or a simple
administrative request for support of training, must generally be
coordinated by the heads of services at the ministry of defense; if a large
number of aircraft are involved, this probably requires presidential
approval. Military coups may have gone out of style for now, but the fear of
them remains strong. Any large-scale exercise of land forces is always a
matter of concern to the government and is closely observed, particularly if
live ammunition is being used. In Saudi Arabia a complex system of
clearances required from area military commanders and provincial governors,
all of whom have differing command channels to secure road convoy
permission, obtaining ammunition, and conducting exercises, means that in
order for a coup to work it would require a massive amount of loyal
conspirators. The system has proven to be coup-proof, and there is no reason
to believe it will not work well into the future.

Security and paranoia

Arab regimes classify virtually everything vaguely military. Information the
U.S. military routinely publishes (about promotions, transfers, names of
unit commanders, and unit designations) is top secret in Arabic-speaking
countries. To be sure, this does make it more difficult for the enemy to
construct an accurate order of battle, but it also feeds the divisive and
compartmentalized nature of the military forces. The obsession with security
can reach ludicrous lengths. Prior to the 1973 war, Sadat was surprised to
find that within two weeks of the date he had ordered the armed forces be
ready for war, his minister of war, General Muhammad Sadiq, had failed to
inform his immediate staff of the order. Should a war, Sadat wondered, be
kept secret from the very people expected to fight it?

One can expect to have an Arab counterpart or key contact changed without
warning and with no explanation as to his sudden absence. This might well be
simply a transfer a few doors away, but the vagueness of it all leaves
foreigners imagining dire scenarios – that could be true. And it is best not
to inquire too much; advisors or trainers who seem overly inquisitive may
find their access to host military information or facilities limited. The
presumed close U.S.-Israel relationship, thought to be operative at all
levels, aggravates and complicates this penchant for secrecy. Arabs believe
that the most mundane details about them are somehow transmitted to the
Mossad via a secret hotline. This explains why an U.S. advisor with Arab
forces is likely to be asked early and often about his opinion on the
“Palestine problem,” then subjected to monologues on the assumed Jewish
domination of the United States.

Indifference to safety

There is a general laxness with respect to safety measures and a seeming
carelessness and indifference to training accidents, many of which could
have been prevented by minimal safety precautions. To the (perhaps overly)
safety-conscious Americans, Arab societies appear indifferent to casualties
and to the importance of training safety. There are a number of explanations
for this. Some would point to the inherent fatalism within Islam, and
certainly anyone who has spent considerable time in Arab taxis would lend
credence to that theory; but perhaps the reason has less to do with religion
than with political culture. As any military veteran knows, the ethos of a
unit is set at the top; or, as the old saying has it, units do those things
well that the boss cares about. When the top political leadership displays a
complete lack of concern for the welfare of its soldiers, such attitudes
percolate down through the ranks. Exhibit A was the betrayal of Syrian
troops fighting Israel in the Golan in 1967: having withdrawn its elite
units, the Syrian government knowingly broadcast the falsehood that Israeli
troops had captured the town of Kuneitra, which would have put them behind
the largely conscript Syrian army still in position. The leadership took
this step to pressure the great powers to impose a truce, though it led to a
panic by the Syrian troops and the loss of the Golan Heights.


It would be difficult to exaggerate the cultural gulf separating American
and Arab military cultures. In every significant area, American military
advisors find students who enthusiastically take in their lessons and then
resolutely fail to apply them. The culture they return to – the culture of
their own armies in their own countries – defeats the intentions with which
they took leave of their American instructors. Arab officers are not
concerned about the welfare and safety of their men. The Arab military mind
does not encourage initiative on the part of junior officers, or any
officers for that matter. Responsibility is avoided and deflected, not
sought and assumed. Political paranoia and operational hermeticism, rather
than openness and team effort, are the rules of advancement (and survival)
in the Arab military establishments. These are not issues of genetics, of
course, but matters of historical and political culture.

When they had an influence on certain Arab military establishments, the
Soviets strongly reinforced their clients’ own cultural traits. Like that of
the Arabs, the Soviets’ military culture was driven by political fears
bordering on paranoia. The steps taken to control the sources (real or
imagined) of these fears, such as a rigidly centralized command structure,
were readily understood by Arab political and military elites. The Arabs,
too, felt an affinity for the Soviet officer class’s contempt for ordinary
soldiers and its distrust of a well-developed, well-appreciated,
well-rewarded NCO corps.

Arab political culture is based on a high degree of social stratification,
very much like that of the defunct Soviet Union and very much unlike the
upwardly mobile, meritocratic, democratic United States. Arab officers do
not see any value in sharing information among themselves, let alone with
their men. In this they follow the example of their political leaders, who
not only withhold information from their own allies, but routinely deceive
them. Training in Arab armies reflects this: rather than prepare as much as
possible for the multitude of improvised responsibilities that are thrown up
in the chaos of battle, Arab soldiers, and their officers, are bound in the
narrow functions assigned them by their hierarchy. That this renders them
less effective on the battlefield, let alone that it places their lives at
greater risk, is scarcely of concern, whereas, of course, these two issues
are dominant in the American military culture and are reflected in American
military training.

Change is unlikely to come until it occurs in the larger Arab political
culture, although the experience of other societies (including our own)
suggests that the military can have a democratizing influence on the larger
political culture, as officers bring the lessons of their training first
into their professional environment, then into the larger society. It
obviously makes a big difference, however, when the surrounding political
culture is not only avowedly democratic (as was the Soviet Union’s), but
functionally so.

Until Arab politics begin to change at fundamental levels, Arab armies,
whatever the courage or proficiency of individual officers and men, are
unlikely to acquire the range of qualities which modern fighting forces
require for success on the battlefield. For these qualities depend on
inculcating respect, trust, and openness among the members of the armed
forces at all levels, and this is the marching music of modern warfare that
Arab armies, no matter how much they emulate the corresponding steps, do not
want to hear.