Reports on the death of the State System in the Arab World are greatly exaggerated.

Pardon this use of a quote from Mark Twain but it fits the situation in the Arab world perfectly.  Just a few years ago as the ISIS hordes seem to be following the footsteps of Genghis Khan and over running the entire Fertile Crescent,  journalists and  various middle east  “experts” were claiming the end of the states of Iraq and Syria with Lebanon and Jordan to follow. A widly  circulated photo of an ISIS bulldozer driver destroying the vestiges of a border marker between Iraq and Syria seemed to be the portent of the future. A new Syria and Iraq divided into ethnic entities or controlled by the “new” Islamic Caliphate was the forecasted future. Gleefully many saw the final demise of the Sykes -Picot treaty and those hated colonialist drawn borders ….. even though over the years it was evident that the various Arab regimes did not want to give up an inch of their domains, no matter who drew their borders. The dozens of unity attempts among various Arab states always collapsed within months. Of course there are still some slender reeds of Arabism,…The issue of Palestine, a common  language, a common heritage, etc


Colonialists drew it and The Arab regimes maintain it

Unfortunately for the illusion of Arabism, none of the above have proven strong enough to create reality out of a dream. As I have written elsewhere in this blog, Palestine is a revered Arab issue but Palestinians as people are not fully accepted anywhere in the Arab world. In most Arab counties they are viewed as a fifth column and unwelcome guests. The idea of a common language was never really true and is becoming less so.  Modern Standard Arabic was supposed to become the lingua franca of the Arab world but its use has actually  declined, among even the educated classes. As an example, when I was a student in Beirut I visited Tunisia and made friends with a number of young fellows convincing them I was Lebanese….this despite my crappy  Beiruti street Arabic.

The nuances of Classical Arabic of the Quran, modern standard Arabic, and colloquial Arabic  have created difficulties for Arab students learning their own langauge. The common heritage is debatable but history is always subject to revisionism.

In fact the idea of Arab  unity has become so thin  that one optimist recently wrote that the Egyptian soccer player, Mohamed Salah, had revived Arabism because of his Arab world celebrity status.   Unfortunately, the ousting of all the Arab teams in the world cup, four in one day,  was a crushing blow to the hope that soccer would be the unifying factor.


Abdul Nasser

Palestinian writer Said Aburish was probably correct in saying that that Arab nationalism died with Abdul Nasser,  and that today there is no ideology to contest the chimera of an Islamic Caliphate.  As a recent article in Foreign Affairs suggests, democracy as a form of government is a declining concept all over the world.  It has never had a chance to take hold in the Arab world.






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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




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Iran Iraq War: Presentation at 2017 ASMEA conference

The Iran Iraq War: Lessons Not Learned. By Norvell B DeAtkine, Sept 2017


Jafar Pasha al-Al Askari, known as “the father of the Iraq army,” was very optimistic in 1927 when he penned an article for the Royal Central Asian Society viewing the Iraqi army as steadily improving under the benevolent tutelage of British officers. As he wrote,

“I think that we have made very considerable strides   in the last few years in the formation of that army. Aided by English officers, of whom General Daly is the chief, professional soldiers of Iraq have worked hard to bring an Iraqi army into being. In this, as in other things, we had to work slowly owning to consideration of expense. But we have already made great progress. Our young officers, some of whom have been trained in England, are proving very efficient, and I hear nothing but good of them from all sides.”[1]


Until the short war against the British in 1941 the Iraqi army was known mostly for the Simele massacre of 1933 in which about 6000 Assyrian Christians were killed by Iraqi troops. Their commander, Bakr Sidqi, became a national hero, but like Jafar Pasha, in the political turmoil that has affected Iraq since that time, he too was assassinated. Indeed this brutal campaign against a mostly defenseless small minority was partially a consequence of a notorious article, entitled the “Profession of Death,” [2] written by an Iraqi teacher, Sami Shawkat, Director of Iraqis Ministry of Education. This article became famous throughout the Arab world, equating power to military strength and glorifying violence.

This was amply shown by the rather hapless performance of the Iraqi army, taking the side of the German Axis, against a greatly inferior (in numbers) British force in 1941. The Iraqis suffered from the same cultural factors that have weighed down Arab and Iraqi military forces to the present day, e.g., poor leadership, lack of initiative, and political infighting. Moreover in a typical feature of Iraq, and a sectarian Middle East, powerful Shi’a tribes and the Kurds did not support the Iraqi army, which soon disintegrated and the pro-Axis government dissolved. [3]

In both cases, the war in Palestine and the uprising against the British in 1941, the poor performance of the army resulted in a general state of military irrelevance in the political field, illustrating the close ties between military performance (or public perception thereof) and its importance in the political life of Iraq. Of course, the effectiveness of the state propaganda machine was a large determinant of this factor.  Saddam not only mastered this, but also was also able to promote himself as the dominant factor in military successes, real or mythical, thereby avoiding the usual Arab dictator’s fear of lionizing his army to the point it can replace him.


In a pattern seen throughout the Arab world, once Western training is terminated the Arab military effectiveness quickly dissipates as the strong Arab cultural mores reassert themselves, particularly the politization of the military officer corps. Despite years of British training of indigenous forces in Egypt and in Iraq, (and later Americans in Iraq), the training methods and ethos did not take. [4] In both cases, despite optimistic assessments by their foreign trainers, Egyptian and Iraqi forces rapidly declined in effectiveness.


The ineffectiveness continued as evidenced in the 1948[5] war when the Iraqi army deployed under Jordanian control to attack the Israeli settlement of Gesher. Reportedly defended by only 50 Israeli irregulars, the Iraqis suffered heavy casualties and were unable to overrun the settlement and adjoining fort. As the Iraqi army deployed into the West Bank under their own command, their sluggish command structure, and lack of competent combined arms operational ability inhibited their ability to push the Israelis out of a strategic piece of the West Bank. Some time later moved into the Samaria region, into a key strategic region vital to the overall Arab overall defense of Palestine, but here their performance was again lethargic, and despite pleas from the Arab legion under heavy Israeli attacks, were slow to move and assist the Jordanians. As Edgar O’Balance wrote;[6]

“One can only wonder at the general inaction of such a large body of troops. They merely stepped into positions vacated by Glubb Paha’s troops and Kaukji’s men who were pushed out to make way for them, and they made no attempt to extend their territory.”………………………………………………………………………………………………………………..”It was a case of a golden opportunity lost merely for the lack of an aggressive spirit and energy”

Later, after its disastrous attack on Gesher, the Iraqis deployed under command of the Syrian irregular, Fawzi Al Kaukji, with his militia unit known as the Arab Liberation Army, The Iraqis fought much more effectively.. The Arab generally fights more effectively as an irregular than a conventional soldier, a factor previously analyzed by this author. [7] The Iraqis were also better in fixed defensive positions, in which individual small unit initiative was less critical.

In the readings of the 1948 war, all the historians remark on the tenacity of the Iraqi soldier, and his prowess in individual combat. However, those qualities were obscured by the ineffectiveness of the Iraqi units on offense, and in situations requiring initiative on the part of the commanders. In fact the Palestinians spoke derisively of Iraqis as having standing orders as shako makko (nothing happening). One can ascertain at this early stage of the development of the Iraqi army an undue reliance on the courage of the Iraqi soldier, the mythology of the nomadic Arab warrior sweeping aside decadent civilizations with élan and moral superiority- an attribute applied to the Iraqi soldiers frequently by Saddam Hussein.    But even at this point Jafar Pasha would indeed be disappointed in the rapid decline of the Iraqi army he was so assiduously trying to build.


If the capability of the Iraqi army against conventional armed forces was found lacking so were their capabilities in confronting unconventional foes. This was amply demonstrated in their near continuous wars against the Kurds, the first generally called the first Kurdish war, 1961 to 1970. In this war the Iraqis were slow off the mark, road bound, inflexible, allowed themselves to be frequently ambushed and did not implement any counter insurgency. As always, small unit leadership was poor, and as before the individual Iraqi soldier, was ready to do was whatever was asked of him, but with inadequate training and motivation, paid the price.


The dismal performance of the Iraqi forces in the Kurdish wars [8] is even more remarkable given the fact that the Kurds did not readily adapt to insurgent warfare either, with inadequate weaponry, non – existent training, and usually divided among themselves. The propensity of the Kurds to do the wrong thing at the wrong time resulted in the Kurds trying to fight a conventional war against the Iraqis, with disastrous results, and the Iraqis using a campaign of annihilation against the Kurds in operation Anfal 1986 to 1989.


In the numerous Iraqi wars against the Kurds, the Iraqi air attacks against which the Kurds had no defense, were uncoordinated with ground operations, generally conducted simply as a terror tactic, a deficiency which has continued to the present day, The inability to conduct successful counter-insurgency operations seems in explicable given the availability of profusion of Western and other sources on fighting guerrillas. . They did in fact have those lesson learned available but obviously were not taught or more likely ignored. It was in fact ironic to find among the discarded field manuals of the Iraqi Republican Guard a counter insurgency manual that appeared to be a copy of a Western one, with emphasis on “hearts and minds.”[9]

O’Balance observed;

“Weakened by frequent political; purges over the years, the officer corps was drained of much of its good middle –grade leadership and initiative, so much so that it was a wonder that it was able to mount and sustain the four large military offensives which it did”.[10]

The Iraqi experience in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war is very small and yet indicative of the irresolute higher commands of the Iraqi army. The 3rd armored division of the Iraqi army was ordered into Jordan at the beginning of the six-day war, but by the time they reached the Jordan River the war was over. The Iraqi advance units had reached the hills above the Ghor valley but were wiped out by Israeli airpower in a couple of days. There did not seem to be any plan as to what they were to do when and if they crossed the river. In 1970 when I was in Jordan the wreckage of Iraqi vehicles and tanks were still sitting on the hills.[11]

The 1973 war was an excellent preview of things to come in the Iraqi war- making methods and the issues associated with them. Iraqi soldier’s eagerness for battle, ardor to close with the enemy, bravery, and determination were all in abundance in this war…and as before negated by mostly indifferent command structure, higher echelon command indecision, total lack of combined arms, and politically a lack communication with other Arab army elements. In the opinion of the Jordanian commanders and Israeli historians they were not up to the level of the Syrians in combat proficiency. In a briefing given to a US military fact- finding mission, the commander of the Jordanian 40th Armored Brigade described them as a menace to their Arab allies by wild shooting, lack of coherent leadership, and unpredictability. The Jordanians were unable to communicate with them.[12]

The Iraqis had entered into battle directly from an 800 mile march, mostly on tank transporters, which was a feat in itself, launched a night attack, something very uncommon among Arab armies, and their commando battalion infiltrated Israeli lines. Probably by accident their surprise arrival on the battlefield saved Damascus from being invested by Israeli troops. However, the commanders frittered away these positive developments with confused, disorganized, and desultory attacks. The artillery support was ineffective and attacks were continued even when it was obvious that they were being wiped out in an armored trap. The Iraqi 3rd Armored division, their best at the time, was essentially rendered inoperative.


The forgoing is prologue to the Iraqi conduct of the war against the Iranians in 1980, one of the bloodiest of all the many Middle Eastern wars by far. In one fashion or another the Iraqis had been at war among themselves or neighbors since World War II, yet during most of their war, particularly the first few years, against an unprepared and ill trained Iranian army, the Iraqi military performance was conducted in a mediocre and often inept manner. Iraqi generals tended to blame Saddam Hussein for the failures in the war just as the German generals blamed Hitler.


The question a military historian would ask, given the near continuous environment of war and a militarized society, why has the Iraqi learning curve has been so slow and agonizing? Partly of course the answer is found in the Arab proclivity to avoid the whole process of lessons learned, a process by which commanders may be found wanting and thus kept from public scrutiny.[13] Therefore hard learned lessons are not passed on. A second reason is the Arab cultural trait of obsessive secrecy in which any hint of a shortcoming is swept under the rug aggravated by the perceived belief in the omnipresence of spies. Thirdly, the lack of institutionalized military studies, caused by many military coups, in which the Iraqi military has been the instrument of political change and a resulting removal of layers of officers, especially those charismatic, and admired by their troops.


But even had the lessons learned been earnestly conducted and more transparent, the near impenetrable power of Arab Islamic culture would have rendered much of the lessons learned of lesser significance. When analyzing the Iran – Iraq war it becomes apparent that while there were a number of Iraqi victories and successes they were bought at an inhumanely high cost in their soldiers lives as the officers and commanders acquired some degree of proficiency with “on the job training.”


The Iran –Iraq war[14] was a war of massive miscalculation based on prejudices, wishful thinking, and cultural ignorance. Provoked by Iranian repeated provocations, and some colossal illusions Saddam Hussein launched an attack on September 22, 1980 in the belief that Khuzestan Arabs of Iran would rally to the Iraqi Arab cause. He also believed that the massive purge of the Iranian armed forces by the revolutionary regime of Ayatollah Khomeini had destroyed the Iranian means of resistance. By December 1980, the Iraqi army had been put on the defensive and the Iranians were on the offensive, however they made the same miscalculation as the Iraqis. They assumed that the Iraqi Shi’a who are generally described as making up 80 % of the Iraqi enlisted soldiers would rally to the Iranian cause. With some exceptions they did not.


In the second phase of the war the Iranians waged a war of attrition premised on the belief that Iran could sustain the human and economic losses more than Iraq. In the latter phase of the war, Iran launched massive offensives countered by decisive Iraqi counter-offensives. With a huge advantage in weaponry, especially armor and artillery, the Iraqis finally brought the Iranians to accept a truce that remains until today.


Historical Prejudices

The “outsider” in Arab culture is often only a person of a few villages away. The historical enmity between Arab and Persian was effectively reinforced by the Saddam regime. For instance the father in law of Saddam Hussein wrote an infamous saying about Persians that became part of Iraqi children’s course of instruction, “Three Whom God should not have created: Persians, Jews, and flies.” A book purporting to depict the Iranian national character, “The Adventures of Hajji Baba of Ispahan,[15] recommended to me by Iraqis is a very readable book, depicting Iranians as highly intelligent but duplicitous, untrustworthy and venal. In fact the Iraqi view of Persians assiduously emphasized by the Ba’ath regime is very often the gut feeling Sunni Iraqi Arabs feel about their Shi’a compatriots, referring to them as Majus, a derogatory word depicting the Shi’a as Persian fire worshipers (Zoroastrians) and not real Muslims. The point is that not only did the Saddam regime miscalculate Iranian Arab support for Iraq but also the impact of the Iranian revolution on their military effectiveness.

It was the bloodiest war of modern history with 125,000 Iraqi military dead, and 380,000 Iranian. The Iraqis incurred a financial loss of 452 billion (1985 data) and the Iranians 645 billion. Iraqi financial losses were a primary reason for the 1990 invasion of Kuwait, hoping to replenish their coffers with Kuwaiti wealth.[16]

As the curtain opened on the Iran-Iraq war the Iraqi army was totally politicized, a condition brought about by Saddam Hussein’s pathological fear and hatred of the officer corps.   Having had no experience as a military man he felt insecure around professional military officers, and immediately upon taking power, began a process of elimination of those he considered a threat. He replaced them with political cronies. Many promoted to flag rank were former bodyguards. Four promoted to four-star rank were completely without any military experience. [17] General Nizar al Khazraji, described one of Saddam’s favorites, Ali Hasan al Majid, as follows.

“Illiterate…arrogant and violent. He suffers from diabetes and is always shouting at his soldiers and officers, Financially he is corrupt,. They call him the “thief of Baghdad”……He was an assistant corporal in the air force. The best military position he occupied was that of driver of a fuel tanker, which supplies fuel to aircraft. Now he is a (four star).”[18]

 Problems in Unit leadership

 There is no greater factor more important to the effectiveness of any army than the capabilities of the Non Commissioned Officer Corps (NCO). Both the British model and American greatly emphasize the role of the NCO in training and combat. As is often written, he is the “backbone “of the unit. It is in this consideration that the Iraqi army suffered greatly. Major General Aladdin Hussein Makki Khamas   told the Institute of Defense Analysts questioners that having gotten a good start under the British system the NCO corps deteriorated to a very low level and were not dependable. Like most Arab armies the Iraqis depended totally on the officers, and as a result the junior officer corps suffered a very high loss rate, especially in the early stages of the war. He told Kevin Woods, the questioner that, “if you wanted something not achieved give it to an NCO.”[20] A basic problem when there is no NCO bridge the gap between the officer and his men increases. General Ra’ad Hamdani described the lack of understanding of Iraqi soldiers by many of the ranking Iraqi generals. Finding soldiers incarcerated unjustly he would remonstrate to the officer in charge, “it is your mistake, he is not an animal.” [21] The near caste system of Arab social life aggravates this situation. Unless forced to in an intense combat situation, the Iraqi officer keeps his distance from the men. When the officer is not present the training generally becomes disorganized and very often he was not present or acting more as an observer than trainer.. This was certainly evident in the state of the Iraqi army entering into the conflict with the Iranians.

There were three other factors, which adversely affected the officer corps itself and greatly lowered their competence collectively. The first was and continues to be the wholesale turnover in the officer corps based on political orientation. This problem has a long history in Iraq. From the time of World War II, the regimes basically re- structured the officer corps with each (usually violent) regime change since the coups were usually a function of the military involvement. [22] , Saddam Hussein, early in his regime, determined that his primary objective vis – a – vis the army was to “coup proof” it.[23] With each large turnover, the learning curve of new officers began anew. Secondly officer education was emphasized, but it tended to be crippled by the turnover of faculty with political wind changes, as well as a large dose of Ba’athist ideology using training time. A third factor implicit in the inadequacy of the Iraqi officer corps was doctrine and strategy taught was often a mishmash of Soviet and Western operations and methods. This is a vastly underrated consideration. Strategy, operational concepts, tactics, and employment of weaponry, as well as maintenance are culturally driven. Weapons are designed and used within the parameters of the national way of war, meaning within the cultural parameter.[24] The hybrid British-Russian models with fanciful Iraqi illusions of being able to use Israeli operational concepts produced an army of doctrinal and tactical confusion. [25]. Overall the inadequacy of the officer corps was deeply felt down to the lowest level in the Iran-Iraq war. [26]


Much has been written about the irrational Iranian recruits attacking in human waves. Often they are described as little more than a religiously inspired mob. But the truth is that Iraqi troops sent to the front had only rudimentary individual training, and even less unit training. Much of their time was spent in attending political lectures and Ba’athist events to promote military zeal, or running personal errands for their officers. Most striking was the fact that many officers really did not know how much training recruits sent to the infantry received. [27]


Secrecy and Paranoia

As is often found in the study of Arab military history, the paranoia and mistrust of even the closest associates often acted as an impediment to careful and detailed preparation. This was particularly true in the road to war with Iran, Saddam having no real appreciation of the immense effort required to invade such a country as Iran. In mid July 1980 Saddam first mentioned to his top staff officers that he was planning to go to war with Iran. Very little preparation followed as the leadership was dubious of the entire enterprise. On 16 August he informed his commanders of his irrevocable decision to invade Iran. This decision was only disseminated in a desultory fashion to the lower elements at battalion level that had no time to prepare their troops morally and physically for combat.[28] Nor was the materiel status of the military, especially the army, in shape for sustained combat. Maintenance has always been a problem in the Arab army and Iraq was no different.[29]

Throughout the war secrecy and failure to keep subordinates informed was a constant problem, partially because the orders themselves were often absent or confusing. As usual in the era of Saddam, senior and junior commanders presented fragmentary or incomplete orders or plans somewhat based on a inchoate and illusionary understanding of the Western way of war., particularly unit leader initiative implementing general mission type orders. In fact Saddam’s opening scenario for the war was a hackneyed version of the Israeli 1967 war, including massive air attacks. They were poorly executed and did little lasting damage. Commanders issued fragmentary or sketchy orders ostensibly allowing small unit commanders maximum latitude and initiative, but for which they were unprepared to execute. Nothing in their culture or military education had prepared them for this doctrine.[30] It is one of the major issues affecting Iraqi (and Arab) military competence that they have frequently attempted to use Western training methods and operational doctrine, which do not fit into their cultural characteristics. .[31]



Some would dispute it, and there are exceptions to my observation, that Islam (or the people’s understanding of it) is somewhat a detriment to detailed future planning. It is like intruding into God’s domain, the ultimate result of the InshAllah culture.[32] At the most basic level it is the reluctance of Arab drivers to use the seat belt despite government decrees. In my own experience I have seen this at all levels. In the Iraqi-Iranian war it was a obvious aspect of the war, especially at the beginning of the war. According to one Iraqi general who spoke with the ring of truth;

Our troops were just lined up on the border and told to drive into Iran. They had an objective, but no idea how to get there or what they were doing, or how their mission fit the plan, or who would be supporting them.” [33]


In fact the lack of professionalism in Iraqi army staff work, forced the Iraqi planners to dust off an old British army war game exercise from 1941, which had very little, if any, relevance to the conditions and environment existing in 1980. They had no clue as to how to originate a credible plan based on the conditions at the time. Moreover the land and air operations were planned in virtual isolation from one another. This is one of the unfortunate results of the regime’s intent on maintaining a divided command structure, which was part of the regime preservation strategy. An example of the impediments this mind set creates is the fact that during the battle known as the “exterminating pocket” near Muhammara, three Iraq divisions were encircled but Saddam refused to allow extensive air support for fear that the pilots would turn around and attack the presidential palace.[34]


Another issue that always clouded the planning problem was the untoward emphasis on the mythology of the Bedouin martial spirit. Saddam frequently mentioned this as the most important aspect of war as it would overcome all other adverse issues. As General Hamdani told his American interviewers,

….Saddam could only imagine war as tribal conflict or like the conflict between Alexander the Macedonian and the Persian King Darius, or the conflict between Salah ad- Din and the Crusaders.[35]


General Hamdani once told Saddam.” Most of our commanders looked at the war         ( Iran-Iraq) from a tribal perspective, more on -one on- one warfare and not the bigger picture of modern war…”[36]


A third aspect of the planning problem is the issue of information as power. Simply put highly important information is only of value to the holder as long as he is the only one who knows it and others know he has that information. Once dispensed, the information is of no value to the holder. So up and down the Iraqi chain of command, information was withheld by those privy to it to bolster their own importance.[37] Therefore at times, important tactical information did not make it down to the bottom of the chain of command. Again and again, battalion level units at the front had no idea who was on their right or left and what they were up against. Since information was so tightly held, often detailed planning was a hopeless task. Engineers built structures without knowing their purpose, commanders attacked Iranian positions without knowing the objectives.[38]


Decision Making and Responsibility

When the Iraqis were attacking in the Ahwaz area of Iran, the Iranians counter attacked and was pushing the Iraqis back. The Iraqi 3rd Corps commander was very concerned. As it happened the Iraqi Chief of Staff of the Armed Forces was visiting the front at that time and the Corps Commander asked him for advice. The reply was, “I don’t know. You are the Corps Commander. You decide.” [39]

This was indicative of not only the Chief of Staff’s fear of decision-making but just as telling, a corps commander asking for advice when in the Western military thinking, the corps commander should have laid out a course of action and asked for an opinion. In essence it was indicative of the Iraqi military leadership culture throughout the war. Fear of failing, which sometimes meant execution, in produced a culture of lies and exaggeration. Military commanders touted mythical victories and minimized catastrophic failures. As Kanan Makiya rightly described it . “ Fear ‘not Soviet methods’ explains the ponderously inflexible and ever so timid behavior of Iraqi field commanders, a continuous feature of the Iraq performance.[40] Hussein recognized this problem[41] but of course, the culture of fear he created was not to be militated by a couple of Saddam’s cautionary discussions. Consistent with another widespread Arab military trait, Iraqi subordinate officers never questioned their orders, or had the fortitude required to modify even the most inappropriate orders from higher commanders.[42] This is a perfectly understandable trait in that any modification to higher headquarters orders that goes wrong would probably result in execution. [43] To be sure, the subordinate commander could not expect his senior commanders to back him up.


An important aspect of the decision-making process was the frequent micro managing of the war by Saddam Hussein. He was never a soldier, although most of his portraits depicted him in military uniform. One writer described him as fearful of his army (as most Arab leaders are, if not fearful at least cautious). Like Hitler but without any of the prescience and military experience of Hitler, he pontificated on minute characteristics of fortifications, weaponry, strategy and tactics, but especially in his insistence that the superior warrior ethos of the Iraqi soldier would overcome enemy technological advantage.[44]


The Polarization of the Military


If one were forced to pick one salient factor among the many, which retarded Iraqi military effectiveness, the polititization of the Iraqi military under Saddam Hussein would have to be at the top of the list. The many coups and turnovers were endemic in the military before Saddam but he did it with surgical finesse. The omnipresent and omnipotent Ba’ath Party was Saddam’s instrument for control of the military, especially the army. The sectarian and regionalism characteristic of the Iraqi army has always been a debilitating and generally divisive feature, but Saddam was able to use it to his advantage. The divisions and fissures that Saddam had to deal with were as Dina Rizk Khoury so aptly put it. [45]


These were often described inn the language of military difference between the officer corps and the rank and file, between conscripts and enlisted men (career soldiers) Writers note), between soldiers and the popular army, and Ba’athist commissars ensconced in the rear lines and infantry men at the front. Conscripts spoke of distinctions between those connected to certain through ties of patronage and those who were not, between Kurd and Arab, Kurds who served in the paramilitary forces and those who joined the guerrillas. No less important for soldiers were differences between urbanite and country peasant, college graduate and barely literate, and those from certain parts of Iraq and others drawn from Mosul and Takrit, who dominated the upper echelons of the officer corps.


One should immediately add to this list the chasm between Shi’a and Sunni, which Saddam spent many millions and a prodigious effort to meld into the “ new Iraqi Man.”[46] . In this he had some success as the 85% Shi’a soldiers in the army did not desert in large numbers, and bore the majority of the casualties fighting against their Shi’a brethren of Iran. Ultimately it failed, however, as seen some years later in 1991, when many Shi’a soldiers deserted the army and took part in a violent uprising fought against Saddam. No greater example of the basic distrust between the Saddam regime and the Shi’a community than the statement of Major General Mizher Rashid al Tarfa al-Ubaydi, the director of the General Military Intelligence Directorate during the Iran-Iraq war,

“ We had translators for different languages throughout the world. Our only problem was with the Farsi language, because we did not know whom we could trust.” There were many Farsi speakers, but it was always a matter of trust.”[47]


Joseph Sassoon, in his book, Saddam Hussein’s Ba’ath Party: Inside an Authoritarian Regime, [48] details the ubiquitous and menacing intrusion in all aspects of an Officers life and that of his family by the Ba’ath Party. Modeled on the Soviet system of dual command channels, one political and the other military, and with every unit honeycombed with security agents, the officers were in a domestic prison without walls, Fear permeated the system and enervated any initiative until massive military disasters in the Iran-Iraqi war resulted in heavy pressure from the few generals Saddam trusted to produce a somewhat more professional officer corps.  Saddam used the Ba’ath party apparatus to create the Military Bureaus, an institution charged with the task of “….. infiltrating and controlling every aspect of military life.”[49] This Ba’ath Party organization worked in tandem with the various security agencies, which had agents down to battalion level to identify and root out possible resistance against the Saddam regime.


But even the lowest enlisted recruit was not free of government scrutiny. He as forced to so complete and sign under threat of execution for any misstatement concerning the political activities of his family reaching back to great grand parents and extended family cousins. Particular red flags were Communist or Dawa party connection. Also important were the existence of any deserters from within the extended family. Collective family punishments for the misdeeds of a soldier were common if not universal, As usual in the tribal and clan society, some avoided it through family ties to important personages or tribes. As in all Arab military establishments, nepotism and wasta (patronage) were widespread despite occasional attempts to curtail these cultural foundations.


Sectarianism and Regionalism

 The quote of King Faisal I has been used many times but whenever the subject of sectarianism and regionalism comes up it is still the best summation of the problem which continues to the present day.

“In Iraq, there is still no Iraqi people, but unimaginable masses of human beings, devoid of any patriotic idea, imbued with religious traditions and absurdities, connected by no common tie, giving ear to evil, prone to anarchy, and perpetually ready to rise against government whatsoever”.[50]

My professor at the American University of Beirut, Hanna Batatu always referred to the ”Iraqi instinct for rebellion”[51] . Dr. Ali al Wardi, famous Iraqi historian, said it this way in speaking of the dual character of Iraqis

“The same goes for the patriotic feelings, as many Iraqis love to show their loyalty to their country while talking, but when it comes to army service many of them tend to give lots of excuses just to run away from that honorable duty. “[52]

Kenan Makiya put is succinctly. “Iraqi nationalism understood as a sense of identity with a territorial entity known as Iraq does not exist.” [53] As indicated earlier Saddam went to great lengths to create a new Iraqi man devoid of sectarian loyalties. He made it clear in a speech given in 1975 in which he stated,


We must not speak of the Iraqi who comes from Suleimaniya (a Kurd) and he who comes from Basra (Shi’a) without pointing to his ethnic origins….let us delete the words Arabs and Kurds and replace them with term Iraqi people.[54]


In fact perusing all works done by the Institute of Defense Analysis interviewing the Iraqi generals there is very little mention of the Shi’a Sunni divide as an important factor. But the hypocrisy of Saddam was in plain view in the way he relied on his family, tribe and friends from the Sunni heartland of Iraq, especially Tikrit.

Saddam promoted massive festivals, poets and writers’ symposiums, and celebrations to highlight Mesopotamian greatness prior to the Arab invasion. Of course he dwelled on the common Arab descent of Shi’a and Sunni to foster that common bond he so desperately wanted. Saddam had complete control of the media, and basically through the Ba’ath party, total control of the lives of the people. Saddam building on an Arab “Mesopotamian” culture was at least partially successful. The Iraqi Shi’a stressed their Arab identity and “attempted to accommodate their dual identity within the framework of Iraqi identity. “[55]


The surge of Iraqi nationalism was one factor among others explaining how and why Iraq could sustain   an eight-years war in which 80% of he soldiers and 20% of the officers were Shi’a against a Shi’ite nation led by an ayatollah of noble descent from the Shi’i Imams.[56]


Another factor was the fact that many Iraqi Shi’a lost faith in Iran as the war continued and their migration began to be principally to Europe with no desire to return to Iraq as they had before. The Shi’a that had found temporary refuge in other areas of the Middle East became isolated from the culture and political environment of Iraq.[57] . It is also noticeable that the Shi’a community in general did not harbor hatred of the Iranians because of the huge losses they suffered in the war. Generally it was known as “Saddam’s war” and the losses were blamed on him.


It would be difficult to overestimate the fear   of Iraqi Ba’ath reprisal an punishment not just for the soldiers but also their families.. The fear of the omnipotent Ba’ath security and intelligence agencies were greater than fear of the Iranian enemy. Fear was present at every level. Desertions were met with draconian punishment to the individual and his family. The Ba’ath regime, like most totalitarian regimes kept copious records, and desertions were frequent despite the presence of execution squads in the rear lines to capture and execute deserters.[58]


Probably more importantly, the psychological effect bonding men together in intense combat was undoubtedly a primary reason for the Shi’a soldier continuing to fight for a regime he probably hated or at least had little affection for. Moreover The Saddam military personnel managers were careful not to have regular army units composed entirely of Shi’a or only from a Shi’a region.[59]


In return for the Shi’a “loyalty” in the war against Iran, the Saddam regime did not trust the Shi’s community any more than before. It prefaced the breakdown in Shi’a –Sunni relations in the 1991 Gulf war and the aftermath.


The Kurds were never on board the Saddam “new Iraq man” program because Saddam propagandists had to emphasize the common Arab heritage of both Sunni and Shi’a. Despite forcible enlistment of large numbers of Kurds, the Iraqi Kurds were by and large “disloyal” to the Iraqi regime just as the Iranian Kurds were “disloyal” to the Iranian regime. The major fact was that the Saddam regime felt betrayed by the Kurdish leaders who did not hold to promises made to remain quiet following the Algiers conference when the Shah of Iran pulled the rug out from under the Iraqi Kurds by stopping arms shipments.


Regionalism also played a significant role in the divisions within the Iraqi military. The Sunni were the preferred sect but some were more preferred than others. Despite all his talk of the new Iraqi man devoid of sectarian affiliations, Saddam was very dependent on family, clan, and tribe to maintain himself in power. As soon as he had control of the military he promoted his cronies, mostly all relatives to general officer rank. [60] He drew heavily upon recruits from the Tikrit area and usually when he required greater outreach, to friendly Sunni tribes in the Anbar province.



It would seem that the Iraqi society and their military forces inured to war and bloodletting for decades would have forged an effective fighting machine by the time of the Iran Iraq war and to look ahead to the hapless performance in the 1991 Gulf war and the 2003 war. The Iraqi political and military leadership have been willing to sacrifice their soldiers for Arab causes, despots ambitions, and sometimes for unfathomable reasons, but apparently never read, digested, or concerned themselves with lessons learned, particularly from the Iran-Iraq war. Most likely it has been mythologized by a culture that is almost devoid of serious introspection.


The Iraqi soldiers, mostly peasants from small villages, were usually led by incompetent commanders, who were in turn chained to mediocrity by a near impenetrable culture which does not easily absorb historical lessons or methods from the West or the Eastern Bloc. Usually it finds ways to ignore them. It is testimony to the strength of culture in general, and Arab culture in particular. Young Arab officers would be schooled in the United States and filled with enthusiasm to reform the system, but upon returning would run into a cultural brick wall.


None of the foregoing should be a great surprise to anyone with a long experience on the ground with Arab military but also no surprise that so few venture into the cultural aspect of warfare. It tends to spill over into stereotypes and invites vicious responses and claims of “racism” which tends to dominate academia these days. For instance the best book ever written in English on Arab culture, the Arab Mind by Raphael Patai (I wrote a preface for a couple of editions. Transparency note)) has been regularly disparaged by academia. Patai describes almost every cultural factor surfaced in this paper. While every military has its own subculture, it is very much a part of the overall societal culture. It determines the way an army fights its wars, including the American. It is worth reiterating that in all the wars, there was never a question of the Iraqi soldier’s courage or intelligence. The aggressiveness and tenacity of the individual Iraqi soldier was always present


Also as I have described in previous articles, prolonged Western training has short life once the trainers are removed and the all-powerful culture tends to subsume the military training   environment. This was again demonstrated when the American trainers left Iraq and the Iraqi army became re-politized and corrupted.  Very recently the problem of training the Iraqi forces has been described in Government Accounting Office report describing the lack of success in bringing Iraqi units up to adequate standards.[61]


The factors of extrinsic and intrinsic organization must also be considered. For the most part these factors have been submerged in a morass of academic bloviate, but to an old soldier it is a matter of contrasting the carrot and stick (targhib/tarhib, enticement, intimidation) versus the instillation of individual pride and unit esprit. The Saddam regime depended entirely on the stick in the form of institutionalized fear, and rewards for slavish loyalty. When the regime perks and fear were removed the army fell apart as it did in 2003, and later when a rag tag ISIS contingent overran Mosul. A pervasively corrupt military structure, based on sectarian patronage, disintegrated.


The more recent reoccupation of Mosul by Iraqi forces is a big victory and due credit should be given to them. But the qualifiers are important to remember. With complete control of the air and powerful Western nations supporting them, against a vastly outnumbered ISIS force, the Iraqi forces took months to recapture Mosul. In the long campaign to retake ISIS territory, the Iraqis could only depend on a few units; particularly the US trained “Golden Division,” (Iraqi Special Operations Forces) which took so many casualties they had to be relieved from the final battle for Mosul.


The story of the Iraqi army is a sad one, especially in knowing that the Iraqi army with its inglorious history is still the most trusted institution in Iraq. It is an even sadder commentary on the political and social institutions in Iraq.[62]









[1] Jafar Pasha Al-Askari, A Soldiers Story: From Ottoman Rule to Independent Iraq           Translated by Mustafa Tariq Al –Askari, (London, Arabian Publishing: 2003 ), 242.

[2] Liora Lukitz, Iraq: The Search for National Identity (London, Frank Cass: 1995), 120 -121.

[3] Robert Lyman, Iraq 1941: The Battles for Basra, Habbaniya, Fallujah and Baghdad,  (Oxford, Osprey: 2006), 90-91.

[4] Norvell DeAtkine, “Western Influence on Arab Militaries: Pounding Square Pegs into Round Holes,” MERIA, March 18,2013, accessed 20 June 2017.

[5] Benny Morris, 1948: The First Arab-Israeli War, (New Haven, Yale University Press, 2008), 245-252.

[6] Morris, 245.

[7] Norvell DeAtkine, “The Arab as Insurgent and Counter-Insurgent”, Conflict and Insurgency in the Contemporary Middle East, ed. Barry Rubin, (London, Routledge: 2009), 24-45.

[8] This section is drawn from Edgar O’Balance, The Kurdish Revolt 1961-1970,( London, Archon Books: 1973, passim. Michael Gunter, The Kurds of Iraq: Tragedy and Hope (New York, St Martin’s Press: 1992,) 37-48. Edmund Ghareeb, (Syracuse NY, Syracuse University Press: 1981), 71-105. Michael Gunter, The Kurdish Predicament in Iraq: A Political Analysis, (New York, St Martin’s Press: 1999),67-111.

[9] Among the literature I found in abandoned Republican Guard barracks in Nov 2003.

[10] O Balance The Kurdish Revolt, p 170.

[11] My observations while on duty as the Assistant defense Attaché in Jordan. The Iraqi activity based on my conversations with Jordanian officers.

[12] This portion drawn from briefings by the Jordanian 40th Bde, Commander to an American fact-finding mission of which I was a member in 1974. Also from Avigor Kahalani, The Heights of Courage: A Tank Leader’s War on the Golan, (Westport, Connecticut, Praeger: 1994), 179-181. Abraham Rabinovich. The Yom Kippur War: The Epic Encounter that Transformed the Middle East, (New York, Schocken Books: 2004), 307-318. Chaim Herzog, The War of Atonement: October 1973, (Boston, Brown, Little and Company: 1975). 137-142.

[13]. See Raphael Patai, The Arab Mind, rev. edition, (Long Island City NY, Hatherleigh Press: 2007), 91-92. See also Norvell B. DeAtkine, “Why Arabs Lose Wars,” Middle East Quarterly, Dec 1999, accessed 20 June 2017,

[14] In this section I am indebted to the excellent work done by Kevin Woods and the team at The Institute of Defense Analysis in producing a number of invaluable monographs on the Iraqi army and the Iran-Iraq war, Kevin M Woods et al. Saddam’s War: An Iraqi Military Perspective of the Iran-Iraq War, (Washington DC, National Defense University: 2009). Kevin Woods et al. Saddam’s Generals: Perspectives of the Iran-Iraq War, Alexandria Va., Institute for Defense Analysis: 2011. Kevin Woods, et al The Saddam Tapes: The Inner Workings of a Tyrant’s Regime 1978-2001, (London, Cambridge University Press: 2011). Particularly helpful for detailed description of the war itself is the work by Pierre Razoux, The Iran-Iraq War, (Cambridge, Ma. Harvard University Press: 2015.) Some great insight into the psychological status and morale of the officer corps is presented in Ibrahim al- Marashi and Sammy Salama,. Iraq’s Armed Forces; An Analytical History, (New York: Routledge, 2008), 129-174.

[15] J.J Morier, The Adventures of Hajji Baba of Ispafan, reprint, (New York, Heritage Press: 1947).

[16] Razoux, 568.

[17] Amatzia Baram, “The Ba’ath Regime and the Iraqi Officers Corps,” 211.

[18] Ibid.

[19] In this section I have relied heavily on my notes and recollections of discussions with Iraqi Officers during my time in Iraq in 2003-2004 and the observations of my students during my 18 Years at the John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center and School. Very helpful to fill in the voids was the work of Dina Rizk Khoury , Iraq in Wartime: Soldiering, Martyrdom, and Remembrance (New York, Cambridge: 2013), 48-123.

[20] Woods, Saddam’s Generals, 146.

[21] Woods, Saddam’s War, 93.

[22] Hanna Batatu, The Old Social Revolutionary Classes and the Revolutionary Movements of Iraq, (London, Saqi Books:2004), 30.

[23] Sassoon, 29

[24] My personal experiences with Egyptian, Jordanian military and from conversations with US officers training Iraqis.

[25] Razoux,15


[26] Razoux, 319, and my conversations with Iraqi officers.

[27] This came up often in conversations with Iraqi officers and is reminiscence of an observation made by a British officer training the Iraqis in the early 1930’s, officers “only see their men on parade and are not in close sympathy with them.” Mark Heller, “Iraq’s Army: Military Weakness, Political Utility,” in Eds. Amatzia Baram and Barry Rubin, Iraq’s Road to War (New York, St Martin’s Press: 1993). 45 That observation (with some exceptions) is generally still true throughout the Arab militaries.

[28] Woods, Saddam’s War,32.

[29] Norvell B DeAtkine, “The Arab Way of War” (presentation, 1993,JFKSWCS). For instance, as the assistant Army attaché in Jordan, in 1970 I was able to follow the path of Iraqi withdrawal from Jordan during the PLO-JAA conflict by following the path of broken down vehicles.

[30] My experience with Arab armies. Officers, especially commanders, avoid becoming involved with maintenance partially due to a cultural factor viewing manual work as undignified.



[31] DeAtkine, “Western Influence on Arab Armies: Pounding Square pegs into Round Holes.” Accessed 8 July,

[32]   Patai, The Arab Mind, 160.

[33] Pollock, 184.

[34] Baram, Saddam Hussein, “The Ba’ath Regime and the Iraqi Officer Corps,” 216

[35] Woods, Saddam’s War, 94.

[36] Ibid.

[37] Hoarding of information as well as equipment at supply depots was a cultural attribute I noticed prevalent throughout the Arab world militaries. Some writers on social mores have noted that the desert mentality of scarcity, i.e., that there is not enough to go around for everyone results in a mentality of holding information and materiel close to the chest. Certainly in both the Iraqi and Egyptian armies, hoarding of needed supplies were always a problem.

[38] Discussions with Iraqi officers Nov 2003 Jan 2004 and American personnel training Iraqis.

[39] Woods, Saddam’s Generals, 13

[40] Samir El Khalil, (Kenan Makiya) Republic of Fear, (New York, Pantheon Books:1989), 276.

[41] Woods. Saddam Tape,s 248.

[42] This also constrained intermediate headquarters from appending supplemental instructions to subordinate units resulting often in mass confusion.

[43] The number of offenses considered capital offenses and subject to excursion were mind boggling. See Kenan Makiya, Republic of Fear, 26-27.

[44] Woods, Saddam’s War, 127

[45] Khoury, 96.

[46] Amatzia Baram, Culture, History and Ideology in the Formation of Ba’athist Iraq, 1968-89, (New York: St Martin’s Press, 1991) 34-35. It was primarily Saddam Hussein’s effort to instill Iraqi nationalism.

[47] Woods, Saddam’s Generals, 108

[48] Sassoon, 129-152

[49] Ibid, 130.

[50] There are a number of translations of this quote. One perhaps more erudite is in Ali A, Allawi, The Occupation of Iraq: Winning the War and losing the Peace (New Haven, T Yale University Press: 2007), 17.

[51] Hanna Batatu, Communism in the Arab World course at AUB, Feb 1968.

[52] Ali Al Wardi, “Character of the Iraqis”, excerpt translated by Samah al Momem, Dec 2003.

[53] Kenan Makiya, Republic of Fear, 120.

[54] Woods, Saddam Tapes, 130.

[55] Yitzhak Nakash, The Shi’is of Iraq, (Princeton, Princeton University Press: 1994), 238.

[56] Faleh A Jabar, The Shi’ite Movement in Iraq (London, Saqi: 2003), 254.

[57] Ibid, 55.

[58] Khoury,103.

[59] From discussions with Iraqi army officers, Nov 2003. Baghdad Iraq.

[60] Baram, “Saddam Hussein, The Ba’th Regime and the Iraqi Officer Corps.” 211


[62] Al Marashi, 201-211 The attitude of the Iraqi people toward their army is probably the quote from an Iraqi school teacher who said, “regardless of the crimes the army may have committed, it belongs to the people and remains the symbol of national unity.” Ibid, 206. Quoted originally in the   International Crisis Group, “Iraqi building a new security structure, “Middle East Report, 5.

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ASMEA presentation 2014 The Burdens of the Arab world

This is my presentation to the 2014 ASMEA conference in Washington DC. I am putting it in wordpress primarily to be able to use as a reference for the 2018 presentation. The next few postings are for the same purpose.

In the nearly fifty years I have been involved with the Middle East in one capacity or another, I have observed the slow retrogression of the quality of life for its people. Despite some flashes of bright spots that seem to indicate progress is being made, society soon slips back into old patterns of life with only slightly new trappings of modernity. Modernity to the Arab society has come to mean some importation of Western products and the use of modern means of communication, sometimes with superior skills. But the use of these devices, and social media, for instance, has not altered the fundamental view of life or behavioral patterns. The global village that was supposed to transform the Middle East has simply become a conduit for accelerated reinforcement of old patterns of behavior. For example, media networks like al Jazeera have opened new sources of news, but at the same time their embedded prejudices and editorial orientation simply reach more of an audience and exacerbate existing sectarian and regional animosities.


In my association with Arab friends and their culture I have come to appreciate many aspects of that culture which tend to be pervasive and powerfully addictive to those who have long years of ties with it. I often admire the ability of so many Arabs who come to this country showing initiative and innovation rare in their home culture. However, it is those who strike out on their own to create businesses, in towns large and small across America, not those who flock to the Arab ghettos of Dearborn, Michigan. These are the Arabs who flee the oppression of their culture and society only to try and reinvent it in the United States.


So the question I have often asked myself is why do those Arabs who strike out on their own demonstrate remarkable initiative, create businesses, and produce goods and services while the same people in the Arab world remain inert and uncreative? For a number of years I have maintained a keen interest in this issue, and in this paper I will attempt to highlight the salient factors. These reasons and factors I term burdens. They are burdens in the social, political, economic, environmental, and educational fields that seem to shackle Arab society.


These burdens could each support many Ph.D. theses, but I want to bring out those which operate and interact with each other and provide a glimpse into the tangled social fabric of Arab society to surface those attributes that retard meaningful progress. In using the overworked word “progress” I mean enhancing the quality of life, not just how many use email or twitter. How could this once great empire, militarily triumphant, intellectually far ahead of a Europe entering the dark ages, the center for scientific and religious thought become so moribund and lag so far behind the rest of the world?


In a macro historical sense the obvious place to start would be with the works of Bernard Lewis. In his book What Went Wrong[1] Lewis identifies the idea of self- sufficiency which permeated Muslim attitudes, leading to isolation and an ossification of innovation and thinking. This was accompanied by trade route shifts, fragmentation of the unity of the Islamic empire, and the devastating Mongol invasion. There has never been a total recovery. In this paper I am attempting to isolate the reasons why the Arabs continue to lag behind and, in some cases, continue to fall further behind.

The Burden of an Austere Natural Environment

First of all it should be noted that certain regions start out at a disadvantage.[2] The Middle East is generally an inhospitable region for human life, short of water, mostly desert, and a region in which 90% of the people live on 5% of the land. Hot, with generally little rainfall, it is not made for a life of ease. Life for most people is hard and continues to be. Those who once made their home in the desert, the Bedouin, have dwindled to very few in recent decades, as more and more people leave the countryside to life in cities. These cities generally do not have the infrastructure to support them. In Cairo where I once lived, almost a million people live in the old cemetery of the Mamlukes, living in their mausoleums without adequate sanitation or water. In the building I lived in a formerly rural family moved into a shack built on the roof of the four-story building. This was not unusual. The important fact to keep in mind is that the Arab world is an urban people and the vast majority of the populations are crowded into concrete cities and outlying shantytowns.[3]


In all this the critical factor is water and the sufficiency of food. The overall index for the Arab world illuminates a major problem. It is largely dependent on outside imports of basic foodstuffs. The Middle East is the least food sufficient region in the world.[4] Moreover, the ambitions of some of the regimes, particularly in the Gulf, have created greater problems because they do not have the water to meet the rising expectations of their expanding populations. Nor do most have food security, meaning they do not have secure access to food supplies from outside their borders. Collectively, Arab


countries have to import at least 60% to 80% of their food supplies, a majority from the West.[5] Two countries that were self–sufficient or close to being so were Syria and Iraq. In view of the ongoing conflict that has depopulated farming areas and disrupted farm-to-market routes, even those countries can no longer be considered self-sufficient.


It has been an oft-quoted saying that the next war in the Middle East would be over water.[6] Apparently, however, the lust for political power, even over a declining society, is still the priority for the warlords of the Arab world. But that does not mitigate the fact that water will be a critical determinant of the Arab society’s future. Water in the Arab world originates primarily from two sources, aquifers and two great river systems (and to a much lesser extent the Jordan River). The aquifers of the Arabian Peninsula and Syria have been foolishly used and are drying up. For years Saudi Arabia lavished great sums of money to create farms in the desert growing cereal, pumping water from thousands of feet underground.[7] The aquifers have dried up, the water table dropped precipitously, and the southwestern flow of underground water has drastically affected Yemen where farmers, equally foolish, are growing Qat, a cash crop and a “thirsty” plant, further diminishing the water supply.[8]

Of the two great river systems, the Nile and the Tigris-Euphrates, both originate outside the Arab world and both are increasingly being siphoned off by the countries in which they originate. The Egyptians who once enjoyed full access to the Nile, their life-line, are increasingly being challenged by the Nile Basin countries who are belatedly demanding more access and use of the water.


The Nile River basin countries are increasingly insisting that the accord previously reached on the water distribution, promulgated under British colonial rule, was fundamentally unfair. It basically stated that 100% of the water belonged to Egypt and Sudan, then a part of the British Empire. The African nations are demanding that they get greater access to the water.[9] Anyone who has flown into Egypt observes the fact that it is a country of hundreds of miles of simply huge desert with a narrow strip of green on either side of the Nile. The Nile is literally the life of Egypt.


The Tigris Euphrates river system is even more tenuous as a water supply, especially to Iraq. Almost all the water originates in Turkey and in the past decade Turkey has increasingly diminished the water flowing to Syria and Iraq. With the construction of a number of dams in connection with the Southeast Anatolia Project, since 1975 the water supply to Syria has been cut by 40% and to Iraq by 80%.[10]


In summary, God obviously has given the “short end of the stick” to the Arabs in terms of natural environment, including a forbidding climate, an inadequate water supply, and meager suitable conditions for agriculture. However as one who appreciates their many unique qualities, these should not be insurmountable obstacles. Other peoples have overcome their geographic problems. Why not the Arabs?


History as an Obstacle

 During the “golden era” of the Arab/Islamic empire, artists, doctors, scholars, poets, philosophers, geographers and traders in the Islamic world contributed to literature, philosophy and history, architecture and art, music, the exact sciences, life sciences, technology, trade and commerce, and navigation. As Bernard Lewis described it, during the dark ages of Europe “…Islam was the leading civilization in the world, marked as such by its great and powerful kingdoms, its rich and varied industry and commerce, its original and creative science and letters. The glories of the golden era have been well documented, and to this Western civilization owes a debt that must be recognized.[11]

Unfortunately this impressive history, or rather its glorification, can be enumerated as one of the most serious obstacles to Arab progress. Hilal Khashan, a professor at the American University of Beirut, notes that despite vigorous efforts during the Sixties to catch up to the West and modernize, particularly under pan-Arabist regimes, “Arabs not only failed to catch up with the West but did not even modernize.”[12] Much of this he attributes to the “weight of history” in failing to disengage their culture from the elements of the past incompatible with modernity. The highly respected American foreign service officer, the late Hume Horan, called it the “historical baggage” of the Arabs, the remembrance of a once great civilization which has largely evolved into mythology.[13] Khashan identifies components of this baggage as weak institutions of governance, thousands of years of rule by foreigners, the survival of feudalism (local landlords allied with the ruling elites), and a cultural thinness. He disputes some aspects of the conventional image of the golden era of Arab civilization, describing the great flowering of Islamic knowledge pursuits as being only among a very thin level of intellectuals. He also describes other “historical weights” on the Arabs as the lack of innovation, pointing out that the Arabs never produced a Martin Luther or Niccolo Machiavelli to break through the binds of metaphysics on politics or emancipate natural science from religion.

As he wrote, the Arabs have been unable to absorb Western concepts. It has sometimes been described by others as learning dance steps without hearing the music. The ethos and spirit of Western humanism or values have never been absorbed. Operating a cell phone or laptop or visiting McDonalds does not westernize an individual.


Lastly, Khashan identifies traditional values as too strong to absorb new values. In fact the innate conservatism of Arab societies has increased in the past two decades. [14] To some degree the slowness of the Arab world has been attributed to the dearth of innovation, some attributing it to the Islamic concept of bida, deviating from sacred concepts, thus stifling innovation.[15]


Mythology has become entrenched with the narrative of history. Glorification of and excessive pride in a history that that has been manipulated all out of reality has become the norm. As Hume Horan wrote, “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 their own societies, the Arab public ego has experienced many reverses. It has become defensive and insecure.”[16]


It is not just that the Arabs are weighted down by history, an often mythologized history, but are prone to an attribute which the Egyptian intellectual, Tareq Heggy, calls “singing our own praises.”[17] He wrote of it this way, “It is virtually impossible to read a magazine or newspaper today without coming across one or more articles lauding our achievements, superiority and virtues. Often these paeans of praise are attributed to a foreign source, as though this imbues them with greater value.” It should be mentioned here that this sentence by Heggy surfaces an important reason the Arab world fails to realize its own problems. The Western and American Middle East scholarly community often views itself as some sort of truth repository standing against the perceived Islamophobia and ignorance of the hoi poloi outside the pristine walls of their campus. In this way they tend to act as facilitators for a dysfunctional society by providing excuses for the Arab intelligentsia.[18]


Heggy goes on to write that the propensity for self-praise is linked to the Arab inclination for empty rhetoric. “Of all the nations of the world, we sing more loudly and frequently of our history, our past glories and our superiority to others.”[19] Ali al Wardi, the famous Iraqi historian and sociologist, described this attribute as a symptom of dualism, saying one thing and doing another. As he wrote, “Iraqis love to show their loyalty to the nation when talking but run away from military service.”[20] Of course all this has been analyzed and recorded by Raphael Patai in his much-maligned The Arab Mind, [21] maligned by the same apologists who reinforce the Arab intellectual mindset that all their problems are the result of imperialism, colonialism, Zionism or some other outside force.[22]

Cultural Stagnation

 In my travels over the Arab world since 1967 a most noticeable trend is the erosion of cultural knowledge and a lack of curiosity in acquiring a deeper understanding of the world around them. Even in 1968, Cairo had some thriving old bookstores. Many sold old volumes dating from the British era. No doubt some were pilfered from old British libraries. Beirut was a Mecca for old traditional volumes. There I purchased many reprints of out-of-print orientalist books on the Middle East at Khayat’s Bookstore such as Alfred Guillaume and Duncan MacDonald. I found them invaluable in understanding the Arab world and Islam. The readability and clarity of expression is far superior to the majority of writings on the Middle East today.   In academia today the tendency is to relegate these books to some “orientalist” trash bin, perhaps one reason why Middle East scholarship in the West is so often mediocre.


An excursion into the older more literate Arab world is provided by reading Lawrence Durrell and his life in Alexandria, which brings out more clearly than any political science book the depth of the descent of the Arab world into cultural darkness. In comparison to the vibrancy of Alexandria described by Lawrence Durrell I found a very sterile, lifeless and decaying city. The bookstores through out the Arab world were filled with trashy novels written for near illiterates, and piles of religious books, many with anti-Christian or anti-Jewish polemics. Perhaps the most telling anecdote was finding the Protocols of Zion in the Amman Jordan Hilton Hotel bookstore.

As the Islamic scholar Dr. Akbar S. Ahmad wrote,

“Unfortunately the reality in the Muslim world is that scholars are silenced, humiliated, or chased out of their homes. The implications for society are enormous. In place of scholars advising, guiding, or criticizing the rulers of the day, we have the sycophants, and secret service. The wisdom, compassion and learning of the former are replaced by the paranoia and neurosis of the latter. And to where do the scholars escape?…to America or Europe. Yet it is popular to blame the West and others, for conspiracies.”[23]


“Where have all the Arab writers gone, particularly those who write in Arabic? What happened to the Arab culture that is so proudly related by the Arab historians? Do you in the contemporary world have literary giants like Naguib Mahfouz or Yusif Idris, or Mustafa Manfalooti?”

 These questions were asked of the editor of Arab News, Khaled Maeena.“I searched my mind and tried to come up with a giant of similar stature. Not a single name came to mind. Not a single present-day writer whose work could command international attention.” The editor went on to blame growing intolerance by “certain groups,” not the regimes necessarily but by the “self-appointed guardians of society.”[24]

Dr. Feisal Sanai, a Saudi military physician, wrote the following in the English language daily Arab News,

“Our scientific community is in deep hibernation. Not since the pre-Renaissance era has there been such a dearth of medical research. There is a malaise that seems to afflict Arab academic output and it has reached epidemic proportions. And the situation is only getting worse.” [25] He goes on to charge that Arabs are only too happy to rest on ancient laurels, and intellectuals happy to pursue only personal gain. He, of course, avoids placing any blame on Islam but rather on the selfishness of the Arabs in philanthropic work, citing the fact that the Weizmann Institute of Israel receives a large amount of its funding from individual contributions.

The renowned intellectual Mohammed Arkoun, who examined Islam from a historical standpoint, laments the fact that although the princes of an earlier Islam were just as capricious and unjust as those of today, the intellectuals were freer to criticize. As he wrote, “Todays intellectuals remain silent or commit themselves openly to the support of those princes who exercise power.”[26]

Arkoun roundly criticizes “orientalism,” but also bitterly attacks what he sees as ideological control imposed by latter day religious dogma and the regimes, writing,

“The Muslim societies import the most complex technological materiel, buy the most sophisticated armaments, and install high performance laboratories, but at the same time governments exercise such rigorous ideological control that all these instruments of scientific modernity have little perceptible effect on mentalities or even on reflective thought.”[27]

A key point that Arkoun does not elaborate on is that these are imported materials not produced locally. This is a point I shall discuss further in the section on economics.

In summation, obviously it is not that some Arab intellectuals do not recognize the problem, but rather they are powerless to influence the deeply pervasive cultural barriers to overcome them. As Maurice Gaudefroy-Demombynes observed, “… the scientific spirit itself, which was observed to be so firmly implanted in a physician of the 10th century, is now so weakened by long inertia that it can only be revived by an infinitely small number of Muslims.”[28] Although this was written over a half-century ago, no major change has occurred.



One of the great barriers to an intellectual environment is the Arab education system. Having attended American University in Beirut I noticed the difference between most Arab professors and American professors. Arab professors tended to teach in a very authoritarian style, with little or no feedback expected from the students.[29] My Arab history class was one example of this. The professor   expounded on dates and results of battles, but nothing on the analysis or implications of these events. On quizzes the students were expected to regurgitate the lectures of the professor. Over the years in dealing with Arabs, both civilian and military, I have found little change in the way education is conducted to the present time.


There is no doubt that education in Arab society is a valued concept and academic achievement is highly respected,[30] probably more so by Arabs than Americans. I found this to be invariably true throughout the Arab world. It is somewhat puzzling then that so little overall progress has been made in terms of almost every indicator of educational status. Working with various Arab militaries, the effects of a rote- type teaching experience were always marked among soldiers and officers. Even among senior officers who were well read and could quote from various Western military tracts, could not really put them into on-the-ground usefulness.


The ills of the Arab educational system have been well documented, initially by the Arab Human Development Report of 2002.[31] It surfaced three main problems with Arab socio-political system. They were the lack of political rights, the education of women, and acquisition of knowledge. Subsequent reports noted some progress, but not much. Noted in particular was the method of child-raising which inhibits learning by engraining a sense of dependence on parents fostering passive attitudes and hesitation in decision-making.[32] Most of the report posits that child-raising in the Arab world inhibits exploration and initiative. This attribute could be termed a lack of curiosity as evidenced by the fact that the “translation movement,” one of the most important means of dissemination information, remained static. As an example, in Spain 920 books per million people were translated, while in the Arab world the figure was 4.4.[33] As mentioned earlier, the bookstores of the Arab world have little of quality to offer, no classics and virtually nothing in any foreign language. This is true particularly in scientific research.


The report surfaces regime censorship as a major impediment to a more active literary movement in the Arab world but does not fully bring out the much more serious impediment to a more active literary scene by the strong religious constraints imposed by a politicized and radicalized clerical establishment.

The report goes on to mention the difficulties of using Arabic in scientific or technical fields and the overall difficulty of its proper translation. This is a major road block to cultural and educational progress in the Arab world. In fact the concept of the Arabic language itself as cultural glue, hanging together disparate segments of a people called Arabs because they speak some form of Arabic.


The fact of the matter is that many young Arabs have problems finding employment not because they do not speak French or English, but rather cannot write modern standard Arabic very well. Modern Standard Arabic (MSA) is not a spoken language (except for some news anchors on TV). MSA is depicted “…as largely learned, cultic, ceremonial and literary language which is never acquired natively, never spoken natively…”36 Taha Hussein, the contemporary literary giant, wrote that MSA is “…difficult and grim, and the pupil who goes to school in order to learn to study Arabic acquires only revulsion for his teacher and for the language…”[34]

Sati al Husri, a Syrian nationalist writer, wrote,

MSA is the preserve of a small, select number of educated people, few of whom bother using it as a speech form. Conversely what we refer to as “dialectical Arabic” is in truth a bevy of different languages differing markedly from one country to another, with vast differences often within the same country…”[35]

There can be no doubt that Arabic is a creative and powerful language that has a pervasive hold on its speakers as well as an unbreakable link to Islam It is to many the language of creation. As Sayyid Abul A’la Maudidi wrote, “If you study the language and fathom deep into its literature, you will be convinced that there is no other language than Arabic which is more suited to give expression to high ideals, to explain the most delicate and subtle problem of Divine knowledge…”

“It is such a rich and powerful language that was needed for the Qur’an, the Great Word of God.”[36] In his masterful depiction of Arab personality traits, The Arab Mind, Raphael Patai eloquently describes the psychological effects of the language with its “…inclination to rhetoricism, exaggeration, over-assertion and repetition, and of his tendency to substitute words for action.” [37] The power of Arabic to galvanize and evoke strong emotion is, at the same time, a drawback to a more reasoned logic. [38] The overly exalted and religious status of Arabic as a language and the “language of creation” is a self–imposed limitation to learning.

Philosopher Roger Scruton reminds us that there are a number of positives to an Islamic education.   As he writes, “The advantage of Islamic education is not diminished by the fact that the Islamic tradition of learning has all but disappeared from the modern world.”[39] He avers that an Islamic education provides certainty and guides to live by, wherein Western education does not impart a common culture or guidance for life, and frequently teaches resistance to any sort of authority. In fact Scruton avers that the decline of Western education is only compensated for by the political freedom we have. The student, who learns little in school, has the freedom to learn outside the school. This is not possible in the Islamic society in which he posits that human choices are alien to Islam.[40] The certainty of values and life’s destiny are so engrained that it acts as an anchor on more inquisitive thought.


Whatever the advantages of an Islamic education, education in the Arab world has not markedly improved. More students are going to universities, especially from the Gulf,[41] and in places there are glimmers of progress but overall a dismal picture remains. Opportunity for women, the quality of teaching, the lack of emphasis on teamwork, discouragement of analytical thinking, and a void in teaching leadership skills are all still embedded in the Arab teaching system.[42]



 From about the year 750 until the mid-13th century, generally recognized as the “golden era of Islam,” trade, commerce, business and banking tied into a robust economy that made the most of the long era of relative stability and control by Arab caliphs. In trade and commerce the Arab world was the center of the known world. Baghdad became the center of learning. Despite a jump in the wealth of Arab countries today, collectively they still have less wealth than (when one subtracts the oil wealth) their overall GDP is less than Spain’s.[43] So the question again arises – what went wrong? As previously written and enumerated by Bernard Lewis, the causes were self-imposed isolation of the Arab world, the shift of trade routes, the fragmentation of the Islamic world, and the Mongol invasion.

Charles Issawi[44] isolates three commonly advanced reasons for the decline of the Arab world, one being that the growth of democracy is by nature slow developing, and given the unsuitable soil of the Arab world’s political environment, little can be expected. Another reason very popular within the elite of the Middle East is that the importation of Western values has contaminated the Islamic world. And finally one holds that the Arabs, so individualistic as first depicted by Ibn Khaldun,[45] are incapable of collective cooperation as needed for a democracy.

But there are many other reasons why in the modern era Arabs have been unable to overcome these obstacles. Immediately the issue of Islam and its impact on the social, political and economic life of the people comes to mind. Generally this issue arouses the immediate ire of some of the Muslim commentators and has proponents on both sides of the issue, although no one disputes the sorry state of the Arab world’s economic situation today. The writings of Timur Kuran are the most dispassionate and informative in this regard. Kuran rejects the notion that Islam as a religion has stymied economic development, but he offers a number of reasons why the so called impact of Islam as a “civilization” or a way of life[46] as it is often been called has indeed had a deleterious effect.

Kuran depicts three main reasons for the economic stagnation: the impact of Islam’s political institutions hindered political development by keeping civil society weak, Islam’s original tax system which failed to protect property rights, and the growth of the religious trusts (Waqfs) which failed to produce enduring commercial enterprises capable of challenging state control. Kuran writes, “These institutions contributed to extensive corruption, low trust, nepotism, and high tolerance for law-breaking. Such features helped sustain modern Middle Eastern autocracies. They also keep the region’s democracies flawed and unstable.”[47]

Another pernicious effect of “Islamic economics” is the contrived and mostly fabricated concept that there is indeed an institution called Islamic economics. It was mostly an effort, particularly on the part of Sayyed ala Mawdudi (Indian Muslim and philosopher) to establish an economic order to conform to Islamic traditions. It consisted of an attempt to re-establish Indian Muslim identity as the British colonialism period ended and culminated in a world-wide acceptance that such an institution unknown in medieval times existed. In effect Muslim thinkers like ala Mawdudi, in their efforts to create a world separate and distinct from the West, promoted “the clash of civilizations”[48] which, ironically, so many Western academics deny exists at all. In fact as Kuran wrote, “The notion of a clash of civilizations is consistent then, with a rapid diffusion of new technologies and goods. In fact, such diffusion may be among its basic causes.”[49]

In today’s Arab world, economies remain mostly stagnate with embedded nepotism, bribery (bakshish), influence peddling (wasta), and the residue of a western import of socialism which only strengthened the power of the state over private economic enterprise, crippling it.[50]

In fact the oft quoted adage that communism and Islam were incompatible has not proven to be true and in fact many of the ill-effects of a communist system were seen as compatible with the egalitarian aspects of “Islamic economics,” such as the forbidding of Riba (usury) which has resulted in a mélange of contrived Islamic banking rules that have failed. As Ali A. Allawi wrote, “The failure of Islamic economies and finance, in spite of the billions that have been poured into them, is symptomatic of the unwillingness to face the issue of the nature of legitimate transactions in the context of Islamic rulings and the yawning chasm between them and what passes for ‘Islamic’ these days.[51] The impact of Arab socialism in a number of what were once considered “progressive” Arab countries has intensified the cultural attribute of “waiting for Godot” syndrome.[52] My observations in Iraq were that people had become so dependent on the state (by Saddam’s design) for fuel and electrical power that for the first few years they constantly bemoaned the loss of services without displaying much initiative to remedy the situation as a community.

The bloated bureaucracies of modern Arab countries[53] have added to the economic stagnation immensely. In this the need for the regimes to self-perpetuate themselves is the main reason for these massive state apparatus in security and every aspect of life. Putting an individual on a government payroll generally ensures his loyalty to the state and all the Arab states use this system to obtain compliance to their rule.[54] Among the many unfortunate aspects of these stagnated, inefficient bureaucracies, is a need to bribe officials to get anything done, but an even more pernicious effect is to force people into an informal economy, which by some accounts constitutes 20-40% of the economies of the Arab world.[55]

Finally in terms of economic power there is the utter failure of the Arab world to industrialize or produce their necessities. What the Arabs once produced locally has been overtaken by cheap imports from abroad. Even when I first arrived in the Arab world in 1967, one could find a number of household items made locally. It is somewhat ironic in that as the Arab nations emerged from colonialism, the emphasis was establishing an industrial policy, which was depicted by the media as “….the savior of the Arab peoples from the clutches of ignorance, backwardness, and modest living standards.”[56]

In many cases the emphasis was on prestige building rather than efficient useful industries compatible with the environment and the people. Building automobiles that were of poor quality or simply assembly plants to turn out aircraft were examples. In addition there were two particular problems with Arab industrialization. The first was the drive to create an armament industry since all Arab countries feared a cut-off of arms supplies from the West or the Russians. This was done at the expense of the civilian sector, although Egyptian arms factories turn out washing machines as well as artillery pieces. This only suffocates any attempts on the part of entrepreneurs to create a private enterprise sector.[57]

Secondly, all the Arab countries neglected the agricultural sector in the era of the rise of “modernizing” Army colonels ruling, industry was a symptom of backwardness, and little was done to assist this sector.[58]

I recall emerging from one of the tombs at Luxor after admiring the ancient wall drawings, one of which was a painting of an Egyptian farmer planting, using a water buffalo to draw water, and then seeing, only a short distance away, the same Egyptianfarmer, 2000+ years later, planting with the same water buffalo.

The Burden of Politicized Clergy

It is indicative of the dearth of secular Arab leadership that Abdul Nasser and, even to some, Saddam Hussein, are held up as later day Saladins. Nasser, despite his many admiral personal qualities, led his nation into disastrous wars and tried to implement “Arab socialism,” basically emasculating attempts to modernize the economy.

Into this gaping void of leadership[59] we have seen the rise of religious political warrior leader figures that have only accelerated the decline of the Arab world. They have capitalized on the rise of the most recent “Islamic revival,” a movement, like so many others of the Arab world, based on historical mythology and the belief that Western political imports have failed. Of course, in terms of fascism, communism and socialism, this belief has justification, but there is also a belief that democracy has not worked or is unworkable in the Arab world. Civil society, that most believe is a necessary prerequisite, is simply not there.[60] Tribalism, sectarianism, and familiar comfortable traditions all constitute a nearly impenetrable barrier to democracy taking root in the foreseeable future.[61] In this recent era of Islamic fundamentalism, the proclivity of the people to turn to a more fundamental form of their religion is understandable. Years of unfulfilled promises, vainglorious adventures, and less opportunity for families to live decent lives have undermined the few feeble Arab attempts at democracy. More importantly, the enthusiastic reception of fascistic and socialist concepts by the leaders of previous post-colonial regimes and the resulting diminishment of limited freedoms the people once had created a rich political environment for the simplistic “Islam is the answer,” and increasing power of the clerics.

Today we can observe the power of Islamic “televangelists” such as Yusif Qaradawi. Initially most were apolitical, [62]but as their power became more evident their turn to politics was all but inevitable. Yusif Qaradawi has, in the words of one Arab columnist, “…dedicated most of his public appearances to making political and religious statements that threaten to entrench radicalism within Muslim societies in the region and beyond.”[63] Preachers such as Qaradawi often have rather moderate religious views, which cloak their radical political ideas. As Hasan wrote in his article, the religious views espoused and spread by these radicalized politicized religious leaders give religious cover to atrocious acts of violence such as suicide bombers or the killing of civilians, including children. Even the “quietist” Shi’a highest religious authority, Ayatolah Ali al Sistani has tried to fill the void of Iraqi government leadership by calling on the Shi’a to resist ISIS attacks, and strongly advocating the end of the Al-Maliki regime.[64]

In a number of instances the clerics have promoted the violence, as in in Iraq.   In Fallujah, “These clerics made the place a hotbed for radicalized Islam that became a magnet for foreign Muslim extremists after Saddam fell.”[65]

The use of Islam to spread a totalitarian repressive ideology has become a staple in the Arab world. A most recent example is the image of the leader of the ISIS pretentiously decreeing himself as the new “caliph” of Islam. As caliph he has ruled that Christians leave Mosul under pain of death, and that women should undergo female genital mutilation.[66]

The writer has no intention to go into the complexities of Islam and if it somehow lends itself to these abnormalities, but a few observations on the state of Islam can shed some light of the reason why these quasi-religious personalities are able to command such a large following. One is the scant religious education required, within Sunnism in particular, to certify oneself as a scholar of Islam.[67] Shi’ism is much more strict about educational credentials but when someone such as Muqtada al-Sadr, known as a rather uneducated, uncouth type is depicted as a potential leader of Shi’a Islam one knows the political and family connections (or name) are more important than religious piety or knowledge.[68]

In fact throughout the Middle East much of the violence has been promoted and led by Islamist clerics. In Iraq the Association of Islamic Scholars was simply a coalition of radicalized Sunni clerics funneling money and intelligence to the insurgents. Their thunderous calls for violence against presumed or sectarian enemies are a feature of many of the neighborhood mosques of the Arab world. In my neighborhood of New Maadi, an upscale neighborhood of middle class Egyptians, the mosque next door to my apartment featured a cleric who repeatedly invoked passages from obscure or non- existent Islamic texts to denounce Jewish and American interference in Egyptian affairs.

A second reason for the ability of religious clerics to fill a power vacuum left by inadequate secular leaders is the ignorance of most Muslims of their own religion. Only a few can read and understand the Qu’ran and even fewer have a solid knowledge of the supporting doctrine as contained in the Hadiths. 72 They are contradictory and confusing. Local clerics invoke all sorts of scripture, allegedly from the Qu’ran or Hadiths, to give their political polemics validity. In other words many Muslims, particularly those of the inner cities and villages, know only the Islam being preached in the local mosque. Unfortunately they are frequently incitement to violence and sectarian hatred.


One of the most glaring burdens the Arab world must carry is a politicized and dangerous military. On one hand it is the primary support for the regime, but on the other feared by the regime for its capability to destroy the regime. Because it is creature of the regime it can be the oppressor of the people and at the same time an institution engendering pride among the people.[69]


I have written extensively over the years on the militaries of the Arab world in both conventional[70] and unconventional war.[71] I have also analyzed the inability of Western training and education methods to take root in the Arab militaries.[72] In my article “Why Arabs Lose Wars,” I depicted the basic problems that did and continue to infect Arab military establishments. Among the many problems, I cited the education system, the lack of cohesion between officers and enlisted men, the over-centralization of decision making, paranoia about security, all problems directly related to the politization of the officer corps.

Since I wrote that article, which has had a remarkable shelf life, many articles and new sources have validated my conclusions. Two in particular are the memoirs of the Egyptian War Minister Mohamed Fawzi[73] and the accounts of the Iraqi Army performance in the debacle in Mosul against the ISIS. In this book the editor and translator, Commander Youssef H. Aboul-Enein (USN)[74] contains excerpts not only of Field Marshall Fawzi, but also General Saad el-Din El-Shazli and General Abel-Monein Riad.

The memoirs of these generals illustrate the corruption and political intrigue which permeated the higher leadership of the Egyptian Army, creation of personal circles of power, political aspirations to topple both Nasser and Sadat. The overwhelming over-centralization and top-heavy structure of the Egyptian Army was depicted by the fact that the Office of the Chief of Staff, Shazly, consisted of 5,000 officers and 20,000 enlisted, including 40 generals.[75] In his excellent chronicle of the Egyptian top army leadership, Hazem Kandil told of the intrigue and maneuvering against Nasser[76] and Sadat.[77]

The second recent event, which attests to the continuing validity of “Why Arabs Lose Wars,” is the total collapse of the Iraqi Army facing the ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria). The collapse of Iraqi forces was analyzed in the on-line periodical War on the Rocks.[78] It was Saddam’s army redux, with one exception. The Shi’a instead of the Sunni, and Al Maliki’s family, instead of Saddam’s, were the primary culprits in the “new Iraqi Army.” Corrupt officers, fragmented by sectarian divisions, with soldiers untrained and poorly treated, led the Iraqi Army. In many cases, as with the Egyptian Army in 1967, the officers simply abandoned their men when the ISIS appeared. As the article goes on to describe, “coup proofing” was the primary objective of the Al Maliki regime as it has been with every Arab post-colonial regime. The problems with the Iraqi army were surfaced very well by an American of Arab descent, serving with the Iraqi security forces. He noted the lack of cohesion between officers and enlisted men, the lack of a professional non-commissioned officer corps, the inability to delegate responsibility, with the training of officers so meager that many are unable to read a map, etc.[79]

It was difficult to understand why some analysts faulted American Army training for the failures of the Iraqi Army.[80] Throughout the history of the Arab world, Western attempts to train Arab armies have not succeeded. Some might point out the Jordanian Army as the exception, but in reality as time has passed (particularly after the death of King Hussein) the Arab military virus of nepotism, sectarianism (Palestinian vs. east bank Jordanian), and the predilection for façade over reality has gradually crept back in.[81]

It seems the concept that Western advisors (or Russian) continue to make the same mistake of having a rather arrogant attitude that they can/could remake the Arab Army they are working with and remake it into their own image.[82] In this regard it should be recalled that even Winston Churchill made the same mistake over a hundred years ago in pronouncing the “new” Egyptian Army as evolving from an Oriental one to a European one.[83]

The Intellectual Elite

One of the greatest and most disturbing burdens that has limited Arab world progress is the betrayal by those with the education and scholarly credentials to inform and influence the Arab public. Even exhortations by these intellectuals to reform their societies are not predicated on an Arab renaissance to better the quality of life for the individual Arab, but rather to match the power of the Israeli state.[84] In fact probably there is no other factor that has had a greater adverse effect on the Arab world than the intellectual dishonesty and moral cowardice of the intelligentsia. As A. I. Tannous wrote, “All too often it was assumed that the elite who spoke English or European languages spoke for the masses.” Moreover the intellectuals themselves assumed the same.[85] But as Raphael Patai pointed out, the gap between the intellectuals and the masses is huge.[86] Perhaps the most disappointing aspect of the elites` role in the Arab world is their lack of moral courage. As Ishaq Musa Al-Husayni wrote, one of the major crises in the Arab world is “…the absence of courage, ideological freedom and self-criticism.”[87] Ira Lapidus notes the predilection of elites to flow with the trends. The elite “…adopted first Islamic modernist, then secular nationalism, sometimes socialist conceptions, of national transformations, and became committed to secular or even Western concepts of state and society.” Until very recently, when macabre videos of Islamist terrorist brutality were widely circulated, many Western[88] and Arab intellectuals continued to make apologies for Islamist terrorism as merely a response to the old nemesis of Zionism and imperialism on another Western “construct.”[89]

The reality is that, with few exceptions, many of the elite became compliant, or tolerant of Islamist terrorism. Those who dared swim against the current had to do so from outside the Arab world.[90] Probably the most damning picture of the Arab world intelligentsia was Kanan Makiya’s Cruelty and Silence: War Tyranny Uprising the Arab World. [91] In this book Makiya described the indifference to the people’s suffering, and willingness of the Arab elite to make common cause with tyrants, flattering and supplicating their favor. “The political culture based on fear, spitefulness and the self- serving interests, a gift of the Arab intelligentsia’s cultural heritage, and remains part of the collective consciousness.”[92]

Since that time there has been no appreciable change. In fact today one Lebanese writer, predictably living in the U. S., posits that, “The Egyptian media and the intellectual community are among the primary causes of the alarming proliferation of gnats, mosquitoes, and the viruses of terrorism, which places the Arabs at the lowest level and on the lowest rung of progress…” [93]


As Lee Smith sagely observed, “Arab media is a conversation between Arab elites, used to influence opinion, promote interests, and tinker with the internal design of rival regimes.”[94] Al Jazeera, once touted by Western observers as the flagship of a new era of Arab media, has primarily been a mouthpiece to promote the outsized ambitions of the Qatar royal family.[95] Secondarily it has promoted Sunni Arab interests at the expense of the Shi’a[96] and thirdly it has directly or indirectly supported the Muslim Brotherhood and radicalism, for example, by featuring Yusif al Qaradawi, a cleric with a moderate social message but a radical political viewpoint.[97]

With the advent of al Jazeera and a few other Arab news outlets there was a rush of enthusiasm among Western academics for a new era in the Arab world.[98]This was accompanied by the rise in the use of cyberspace to do an end run around the various regimes` control of the media. But overall in the last few years the increased amount of news sources have been accompanied by increasing polarization and violence within the Arab world. The Shi’a/Sunni divide has been exploited and violence promoted by news media. There is no doubt that the Iraqi media help fuel the current violence. Every event is viewed in a sectarian context.[99]


In my long experience with the Arab world and their people, it can only be depicted as a tragedy that their countries ranks so far behind the rest of the world in almost every indicator of human endeavor. Knowing the people, it is difficult to reconcile this with the innate characteristics of the Arabs themselves. They are hospitable, warm-hearted, animated, quick on their feet, amazing in their linguistic abilities to learn Western languages, and individually very talented in many respects, but collectively their world not only is stagnant, but in a number of aspects is retrogressing. It would seem that a basic problem is occidentosis, “…a disease akin to tuberculosis, whereby the West infects the East.”[100] It seems that many Arab intellectuals and the elite want to distance themselves from the West and in their quest to do so shun learning anything from it. They believe they must Arabize media, education, thinking, every aspect of human life and in so doing shut themselves off from the world. In a strange way it seems the Arab world has come full circle; the violent shattering of their complacency induced by the era of self-sufficiency, by the French invasion of Egypt in 1798, and reentering it in this era.

There is always a fear of Western cultural imperialism, evidenced in constant exhortations to Arabize their intellectual and scientific efforts. In a seminar probing the problems of the Arab media, for instance, Arab media journalists were being urged to form their journalistic schools, and abjure using Western journalistic methods, as if this was the core of the Arab media problem. Learning in the Western schools of journalism was somehow depicted as “media imperialism.”[101]

Viewing it in the context of a religion and belief system, Islam is not one of the retardants of social or political progress in the Arab world. The religion of Islam has played a very big part in the cultural definition of the Arab people, as has history, the natural environment, tribal traditions, etc., but the over-emphasis on Islam as a way of life has created a misconception, not only in the West but among Arab intellectuals. The concept of Islam as an engrained way of life has created postulations on the Islamic way of war, the commodification of Islam, Islamic economics, all contrived, and factors in the continuing gulf between the Arab world and the influence of world’s mainsprings of civilization. The efforts of the Arab elite to separate their world from the West using outworn phraseology of imperialism and the futile search for “Arab roots” have been detrimental to what the elite all proclaim as their objective, i.e., parity with the West and specifically, Israel. One, Amin Galal,[102] insists that even the measures of quality of life in political and economic freedom are a Western construct. Therefore even the measures of human endeavor are apparently different in the Arab world. In contesting the supposed view of the “orientalists,” Galal is in effect, supporting their “essentialism.”[103] In his own angry illogical way he is depicting the Arabs as an alien race with a culture that is impervious to democracy, reason, and other human attributes applicable to the rest of the world. But always the optimist, having spent many years living with, studying, or working with Arabs, I reject the belief that they are predetermined to descending levels of darkness.



[1] Bernard Lewis, What Went Wrong: Western Impact and Middle Eastern Response (London, Oxford University Press, 2002). 3-17

[2] Enrico Spolaore and Roamin Wacziarg, excerpted from the Journal of Economic Literature, June 2013 in the Wilson Quarterly, Fall 2014.

[3] Mustafa Kharoufi, “Urbanization and Research in the Arab World.” \

[4] Alan Richards and John Waterbury., 2nd ed (Westview Press, Boulder Co. 2008). 145

[5] “Arab World Looming Food Crisis: Rapidly Rising Cost of Food,” Al Hayat, republished in the Monitor           , 25 Sep 2012.

  1. Ariel l. Ahram, WashingtonPost , July 3, 2014.


7.Elie Elhadj, “Camels Don’t Fly, Deserts Don’t Bloom: An Assessment of Saudi Arabia’s Experiment in the Desert Agriculture,” Occasional Paper 48, ( SOAS) University of London. May 2004.

[8] Adam Heffez, “How Yemen Chewed Itself Dry,” July 2013.


[9] Hussein A. Amery and Aaron T. Wolf, Water in the Middle East: A Geography of Peace, (Austin Tx. University of Texas press, 2000). 220

[10] Jennifer Hattan, “Turkey Vows to Build Controversial Dam Despite Iraqi Complaints, Loss of European Support,” Joshua Hammer, Is Water to Blame for the Conflict in Syria?

[11] A full description of the advanced culture of the civilization is contained in John Badeau, eds.The Genius of Arab Civilization, MIT press, 2nd edition. 1983

[12] Hilal Khashan, “Arab World’s Travails, History’s Burden,” Middle East Quarterly,   March 1998.

[13] Hume Horan, “The Young Arabs and Us,” Middle East Quarterly, Fall 2002.

[14] Khashan.

[15] Bernard Lewis and Buntsie Ellis Churchill, Islam: The Religion and the People. Upper Saddle River, NJ, Wharton School Publishing 2009). 52, 104.

[16] Horan.

[17] Tareq Heggy, Culture, Civilization and Humanity, (New York, Taylor and Francis, 2003) at 1

[18] Norvell B. DeAtkine, “The Middle East Scholars Strike Out in Washington,” Middle East Quarterly, December 1994 at

[19] Heggy.

[20] Ali Al-Wardi, The Character of the Iraqi Individual, Baghdad 1975, excerpts translated by Samah al Momen.

[21] Raphael Patai, The Arab Mind, Rev Ed, (Tucson AZ, Recovery Resources Press, 2007). 43-69.

[22] Lewis. What Went Wrong, p.159. Barry Rubin carefully chronicles the particular Arab intellectual vituperation against the United States in his book Hating America, Barry Rubin and Judith Colp Rubin, Oxford U press, London 2004.

David Pryce Jones, The Closed Circle, Paladin Books, London 1990, p213. Even a harsh critic of the Bernard Lewis school of thought, Brian Whitaker, has written that the Arabs are participants in their own oppression. What’s Really Wrong With the Middle East, (London, Saqi, 2009). 10

[23] Akbar S. Ahmad. “Ibn Khaldun’s, Understanding of Civilization and the Dilemmas of Islam and the West Today,” Washington DC, Middle East Institute, offprint of article published in Middle East Journal, Winter 2002. 13


[24] Khaled Al-Maeena, “What is Stifling Creative Writing in the Arab World.” Gulf Wire News, 29 June 2001.

[25] Faisal Sanai, “A Nation’s Greatness will be Remembered Not for the Wealth it Possessed but for its Contribution to Civilization,” in Arab News 20 Dec 2005, published by MEMRI at

[26] Mohammed Arkoun, Rethinking Islam: Common Questions, Uncommon Answers, Translated by Robert D. Lee (Boulder CO. Westview Press, 1994). 116

[27] Arkoun. 119

[28] Maurive Gaudefroy-Demombynes, Muslim Institutions, (London: George Allen and Unwin. 1961. Translated by John P. Macgregor. 206

[29] See Bassam Tibi, Islam and Cultural Accommodation of Social Change. Translated by Clare Krojel. (Boulder CO. Westview Press, 1991.) 111

[30] In instructing members of the Arab military I noticed the great value put on certificates of completion or academic achievements. An army colonel with a PhD. would always insist that his title be Dr. Colonel Bassam Tibi, Islam also commented that the diploma and university are most important, not the education itself.

[31] Arab Human Development Report. 2002.



[32] Arab Human Development Report, 2003. 53

[33] Arab Human Development Report, 2003. 67

[34] Salamah, 53

[35] Salamah, 59

[36] Sayyid Abul A’La Maududi, Towards Understanding Islam, Islamic Federation of Student Organizations, 1992. p 37

[37] Rapheal Patai, The Arab Mind, revised edition. (Tucson AZ. Recovery Resources Press, 2007). 327

[38] Ali Al-Wardi, The Character of the Iraqis (in Arabic) translated by Samah al Momen.

[39] Roger Scruton, The West and the Rest; Globalization and the Terrorist Threat, (Wilmington, Delaware, Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 2002.) 106

[40] ibid

[41] “International Students and Study by Americans Abroad are at all Time High,” Institute of International Education, Open Doors.


[42] “Experts See Grim Picture in State of Arab World Education,” by Fred Dews, Brookings Now, Feb. 12, 2014;

[43] How Much is the Arab World Worth, Ali Ibrahim, Al Bawaba, 28 March 2014;

[44] Charles Issawi, “Economic and Social Foundations of Democracy in the Middle East.” In Readings in Arab Middle Eastern Societies and Culture, A ed Abdulla M. Lutfiyya and Charles W. Churchill, Mouton Press, The Hague, 1970. 260-261

[45] Ibn Khaldun: An Introduction to History, translated by Franz Rosenthal, Routledge and Kegan Paul, London, 1967. 119

[46] Philip Hitti, Islam a Way of Life, Henry Regnery Company, Chicago, 1970.

[47] Kuran

[48] Samuel Huntington, The Clash of Civilizations: Remaking the World Order. (New York, Touchstone Press, 1996.

[49] Kuran, ‘The Genesis of Islamic Economics: A Chapter in the Politics of Muslim Identity.’ (Social Research, Vol. 64, no.2 (Summer 1997).

[50] James A. Bill and Robert Springborg, Politics in the Middle East, 5th edition. (New York: Longman 2000). 174

[51] Ali A. Allawi. The Crisis of Islamic Civilization, (New Haven, Yale University Press, 2009. 214.

[52] The well-known phrase descriptive of people waiting for a solution or leader who never arrives.

[53] Lida Bieddini and Guenter Heidenhof, “Governance and Public Sector Employment in the Middle East and North Africa.” Voices and Views Middle East and North Africa, 09/05/2012 ( http://blogs.

[54] James A. Bill and Robert Springborg, Politics in the Middle East, 5th Edition, Longman, New York, 2000. 202

[55] Ibrahim Saif, The Bloated Informal Economies in Arab Countries, Al Hayat Feb. 12, 2013.


[56] “The Rise and Fall of Arab Industry,” in the Al Monitor.

[57] Sarah A. Topol, “In Egypt the Military Means Big Business,” Bloomberg Businessweek.

[58] Amer Thiab al Tamimi, April 10, 2014, “Rise and Fall of Arab Industry.”


[59] “Reviving the Arab World’s Anemic Political Systems,” by Mohammed Fahad al Harthi.

[60] Timo Behr and Aaretti Siiltonen, “Building Bridges or Digging Trenches,” The Finnish Institute of International Affairs, FIFA working paper, January 2013.

[61] Elie Kedourie, Democracy and Arab Political Culture, (Washington, DC, Washington Institute Monograph, 1992. Preface

[62] “Holy Smoke,” The Economist,

[63]   Hasan Hasan, “Hatred , Violence, and the Sad Demise of Yusuf al Qaradawi,” The National, January 28 , 2014.

[64] Martin Chulov,   Iraq’s Highest Shia Cleric Adds to Pressure on Maliki over Isis insurgency” ,The Guardian June 20, 2014,

[65] Adeed Dawisha, Iraq: A Political History from Independence to Occupation, (Princeton: Princeton U press, 2009). 247

[66] Iraqi News.

[67] Musrerq Abbas ,“ISIS Leader al Baghdadi Proves Formidable Enemy,” , in the al Monitor, Feb. 5, 2014. There seems to be total confusion on the origins of al Baghdadi. It would seem if he were a scholar of Islamic studies and had earned a PhD. from an Islamic University in Baghdad more would be known about him. As far as is known he did not preach from any mosque. It is typical of instant Islamic clerics to claim descent from the Prophet and as a Sunni to clothe himself in the Hashemite fashion.


[68] Nir Rosen in his book The Triumph of the Martyrs (Washington DC, Potomac Books, 2008) makes clear Moqtada al Sadr is simply a thug who came to the fore based on his father’s name and the infrastructure his father had set up. 26-33, 105-107 Passim. The eminent Arabist Hume Horan describes him as lashing out because of his personal inadequacies. George Packer, The Assassins Gate; Americans in Iraq. (New York. Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2005). 314

[69] I found this to be true among the Iraqis. Despite the role of the army in domestic oppression, and despite the army’s less than admirable performance against internal and external enemies, even among the Shi’a there was a sense of pride in the army.

[70] Norvell B. DeAtkine, “Why Arabs Lose Wars,” in Barry Rubin and Thomas A. Kearney, eds. Armed Forces in the Middle East Can be accessed at

[71] Norvell B. DeAtkine, “The Arab as Insurgent and Counterinsurgent,” in Conflict and Insurgency in the Contemporary Middle East, Ed. Barry Rubin, (London, Routledge, 2009). 24-45

[72] Norvell B. DeAtkine, “Western Influence on Arab Militaries: Pounding Square Pegs into Round Holes,” at

[73] Youssef H. Aboul-Enein, ed. Reconstructing a Shattered Egyptian Army: Naval Institute Press, Annapolis, MD, 2014.

[74] Aboul-Enein has written a number of very useful articles in the Infantry Magazine and other publications on the Egyptian Army, particularly one I found useful in the Military Review. January, February 2003, “The Yom Kippur War: Memoirs of Egyptian Generals.”

[75] Aboul-Enein, Reconstructing A Shattered Egyptian Army. p 179

[76] Hazem Kandil, Soldiers, States, and Statesmen; Egypt’s Road to Revolt, London, Verso, 2014. 53-69

[77] Kandil, 99-174. Kandil reveals that the assassination plot against Sadat was not the work of just a few Islamists, but involved a number of military officers. Certainly it was not regretted by the military leadership. When a delegation from the U.S. Office of Military Cooperation visited the Ministry of Defense the next day to offer condolences, the Egyptian liaison officer commented, “How else could we get rid of Sadat?”

[78] Yasir Abbas and Dan Trombly, “Inside the Collapse of the Iraqi Army’s 2nd Division” in War on the Rocks.

[79] Report by Jamil Mansour, to author, (unpublished) who served three years with the Iraqi security forces. Feb 2012.


[81] Based on my conversations with Jordanian officer friends from the Seventies and my own observations from more recent times. Although the charges of corruption have not reached the army, there is no doubt that slots in the army are reserved for selected tribal members. See Hugh Taylor, Jordan’s rural poor among the loudest critics of “corrupt” politics. The Nation, 12 July 2013.

[82] Certainly my observations over the years serving with the Egyptian and Jordanians. Many U.S. officers suffered from the same unrealistic expectation. For example, see Wesley Gray, Embedded: A Marine Corps Adviser Inside the Iraqi Army, (Naval Institute Press, Annapolis, MD 2009), 187

[83]   Sir Winston S. Churchill, The River War, Wildside Press, Doylestown, PA reprint, 77


[85] A. I. Tannous, “Dilemma of the Elite in Arab Society,” in Readings in Arab Middle Eastern Societies and Culture, ed Abdullah M. Lutifiyya and Charles W. Churchill, (New York, Praeger Press, 1988). 453-464   See also Tibi, 128. The gap has not closed. Despite some progress in public education, the frequent political and violent episodes in the Arab world tend to set back whatever progress is made.

[86] Patai. 205-205

[87] Ishaq Musa Al-Husayni, “The Causes of the Crisis in Arab Thought,” in Political and Social Thought in the Contemporary Middle East, Ed. Kemal H. Karpat (New York: Praegar,1982, revised edition). 210

[88] A typical method is to conflate Islamist political ideology with Islam itself, something they accuse the “neo-orientalists” of doing. In this manner they demean an attempt to explore any connection between Islam and Islamist terrorism. An example of this is John Esposito in his book Islamic Threat; or Myth or Reality, (N.Y. Oxford University Press), 1992.

[89] Arab reformers must face not only the ire of the regimes but more dangerously the radical religious establishments and the Salafists. Quite often they work together to intimidate liberal intellectuals. One example was Dr Sa’ad al Din Ibrahim, formerly the head of the Ibn Khaldun Center for Development Studies in Cairo. He was sent to jail for suggesting a revision of Islamic scholarship. The more dangerous example is that of famous writer, Naguib Mahfuz who was knifed by a religious fanatic for being termed “unIslamic.” See Dan Murphy in “Writers Work, a Vanishing Arab World,” The Christian Science Monitor, September 6, 2006.

[90] Muhmmad al-Sayyad, “The Cowering Intellectuals of the Arab Spring,” 8 Feb 2013.


[91] Kanan Makiya. Cruelty and Silence: War, Tyranny. Uprising and the Arab World. New York: W.W. Norton, 1993. Since the publishing of this book he has predictably come under attack from a number of the intelligentsia of the Arab world and Left wing Western academics. His unapologetic support of the American destruction of the Saddam regime seems to be the main cause of their ire. When his previous book, Republic of Fear, exposing the totalitarian nature of the Saddam regime, was published under a pseudonym, a well-known American writer on Iraq told me “…. the author has to be a Jew. No Iraqi Arab could write that.”

[92] Al Khaleej, “The Cowering Intellectuals of the Arab Spring,” Posted Feb *, 2013. At

See also Philip Resnick, “The Treason of the Intellectuals Again,” Inroads ; A Journal of Opinion, Summer-Fall 2011.

[93]   Dr Ihsan al-Tarabulsi, originally in the Arabic website www., excerpted in MEMRI, Oct 20, 2004, no. 803 .

[94] Lee Smith, The Strong Horse: Power, Politics and the Clash of Arab Civilizations. (Doubleday, New York, 2010.) 132.

[95] Review of Mamoun Fandy’s book, (Un)Civil War of Words in MEMRI, Mar. 19, 2008, No. 428.

[96] In my extensive experience with the Shi’a community of Iraq, their common belief was (and is) that al Jazeera’s slanted the news with obvious favoritism toward the Sunni insurgency and vituperation against the Shi’a community.

[97] Ray Hanania, “The Failure of Al Jazeera to Confront Extremism Undermines its Effectiveness,” The Arab Daily News 29 July, 2014.

[98]   A typical reaction was on the al-Bab web site

[99] Daoud el Ali, “Iraqi Media Fail: Encouraging Sectarian Division, Spreading Rumours, Causing War,” Niqash Media, 25 June 2014.

[100] David Pryce-Jones, The Closed Circle. An Interpretation of the Arabs, ( London, Paladin, 1990). 385

[101] Phip Seib, “Media Education and the Arab Identity.” Huffington Post, June 27, 2014.

[102] Amin Galal, “Music to Western Ears,” Masress Press, January, 08, 2001.

[103] The concept of assigning homogeneity to a racial or linguistic group of people. The on-going and bitter confrontation between the orientalists and the post-modernists of the presently predominate school of thought, best expressed by Edward Said, are well described in Robert Erwin’s, Lust of Knowing: The Orientalists and Their Enemies, (New York, Penguin Books, 2006), Passim. As Erwin wrote of Said’s book Orientalism, “…the book seems to be a work of malignant charlatanry in which it is hard to distinguish honest mistakes from willful misrepresentations.” 4

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Bernard Lewis The Greatest Middle East Historian and Commentator of this Era


Bernard Lewis  1916-2018

It was indeed an honor  to shake hands with this great historian and astute analyst of all things middle eastern. He was a scholar and a gentleman, something that can be said only of a diminishing number of Middle East academicians.

I have provided the links to a couple of obituaries on Lewis so I will not go into that, I will simply say that his life and scholarship has underlined what is so wrong with Middle East academia today. Basically because he was Jewish and an unabashed supporter of the state of Israel ( but a realistic one), the left-wing know – nothings, who dominate middle east studies, detested  him and denigrated his work. They also overlooked his remarkably accurate forecasts of what was to come in the Middle East long before al Qaeda and Islamism became  household terms.  He forecast the rise of political Islam ( in 1978). Unlike so many of the Middle Eastern  academics and “shake and bake ” middle east journalists  of today he rightly observed that continual crises and maladroit movements erupting out of the middle east were not the consequence of  the usual culprits….colonialism, Zionism, capitalism.  These are the evils that are being  carefully cultivated in the  Middle East studies classrooms and taught as legitimate scholarship.  The  mostly privileged ill-bred, and ill – educated students, being propagandized  mostly on tax payer money, or papa’s largesse, eat this bilge up.   It obviates the necessity of thinking. Hanging around universities, waiting for the next – protest march, they are easily identified by their  Che Guevara shirts and Palestinian Kaffiyas   I use to see so many of those at Middle East Studies Association conferences…….. until  I got tired of hearing  infantile prattle about the evils of Western  imperialism.( Dr Lewis, strangely enough, was one of the originators of that organization before it went off the rails.)

Reading Dr Lewis over the years and my own observations beginning in 1966 , I began to understand that the odious effluence contaminating the Middle East was primarily  the result of a culture in which time stood still….. or retrogressed, aided and abetted by Western ideologies of fascism and communism, (with which, not so surprisingly,  Islamism shares many  characteristics.). The  totalitarianism of these movements were perversely much preferred by the Middle Eastern elite over democracy.  It has always been part of the “strong horse:”mentality of their culture.These things are, of course, politically incorrect to say in this era, But they are no less true. So many Western, especially American, academicians act in the role of facilitator,  always finding some excuse for the barbarity, which largely characterizes  most of the Middle East today.

I remember when I was introduced to Dr Lewis, he mentioned he had read an article written by me. I was indeed flattered, I don’t know if he had really read it or not, but it was typical of him, that while he hobnobbed with the powerful in Washington, he also maintained a base and communication  with his disciples. He was  quick-witted on his feet and most unusual among academics he had a great sense of humor. In  his mid nineties he could speak eloquently without notes on a variety of subjects. He was a pleasure to listen to..also a departure from the nasal drone adopted by many academics to indicate erudition.

As a young professor at a British university he recalled how surprised he was to see that most of his classes on the Middle East were attended by Arabs, Why did they come to the U, K. to learn about  their own country.? The short answer is that history taught in most Arab universities today bares little resemblance  to reality. And it changes with every new regime.

Today even after decades of spiteful vituperation aimed at his work by ideologically oriented   left -wingers he commands great prestige among serious Arab scholars. An Iraqi friend of mine who monitors Arab social media  mentioned that favorable comments about Dr Lewis were numerous. A similar reception has plagued  Raphael  Patai’s book, The Arab Mind.  He, also, was Jewish and an Israeli, and because of that the best book in any language on Arab culture  is often trashed in Arab studies  circles. But nevertheless I received a number of requests to buy the book for Arab Muslim students.

Of course Dr Lewis had his blind spots, One being the Turks. Having written the best book on Turkish nationalism in the English language ( The Emergence of Modern Turkey) and an aficionado ( an understatement) of the Ottoman  empire, he was soft on the Armenian genocide.    Mostly I think people misunderstood his stance. He agreed it was a tragedy but got wrapped  around the definition of  genocide,  opining that because it wasn’t planned it did not fit the genocide as systematically carried out by the Nazis.

He was also  great admirer of Islam, particularly as a civilization, ferreting out the intricacies of the early Arab historical texts , something his critics were unable to do. He also understood  the  frailties of Islam and how it could be used as an ideology. It is not an overstatement to say that Dr Lewis knew far more about Islam than the vast majority of the Muslim clerics  who  mix ideology with religion. He brought his immense knowledge together in two small books, The Crisis of Islam and What Went Wrong? His clarity in writing, now with Fouad Ajami gone, is a lost art among Middle East academics.


Edward Said. 1935-2003 Excellent pianist and renown polemical writer on Bernard Le

He had great debates with Edward Said, the ersatz Palestinian, which brought out the worst in Academia, as many formed a cult around Said’s  well written polemics on Palestinians victimized by the usual culprits.  Many in the Western Middle East scholarly community  oozed and slobbered all over Edward Said and his book, Orientalism,  managing to turn the word into something akin to Nazism, choosing to ignore  that it was the European Orientalists who brought Middle East studies to the West. So today the great chasm still exists, the Said school and that of Lewis, the anti-zionists and the pro-zionists. This  has created an environment in which the Palestinian issue subsumes the entire Middle East, every conflict or issue is somehow linked,  however fatuous, to the Palestinian issue. Even 9/11!!

Put me solidly in the Lewis school. I continue to look for the very few books he has written that I still do not have. They are treasures.  I think he has written 21 books and  I am  missing about five .  The one I want  particularly is The Political language of Islam.

Dr Lewis you can rest in peace. You ran the race well

Obits. read them




















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A Movie about a Movie; Turkey and the Armenians.

The other night I watched most of a movie called “Intent to Destroy,” which was a movie about a movie called “The Promise.” Ordinarily a movie about movies or movie makers  is excruciatingly painful to watch. Their inflated sense of self-importance has never been more pronounced than in the last few years. However this movie was about an important and generally unknown event in history….the genocide of the Armenians by the Ottoman Turks.

Screen Shot 2018-05-01 at 1.18.42 PM

I have some personal connection to this event through my landlord in Beirut, the eminent professor of history and Arabic, Dr. Jibrail Jabbur. Among his many achievements was to author a prized book in my collection, The Bedouins of the Desert: Aspects of Nomadic Life in the Arab East.  It is a book I consider essential to understanding tribal  aspects of Syrian culture today.

Dr Jabbur would invite me down to his ground floor apartment of the building we lived in right in the middle of Ras Beirut. He talked about his childhood in Syria and the historical events he witnessed during the last days of the Ottoman empire. One of his stories was seared into my mind, one that I have mentioned elsewhere in these blog postings, but important to retell in view of current events.

Ottoman map

The huge Multi cultural Ottoman Empire

Dr Jabbur related to me his vivid memories of the Christians of Damascus, where he grew up, going out into the desert in 1915 to feed starving Armenians who had been evicted from their homes and villages. They had lived in these villages where for centuries,  long before the Turks migrated from Central Asia. They were forced to endure what amounted to a “Death March.’ They were subjected to incredible cruelty and barbarism by Turkish police, militia. and marauding Kurdish bands.  Dr Jabbur told me he could never get out of his mind the sight of wild dogs eating the cadavers of the Armenians. The others were too weak to bury them.


Turkish atrocities were widespread and instigated as much by religion as nationalism

Why does the world know so little about this era, which went on more than a decade under the Ottoman Turks and the “Young Turks,” the nationalists who eventually swept away  the old rotting Ottoman Empire. Under the  Empire and its Millet system of governing, the Christians were able to more or less live a stable life, albeit  as decided second class citizens and periodically subjected to  mass punishment and outbreaks of religious hatred. When the Young Turks assumed power their motto was “Turkey for Turks.” This new ideology imported from the West has brought unending  misery for millions of people.


ataturk 03

Kemal Ataturk.  Tried to turn Turkey from East to West but succeeded only among the elite


The problem was  that there huge populations of  Greeks (who had lived in Asia Minor before the time of Homer), Armenians, and Kurds. The later were Muslim but not Turks. In the minds of the young Turks, you had to be Muslim and Turkish. In fact as it turns  out even that is not enough as the Alevi Turks, a branch of Shiism, have found themselves  suspect in the Turkey of today. In other words now you have to be a Sunni Muslim Turk, following the Muslim Brotherhood brand of  Islam as instituted by President ( for life?) Tayyip Erdogan.


With Friends like these who needs  enemies?

In a way this brand of ‘Islam remains of one of the ersatz Gothic Germanic theology of Heinrich Himmler, who sought to meld together symbols  of Christianity with Gothic mysticism emphasizing the German master race. This to me is Erdogans Islam, a triumphalism Sunni Islam embedded with Turkish racial superiority. It combines Turanianism , a mythology that embodies one great Turkish nation stretching from  China’s border to the Balkans It is a persistent dream of the pan-Turkish zealots who not only want to establish this greater Turkey  but also reestablish  a

iz Tribes man in town

Sunni Tribesmen in Iraq. Most Sunni Tribespeople favored the Ottoman government. The Shi’a did not

revived Ottoman empire to govern the Arabs as a vassal people.

So why has the genocide of the Armenians gone relatively unnoticed? There are  a number of reasons…some that are too hot for the politically correct  historians to surface. The Armenians have never had the diaspora media  power that the Jews have had to keep the Armenian genocide in the news. More importantly Turkey has been a “swing” state for the past century. In world war I both sides wanted s desperately to keep turkey on their side and in WWII it was the same story. Buried in the wooing of Turkey was the Armenian slaughter.   In fact President  Roosevelt’s State Department persuaded Hollywood to kill the production of the movie. “The Forty Days of Musa Dagh” based on a famous book about the Armenian  struggle against Turks on the mountain called Musa Dagh.   A rather obscure  movie by the same name was released in 1983 and received so so reviews.  Mel Gibson and Sylvester Stallone have expressed interest in the story but have not followed through. The Armenian film academy tried to interest Steven Spielberg in making a blockbuster  movie about the genocide but he too apparently was not interested.   Why one wonders? Well Hollywood, of course, loves movies about the Nazi genocide of the Jews, The German  Nazis  are a “safe villain.” But  reaching back into my conspiratorial mind, acquired after many years in the Middle East,  it should be remembered that prior to the advent of Erdogan,  Turkey and Israel were good strategic friends.


Bernard Lewis pre-eminent scholafr on Ottoman  and Middle East history.

Many American scholars,  including the renown Middle Eastern scholar, Bernard Lewis, has declined to call the massacres of the  Armenian people genocide.  Lewis did not deny that the Armenians  suffered greatly but that it was not a case of the Turkish authorities  wishing to obliterate the Armenians as a people,  as the Nazis did the Jews,  but more of an ethnic dispute between two Peoples.  The Movie  “Intent to Destroy” makes the case that it was indeed  planned and deliberate genocide.

I would agree that there was no coordinated master plan to eradicate the Armenians but only because the Ottoman government was hopelessly inefficient and venal. General Liman Von Sanders who led combined German and Turkish forces for over five years   wrote that the bravery of the Turkish  soldiers was often diminished by official sloth and corruption.   Much this is found in his book “Five Years In Turkey. His Germanic sense of order was frequently outraged by the Turks “leave it to God ” attitude.

‘So there was no Wannsee Conference, ( the  conference of German bureaucrats to sort out the legalistic and protocol  aspects of genocide) but there  was coordination among the young Turk leadership to get rid of the Armenians.  Dr Eugene Rogan in his  book “The Fall of the Ottomans” makes this very clear. He  reminds  the readers that in fact the Ottoman government hanged a few low-level Ottoman officials for the slaughter to appease the Allied Powers demanding accountability for the genocide. The main perpetrators, as one would expect, made it safely to Germany. The wife of Mehamed Talat Pasha passed along  his  emotional defence ( Posthumous Diaries) of one of the main culprits in the Armenian massacres.  He called them “deportations,”  and blamed the Armenians for forcing them to happen. Talat was assassinated  by an Armenian student in 1921.

In summary much of this debate is semantics. Whether planned or not,  the result was the same …the eradication of the Armenian people and culture from Turkey. The arguments by the present Turkish government that it was a territorial dispute between two Peoples and that the Armenians were disloyal are specious at best.  No doubt, like all the minorities in the Ottoman empire, most were thrilled to get out from under the yoke of Turkish mismanagement and despotic government. Nevertheless most of the Armenians remained more or less loyal to the Ottoman empire and served in their army. In the book  “Year of the Locust: A Soldier’s Diary and the Erasure of Palestine’s Ottoman Past,” the writer , Salim Tamari, a well-educated  Muslim Palestinian soldier in the Ottoman army, laments the harsh treatment meted out to the Jewish and Christian soldiers . They were summarily dismissed from their units and put to work as slave labor. Nor were the Turks particularly popular with their Arab vassals. The Syrian adage, ” where the Turk trods civilization will disappear for a hundred years” seemingly summed up their attitude.

There is a second hot potato involved as well.   It particularly  limits the desire of the Hollywood moguls to make a movie about the Armenian genocide. The slaughter of the Armenians was not just Turks versus Armenians. There was an obvious religious aspect to the genocide.  The more unsavory aspects of Islamic fanaticism was a critical factor..  In this era what movie maker is bold enough to face the symbiotic adversaries, the “black and the red?” (A very apt phrase used by Shah Riza Pahlevi of Iran in describing his enemies , the fanatical religious mullahs and leftists.

Of course there were the all-powerful geopolitical factors. After WWII, Turkey was a vital part of the  Western Cold war strategy against the USSR. I traveled in Turkey in 1968 when we had nuclear weapons stored in  Turkey along with a number of missile monitoring bases along the Black Sea.  It has the largest army in European NATO and had always been counted on as a key to the defense of Western Europe against the Russians, their traditional enemy.  Turkey as an ally was abruptly questioned when they would not allow American troops to enter Iraq from the north in 2003. In the war against Islamist terrorists, Turkey played a double game, often turning a blind  eye to Islamic State supplies and recruits pouring through Turkey ( or actually supporting them). Recently they seemed to have moved closer to the Russian camp, (at least semantically)  and can no longer be counted on for any NATO mission.

turkey strategic perspective


turkish honor guide

Turkish troops marching to guard posts. I noticed in 2006  that the Ataturk memorial is gradually going to pot…part of Erdogan’s scheme to downplay Ataturk’s  and his secular legacy.

I have always been an admirer of the Turkish army and their soldiers. They have had a history of great bravery and stubbornness,  against the Allies in WWI and fighting Chinese in the Korean war as one of our staunch allies. They were  tough soldiers and  inspired fear in their enemies.  Stationed in Korea in 1961, a Turkish  cantonment base was near my HAWK battery compound.  While we had a massive problem with “slicky boys” stealing us blind, the Turks did not. The reason why was dramatically revealed one day when we noticed a human head impaled on a stake. The Turks had caught one stealing in their compound and dealt with it in the Turkish fashion.

with tirkish officers cyprus

With Turkish officers in Cyprus ( me with light suit in center)

After the massive purge of the military by Erdogan I have some doubts that the Turkish army is up to the professional standards of  the past, but there is no doubt that it is now a loyal instrument of the Erdogan rule.  The coup of the Egyptian army against President Mohammed Morsi, a Muslim brotherhood proponent, was a direct result of the Egyptian military leadership’s understanding of the “lessons learned” in Turkey.

Al Morsi and Erdogan

Muslim Brotherhood together again! Morsi and Erdogan…. Birds of a feather

One aspect of Turkey that went  unnoticed for a very long time was that while the Turkish government was in the Western camp the people generally were not.  This has been graphically shown by the popularity of Erdogan’s anti – Western and pro Muslim Brotherhood rhetoric.  On my last visit to Turkey ( 2006) I noticed the  popularity of  the movie the “Valley of the Wolves” It was mostly a depiction of  American “atrocities” in Iraq, with heavy anti – semitic overtones,  bringing  cheers from the audience when U.S. soldiers are being killed.  Of course very popular American movies like Midnight Express and America America show  a very unflattering image of Turkey. The latter was about the hard life of the  Greeks in the Ottoman empire.

As one long time observer of the Turkish scene  told me, the dramatic and seemingly pervasive changes instituted by Kemal Ataturk to turn the Ottoman empire from a despotic oriental empire to a Western nation were  only superficial. The vast majority of the Anatolian peasantry were unaffected culturally or in their  adherence  to a very conservative  Islamic faith.

Turkey pic

In Istanbul 2006.

By the way, I never saw the movie “The Promise.” The reviews mostly said it was a great movie spoiled by a cheesy  love triangle  with Christian Bale uncharacteristically doing a poor job. But then the director had a point when he asked, who would go see a movie that just endlessly portrayed brutal murders and rape of women and children?

And to be fair  Greek – Americans apparently  stopped an effort by Antonio Banderas to make a movie about Kemal Ataturk. Ironically Ataturk, unlike many of the Young Turks, was not  personally involved in the Armenian massacres, not because he was Mr Nice Guy,  but rather because  he was in the Western part of the Ottoman Empire at the time of the slaughter.

One has to be very astute  to depict who, among the neighbors of the Turks,  hate them the most……. Bulgarians, Greeks, Russians, Armenians, Iranians, and most Arabs. They all have excellent cases to present. Could that be why the Turks seem to be paranoid?

Of course  there is always more to the story but the above are the essentials as I see them..




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George Bush and the Decision to Invade Iraq

Looking at some old on line pictures of my first trip to Iraq I was thinking of current events triggering some opinions  I have harbored for a long time.  The rather small-scale missile  attack on a few Syrian targets, the predictable political fallout, and mostly ignorant “expert” pontification,  brought me back to the decision to invade and liberate Iraq. And I write liberate because it was a liberation. Bush made the right decision, and by staying the course I give him full marks. His decision to increase the troop levels when all the political heavy hitters were advising him to reduce our involvement was politically courageous.  A profusion of writers, journalists and self-proclaimed military and Middle East “experts” ( that word again) produced volumes of articles and books denouncing or belittling the decision…… “The war of choice”  as one of the more glib characterized it.  Many of these  won acclaim  from the “knowledge  class,”and some acquired quite a bit of money as well.   If there were contrary opinions  they were drowned in a torrent of sarcasm and contemptuous disbelief.

at saddam hunting club


After commending President Bush for those two decisions  I find little else for fulsome praise to bestow upon him.   He left the presidency and became “presidential”  a term invented to laud former presidents who go quietly into the sunset and bask in the glow of senior statesmen.  In reality what it meant was that Bush allowed the Obama administration people and Obama himself to trash the Iraqi war on a daily basis   If it were only a political attack on Bush, that should be considered just hardball politics, as is normal in American politics. But  by going AWOL after his tenure and hardly ever defending the liberation of Iraq, he left the field to all the elitists so entrenched in government, academia and journalism to create a “truism” that the war at best was a tragic mistake and at worst  moral depravity.


One of Hunting clubs after missile strike

By his silence , his non-existent or tepid defense has inferred that the sacrifice of so many  was  worthless.   So much for being “presidential.”  Going to war was the right decision , the only decision that the leader of the free world could take. But by going into some sort of Greta  Garbo seclusion  and leaving the field of battle, Bush diminished the achievements  of the men he sent to war. Whether or not one believes the war was worthwhile, it seems pusillanimous to me that Bush walked away from the decision as if he no longer had a stake in it. It  allowed the Obama foreign  policy  amateurs to  make the calamitous  decision to  withdraw our fighting units from Iraq, inviting another eight years of war and a horrendous price paid by  Iraqi civilians. The removal of the U.S, troops from Iraq diminished our influence and allowed Iraqi Premier Nouri Al Maliki to stuff the army with incompetent leadership, his loyal supporters. That in turn gave rise to the Islamic State  and the Iraqi army humiliation at Mosul  in 2014 . Understand the fact that the core leadership of the ISIS were former Ba’thi army officers…. the same people the “experts” were so willing to have assume power in Iraq after Saddam was ousted. Iraq was plunged into the most bloody portion  of the war which continues to the this day. Pulling the troops out  was an easy political decision given that there were very few to provide a contrary view to the public.  Why throw  good money ( and lives)  after bad?  That was the prevailing opinion.

The top Bush advisors and officials all wrote books either claiming ignorance, poor intelligence, being conned by the Bush inner circle, or blaming each other. No loyalty. Bush’ book is a dreary narrative of meetings. No passion. No attack on the sophomoric nay sayers. The only exception was VP Cheney who stuck to his guns.

I heard so often that the American public was tired of the war. In my mind it was and is a ridiculous claim. Was there gas rationing? Did people have to use ration cards for food? I do not remember the millennials  in the clubs paying much attention to Iraqi news. After all only .5 % were involved in the war. For the overwhelming  mass of the American people it has no consequence one way or another …go stay…whatever.

saddam bust

Bust of Saddam “The Great Leader”  As one CIA “expert” wrote , we really did not need to to invade Iraq  because Saddam was deeply involved in writing love novels and no was  longer involved in his political thuggery.

Much of the American top military leadership in Iraq were inept, but  they too  avoided responsibility for the  course of the war. Reading their books is often more painful than enlightening.  There were exceptions but for years, too few to make a difference or they were not at the right place at the right time. For example, It took years for the military leadership to figure out how to secure the road from the airport to Baghdad. How credible to the journalists were  the claims  of U.S. success when  they did not feel safe traveling the road from the airport to the Green zone?

middle east experts

As the war progressed I noticed how many generals and journalists became anthropologists  and Academics became counter-insurgency strategists.

finally I am happy that the State  Department saw fit to honor a particularly courageous lady who saved many lives oy young cadets when their base was overrun by ISIS savages

Screen Shot 2018-03-26 at 9.20.44 PM

As a Vietnam veteran I am at least glad that the troops  returning from Iraq are  not  being harangued as “baby killers”  as many of us were.  In fact the pendulum may have swung a bit  too far in the other direction when I read of “heroes” returning from six months of duty in Kuwait.

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