Western Influence on Arab Militaries

Western Influence on Arab Militaries:
Pounding Square Pegs into Round Holes
Norvell B. DeAtkine

There are few regions of the world where the military has played as prominent or profound a political role as in the Middle East. So wrote Dankwart A. Rustow in 1963. As history also shows it were indeed the military establishments of the Middle East that first began absorbing the influence of the Western World. .

It is therefore somewhat ironic that the same military establishments have been so resistant to integrating the military ethos and Western way of training and operational doctrine despite decades of Western influence. This has been illustrated on the battlefield with a history of ineffectiveness in conventional warfare, particularly against Western military establishments, and has been amply illuminated in a number of studies.
After four decades of study and working with the Arab militaries, my conclusion is that the resistance to Western military ethos lies embedded in the pervasive culture of the Arab-Islamic society, a culture engrained with a tribal mentality, whether from the desert or the village, reinforced by the strength of the Arab perception of the Islamic traditions, and a dysfunctional political culture. The Iraqi historian Ali al -Wardi depicts an Iraqi society still resisting change with many of the young exhibiting the outward trappings of a generation influenced by mass communication but in reality only “an artificial ‘coloring’ under which his real personality is still intact.”

The degree that culture influences their way of war is debated. John Keegan firmly believed in a determinist approach in that there is an “oriental way of war” and it is “…something different and apart from European warfare.” Keegan identified the foremost traits as evasion, delay and indirectness. The famous historian Victor Davis Hanson was the original proponent of the theory that a type of war is determined by a civil society. He especially identified a universal western soldier, whose way of war was originated in the warfare philosophy and tactics of the Greeks and Romans. He juxtaposed this “Western Way of War” against an eastern way of war as conducted by the Arabs and Persians.
John A. Lynn on the other hand takes pains to diverge in his approach but in the end does not part company that much. Somewhat more subtly he describes an eastern way of war. In his chapter on the Egyptian crossing of the canal and the inability of the Egyptians to take full advantage of it, he correctly observes that it “Establishes the primacy of Egyptian military culture beyond a reasonable doubt.”

The concept of an Arab way of war should not be considered some aberration of Arab society. That there is a very definite American way of war indicates the universality of cultural influence on war making and has been well documented by historians Russell Weigley, Jeffrey Record, and others.
Writing about Arab military establishments and culture is not a task that can be fulfilled in a library. In actuality there is very little written about the Arab way of war or military ethos in English or Arabic, one specialist writing “…Arab militaries have become somewhat of an endangered species in the scholarly literature on the Middle East.” Actually there is quite a bit on military science in Arabic but it is mostly on conducting an insurgency or simply regurgitations of Western writings on the subject. The Arab military field manuals are for the most part copies of US or Western manuals. For instance the Iraqi counter-insurgency manual would fit in well with the older versions of US Army Vietnam-era counterinsurgency, although this manual was obviously not followed by the Iraqi security organizations. Very often the academic theories of military science have a greater attraction to Arab officers than the practicalities of execution. Moreover, the penchant for secrecy within the Arab military establishments results in only superficial hagiographic articles and books or purely Western views seen through a Western prism. As examples of the extremes in secrecy, Anwar Sadat wrote of his astonishment when he discovered only days before the scheduled attack in 1973 that most of the commanders scheduled to execute the attack were unaware of the date or detailed plans. General H. Norman Schwarzkopf was similarly nonplussed when he was told by the Saudi Commander, General Khaled Bin Sultan, that the t-shirts being sold in the U.S. army cantonment camps had to be stopped because they had printed maps featuring the cities of Saudi Arabia on them. When General Schwarzkopf remonstrated, pointing out every map in the world had Saudi cities on them; the Saudi general merely replied they were not allowed in Saudi Arabia.
In 1999, I wrote an article entitled “Why Arabs Lose Wars” for the Middle East Quarterly, which has appeared a number of times in other periodicals and has had a rather long shelf life on the internet. It was considered by some to be stereotypical, but it was derived from my many years of being with, or observing Arab armies, particularly one of the best, the Jordanian, during the civil war between Jordanian Arab Army and the Palestinian Liberation Organization. Other than the Jordanian experience, my store of knowledge comes from more than two years of daily interface with the Egyptian ground forces as an Army Attaché and a number of temporary duty assignments with Gulf military establishments, including an assignment to the British-officered Trucial Oman Scouts before the emergence of the United Arab Republic. These on-the-ground observations and experiences I have combined with over 40 years of collecting as much information as possible on the military culture and way of life of Arab militaries. On the basis of literally hundreds of conversations with US military personnel since my last on- the- ground assignment with an Arab army, I am convinced that little of significance has happened to change the deeply embedded character of the Arab military mindset.
From these many conversations and discussions I found little has evolved in the Arab military culture in the years since I wrote the article that would cause me to change the conclusions I reached. Additionally, they sharpened my belief that there is indeed a distinct Arab military tradition and that our attempts to recreate it in our image are not only fruitless, but often counter-productive. When we write articles on how to improve Arab military effectiveness, to me it smacks of condescension and leftover colonialist thinking, however well intended the suggestions may be.

The article I wrote focused on conventional war and the Arab impediments to conducting it successfully against Western type forces. But as the Iraqi insurgent war against the coalition forces dragged on with continuing violence, an obvious degree of effectiveness was visible on the part of the Iraqi insurgents, and it was becoming apparent that the demonstrated ineffectiveness of Arab armies in conventional warfare did not apply to the parameters of unconventional warfare. As the war progressed and the Iraqi tactics became more bold and innovative, a fresh look at Arab war-making culture was required.
As many observers noted at the time and since, U.S lack of preparation for a counter-insurgency and poor execution of counter-insurgency operations helped make a disorganized insurgency look much more potent. Nevertheless, none of this detracted from the fact that the insurgents displayed initiative and imagination in their tactics.
This led me to explore the cultural attributes that adversely affected Arab effectiveness in a Western defined conventional warfare environment, and conversely to surface the differences that resulted in their greater success in unconventional warfare. As I studied the historical evidence available, and compared it to what I have seen on the ground since 1967, it became obvious that there is indeed an Arab military culture and that the factors that define it have a long history that predates Islam.

One clear lesson is that throughout history, Arab combat effectiveness has always been greater when the Arabs fought within their own cultural traditions and ethos. Moreover, the annals of ancient military history illustrate that the Middle Eastern way of war has been antithetical to the Western way of war, particularly the way Arabs have used deception, subtle hit and run tactics, emphasized psychological warfare, and employed standoff weaponry, as compared to the Western way of war described as a style “…of infantry heavy battle that relied on shock combat, toe to toe, shield to shield, spear to spear.”
This is not to say that the Arabs are either doomed to fighting an unconventional war or destined to lose. In reality the early Arab armies that conquered the Byzantines fought on Western terms but within an Arab cultural environmrnt. . Against the Byzantines, the Arab/Muslim armies showed great adaptability to fight a Western army and win. The point here is that the Arab armies won on a conventional battlefield without the tutelage of Western advisors or instructors. They fought on their terms.
As I examined what made the difference between the Arab insurgent or guerilla fighter and the conventional soldier, I surfaced a number of factors, among them that the Arab guerilla usually had leadership sharpened by battle and experience, and exuding the confidence that motivated others to follow him, as opposed to a conventional unit commander most likely picked by the regime for political reasons. Moreover, the Arab guerilla was apt to be with those of his own ethnic group or clan or tribe, once again as opposed to a conventional unit of diverse, urban/rural, tribal, or sectarian differences. The officers almost always came from the dominant ethnic group, such as the east bank Jordanians versus the Palestinians in Jordan, the Sunnis in Iraq versus the Shi’a soldiery, or the Christian Maronite officers in Lebanon.
The unconventional Arab soldier is fighting within his element with people he trusts. In admittedly simplistic terms, it boils down to the concept of fire and maneuver — the idea that an attacking soldier exposing himself to enemy fire can count of those who support him to provide covering fire, and that his life has meaning to his superiors. If there is a lack of trust in officers and one’s fellow soldiers, the willingness to expose oneself to attack is missing. My observation was that they trusted soldiers in their own unit but not those in neighboring units.
The stark differences between the Arabs’ capabilities in conventional and unconventional war led me to the next step. Thinking about the long history of Western presence and involvement with the militaries of the Arab world, and the fact that for the most part the Western powers tried to create an Arab military in their own image, what has been the result? More importantly, perhaps, has the Western military influence been adverse to Arab effectiveness in war in general?
Reading the passages from the River War by Winston Churchill on the remaking of the Egyptian Army with the infusion of British training and officers reminded me of our effort, now dwindling, to remake Saddam’s army.

As Churchill wrote, under the new army,
The recruits were treated with justice. Their rations were not stolen by officers. The men were given leave to visit their villages from time to time. When they were sick they were sent hospital instead of being flogged. In short, the European system was substituted for the Oriental.

The old Egyptian army was disbanded in 1882.

Exactly 100 years later, I was observing the Egyptian army, and I realized, in reality, how little things had changed. The officers did not steal from their men but they used them as indentured servants working on their farms, cared very little for their rations, which usually consisted of bread, some onions, a little dried fish, beans, tea and sugar. Watching a truck roll into the unit area with the cargo bed piled high with bread being held down by soldiers standing or sitting on it gives some idea on the care that went with their rationing. Moreover soldiers could buy supplemental food items from a sort of unit-level Post Exchange in which very often the unit officers would retain the profits. I did not see soldiers flogged but I did witness soldiers being slapped and pushed around.
The Egyptian officers were not barbarians or uncaring brutes. It was and is a way of life inculcated by centuries of living in a specific environment. The Egyptian soldier expected nothing more. I once asked an Egyptian officer why the officers got into their autos and drove off to Cairo on Thursday afternoons, leaving their soldiers stranded in the desert and having to hope they could hitch a ride to Cairo on a passing truck. His answer was that to give them a ride or in any way assist their way into Cairo would only perplex and confound them. The same concept that officers have privileges and are fools not to take advantage of them is pervasive throughout the Arab world. For example, in the US Army and British Army the officers eat after the last soldier has gone through the mess line. Not so in the Iraqi army nor among the Bedouin troops of the Israeli Defense Forces, and certainly not in the Egyptian army I served with, but again as indicated by the IDF officer training with the Arab troops, the soldier does not expect anything more from the officer. The thought occurs …if officer and soldier are content with the practice, why attempt to change it?
As Churchill wrote those many years ago, “Under pressure of local circumstances there has been developed a creature who can work with little food, with little incentive, very long hours under a merciless sun.” The truth of this was brought home to me by watching soldiers with bricks on their backs toiling in summer heat during Ramadan with only a wet rag to moisten their lips. In stark contrast, the scene reminded me of our helicopters bringing in ice and beer during my Vietnam tour or the extensive establishment of post exchanges and other amenities in the many “green zones” throughout Iraq.
The rapidity with which Western influence evaporates is further shown in the Egyptian case by the rapidity with which the earlier French influence had disappeared. Churchill was not the first to overestimate the influence of his nation on the Egyptian military culture. He made much of the positive effects of the French influence on Egyptian society. In commenting on Al-Jabarti’s observations, Shmuel Moreh cited the profound French influence on the Egyptian military in terms of modern weaponry and tactics. However it may have seemed then, by the time of the British attempts to develop a new Egyptian army, little if any French influence remained. Today French influence in Egypt is negligible.
As P.J Vatikiotis noted in his seminal study of the Egyptian army, for centuries the people of Egypt were generally excluded from military service. It was not until the reign of Khedive Muhammad Sa’id that some Egyptians obtained officer rank, and not until 1936 that larger numbers of officers came from the general Egyptian society. As Vatikiotis observed, the officer corps of Egypt was drawn mostly from the lower middle class, who had no other hope of achieving a better station in life. As the social origins of the officer class broadened, their attitude toward political issues closely coincided with Egyptian society in general, including the propensity to blame others for their failures. George Kirk wrote that the humiliating defeat of the Egyptian army in 1948 was blamed on all sorts of reasons, few having to do with reality, most being of the “stabbed in the back” rationale. The chief villain, according to Nasser and his colleagues, was Britain.
Most of the reasons lie in the fact that it had been 66 years since the Egyptians had gone into battle under their own commanders. Their inexperience and “…congenital unwillingness to accept responsibility was among the primary reasons for their defeat.”
The turn to the Soviets in 1955 came with promises of huge deliveries of military equipment and later, after the defeat of 1967, the advisors to train the Egyptians on how to use it. The Russians carried out most of their promises, mostly to salvage their pride and credibility in the region. It seemed a new spirit had been infused into the Egyptian military. Sadat wrote of his confidence in the Egyptian preparations for the 1967 war, but as the war progressed he gradually learned the dismal truth. He was embarrassed when he saw huge crowds celebrating a “victory” as portrayed by the Nasser propaganda machine. This turned into dismay as the Egyptian Field Forces commander, General Hakim Amer, tried to blame it on American armed intervention. Egyptian officers told me that following that war there was so much public resentment against the army, and particularly its officers, that they tried to avoid wearing their uniforms whenever possible.
With renewed massive Soviet equipment assistance, and a determination to redress the previous humiliations, the Egyptians rebuilt their army, absorbing Soviet instruction on weapons and tactical employment, but also taking Soviet doctrine and weaponry designed primarily for a European war and adapting them to Egyptian methods and military culture. In the final analysis the Egyptians carefully used Soviet assistance but ensured that it was compatible with the Egyptian level of military proficiency and military culture. They “Egyptianized” the Soviet doctrine and training
The Russians confined their instruction to improving military proficiency, avoiding subjects pertaining to military ethos and values. The Egyptians, for the most part, tended to eschew close relations with the Soviets, apparently an arrangement that suited the Soviets as well. With two very competent generals, Saad el Shazly, the Chief of Staff, and Mohammed Abdel Ghani Gamasy, the chief of operations, the Egyptians did very well without the Russians.
My personal observations of the Egyptian feat of crossing the canal were the result of a visit made to Egypt in 1977 with the US Army Assistant Chief of Staff of Intelligence. As the Egyptians had made a decision to turn to the West, the Egyptians were opening up to us (to a degree, of course). To a U.S. contingent of officers, including myself, they showed many of the intelligence documents used in the preparation of the crossing of the Suez. I was amazed at the detail of the schematics. They were drawings made in pen, longhand, with every detail of the Israeli defenses shown, including the taps on the fuel lines designed to turn the Suez into a fiery inferno. All the main strongpoints of the Bar-Lev line of Israeli defenses along the Suez had been carefully pinpointed.
A combination of strong commanders, troops carefully prepared, a will to win infused in the military, an excellent strategic deception plan, and more than a little Israeli hubris, resulted in what the Egyptian public and army considers a victory. The humiliations of 48, 56, and 67 were erased.
Following the 1973 war, my observations were that the Egyptian army returned to a business as usual and standards declined. The Egyptian army and its commanders became enmeshed in the economy of Egypt, with defense industries making washing machines and other consumer goods. The army increasingly set itself apart from the people. The regime went to great lengths to insure the loyalty of the junior officer corps, providing subsidized housing and automobiles. The old plagues of nepotism and Wasta) returned. Weapons and equipment the Egyptians were, and still are not ready to assimilate logistically, were being bought from diverse sources based on factors other than need or logistic sustainability.
Having gone through French, British, Soviet, and now American involvement with their military, it is evident that the pervasive and powerful Arab/ Egyptian culture seeps back in as soon as the advisors leave. So today, the Egyptian army retains some vestiges of the British influence, more of the Soviet, and about the same amount from the United States. None of it is pervasive or permanent. In the midst of the “Arab Spring,” we see the Egyptian army still operating primarily as a regime preservation institution…albeit under new management… with all the detriment to soldering that produces.
In the case of the Iraqi military, the vaporous influence of Western, or even Soviet influence, is to a degree even more dramatic. The Iraqi army, originally a creation of the British after World War I, seems to have had every factor in its favor to create a permanent effect. The prime mover among the Iraqis was Jafar Pasha al-Askari, whom Gertrude Bell described as a man of “integrity and moderation.” He comes through the pages of his memoirs as an Anglophile with a great deal of admiration for the British military. He became known as the father of the Iraqi Army.
Less than 20 years later the Iraqi Army, infected by the new surge of Arab nationalism with German encouragement, was fighting the British in World War II. Their performance was mediocre. Following the World War, the pan-Arab nationalism of Nasser and communism pushed Iraq in a different direction. Soviet influence in Iraq as well as Egypt became paramount. Soviet influence was again overlaid on a British framework. As in Egypt, the combination proved to be unwieldy and excruciatingly complex. Iraq participated in both the 1967 and 1973 wars with Israel. In both cases their performance was marginal at best.

However, they created an image of aggressiveness and militancy. In the 1967 war they were the only allies that came to the aid of the Jordanians on the Palestinian front and in the 1973 war, the Iraqis made an 800-mile trip across the desert with two divisions to assist the Syrians. That was impressive, but both the Israelis and Jordanians were unimpressed with the Iraqi army’s battle performance.
The inept performance of the Iraqi army against the Iranians, particularly in the early stages of the war, has been fully chronicled in the Institute for Defense Analyses study of the war. Basic concepts of strategy and tactics were ignored. Of course many of the generals blamed it all on Saddam, much as the German generals blamed their defeats on Hitler. There was plenty of blame to go around from top to bottom. In fact, tribal culture seems to have had an inordinate amount of influence on Saddam’s conduct of the war. While there was ample residue of the Soviet footprint illustrated by warehouses of older equipment, unused field manuals, and some older officers enthusing about the Soviet military education, there was little to indicate any overall Western or Soviet influence in the tactical or strategic planning or execution of their operations.

Of course against tribes or small minorities such as the Assyrians, or weak foes such as the Kuwaitis, they performed well enough (and brutally). However, despite decades of war against the Kurdish rebels, they were never able to subdue them. In essence, after all the years of training by the British and the Russians, very little was absorbed into their military system. The Iraqi army labored under the same problems and cultural blinders evident in all Arab armies, such as a predilection to confuse facts with wishes, inability to coordinate combined arms operations, logistics problems, lack of professional non – commissioned officers, and a lack of cohesion between officers and enlisted men. With the Iraqis one could also add an attitude of superiority over their Arab and Iranian neighbors.
With the disappearance of American advisors and technicians from Iraq, the paltry eight or nine years during which Americans were closely involved with training the Iraqi Army will have little lasting effect or influence. As many of the Saddam-era officers began returning to the units, there was an improvement in effectiveness but also a return to the old Iraqi mindset. Our advisors also noted a greater reluctance to incorporate American logistics procedures and training methods. The reluctance, however, was always expressed with the usual Arab politeness, which American advisors and or senior American officials sometimes confused with acceptance. This is a predictable trend in that the Iraqi army was considered a noble profession among the officers and considered so by most of the general populace, including the Shi’a (but not the Kurds). This is understandable given the many years of deep propagandizing the role of the military profession.
A point to remember in addressing the temporal nature of Western or Russian influence throughout the Arab world, but particularly in Iraq, is the successive waves of officer replacements based on political or regime preservation measures. There has seldom been a long period of officer corps stability in Arab military history.
At this point, the issue of Western versus Eastern European, particularly Russian, should be considered. The Russian system of training, doctrine, and logistics differs considerably from the Western, at least in their application in the Arab world. From my observations and the observations of others, the Russian system is more compatible with Arab culture in a number of ways. Their logistics system is predicated on less operator maintenance, with greater reliance on depot maintenance. The NCO is not as important in the Russian system and certainly the paranoia and secrecy of the Soviet system was much more in keeping with the Arab style. The author often heard from the Egyptians that Soviet equipment was easier to repair and keep operable. Our equipment was often termed “delicate.” On the other hand, just as the Iraqis did, they often blamed their reverses in battle on the better Western equipment of their adversaries or on some failure of their outside support.
At this point the American influence on the Iraqi military is rapidly dwindling and will gradually disappear. We were there much too short a period to have any lasting effect. It is unfortunate because from the US officers who served with the Iraqis and trained them, although they experienced the usual frustrations of working with Arab militaries, also expressed admiration for their bravery and willingness to learn.
In terms of amount of time US military advisors have spent on the ground with Arab counterparts, Saudi Arabia has the distinction of hosting the US military for the longest period. The U.S. involvement with the Royal Saudi Land Forces (RSLF) was organized as the United States Military Training Mission to Saudi Arabia (USMTSA) in 1953. The US involvement with the Saudi National Guard began in 1973, organized as the Saudi Arabia National Guard (SANG). The British were heavily involved with what was then called the “white army” before we began training them. The Saudi system is instructive in understanding one of the primary reasons for a lack of Western penetration into Arab military culture, in this case the Saudi leadership, is that the command throws up barriers. In the case of the US involvement, the two training organizations are controlled by different US military organizations. There is little if any coordination between the two organizations, a circumstance insisted upon by the Saudis. The SANG is a regime protection force, with troops drawn primarily from the Saudi family’s historical domain in the tribal Nejd. Their number one mission is to protect the regime, from the Saudi army if necessary. The training mission has long been outsourced to the Vinnell Corporation, using mostly retired officers and non-commissioned officers (NCOs). There are also many regular US Army officers and NCOs involved in their training, and have been for many years.
During these past six decades of being involved with Saudi training, we have trained literally thousands of Saudi officers in US courses. We have sent a like number of our officers there to train the Saudis. With many of these I was able to communicate during or after their deployment. Certainly top level unclassified reports on the state of the Saudi forces are difficult to find, as are candid articles by their US army and corporate trainers in official publications.

In keeping with the Arab distrust and “divide and rule” there are still other Western militaries or police forces involved with the Saudis, such as the British training SANG in riot control. Moreover, as in most Arab countries they maintain an inventory of many types of Western equipment, really a mishmash of equipment, often purchased based more on political rationale, or for corrupt personal reasons. The diversity of equipment creates a horrendous logistics problem, particularly for a country such as Saudi Arabia with a weak indigenous logistic infrastructure.
It should be pointed out that there has been a great deal of improvement in the military effectiveness of the SANG, and many of the advisors speak well of their more recent performance. They are far and away better soldier material than the RSLF, whose mission is predicated on defending from external threats. Not coincidently, their combat units are stationed far away from the center of Saudi Arabia, and moving them involves approval from various levels of the Saudi bureaucracy, all of which are coup-preventive measures. Both Saudi organizations are completely dependent on outside support for logistics and maintenance. While the RSLF has been in combat, most recently in 2009 with the Houthi tribesmen on the Yemeni border, their performance, based on the available information, was less than stellar. The same could be said for their performance in the 1991 Gulf War. On the other hand, the SANG has not been tested in combat at all. They were marginally involved in the 1991 Gulf war, but not at all in the Houthi rebellion. They did move into Bahrain to help a fellow Sunni regime survive a Shi’a uprising, and they have been used to quell Shi’a disturbances in the eastern province of Saudi Arabia.
The same problems that afflict all Arab armies are even more pronounced in the Saudi military: refusal to take responsibility, fragmented command relationships, avoidance of “dirty hands” work on the part of the officers, little responsibility delegated to NCOs, etc. As an astute former member of the SANG training cadre once remarked to me, “To the Saudis the army is a job, nothing more.” Another told me his cohort commander asked him to rate his officers so as to avoid any unpleasantness should a subordinate take issue with his evaluation. The Saudi commander would simply blame it on the American officer. Over the years, all these anecdotes paint a mosaic of the problems with which an American advisor must contend.
Jordan up to a couple of decades ago seemed like the exception to the rule. It was well led, with a professional NCO corps, dedicated officers, a value system laboriously built up by General Glubb Pasha, and British officers who cared about their men. As Glubb Pasha wrote, “In the Arab Legion, we tolerated no racial, religious, or class distinctions. The British officers were not a class apart. On any given occasion, the senior officer present commanded irrespective of race.” From my observations in 1970, Glubb Pasha spoke the truth.

The United States became deeply involved in Jordan in 1970, when almost every nation turned their back on Jordan, expecting the combination of Syrian and Iraqi support and a popular Palestinian movement would erase Jordan as a nation. The author was the assistant military attaché at the time and was very impressed with the professionalism of the Jordanian military, often opining that, man for man, at a small unit level, the Jordanians were equal to the Israeli Defense Forces. I gave much credit to the British training and inculcation of military values into the Jordanians.
Alas, it is not the same army today. The 1970 civil war between the East Bank Jordanians and West Bank Palestinians began the descent of the JAA to the level of other Arab armies. The massive desertions of many Palestinian soldiers and officers, including one division commander, resulted in an exclusionary policy toward Palestinians. While visiting Jordan a short time after the accession of King Abdullah, I learned that many of the stalwart officers serving under King Hussein had been summarily retired. One, the former special forces commander, said he read of his retirement in the newspaper. The shifting political tides in the Arab world, as well as the perpetual cancer of the Arab-Israeli impasse, has taken its toll. Generally today one could say that the Jordanian army is riding more on past reputation than reality of its effectiveness. Afflicted by favoritism and a political environment made tense by the growth of Islamism and weakening tribal ties to the Royal family, the decline of the military has been aggravated by a king who lacks the military and political acumen of his father.
It is a normal human trait, especially among US military commanders and advisors, to overestimate the degree of their impact on the military culture of their Arab hosts, particularly in efforts to re-educate and reorient their way of going about soldiering and establishing clear command relationships. The American cultural penchant for wanting to get the job done, and as rapidly as possible, is often incompatible with the Arab approach to innovation and change. Lord Kitchener related the story of the impetuous lieutenant who, bored with the slow pace of the Egyptian army withdrawing from the Sudan, had raced ahead and was taking a nap when the Army caught up with him. Lord Kitchener admired his audacity but mused that no doubt he would be an officer chosen by the British army to command native troops, and just as surely be killed by them.
Working with Arabs requires talent and a special sort of personality. T.E. Lawrence covered that quite well, with his oft-quoted admonishment, to wit: “Do not try to do too much with your own hands. Better the Arabs do it tolerably than you do it perfectly.” In practice that advice is just very difficult for a hard-charging young American officer to abide by. The American advisor deployed away from home for a year or more, often in less than ideal conditions, naturally would like to think, in a typical American way, that he has made a “difference.” Unfortunately, the difference is usually imperceptible.

Lord Kitchener, who chose his British officers for service with the Egyptians very carefully, understood the nuances of working with Egyptians. The professional and human characteristics required to operate successfully in a traditional Arab society are both immense and subtle. Unfortunately in the US Army, advisory duty has never been what is termed a career enhancer. This is not new. Lord Kitchener and Churchill both railed against the habit of serving British officers who looked down on their fellow officers serving with the Egyptian army.
There is no doubt that our training both there and here in the United States has brought a measure of greater military proficiency to Arab military personnel, but little in the way they approach the business of soldiering or a creating a profound change in military culture. It is true that military life is a sub culture in every culture, but the idea that somehow this makes these sub- cultures brothers in arms is fanciful. As pointed out by astute observers, Arab officers have the same attitudes and value systems as their fellow civilians.
In researching the subject of Western influence on Arab military culture, one of the most neglected and yet most important aspects is that of the logistics system and the one that has the smallest footprint of Western influence. It is the also represents the most impervious cultural barrier.

As the most experienced westerner to observe, serve with, and command Arab troops, Glubb Pasha wrote that “… it is always risky to transfer the customs of one country to another without regard to total conditions.” The worst possible example of this is the transfer of sophisticated equipment to an Arab country operating within their culturally derived logistics system. Although little is written about it, it is perhaps the most important aspect of clashing cultures and why Western influence on Arab armies tends to be fleeting. It is not a matter of innate human intelligence or rejection of the Western technology. In fact, it is difficult to find a people more eager to obtain the latest in technology. Integrating it, however, it a different matter.
A US logistics system and maintenance philosophy is tightly integrated into the major weapons systems including where and at what level is the allocation of tools, levels of expertise, etc. And all are predicated on the cultural, educational and technological level of the soldier and operational doctrine.
There are elements of the Arab way of logistics that form a barrier to Western methods.
In particular the Arab tradition of hoarding military supplies, the compartmentalization and fragmentation of responsibility, and corruption of military acquisition practices. Hoarding is an attribute of the principle of scarcity. The American way of life provides us with a concept of abundance. We tend to think there is no particular reason we cannot all be rich. It is very different in the Arab world, even among the old people of the wealthy Gulf. They labor under the principle of scarcity. There is simply not enough of what we value to go around. Those who are quick and powerful get the most. As a facet of this cultural trait, Arab militaries tend to hoard supplies at every level, and unfortunately, at the end of the food chain, those who need it the most are least likely to get what they need. Parts and ammunition are conserved as if there is no hope of resupply and a final decisive battle is close at hand.
In Iraq, very often, Iraqi units would buy the parts they needed for their vehicles, even though the parts were available at a higher level unit. The principle at work here is the all-important trappings of power. To a supply officer managing a supply depot, the repair parts and equipment are his personal responsibility. The power to give or deny is his source of power. To let the supplies go easily is a diminishment of his power. This is was the story from Cairo to Baghdad. Units starved for parts, with depots loaded at near-capacity levels.
A very powerful barrier to adopting the Western way of logistics is the feeling that logistics and maintenance are below a senior officer’s dignity.” For example in the long discussions conducted with an American study team, gathering information from the Iraqi side on their wars, General Ra’ad Hamdani, a former Republican Guard Corps commander, does not once bring up the subject of logistics. Officers do not like to get their hands dirty. They tend to regard logistics and maintenance as beneath them. It demeans them. In the Egyptian army the commander of a unit does not have sole responsibility for his equipment; he shares it with an engineer officer who oversees its operational readiness.
In every aspect of Arab war making and planning, the byzantine and confusing networks of command create unified approaches to the logistic system near impossible to streamline. The Egyptian system of separate departments for the various arms (infantry, armor, armament, special forces, airborne. etc.) —a British import bastardized with a Soviet overlay of logistics procedures—made obtaining needed repair parts for a combat unit a laborious procedure. In the Iraqi Republican Guard prior to the 2003 war, the logistics system was so complex that it needed Hussein Kamal, Saddam’s son -in -law, to act as an executive agent to expedite requests for needed (or those frivolous as well) equipment.

To try to fit the general Arab system of maintenance and logistics to the large-scale introduction of American weaponry simply does not work. Because cultural mores change only glacially, the concept of imposing a Western-style maintenance system on a traditional Arab army is a house built on cards. It is not a matter of being able to use the weapons, but rather the ability to keep them operable.
As Bernard Lewis pointed out, one of the aspects of Western and Soviet influence on the Islamic and Arab world was, unfortunately to provide the ideological foundations and coercive tools for dictatorial regimes. As Elie Kedourie wrote, while the constitutionalist spirit failed to thrive in the Arab world, the “enlightened absolutism” of Western governments, with their penchant for centralized control, blended more easily with the Arab autocratic tradition.
More to the point, it was the new and much more invasive coercive apparatus of the state that appealed to the rulers of the Arab world. From the Lebanese Kata’ib imitators of the Italian Black Shirts, to the Iraqi and Syrian facsimiles of the Gestapo and KGB, the power of the state was made more pervasive by the doctrine of the Ba’ath party and other socialist parties with an “Arab face.”
The Arab militaries of today came into existence under colonial rule. For the most part they were colonial creations, but they were not created, as the modern Arab historian would claim, as part of a divide-and-rule policy. Unintentionally, they provided a way for the lower middle class to move up in a static, class conscious static society. .
The difference between the village people and Bedouin of the desert is significant, as is the culture of Egyptians from that of Iraqis, but nevertheless the social class composition of the Arab militaries contains overriding commonalities, promoted by the impact of military cross-training within the Arab League, and similar educational programs at the university level. The infusion of mass pan-Arab communication has also had a unifying effect in attitudes on the Arab societies, and consequently, the militaries of the Arab world. From my observations over the years, the commonalities of the Arab culture far outweigh the differences.
In summary the Arab world has resisted deeper Western influence on Arab military traditions for a number of reasons;
1.The rapid turnover of officers as a result of recurring coups (or regime fears of one). As a layer of officers begins to absorb Western military values, they are dismissed, not because of the Westernization but rather because with each regime change they are considered politically unreliable. This has been particularly true in Iraq and Syria, and to a certain extent in Egypt and Jordan as well.
2.The regime leadership constructs political barriers to keep Western influence at a minimal or acceptable low level. This is done to ensure that Western political values are not too deeply embedded, as exemplified by the classic divide-and-rule policies of the Saudis. The Egyptians and Iraqis were also careful to insure that Soviet influence did not become entrenched within their militaries.
3.Despite decades of demonstrated military weakness compared to Western militaries, there is a still a feeling of superiority over the West, particularly among the more educated elite and the military leadership, often accompanied by a dose of occidentosis. This phenomenon is found in the documents of Al Qaeda and Hezbollah, and harkens back to the time of the Arab conquests. Islam was the religion of the Arabs and a mark of caste unity and superiority.
4.The burden of historical baggage weighs heavily on the Arabs, and more so than the military. Once the greatest military power on earth, crushing the enemies of Islam beneath them, conquering and incorporating peoples of all colors and religions into their orbit, and yet today experiencing humbling defeats by people once their vassals; how can this be explained? Only by a return to a past, real or imagined, and by denial of the impediments to true modernization, using the blame game to explain defeats. This has been explained by enumerating the factors that contribute to the Arab burden of history. Among these is the inability to absorb Western concepts, which have been introduced to the Arab world but to this point have been overcome by the strength of radicalized notions of Islamic law, and oversimplification of modernization.
5.The strength of a pervasive Arab culture, which I have attempted in the core of this paper to show, has, along with political ramifications, to be impervious to the quick-fix solutions so popular in the West and particularly in the United States. As a number of scholars have pointed out, the malaise within the Arab culture requires solutions from within, and attempts to graft Western culture onto the Arab society have failed. Some commentators have seen the reserved response of the militaries in Tunisia and Egypt toward demonstrators as a consequence of U.S. and Western influence. Unfortunately this has little validity. It was far more a result of military leaders correctly assessing where their best interests lie.
Imparting Western values and soldierly ethos to the Arab armies has been, as someone once observed, like teaching dance steps without the music. They memorize the steps but never get the tempo or the rhythm of the Western military traditions. While there is evidence that Arab soldiers historically performed better under European officers, there is no evidence that the tradition of command outlived the departure of the officers.

The author of this paper is solely responsible for the content and opinions contained in the paper and it does represent the views of the Institute for Defense Analyses of which the author is a consultant who works only intermittently.


About Tex

Retired artillery colonel, many years in a number of positions in the Arab world. Graduate of the US Military Academy and the American University of Beirut. MA in Arab studies from the American University in Beirut along with 18 years as Middle East Seminar Director at the JFK Special Warfare Center and School, Served in Vietnam with 1st Inf Division, Assignments in Lebanon, Jordan and Egypt, plus service with Trucial Oman Scouts in the Persian Gulf. Traveled to every Arab country on the map including Iraq, Syria, Kuwait, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco.
Aside | This entry was posted in Arab Culture, Arab Military, US Foreign Policy in Middle East and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

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