Book Review: Arabs at War Military Effectiveness, 1948-1991


by Kenneth M. Pollack

University of Nebraska Press. 784. A Council on Foreign Relations Book. $49.95 . ISBN:0803237332

Why do the Arabs lose wars? Since 1948 the Arabs have often fielded armies that were much larger and better equipped than those of their adversaries. Yet time after time they have been defeated. Various explanations have been offered for this dismal performance, ranging from poor unit cohesion to inept generalship and even cowardice. Kenneth M Pollack’s Arabs at War is a detailed investigation of the combat performance of Arab conventional forces, and the reasons why they have so often failed on the battlefield.

Arabs at War has chapters on Egypt, Syria, Libya, Iraq, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia. Pollack relates the history of each country’s armed forces since independence, including where each army got its training, equipment, and military advice, and how well it performed in battle Along the way, he provides a fascinating look at some chapters of military history that are not often written about. Visit the military history section of a typical bookstore, and you will find the shelves groaning under the weight of books about the Civil War, World War II, and Vietnam. Libya’s campaign’s in Chad and Uganda, the Jordanian army’s fight to expel the PLO, and Egypt’s intervention in Yemen won’t get nearly the same shelf space, if they get any at all. Pollack also goes into the better known Mideast wars, including the 1991 Gulf War and the various Arab Israeli conflicts. These are examined mainly from the Arab side for clues to how well the Arab forces performed and why.

Pollack finds that some of the explanations given for poor Arab military performance do not hold water, or are true only some of the time. The Arabs have in fact produced some good generals, and Arab troops have at times shown suicidal courage. But even when their generals have shown skill, and their troops have fought tenaciously, Arab armies have still turned in a mostly dismal performance. Pollack finds a number of problems that have consistently bedeviled the Arabs in every war they have fought in modern times. These are tactical leadership, information management, weapon handling, and logistics and maintenance.

Arab troops generally lack the technical competence to maintain complex military equipment, and frequently must depend on outside experts contractors for their logistics and maintenance. They are frequently lousy shots. They rarely patrol, and show little skill at it when they do. Unit commanders often have depended on higher authority to tell them the local tactical situation rather than relying on their own reconnaissance , and thus are frequently caught flatfooted by the enemy. Their small unit leaders show little or no initiative. They can sometimes execute a carefully rehearsed or very simple plan, but cannot adapt to the fluid conditions of modern mechanized war.

It is difficult to fault Pollack’s conclusions, which are carefully researched and well reasoned. But at times he seems to miss the forest for the trees. The real explanation for the Arab’s repeated military defeats may not be so much military as cultural. The reasons Pollack cites for Arab military ineffectiveness seem to boil down largely to a lack of technical competence, which is valued and cultivated in the West much more than in Arab culture. Regardless of how much money they spend on hardware, Arab culture simply cannot produce a Western army, or wage Western style warfare.

The other criticism that might be leveled at Arabs at War is that the title is somewhat misleading. A better choice might have been Arab Conventional Armies. Arab warfare is very often asymmetric, and fought with terrorists, guerillas, and jihadists of various sorts. The Arabs make use of information warfare as well, having learned to manipulate the Western media to good effect. These tactics, which Pollack ignores, drove America from Lebanon and Somalia. It remains to be seen how well they will work in Iraq. Perhaps the Arabs are better at waging war than Mr. Polla

Reviewer: Burke G Sheppard   

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