Book Reviews

Book Review: Armies of Sand

The Past, Present, and Future of Arab Military Effectiveness

Armies of Sand: The Past, Present, and Future of Arab Military Effectiveness by Kenneth M. Pollack is an outstanding book by an author who has spent thirty years examining various Arab militaries. Pollack is a former CIA analyst who has written one of the great books in the study both of the modern Middle East and modern warfare.

Despite the fact that the Middle East has seen more conventional warfare than any other region of the world since 1945 – the region’s military history reflects the poor performance of Arab armies in these conflicts. Arab historians have often taken different views to explain the relative failure of Arab militaries to achieve their military objectives in the 20th century.

The fault Pollack surmises is not a lack of courage. He also dismisses theories that economic underdevelopment and reliance on the Soviet system were the primary factors. Communist Chinese forces in the Korean War overcame a lack of familiarity with modern technology to conduct maneuver warfare against an array of United Nations forces. In Ethiopia and again in Angola, the Cuban military was able to achieve feats of arms against a better motivated and highly trained South African forces along with their UNITA allies.   Nor does he feel that the fact that many Arab military armies have been deployed as “palace guards” — meant to protect dictatorships against internal threats rather than external enemies was an important factor in underperformance.

The performance of Arab armies examined largely focuses outside the Francophone Arab countries and the author has little to say about the current Saudi, Sudanese and UAE efforts in Yemen or elsewhere. Indeed, the admission of Sudan is quite curious because the country has been continuously at war since 1983.

The book contains a number of useful case studies such as the performance of Syrian units during the 1982 Arab invasion of Lebanon in which the Israeli army became the first force to conquer the capital of an independent Arab state in centuries. The author provides detailed analysis of obscure conflicts such as Libya’s wars in Chad– a topic surely of interest to many contemporary readers given the Khalifa Haftar, one of the commanders in that campaign now leads the best armed faction in the current Libyan Civil War. The author heaps praise on the Chadians for fighting a flexible, raid centric type of warfare that succeeded in driving back the Libyan incursion but, it is unclear what role the French (and the CIA) played in Chad behind the scenes. But, there is no doubting Chadian military prowess indeed even today the Chadian armed forces are considered one of the most capable in Africa.

After much throat-clearing the author finally argues that it is culture which has led to the underperformance of Arab militaries. Arab culture does not reward innovative thinking and initiative taking by junior officers. For example, in 1973 a Syrian armored column penetrated deep into the Golan Heights. A mere 10 minutes form their objective the force went into night lagger in observance of their orders. There is no “strategic corporal” in Arab armies, Pollack suggests.  Creative tactical thinking is not rewarded in Arab armies. In set piece actions where rehearsals can be conducted such as the 1973 Egyptian offensive across the Suez Canal, the Arab militaries perform well (indeed logistics and engineering are two areas where if anything Arab armies have overperformed historically). This theory may prove controversial to some but, there is no doubt this book along with his previous work “Arabs At War” are the definitive accounts of late 20th century Arab military performance.

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