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Kenneth M. Pollack. Arabs at War: Military Effectiveness, 1948-1991. Studies in War, Society, and the Military. Lawrence: University of Nebraska Press, 2002. xv + 699 pp. Maps, index. $49.95 (cloth), ISBN 0-8032-3733-2.

Reviewed by Thomas Scheben, Frankfurt am Main, Germany.
Published by H-Levant (June, 2003)

Seeking the Cause of Failure

This book's dust jacket sets the tone even before the reader opens the book. Among all possible motifs such as charging infantry or tanks on parade, the designer selected a picture of solemn symbolism: two wrecked tanks of Soviet origin rusting half buried in the desert sand.

Kenneth Pollack describes and analyzes the military history of six key Arab states which bore the brunt of war-making in the post-World War II period. In the opening chapter of his encyclopedic study, Pollack (the CIA military analyst for the Persian Gulf and Director for Persian Gulf Affairs at the National Security Council) asks why Arab armies were consistently hindered in battle, thus losing wars or just barely winning them. He then promises to provide a robust assessment of the strengths and weaknesses of Arab militaries.

Traditionally--and especially in U.S. military science--technological superiority, firepower, odds and numbers, along with other elements of "military hardware" are quantified and assessed. With reference to these factors, however, a fiasco like that suffered by the Syrian army in the Golan in 1973 cannot be explained properly. In that instance the Syrians had almost every advantage on their side: surprise and an overwhelming superiority in men and material, with ten times the manpower, eight times the tanks, and ten times the number of artillery pieces of their Israeli foes. Nevertheless, after just two days, their offensive ran out of steam, and on the third day Israel's counteroffensive started to smash the Syrian forces. Had God been with the stronger battalions, as western analyses usually assume, the result would have been quite different.

Instead, Pollack introduces the human factor, manifested in categories like unit cohesion, generalship, tactical leadership, morale, training etc. Consequently, these key factors are investigated in each chapter on the Egyptian, Iraqi, Jordanian, Libyan, Saudi Arabian and Syrian armies, discussing which of (and in what relation to each other) these factors were detrimental to their respective fortunes in war.

In most battles, the soldiers did what they were asked to, often fighting bravely, but rarely skillfully. Pollack identifies the inability of small units to carry out even the soundest strategic plan on the tactical level as a major cause of Arab military ineffectiveness. When they could follow the script of a pre-planned and sufficiently rehearsed operation, they often accomplished their missions. When the enemy refused to fight as scripted, or the situation called for imagination and initiative in the free-flowing maneuvers and combined-arms co-ordination, tactical leadership usually failed. Since the courage of the individual soldiers and unit cohesion were, at least, level in most cases, and the strategic decisions of the GHQs and generals were sound, it was the inability of the junior officers to carry out these plans and decisions that created the problems.

In addition, Pollack points out factors which were not decisive, yet extremely important. None of the armies mastered the intricate use of combined arms, such as the integration of the capabilities of armor, infantry, and artillery on the ground, let alone air-land-battle concepts. The performance of most Arab air forces was--and, largely, still is--abysmal. He observes a heavy imbalance in the combat support services. While logistics--with the notable exception of the rather inept Syrians--and engineering frequently have achieved credible, or even impressive, results, the maintenance of sophisticated arms and technical equipment is even less satisfactory than that of their use in combat, hence the poor performance of all Arab air forces.

In protracted conflicts such as the first Gulf War or the October War, Arab armies did not learn from one battle to the next, repeatedly committing the same errors. In long-term conflicts with long breaks between armed clashes, like the Arab-Israeli Wars, the Arab militaries tried to catch up with the most recent developments, but never did so quickly or comprehensively enough to keep the pace with innovation-oriented adversaries, such as Israel or the Western coalitions. In a short, but revealing chapter, Pollack describes how a depressed Saudi leadership was forced to admit that, after spending approximately $300 billion on modernizing the army in particular and defense in general, their military was virtually impotent when Saddam's threat materialized. When the Royal Saudi Arabian Army was brought to battle at Ra's al Khafji during Desert Storm, their performance was terrible against an opponent of similar capacities, despite massive support by U.S troops. Likewise, the Egyptian army has accomplished little since 1973. Such instances raise questions regarding American military assistance to countries which received aid, advice, and training in abundance. Egypt received billions of dollars to finance perks that mostly went to maintain the privileged status of the officers corps in an impoverished Egyptian society.

The chapters about the individual countries all follow the same pattern: military history, inter-war developments, assessment according to the above-mentioned criteria, and a summary. The parts on wars and conflicts lack any narrative elements or colorful anecdotes for the general reader. Instead, Pollack's style remains distanced and sober, while the examples and figures are selected for analytical purposes. Here, he again convinces with brilliant synchrone and diachrone comparisons, coming to insightful and well-based results. One of his favorite topics is the widespread legend, especially amongst Arabs, that it was mostly due to the stunning superiority of the Israeli Air Force (IAF) that Arab ground forces lost the wars. Pollack has ample proof that the IAF flew far fewer ground support missions than commonly believed, and their ground strikes were much less effective than Arab army officers would have the world believe.

Pollack does not provide explanations for the limitations of Arab military institutions and their underlying rationales. However, he opens the way for further studies on topics such as the cultural reasons behind Arab military capacities and incapacities. A beginning for such studies has already been accomplished,[1] including the recent Arab Human Development Report, which contains a host of raw material for such efforts.[2]

Another topic, for which Arabs at War prepares the field, is the question of the role of military institutions in the development and westernization (or modernization) of Arab societies. These institutions have often been studied for the nineteenth century, although much less so for the twentieth century, and the time is ripe for the serious historical study of Arab military autocracies.[3]

In a nutshell, the incomplete modernization and non-competitiveness of Arab militaries during the last fifty years reflects the overall failure of Arab societies in social, economic, and political modernization. In most Middle Eastern countries, the armed forces have received more investment than many other sectors of society. The military received the lion's share of the state budget and wielded the most influence in politics, society, and, sometimes, even the economy. No part of the Arab world was more exposed to Western technology and engineering sciences. The armies and other security forces, at the same time, created obstacles for political and, often, social development, so that no one could challenge their monopoly of power. Thus, the remainder of the population could not advance to the level necessary to sustain a technologically and organizationally competitive army. Because a national army must draw at least the bulk of its draftees from its own society, their overall capabilities mark the limits of the armies as well. For the sake of staying in power domestically, Middle Eastern political-military elites sacrificed their ability to defend their claims in the regional power play.

Kenneth Pollack has provided us not only with one of the finest examples of military writing of recent years, but also with a ground-breaking study, which will hopefully turn the attention of more Middle Eastern experts to military topics.


[1]. See Norvell de Atkine, "Why Arabs Lose Wars," in Barry A. Rubin and Thomas A. Keaney, eds., Armed Forces in the Middle East (London, 2002), pp. 23-40.

[2]. "Arab Human Development Report 2002," for download on the United Nations Development Programme's homepage.

[3]. David B. Ralston, Importing the European Army: The Introduction of European Military Techniques into the Extra-European World, 1600-1914 (Chicago and London, 1990); and Anouar Abdel-Malik, Aegypten: Militaergesellschaft. Das Armee, die Linke und der Soziale Wandel unter Nasser (Frankfurt, 1971).

Document compiled by Dr S D Stein
Last update 11/03/04 04:20:54
S D Stein

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