"Leadership may be
the greatest weakness of Arab training systems. [A] sergeant first class
in the U.S. Army has as much authority as a colonel in an Arab army. . . .
A veteran of the Pentagon turf wars will feel like a kindergartner when he
encounters the rivalries that exist in the Arab military
The author, a retired U.S. Army colonel, draws upon many years of firsthand observation of Arabs in training to reach conclusions about the ways in which they go into combat. His findings derive from personal experience with Arab military establishments in the capacity of U.S. military attache and security assistance officer, observer officer with the British-officered Trucial Oman Scouts (the security force in the emirates prior to the establishment of the UAE), as well as some thirty years of study of the Middle East.~ Ed.
False startsIncluding culture in strategic assessments has a poor
legacy, for it has often been spun from an ugly brew of ignorance, wishful
thinking, and mythology. Thus, the U.S. Army in the 1930s evaluated the
Japanese national character as lacking originality and drew the
unwarranted conclusion that that country would be permanently
disadvantaged in technology. Hitler dismissed the United States as a
mongrel society and consequently underestimated the impact of America’s
entry into the war. American strategists assumed that the pain threshold
of the North Vietnamese approximated our own and that the air bombardment
of the North would bring it to its knees. Three days of aerial attacks
were thought to be all the Serbs could withstand; in fact, seventy-eight
days were needed.
As these examples
suggest, when culture is considered in calculating the relative strengths
and weaknesses of opposing forces, it tends to lead to wild distortions,
especially when it is a matter of understanding why states unprepared for
war enter into combat flushed with confidence. The temptation is to impute
cultural attributes to the enemy state that negate its superior numbers or
weaponry. Or the opposite: to view the potential enemy through the prism
of one’s own cultural norms.
The role of cultureThese problems notwithstanding, culture does need to be taken into account. Indeed, awareness of prior mistakes should make it possible to assess the role of cultural factors in warfare. John Keegan, the eminent historian of warfare, argues that culture is a prime determinant of the nature of warfare. In contrast to the usual manner of European warfare, which he terms “face to face,” Keegan depicts the early Arab armies in the Islamic era as masters of evasion, delay, and indirection. Examining Arab warfare in this century leads to the conclusion that the Arabs remain more successful in insurgent, or political, warfare — what T. E. Lawrence termed “winning wars without battles.” Even the much-lauded Egyptian crossing of the Suez in 1973 at its core entailed a masterful deception plan. It may well be that these seemingly permanent attributes result from a culture that engenders subtlety, indirection, and dissimulation in personal relationships.
Along these lines, Kenneth Pollock concludes his exhaustive study of Arab military effectiveness by noting that “certain patterns of behavior fostered by the dominant Arab culture were the most important factors contributing to the limited military effectiveness of Arab armies and air forces from 1945 to 1991.” These attributes included over-centralization, discouraging initiative, lack of flexibility, manipulation of information, and the discouragement of leadership at the junior officer level. The barrage of criticism leveled at Samuel Huntington’s notion of a “clash of civilizations” in no way lessens the vital point he made — that however much the grouping of peoples by religion and culture rather than political or economic divisions offends academics who propound a world defined by class, race, and gender, it is a reality, one not diminished by modern communications.
But how does one integrate the study of culture into military training? At present, it has hardly any role. Paul M. Belbutowski, a scholar and former member of the U.S. Delta Force, succinctly stated a deficiency in our own military education system: “Culture, comprised of all that is vague and intangible, is not generally integrated into strategic planning except at the most superficial level.” And yet it is precisely “all that is vague and intangible” that defines low-intensity conflicts. The Vietnamese communists did not fight the war the United States had trained for, nor did the Chechens and Afghans fight the war the Russians prepared for. This entails far more than simply retooling weaponry and retraining soldiers. It requires an understanding of the cultural mythology, history, attitude toward time, etc.; and it demands a more substantial investment in time and money than a bureaucratic organization is likely to authorize.
Mindful of walking through a minefield of past errors and present cultural sensibilities, I offer some assessments of the role of culture in the military training of Arabic-speaking officers. I confine myself principally to training for two reasons:
• First, I observed much training but only one combat campaign (the Jordanian Army against the Palestine Liberation Organization in 1970).
• Secondly, armies fight as they train. Troops are conditioned by peacetime habits, policies, and procedures; they do not undergo a sudden metamorphosis that transforms civilians in uniform into warriors. General George Patton was fond of relating the story about Julius Caesar, who “in the winter time. . . so trained his legions in all that became soldiers and so habituated them to the proper performance of their duties, that when in the spring he committed them to battle against the Gauls, it was not necessary to give them orders, for they knew what to do and how to do it.”
Information as power
In every society information is a means of making a living or wielding power, but Arabs husband information and hold it especially tightly. U.S. trainers have often been surprised over the years by the fact that information provided to key personnel does not get much further than them. Having learned to perform some complicated procedure, an Arab technician knows that he is invaluable so long as he is the only one in a unit to have that knowledge; once he dispenses it to others he no longer is the only font of knowledge and his power dissipates. This explains the commonplace hoarding of manuals, books, training pamphlets, and other training or logistics literature.
On one occasion, an American
mobile training team working with armor in Egypt at long last received the
operators’ manuals that had laboriously been translated into Arabic. The
American trainers took the newly minted manuals straight to the tank park
and distributed them to the tank crews. Right behind them, the company
commander, a graduate of the armor school at Fort Knox and specialized
courses at the Aberdeen Proving Grounds ordnance school, promptly
collected the manuals from those crews. Questioned why he did this, the
commander said that there was no point in giving them to the drivers
because enlisted men could not read. In point of fact, he did not want
enlisted men to have an independent source of knowledge. Being the only
person who could explain the fire control instrumentation or bore sight
artillery weapons brought prestige and attention.
Training tends to be
unimaginative, cut and dried, and not challenging. Because the Arab
educational system is predicated on rote memorization, officers have a
phenomenal ability to commit vast amounts of knowledge to memory. The
learning system tends to consist of on-high lectures, with students taking
voluminous notes and being examined on what they were told. (It also has
interesting implications for a foreign instructor, whose credibility, for
example, is diminished if he must resort to a book.) The emphasis on
memorization has a price, and that is in diminished ability to reason or
engage in analysis based upon general principles. Thinking outside the box
is not encouraged; doing so in public can damage a career. Instructors are
not challenged and neither, in the end, are students.
Officers vs. soldiers
Arab junior officers are well
trained on the technical aspects of their weapons and tactical know-how,
but not in leadership, a subject given little attention. For example, as
General Sa`d ash-Shazli, the Egyptian chief of staff, noted in his
assessment of the army he inherited prior to the 1973 war, they were not
trained to seize the initiative or volunteer original concepts or new
ideas. Indeed, leadership may be the greatest weakness of Arab training
systems. This problem results from two main factors: a highly accentuated
class system bordering on a caste system, and lack of a
non-commissioned-officer development program.
(This article appears in two parts. Click here to go to part two.)
| Send email
|| Subscribe (free) to