Review: Kenneth M Pollock puts modern Arab military campaigns under the microscope

‘Armies of Sand’ resists trying to score cheap partisan points in analysing recurring themes of war in the Middle East

Destroyed Egyptian armour lines the sides of a Sinai road after it was hit by Israeli jet fighters during the 1967 war Reuters
Destroyed Egyptian armour lines the sides of a Sinai road after it was hit by Israeli jet fighters during the 1967 war Reuters

Middle East military expert and author of books with titles such as A Path Out of the Desert and Arabs at War, Kenneth Pollack seeks in Armies of Sand, his hefty and intensely interesting new book, to understand a recurring pattern in modern Arab military campaigns.

“Why did it take Iraq eight long years to defeat an Iran racked by revolution and cut off from the rest of the world? Why was that same Iraqi army then crushed effortlessly by the US-led coalition in the Gulf War of 1991? How on Earth did the Libyans manage to lose Chad in 1987?”

In any discussion of this book it’s important to stress at the outset what such quotes imply: Pollack has no intention of gloating in these pages even if it may appear that he is. His is a sweepingly objective broad-canvas historical inquiry, one that is aimed at solving a mystery rather than scoring cheap partisan points. This is a searching discussion of a complex puzzle.

Pollack attacks the problem first in its most drastic and infamous incarnation: the Arab-Israeli conflict of 1967, in which Israel defeated three Arab armies. As Pollack points out, the Arab combatants had all the advantages – more tanks, more artillery, more than twice as many men and more than three times as many warplanes. And yet, as Pollack writes, “when the dust finally cleared on June 10 ... the Arab armies had suffered one of its most shocking defeats”, leaving Israel in control of the Sinai, the West Bank and the Golan Heights.

Looking at this and a handful of other engagements, including recent iterations of the puzzle such as the Iraqi army’s campaign against ISIS in 2014, Pollack sifts through all the available data – battlefield reports, embedded journalism and a range of secondary sources that means his tightly-packed bibliography runs to 35 pages – in order to test the truth of a whole range of traditional explanations for these failings.

These reasons tend to be broken down into a few often repeated theories.

Maybe Arab forces tended not to succeed because in the years after the Second World War they modelled themselves along inherently flawed Soviet-style military methods?

Or maybe, as Pollack puts it, the culprit was “the excessive politicisation of Arab militaries” instead.

Kenneth M Pollack is an expert on Middle Eastern political-military affairs. Getty
Kenneth M Pollack is an expert on Middle Eastern political-military affairs. Getty

Or perhaps, as some experts have theorised, although Arab states were often well-equipped, they were also often under-funded and prey to a particular form of economic model that can sap the strength of many field armies? Lastly, and most intriguingly, perhaps the core weakness of these Arab forces was, ironically, also a core strength of the region’s culture: its system of courtesies and public deference?

In his test cases, Pollack finds the 1967 conflict standing in with a high degree of accuracy for all the rest, especially in terms of underscoring key failings in the forces involved. “Lower echelons sent inaccurate reports to higher echelons, who then made plans based on this misinformation,” he writes when discussing failings in the managing of battlefield information, for instance. And higher echelons seldom provided lower echelons with sufficient tactical and strategic information about the enemy, which led to further layers of deception: “The lower echelons then either had to try to execute the operation ... or lie and report that they did perform it when they had not.”

The book’s promoting of this final possibility, that Arab culture might be at the heart of the issue, is the most engaging section of Pollack’s discussion and will doubtless be the most controversial, abetted by a reality our author promptly acknowledges that in the West, “there are many common notions associated with the Arab world that are exaggerated, outdated or just inaccurate”. Pollack ranges his examination over a broad array of Arab nations in an effort at the kind of precision that is often lacking in such accounts.

Ultimately, Armies of Sand weighs an impressive number of political, economic and cultural factors and overturns a great many relic interpretations. It also resists the temptation to make predictions, which is wise.

Updated: March 26, 2019 04:29 AM


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