Foreign Affairs

Why Are Arab Armies Always Defeated?

The turmoil in the Middle East started over the capture of an Israeli solider Gilad Shalit. Now Arabs have turned to terrorist tactics. They must employ these methods because a military confrontation would end in their sound defeat. Why are Arab armies consistently defeated, even when they have advantages? The answers lie in their culture and customs.

Norvell De Atkine, a retired Army colonel with extensive first-hand knowledge of the Arab military, profiled this phenomenon in his 1999 article, “Why Arab Armies Lose,” appearing in the Middle East Quarterly. De Atkine lays out historical lessons for Arab ineptitude during the Iran-Iraq War, the first Gulf War and every single encounter with Israel. He infuses these historical examples with vivid and often bizarre episodes of the Arab military leadership that he witnessed. During his emersion in the Arab world, De Atkine connected the military practice with cultural customs and mores.

A key deficiency De Atkine observed in the Arab military is the concentration of information. De Atkine saw that Arabs rarely share information with each other. Having a particular expertise in the military makes an Arab “invaluable” and he obtains a level of “prestige and attention,” so long as he is the only one with the information.

On one occasion De Atkine saw American instructors give every member of an Egyptian tank outfit manuals. Shortly afterwards, the company commander confiscated the information. The commander said it was pointless for the enlisted personnel to have the manuals since they could not read. But the real reason was the commander did not want enlisted personnel “to have an independent source of knowledge.”

This is foreign to Western militaries that expect enlisted personnel to have an expertise in a multitude of jobs. In the event of a casualty, a solider is required to assume a new role. Western units are able to resume their high level of proficiency even during the chaos of war, a skill Arab armies lack.

Arab education places a high premium on memorization. Students fill their notebooks with information and then regurgitate what they learned on tests. This method of learning has its advantages, allowing students to recall facts with astounding accuracy and speed.

But the emphasis on disgorging facts leaves other facilities lacking, like original thought and analytical skills. Arabs look to conform, rather than innovate, like their Western counterparts. Also, Arabs avoid head-to-head competition, not to the risk the humiliation of higher-ranking officers or members from a higher social class. Instructors must know that before they pose a question, pupils must first know the answer. If not, humiliation ensures. This is followed by paranoia, believing that he was set up. Soon the classroom setting turns from nurturing into confrontational.

Communication and decision-making is limited to a small number of individuals at a high level of authority. Information is not distributed from the top on down. And once a decision is made, it cannot be altered in any way. Even officers lack authority to make a decision and are reluctant to distinguish themselves. De Atkine developed a rule of thumb that states, “A sergeant first class in the U.S. Army has as much authority as a colonel in an Arab Army.” This chain of command reflects the highly political nature of Arab militaries.

A glaring difference between Israel and its current combatants is the treatment of the enlisted men. For Israeli men, military service is a point of pride and executed with full effort. In Egypt, the young see the service as a burden. Syrians look for dispensation for service. Why the differences? In Arab militaries, enlisted personnel are treated as second-class citizens. De Atkine witnessed some Egyptian officers using their men for little more than a “windbreaker” and other officers leaving the enlisted men in the desert to fend for themselves.

Noncommissioned officers (NCO) provide a link for the officers and enlisted personnel in Western militaries, while Arabs have no (or an undeveloped) NCO corps. NCOs are not trusted to instruct enlisted personnel and thus instruction becomes the responsibility of the officers. However, the cultural gap between the enlisted and officers makes the education system a failure.

Arab officers fail to lead by example because they are tied to notion of societal prestige. Rather than leading by example, officers prefer to “save face” in front of enlisted men. For example, during the first Gulf war when a sandstorm blew over Iraqi officer prisoner tents, the officers remained in the harsh conditions rather than being “observed by enlisted prisoners in a nearby camp working with their hands.” If officers and the enlisted distrust each other, it will manifest itself during training and on the battlefield.

This is maddening for American officers, because it is so foreign to their own training. For instance, at the Marine Corps’ Officer Candidate School in Quantico, Va., potential Marine officers are taught to take initiative while leading. Candidates are also informed of how their performance stakes up with others in their platoon. Every instructor at OCS, officer or enlisted, executes every task allowed with the candidates, from obstacle courses to extensive hikes to daily physical training. Each candidate will be given a leadership billet and evaluated on their showing. Humiliation is part of becoming a better leader in the Marine Corps. Western military leaders understand that leadership is an on-going process, in which mistakes will be made and personal growth will occur. Leadership, combined with technical expertise, no matter the rank, will ensure battles are won and lives are saved.

The Middle East hangs in the balance, as Israeli and Arab armies face off. But Arab armies must fight their cultural limitation along with their determined Israeli foe. When they meet their defeat at the hands of Israel, Arabs will continue to blame weapons and money for their loses, rather than looking at their own failures. They can reform their culture, which are the seeds of their defeats, or continue their life on the run from Western forces bent on destroying Islamic fascism.


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