Streetwise Professor

April 8, 2011

Don’t Know Much About History

Filed under: History,Military,Politics — The Professor @ 8:42 pm

It is now widely–and officially–acknowledged that there is a stalemate on the battlefield in Libya.  Who could have possibly predicted such a thing?  That was a completely rhetorical question.

So we are now apparently contemplating committing ground troops to Libya as part of a NATO force to help the rebels in their battle to oust Khaddafy.  According to General Ham of Africom, this isn’t ideal.  Not because the rebels are completely inept.  Not because the US has no real vital interests there.  But because the optics wouldn’t be good.  Seriously.

How inept are the rebels?  Former Marine C. J. Chivers describes them thus:

But by almost all measures by which a military might be assessed, they are a hapless bunch. They have almost no communication equipment. There is no visible officer or noncommissioned officer corps. Their weapons are a mishmash of hastily acquired arms, which few of them know how to use.

With only weeks of fighting experience, they lack an understanding of the fundamentals of offensive and defensive combat, or how to organize fire support. They fire recklessly and sometimes accidentally. Most of them have yet to learn how to hold seized ground, or to protect themselves from their battlefield’s persistent rocket and mortar fire, which might be done by simply digging in.

Prone to panic, they often answer to little more than their mood, which changes in a flash. When their morale spikes upward, their attacks tend to be painfully and bloodily frontal — little more than racing columns down the highway, through a gantlet of the Qaddafi forces’ rocket and mortar fire, face forward into the loyalists’ machine guns.

Actually, anyone with a passing familiarity of military history would have known this already.  John Keegan’s book A History of Warfare discusses different military cultures.  He notes that the Arabs have been raiders since time immemorial; running has always been an integral part of their way of war, standing and fighting not.  “Flash changes in mood” are characteristic.  In WWI, Lawrence quickly realized that it was hopeless to try to make regular soldiers of the Arab tribesmen: their genius was for guerrilla warfare, for hit and run.  Someone who has read Seven Pillars would recognize Chivers’ description immediately; I wonder if he patterned it on Lawrence.  Even Faisal understood the limitations of his tribal warriors in a conventional fight.  Every Arab army in the world, with the possible exception of parts of the Jordanian which was well-trained by Britain in the 1940s and 1950s, is notorious for lax discipline, poor maintenance, a vast gulf between officers and men, and corruption.

To put it as provocatively as possible, recall Moshe Dyan’s response when he was asked what was the secret for his military success: “Fighting Arabs.”  When it comes to conventional war, that’s a tendentious appraisal–but an accurate one.

More recently, we have been working assiduously to train Iraqi troops for eight years.  The progress is slow and uneven.   Very slow.  Very uneven.  Old cultural habits die hard.

So we are supposed to go in and try to train an Arab tribal rabble while it is under assault?  And expect it to achieve anything?  Granted, they will be–are–fighting an army that is atrocious even by the standards of Arab nations, but their prospects for doing anything but perpetuating a stalemate are virtually nil.  Even if the focus is on making them effective irregulars in line with cultural tradition a la Lawrence, the result would not be decisive: such a force at best prevails by wearing down its opponent over a long period.  Not an option for us here.

Using US and NATO forces to support the rebels would be doomed to failure.  Then what?  What is the next escalation, the next we’ll-try-this-and-hope-it-works?  What will win out, Obama’s pacifism or his ego?

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  1. Agree totally.

    Comment by So? — April 9, 2011 @ 3:37 am

  2. To put it as provocatively as possible, recall Moshe Dyan’s response when he was asked what was the secret for his military success: “Fighting Arabs.”


    Comment by Howard Roark — April 9, 2011 @ 4:28 pm

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