Streetwise Professor

April 9, 2011

Further Reading on Arab Military Culture

Filed under: History,Politics,Russia — The Professor @ 6:59 am

For those who thought my judgment regarding Arab military culture and performance was unduly harsh, or those who are interested in a more detailed take, I recommend this article from 1999 in the Middle East Quarterly.  There’s a bonus Russian/Soviet connection in the conclusions section:

When they had an influence on certain Arab military establishments, the Soviets reinforced their clients’ cultural traits far more than, in more recent years, Americans were able to. Like the Arabs’, the Soviets’ military culture was driven by political fears bordering on paranoia. The steps taken to control the sources (real or imagined) of these fears, such as a rigidly centralized command structure, were readily understood by Arab political and military elites. The Arabs, too, felt an affinity for the Soviet officer class’s contempt for ordinary soldiers and the Soviet military hierarchy’s distrust of a well-developed, well-appreciated, well-rewarded NCO corps.

Arab political culture is based on a high degree of social stratification, very much like that of the defunct Soviet Union and very much unlike the upwardly mobile, meritocratic, democratic United States. Arab officers do not see any value in sharing information among themselves, let alone with their men. In this they follow the example of their political leaders, who not only withhold information from their own allies, but routinely deceive them. Training in Arab armies reflects this: rather than prepare as much as possible for the multitude of improvised responsibilities that are thrown up in the chaos of battle, Arab soldiers, and their officers, are bound in the narrow functions assigned them by their hierarchy. That this renders them less effective on the battlefield, let alone places their lives at greater risk, is scarcely of concern, whereas, of course, these two issues are dominant in the American military culture, and are reflected in American military training.

Change is unlikely to come until it occurs in the larger Arab political culture, although the experience of other societies (including our own) suggests that the military can have a democratizing influence on the larger political culture, as officers bring the lessons of their training first into their professional environment, then into the larger society. It obviously makes a big difference, however, when the surrounding political culture is not only avowedly democratic (as are many Middle Eastern states), but functionally so. Until Arab politics begin to change at fundamental levels, Arab armies, whatever the courage or proficiency of individual officers and men, are unlikely to acquire the range of qualities which modern fighting forces require for success on the battlefield. For these qualities depend on inculcating respect, trust, and openness among the members of the armed forces at all levels, and this is the marching music of modern warfare that Arab armies, no matter how much they emulate the corresponding steps, do not want to hear.

Although a dozen years old, this appraisal of Soviet military-political habits resonates given the ongoing travails over reforming the Russian military.  These efforts are bordering on crisis, with the Chief of the Russian General Staff, Nikolai Makarov making a stinging attack on Russian military education and research, and on the President of the Academy of Military Sciences, Makhmut Gareev.  Compare, for instance, the foregoing statement about the gulf between officers and soldiers in the Soviet military with this anecdote:

In Russia’s traditional peasant army soldiers and sergeants were considered the scum of the earth and only the promotion to officer level brought privileges and the rank of a human being. In the early 1990’s together with a high-ranking Russian military delegation in Germany, I listened to a top German general’s banquet address that began with: “We as soldiers….” As the translation continued, an angry Russian lieutenant-general whispered in my ear: “Why is he insulting us? We are not soldiers – we are generals.”

The linked article provides more details about the ongoing implosion in Russian military manpower and the tragi-comic flailing attempts to address it.  I say again: what sense is there spending on the order of $700 billion in new weapons if there aren’t enough trained men to use them?  Other than being a way to line the pockets of those who command such a Potemkin force, and those who receive the contracts to do so, it makes no sense at all.

Update: Lest there be any confusion, I definitely do not believe that Arabs and Russians are all that similar in terms of their martial attributes.  The paranoia and the obsession with hierarchy are among the few commonalities.  For instance, Russian soldiers through history have been anything but runners.  Indeed, they’re notable for their mulish willingness to hold a futile position and die in their thousands, as at Borodino, or innumerable combats in WWII.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

No Comments »

No comments yet.

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URI

Leave a comment

Powered by WordPress