As an American soldier, I found that one of the best and most satisfying things about the first Gulf War, the liberation of Kuwait, was that we’d never again have to listen to how great the Israelis were. We’d seen the Arabs, met them, and went through them like a hot knife through butter. What did Tzahal have to teach us?
It’s a complex set of problems they have, the armies of the Arab world. Here’s a true story that will illustrate a lot of that why. It’s also a story I’ve told before in the essay, Training for War1:
During Bright Star 85, the Egyptian Army, which is one of the better Arab armies, set up some tents for us as Wadi Natrun, northwest of Cairo. The officer in charge of the detail looked at the Americans, looked at the tents (which were, by the way, better than ours), looked at the Americans…
He was thinking that an American’s signature on a hand receipt would do him no good if one of those very good and very expensive tents grew legs and went to hide in a shipping container. He put his platoon in formation, held up three fingers, and announced, “I need three guards.”
Every man reached into his back pocket, pulled out a wallet and began peeling off notes. That is to say, they were offering bribes, baksheesh. The three who came up with the smallest bribes were picked to guard the tents. These three then proceeded to squat by the road, hold hands, and cry like babies.2 And it was sort of understandable that they cried because for the next four days they got no food or water except what our men gave them out of pity; their officer just didn’t care.
That’s what you fight when you fight Arab armies, and that’s why we went through them like lightning. They’re a collection of demoralized bipedal sheep, usually led by corrupt and connected human filth. Exceptions? Sure there are exceptions; I’ve met a few. That’s why we call them “exceptional.” Shazly, the Egyptian general who got the army across the Suez, was an exception. He’s dead. Baki Zaki Youssef, the then young lieutenant of engineers who figured out how to breach the sand wall on the eastern bank of the Suez is old now. That he’s also a Copt, a Christian, may also suggest something about the problems of the Muslim mass.3
The Arabs are what the sociologists like to call “amoral familists.” This means that they are nearly or totally incapable of forming bonds of love and loyalty with anyone not a blood relation. Even then, the degree of blood relation determines where loyalty legitimately lies. The saying in the area is: “Me and my brother against my cousin; me, my brother and my cousin against the world.” This not only allows a superior to extort baksheesh from non-relations, but identifies him as an idiot – a weak idiot, actually – if he does not.
The Arab private? He’s no more a coward than anybody else. Indeed, as an individual, I might rate him above, or even substantially above, the human norm. But he is just one man, alone.
With us, the very broad us within the western military tradition and some eastern military traditions, or with Israelis, who are very western, “It’s all of us against all of them. They’re toast.” With him? With that poor dumb-shit Arab private? “It’s all of them against me alone. I’m toast.” He knows no one in his unit cares about him; after all, he doesn’t care about any of them, either. They’re just not family. So when that private is placed in the loneliest position in the world, the modern battlefield? He runs or surrenders at the first sign things are going badly. (He’ll be fine as long as they are going well, though. Note: Things rarely go well.) Defeat is a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy that has been fulfilled so often at this point that an Arab who didn’t expect it probably ought be locked up for his own good.
Add in the fantasy mindset. Don’t forget “Insh’allah,” (Which is like “mañana,” but without the sense of urgency) which makes it somewhat impious to train really well since it is all the will of God anyway. Insh’allah also provides an excuse for bad behavior on the battlefield. Add in a set of social values that despise and loathe physical labor.
Militarily, they’ve got nothing going for them.4
This may piss some people off; the Israelis have routinely stomped the Arabs so badly not because the Israelis are so great. In fact, outside of a few units the Israelis are just decent citizen soldier militia, nothing very special. But fighting the Arabs even just decent militia can shine.
I suggested in footnote four, below, that there is a way to make better Arab units, but it has three severe limitations and problems. The first of these is closely related to what I said above, Arabs rarely if ever can form bonds of loyalty and love with non-blood relations. Hence, one forms units of blood relations. They will fight like hell for each other, their fathers and uncles, their brothers and cousins, and for the glory of the clan. What happens then, though?
The first problem is that the units so formed are also the power, standing and security of their clan. They can only afford to lose or to risk so much without damaging that power, standing and security. They won’t usually run. Surrender is rare indeed. Still, there comes a point when they simply have to retire in good order.
The second problem is a problem from the point of view of the government that raises the blood-based units. In an organization that is formed from a clan or tribe, the loyalty of everyone, from the rank and file to the commanding officer, is not to the government. It isn’t to the country, which is a pretty weak concept in the Arab world anyway. Family and faith matter there a great deal; countries little or not at all.
I don’t know if the third problem is inevitable, but I’ve seen it just about enough to suspect so.
Watch the commander of a battalion of the Saudi Haras al Watiny, the National Guard.5 Watch how he acts with his driver. Tactfully nose about to see what the familial relationship is with that driver. Odds are, the driver – driving, not being driven, is the prestige and power position amongst the Saudi Arabs – is the battalion commander’s uncle, hence senior in the clan. He is the real battalion commander. He exercises real political control over the battalion. He may let the youngster pretend that said youngster is in charge. The above may differ in details, but the trend generally holds.
1 http://www.amazon.com/Training-War-Essay-Tom-Kratman-ebook/dp/B00JQI9TH2/ref=pd_rhf_gw_p_d_3 Note the temptingly low price.
2 Although there does appear to be a fairly strong element of bisexuality in the Arab male’s makeup, no, men holding hands doesn’t mean that.
3 I’m really not a huge fan of most people, but I’ll state for the record that if there are any people living I’d go out of my way to shake the hand of, Lieutenant Baki Zaki Youssef is not least among them. Neither would Shazly have been.
4 The Arab Legion is a partial exception to this, as is the Saudi National Guard, but they are highly limited exceptions.
5 The Haras al Watiny is the Saudi version of balance of power/separation of powers. They’re not as heavily equipped as the Saudi Army, not nearly, but they don’t need to be because they’re much tougher. Much. Personally, I quite like the Haras as, indeed, I like the Saudis.
Don’t miss last week’s column: Iranian Nukes Aren’t Israel’s Biggest Problem.
Tom Kratman is a retired infantry lieutenant colonel, recovering attorney, and science fiction and military fiction writer. His latest novel, The Rods and the Axe, is available from Amazon.com for $9.99 for the Kindle version, or $25 for the hardback. A political refugee and defector from the People’s Republic of Massachusetts, he makes his home in Blacksburg, Virginia. He holds the non-exclusive military and foreign affairs portfolio for EveryJoe. Tom’s books can be ordered through baen.com.