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by Norvell B. DeAtkine

A military specialist in Middle Eastern Affairs draws upon the literature as well as his own extensive experience in the region to describe the importance of culture in Arab societies and what it means for unconventional warfare. –Ed.

John Keegan observed in his landmark book Face of Battle, “that war is always an expression of culture, often an determinant of social forms, in some societies the culture itself.” John Lynn continued this theme in a more nuanced fashion in Battle: A History Combat and Culture. To be specific, just as there is an American way of war, as explained by Russell F. Weigley, there is an Arab way of war which has been more broadly described as the ‘eastern way of war” by historians such as Victor Davis Hanson.

Kenneth Pollock, (Arabs at War) amply covered the historical ineffectiveness of Arab military organizations in conventional wars against Western opponents while some of the cultural and societal rationale was illuminated in my study, “Why Arabs Lose Wars” (  However since that article appeared a frequent topic has been the “New Arab/Muslim Way of War,” expounding the view that in irregular or unconventional warfare against Western armies the Arabs do much better. From the historical record it appears to be true, and it is my thesis that the answer as to why may be found in the cultural attributes of Arab society.

Irregular warfare, in being touted as a “new” way of Arab warfare, is somewhat deceiving in that only the weapons and techniques have changed, not the strategy or tactics.  It is, in fact, a very old form of Arab warfare.   As depicted in the works by John Jandora (The March from Medina, A Revisionist Study of the Arab Conquests), and in others such as those by John Keegan, Steven Runciman, and Rueben Levy, early Arab triumphs were not a result of religious zeal, as many historians believe, although it was a factor.  More significantly, success was due to superior martial skills, such as experience gained in constant tribal warfare, excellent leadership, adaptability, and rapid mobilization techniques.  In the era of early conquests, Arabs were able to assimilate European methods and weapons and retain their own advantages among which were the ability to rapidly mass and disperse, move quickly, and use surprise.  They scrupulously avoided the close direct grinding warfare found so often among the Greeks, fighting this way only as a last resort.

Despite the success of the early Arabs in adapting to European warfare, the favored Arab form of war remained traditional Bedouin methods.  Traditionally, war fighting included a penchant for secrecy, the ability to pick and choose the time and place of the battles, and an emphasis on individualism, the latter an attribute not part of the mass tactics of the West.  The Arab way of war was historically also one of deception, avoidance of close-in warfare, and a preference for standoff weaponry, including the near veneration of archery.

Indirection, evasion, excellent intelligence, subterfuge, and psychological operations are the features of the Arab way of war today.  In particular, no aspect in the Arab way of war is more important than psychological operations.

T. E. Lawrence eloquently described the importance of the psychological in his observations on the Bedouin strategy of winning wars without battles.  In the typical ghazwa (Bedouin raid) this included the use of bloodcurdling yells and screams in which the attackers sought to frighten the defenders.  If things were not going well on the battlefield, there was no shame in a hasty retreat.  As H. A. R. Dickson has written in his book Arab of the Desert, running away was never considered shameful but rather intelligent.  Arab historian Ibn Khaldun called it the “attack and withdraw” strategy.

The early history of Arab warfare against Western empires reveals a people more innovative, adaptable, and strategic thinking than their adversaries. The advanced civilization and culture of Islamic empires atrophied, however, and along with it, their military competence.  The Muslim community was secure in its view that the defeated Europeans of the Crusades were a barbarous and inferior people.   As historian Bernard Lewis has so well documented in his writings, this view held that little was to be learned from the West, complimenting a feeling of self-sufficiency and allowing European advances in military doctrine and weapons to overtake and outclass the Middle Eastern Islamic world.

The renaissance in the Western world rendered the Muslim’s deprecatory view of the West as fatally flawed.  An easy French victory over Ottoman forces in 1798 was shocking to both the Europeans and the Islamic world.  Ottoman Turks realized their inferiority, particularly in military capability, and began to import Western instructors and technology.  A massive European intrusion into the Islamic world was induced by the weakness of a once powerful Ottoman Empire.This included the economic capitulations levied on the Ottoman Empire, the French takeover of most of Arab North Africa, and the British expansion of their empire, ostensibly to guard the routes to India.

In the Middle East the Europeans created indigenous military forces to do their bidding, in particular assisting in maintaining security, while being controlled carefully enough to prevent a military threat to their rule.  In so doing they attempted to inculcate their culture into Middle Eastern military establishments.  In some cases a complete makeover was attempted.  In the case of Egypt, Winston Churchill wrote in his book River Wars, “…the European system was substituted for the oriental.”

From this point on most Arab armies were trained, equipped, and organized on European methods, albeit still maintaining their cultural attributes.  Earlier attempts to re-make Arab armies in a European system was just as unsuccessful as was the Soviet attempt to impose their doctrine on their client Arab states. (See “Armies of Snow and Armies of Sand: the Impact of Soviet Military Doctrine on Arab Militaries” by Michael Eisenstadt and Kenneth M. Pollack, Middle East Journal, Autumn, 2001) which deals with the Soviet Union’s military patronage of Egypt, Syria and Iraq.  While these countries readily accepted Soviet hardware, Arab authoritarian political culture (strongly reinforced by Western imports of advanced coercive tools and systems) tended to encourage conformity and could not integrate the doctrine upon which the Soviet military system was based (although to an extent the Soviet system was more acceptable to the recipient Arabs than Western models).  Overall, as I personally observed in Egypt while working with the Egyptian army, the attempt to graft the Soviet military system onto the tree of the Egyptian army was a failure.

The greater effectiveness of Arabs fighting in traditional Arab ways of war has a historical basis and more importantly is deeply rooted in their culture.  In my observations of why the Arabs are more effective in unconventional war I suggest the following reasons:

More in Consonance with Qu’ranic Laws of Warfare
In a widely quoted book among senior Arab military professionals, The Qu’ranic Concept of War, Pakistani general, S. K. Malik has written that “war is the cause of God” and not a calamity to be avoided.  There is much in this book that would promote unconventional war, including the importance of total war concepts, the use of terror to strike fear into the hearts of the enemy, the use of psychology, using economic tools, and as he wrote, avoiding “the kid gloves” approach to war.  For many pages he details the strategy promoted in the Qu’ran, mostly based on the early wars of the Prophet and his followers against the “apostates.” In other passages he extols the early Muslim armies’ ability to fight on favorable terrain, at a time of their choosing, and using deception and intelligence to gain advantage over the enemy.  Echoing a theme written by T. E. Lawrence, the principal aim in warfare is to win “bloodless battles” by convincing the enemy of the futility of resistance. In the wars against the “apostates” the Prophet used threat as a major psychological weapon, with injunctions such as “it is not for any prophet to have prisoners until he has thoroughly subdued the land.” The Prophet also imported the catapult ( manjaniq) for use in sieges – a weapon used little but of tremendous intimidation effect. According to Muslin scholars, of the 28 battles into which the Prophet led his followers, only 8 were fought. In the 20 others the enemy fled.  The more modern version of this is the extensive use of video capturing sniper attacks and attacks on US troops in Iraq, which were broadcast around the world by satellite stations such as Al-Jazeera and a host of others.  Lawrence also details the laws on the spoils of war.  All the writers on Bedouin warfare have written about the importance of loot or spoils in typical desert warfare.  As an irregular, a fighter is far more likely to obtain his share of the spoils of war than as a foot soldier in a regular army unit in which it is most likely that the officers would take any spoils of war.

The Importance of Blood Lines and Tribal Solidarity
Nothing is more important in the Arab world than tribal or family solidarity.  For this reason Arab rulers often see this solidarity (assibiyah) as a threat to be dealt with.  In most Arab countries there is a conscious effort on the part of rulers to ensure that regular army units are generally mixed in terms of ethnicity and regional origins to ensure that there is no cohesive unit attitudes toward the ruling establishment. As detailed in “Why Arabs Lose Wars,” the land forces of most Arab nations are the greatest existing threat to the regime.  Prior to the 1980’s, Arab history was replete with examples of military coups.  All land forces constitute a “double-edged sword.”  One edge of the sword points toward the capitol.  Forces loyal to the regime for ethnic, religious, or ideological reasons mitigate this potential threat.  Examples of this are the Saudi Arabian National Guard and the now-defunct Republican Guard of Iraq. It is a system that encourages distrust and compartmentalization.   Harkabi examined this concept in his study of the collapse of Arab conventional forces in the 1967 war (“Basic Factors in Arab Collapse during the Six Day War,” Orbis, Fall, 1967).

Arab unconventional or insurgent forces, on the other hand, are almost always composed of clans, tribes, ethnic groups, or urban sectarian neighborhoods. They know each other, trust each other and often have blood ties and family connections.  This also makes it difficult to penetrate for intelligence or creating dissention.  Blood trumps all in the Arab world, including religion. Moreover, unlike conventional Arab forces that are often assigned to areas away from their origins on purpose, these unconventional Arab units are in their home territory, know the terrain, be it the desert or the urban slums, and the people are their people. They can hide among the civilians, creating great difficulties for Western armies trained on minimizing collateral damage.

Casting Off the Conventional Arab Military Straitjacket
Arab conventional forces, basing their tactics and doctrine on Western models, tend to be very predictable, with stovepipe leadership, inhibited by a top-down command structure that rewards political loyalty to the regime and usually exhibits a wide gap between soldiers and their officer leadership. Usually the officers are drawn from classes above the peasantry or urban poor, and in a reflection of the Arab society in general, there is very little empathy to create the cohesiveness a professional army demands.  In a Western army the non-commissioned officer is the bridge between officer and soldier, but the Arab armies in general lack a professional NCO corps.

In Arab insurgent groups, the informal command structures are based more on traditional Arab leadership qualities and charismatic personalities, and the concept of tribal or family loyalties produces a far more effective fighting force than that of most Arab conventional units. In fact, in more recent times the conventional army armies have become the targets of derisive media coverage in the Arab world, with unfavorable comparison to the “success” of Hezbollah against the Israelis (see Publications/WebPublications/ PolicyBriefs/PolicyBriefArchive/tabid/539/ctl/ Detail/mid/1611/ xmid/594/xmfid/17/Default.aspx). In Iraq the insurgents surprised U. S. forces with their ability to adapt to changes in our counter-insurgency tactics, clever use of small assault units of 5-10 personnel, and ability to integrate direct and supporting fires, something conventional Arab forces have never done well.

More pointedly, in conventional Arab militaries promotion and assignments are based more on loyalty, political linkages to the regime or family connections.  Prevalent in Arab conventional forces, there is a distinct attribute that the “nail that stands up gets hammered down.” Officers tend to avoid personal responsibility, seek consensus, and wait for orders from above.  This is much less the case in Arab unconventional forces. Leaders are responsible to their tribe or families for the successes of their missions and lives of their unit’s members. Very often they are considered only the first among equals and are subject to removal for incompetence or wasting lives.

Weaponry and Uses
Almost every American advisor will lament the perennial problem of the lack of a systemic logistics and maintenance capability among Arab armies.  It was particularly true of the Egyptian, Syrian and Iraqi armies.  The capability to keep sophisticated weapons systems operational has always been a complaint of U.S. advisors.  It is not a symptom of a lack of intelligence or will; but rather it is an aspect of Arab culture in which teamwork and daily application of effort is missing.  To a lesser but important degree it is also a reflection of the nomadic influence which views menial “dirty hands” work as the responsibility of low-caste people.  Officers shun manual labor and rarely get involved in it.

On the contrary, the noted Arabists Wilfred Thesiger and Alois Musil pointed out the care and knowledge with which the Bedouin handled their personal weapons. This is the advantage of the Arab irregular. He has no heavy weaponry to maintain, only small arms and small standoff weapons such as rocket propelled grenades (RPG) and mortars. And as Thesinger observed, and I did as well, the Arabs have a talent for jerry-rigging weapons and equipment that can be quite amazing.  With few tools or sophisticated workshops this ability is a prerequisite for insurgent operations. The use of 155 MM artillery shells rigged as roadside bombs, triggered by garage openers are only one example.

Ibn Khaldun, in his 14th century book The Muqaddimah, laments the nature of the Bedouin as barbaric, but also emphasizes the individualistic nature of the Arab; the desire among them to vie for leadership, and each one feels qualified to assume a leadership role. This trait is one of many that has been absorbed by Arab society in general.  Anyone who has spent some time in the Arab world can relate to this.   For example, imagine the scene of an accident wherein dozens of men will gather, all shouting orders to others, and no one is listening.  At the American University in Beirut my sociology professor asked the class to observe a basketball game and relate their observations. The Arab students saw nothing of particular note but many American students noted that there was very little passing or teamwork.  A player would get the ball, dribble the length of the court and make a shot. This overwhelming trait of individualism is a difficult obstacle in developing a smoothly functioning conventional unit.  My own observation over the years has been that Arab units are not lacking in the individual skills required for war fighting; they are hardy, used to privation, and tough. The basic problem on the modern battlefield is the lack of functioning combined arms.

For the unconventional fighter these are not particular problems.  In fact the Arab in a guerilla unit is able to exhibit his imagination and initiative in a way never allowed in the conventional unit.  Conformity of the Arab military system is a result of draconian discipline imposed to get obedience.  It is not a natural Arab attribute.  In contrast to the conventional military system, the insurgent success depends on individual initiative. Most often insurgent success is dependent on being able to respond quickly to targets of opportunity, e.g., enemy convoys, momentary lapses in defensive security, attacking quickly, and dispersing before the enemy reacts. The Iraqi insurgent was very adept at these tactics. Time and time again our convoys were hit by a combination of improvised explosive devices, rocket propelled grenades, and small arms fire lasting only a few minutes.

Glory and Self-Promotion
The thespian impulse found in many Arabs is a remarkable and often observed trait. General Glubb Pasha (Lt. General Sir John Glubb), British commander of the Royal Jordanian Army, who worked with Arabs for almost 50 years, commented on their spirit of romance, need for the dramatic gesture, and quest for personal glory.  Eric Hoffer wrote of this trait in describing leftist terrorists in the 60’s.  His descriptions of this motivation fit perfectly with the Twin-Tower terrorists of 9-11.  Hoffer wrote in his book The True Believer, “Dying and killing seem easy when they are part of a ritual, ceremonial, dramatic performance or game.  Glory is largely a theatrical concept. There is no striving for glory without a vivid awareness of an audience – the knowledge that our mighty deeds will come to the ears of our contemporaries.”  Obtaining this personal glory as a foot soldier in an infantry unit is by no means impossible but hardly as likely as the Arab insurgent with face mask, kaffiya, individualized battle dress picking the time and place for his personalized heroic act.

In describing the reasons for Arab effectiveness as an unconventional warrior I have drawn on my own experiences as well as the observations of those who have worked with Arabs over the past two centuries. Much of the materiel relates to the nomadic Arab. Yet today probably less than 5% of the Arab population can be considered nomadic. The contemporary Arab world is a mostly urban society.  However this in no way diminishes the validity of the traits described above.  As the great Iraqi historian Ali Al Wardi has written a half-century ago, nomadic traits are part of the ethos of the Iraqi and Arab character.  This has more recently been reinforced by the study of Philip Salzman in his book, Culture and Conflict in the Middle East.  The fact that Ibn Khaldun’s observations of so long ago can be applied today offers proof of the remarkable resistance of Arab culture to change.End.

This article includes some extracts from Mr. DeAtkine’s chapter in Conflict and Insurgency in the Contemporary Middle East, ed. Barry Rubin, London and New York: Routledge, 2008.

Norvell B DeAtkine
Norvell B DeAtkine

Norvell B DeAtkine is a retired Colonel, a graduate of West Point with an MA from the American University of Beirut in Arab Studies. His extensive overseas service includes combat service in Vietnam, an assignment in Korea, and 8 years in the Middle East. Among his positions held were as an artillery battalion commander and deputy commander of a Corps Artillery. Following his military service he taught for 18 years as the director of Middle East studies at the John F Kennedy Special Warfare Center and School.


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