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” (http://www.meforum.org/441/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
The Importance of Blood Lines and Tribal Solidarity
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
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 www.mei.edu/ 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.
Weaponry and Uses
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.
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
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.