Armies of Sand: The Past, Present, and Future of Arab Military Effectiveness

In This Review

Armies of Sand: The Past, Present, and Future of Arab Military Effectiveness
By Kenneth M. Pollack
Oxford University Press, 2019
696 pp.
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Arab militaries have always performed poorly. Pollack, who has studied them for nearly two decades, exhaustively explores four explanations for their ineffectiveness: their reliance on Soviet military doctrine, the politicization of the officer corps, the economic underdevelopment of Arab societies, and Arab culture. All are important, but only the last has real explanatory power. By comparing Arab militaries with non-Arab ones from countries at similar levels of development, Pollack is able to sort out what matters. His careful and sensitive analysis points to patriarchy, group loyalty, obedience, and the fear of failure—all characteristics reenforced by the Arab educational system—as the leading explanations. His fascinating tour begins in 1948 and considers a long series of engagements involving conventional and guerrilla forces. Despite the book’s length, it misses a few cases, including the Algerian War of Independence, from 1954 to 1962, which pitted the National Liberation Front against the French, and the Sudanese military’s long struggle with southern rebels, which culminated in South Sudan’s independence in 2011. His argument is well supported, but his analysis of the effects of education before 1967 does not hold water, as so few Arab recruits had formal schooling in that period. Still, the book will make for painful reading among Arab military professionals.

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