Armies of Sand

I’ve been doing a lot of reading lately. In terms of fiction, it means (among other things) lots of new Fuldapocalypse reviews in waiting. But I figure I’d cover a non-fiction book here, Kenneth Pollack’s Armies of Sand, because it’s a followup to one of my younger classics.

That younger classic would be Kenneth Pollack’s Arabs At War (and the thesis that led to it, The Influence of Arab Culture on Arab Military Effectiveness). It, alongside Andrew Gordon’s The Rules Of The Game, were two of my introductions to serious military history. Both are detailed, long history books that I’ve nonetheless viewed later on with a somewhat more skeptical eye.

I grabbed Armies of Sand on release. By “normal person” standards, it’s a good book. But by my very high ones, I’m skeptical. I’ve found Pollack, who is making very, very serious claims, has a few “Brown M&Ms” that point to some lack of rigor. There’s comparably few updated sources from the ones in the thesis, and he points to hit rates of in comparison to peacetime theory rather than the inevitably much lower ones in wartime practice.

(Granted, I think some of my issues aren’t so much with Pollack himself compared to how the Spacebattles War Room has kind of taken his work and flanderized it, particularly 1991 Iraq, from “They under-performed, sometimes dramatically so” to “They could lose to WWI armies or the like and are completely, utterly incompetent”[1]).

So I want to point out what Pollack does right. He doesn’t discount the other hypotheses (politicization and underdevelopment[2]), and he applies the cultural element (what he thinks is the most responsible) with a lot of care and respect, knowing how easily it is to sink into bad stereotypes.

The best “control group” section is politicization. The Soviet doctrine part isn’t bad at all, and Pollack comes across as less biased than he did in the thesis, but politicization and the two control countries were more fascinating to me, describing the similarities of Argentina in the Falklands War and South Vietnam. My only complaint is that Iraq was used as the Arab case without mentioning the conventional portion of the 2003 war, which is well-documented and also featured a monstrously politicized army.

The biggest miss in the control section is underdevelopment. Pollack uses the same two countries he did in the thesis (Toyota War Chad and Mao’s China) despite a huge pool of choices[3] and uses Syria instead of an oil state with a more dramatic shift for the Arab example, a slightly befuddling choice (I have a hunch Pollack wanted to work one of the most famous armies in there and nowhere else really fit).

Then there’s the culture section. I’d already read about it from the thesis, but he handles it well. Pollack never argues it would always be the case, points to training as the transmission mechanism, and points out examples of Arab armies that, mostly by having a smaller and more selective choice of soldiers, performed better individually.

_ _ _ _ _

Armies of Sand should not be the be-all-and-end-all of books about Arab armies in the modern age, but my critiques and nitpicking shouldn’t be taken as a sign that the book is bad or worthless. On the contrary, as a beginning and general reference for jumping off to more “hardcore” studies, it’s well worth a read.

I’m just “spoiled”, I guess.

_ _ _ _ _

[1]Of course, Spacebattles living through 2014, the nadir of modern Iraqi army performance, may have reinforced this.

[2]The third, Soviet doctrine, had very little negative and many positive influences on the Arab armies that used it.

[3]Pretty much any country with overall economic stats below Western Europe would do. All the other control countries he used in the underdevelopment section, including Argentina, which for all its problems is not a bottom-tier country by any means.

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