Politicized Armies

Kenneth Pollack’s Armies of Sand, and its thesis predecessor, “The Influence of Arab Culture on Arab Military Effectiveness”, is fascinating not just for its core claim, but also in how, culture aside, politicization and underdevelopment worked in theory and practice.

Pollack listed three main types of excessive politicization for militaries.

  • “Praetorianism”, where the military is more interested in politics and/or gaining power than preparing for serious combat.
  • “Commissarism” or ‘coup-proofing’, where the military is subject to measures designed to neutralize it as a political threat.
  • “Palace Guard” where the military is designed more for combating internal threats than for high-intensity combat.

The three can easily blend together. Praetorianism can be followed by commissarism as the winner of a power struggle consolidates, and commissarism and palace-guardism can be tied as the regime and country blur.

Palace-Guardism appears to be the least worst of the options, because in many cases an internal threat is far more urgent and far more credible than an external one, and because the common separate palace-guard forces (think the Republican Guard) are frequently benchmarked against the regular army and thus serve as the strongest conventional force.

Pollack’s description, which he backs up with evidence and case studies from several heavily politicized armies, is that politicization frequently leads to wildly uneven performance and affects the politically vulnerably upper ranks far more than it hits the lower, more obscure, or safe lower ones. Sometimes it can be downplayed, particularly in commissarist systems, if the regime lucks into a few high-ranking officers who are both militarily capable and politically friendly. And it often doesn’t need that many (For instance, a sample Light OPFOR Expeditionary Army needs only one army and three to five division commanders)

It’s an interesting study, as overly politicized armies will exist as long as politics and armies do, and it shows both the similarities and differences in every incarnation of it.

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