Kris, Then And Now

The heroine of Pokemon Crystal with physics-defying hair, known as “Kris” for her default name, was the first playable female main character in a Pokemon game. While I don’t have anything against “Lyra”, the differently-designed one who succeeded her in the remake, I still like Kris’ design better.

In a bit of unintended similarity, almost two decades later, the name “Kris” would be given to the main character of Undertale sequel Deltarune. The two look nothing alike, and their names have different inspirations (the first is obviously derived from “Crystal”, the second is derived from Frisk, Undertale’s main character).

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.

Saddam’s Ring of Doom: Corps Defense of a Large City

The “Ring defense of Baghdad” that was the ideal goal of Saddam in the 2003 Iraq War was illustrated by a later CIA illustration as this:

The “rings” were a British-influenced line system. Yellow is the initial deployment of forward screening forces, green the initial line of main forces, blue the first fallback line, and red the final one, where the survivors would switch to a positional defense after a fighting withdraw.

In practice, the shambolic 2003 army facing an overwhelming opponent was unable to implement it in any meaningful way. Even in theory, it uses the mobile heavy divisions as part of the ‘anvil’ rather than a separate Stalingrad-style “hammer”. Yet it remains an interesting example of a plan to have a large corps-sized unit defending a very large city.

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.

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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.

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[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.