The UN Legion and its opponent

One serious proposal for a standing “UN Legion” got me thinking. How would it compare to its most likely [conventional] opponent? The UN Legion (highly unlikely to be deployed in its entirety) would compare on the high-end to a Light OPFOR (conceived around the same time) mechanized force.

In short:

  • The two have a comparable mix of equipment, however the Legion’s equipment is likely to be newer but lighter (their heaviest vehicles are MGS/ERC-style wheeled ‘tank destroyers’). The Legion’s IFVs are considerably better, being newer wheeled ones, while the Light OPFOR division will be lucky to get older BMPs.
  • The biggest divergence is in heavy weapons. The Light OPFOR division has no organic aviation while the Legion has a sizable helicopter force. However, the entire Legion has only 18 towed artillery pieces, while a single mechanized brigade has that many self-propelled ones.



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.

My Book Backlog is Done!

So, every book on my big backlog I’ve read or at least sampled and then put aside to read later. Some of them made it to Fuldapocalypse or are in the review ‘stack’, others did not and will not.

Perhaps the most famous entry is Heinlein’s original Starship Troopers. The most charitable things I can say about it are that it probably aged poorly and that I understand how it can scratch a “he gets it” itch for veterans because of its realistic depiction of boot camp drudgery. Otherwise, I didn’t like it. It has this overly “bouncy” and somewhat rambling writing style that I found to knock down both the boot-camp-coming-of-age main plot and the modest amount of actual action.

My military sci-fi itch is pretty much subsided-of the four remaining books, three were military sci-fi. I did find Jonathan Brazee’s works good for my current ‘cheap thriller’ tastes and will be checking out more of them, but I think it best to put the remaining “guy in armored space suit” books on the back burner until the genre fatigue wears off. Those made up the bulk of my holiday purchases, so returning to the delightfully technothrillery Thunder of Erebus was a good ‘grand finale’.

Going forward, I have two general priorities. One is slightly more highbrow works of fiction-I love cheap thrillers, but think going a little higher would be helpful. I definitely plan on reading and reviewing the classic Forever War, for one example. The other priority is tanks, because while some of the books had tanks in them, none were really in a starring role. So I’m planning on reading more tank books (and yes, that includes sci-fi tank books).

This whole experience was fun, and I hope to encounter more literary gems.

A Military Sci-Fi Craving

So, I’ve been having a military sci-fi craving, with most of the books I’ve recently started being those. Maybe it’s just a fad of mine. Maybe it’s just that a lot of them fall into the niche of being both cheap thrillers and involving something different than the usual ones, so I can have my cake and eat it too.

I’m not thinking any worse of the “normal” cheap thrillers, and I’m still reading lots of them, but it never hurts to try these new ones. I’ve had times when I like military sci-fi before, and this is another, I suppose.

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.


I have to say this about the FICINT concept after seeing some of it being mentioned. I can see its appeal and use, but I have concerns. So I’m going to sound like I’m more negative on it than I actually am. I’m not against speculative fiction or applying it to real-life possibilities in the slightest.

Where I do have wariness comes from my decade-long consumption of bad fiction. In short, my biggest feeling of caution comes from this: There might be survivorship bias at work. Because my experience reading everything from alternate history timelines to 90s technothrillers is that for every hit, you get a lot of misses. For every Hector Bywater, you get a ton of invasion novels that were as inaccurate as they were overwrought. And that holds true whatever the period. There’s also getting a wrong impression from fiction (a technothriller having an overly optimistic portrayal of high-tech gadgetry, to give one example) or treating stuff that’s still meant to be narrative-first as some kind of counterfactual prediction.

I don’t want to strawman or sound like I’m being more critical than I am. In fact, studying the misses of speculative fiction writers could be just as important and insightful as looking at the hits, if not more so. So I’m not against FICINT, I just think it should be applied cautiously and with a study of past failures as well as present speculations.