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.

FICINT

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.

A Study of a Slapdash Army

The later part of the book’s own title was evidence alone of it being severely dated. The book in question was “The Iraqi Threat and Saddam Hussein’s Weapons of Mass Destruction” by Stephen Hughes.

Hughes’ book, released in 2002, is self-published and essentially a compilation of other sources, some of which I’ve already seen[1]. The book has lots of grammatical errors, is fairly scattershot, doesn’t go into detail in parts when it should have, and puts a little too much effort into things like illustrations of aircraft.

However, it did go into more detail on niche stuff like mountain infantry that I found useful. And it’s also interesting to show just how hard it was to get reliable information at the time on an army increasingly reduced to a twisted, tangled jumble of wrecked divisions and an alphabet soup of competing paramilitaries.

As the unofficial “know your enemy” reference book for military officers in the impending Iraq War it was intended as, the book’s format, aircraft illustrations and all, makes a lot more sense. Even if tank formations and corps orders of battle would soon be the last thing American soldiers had to worry about.

Indeed, its very flaws serve as illustrative examples of how murky such states can be. Hughes’ book should not be the first or most prominent source for someone studying the army or period, but it definitely deserves a place on the shelf, if its weaknesses are understood.

[1]Which makes me kind of biased, and not necessarily representative.

The F-35 in Context

So, the F-35 has had both its first USMC attack in anger and its first outright loss. Context needs to be considered with two of the claims I’ve heard floating around about it.

  • “Why is it attacking targets in a low-intensity war?”
  • “If it crashed, does that mean it’s unsafe?”

For the first, the answer is that it’s simply far easier for a high-end aircraft, especially one with the mega-sensors of the F-35, to do low-end activities than it is for a low-end aircraft to do high-end activities. That and it’s fresh, unlike the rest of the US’s very, very battered airframes.

For the second, it’s the first crash in the program’s entire history. This is astounding. Especially compared to say, the Harrier the F-35B in particular is replacing.

It’s been over a generation since the US has embarked on such a gigantic replacement of its fighter fleet. The “teen series” fighters break-in period was not the most efficient or pleasant either. This isn’t to say there’s never been any problem with the F-35’s development, but it needs to be viewed in the monumental context it’s in.

The Spanish Moroccan War in hindsight

About a decade ago, young me read a tale that would spark an interest in alternate history. That story was A Spanish-Moroccan War in 2002. With a decade of hindsight, with a decade of me both more interested in and more disillusioned by alternate history (long story), what do I think of it?

Well, my first thought is “time to sim some of it in Command”, because boy is something like that meant for Command. In fact, it was the appeal of simulating such slightly unconventional (to an American) conflicts that drove me into that sim in the first place (My very first editor experiment was a Spanish-Nigerian clash over Equatorial Guinea in the 1960s-certainly as far from the GIUK Gap in 198X as it gets.)

But as for the story on its own terms…

  • In some cases, it’s like an AH.com style TL, for better or worse. What makes it “better” is that it’s detailed and scope limited. It’s an hour-by-hour recap of a war lasting a few days, and apart from an epilogue, that’s it. I think what’s made me sour on such a writing model is that it’s increasingly not done well-big events are brushed past in a few paragraphs (or less!) while history divergences monstrously in a way that’s clearly “because the author thought it”, and there’s often a lack-of-effort streak visible. This is not the case here.
  • It’s also novel, and a conflict that isn’t some mega-dystopia or other clear trend-follower. This combined with the limited scope means it manages to avoid both the “Nazi Confederates Take Over The World” and “Reads Like The Minutes of A Finger Lakes Historical Society Conference” extremes that plague the genre.
  • That being said, this kind of story is meant to be experienced an installment at a time as a kind of serial, and having access to the whole thing at once takes a lot of the drama away.

It’s interesting to look back on, at least.

 

Circle Trigon Ranks

While looking at the Circle Trigon Aggressors (1940s-1970s), I saw their earlier and later ranks.

Early Ranks:originalaggressorranks

Later Ranks:

aggressorranks1973

Some notes:

  • The early ranks are made with American insignia, using a mixture of junior bars, major’s leaves, and cavalry sword pins. The later ones use a mixture of bars.
  • The rank structure is actually Spanish-inspired rather than being American or Soviet/Russian. Two giveaways are calling lieutenant colonel-equivalents “Commandants” (although in Spain itself it’s major-equivalent) and, more importantly, general officers “general of [unit they’d command]”.
  • Following on the above, when they become more blatantly pseudo-Soviet and thus went from “division” to “army”, the position of “general of corps” became obsolete. So the three star rank became “General of Army”, and the four-star rank, commanding army groups, became the clunky “General of Armies“. From a brief machine translation into Esperanto, it became Ĝenerala de Armeo (3 stars) and Ĝenerala de Armeoj (4 stars).

 

Interesting to see in hindsight.

Tanks vs. Aircraft

Prior to the introduction of “smart” weapons, attacking tanks directly with aircraft was, in purely materialistic terms, incredibly difficult and certainly inefficient.

While pilots claimed massive numbers of tank kills, careful examination when the dust settled revealed a different story. In WWII, it was 5-8%, depending on how you fiddle with statistics. By Korea, the 100% confirmed aircraft kills of tanks had risen only modestly, to 12%. Granted, this is a slight lowball figure because a lot of the “unknown” losses were to aircraft napalm. If every single “unknown cause” loss turned out to be due to aircraft, it would rise to 40%, but this is doubtful, and the modest point still stands.

As this video shows, attacking and disrupting the soft-skinned support elements was something air power at the time was far better equipped to handle.

One thing I’m legitimately curious about (and haven’t read that much on, hence my curiosity) is the height to which “dumb” (albeit ballistic computer-assisted) rockets and bombs could reach with postwar technology.

How I became a German Army Skeptic

There are a handful of books and sites that kept me from ever experiencing the kind of feeling of excessively hyping the World War II German military.

The first was Christoper Wilbeck’s Sledgehammers. Now, granted, that book has a massive flaw in that its author takes “questionable” claimed kill ratios at face value far too much, but it nonetheless sincerely tried to find the flaws in the Tiger and did not hesitate to point out lost battles. It got me on the right foot.

The second was Spacebattles and the very informed, very unbiased members of its “War Room” subforum. This was where I learned, among other things, about one of the biggest weaknesses of the German military-strategic intelligence. (Normandy is the most famous example, but I cannot emphasize enough how their blunders there were in the tide-turning 1942-3 period on the Eastern Front).

The third was simply the context that I grew up in. I was free of the “baggage” that dominated the debate and discussion of past decades. I was born long after the period where everyone from scholars like van Creveld and Dupuy to popular historians like Max Hastings put forth a near-consensus that the Wehrmacht was an absolute master of war that lost only due to superior Allied resources and Hitler’s antics. There are also some minor things-I didn’t play that many, if any, WWII video games, be they poppish or wargames. I was too busy in Advance Wars and the postwar Steel Panthers. (So I didn’t see that many of the low-end “why no my krupstall block the sherman shell” ‘Wehraboos’ that fill every WWII game forum with complaints that their wunderpanzers lost)

Then there’s more modern historians like Sovietologist David Glantz and Robert Citino, the latter of whom has specialized in the study of the German military in ways that contradict a lot of the 70s-80s theorizing. I proudly have books by both of them on my shelf.

The Wail Rid I Row Project

So, now I have time to put together something that I’ve wanted to do for a while. Namely, start up an anthology of World War III fiction. The details can be viewed on my secondary blog devoted specifically to it, the Wail Rid I Row Project.

(Wail Rid I Row is an anagram of World War III.)

This is a passion project, everything will be free. I’ve been too critical for my own good-I want to help make fiction, not destroy it. I have modest expectations, but you never know.