top of page
  • brewtoch

Why Arabs Lose Wars

I chanced upon an interesting article by Norvell B. De Atkine published in the Middle East Quarterly in December 1999, entitled "Why Arabs Lose Wars." De Atkine is a U.S. Army retired colonel with eight years of residence in Lebanon, Jordan, and Egypt with a graduate degree in Arab studies from the American University of Beirut. His article, with 33 footnotes, was quite detailed, and I can only summarize his points. The report can be easily pulled up in a search engine, and I would urge everyone to read it - it's pretty exciting, and distinctly, it supports my finding that Muslims do not easily fit in a free market-free speech economy. Business operations have many similarities to military operations – traits that make one successful can also be used to make the other just as successful

De Atkine notes that Arabic-speaking armies have been ineffective on the modern battlefield. In all conflicts with Israel, Arab armies have done poorly. In the Gulf War against Iraq, Arab armies on both sides performed mediocrely. You could argue it's the technology, but Egypt had cutting-edge equipment from the Soviet Union, and Israel ate their lunch in a couple of conflicts. De Atkine identifies Arabic culture and specific societal attributes that inhibit Arabs from having a top-notch military.

Culture is an institution's customs, ideas, achievements, and expectations. The culture of the Roman legionnaires was excessive training, esprit, and innovation. Roman soldiers were legendary for “combat virtues.” They include strict discipline, the stamina to keep their ground, aggressiveness, and an unbreakable spirit. Personal bravery was raised to a level of a cult by an elaborate system of rewards and rebukes. "Decimation," the brutal death of every tenth soldier in a unit that did not fight well, was a well-known penalty. They rarely lost a battle. If the enemy burned a bridge, they could build a new one overnight. Roman technology and organization changed to suit the problem. They knew how to accomplish objectives. Rome was an aggressive society, and the culture flowed into the army.

De Atkine examines the history of early Arab armies. Where early European armies would face off and, using skirmishers, calvary, swordsmen, and archers, trying to outmaneuver the opponent on the field of battle, the early Arabs in the Islamic era were masters of evasion, delay, indirection, insurgency, and political warfare. There were a few battles but not to the extent of the Europeans. This style of combat is still embedded in Arabic culture. Centuries later, T.E. Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia) called this "winning wars without battles."

The key word here is "trust." If the Arabs embrace deception, insurgency, and disinformation in their culture, this permeates their relationships. Consequently, social organizations and institutions develop ways to control these behaviors. For example, it is well known that many Arab governments are over-centralized, intimidate initiative, lack flexibility, manipulate information, and discourage leadership outside the oversight of the Central government. This is the Arab culture that discourages military performance.

Information as Power

De Atkine shared a few illustrations to make his points. One point is Arabs are afraid to share information. Information communicated to key personnel is not shared with others. An Arab technician shown how to perform a complicated procedure knows he is invaluable as long as he is the only one who knows the process. In one case, American trainers distributed operator manuals to tank crews. As soon as the American trainers had left, the company commander collected all of the manuals from the units. When confronted, the commander wanted to be the "expert" that all of his men would look up to. In a military unit, lack of information results in soldiers having a total dependency on one commander and no cross-training in different positions for when soldiers go AWOL or get injured in battle.

Education Problems

The Arab educational system is predicated on rote memorization, similar to the process used in madrassas, where students memorize the Qur'an. De Atkine notes that the memorization process diminishes the ability to reason or engage in analysis. Thinking outside the box or critical thinking is not encouraged. Arabs take pains to ensure that the ranking officer or the person with the highest social class scores the highest marks in the class. Professors and Instructors learn to ensure that a student has the correct answer before directing a question to him in a classroom setting. Otherwise, the student will feel publicly humiliated and start to undermine the instructor. Saving face is a real problem in this social structure and even more so in this tribal-oriented culture almost identical to a caste system.

Decision-making and Responsibility

As mentioned earlier, Arab institutions usually have a highly centralized system with little information being shared among the participants. The highest bureaucracy makes decisions with little or no feedback. Rarely does a military officer or even a government official make a critical decision on his own. His career is safer if he is considered diligent, loyal, and compliant. In Arab societies, conformity is the overwhelming societal norm.

Consequently, Arab military commanders are hesitant to take the initiative when battles turn in unexpected ways. The commanders must first get approval from someone with authority to make decisions. De Atkine shares a rule of thumb that American military trainers have noticed about their Arab counterparts: a sergeant first class in the U.S. Army has as much authority as a colonel in an Arab army. This inability to make quick battlefield decisions yields a critical point: A smaller but flexible opponent could easily route an army that cannot react to the heat of battle. This same principle works in large companies. A free market-free speech economy provides lots of information, and companies must quickly respond to new competitors.

This lack of quick decision-making stems from a lack of trust. Arabs, for reasons discussed earlier, do not trust anyone outside their family or tribe. In Syria, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and the emirates, family members make up the leadership positions in government. Who can you trust if you can't trust your step-brother in the Intelligence service? Or your cousin over the Defense Department? This brings up another point. In many Arab governments, it is not uncommon to spread power around. If one family member controls the army, another family member will handle the secret police, and maybe even another will command the air force so that no one person can pull a coup. Does that sound like family trust?

In conclusion

The Arab culture can see that its roots come from successful tactics in desert tribal warfare. Unfortunately, deceit, lack of trust, and disinformation are all aspects that have worked in war and now permeate Arab culture. These attributes work well in a secretive and limited society but not in a culture that values a free market and free speech mentality.

Credit for the accompanying photo goes to Wikipedia Commons. The image is entitled "Soldiers in the Arab Army 1916-1918." The source is listed as

Recent Posts

See All


bottom of page