Review: Armies of Sand

Armies of Sand

This is the first Fuldapocalypse nonfiction book review. Kenneth Pollack’s Armies of Sand is a semi-adaptation of his thesis, The Influence of Arab Culture on Arab Military Perfomance, and a semi-sequel to his book, Arabs at War. That looked at how Arab armies underperformed in the 20th century and examined the “how”. This looks more at the “why”.

Pollack uses bits and pieces from both Arab states at war and the non-Arab “control groups” to look at the four explanations-Soviet doctrine, over-politicization, underdevelopment, and culture. The first is a total red herring, with Pollack concluding that if anything, it was at least a little helpful. The middle two have had obvious influence, but can’t explain all of it. The final one is what he feels is the most satisfactory answer.

My biggest problem is his methodology, even though I think his conclusions are mostly sound. A lot of his sources are dated, some of the more lurid anecdotes are thinly-sourced, and a few times the implications go from the more reasonable “New York Knicks” (undeniably underperforming, sometimes significantly so) to the exaggerated “Washington Generals” (completely hopeless from start to finish at everything). This is the kind of argument where you need a lot of rigor, so seeing him pass on examples,  even those that would support his case like looking at the North Vietnamese air force when he used the Vietnam War in another control group, has made me raise an eyebrow.

Still, Pollack handles the cultural argument well, by pointing out education and particularly military training as how it took root. He stresses the dangers of stereotyping and, most importantly, shows both how culture and warfare can change and how workarounds were developed. All of the workarounds involved, in some form or another, a smaller army with a more selective choice of personnel.

Armies Of Sand is not and should not be the last word on the Middle East or military history, and should not be unhesitatingly accepted. But I still highly recommend it, and not just for information on Arab armies. Its study of politicization and underdevelopment in general is fascinating, and it’s well-written.