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The countryside in Khuzestan (ancient Susiane/lowland Elam) near Ahwaz where 30 years ago the king of Babylon and the assembly of the land of Iran fought a terrible war.

As part of my dissertation I have to talk about conscription and how well it functioned in the Ancient Near East, and that turned me to a classic article. As I was searching for it I found another which I want to talk about.

Back in 1999, Norvell Atkine set out to explain to the American imperial elite why the “Arab armies” which they had armed and trained were so reluctant to fight the way that Americans told them to fight. These armies kept losing, so why were they rejecting help from more effective soldiers like him and his friends? “There are many factors—economic, ideological, technical—but perhaps the most important has to do with culture and certain societal attributes which inhibit Arabs from producing an effective military force.” When I read it the first time, I took away his lovely anecdotes about the culture clash between American military personnel and the Arab officers which they had been assigned to collaborate with. Atkine focusses on the armies of Mubarak’s Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE. But a few years ago, Caitlyn Talmadge wrote a scholarly article on one of the Arab armies which he is less interested in: Saddam Hussein’s. Her article has an abstract, so I will let her speak for herself:

Saddam’s Iraq has become a cliché in the study of military effectiveness—the quintessentially coup-proofed, personalist dictatorship, unable to generate fighting power commensurate with its resources. But evidence from the later years of the Iran-Iraq War actually suggests that the Iraqi military could be quite effective on the battlefield. What explains this puzzling instance of effectiveness, which existing theories predict should not have occurred? Recently declassified documents and new histories of the war show that the Iraqi improvements stemmed from changes in Saddam’s perceptions of the threat environment, which resulted in significant shifts in his policies with respect to promotions, training, command arrangements, and information management in the military. Threat perceptions and related changes in these practices also help explain Iraq’s return to ineffectiveness after the war, as evident in 1991 and 2003. These findings, conceived as a theory development exercise, suggest that arguments linking regime type and coup-ridden civil-military relations to military performance need to take into account the threat perceptions that drive autocratic leaders’ policies toward their militaries.

To put it bluntly, Saddam spent his time in power worried that someone would toss him in his own torture chambers. After all, most of the governments in the region, including his Baˀath party, were descended from a group of soldiers who had overthrown the previous regime. So he set up policies to ensure that the army was not a threat to him: strictly limiting communication between units, requiring minor acts to be authorized from Baghdad, refusing to allow different types of troops to train together, and killing officers who were too popular. This kept him in power for 25 years and able to play warlord, even if it also meant that his adventures cost the lives of too many of his own soldiers for little or no gain. The only time that he relaxed these politics was the late 1980s, when it seemed like if the war continued, his regime might collapse. As soon as he had driven the Iranians back across the border and made peace, he treated the army just like he had before, because once again he was more worried about a coup from within than an invasion from without. And while Saddam was crazy (and perhaps not the sharpest knife in the drawer), his 25 year rule suggests that he knew how to stay in power.

This idea is an important one for military historians, who used to criticize soldiers, armies, or generals for not acting according to some modern ideal of efficiency or reason. But a Hellenistic king was expected to fight and fight often, and when he fought he was expected to lead the charge himself, because that was the way that Alexander had done it. This was strongest in the Seleucid empire, where ten out of 30 or so kings died in combat (Tuplin, “Hellenistic Kingship: An Achaemenid Inheritance?”) A Roman emperor knew that any general in charge of a large army might proclaim himself Caesar, so he had to think carefully about who he allowed to command more than a legion or two. This meant that commanders were not always the most competent generals, and that someone who was too successful might need to be transferred to a quiet province. Before we accuse someone of being irrational or incompetent, its wise to look at the environment they are living in, and what they can expect to be punished or rewarded for.

Atkine talks a bit about political reform in a euphemistic way, but after living in Beirut for eight years has a feeling that these problems are rooted in placeless timeless “Arab culture.” Talmadge lets readers catch more glimpses of the kind of regime she is describing, and to her the military problems of Baˀathist Iraq were rooted in a particular political situation and changed when that situation changed. Whatever you think about their arguments, these two articles raise interesting questions and challenge each other’s answers. And reminding me of a terrible war in a harsh land, and the people caught up in it with no good choices, is not a bad thing either.

Further Reading: