Small Wars Journal

Arab Cultural Manifestations in the Iraqi Army

Fri, 11/01/2019 - 12:11am

Arab Cultural Manifestations in the Iraqi Army

Lauren Serrano

Underpinnings of ethnic, religious, tribal, and demographic factors as well as their associated social identities remain a recurrent player in Iraqi politics and has affected the building of the Iraqi Army over the past 16 years.  Researching Iraqi culture, social identities and their historical context is paramount to understanding the challenges the U.S. has faced in its efforts to train, equip, and advise the Iraqi Army.  Independent thinking, creative ideas, information sharing, individual initiative, decentralized control, delegation of responsibility, and personal merit are all keys to success in U.S. military doctrine but contradict Iraqi sociocultural norms of centralized power, groupthink, and avoiding shame, embarrassment, and admission of mistakes.  Training, equipping, and advising Arab militaries to follow Western military doctrine has had a history of at best mediocre results and rarely outlives the departure of Western advisors.  U.S. capacity building doctrine in Iraq did not adjust to take into account Iraqi culture, instead it expected the Iraqi military to adapt to American military doctrine.  This has created friction as Iraqi military culture and American military doctrine do not synchronize well.

Lack of cultural awareness and its effects on Iraqi military culture is not limited to the U.S. experience in Iraq.  Since the end of World War I, foreign governments have continually attempted to exert influence in the Middle East by training, equipping, and advising regional militaries.  Despite decades of time, billions of dollars, and tremendous effort, British, Soviet, and American militaries have struggled to modernize their client Arab militaries.  Much of the explanation has to do with sociocultural factors and the nature of the environment in the Middle East.  This paper uses a case study of U.S. security assistance efforts in Iraq to explore the larger topic of how culture influences building partner capacity, a cornerstone U.S. National Defense Strategy.

Building the Iraqi Army

When searching for analysis of how Iraqi sociocultural identity factors have manifested themselves in the Iraqi Army, most information can be found in journals, diaries, and personal accounts written by U.S. service members who have deployed to Iraq in order to train and advise the Iraqi Army.  Surprisingly little analysis has been conducted by analysts in the intelligence community.  Retired U.S. Army Officer Norvell DeAtkine was a Foreign Area Officer, and he has written extensively about his 40+ years of experience in working with U.S. security assistance programs in the Middle East.  After years of observations, DeAtkine has ultimately concluded that Western influence on Arab Armies is like “pounding square pegs into round holes.” Western advisors to Arab militaries have had little success influencing the impermeable Arab military culture and much less replacing it with a Western warrior ethos, norms, and patriotism.  In his Middle East Quarterly journal article, “Why Arabs Lose Wars,” DeAtkine further states that Arab culture is a determining factor in Arab military ineffectiveness.  According to DeAtkine, the main cultural attributes inhibiting Middle Eastern militaries are: over-centralization, discouraging initiative, lack of flexibility, manipulation of information, and lack of leadership at the junior officer level.  All of these attributes stem from social identity factors rooted deep within religious, tribal, and ethnic backgrounds of the people in the region. 

DeAtkine’s theory about the impermeable Arab military culture is demonstrated in Lieutenant Colonel Folsom’s published diary documenting his experiences working as a U.S. Marine Advisor Team Officer in Charge embedded with an Iraqi Army infantry battalion in 2008.  An overarching theme throughout his diary is that there are fundamental differences between U.S. and Arab military cultures that makes training and advising an Arab military unit extremely difficult.  Time and time again during their eight-month deployment as advisors, the U.S. Marines found themselves frustrated with the Iraqi culture and their inability to ingrain U.S. military doctrine into the Iraqi unit – not for lack of effort.  Folsom documented experiences of Iraqi soldiers consistently failing to employ the weapons safety rules, to the extent that one Iraqi soldier mistakenly killed another while joking around and reveals many other incidents of negligent discharges of weapons that soldiers were never held responsible for, nor for which any took personal responsibility.

Another issue the U.S. advisor team struggled with was teaching the Iraqi soldiers to become self-reliant and operate without the assistance of the U.S. forces.  DeAtkine’s theory about Arab military culture assesses that foreign military influence on Arab militaries rarely outlives the departure of the foreign trainers and advisors.  Folsom’s team was the last advisor team assigned to the Iraqi infantry battalion his team trained and it proved extremely difficult to wean the Iraqi unit off its dependence on U.S. forces – especially for supplies such as fuel, computers, and repair parts.  After months of working with his Iraqi counterpart to develop a plan to transition the U.S. controlled part of Combat Outpost South (COP South) base into a useful operating section of the Iraqi base, Folsom turned over the keys and his team departed.  Just days later he made a trip back to COP South to see how the Iraqis were carrying out the transition plan.  To his disappointment, the Iraqis had completely disregarded the plan and instead ransacked the entire area for anything and everything worth salvaging.  This rendered that part of the base completely inoperable, exactly the opposite of the intended U.S. objective.  This behavior coincides with multiple scholar’s assessments that the Iraqis lack forward thinking, planning, and individual responsibility for the larger mission.  This is also evident in the multiple examples of British, French, and Soviet militaries’ failed attempts to reprogram Arab militaries over the last century.  No matter the force size, the time, or the money invested in training, equipping, or advising Arab militaries, the influence of Western effort never outlived their departure.        

In his book, Embedded: A Marine Corps Advisor Inside the Iraqi Army, Wesley R. Gray (a First Lieutenant at the time of advising) shares very similar experiences to those of Folsom.  According to Gray, the best advice he received about being an advisor came from a marine Major who provided the following crude but honest assessment about advising Iraqis.

“When you guys first start advising you will have a very high give-a-fuck factor.  Just like me you will be super motivated and excited about transforming the Iraqi Army into a twenty-first century fighting force.  However, once you are exposed to the Iraqis’ complete lack of desire to get anything done, their intense corruption, and their cultural norms of laziness and lack of initiative, your give-a-fuck factor drops precipitously.  Eventually, it drops so low, as mine has, that you resort to a give-a-fuck factor of zero and reach the not-giving-a-fuck stage.  In the not-giving-a-fuck stage you learn to accept Iraqi standards and let them do things their way, even if their method is nowhere near the most efficient or intelligent way to accomplish the mission.  The reason you let them do it their way? Because you ain’t changing the Iraqi culture anytime soon.”

Gen Petraeus’s 2006 Military Review article about observations from soldiering in Iraq demonstrate many U.S. military leader’s misunderstanding of the inherent friction between U.S. doctrine and Iraqi social identities.  Gen Petraeus stated that the U.S. strategy in training, advising, and equipping the Iraqi Army needed to emphasize the importance of empowering individuals, enabling, and assisting the Iraqi soldiers to do the job themselves.  He further stated that without understanding and being sensitive to the Arab culture and recognizing the self-worth and identity of each individual Iraqi soldier the chances of them cooperating would be much less likely.  While understanding Arab culture is vital, Gen Petraeus’s own statement about the importance of empowering individual Iraqi soldiers directly contradicts the highly centralized nature of Iraqi military culture.  Iraqis are conformists and collectivists, not individuals.

DeAtkine further criticizes Western military education, observing that culture is not generally integrated into strategic planning except at the most superficial level.  Because understanding culture is incredibly vague, intangible, and requires one to spend a lot of time studying history, mythology, religion, attitudes, etc. it is generally disregarded by large bureaucratic organizations (such as the U.S. government).  Gen Petreaus admits that much of an advisor’s cultural understanding of Iraqis has been conducted via “discovery learning” as operations occur.  From DeAtkine’s personal observations of training Arab militaries, he concludes that Arab soldiers hoard whatever information they know because knowledge is power – which explains why an Iraqi tank mechanic is hesitant to teach his craft.  Manuals, training doctrine, and planning documents are safeguarded at the highest levels.  Cross training rarely takes place because Iraqi soldiers do not want to share their skills and knowledge with fellow soldiers for fear that they will become less useful and powerful.  In order to evade humiliation or conflict, competition is avoided, which leads to mass cheating in Arab military schools and in training.  All of these traits are counterproductive in the U.S. military culture and can be inhibiting to advisors trying to imbue Iraqi soldiers with American military culture – especially if the Americans are learning these lessons at the same time they are attempting to train and advise.

Much of DeAtkine’s analysis is corroborated by the work of Kenneth Pollack, a respected scholar of Arab studies who currently serves as a professor at Georgetown University, the National Defense University, and is a senior fellow in the Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution.  In a study of Arab militaries, Kenneth Pollack tests popular ideas as to the ineffectiveness of Arab militaries from 1948 – 1991.  These ideas about Arab military culture are: poor unit cohesion, lack of generalship, poor tactical leadership, poor information management, inadequate technical skills and weapons handling, low morale, lack of training, cowardice, and poor logistics and maintenance.  Pollack examines these concepts as they apply to the armies of Iraq, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Libya, Jordan and Egypt.  At the end of his study, Pollack provides the following conclusions to his analysis:

  • In all Arab armies in all wars, Arab junior officers performed exceptionally poorly in tactical leadership.  Arab junior officers across the board regularly failed to demonstrate initiative, flexibility, creativity, independence of thought, understanding of combined arms integration, and displayed an inept ability to maneuver in battle.
  • As for generalship, no apparent pattern of adequacy or inadequacy appeared.
  • Unit cohesion across all Arab militaries generally had a pattern of being more good than bad.
  • Poor information management occurred in every Arab military in every situation.
  • Arab military culture always tended to compartmentalize and hoard information as officers saw knowledge as a form of power.  Furthermore, information that was exchanged tended to be exaggerated or falsified.
  • Persistent and debilitating technical skills and weapons handling plagued all Arab militaries.
  • Arab soldiers tended to take exceptionally long periods of time to learn how to use modern weapons, and even then, Arab militaries consistently failed to take full advantage of the technology at their disposal.
  • Arab militaries often had more equipment than personnel trained to use the modern equipment.
  • Arab militaries tended to have decent use of logistics, but extremely poor supply, maintenance, and repair.
  • Morale fluctuated from military to military, war to war, and never proved to be a determining factor of success or failure.
  • Training quality fluctuated, however, even in some instances where an Arab military focused tremendous effort on arduous training they were still unsuccessful due to other intrinsic debilitating issues of Arab military culture (such as poor information management, tactical leadership, and lack of technical skills).
  • Pervasive Arab cowardice did not show a pattern of existence.
  • Certain strengths and weaknesses of Arab military culture persisted in resilient fashion from 1948 – 1991, therefore, foreign militaries can expect to encounter these Arab military culture traits and for them to persist for years and even decades to come.

Both DeAtkine and Pollack have independently assessed that the greatest weakness of Arab militaries is Arab leadership.  Iraqi leaders discipline subordinates by fear and rarely take personal responsibility for a plan, operation, or policy that is unsuccessful.  Iraqi soldiers consistently blame their U.S. trainers or their equipment for failures, something Folsom discusses in his diary.  A vast cultural gap exists between Iraqi and U.S. maintenance and logistics systems, which poses a problem because the Iraqis always want the most modern of equipment but are unwilling to conduct necessary maintenance, training, or plan for logistical support.  Furthermore, assignments of officers based on sectarian, tribal, or political considerations works against the Western concept of meritocracy.      

In an article published in the Middle East Journal, scholars Michael Eisenstadt and Kenneth Pollack conclude that poor tactical leadership by all Arab militaries is principally derived from dominant norms of greater Arab society.  In particular, Arab societies value conformity over independent thinking and innovation.  Arab culture avoids shame and embarrassment at all costs, which explains why Iraqi soldiers defer responsibility and manipulate information in order to cover up mistakes and unpleasant news.  These culturally derived patterns have had a crippling effect on the Iraqi Army’s ability to adopt American or other foreign military doctrines, or succeed tactically.  As long as modern warfare and Western military doctrine requires decentralized command, aggressive and innovative individual tactical leadership, accurate information flow, and advanced weaponry as keys to victory, the Iraqi Army will continue to struggle to employ this particular type of warfare.

Much of the above analysis is corroborated by a 2005 Master’s Thesis from the Joint Military Intelligence College.  In this thesis the author not only came to the same conclusions as the scholars mentioned above, but he took his analysis a step further and assessed that Arab culture is actually a liability to armies attempting to fight with modern, conventional warfare tactics and doctrine.  Instead, the author makes the point that Arab culture is more conducive to techniques such as terrorism and guerrilla warfare.  This assessment indicates that the U.S. security assistance effort to teach the Iraqi Army how to fight conventionally using U.S. military doctrine and tactics was set up to struggle from the start.


Understanding the sociocultural identity drivers of religion, tribes, geography, and ethnicity as well as their historical context should better enable U.S. trainers and advisors to successfully build the Iraqi Army.  Too often, American policies and strategies ignore or undervalue cultural topography.  Perhaps this is because the U.S. is a melting pot of cultures, and because of that Americans have assumed that allegiance to the nation-state is valued over all else.  This norm of American society has manifested itself in American military culture and ethos.  The error of mirror imagining results in U.S. decision makers and military professionals assuming that Iraqis value nationalism, liberty, and freedom above all else.  On the contrary, Iraqis value religion, ethnicity, tribal history, and their deeply embedded traditions over nationalism.  These influences transcend national borders, are often more powerful than national militaries, and have an enormous influence on the Iraqi military culture and adaptability.  Changing these influences to more closely align with American values and military culture would take decades of time and an enormous amount of effort.  It is unlikely that the U.S. is willing to commit enough time, effort, and resources to change social identities and manifestations within the Iraqi Army, even if that were possible.

There are two ways to approach this issue: attempt to fundamentally change the sociocultural factors and foundations of the Iraqi military, or mold U.S. security assistance strategy to more accurately address and work with existing sociocultural influences.  All the available evidence suggests that the latter option is a more achievable course of action.  Promoting deeper cultural understanding, improving language skills, and molding practices in concert with the host cultural context will likely increase effectiveness of U.S. capacity building efforts in Iraq and the Middle East.

About the Author(s)

Major Lauren Serrano is a Middle Eastern Foreign Area Officer in the US Marine Corps.  She deployed to Iraq from August 2013 - July 2014 where she worked for the Office of Security Assistance - Iraq.  She is also an elected member of the Board of Governors for the Foreign Area Officer Association and currently serves as the Secretary.  The below article was derived from her original Master’s thesis that studied the efficacy of security assistance as a tool in the U.S. National Security Strategy and won the National Intelligence University’s annual award for best masters thesis on the operations-intelligence relationship.



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