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Military Culture

Arab warfare stems directly from nomadic traditions and experiences. Historically, nomadic tribes alternated between accommodating central authority and defying it. In the first case, they were employed as frontier defense forces or as auxiliary light cavalry. In the second case, they posed a threat to settled populations by attacking small isolated garrisons and raiding poorly defended towns. Although the nomadic population of Iraq has dramatically decreased in the 20th century, the image of the nomadic warrior has remained powerful. Because the extended family is the fundamental unit of political and social action, a kin group traditionally has looked first to its own fighting men, not to the state's armed forces, to ensure its protection and promotion of its interests. The resort to arms for the sake of tribe and clan remains a higher ideal than military service to the state.

In addition to the above cultural characteristics, the Iraqi regime constantly emphasized threats from ever-present and dangerous enemies, and simultaneously, glorified force and violence. Government propaganda has created an atmosphere of permanent crisis, enabling the regime to mobilize greater support. Overall, martial virtues suffuse Iraqi culture and society.

During both the Iran-Iraq War and the Persian Gulf War, the regime glorified and promoted ideals of honor and self-sacrifice, particularly in terms taken from the Arab past. For example, Saddam Hussein's appeal to other Arab rulers during the Gulf War resembled the old tribal competitions in which each tribe measured its strength, heroism, and honor against those of others and prided itself on its exalted qualities.

Kurdish fighters are referred to as "Peshmerga," which literally means "those who face death." The Kurds maintain that to be a Kurd is "to look death in the eye" because expressing their culture has often entailed breaking laws and engaging in armed resistance. For Kurds, valor is considered the most valuable characteristic of an individual, and is a prerequisite of honor. The result of a struggle is far less important than the way it is conducted, and therefore to show valor during a military operation is praised regardless of the outcome.


Arab militaries, including the Iraqi military, generally have not been overwhelmingly effective in the modern era. According to several observers, Arab
culture encourages patterns of behavior that are not conducive to modern military operations. Arab officers (especially junior officers) are hesitant to
exercise independent judgment, frequently lack extensive technical training, and are prone to selectively transmit information in order to avoid the loss of face. These types of Arab cultural behavior patterns cause Arab militaries to have weak information flows. Arab military personnel often cannot take full advantage of their weaponry and equipment and have difficulty maintaining it.

In training, Arab armed forces taught their soldiers that there was only one right answer to a military problem and only one right way to handle a situation. This approach was employed in battle regardless of other factors such as terrain, mission, forces available, or the enemy's strength or disposition. Arab training exercises tend to be scripted and unrealistic. Training manuals are treated as "cookbooks" to be followed to the letter regardless of the specifics of the situation.

Iraq had two types of military organizations: the regular armed forces and a variety of militias. Within the regular army, the Republican Guard and Special Republican Guard had been drawn overwhelmingly from Saddam's tribe and hometown. In addition to kinship ties, their loyalty was secured through lavish pay and other perks as well as the prestige attached to being a member of Iraq's elite force.

Despite the fact that Kurdish men handle weapons from childhood, they are mostly poor marksmen and lack fire discipline. Kurdish military leadership is mediocre at best.


The glory of the raid whether against another nomadic tribe, settled enemy, or caravan is a key aspect of Bedouin tribal warfare. In many cases, the raid was carried out with minimal violence. However, it could become a flash point for a larger tribal conflict. Tribes commemorated their raids through poetry and song. Although it varied greatly as to numbers involved and distances traveled, raiding followed certain norms. Raiding tribes traveled light, avoided detection, moved quickly, minimized bloodshed, and took camels only no captives or other spoils. When raiding led to a larger conflict, the objective usually was not to force submission, but to restore the balance of honor or the balance of livestock. Tribal warfare tended to become more intense and bloody when central authorities tried to impose political control on a rural population.

Participation in a raid was a dramatic test of courage, skill, and dedication to the goals of the tribal group. The resort to combat usually bestowed honor on both sides. For both Iraqi Arab and Kurdish tribes, honor is the dominant value. In the collective sense, honor means defense of the tribe, the group, or the society as a whole against its challengers. Lost honor, according to tribal tradition, must be retrieved by violence. A man's failure to fulfill his duty as a fighter results in shame.

Koranic Treatment of Warfare v/s Actual Practice

Islam possesses an elaborate body of rules about the collective duty of the believers to wage holy war (jihad) for the sake of Allah against infidels or
those who refuse to accept Islam. Muslims have also waged holy war against other Muslims of different sects.

The Iraqi regime used Islam to motivate its soldiers during the Iran-Iraq War. The prolonged fighting against religiously motivated Iranian Shia made it necessary to address the Iraqi soldiers themselves mostly Shia in the same terms. Units and weapons were given Islamic names, as were military operations and offensives. The regime also labeled the war a jihad. This characterization served several purposes: it deprived the opposite side of legitimacy, it augmented the fighters' motivation, and it made it easier to win Muslim states as allies since joining a jihad was acting in defense of the faith. To generate  both internal and external support, Iraq similarly presented the Gulf War as a jihad against the "infidel Christian." One of its war aims was the liberation of the holy cities of Mecca and Medina, which, it claimed, had fallen into the hands of Christians with the help of Muslim collaborators.

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Page last modified: 09-07-2011 02:49:32 ZULU