The Iraqi army can't be westernized

The stark consistency of contemporary history tells us several things as we ponder why the Iraqi military is proving to be so inept in its war against Islamic State. First is the immutable tenet that wars are human endeavors and that culture counts. Arab culture is based on family, tribe and clan. Thus it should come as no surprise that Arabs fight best in formations that are organically grown and organized around familiar groups that share more than the same national flag.

Such units fight best on the defensive. Knowing the soldier next to you stiffens your resolve to stand and fight, but helps much less amid the confusion of an offensive advance. The fact that the small Iraqi army garrison at Ramadi, manned by the best of the Iraqi regulars and regionally recruited militias, held on for more than a year against Islamic State is testimony to the strength of a defense based on close tribal ties.

Yet Arab militaries can be victorious on the offensive given certain prerequisites, which we saw in the successful Egyptian attack across the Suez Canal during the 1973 Yom Kippur War. They must achieve and sustain overwhelming dominance in firepower. Their method of attack must be well rehearsed and methodical. Their offensive campaign must have very limited and straightforward objectives, which can be achieved quickly by following a carefully scripted and tightly controlled battle plan.