The best books on Middle East military history

Kenneth M. Pollack Author Of Armies of Sand: The Past, Present, and Future of Arab Military Effectiveness
By Kenneth M. Pollack

Who am I?

After college I joined the CIA. They assigned me to the Iran-Iraq military account so I had a front-row seat for the Persian Gulf War. I went on to do two tours at the NSC and a quick stop at DoD in between, all working on Middle East political and security issues. I was unexpectedly thrown out by Bush II in 2001 and so had to flee to the think tank world. I’ve since written ten books on the political-military affairs of the Middle East and am now working on my eleventh, a history of the U.S. and Iraq since 1979 titled The Iraq Wars.

I wrote...

Armies of Sand: The Past, Present, and Future of Arab Military Effectiveness

By Kenneth M. Pollack,

Book cover of Armies of Sand: The Past, Present, and Future of Arab Military Effectiveness

What is my book about?

I have been working on Middle East militaries for 35 years, both inside the U.S. government and out. Armies of Sand tackles one of the greatest mysteries of modern military history: the striking ineffectiveness of Arab armed forces. This constant has lain at the heart of the Middle East military balance since World War II. It has been a defining, albeit often underappreciated, element of Middle Eastern geopolitics. Moreover, in explaining why Arab militaries have so consistently underperformed during the modern era, I explore broader questions of why different societies have been more and less able to generate military power at different periods of time: Why the terror of the battlefield in one era can become a military laughingstock in the next and vice versa.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of Elusive Victory: The Arab-Israeli Wars, 1947-1974

Why did I love this book?

You cannot understand the military history of the Middle East without understanding the first five Arab-Israeli wars and over 40 years later the best book on the subject remains Dupuy’s touchstone work. Dupuy was a superb military analyst and historian. As an American he is about as even-handed as anyone can be with this ultimate of “Rorschach” tests. Better still, Dupuy extensively interviewed nearly all of the major political and military leaders on both sides of every war. He walked the ground of most of these battles with the combatants themselves. It is why his book remains the single best work on the subject and the foundation on which all later histories rest.

Book cover of On the Banks of the Suez: Israeli General's Personal Account of the Yom Kippur War

Why did I love this book?

While Ariel Sharon is the best-known Israeli armor commander, Bren Adan was probably the best. This book is his memoir of commanding one of the most important—and most successful—Israeli armored divisions during the 1973 October War (the Yom Kippur or Ramadan war). It is an outstanding first-hand account of armored combat in the Sinai in the late 20th Century by one of its finest practitioners. Adan’s book is also distinguished by his ruthless honesty in pointing out his own mistakes as well as those of the larger Israel Defense Forces. As one of my mentors once put it to me, ‘everything I know about commanding an armored division I learned from Adan’s book.’

By Avraham Adan,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked On the Banks of the Suez as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Text: English, Hebrew (translation)

The Iran-Iraq War

By Williamson Murray,

Book cover of The Iran-Iraq War

Why did I love this book?

Wick Murray is one of America’s greatest military historians and Kevin Woods was the leader of the team sent by the U.S. government to exploit the documents and taped conversations captured by U.S. forces in Iraq after 2003. Murray was a key member of that team and they also interviewed many former Iraqi generals.  Finally, they also managed to unearth some Iranian accounts of the war—some from the Iraqi intelligence archives. Not surprisingly, this is a terrific account of the war, one that brings in all kinds of new material, especially from the Iraqi side. Their narrative description hits all of the key points of a very long, complex conflict, their insights and analysis are spot on, and the addition of the new material from the Iraqi side makes this the definitive work on the subject at least until comparable materials come to light from the Iranian side.

By Williamson Murray,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Iran-Iraq War as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The Iran-Iraq War is one of the largest, yet least documented conflicts in the history of the Middle East. Drawing from an extensive cache of captured Iraqi government records, this book is the first comprehensive military and strategic account of the war through the lens of the Iraqi regime and its senior military commanders. It explores the rationale and decision-making processes that drove the Iraqis as they grappled with challenges that, at times, threatened their existence. Beginning with the bizarre lack of planning by the Iraqis in their invasion of Iran, the authors reveal Saddam's desperate attempts to improve the…

Book cover of The Twilight War: The Secret History of America's Thirty-Year Conflict with Iran

Why did I love this book?

David Crist is the historian of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff—and the son of former CENTCOM Commander, General George B. Crist.  He knows this subject backwards and forwards and brings to light any number of topics that I had only ever seen discussed in the classified world. But he does so with the perspicacity of a military historian and the insight of a superb military analyst. Most people simply do not know about the many close calls and bloody clashes there were between the U.S. and Iran during this era, and Crist’s book fills that important gap. Moreover, this is a fascinating example of a protracted, low-intensity or “hybrid” conflict with a canny and determined foe and so it has no end of lessons to teach. 

By David Crist,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Twilight War as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The dramatic secret history of our undeclared thirty-year conflict with Iran, revealing newsbreaking episodes of covert and deadly operations that brought the two nations to the brink of open war

For three decades, the United States and Iran have engaged in a secret war. It is a conflict that has never been acknowledged and a story that has never been told.

This surreptitious war began with the Iranian revolution and simmers today inside Iraq and in the Persian Gulf. Fights rage in the shadows, between the CIA and its network of spies and Iran's intelligence agency. Battles are fought at…

Book cover of The U.S. Army in the Iraq War Volume 1: Invasion Insurgency Civil War 2003 – 2006

Why did I love this book?

This is the first volume of the U.S. Army’s official two-volume history of the Iraq War, from 2003 to 2006. They are big and long, but if you are serious about military history or the Middle East, you owe it to yourself to read them. If you do, you will be richly rewarded. Like the famous U.S. Army “Green Books” of World War II, The U.S. Army in the Iraq War is magnificent. You could not imagine that a government product could be so gracefully written, so wise, and so insightful. Together, the two volumes cover the entire span of the conflict, brilliantly explaining what happened and why, and providing a new and comprehensive understanding of one of America’s longest and most important conflicts.  

By Joel D. Rayburn, Frank K. Sobchak,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The U.S. Army in the Iraq War Volume 1 as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The Iraq War has been the costliest U.S. conflict since the Vietnam War. To date, few official studies have been conducted to review what happened, why it happened, and what lessons should be drawn. This publication, The U.S. Army in the Iraq War Volume 1: Invasion Insurgency Civil War 2003 – 2006, is the Army’s initial operational level analysis of this conflict, written in narrative format, with assessments and lessons embedded throughout the work. This study reviews the conflict from a Landpower perspective and includes the contributions of coalition allies, the U.S. Marine Corps, and special operations forces. Presented principally…

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