Firearms of the Islamic World
by Robert Elgood
London: I. B. Tauris, 1995. 240 pp.
Reviewed by Nick Beckwith
Middle East Quarterly
Elgood's lavishly illustrated volume of historic guns in the Taraq Rajab Museum in Kuwait (whose saving from Iraqi troops is described in Invasion Kuwait: An Englishwoman's Tale, reviewed in MEQ, Dec. 1994) has an unusually useful text for a coffee-table book. The author surveys Middle Eastern reluctance to accept firearms and shows that those quickest to embrace this new technology (for example, the Ottomans) were more successful in war -- though they suffered taunts from their defeated opponents about relying on weapons suitable only for women and Christians. By the 1660s, however, European armies adopted the flintlock, against which Turkish arquebus were hopelessly outclassed, leading to the Ottomans' expulsion from Europe.
The Industrial Revolution intensified this technological gap as Middle Eastern gunsmiths tried in vain, using handicraft methods, to produce lockwork of European quality. Eventually, Muslims bought their weapons from Europe, whose manufacturers offered guns decorated to Middle Eastern taste (so elaborate, it constitutes a minor art form) as standard catalog items. But Middle Easterners could not effectively use these arms. Mamluk warriors were better armed than Napoleon's forces in 1798 but were cut to ribbons by the "steady discipline and accurate volley fire of the French troops." 28 Tactics and training, not the latest weaponry, proved to be the key to victory.
And so it remains today. In 1991, Saddam Husayn's large army and advanced weaponry could not save him from ignominious defeat. His ground forces relied on tactics already obsolete in 1918, and Iraqi modifications of Russian Scud missiles proved so ham-fisted they could not even be counted on to survive reentry intact, let alone hit a specific target. Then as now, advanced weaponry has dubious utility unless accompanied by an advanced technical infrastructure and sound tactics.
Related Topics: June 1996 MEQ
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