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Monday, August 13, 2007
Americans in Iraq -- in 1943
"History doesn't repeat itself, but it often rhymes." So writes Lieutenant Colonel John A. Nagl, in his introduction to a charming, 44-page, nearly-pocket-sized book, replete with whimsical illustrations, just re-issued by the University of Chicago Press. Its title: "Instructions for American Servicemen in Iraq During World War II."
During that conflict, Americans were posted to Iraq to keep the country tilted toward the Allies. (An earlier coup briefly installed a pro-German leader.) And in 1943, the Army published this junior Baedeker to help U.S. grunts who were utterly unfamiliar with the land in which they were serving. In prose notable for its E.B. White economy (and Saturday Evening Post-style ingenuousness), the guidebook urges soldiers to respect the traditions and mores of their hosts. After all, says the anonymous author, "American success or failure in Iraq may well depend on whether the Iraqis (as the people are called) like American soldiers or not. It may not be quite that simple. But then again it could."
The guide offers quick geography and history lessons, plus stern warnings to steer clear of mosques ("The Iraqi Moslems even resent unbelievers coming close to mosques"), to avoid political or religious discussions (given the complexity of the Sunni-Shia divide), and to never hit on an Iraqi woman -- or strike an Iraqi man, lest you offend his sense of honor.
Also, tips on etiquette: When eating at an Iraqi table, "Roll up your right sleeve and eat with the tips of your right fingers -- even if you are a southpaw. It is considered rude to eat with your left hand." If your host offers you a second cup of coffee, "take it, and also a third. But it is customary to refuse a fourth." Who'd have guessed?
Above all, the "Instructions" warn, do not underestimate Iraqis: "That tall man in the flowing robe you are going to see soon, with the whiskers and the long hair, is a first class fighting man, highly skilled in guerrilla warfare. Few fighters in any country, in fact, excel him in that kind of situation."
NPR recently aired an excellent interview about the book with Nagl, a counterinsurgency expert and veteran of both Iraq wars. He says he would have loved to have had a copy himself, before he shipped out.