What We Told Our Iraq-Bound Troops in 1942

Monday, October 31, 2005

What We Told Our Iraq-Bound Troops in 1942

Late last week, Harper's magazine posted this excerpt of “A Short Guide to Iraq,” which was written by the U.S. government in 1942. The handbook was prepared for American soldiers who were stationed in Iraq to prevent the Nazis from trying to seize Iraqi's oil supplies. It's a document that, when read from today's perspective, is thick with irony:
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.

One of your big jobs is to prevent Hitler’s agents from getting in to do their dirty work. The best way you can do this is by getting along with the Iraqis, and the best way to get along with any people is to understand them ... so that you as a human being will get the most out of an experience few Americans have been lucky enough to have. Years from now you’ll be telling your children and maybe your grandchildren stories beginning, “Now, when I was in Baghdad . . .”

... Iraq is hot! Probably you will feel Iraq first — and that means heat. Blazing heat. And dust. Or the first thing you notice may be the smells. You have heard and read a lot about the “mysterious East.” You have seen moving pictures about the colorful life of the desert and the bazaars. When you actually get there you will look in vain for some of the things you have been led to expect. You will smell and feel a lot of things the movies didn’t warn you about.
What? Hollywood doesn't depict faraway places with utter accuracy?
But don’t get discouraged. Most Americans and Europeans who have gone to Iraq didn’t like it at first. Might as well be frank about it. But nearly all of these same people changed their minds, largely on account of the Iraqi people they began to meet. So will you.

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. If he is your friend, he can be a staunch and valuable ally. If he should happen to be your enemy — look out!

... But you will find out that the Iraqi is one of the most cheerful and friendly people in the world. If you are willing to go just a little out of your way to understand him, everything will be okay.
The Bushies tell us us it is America's role to push democracy abroad — even in countries with no democratic traditions. But the U.S. military in '42 was feeling no such obligation. According to the U.S. government guide:
Sure, there are differences (between you and the Iraqis). Differences galore! But what of it? You aren’t going to Iraq to change the Iraqis. Just the opposite. We are fighting this war to preserve the principle of “live and let live.” Maybe that sounded like a lot of words to you at home. Now you have the chance to prove it to yourself and others. If you can, it’s going to be a better world for all of us.
Then there was this gem of an understatement:
By far the most (Iraqi) people you will meet are Moslems .... Their feeling about their religion is pretty much the same as ours toward our religion, though more intense.

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