A Nice Idea, Forgotten
Sixty-odd years ago, Iraq wasn’t that different a place then it was when the U.S. military came knocking on Saddam’s door in 2003. Sectioned off from the Ottoman Empire after World War I, the country was put under monarchic rule by the British, who didn’t mind pouring their blood and money into the fractious land as long as the oil fields (discovered in the 1920s) kept producing. Come World War II, and the British needed help guarding those same oil fields in the patch of hard-fought desert that some would term “Churchill’s Folly”—so enters the Americans, who deployed soldiers there in 1943. Oil, foreign occupation, an itchy populace—little has changed.
However, when American troops marched into Iraq, many carried a 44-page booklet called “The Short Guide to Iraq.” The booklet takes the reader on a slow, steady, and well-reasoned tour through the customs and culture of a country it assumed would seem wildly foreign to those troops. Recently republished as a handsome little hardcover by the University of Chicago Press, with a new introduction by Lieutenant Colonel John A. Nagl, it’s a model of brevity and calm intelligence; in short, almost everything that was and is lacking in the current war effort. The very first page admonishes the reader thusly, “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 advice is so basic as to be borderline insulting. But yet, somehow, in the cable-news-buzzed and contractor-fueled PowerPoint hyperpresentation that led up to the 2003 invasion, such basic fundamentals as this seemed to have gone by the wayside. The motorized columns that ripped through already disintegrating Iraqi army lines on their way to Baghdad had been extraordinarily well-trained to do what they were doing right then: defeat an organized military force. But for what lay afterward, when it came to walking the streets and trying to quell an insurrection they neither could find or understand, this 44-page booklet would have been fantastically handy. Some more of the advice contained herein:
“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.’ “
“Don’t stare at anyone who is praying, above all do not make fun of him. Respect his religion as he will respect yours.”
“Bread to the Moslems is holy. Don’t throw scraps of it about or let it fall on the ground.”
“Don’t eat pork or pork products in front of Moslems.”
“Talk Arabic if you can to the people. No matter how badly you do it, they will like it.”
“Be generous with your cigarettes.”
“To repeat—don’t make a pass at any Moslem woman or there will be trouble. Anyway, it won’t get you anywhere. Prostitutes do not walk the streets but live in special quarters of the cities.”
There are of course some extraordinarily non-PC notes of the time in which this guide was written, most particularly the assumption that all of its readers would be church-going Christians. But there is also an extraordinary amount of quite well-presented and easily digested wisdom here, almost all of it emphasizing respect and decency, those basic traits all too easily discarded on the road to Baghdad.
One only has to look at the almost complete lack of Arab speakers among the occupying forces, or the KBR-run mess halls piled high with pork products (which local employees, almost always Muslim, were then forced to serve) to see how little attention was paid to even the most basic societal niceties at every level of the occupation. This inattention was, of course, an act of hubris based on an assumption that there wouldn’t even have to be an occupation; the U.S. army would defeat Saddam’s army, Chalabi and his fellow exiles would set up a new government, and that would be it. That things didn’t turn out that way was not just a failure of planning, it was a failure of, well, everything.
As Nagl—who has spent quite a bit of time in Iraq, not to mention helped write the Army’s new counterinsurgency manual and the already-classic guerrilla warfare study Learn to Eat Soup with a Knife—writes in his introduction, a lot of the material contained in this booklet would have been, well, nice to know beforehand. Time after time Nagl points to nuggets of advice in the 60-plus-year-old booklet and affirms that they are absolutely still applicable today. But most likely the book was forgotten in some cavernous archive that nobody in the Pentagon bothered to search; being too busy following Rumsfeld’s neo-con dictums.
Nagl writes, “It is a sad fact of history that armies all but invariably forget the lessons of prior campaigns and have to relearn them from scratch when war begins again, at the cost of too many soldiers’ and civilian lives.” He is most likely correct, but that doesn’t make such tragically stupid mistakes any easier to bear when they happen.