No Comment — August 2, 2007, 7:50 am

Instructions for Servicemen in Iraq

Department of the Army, Instructions for American Servicemen in Iraq During World War II (Univ. of Chicago Press, 2007)

Those despairing of American policymakers’ mistakes in Iraq (of which there are now so many it’s hard to keep count) may find some solace in this amazing little booklet just out from the University of Chicago Press. It’s 44 pages long, just enough for a commuter’s bus or train ride home, but it’s a treasure chest of information. And the bottom line for the piece couldn’t be clearer: we didn’t used to be so stupid.

The key to successful military operations lies, as Allied Supreme Commander Dwight D. Eisenhower was fond of saying, in preparation. Little things count for a lot–they can make the difference whether a local provides safe harbor for a soldier separated from his unit, for instance, or denounces him to the enemy. In 1943, the Army was concerned about the risk of Nazi skullduggery in the Middle East and about the weakened posture of the British in their extended Empire. It decided to deploy several units to ground positions in Iraq to engage in reconnaissance and to look out for Axis efforts to stir up trouble. And to help prepare the Americans who were being shipped out, it commissioned, printed up and circulated this little brochure. Everything that a young American soldier really needs to know about Iraq, its people, and its culture. Forty-four pages does not exactly make a cultural history, but this really does cover the essentials. And it has some gems:

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 guerilla warfare. Few fighters in any country, in fact, excel him in that kind of situation. If he is your friend, he can be a staunch and valuable ally. If he should happen to be your enemy—watch out!

Donald Rumsfeld and George W. Bush sent American troops into harm’s way in Iraq without furnishing this sort of guidance. To be sure, American soldiers got some briefings on the culture and ways of the Iraqis and how to deal with them. But this was far from standardized, and quite a number of soldiers I talked with insisted they got no briefing or training whatsoever. And the circumstances are different. In 1943, Americans lived openly among the Iraqis—interaction with them, keeping on top of what was going on—was a key aspect of their mission. Last spring, I spoke with several U.S. soldiers in Baghdad about interaction with the locals, and they all had the same tale, more or less: there really was no interaction. They lived behind strong fortifications, and went out on heavily armed patrols. The most frequent interaction with locals was confrontational—ordering a car off the road, breaking down a door and searching a house, or an actual firefight; or it was dealing with Iraqis in service positions at the installations, and for security reasons there weren’t very many of them. Moreover, the knowledge of local custom was spotty and even then not geared to respect but rather to use of values for purposes of humiliation. When raids were carried out, the constant practice was to have males lie face-down on the ground and have a soldier put his foot on their back. “Why?” “Because in their culture it’s very offensive.” Absolutely true. And horrifying. Knowledge of a foreign culture was being used to denigrate, alienate, arouse hostility. Not a smart formula for an occupying force.

This and a thousand similar practices help to explain why polling commissioned by the United States has shown since early 2006 that, outside of the Kurdish North, when they ask whether respondents have a favorable opinion of U.S. troops, the positive answers fall roughly into the range of the margin of error.

Against this background, there are some officers who have struggled to maintain the standards that the Army upheld in 1943. One of them is Lieutenant Colonel John A. Nagl, who served as Operations Officer of Task Force 1-34 in Khalidiyah, Iraq from September 2003 – September 2004. He found this old manual, dusted it off and used it and authored a wonderful preface to this reprinting by the University of Chicago Press. “History doesn’t often repeat itself, but it often rhymes,” Colonel Nagl writes.

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Ashley arrived for her prenatal appointment at Black Hills Obstetrics and Gynecology, in Rapid City, South Dakota, wearing a black zip-up hoodie and Converse sneakers.1 To explain her absence from work that morning — a Tuesday in April 2015 — she had told a co-worker that she was having “female issues.” She was twenty-five years old and eight weeks pregnant. She had been separated from her husband, with whom she had a five-year-old son, for the better part of a year. The guy who’d gotten her pregnant was someone she’d met at the gym, and he’d made it abundantly clear that he wanted nothing more to do with her. Ashley found herself hoping that the doctor would discover some kind of fetal defect, so that her decision would be easier. She glanced across the waiting room at a television playing a birth-control ad and laughed darkly. “Jesus, Lord, it would be so nice if someone just pushed me down a flight of stairs.”

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 Some names and identifying details have been changed. 

“Big, fat zero, unfortunately,” Degen said, making a 0 with her fingers. The last doctor who provided abortions in Rapid City retired in 1986, three years before Ashley was born.

The baby was due in November, when Ashley, who was a nurse, hoped to be enrolled in a graduate program to become a nurse practitioner. Getting pregnant as a teenager had forced her to put that dream on hold, but she had thought that she was finally ready; she had even submitted her application shortly before the March 15 deadline. For the first time in her adult life, Ashley felt as if her plans were coming together. Then she missed her period.

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