Instructions for Servicemen in Iraq | Harper's Magazine

Sign in to access Harper’s Magazine

Need to create a login? Want to change your email address or password? Forgot your password?

  1. Sign in to Customer Care using your account number or postal address.
  2. Select Email/Password Information.
  3. Enter your new information and click on Save My Changes.

Locked out of your account? Get help here.

Subscribers can find additional help here.

Not a subscriber? Subscribe today!

Get Access to Print and Digital for $23.99.
Subscribe for Full Access
Get Access to Print and Digital for $23.99.
[No Comment]

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.

More from