In 1943, U.S. servicemen stationed in Iraq were issued a pocket-size 41-page book entitled “A Short Guide to Iraq.” In straightforward prose, the book gave American soldiers a primer to help them through the cultural snarls and byways of the country in which they were stationed. They learned a little history, a little geography and a smattering of vocabulary and grammar.
In light of what we know about Iraq and the Middle East today, the book’s contents look a little slight. But when you reflect on what Americans knew about a then-obscure corner of the world in 1943, it looks like a godsend. Back then there was no television to beam a country’s culture into living rooms around the world. You couldn’t Google “Iraq” and learn basic history and culture on the fly. “A Short Guide to Iraq”—recently republished by the University of Chicago Press as “Instructions for American Servicemen in Iraq During World War II”—filled a big gap in the knowledge of American troops in Iraq, and its overall message was certainly admirable: “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 a chance to prove it to yourself and others. If you can, it’s going to be a better world to live in for all of us.”
Over and over, the book offers advice built upon the twin notions of tolerance and respect:
“Bread to the Moslems is holy. Don’t throw scraps of it about or let it fall on the ground.”
“In a house or a tent, follow the rule of your host. If he takes off his shoes on entering, do the same.”
Some of the advice is embarrassingly dated, not so much in what it says as how it says it: “If you should see grown men walking hand in hand, ignore it. They are not ‘queer'.” Some of it is, in light of contemporary conditions, laughably understated: “The Iraqis have some religious and tribal differences among themselves.” But to their credit, the anonymous authors of this book never try to oversimplify or make something out to be less complex than it is: “It is a good idea in any foreign country to avoid any religious or political discussions. This is even truer in Iraq than most countries, because it happens that here the Moslems themselves are divided into two factions something like our division into Catholic and Protestant denominations—so don’t put in your two cents worth when Iraqis argue about religion. There are also political differences in Iraq that have puzzled diplomats and statesmen.”
In his introduction to the new edition of the “Short Guide,” Lt. Col. John Nagl reserves his highest praise for the space—a quarter of the book—devoted to Arabic. “It is impossible to build personal relationships with local leaders, police chiefs and Iraqi army officers without being able to engage in dialogue with them,” writes Nagl, who was stationed in Iraq in 2003-2004, “but capable, trustworthy interpreters were my scarcest resource.”
Nagl sounds downright wistful when he laments not having a guidebook like this one when he went to Iraq four years ago: “As the month of fasting called Ramadan approached in November 2003, I would have appreciated knowing that ‘Moslem tempers are very short during this month as yours would be under similar circumstances’—and perhaps I would have been better prepared for the surge of violence that marked this celebration in our sector.”
According to Col. Steven Mains, Nagl should have been given written information on Iraq when he was there, information collected and published by the U.S. Army’s Center for Army Lessons Learned (CALL). Such information—facts about the culture, instructions on survival techniques—was being disseminated at the time, according to Mains, the center’s director. Created in 1985, CALL operates in part as a sort of permanent feedback loop, taking the knowledge learned by soldiers on the ground and relaying it back to the center, where it can be organized and published to educate raw recruits. Every branch of the military now has its own version of CALL, which publishes about 110 titles annually and this year published three different editions of a survival guide called “The First 100 Days—Soldier Handbook,” with most of the advice coming from combat veterans.
Mains says he has no idea why the information prepared by the Army never reached Nagl in the field. Clearly it was not for want of trying. CALL spends around $16 million annually in the name of better educating Army personnel. And truly, the question is not so much whether the Army understands Iraq but whether or not the people who sent the Army to Iraq understand that country. As Nagl perceives so well, the people who wrote the 1943 booklet—and by extension the government behind them—wanted two things: they wanted to win the war and they wanted to do it honorably. That is, they did not want to sacrifice or shortcut American values, and if we thought we were better than the Nazis, we had to prove it to our allies.
“It is almost impossible,” Nagl writes, “when reading this guide, not to slap oneself on the forehead in despair that the Army knew so much of Arabic culture and customs, and of the importance of that knowledge for achieving military success in Iraq, six decades ago—and forgot almost all of those lessons in the intervening years.” The only thing wrong with that statement is that Nagl did not aim his criticism a little higher. It wasn’t the Army that thought such knowledge was useless, it was the people above them—the Wolfowitzes, Cheneys, Feiths and Rumsfelds—who behaved as though none of that mattered when they ordered the Army into Iraq.
The chief value of “Instructions for American Servicemen in Iraq During World War II” is that it reminds us that there was a time, not so long ago, when America expected its troops abroad to be not only brave and resourceful fighters but also upstanding citizens who were expected to be generous, kind and respectful of other people and other cultures—model Americans, in other words. No wonder they called it “the good war.”