Advice to WWII Soldiers in Iraq Relevant Today During World War II, the U.S. Army published a book of cultural dos and don'ts for soldiers serving in Iraq. Army Lt. Col. John Nagl, who wrote the foreword to a new re-issue, says he wishes he'd had the manual when he went to Iraq in 2003.
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Advice to WWII Soldiers in Iraq Relevant Today

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Advice to WWII Soldiers in Iraq Relevant Today

Advice to WWII Soldiers in Iraq Relevant Today

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I'm Michele Norris.


And I'm Andrea Seabrook. And this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

NORRIS: The year is 1943. American soldiers serving during World War II are being sent to an unfamiliar place. It's hot, sandy and mostly inhospitable. Before they're deployed, they're given a book of helpful tips. Keep away from mosques. Never eat with your left hand. Always respect Muslim women and try speaking Arabic. Now that American servicemen and women are back in Iraq, fighting a very different war, there's renewed interest in that 60-year-old book. It's called "Instructions for American Servicemen in Iraq During World War II."

Lieutenant Colonel John Nagl wrote the foreword to the modern version. And he joins us now from Fort Riley in Kansas. Colonel Nagl, thanks for being with us.

JOHN NAGL: Michele, it's a great pleasure.

NORRIS: When you first came across this manual, it's very small, smaller than a sort of pocket-sized paper book. What did you actually think about it?

NAGL: I was instantly charmed. There's a very hopeful optimism about the book, clearly written in an age before irony. And there's sort of a whistle-while-you-work sort of optimism toward it that expressed some wonderful things about the American spirit of the 1940s, the spirit with which America approached the Second World War. But the other thought I had was how enormously helpful to have this insight into Arabic language and Iraqi culture. And, gosh, I wish I'd had it when I deployed to Iraq in September 2003.

NORRIS: You talked about that whistle-while-you-work quality. There are these wonderful illustrations. They're almost like - I don't want to say cartoons, but there are cartoonish illustrations throughout the book and very sort of simple dos and don'ts.

NAGL: Some very simple dos and don'ts. Don't make approaches toward Arabic women. Don't invade mosques or invade the space of mosques. Don't talk about religion or culture. But also some dos. Do respect the tribal relationships that exist in Iraq. Do respect the qualities of the Arabs, not necessarily as conventional fighters, but as guerilla warfare specialists. And I was struck by how little has changed in the 60 years since this book was written.

NORRIS: In the foreword to the book, you write it's almost impossible, when reading this guide, not to slap oneself on the forehead in despair, that the Army knew so much of Arabic culture and customs 60 years ago.

NAGL: One really wishes that we'd have this book in our breast pockets when we arrived in Iraq in September of 2003. We learned on the ground things about Ramadan, for instance, and customs and courtesies during Ramadan the - that this book had, and that were sitting on a library shelf somewhere that I would've given my eye and teeth for to have had, well, when I actually really needed it.

NORRIS: For instance, you say that guerilla fighters are particularly willing to sacrifice their lives in Ramadan. It would've been helpful to know that.

NAGL: And we found that out. But unfortunately, we found that out by the number who were willing to commit suicide attacks.

NORRIS: I know I keep quoting your own words to you. But in the introduction to the book you also note that it's a sad fact of history that armies, all but invariably, forget the lessons of prior campaigns. I guess the question is, why didn't servicemen and women have this book in their breast pocket?

NAGL: Well, it - and that's part of a broader question that I talk about in the introduction to the new counterinsurgency field manual. Why was the Army not as ready to fight a counterinsurgency campaign as it should've been? We, as an army, I think, took some of the wrong lessons from Desert Storm - Desert Storm, an enormously successful, conventional campaign. But we neglected the other kinds of conflict - terrorism and insurgency - which provided a little bit of an opening to the enemies of the United States.

NORRIS: Even though the troops weren't given this manual, did they get something close to this - that told them to, you know, for instance, always eat with your right hand. If you're required to sit on the floor in a house or a tent, cross your legs by doing so. Sort of basic customs that they need to follow to win the hearts and minds of the Iraqi people?

NAGL: Absolutely. We did cover some of those things in pre-deployment training, and we talked about it a lot on the ground. What I most missed from not having this book with me was the sense of who the Iraqi people are.

NORRIS: The book talks about the spirit of politeness and courtesy that is so important in Iraq. And there's one passage in particular - it's on page 18 - it talks about coffee drinking and how important that is. The interesting advice there is you never refuse a cup of coffee or throw it away half-drunk. And if offered repeated cups of coffee, that you should take at least three, but you're not obligated to take the fourth.

NAGL: And there's a charming illustration of four cups of coffee, four, little, tiny demitasse cups of coffee.

NORRIS: Yes. Yes. But the fourth is x'd out.

NAGL: The fourth one with an X over the top, which is just splendid. I have to say I spent most of my time out in more tribal areas in the town of Kaldia right in between Ramadi and Fallujah. And I can't remember ever drinking a cup of coffee with my Arab friends. But I can't tell you how many cups of tea I drank. They call it chai. And one of the lessons we teach - I'm engaged here at Fort Riley in training the transition team members that we embed in Iraqi security forces. And one of the lessons I try to teach them is, the way you win this war is by drinking tea, so that the relationships that you build over cups of tea with your Iraqi partners are perhaps the most important component to our eventual victory in this war.

NORRIS: So that really is key. It is important that Iraqis come to respect Americans or, at least, be able to look them in the eye and have some kind of relationship overtime?

NAGL: One of the quotes I found most appealing in the book, if I can read a quote back at you, American success or failure in Iraq may well depend on whether the Iraqis like American soldiers or not.

NORRIS: I must say the writing of the book is impressive. There is quite a - there's an economy of words. The language is very bright. Did you go back and find out who wrote the original book?

NAGL: I did not. And I was just thinking about that as you were saying it. It struck me when I looked at the pictures that perhaps they were done by one of Walt Disney's illustrators because that's the charm that they have in them. And one wonders if it was - there's almost something J.D. Salinger-esque about the writing. So one wonders if it was one of the great writers of American history pressed into service during the war, as we did back in World War II, who loaned his talents to this really extraordinary, little book.

NORRIS: Well, Lieutenant Colonel John Nagl, thanks so much for speaking with us.

NAGL: It was a great pleasure, Michele.

NORRIS: Lieutenant Colonel John Nagl wrote the foreword to the book, "Instructions for American Servicemen in Iraq During World War II." It's published by University of Chicago Press.


SEABROOK: An excerpt from the manual on the importance of good manners in Iraq is at

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