Gulf War meets Culture War

America's uncertainty about what it stands for has followed US forces to Iraq.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics World

This is a bit of random text from Kyle to test the new global option to add a message at the top of every article. This bit is linked somewhere.

What is the proper way to address a Muslim woman? Is it okay to show the soles of your feet in an Arab state? What about offensive tattoos – taboo or not taboo? And when eating in a Qatari restaurant, do you use your left hand to pick up food, or your right…?

These are some of the heated issues being discussed by military men in and around the Gulf. As the rest of world wonders when the war against Iraq will start, some American commanders have been assigned a much more basic task: how to make their troops more culturally aware and less macho, and ensure that they behave like ‘diplomat-warriors’ for our new humanitarian age instead of like the outright ‘warriors’ of old.

In Qatar, where thousands of US troops are stationed in preparation for invading Iraq, commanders have set up a ‘cultural boot camp’ to teach their charges about local life. Officers can sign up for ‘five-day courses that teach the basics of Arab culture’, enabling them to ‘blend in and learn while we’re here’ (1). On board the US Navy ships gathered in the Gulf, commanders have declared war…on offensive tattoos. A new Navy rule has banned ‘tattoos/body art/brands that are excessive, obscene, sexually explicit or advocate or symbolise sex, gender, racial, religious, ethnic or national origin discrimination’ (2).

As for the British – the UK military has sent some troops to back up US forces in the Gulf, but at home it has become embroiled in debates about its ‘macho’ culture and how to make training less strenuous for new recruits (3). According to one report: ‘[Recruits] will be given personal mentors and quiet rooms for relaxation…and top brass have banned the word “punishment”, saying it is no longer “appropriate” to modern armed forces.…’ (4)

Bush and Blair talk up their grand mission against evil Iraq, but in the ranks of their military machines there seems to be great uncertainty about the basics of army life. How come?

These debates are about much more than how to train and discipline individual troops for the coming war with Iraq. They reflect deeper divisions within Western societies about what they stand for today and what kind of image to project around the world. And far from submerging such domestic disagreements under a great and unifying mission, the planned attack on Iraq has brought them to the fore. The Culture Wars have followed Western forces to the Gulf.

None of this means that allied forces won’t launch an attack on Iraq some time soon. As we have seen in recent months, there is a striking contrast between political dithering at home and the displays of military might in the Gulf. There may be political reticence among American and British leaders about when and how to launch a war – but US and UK fighter planes have been bombing southern Iraq on and off for years, and US special forces are apparently in Baghdad already, preparing the ground for an invasion. Yet for all the military strength, the debates about what the military is for betray a deeper uncertainty about the West’s mission.

In its keenness to make its troops more PC, the US military might unwittingly be attacking the very things that make an army an army. In Qatar, the US army is teaching its troops to be respectful of ‘Arab culture’. The Qatari cultural awareness courses are an attempt to get over the age-old problem of US troops appearing vulgar and arrogant in countries that have allowed them to set up camp. ‘[S]uspicions at the American presence linger [in Qatar]’, reports NBC News. ‘So the Army has contracted with a tourism firm to educate US troops about local culture – a move the Pentagon hopes will minimise friction between the Americans and their Qatari hosts.’ (5)

But military officials hope the lessons learned in Qatar will serve US troops elsewhere in the Middle East – including during action in Iraq. For one commander, cultural awareness can be applied ‘even in combat situations’, in the treatment of civilians. Since the mid-1990s, the US military has defined its role beyond killing and conquering, to include humanitarian roles, too. According to a US Army communiqué: ‘Duty, honour, country. These have long been recognised as professional military values to which new recruits must aspire. Now add another bedrock value: consideration of others.’ (6)

This culturally aware soldiering is a far cry from how US troops were primed for combat in earlier eras. During the Second World War, particularly in the run-up to the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, US propaganda depicted the Japanese as ‘vermin’; in the Vietnam War in the 1960s and 70s American troops were, according to one Vietnam vet, encouraged to see the enemy as ‘less than human’; in the first Gulf War of 1991, US soldiers (like the rest of us) were fed a diet of propaganda about Iraqis doing nasty things to Kuwaiti women and children; even during the supposedly humanitarian intervention in Somalia in 1993, American troops referred to Somalis derogatively as ‘skinnies’, viewing them as gun-toting lunatics high on quat.

These propagandistic views of America’s enemies may have been vile, but they played an important role for the military. Armies need to be ruthless, and dehumanising the enemy has traditionally been a way of instilling troops with the ruthlessness needed to go out and kill. No doubt today’s US troops are being educated about the need to disarm ‘evil Saddam’ and his wicked Republican Guard, and are being readied for a potentially bloody battle in Iraq – but they are simultaneously being taught to respect the culture of people they may have to kill.

Taken to its logical conclusion, this cultural awareness could potentially get in the way of decisive action – as the UN weapons inspectors discovered at the end of January 2003. Hans Blix’s inspection team may be an invading force in all but name, with the right to inspect everywhere and anywhere in Iraq, to declare ‘no-drive zones’ and to demand the destruction of ‘unacceptable weapons’. But even they ran into difficulties over the question of whether or not it is acceptable to inspect mosques.

A group of inspectors caused a storm in Iraq when they visited the al-Nidaa mosque in Baghdad on 20 January 2003. The mosque’s imam denounced the visit as a ‘provocation of Muslims’, and said ‘thank God that it was not a time of prayer when they came, because their lives would have been in danger’ (7). Instead of defending their right to inspect anywhere they like, the inspections team reacted defensively, insisting that the four inspectors had visited the mosque ‘as tourists’ (though according to the imam they had taken photos and asked ‘whether there was an underground shelter’), and claimed that the team remained respectful of Islam. ‘It was a private visit’, said a flustered UN spokesman, ‘they just wanted to visit a mosque’ (8).

It is not just American troops’ cultural relationship with their opponents that is being shaken up – so too are their personal relationships with each other. The US Army has committed itself to stamping out sexism, racism and homophobia and to creating a ‘climate of respect’ in military units. As part of this drive, the US Navy ships currently awaiting war in the Persian Gulf have clamped down on offensive tattoos.

According to the 29 January issue of Star and Stripes, the magazine for American forces, any tattoos that depict sex, gender, racial, religious or ethnic discrimination are out, as are ‘symbols denoting any gang affiliation, supremacist or extremist groups, or drug use’ (9).

The US Army has created a potential paperwork nightmare for itself by issuing confusing rules about what kind of tattoos are acceptable and what kind aren’t in each different section of the Army. In the Navy, there are exemptions from the tattoo rule if the tattoo is part of a sailor’s ‘religious practices’ – so long as such exemptions ‘do not adversely affect unit cohesion, standards or discipline’ (10). In the Air Force, soldiers who already have dodgy tattoos will be allowed to keep them – so long as they are ‘not excessive or offensive’ (11). And in the ground army, tattoos should not be visible while in uniform, though a tattoo on a female soldier’s calf or ankle is permissible’ – so long as it is in ‘good taste’ (12).

There is more to the Navy clampdown than keeping up appearances. The Navy says that no tattoo should be visible to the general public while sailors are in uniform. But when it comes to tattoos that are ‘extremist, indecent, sexist or racist’, these are always unacceptable, ‘regardless of body location and whether in or out of uniform’ (13). So even a sexist tattoo on a sailor’s bottom hidden by a plaster and rarely seen by the wider world would be outlawed.

This desire to chase out all offensive tattoos, whether visible or not, suggests an attempt on the Navy’s part to challenge a cultural problem, as well as an appearance issue. It is not so much the visibility of offensive tattoos that is the problem, but the fact that they exist at all, that individual sailors got them in the first place. For the Navy, the real problem seems to be the ‘canteen culture’ that makes sailors go out and get tattoos that sexualise women or denigrate ethnic minorities, rather than the tattoos themselves.

But for soldiers, getting tattoos has for many years been a way of nurturing a sense of solidarity with their fellow troops. According to a US Navy doctor: ‘Some young sailors, airmen, soldiers or marines see a visit to the tattoo parlour as a rite of passage. For many, a tattoo emblazoned upon their flesh is a lasting reminder of the camaraderie once shared.’ (14) The Navy’s offensive against offensive tattoos can only eat away at that sense of camaraderie. Now, tattoos will be looked upon suspiciously, with the tattooed sailor’s motives being called into question and possibly made into the subject of internal inquiries.

Then there is the apparently major issue of writing homophobic messages on bombs. During the first Gulf War (and subsequent wars) US airmen have scrawled insults on bombs before launching them, ranging from ‘Suck on this Saddam’ to ‘Stick this up your Hussein’. But following an unfortunate incident during the post-9/11 Afghan War, bomb messages may have to be cleaned up for the coming Gulf War.

In October 2001, at the start of the Afghan War, US troops wrote ‘High jack this, fags’ on a bomb (forgive the spelling) – causing a stink in sections of the military and the media. Britain’s Armed Forces Lesbian and Gay Association complained that the message was ‘typical of the homophobia that exists in the US military’, and also pointed out that the message was inaccurate: ‘It’s the least appropriate insult to use given the Taliban’s treatment of homosexuals. The intended victims are very unlikely to be fags….’ (15)

The Service Members’ Legal Defense Network, an American body that supports lesbian and gay members of the US armed forces, said: ‘Messages like this one…only reinforce the ideas of hatred and division that our nation seeks to defend against.’ (16) Richard Haymes, executive director of the New York City Gay and Lesbian Anti-Violence Project, said the message on the bomb denigrated ‘gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender Americans who perished in the attacks on the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon’ (17).

The Navy responded by expressing ‘official disapproval’ of the bomb message, admitting that it was ‘inappropriate’. Navy Rear Admiral Stephen Pietropaoli said the crew of the USS Enterprise, from which the ‘offensive’ bomb had been launched, had been told to more closely edit ‘the spontaneous acts of penmanship by our sailors. We’ve gotten word to our commanders saying, “That’s not up to our standards, guys”’. Pietropaoli went on: ‘Most of what gets written on [bombs] is things like FDNY or I [heart] NY. That’s more keeping in line with what we want to do. We want to keep the messages positive.’ (18) Positive messages? On bombs? Whose job is to destroy and kill?

Nothing better illustrates the gap between America’s military power and its deeper uncertainty than the bomb message incident. The US military has bombs that can be laser-guided to individual buildings hundreds of miles away, but it is in a quandary over what can and cannot be written on the bombs.

There is a serious contradiction in the US military’s treatment of its troops’ personal relationships. On one hand, US commanders are exploiting troops’ closeness and sense of solidarity as a means of getting them to fight. At a time when armies find it increasingly difficult to sell a collective mission to their charges (or even to define it for themselves), US commanders have flagged up ‘leave no man behind’ as the defining motto of the military. After watching Ridley Scott’s Black Hawk Down in January 2002, about the US military’s disastrous 1993 intervention in Somalia, the secretary of the US Army raved: ‘The movie has a tagline, “leave no man behind”, which is extremely important today. The tagline could easily be used by the army because it reflects the values of valour and self-sacrifice that we [see] in our soldiers…’ (19)

Of course, ‘leaving no man behind’ has always been a central organisational tenet of military operations – but it was never an aim in and of itself. Focusing on this principle for its own sake already presumes defeat or retreat or the need to get the hell out of somewhere quick-smart. If an army’s main values and aims are for its soldiers to protect fellow soldiers and to get out of somewhere with as few casualties as possible, what’s the point of having an army at all? What’s the point of intervening in the first place?

Yet at the same time as the army exploits soldiers’ commitment to one another, it seems to be undermining the very culture of camaraderie that binds them together. By scrutinising how troops interact with one another, by making tattooing a suspicious pastime, and by keeping a check on expressions of homophobia or sexism, military commanders could be attacking the culture that bonds individual troops in difficult times of war.

And the British military? Despite prime minister Tony Blair’s rhetoric against Saddam’s evil regime, it is increasingly clear that British troops are not ready for war. At home, the British Army has become bogged down in debates about making its training regime ‘less stringent’ as a means of making the army more attractive to potential recruits. One senior officer summed up the problem: ‘With the type of recruits we get today we cannot push them too far. Otherwise they’ll just ring up their mum on a mobile phone and be collected from the barracks gate and we’ll never see them again….’ (20) At least the US military is working out its issues during active service – the British military barely seems able to get past the barrack gates.

The US military’s current wrangling over what it stands for and how it should act abroad reflect far bigger disagreements about the meaning of America today: about America’s role in the world, whether it should be more interventionist or more isolationist; about what kind of image America should project for itself, whether old-fashioned conqueror or modern nation-builder; and about how America should relate to people in the third world, whose apparent hatred of the USA has sent shockwaves through the Bush administration.

The debates about the military reflect deeper divisions within the post-Culture Wars USA about what kind of nation America is, and how it should assert its power in the modern era. And the lack of a convincing answer to such questions suggests that maybe America should focus on its own problems, and leave other people alone to resolve theirs.

Brendan O’Neill is coordinating the spiked-conference Panic attack: Interrogating our obsession with risk, on Friday 9 May 2003, at the Royal Institution in London.

Read on:

spiked-issue: War on Iraq

(1) Cultural boot camp for US troops, Preston Mendenhall, MSNBC, 22 January 2003

(2) Navy draws a line on some forms of body piercing, ornamentation, tattoos, Sandra Jontz, Stars and Stripes, 29 January 2003

(3) Army go soft on ‘wimp’ recruits, Sun, 11 February 2003

(4) Army go soft on ‘wimp’ recruits, Sun, 11 February 2003

(5) Cultural boot camp for US troops, Preston Mendenhall, MSNBC, 22 January 2003

(6) Command-wide training to begin fostering focus on respect for others, C Tyler Jones, ArmyLINK News, 5 November 1997

(7) UN denies inspecting Iraqi mosque, BBC News, 23 January 2003

(8) UN denies inspecting Iraqi mosque, BBC News, 23 January 2003

(9) Navy draws a line on some forms of body piercing, ornamentation, tattoos, Sandra Jontz, Stars and Stripes, 29 January 2003

(10) Navy draws a line on some forms of body piercing, ornamentation, tattoos, Sandra Jontz, Stars and Stripes, 29 January 2003

(11) Navy draws a line on some forms of body piercing, ornamentation, tattoos, Sandra Jontz, Stars and Stripes, 29 January 2003

(12) Navy draws a line on some forms of body piercing, ornamentation, tattoos, Sandra Jontz, Stars and Stripes, 29 January 2003

(13) Navy draws a line on some forms of body piercing, ornamentation, tattoos, Sandra Jontz, Stars and Stripes, 29 January 2003

(14) Your body may be wrong canvas for a tattoo, Healthwatch, US Navy, April 2000

(15) Gay forces members ‘disgusted by US military homophobia’, Ananova, 12 October 2001

(16) Legal aid group condemns anti-gay graffiti written on American bomb, Service Members’ Legal Defense Network, 12 October 2001

(17) National coalition of anti-violence programs responds to evidence of homophobia in Afghan bombing mission, Colorado Anti-Violence Program, 15 October 2001

(18) The bomb with a loaded message, Hank Steuver, Washington Post, 27 October 2001

(19) See ‘It’s about the man next to you’, by Brendan O’Neill

(20) Army go soft on ‘wimp’ recruits, Sun, 11 February 2003

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics World


Want to join the conversation?

Only spiked supporters and patrons, who donate regularly to us, can comment on our articles.

Join today