Friday, January 13, 2006

How Embarrassing

The ugly American goes abroad once again.

Long before the Abu Ghraib scandal, there were numerous examples of brutality and insensitivity by US troops to match tales of their courage. Sometimes it was purely a lack of local knowledge: a minor riot ensued when dogs — considered unclean in the Muslim world — were used to sniff staff entering the Oil Ministry.

At other times it was the crudeness of combat troops thrown abruptly into a peacekeeping role. “I don’t know how many women I’ve seen in labour. These people s*** out kids like turds,” a National Guardsman muttered to The Times on a patrol in Baghdad.

That contempt was quickly detected by the population, which was dismayed to see US forces obsessed with their own protection and doing little to halt the breakdown of law and order.

Much of the damage was done early on. Battle-hardened troops launched house raids that horrified Iraqis, who jealously guard their privacy and the modesty of their women. Doors were kicked in. Money and valuables were reported stolen.

But little has changed. “I’m a door kicker-inner,” one young Marine blurted out in Fallujah last month, to the dismay of his superiors.

The Marines have tried to teach their men some of the language. But most US soldiers know only how to say “move on” or “slow down”. They expect Iraqis to understand their hand signals — a bunched fist meaning “stop”, a hand waved palm-down meaning “slow” — and will frequently shoot to kill if confused drivers fail to respond.

I'm a law abiding citizen and I twitch when I see a roadblock or a car with red and blue lights (the new l.e.d. ones are cool), I can't imagine how confusing it must be to suddenly be forced to learn a new language in order to travel through my own country while dodging bombs, insurgents, no electricity for street signals and some jerk in a uniform waving their arms at me. And now it's a timed test with fatal consequences.

Pretty soon everyone will despise us, tolerating us like an aging drunk uncle at a wedding, waiting until we pass out from overindulgence and hoping we don't do too much damage in the meantime.
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