From ‘Gook’ To ‘Raghead’

Bob Herbert has a disturbing account of racism and gratuitous violence among American reservists in Iraq.

From ‘Gook’ to ‘Raghead’ (NYT | RSS)

I spent some time recently with Aidan Delgado, a 23-year-old religion major at New College of Florida, a small, highly selective school in Sarasota. On the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, before hearing anything about the terror attacks that would change the direction of American history, Mr. Delgado enlisted as a private in the Army Reserve. Suddenly, in ways he had never anticipated, the military took over his life. He was trained as a mechanic and assigned to the 320th Military Police Company in St. Petersburg. By the spring of 2003, he was in Iraq. Eventually he would be stationed at the prison compound in Abu Ghraib.

Mr. Delgado’s background is unusual. He is an American citizen, but because his father was in the diplomatic corps, he grew up overseas. He spent eight years in Egypt, speaks Arabic and knows a great deal about the various cultures of the Middle East. He wasn’t happy when, even before his unit left the states, a top officer made wisecracks about the soldiers heading off to Iraq to kill some ragheads and burn some turbans. “He laughed,” Mr. Delgado said, “and everybody in the unit laughed with him.” The officer’s comment was a harbinger of the gratuitous violence that, according to Mr. Delgado, is routinely inflicted by American soldiers on ordinary Iraqis. He said: “Guys in my unit, particularly the younger guys, would drive by in their Humvee and shatter bottles over the heads of Iraqi civilians passing by. They’d keep a bunch of empty Coke bottles in the Humvee to break over people’s heads.” He said he had confronted guys who were his friends about this practice. “I said to them: ‘What the hell are you doing? Like, what does this accomplish?’ And they responded just completely openly. They said: ‘Look, I hate being in Iraq. I hate being stuck here. And I hate being surrounded by hajis.’ ” “Haji” is the troops’ term of choice for an Iraqi. It’s used the way “gook” or “Charlie” was used in Vietnam.

Mr. Delgado said he had witnessed incidents in which an Army sergeant lashed a group of children with a steel Humvee antenna, and a Marine corporal planted a vicious kick in the chest of a kid about 6 years old. There were many occasions, he said, when soldiers or marines would yell and curse and point their guns at Iraqis who had done nothing wrong.

He said he believes that the absence of any real understanding of Arab or Muslim culture by most G.I.’s, combined with a lack of proper training and the unrelieved tension of life in a war zone, contributes to levels of fear and rage that lead to frequent instances of unnecessary violence. Mr. Delgado, an extremely thoughtful and serious young man, balked at the entire scene. “It drove me into a moral quagmire,” he said. “I walked up to my commander and gave him my weapon. I said: ‘I’m not going to fight. I’m not going to kill anyone. This war is wrong. I’ll stay. I’ll finish my job as a mechanic. But I’m not going to hurt anyone. And I want to be processed as a conscientious objector.’ “

Delgado eventually won conscientious objector status and his release from the Army Reserves. By his own admission, he didn’t fit in well with his unit and it’s not inconceivable that his tales are embellished. The fact that the unit in question is the 320th Military Police Company, though, gives credence to his account; they were involved in the prisoner abuse scandal at Abu Ghraib.

There’s little doubt that slurs toward the enemy are a part of military culture; it may well be a necessary part of the dehumanization process required to be able to kill them without hesitation. During Desert Storm, it was not uncommon to term the Iraqis “ragheads” or “Abdul” or similar ethnically-based nicknames. Various racial terms were used in Vietnam and Korea. But it’s not necessarily racial; the Germans were called names during the two World Wars and so were the Brits during the War for Independence. One doesn’t worry about hurting the feelings of those one is engaged in trying to kill before they kill you.*

I do not believe that American soldiers are routinely smashing random Iraqis over the head with bottles and kicking children. For one thing, there is enough press over there that we’d have heard about it by now. More importantly, though, it’s just not part of the culture. It’s not inconceivable that a poorly led Reserve unit consisting mostly of civilian prison guards would have more than its share of abusive miscreants, however.

Update (0919): A commenter below wonders where our soldiers got glass Coke bottles. An interesting question, indeed. Apparently, though, they’re quite common in the Middle East these days. (We had cans during the 1991 Gulf War.) See, for example, here and here.

(1015): Juliette Ochieng is skeptical as well, noting some omissions from the story and some issues with Herbert’s credibility.

(1033): *I meant to note in the original piece that, of course, the mission in Iraq is different now and sensitivity to such things is vital. One doesn’t wish to dehumanize the local civilian population of a country one is trying to pacify and democratize. The fact that our soldiers have to be diplomats one instant and warriors the next is a unique characteristic of stabilization operations.

(1215): John Burgess correctly notes in the comments below, “The hitting of a human head by a glass Coke bottle will leave the head broken far more often than the bottle. Those bottles are nearly indestructable, and intentionally so.” I’m quickly moving from “skeptical” to “disbelieving” on this one.

(5-3 1427): Lorie Byrd and Blackfive’s Matt have more questions.

FILED UNDER: Iraq War, Middle East, Race and Politics, Religion, , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. charlie32 says:

    Seriously now, where have you seen a GLASS cola bottle in the last 20 years? Ouside of a museum or a collector’s home? He surely read that in a Vietnam era handbook for objectors/deserters. Sounds like a John Kerry line.

    The unit in question obviously had severe leadership problems, but this Delgado kid has even more severe credibility problems. And remember, he no doubt has to make the other soldiers sound bad in order to live with his own feelings of failure and insufficiency.

  2. DC Loser says:

    glass bottles are still quite common out of the US. Heck, a few years ago I still got them in Canada.

  3. John Burgess says:

    On the longer term–and deleterious–effect of dehumanizing the enemy, it’s interesting to read Antony Beever’s Fall of Berlin 1945. In it, he relates how Soviet propaganda to dehumanize the Germans (of course coupled with German atrocities committed in the wake of Barbarossa) worked to fuel the bestial behavior of Soviet troops as they seared their way across Germany and into Berlin. Not a pretty picture.

    The hitting of a human head by a glass Coke bottle will leave the head broken far more often than the bottle. Those bottles are nearly indestructable, and intentionally so.

  4. James Joyner says:

    John: Good points, both.

  5. McGehee says:

    Sounds like somebody made up a story based on seeing a candy-glass stunt-prop bottle shatter on an actor’s head in a movie.

  6. Rod Stanton says:

    Which party is he with? My guess is either Dem or Green; which accounts for his tale.

  7. A Herbert column is just like a Krugman or MoDope column: Not worth reading.

  8. Jack Treese says:

    I served in the Army for 23 years, the majority of the time in combat arms units. I was in Vietnam, Germany and Panama. I was in Special Forces, the 101st Airborne Division, the 82nd Airborne Division, the 2nd Armored Battalion, the 24th Infantry Division, the 3rd Infantry Division and others. Never did I encounter anyone who would even think about kicking children, hitting civilians or otherwise mistreating the local populace. In fact I believe people in the military are the most law abiding, upstanding, honest people in this country. Yes there are those who slip through but because of the efficienty reports that all officers and enlisted personel receive every year most bad soldiers are weeded out.

    In the Army one would be punished for having oral sex with a co worker in his office, and again for lying about it unlike Bill Clinton.

  9. Nathan says:

    Actually yes glass bottles are common. I have worked in the middle east for the last 3 1/2 years, 9 months of which as in Iraq. While I stayed in more or less one place most of the time, I did travel some. I knew many military members active reserve, and many still from my days in military. While I won’t say this didn’t happen, it would have been an isolated incident. As for the kicking the 6 year old. Chances are the 6 year old was doing something wrong and the person probably felt he needed to get the kid away as quick as possible (possible weapon or bomb). That’s the problem is the people looking at these and even the people making up the stories don’t have the experience to judge. They are judging by American standards. Try living over here for years at a time and they would understand.

    DID anyone else notice how this person just happens to have enlisted on Sept 11th, PRIOR to the towers???????? I just double checked my facts, BUT the first plane hit at roughly 8:46 AM……..HOW DID HE ENLIST ON SEPT 11, PRIOR TO THAT TIME. I know recruiters normally have something close to bankers hours…….Something tells me maybe this person isn’t all that real or has changed the date to add more to the “sympathy effect.”

  10. John Boyle says:

    My email to Powerline on this story:
    Schoor: . . . “Also, we threw full C-ration cans at kids on the side of the road. Kids would be lined up on the side of the road. They’d be yelling out, “Chop, Chop, Chop, Chop,” and they wanted food. They knew we carried C-rations. Well, just for a joke, these guys would take a full can if they were riding shotgun and throw it as hard as they could at a kid’s head. I saw several kids’ heads split wide open, knocked off the road, knocked into tires of vehicles behind, and knocked under tank traps.” . . . (citation below).
    I can supply a searchable (in MS Word – 1.31 MB) complete text of the Winter Soldier Investigation transcript. You may need it, since it is about to be recycled piecemeal and wholesale, and you need to be able to recognize it in its Iraqi disguise. This is the worst-case nightmare of we Vietnam Vets who have been working to debunk the lies of the 70’s, and to prevent the same thing from happening again to our sons in uniform. The least they could do it find new material. I guess that’s what they thought they did, since it is now Coke bottles. Most of those I’ve talked to who were there (in Vietnam), including myself, think you’d have to be Warren Spahn to hit anything from the bed of a bouncing GI truck, with enough force or accuracy to do anything. C-ration cans were generally the size of tuna fish cans and not as heavy.
    There is much more of this kind in the transcript. The hallmark of the WSI testimony is likewise its hearsay nature, and the willingness of the MSN then, and now, to repeat it without any critical sense. The simply audacious and implausible outrageousness of these kinds of allegations shock and nauseate every GI I’ve ever spoken to about them – not the content of the lies, but the mind-set of those telling them. The pervasive and consistent weltanschauung of the text is so psychopathic that it is really startling – and it is this outrageousness which was designed to insulate it from repudiation – it is almost too filthy to consider, and not imaginable by any sane person, “so therefore it must be true.” I have always thought that no normal persons could have cooked this stuff up – it had to have come from real pros in the world of perverted thinking, i.e. professional Marxist propagandists with some access to comrades who actually did do things of this nature.
    Citation Source:
    VVAW Winter Soldier Investigation
    January – February 1971
    Miscellaneous Panel
    Jan Crumb, (a/k/a Jan Barry) 28, SP/4, 18th Aviation Co. (December 1961 to October 1963)
    John Kerry, 27, Lt. (j.g.), Coastal Sq., Coastal Division, 11 & 13, USNR (November 1968 to April 1969)
    Sam Schorr, SP/4 (E-4), 86th Combat Engineers (September 1966 to September 1967)
    p. 177 (of my Combined Text in MS Word)

  11. David Smith says:

    Are American soldiers even ALLOWED to have empty glass bottles in their vehicles? Aren’t you just asking to get tripped up or fragged w broken glass in a firefight?

  12. Minh-Duc says:

    There are glass bottles at soda stand along the street, but there are three facts to considered:
    1. Only a certain types of unit would stop at the street to buy soda, MP is not one of them
    2. Local venders want the bottle back when you done drinking.
    3. I would not drink local soda from bottle (only from can) because they are refilled and has lower hygience. Generally, one try to avoid eating or drinking local stuff.

  13. Cannon says:

    There is one item about this story that doesn’t wash.

    1. Have you seen the windows on the HMMWVs that they drive around? If they are of the new, uparmored variety, the windows are not sized or positioned to stick arms out of. It would be extremely uncomfortable, if not painful, to try and stick an arm out, and hit a guy on the head with a bottle. The windows are made for rifle/machine gun barrels. The only alternative would be to drive with no doors (suicidal) or with the doors open (slightly less so, but nearly impossible). So you are faced with soldiers that are needlessly exposing themselves to snipers/IEDs and for a negligible tactical/entertainment value. If I were to actually see this, I would be confused how they could possibly work it.

    2. “But what about the gunner?” Of course, why shouldn’t a person stand up in the hatch, exposing the most sensetive parts of his body to bullets, blast effects, and shrapnel. To sum up, either the soldiers involved in the incidents should have higher casualty rates. Any half-wit insurgent observing their behavior would counter it with IEDs or sniper fire. The whole incident just doesn’t add up, from the tactical point of view. These soldiers would be sacrificing their survivability for maybe a couple of disgusting yuks.

  14. David Smith says:

    I’ve been checking this fairly regularly and not getting ANY firm opinions from people I would respect.

    It all seems to be extremists of one kind or another (and usually a week old) and the mainstream press doesn’t even admit Delgado or Herbert ever existed.

    Can someone get use some solid, investigational type stuff? Not just the opinion of someone who was there that it’s not very likely, but some actual firm data?