If you want to understand why the war is going so badly in Iraq, it may help to examine the recent reaction to "Hadji Girl," the videotaped song about killing Iraqis by U.S. Marine Corporal Joshua Belile. The song became controversial when the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) discovered it on the internet and objected to its lyrics. "Hadji Girl" tells the story of a soldier "out in the sands of Iraq / And we were under attack":
Then suddenly to my surprise
I looked up and I saw her eyes
And I knew it was love at first sight.
And she said…
Dirka Dirka Mohammed Jihad
Sherpa Sherpa Bak Allah
Hadji girl I can’t understand what you’re saying.
The girl says that she "wanted me to meet her family / But I, well, I couldn’t figure out how to say no. / Cause I don’t speak Arabic." They visit her home, a "side shanty" down "an old dirt trail," and as soon as they arrive,
Her brother and her father shouted…
Dirka Dirka Mohammed Jihad
Sherpa Sherpa Bak Allah
They pulled out their AKs so I could see
... So I grabbed her little sister and pulled her in front of me.
As the bullets began to fly
The blood sprayed from between her eyes
And then I laughed maniacally
Then I hid behind the TV
And I locked and loaded my M-16
And I blew those little fuckers to eternity.
And I said…
Dirka Dirka Mohammed Jihad
Sherpa Sherpa Bak Allah
They should have known they were fucking with a Marine.
The song is gruesome, to be sure, and CAIR complained that it celebrated the killing of Iraqi civilians. The video shows Belile performing the song before a laughing, applauding audience of fellow soldiers at their base in Iraq. Recognizing that the song could only bring bad publicity, U.S. military officials promptly issued a statement saying that it was "clearly inappropriate and contrary to the high standards expected of all Marines." Belile also apologized, saying the song was intended as "a joke" and that he didn't intend to offend anyone.
Pro-war pundits, however, actually rallied to the song's defense. The conservative Little Green Footballs weblog thought news reports about the video controversy were the "mainstream media disgrace of the month." There's nothing wrong with the song, the Footballs said, because it doesn't actually describe a soldier killing civilians: "the people who kill the 'little sister' in this darkly humorous song are — not the Marines — but her father and brother, as they attempt to perpetrate an ambush." Some of the comments on LGF even called it "a wonderful song," and attacked the "nutless Pentagon star-chasing bastards" for their "capitulation." Here are some of the other comments about the song, from Little Green Footballs and elsewhere:
- "Damn it, we are in a fucking war! Nobody whined about 'insensitivity' to the fucking Japs and Jerries."
- "I expect more from the Pentagon. The State Dept & the CIA are just a bunch of cucumber sandwich eating fools. The Pentagon USED to be about waging war on our enemies. Now they just want to kiss up to them."
- "I'm Proud of my fellow Marines in that video. That is EXACTLY the espirit de corps needed, the HIGH MORALE needed in the middle of a combat zone where those self-same jihadists are trying to kill those Marines every single day.
- "Insensitive? Marines insensitive? God I hope so. We need them to kick ass and follow orders but we don’t need them to be particularly sensitive. A sensitive Marine Corps will be the death of this country."
- "One of the things CAIR didn't like was the phrase 'Durka Durka Mohammed Jihad, Sherpa Sherpa Bak Allah' which makes fun of the Arab language. To hell with CAIR and to hell with the Arab language. ... And the Islamist pigs can keep going to hell."
As these comments illustrate, defense for the song quickly turns into traditional conservative anger at what they see as censorious "political correctness." They have a right, they insist, to be insensitive and hostile to Arabs and Muslims. I would argue, in fact, that this cultural xenophobia is the main theme of the song and that the violence in it is a secondary byproduct.
Let's start with the title, "Hadji Girl." The term "hadji" (also sometimes spelled "haji" or "hajji") is the Arabic word for someone who has made the pilgrimage to Mecca. In Iraq and Afghanistan, it has become a common slang term used to describe the locals. According to a dictionary of war slang compiled by GlobalSecurity.org, the term is "used by the American military for an Iraqi, anyone of Arab decent, or even of a brownish skin tone, be they Afghanis, or even Bangladeshis" and is also "the word many soldiers use derogatorily for the enemy." Related terms include "haji mart" (a small store operated by Iraqis) or "haji patrol" (Iraqi soldiers).
The term seems to have come into usage even before the war began in Iraq. Its use was noted following a U.S. military investigation into the 2002 murder of two prisoners at the Bagram Collection Point in Afghanistan, by some of the same soldiers who later oversaw abuses at Abu Ghraib. ''We were pretty much told that they were nobodies, that they were just enemy combatants,'' said one of the soldiers at Bagram. ''I think that giving them the distinction of soldier would have changed our attitudes toward them. A lot of it was based on racism, really. We called them hajis, and that psychology was really important.''
One of the prisoners beaten to death at Bagram was an innocent taxi driver named Dilawar whose only offense was that he happened to drive his taxi past the American base at the wrong time. According to Corey E. Jones, one of the MPs who guarded him, the beatings intensified when "He screamed out, 'Allah! Allah! Allah!' and my first reaction was that he was crying out to his god. Everybody heard him cry out and thought it was funny. ... It became a kind of running joke, and people kept showing up to give this detainee a common peroneal strike just to hear him scream out 'Allah.' It went on over a 24-hour period, and I would think that it was over 100 strikes."
The term "haji" is not simply an ethnic slur, like "gook," "jap," "jerry" or "nigger." All ethnic slurs entail hostile stereotypes, but "haji" is a specifically religious stereotype based on hostility toward Muslims. In our 2003 book, Weapons of Mass Deception, John Stauber and I described the efforts that the Bush administration has undertaken to rebrand America in the eyes of Arabs and Muslims, spending hundreds of millions of dollars on projects including Radio Sawa, Al Hurra, a "Shared Values" campaign, and the Council of American Muslims for Understanding. Through glossy brochures, TV advertisements and websites, the United States has sought to depict America as a nation of religious tolerance that respects and appreciates Islam. These words, however, are constantly being undermined by the actual deeds and attitudes of the Bush administration's most ardent supporters, including soldiers in the field in Afghanistan and Iraq. While the White House has tried to frame the war in Iraq as a "war on terror," its own supporters keep reframing it as a war against Islam. This is a serious, if not fatal error. Rather than fighting a few thousand actual terrorists, the United States is positioning itself in opposition to one of the world's major religions, with more than a billion adherents worldwide.
Culture Shock and Awe
"Hadji Girl" also refers to another aspect of soldiers' experiences in Iraq: the language barrier that prevents them from communicating effectively. The refrain, "Dirka dirka Mohammed Jihad / Sherpa Sherpa Bak Allah," is borrowed from the movie "Team America: World Police." According to filmmaker Matt Stone, the phrase is not real Arabic but a parody of "Arabic gibberish which they just go, you know, 'Dirka-dirka, Muhammad, Muhammad Ali.' ... And that, to me, is what terrorists sound like when I look at their little tapes that they release." This inability to comprehend the local language contributes to the soldiers' inability to distinguish between friend or foe, forcing them to suspect that anyone — including the beautiful girl you just met, or her family — might be a terrorist.
These facts began to shape the relationship between U.S. soldiers and Iraqis early in the war, as Associated Press reporter Andrew England noted in September 2003:
Young American soldiers — many carrying out operations they have little training for — find themselves in a hostile environment, unable to speak the local language or distinguish "the good guys from the bad guys."
Most just want to survive and return home. Some have grown to despise Iraqis, whom they call "Hajis," scowling rather than waving as they pass locals along highways and dirt roads. ...
"I hate the Hajis. All of them are liars. They injured one of my soldiers," said one.
"You don't want to know what I think about them, they shot at me one too many times," said another.
It is worth noting that one of the few conscientious objectors who have actually served with the military in Iraq, Aidan Delgado, had a very different perspective of Iraqis because he did know how to speak the language:
It was tough for me to see brutality coming out of my own unit. I had lived in the Middle East. I had Egyptian friends. I spent nearly a decade in Cairo. I spoke Arabic, and I was versed in Arab culture and Islamic dress. Most of the guys in my unit were in complete culture shock most of the time. They saw the Iraqis as enemies. They lived in a state of fear. I found the Iraqis enormously friendly as a whole. One time I was walking through Nasiriyah with an armful of money, nadirs that were exchanged for dollars. I was able to walk 300 meters to my convoy -- a U.S. soldier walking alone with money. And I thought: I am safer here in Iraq than in the states. I never felt threatened from people in the South.
It would be a mistake to imagine that the casual brutality of "Hadji Girl" is coming from people who are simply evil or racist or cruel. The soldiers occupying Iraq are normal men and women who, in other circumstances, would never commit the abuses that have been documented in Bagram and Abu Ghraib and that are now alleged in Haditha. The situations in which this war has placed them — far from home, surrounded by a foreign language and foreign culture, carrying guns and fearful for their lives — have brought out behaviors that we would not see otherwise. If American soldiers and Iraqis could meet under different circumstances, things would be different. Here, for example, is how Iraqi blogger Salam Pax described his experience upon visiting the United States and having dinner with an American soldier:
You have no idea how strange it feels that we share so much in common. When I told him I would never actually approach an American soldier on the street in Baghdad, he told me that if we were in Baghdad he would probably be talking to me with his gun pointing at me because he would be scared shitless. Yet there we sat, drinking beers together.
America's cultural isolationism and prejudices are exposed by "Hadji Girl," but that's only part of the story. The war itself is encouraging these dark aspects of human nature, by bringing Americans and Iraqis together in an environment full of tension, fear, hatred and violence. And if the war itself is creating these evils, how can it hope to end them?