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Racist and degrading graffiti rooted in America’s military culture

Yusuf Progler

During the last hours of ‘Operation Desert Fox,’ the murderous Anglo-American pre-Ramadan assault on the Muslim population of Iraq, the Associated Press broadcast a photograph of a US Navy missile ‘festooned with disparaging graffiti.’ Subsequent news reports mentioned one of the ‘several inscriptions’ scrawled on the missile: ‘Here’s a Ramadan present from Chad Rickenberg.’

Almost immediately, the offensive graffiti was strategically denounced by Pentagon officials as a ‘rare exception.’ In a statement released to the press, the Pentagon stressed that the graffiti ‘does not reflect American policy’ toward Muslims, adding that the US appreciates the ‘important contributions of Muslim-Americans to the US military.’ But despite the official denial, and though it received no further media attention, the incident is symptomatic of a long-standing legacy.

Aside from the reality that ‘American policy’ toward Muslims has included bombing and starving Iraq into oblivion, letting Bosnians be murdered and raped by Serbian fascists, supporting Israeli aggression in Palestine and Lebanon, destabilizing Iran, and attacking Somalia, Sudan, and Afghanistan, the graffiti incident is instructive in a number of ways. For one thing, it provides a rare glimpse into American military culture.

Missile and bomb graffiti is a long-held Anglo-American tradition, and it often reflects the sexualized metaphors of war in the west, along with the usual host of racist caricatures. Because the bombing coincided with Ramadan, the linkage between Islam and Iraq was inevitable to the American flight crews responsible for mounting and fine tuning the various high and low tech weapons dropped on the Iraqis. The graffiti not mentioned in the news stories, and that which was missed by journalists, can no doubt bear witness to the complex array of images and slogans surrounding the ongoing war against the people of Iraq.

One need only look to earlier instances for verification. During ‘Desert Storm,’ the 1991 precursor to Desert Fox, reporters discovered the Anglo-American tradition of scribbling messages on bombs. Graffiti of that war ranged from adolescent silliness, such as ‘Hi Mom’ and ‘Say Cheese,’ to a range of witty puns like ‘Seasons Beatings,’ to virulently racist and sexist remarks like ‘Mrs. Saddam’s sex toy’ or ‘a suppository for Saddam.’ While British airmen are known to write messages like, ‘Dear Saddam, have a shitty day, love from the RAF,’ Americans tend to write more sexualized graffiti, with one reporter noting ‘the most identifiably American’ graffiti includes phrases like ‘bend over Saddam.’

Sometimes, US airmen write messages in their own blood. Since all of the weapons are blown to smithereens, and since the graffiti is in English, it seems obvious that the pearls of wrath and wisdom are intended for the artists themselves, almost like an inside joke, which is occasionally made public by news reports.

It is this self-telling aspect of missile graffiti that is most instructive with respect to the American military culture. To claim, as the Pentagon did in the most recent exposure of this long held tradition, that such incidents are ‘rare exceptions’ and ‘not reflective’ of US policy is facile and misleading. After all, the CIA is reported to have instructed George Bush to mispronounce Saddam Husain’s name with an emphasis that made it sound like ‘Sodom.’ More recently, some US policy officials, probably reflecting the same pubescent vitriol that inspired Bush, pronounced Saddam with a new emphasis, sounding like ‘Sa-damn.’ This is all for home consumption, keep in mind, as demonization is a necessary part of the US war effort on all fronts. To the extent that Islam is part of the enemy’s persona, it will turn up in propaganda and entertainment alike.

A few other examples from the broader cultural milieu will demonstrate. During Desert Storm, a number of major American newspapers ran a cartoon depicting several Muslims bowing in prayer, with an American missile pointed at their behinds. Such images give new meaning to juvenilia like ‘bend over Saddam.’ Throughout January and February 1991 bombing, the US media reported numerous examples of ‘patriotic graffiti’ at home, with graphic sexual profanities linked to Saddam, Iraq, or Islam emblazoned across T-shirts and imprinted on snowbanks and hillsides across America.

The shenanigans occurred side by side with an alarming upsurge of hate crimes against Muslims, including bomb threats to mosques, Islamic schools, and Muslim organizations. In the mind of America, there is little difference between Arabs and Muslims; all can quickly be transformed into ‘terrorists,’ ‘towelheads,’ and ‘sand-niggers,’ as needed.

Religious and ethnic racism were pervasive in the 1991 American adventure in Iraq. Throughout the ‘desert slaughter,’ one journalist reported that American GI’s had a grand old time as they joked and laughed it up about Iraqis ‘getting blown to bits in the dark.’ One gallant serviceman was recorded as saying to his buddy, upon return from a pre-dawn helicopter raid, ‘By God, I thought we had shot into a damn farm. It looked like somebody opened the sheep pen.’ Another American screamed ‘say hello to Allah’ as he pulverized an Iraqi military vehicle and its occupants. For those with the patience to sift through media reports, there are numerous occasions in which US militarymen can be found to sling racist epithets toward Arabs and Muslims, suggesting quite clearly that the practice is far from being a simple ‘rare exception.’ It borders on the norm.

American denigration of Muslims predates the war against Iraq. For instance, when the US was supporting Saddam against Iran, American soldiers were psyched up against a Persian Muslim enemy. In 1989, journalist Christopher Hitchens published excerpts from a songbook produced and distributed by the US Air Force’s 77th Tactical Fighter Squadron. One verse reads: ‘Phantom flyers in the sky, Persian-pukes prepare to die, Rolling in with snake and nape, Allah creates but we cremate.’

Other lyrics are too disgusting to mention, with verses about raping prostitutes and a host of other violent obscenities. Imagine the brave American servicemen singing such songs, ‘just for a few laughs,’ perhaps after loading up on burgers and booze at the end of a day’s killing. Sex and violence inform the American war effort in many ways, as evidenced by news reports from Desert Storm that American bomber crews watched porno movies before setting out on missions to carpet bomb the people of Baghdad. This links up the necessity to denigrate the enemy with the necessity to denigrate women, another long held American military tradition.

Degrading the enemy may possibly serve the purpose of easing the psychological trauma of killing masses of people. While some military men are no doubt racist sadists, others may need some priming. And this stop-gap measure is modeled by generals and other military commanders. One need only look at the sordid history of other American military adventures around the world.

General William Westmoreland described the people of Vietnam as ‘termites,’ and others spoke of ‘enemy-infested territory.’ American wars in East Asia produced many racist slurs, including ‘slope,’ ‘dink,’ ‘nip,’ and ‘gook.’ In the first and second world wars, Germans became ‘huns’ and ‘krauts.’ But one of the quintessential American images of the enemy, which has served in several wars, is that which was developed by white men who depopulated the Americas of their native inhabitants.

The tradition is so entrenched that an American military commander need only say, ‘we’ve entered Indian territory,’ and soldiers will immediately know they are in enemy territory. Of course, this links up with another long tradition, which includes the genocidal Spaniards who slew native peoples as ‘heathens,’ and whose Inquisition burned countless ‘infidels,’ ‘pagans,’ and ‘witches.’

But let us not stray too far from the topic: racist and degrading American graffiti against Muslims. A rare exception? Not reflective of American policy? There’s no doubt that Chad Rickenberg, who painted a Ramadan greeting on a bomb destined to destroy Iraqis, had heard stories of similar acts committed by his predecessors in 1991, when another generation painted its degrading graffiti on bombs also destined to kill Iraqis. The oral tradition in the military passes on its rites of passage, which become badges of honor and belonging.

But such attitudes and practices toward Muslims did not emerge with the recent aggressions against Iraq and Iran. The first American military adventure against the Muslim world was initiated by then president Thomas Jefferson in the early 19th century. Those valiant exploits led to the formation of the American Navy and Marines, and the creation of a racist and phantasmagoric folklore about Muslim ‘barbarians’ and their ‘harems,’ the former to be killed and the latter to be raped. After a bit more practice on Indians and Africans, American soldiers massacred ‘Moro’ Muslims in the Philippines, America’s ‘Indian territory’ of the 1890s. Today, a century later, America’s Indian territory is Iraq. And the legacy marches on.

Muslimedia: January 16-31, 1999

Article from

Crescent International Vol. 27, No. 22

Ramadan 28, 14191999-01-16

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