Beware of Laughing At The Man Wearing New Balance Sneakers

One of the more bizarre events at the rim of the battle for Iraq happened some two weeks ago when U.S. Army Maj. General Rick Lynch tried to ridicule Jordanian born terrorist Musab al-Zarqawi.

In what was labelled “psychological warfare,” the general showed journalists a captured Zarqawi video clip. The top al-Qaeda man in Iraq looked quite healthy and even happy as he was taped in broad daylight surrounded by some of his men. General Lynch made every effort to draw the attention of the journalists to nothing else but Zarqawi’s footwear. The terrorist, dressed in black, was shown wearing New Balance sports shoes. This, according to the U.S. general, should signal there is basically no reason to be afraid of a so-called master terrorist, one who wears sports shoes…

Apparently the general believes U.S. macho symbolism a la Hollywood should apply to the rest of the world as well. In the video Zarqawi is shown for a few seconds having difficulties handling a light machine gun. Based on the same norm General Lynch mockingly added insult to injury by showing one of Zarqawi’s lieutenants attempting to assist the master by momentarily supporting the hot barrel, but immediately shrinking back as he apparently burnt his fingers. These images were the basis for an unfounded evaluation of Zarqawi, and therefore the whole Iraqi insurgency, is nearing the end implying that the mighty terrorist is not exactly comparable to John Wayne storming the shores of Ivo Jima or Clint Eastwood pointing his Magnum handgun, challenging the spooked criminal by saying: “Make my day!”

Psychological warfare is undoubtedly an integral part of every campaign. It was used throughout history to deceive the enemy or by a ruthless government deceiving its own people. However, those who led psychological warfare campaigns as a rule were well informed about the enemy, in many cases having the ability to think and even react as their rival. Throughout U.S. history psychological warfare played an important role in wars, from the War of Independence onwards. But it was never used in such an irresponsible manner as was recently demonstrated by General Lynch.

All those who follow the campaign in Iraq know the U.S. military does not have a clue about their enemy and for that matter very little about their Iraqi friends as well. They fail to understand that an American yardstick can measure only those who act according to the American culture, norms and way of life. Does the American general really know all the ins and outs of the Iraqi insurgency and what it is all about? Is it an internal Iraqi power struggle? Is it militant Islam versus secular forces? What are the religious nuances of the insurgency? Is it a campaign to dominate the oil industry or perhaps more an expression of anger against the foreign “liberator?”

There is no doubt the Pentagon, the Department of State and the Oval Office, were and actually still are, being misled by people who they trust and claim to know well, often characterized as “our friends and allies.”

Another problem American generals have to face, on the other side of the psychological warfare coin and beyond them being ill informed, is their Pentagon dictated military straight jacket to be “politically correct” at all costs. The U.S. military demonstrated weakness through a knee jerk reaction when it was discovered prisoners at Abu Ghraib were being abused and its apologetic reaction was blown way out of proportion. No decent person can condone a woman soldier humiliating a prisoner by insultingly pointing at his genitals but by kowtowing in remorse the Army sent a message of powerlessness to the enemy.

This alone illustrates the almost unattainable task U.S. troops are asked to fulfill in a cultural environment alien to their basic military training. Vague or opposing rules and regulations of dehumanizing the enemy on the one hand and the need to be “politically correct” and moralistic on the other are bound to create confusion and some sort of cognitive dissonance on the other.

When General Lynch belittled Zarqawi by ridiculing his shoes and “black uniform” he also opened the door for his GIs to degrade and disrespect the enemy. This can be a grave mistake as one is reminded of some Asian people wearing black pyjamas and rubber sandals who kicked the American military out of Vietnam.

See the Zarqawi Video

Yoram East
Yoram East is a retired Israeli colonel born in Jerusalem, who writes about foreign policy and goings-on in the Middle East. Sadly, Yoram passed away in October 2010.