May 8, 2004
The Ugly American Surfaced in Iraq

by Donald G. Mashburn

In the radical Islam hotbed of the Middle East, the label, “Ugly American” has been heard less often than other choice names like, “The Great Satan,” and “Evil Empire.”

But the Ugly American tag has surfaced again because of the ugly – not to mention stupid –acts of a few American soldiers in Iraq at Abu Ghraid prison near Baghdad.

The world has seen photos of nude Iraqi prisoners, piled together, with U.S. soldiers aping for the cameras in a manner degrading to both prisoners and their American guards. Other photos showed hooded Iraqi prisoners, with wires attached, standing on pedestals, while reportedly being told that if they stepped off their perch they would be electrocuted.

Sensible Americans can’t imagine why any rational soldier would participate in such idiocy. Military “grunts” usually don’t see themselves as ambassadors of all that America stands for. But they should be smart enough to know that mistreating prisoners of war isn’t part of soldiering.

Further, it doesn’t take a basketful of brains to know that Americans are hated in the Arab world merely for being Americans. And they’re seen as evil representatives of an America hated by radical Islamists and other fanatical elements.

Following the Vietnam War, the term, “The Ugly American” was seen infrequently. And when it was used, it was used wrongly. The original Ugly American was a good guy, helping the local people in Sarkhan, a fictitious country in Southeast Asia.

The 1954 book, “The Ugly American,” authored by William J. Lederer and Eugene Burdick, related the failures of career American diplomats, and how the Communists consistently outmaneuvered them during crop failures, famines and typhoons.

Amid the bureaucratic bungling, Homer Atkins, an American engineer, helped the local people. The hardworking Atkins, had “fingernails black with grease,” and, “The palms of his hands were calloused.” Atkins had a homely, creased face, and the local people gave him an affectionate nickname that translated roughly to “the ugly American.”

The book’s title was deliberately ironic, since the “ugly” American was well liked, and effective in helping the locals. Over time, however, the label “ugly American” got switched to mean Americans guilty of haughty attitudes and poor judgment in foreign lands.

Now, after French and German wails in the United Nations about “bullying” and “arrogance” by the United States, we again hear about the “ugly American.” And, unfortunately, the real ugly American surfaced in Iraq in Abu Ghraid prison.

It’s hard to fix blame. The military hasn’t released the names and ranks of those charged. Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez has notified six commissioned and noncommissioned officers of his intent to give each of them a “a general memorandum of reprimand.” The document, the severest form of administrative rebuke, can essentially end an officer’s career.

And after a separate criminal probe, charges have been filed against six members of a military police unit. A U.S. military spokesman also announced that a third investigation could lead to additional criminal charges stemming from improper interrogations.

The day this was written, President George W. Bush told the Arab world on television that Americans are appalled by the accounts of abuse of Iraqi prisoners, and that “justice will be delivered.” The president’s message is getting a mixed reception in the Arab world.

But the president and the world should remember that good people have worn the tag, “Ugly American,” and that the original was one of the good guys. The world will be watching to see if justice really is “delivered.” And to see if America’s image can somehow be refurbished. We have to make the effort to restore the “ugly American” tag to its original meaning.

And show the world that the meaning is not represented by the dumb acts at Abu Ghraid prison, but by brave soldiers, including many Oklahomans, who sacrificed to purchase Iraq’s freedom and to end Saddam Hussein’s tyranny.