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Tuesday, February 22, 2005

Smart Cards for Troops in Iraq

This is an excerpt from Tom Engelhardt's recent LRC column...

Last November, the Marines issued a newly updated Iraq Culture Smart Card, but an earlier version, from February 2004 (pdf file), is more reliable for viewing purposes as well as indicative of the thrust of the American effort in that country. In addition to its simple cartoons of "insurgent tactics" (e.g. hiding a stick of dynamite under a dead goat), the Smart Card has a number of panels devoted to essential language skills. While its unclear exactly how the card is meant to be folded, it appears that the first language panel a Marine would read (devoted to "Command and Control") contains not translations for "hello" or "thank you," but far more useful greetings like "hands up," "no talking," "do not resist," "lie on your stomach," and "do not move." Only many panels later do we get to "hello" along with other "Helpful Words/Phrases." Actually, another word shares the same line with "hello" – "weapon," of course. With sixteen full pages, the mix-and-match possibilities ("Lie on your stomach. Hello!") are plentiful.

The cards have a cautionary aspect as well, painting the Iraqi people as uniformly dishonest. If you ask a direct question, an Iraqi's first answer is likely to be "the answer they think you want to hear, rather than an honest response." Of course, that's what you're likely to get once you ask anyone, no matter how nicely, to get down on their stomach and cut down on the idle chatter. But the panels do note that pointing with fingers and the thumbs-up sign are considered offensive in Iraq, where customs are surely strange indeed. Too bad the Army folks at Abu Ghraib never got these cards. Then again, the cards say nothing about torture being taboo. But then again, you can't squeeze everything on a card, even though the Marines did manage to condense Iraq's history, from the 18th century B.C. until today, into one lone panel.

1 comment:

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