Old book has advice that is new again

Times Staff Writer

The book will never rival Harry Potter for sales, but in the rarefied world of university publishing a Chicago outfit has a somewhat unusual hit this season.

The University of Chicago Press, publisher of scholarly works since 1891, just filled a rush order for a third 5,000-copy printing of “Instructions for American Servicemen in Iraq During World War II.”

Previous printings sold out quickly, which publicity manager Levi Stahl attributes to a fortuitous meeting of past scholarship and present public interest.


The original pocket-sized volume was given by the Army to GIs sent to Iraq during World War II to help British forces thwart any German military drive toward the Persian Gulf. The reprint, priced at $10, is available on the Internet and at some bookstores, often placed near the checkout counter.

“It seems to have struck a chord with the public, which surprised all of us,” Stahl said. “It looks like and is priced like an impulse buy, so we’ve had good luck through all the usual channels.”

Although it contains language that today would be impermissible, such as slang references to the Japanese and homosexuals, much of the advice is the same given to modern Marines and soldiers sent to Iraq.

Don’t be boastful or arrogant when talking to Iraqis. Never stare at or try to talk to Iraqi women. Be prepared for a country that is blisteringly hot and dusty in the summer. Learn a few Arabic phrases. Remember that Arabs are some of the most relentless guerrilla fighters in the world. Use your best manners.

“American success or failure in Iraq may well depend on whether the Iraqis (as the people are called) like American soldiers or not,” the book says on its opening page. “It may not be quite that simple. But then again it could.”

The 44-page book is just as it was when given to the GIs with one exception: a foreword by Army Lt. Col. John A. Nagl, who served a year in Iraq after the April 2003 fall of Saddam Hussein. Nagl also wrote a foreword to one of the University of Chicago Press’ other bestsellers, the newly updated “U.S. Army/Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual.”

The idea of reprinting the book on Iraq came as a result of the success Britain’s Bodleian Library had with two other instructive volumes from World War II: the U.S. Army’s advice for troops going to Britain (“NEVER criticize the King or Queen”) and Australia (Aussie football “creates a desire on the part of the crowd to tear someone apart, usually the referee”). The University of Chicago Press handles U.S. marketing and sales for Bodleian.

The books involving troops bound for Britain and Australia are quaint, but “Instructions for American Servicemen in Iraq During World War II” includes several passages that are ominous in the context of the current war.

“The nomads are divided into tribes headed by sheiks,” the book says. “These leaders are very powerful and should be shown great consideration.”

Nagl writes in his foreword that if more attention had been paid to the sheiks after the toppling of Hussein, that “might have prevented the fervent insurgency from being raised to the fever pitch it has taken recently.”

Of the schisms in Iraqi society, which have contributed to much of the violence since the U.S.-led invasion, the book advises, “The Iraqis have some religious and tribal differences among themselves.”

It’s a sentence, Nagl concludes, that is best described as a “stunning understatement.”