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Posted by on Sep 29, 2006 in At TMV | 9 comments

Survival Lies in Iraq

In a groundbreaking book on the guerrilla war in Missouri during the American Civil War, Michael Fellman identified the practice of neutral civilians telling different stories to different sides in guerrilla war as “survival lies.” Rural Missourians living amidst the daily conflict between pro-Confederate guerrillas or “bushwhackers” and pro-Union militiamen learned to tell compelling stories when each side inevitably paid a visit to the family farm. It went like this:

James Moore is a neutral farmer in Lafayette County, Missouri. Members of the Poindexter guerrilla gang would come knocking on Moore’s house and demand some food and a place to spend the night. Moore would say that he didn’t want nothing to do with the fight so could the gangsters leave him alone? The guerrillas said “no way”, pulled out a pistol, and said, “let us stay here and you feed us.” Under duress, Moore did as he was told. On the edge of the farm was Enrolled Missouri Militiaman Sgt. Frederick Weiser, a Unionist keeping an eye out for harborers of Confederates. Weiser knocks on Moore’s door the next day and says, “Jimmy, I saw you had Poindexter’s boys over. Must’ve had a fine feast, huh? How’s about you come with me and pay the price for treason with a drum martial.” Moore responds, terrified, “I was forced to. You can see I’m a Union man. I’ve got a Union coat from when I served in the 34th Union cavalry down in Tennessee (while holding a standard blue coat unrelated to the military). I even got shot at by Forrest’s rebels and have scars to prove it (showing a scar from a farming incident before the war). Weiser relents. “Alright, Jimmy. But if I see you harboring bushwhackers again, you’re not gonna survive the night.”

While all this is going on, one of Poindexter’s men is watching the whole scene. He comes by the next evening at supper, “Jimmy, did you rat us out to the Yankees?”
“No way, he threatened to kill me if I harbored guerrillas.”
“So you ratted us out then?”
“No, I didn’t say nothin’. I just said I stayed out of the fight.” “But they don’t let you off unless you got proof you a Yankee lover.” “I just showed him some old blue coat and said I got it in the Army.” “Army issue? You really are a Yankee, huh?”
“No I ain’t!”
“Lemme see the coat.”
Hands trembling, Jimmy handed over the coat.
“Don’t look like Uncle Sam to me. You best not say a thing to the Yankees or you’ll end up dead.”
“Yes, sir.”

This entire episode is fictional, of course, but incidents like it happened every day across central Missouri during the guerrilla war.


The same sort of “survival lie” is playing out in today’s Iraq. A horrifying story in today’s Washington Post reveals the old Missouri-style survival lie updated with modern technology. Sunnis must carry pictures of the Shi’ite leader Sadr, or Imam Ali, and have Shi’ite chants in their cell phone ringtones in order to ward off Shi’ite death squads at checkpoints. Aware of this subterfuge, Shi’ites press on, asking disguised Sunnis details about Shi’ite traditions and prayers. There’s even a website to practice this deception. Failure to play the game results in death. One man with a Sadr picture on his dash lost his cousin who, while sitting in the passenger seat, had suspiciously long hair and a white hat that gave away his Sunni identity. The cousin was taken from the car and found dead a few days later with 45 power drill holes in him. Absolutely shocking and horrifying torture – only because his cousin couldn’t produce a survival lie in time.

This is what post-Saddam Iraq has become. It isn’t merely a war between Shi’ite death squads, government forces panicked and infiltrated by militias, Americans with heavy air power, and Sunni insurgents and terrorists. It’s much more sinister; a war by each and every one of these forces, with their own logic, against the terrified Iraqi mass populace. There is simply no way out except to leave Iraq outright. Survival is the hardest task.

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Copyright 2006 The Moderate Voice
  • There is simply no way out except to leave Iraq outright.

    Once upon a time…

  • Scott_api

    Maybe Trent Lott needs to read this. He was saying he couldn’t tell them apart….

  • jjc

    Darleen, do you think we should have “stayed the course” in Viet Nam?

  • Elrod

    Darleen,
    I was referring to Iraqi civilians, not US soldiers.

  • Eural

    Elrod, I’d like to share this article with my senior class – we do a whole unit on the course and conduct of war in the 20th century and it would fit perfectly with the material on guerilla warfare. If you don’t want me to just say so. Thanks!

  • C Stanley

    A very similar tragedy of guerrilla warfare took place during the civil war in Guatemala during the 90’s. Both the guerrilla forces and the govt. forces were not only demanding allegiance as in survival lies, but also practicing forced conscription- kidnapping boys and men to fight against their will. When I travelled to Guatemala in 2001, I saw how deeply the country was scarred from those wars; it was apparent that almost every family and individual had been impacted. Many people told stories of their own families or others in their villages, who had sent away all of their sons to refugee camps in Mexico (and when those camps were overflowing, many of the refugees travelled on foot to the US).

  • Elrod

    Eural,
    Go right ahead! I use this in my own course comparative guerrilla war. This notion of “survival lies” shows up just about everywhere.

  • Pyst

    Damn interesting way to look at the situation for civilians in Iraq. Alotta similarities in the two, exellent post Elrod.

  • Isidora

    It’s awfully cool to have a Ph.D. in American History co-blogging here. What exactly is your sub-specialty(ies)?

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