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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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