Best Defense

Book excerpt: A Marine officer looks back on his time advising an Iraqi battalion

The United States has made a habit of trying to remake the Muslim world.


You understand another culture only after you live in it. You also understand your own culture only after you live in another. It’s only by learning about another culture that you even grasp what culture is: that sum of thinking and living and believing that evolves in a place over generations. It pervades all. It preempts all. It can’t be remade by bullets, barter, or bribes.

The United States has made a habit of trying to remake the Muslim world. It’s been one of our primary compulsions so far this century. We’re terrible at it, but we keep trying anyway.

We do so because that’s a trait of our own culture. We think we know what the world wants. We’re certain that the rest of the world will adopt our traditions if given a chance. That assumption is beyond question for most of us, regardless of where we fall on the political spectrum. How could anyone not want freedom for individuals? How could anyone not want prosperity for their nation? Such desires are universal, right? It’s astounding the assumptions we’ll make and the actions we’ll take in the name of sharing our American bounty, whether it comes in the form of inclusive democracy or unfettered markets. Sometimes our actions are effective, and sometimes they’re not. (In the Middle East, they never are.) Regardless, we share our beliefs like missionaries. Like no other country does, anywhere. Coming from our American culture, we did not have it within us to recognize that maybe our assumptions about what Iraq wanted were really just assumptions about what we wanted for Iraq and the wider Middle East.

We overthrew Iraq, and we assumed it would rise again in our image, a beacon of fair elections and minority rights and rules-­based commerce in the center of the Middle East. Amazingly, there were people in the White House who thought this would occur. They even thought our way of thinking and living would spread out of Iraq, transforming the entire Middle East.

Instead, a fractured, multifaceted Middle Eastern war broke out. The American task then became to reestablish the stability it had destroyed and hope that Iraq would hold together long enough to morph into some sort of Middle Eastern America. For the advisers on the ground, that meant giving the Iraqis an entirely new set of priorities and aspirations to live by. Our job even required us to try to make them willing to die for those new ideas. As if they did not already have notions in place that they were living for — concepts about religion and tribe, yes, but also traditions we Americans didn’t even know existed, like wasta and baksheesh and a thousand others.

And why did we think we could magically supplant those ancient ideas? Why did we think they would drop everything they knew and adopt new modes of thinking? Simple: because we didn’t understand that they already had ideas of their own. In our haste to get them on board with our culture, we never bothered to learn anything about theirs.

Excerpted, with permission, from The Ragged Edge: A U.S. Marine’s Account of Leading the Iraqi Army Fifth Battalion, by Michael Zacchea and Ted Kemp with permission from Chicago Review Press. (c) Copyright 2017. All Rights Reserved.

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Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at

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