Working Camels in Peacetime Photo by Sergey Pesterev on Unsplash

Racist Caricatures in War and Peace

Steve Russell

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I hosted a family gathering for lunch today in honor of a birthday. My son Paul is 44 years old, 100 per cent disabled and chucked out of the military on a medical discharge after two tours in Iraq. I say “the military” because he got around. He would say, “Once a Marine, always a Marine.” He served in the Marine Corps, the Air Force Reserve, and the Army, from which he is retired.

He showed up wearing a t-shirt with a graphic of a sniper behind the lettering:

“72 Virgin Dating Service.”

The shirt reminded me of one I saw in Nashville when I was in Tennessee to visit Paul when he was assigned to the Screamin’ Eagles AKA 101st Airborne. Across the top was a stereotypical Arab going full tilt boogie on a camel and waving a scimitar, captioned “Holy War!”

Under that was the same Arab on the same camel headed in the opposite direction with a jet fighter wearing U.S. markings in hot pursuit. That drawing was captioned, “Holy Shit!”

GIs do that kind of thing, and ridicule of the enemy is a custom probably older than the United States. You know, the country that fought a revolution against the lobsterbacks?

I always thought the point of the ridicule was to take the edge off killing people. It’s hard to do, you know? Few soldiers fire their weapons in combat and even fewer aim.

When wars were between nations — entire nations — derogatory terms for the enemy were easy to come by. If you fought Germany, you were fighting krauts. If you fought France, you were fighting frogs. Enemy Italians were wops.

These customs softened a bit during the Cold War, which was fought entirely through proxies. Proxy wars complicated racist labels. Korea and Vietnam were divided between “our gooks” and “their gooks.”

There is an apocryphal story about the British slang for a nonwhite person, wog, that is similar. It is told that the Brits were fighting alongside the Gurkhas, a Nepalese people known for fierceness in battle and loyalty to Great Britain. The claim is that the Gurkhas took exception to being called “wogs,” leading a British general to explain that wog is an…

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Steve Russell

Enrolled Cherokee, 9th grade dropout, retired judge, associate professor emeritus, and (so far) cancer survivor. Memoir: Lighting the Fire (Miniver Press 2020)