Update: Since the publication of this piece, the Saudi Training Mission has taken the “welcome booklet” off of its website.
Below is a statement from Navy Capt. Bill Urban, an official spokesperson for Central Command:
“CENTCOM is aware that a document with offensive language was on our official website. We regret that inappropriate material was posted to our website without a more fulsome review and apologize to anyone who took offense. We removed the document as soon as we were notified of the content, and it was returned to the originating office for revision. We have conducted an internal review of our posting processes, and are conducting a survey of previously posted material to ensure there is no further instances of inappropriate material on our website.”
The US military uses manuals and other documents to help troops quickly understand their new surroundings when they’re deployed to foreign countries. The problem is that some of them, including one published just last summer, contain pretty offensive, outdated language.
Take this line from a June 2018 welcome booklet for military personnel joining a US mission to train Saudi troops in the Kingdom.
“The population of [Saudi Arabia] is mainly composed of descendants of indigenous tribes that have inhabited the peninsula since prehistoric times with some later mixture of Negro blood from slaves imported from Africa,” the manual reads, in a section titled “People and Population.”
Yes, it actually says that: “Negro blood.”
It also contains these kinds of sweeping statements: “To speak of the Saudi Arab is to speak of his religion and culture for they are bound together inextricably.” Saudi Arabia is assuredly a majority Muslim country, but not everyone’s faith there permeates their daily life.
Comedian Hasan Minhaj mentioned the troubling document during a recent episode of his new Netflix show Patriot Act. Vox reached out to US Central Command, which oversees the training effort in Saudi Arabia, but it didn’t respond to repeated requests for comment.
In some instances, the welcome booklet contains useful information — like when explaining the split between Sunni and Shia Muslims in the Kingdom — but it clearly needs a rewrite.
It’s possible that the offensive language was included in the document’s earlier iterations and has unwittingly survived multiple updates since, in part because government officials typically don’t have (or don’t want to spend) the time to copy edit every single thing.
But that doesn’t excuse it. These are official US government documents. They’re issued to (and ideally read by) the more than 140 advisers in the mission.
And this isn’t an isolated incident — the military has used offensive language in its official texts for decades.
Offensive, racist language in US military documents is sadly a thing
Instructions for American Servicemen in Iraq during World War II is exactly what its title suggests: a booklet to help US Army troops stationed in Iraq during WWII navigate their new surroundings. It was a pocket manual that was issued to thousands of American servicemen in 1943.
And it contains some, uh, jarring passages. Here are just a few:
- “If you should see grown men walking hand in hand, ignore it. They are not ‘queer.’”
- “Keep away from mosques … If you try to enter one, you will be thrown out, probably with a severe beating.”
- “[D]o not touch or handle an Iraqi in any other way [than a handshake]. Do not wrestle with him in fun, and don’t slap him on the back. Any such contact is considered offensive to his idea of good manners. Above all never strike an Iraqi.”
- The document even uses an offensive term for Japanese people.
There are more instances, but you get the idea. The point is that there is a long history of the US using insensitive and racially charged language in military documents — and it seems that practice continues to this day.
Jennifer Williams contributed to this story.