G.I.'s Have X-Ray Vision. Of Course.
By John Tierney
BAGHDAD, Iraq, Aug. 6 -- As an American soldier peered out of a passing tank, a young engineering student and a retired accountant contemplated one of the more common questions on the streets of Baghdad: Did the soldier's wraparound sunglasses give him X-ray vision?
"With those glasses, he can definitely see through women's clothes," said the engineering student, Samer Hamid. "It makes me angry. We are afraid to take our families out on the street."
The retired accountant, Hekmet Tinber Hassan, smiled and said it was a baseless rumor, just like the widespread story that Saddam Hussein had been secretly working for America and was now at a C.I.A. safe house. "I do not believe Saddam is in America," Mr. Hassan said. "I heard he went to Tel Aviv."
Just as truth is the first casualty of war, urban legends seem to be the first creation of a military occupation, especially when the cultural gap is as wide as it is here. After life under Mr. Hussein, people here are accustomed to conspiracy theories and ready to believe the worst about anyone in power.
Of course, Americans have been circulating their own kinds of legends, starting with the fantasies a few months ago that the occupying troops would be peacefully welcomed by a nation of grateful flower-waving citizens. But there have been more guns than flowers. In the urban legends flourishing here, the soldiers triumphed thanks to Mr. Hussein's treachery and to American technology. The legend about the X-ray sunglasses may have evolved from reports about the soldiers' night-vision goggles, or maybe just from the imposing Terminator image of the soldiers.
Compared with the residents, who cope with 120-degree heat by staying in the shade and dressing in light clothes and sandals, the soldiers have the look of robotic aliens as they patrol in the midday sun wearing combat boots, helmets and armored vests.
Some Iraqis say the soldiers take special pills that keep them cool, but the most common theory is that they have portable air-conditioners -- usually said to be inside the vests, but sometimes placed in the helmet or even the underwear.
"There is fluid circulating throughout the underwear," said Mr. Hamid, the engineering student. "I am not sure of the exact mechanism, but we all know the Americans have very sophisticated technology."
Aadel Delli, the owner of a food market in downtown Baghdad, said he did not believe the air-conditioned-uniform stories, which he attributed to popular doubts about Americans' capacity for discomfort. "Most Iraqis thought the American soldiers would be gone by now because they could never stand the summer in Iraq," he said.
Sweltering soldiers have tried dispelling the myths about their gear by letting Iraqis touch their vests and try on their sunglasses, but some legends will not die.
"I let a kid put on my sunglasses, and he was still convinced they had X-ray vision," said Sgt. Stephen Roach, a soldier from Lufkin, Tex. "He kept saying to me, `Turn it on, turn it on.' "
When they are not peering through women's clothes, the male soldiers are said to be groping underneath the clothes during searches at checkpoints, supposedly provoking some of the attacks on soldiers. (Never mind the absence of evidence for this theory.)
Other versions of the ugly-American stories have the soldiers drinking beer (or sometimes Kool-Aid laced with alcohol) inside their tanks near mosques. They have been accused in the Arab press of using pages from the Koran for toilet paper and of giving children candy packets containing pornography.
The rumors became so numerous that Al Sabah, a new daily paper run by Iraqis with financial backing from the Coalition Provisional Authority, the American-run administrative organization, printed a supplement debunking them. "It will take awhile for people to reject the conspiracy theories," said its editor, Ismael Zayer. "Under Saddam, people had to depend on rumor because they could not trust the media."
Some of the stories seem intended to encourage the fighters who have been attacking Americans. G.I.'s are said to be so demoralized that 30 percent of them have already abandoned their posts and paid $600 apiece to escape by an underground railroad to Turkey or Syria.
Others have supposedly converted to Islam and fled to marry women in Saudi Arabia. There are also rumors that Americans are hiding their casualties by dumping large numbers of soldiers' bodies each night into the Tigris River.
Frustration seems to feed many of the rumors. Why would the builders of smart bombs and X-ray sunglasses take longer to restore power than Mr. Hussein did after the 1991 Persian Gulf war? The Americans must be withholding electricity as revenge for the attacks on soldiers. People swear there have been Army vehicles driving around with signs announcing that power will be restored when the attacks stop.
For all the frustration, there remains some admiration for the occupiers, as seen in a popular fashion accessory on teenagers like Zahra Thaer, 13. She was walking down a sidewalk in Baghdad wearing a new pair of wraparound sunglasses.
"These are the latest style," she said, explaining that she had been lucky to get one of the last pairs left in the store.
Did she believe the soldiers' glasses gave them X-ray vision?
"I am not so sure about their sunglasses," she said. "But I know about the helmet. Inside each helmet is a map showing the soldier the location of every house in Iraq. My friends at school told me about it."