Why Can’t U.S. Soldiers Marry Iraqis?

The elusive rule against fraternizing with the locals.

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A U.S. soldier who was abducted in Baghdad had taken a secret Iraqi wife, his in-laws said on Sunday. A military spokeswoman quoted by the New York Times said soldiers aren’t allowed to marry local civilians under the military’s fraternization policies. Who sets these policies?

Local commanders. The Department of Defense doesn’t have any rules about whom American troops are allowed to marry. The policies on how to treat the locals are generally established by regional command centers and then refined by officers further down the chain of command. When American forces set up shop in a foreign country, the rules on behavior are laid out in a document called “General Order No. 1.” (Not to be confused with the one from Star Trek.) As the top commander at United States Central Command, Gen. John Abizaid’s “General Order No. 1” covers the basics. Then, each subordinate general comes up with his or her own version; these may be a bit more strict and specific.

Abizaid’s document prohibits alcohol, drugs, gambling, pornography, and private firearms. It also tells U.S. forces not to proselytize, adopt pets, enter mosques without permission, photograph detainees or dead bodies, or collect war souvenirs. There’s no mention of having sex with or marrying the locals.

The Explainer contacted Central Command, the Army, and the Defense Department without getting a consistent answer about where exactly one might find the official rule against marrying a local civilian. (One source at CENTCOM said that CENTCOM made the rule; another CENTCOM source said the opposite.) Everyone agrees that it is up to the unit commanders to interpret and enforce the policy. (Update, Nov. 1: Click here to see a PDF of the rules for the 101st Airborne Division, which prohibit “having an intimate or sexual relationship with foreign and local nationals.”) In 2003, a National Guardsman named Sean Blackwell fell in love with an Iraqi doctor, whom he’d met while guarding the Ministry of Health. (For their first date, he took her to one of Saddam’s palaces.) According to a member of his platoon, his immediate superiors were OK with the relationship, but the colonel in charge ordered him not to marry. He went ahead with the ceremony and was forced out of the military.

It’s become standard practice for the military to restrict contact with local civilians in areas of conflict. (Rules were particularly strict in the Balkans.) In general, soldiers are expected to avoid all interactions with the locals that aren’t part of their official business. For the most part, locals are kept off the bases and aren’t recruited even for menial labor. Policies are markedly different at peacetime garrisons. Troops in Germany and Korea, for example, often marry locals, and you’ll see non-American faces working on the bases.

Bonus Explainer: There is a rule against “fraternization” in the Manual for Courts-Martial, but it refers to inappropriate intimacy between officers and enlisted persons. (“Gambling with subordinate” is also against the rules.)

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Explainer thanks Gary Arasin of U.S. Central Command, Phillip Carter, Paul Reickhoff of the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, and Leonard Wong of the U.S. Army War College.