It was Royal Marines versus Iraqi civilians on the soccer field in Zubair south of Basra. The referee was a local community leader, and the crowd of onlookers included armed British riflemen who kept a nervous eye on the proceedings. The final score: 9 to 3 for the Iraqis.
The game, as described in today's London Evening Standard newspaper, was the latest example of a military legend being forged in southern Iraq with the help of the media and transmitted home: British soldiers as civic-minded peacekeepers, struggling to win the hearts and minds of Iraqi civilians and deliver the message that the United States and the United Kingdom have come to Iraq not as conquerors but as liberators.
It's a legend built on national pride and years of military training. But there's a flip side to the portrait: While British troops are seen as sensitive and concerned, their American counterparts are often depicted as inflexible and wary warriors who mistreat, humiliate and, even occasionally, slaughter civilians.
"A lot of this is stage-managed and done for public relations," said Ellie Goldsworthy, a former major in British military intelligence who now works for the Royal United Services Institute, a defense research organization. "But a lot of it is for real. British troops are trained to come across as very forthcoming, very friendly and open and ready to take risks in dealing with the civilian population."
"First, we have football matches, then we have tea parties, and then somehow our soldiers go out and meet the local ladies," said Philip Wilkinson, a retired British army colonel who teaches at the Center for Defense Studies at King's College. "It's amazing how quickly they do that. You can't go into a single military base back in Britain and not meet wives who have been brought back from the countries we've served in."
From the beginning of the war, British soldiers in Iraq have appeared more willing to run risks when it comes to civilians. The first British soldier to die from enemy fire, Sgt. Steven Roberts, 33, was shot last week after he stepped down from his armored vehicle in Zubair to tend to an agitated group of civilians.
Still, last Tuesday, Lt. Col. Mike Riddell-Webster of the Black Watch regiment traded his helmet for a tam-o'-shanter, ditched his sunglasses and took his men to patrol the streets of Zubair on foot. It was, reported the Daily Telegraph, "a quintessentially British moment."
"You can't win hearts and minds from the back of an armored vehicle," Goldsworthy said. "You've got to get down, take off your helmet and deal with people on their own level."
The British say the lessons they have learned come from hard experience during the waning days of the British Empire and in Northern Ireland. British forces used brutal tactics to suppress rebellions in Malaya and Kenya in the 1950s. Three decades ago, British troops mowed down 13 unarmed demonstrators in Londonderry on the day known as "Bloody Sunday."
British analysts contend U.S. forces have much to learn. Some British officers disparagingly refer to Americans as "Ninja Turtles" because they are covered in body armor, helmets and Ray-Bans. "There's a warrior-wimp syndrome in the U.S. Army," Wilkinson said. "The Americans treat civil affairs [relations with local civilians] as a specialization, and you have specialized civil affairs battalions to do the touchy-feely stuff. Your warriors stay as warriors and perceive themselves as warriors.
"We don't have those kind of resources. Every single soldier has to become an agent of the civil affairs program. . . . We teach our young officers and soldiers all of this touchy-feely stuff right from the beginning."
American troops have been carefully briefed on protecting Iraqi civilians, U.S. officials say. But often they have been surprised by the hostility they have encountered in southern Iraq. Last Saturday, a suicide bomber driving a taxi filled with explosives killed four soldiers of the 3rd Infantry Division at a checkpoint near the city of Najaf. The driver had slowed down and waved for help, according to one officer's account. When soldiers approached the car, it exploded.
Since then, U.S. troops have adopted a much more wary posture toward civilian vehicles. The British press gave heavy coverage to Washington Post reporter William Branigin's account of an incident Monday in which U.S. troops fired on a van full of Iraqi civilians at a checkpoint outside Najaf, killing 10.
British military experts contend both incidents would be less likely at a British checkpoint. Under their military procedure, checkpoints are manned by only one soldier, with others covering him at a distance, to limit the potential human toll from a car bomb. The British also say they signpost their checkpoints in Arabic and place physical barriers well ahead of the stopping point to slow vehicles before they are deemed a threat.
U.S. officials tend to treat the British viewpoint skeptically. "They like to think of themselves as Athens to our Rome," one official said. "The idea is that they bring quality and character to a rougher-hewn America. It's not quite a myth, more like an ideal."
But some American military leaders have acknowledged that in some areas the British have an edge. Gen. Richard B. Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told a BBC program last Sunday that British operations around Basra were "absolutely magnificent."
"I can assure you that U.S. forces have leaned heavily on our British counterparts, who have a lot of experience in this area," he said.
Britons who have served alongside American forces say U.S. troops tend to stay in fortified bases, surrounded by high walls of barbed wire, holding local populations at bay. "With the United States, force protection is all about body armor, helmets and moving at speed in closed armored vehicles," said Garth Whitty, a retired 25-year veteran officer who also works at the services institute. "With us, it's more about engaging with the local population to get them on-side and minimize hostility and casualties."
"I love Americans -- they're wonderful to work with," said Goldsworthy, who served alongside U.S. forces in Turkey and Bosnia. "But I'm afraid the American attitude of today is like the British attitude of 120 years ago during the Empire. We thought everyone wanted to be an Englishman and live an English life, celebrate the queen and have cream tea. Americans seem to believe that everyone is envious and wants to be part of America. It's as though they haven't learned the lessons we've learned in a very hard way."
Goldsworthy cites photographs showing American soldiers ordering Iraqi civilians to lie face down in the dirt while they are checked for weapons. "For Arabs, to be spread-eagled with your face in the dust is a hugely shameful thing," she said.
What the Iraqis want more than anything is respect, and to feel valued and feel treated as human beings," she said. "What our troops show is a willingness to be humble, to lose a football match 9 to 3. If the Americans had played, I'm afraid they would have wanted to win."