Fact Check

Map Quest

Did Colin Powell made a clever quip about Americans' inability to find Iraq on a map?

Published Jan. 17, 2003


Claim:   Colin Powell made a clever quip to an Iraqi reporter about Americans' inability to find Iraq on a map.

Status:   False.

Example:   [Collected on the Internet, 2003]

The Secretary of State, the Honorable Colin Powell, during a recent trip to the UN in New York was approached by an Iraqi news reporter, who asked: "Is it true that only 13 percent of young Americans can even find Iraq on the map?"

The Secretary turned to the reporter with a smile and said: "Yes, that's true. But the sad news for Iraq is that the 13 percent are all United States Marines!"

Origins:   Some jokes just seem to be better or funnier or more effective if they're told as "true stories" (our humor section is chock full of examples of jokes that crossed the line into the realm of urban legendry when they were recast as "this actually happened" tales), and this item, apparently, is one of


General Colin Powell served with distinction in the U.S. Army for over thirty years, was Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff
(the principal military adviser to the President, Secretary of Defense, and the National Security Council) during the Gulf War, and currently holds the cabinet position of Secretary of State in the Bush administration. In his capacity as Secretary of State, of course, Colin Powell is directly involved in administering U.S. foreign policy and represents the United States in meetings with senior U.N. officials, so if someone wants to make a joke involving a U.S. military strike on Iraq, the Marines, and an Iraqi reporter at the United Nations seem like a true story, Colin Powell's mouth is the one to put the punchline into. And this is exactly what transpired, for despite the layering of realistic detail, this item is but a dressed-up joke, not something Colin Powell actually said.

In November 2002, National Geographic released the results of its 2002 Global Geographic Literacy Survey, during the course of which the magazine quizzed several hundred Americans between the ages of 18 and 34 and found that only 13% of them could correctly locate Iraq on a world map. The results of the survey were given prominent coverage in the U.S. news media that month, and cartoonist Garry Trudeau made reference to them in his long-running "Doonesbury" strip a few weeks later. A December 2002 "Doonesbury" story arc dealt with an American reporter's covering the efforts of U.N. weapons inspections in Iraq, and the final panel of the 12 December strip had an Iraqi official uttering the set-up line, and the American reporter delivering the zinger:


Since searches of major news databases turned up no reports of Powell's offering such a quote, and the item cited above didn't begin making the rounds of the Internet until after the appearance of the referenced "Doonesbury" strip, the evidence points to the comic strip's inspiring the quote/joke rather than the other way around.

Last updated:   25 September 2007