The stunning memoir of “one of the few genuine heroes of America’s war in Iraq” (Dexter Filkins), a rare glimpse into the perspective of the Iraqi people, and a searching exploration of America’s moral obligations to those Iraqis who stepped forward to help.
In January 2005 Kirk Johnson, then twenty-four, arrived in Baghdad as USAID’s only Arabic-speaking American employee. Despite his opposition to the war, Johnson felt called to civic duty and wanted to help rebuild Iraq.
Appointed as USAID’s first reconstruction coordinator in Fallujah, he traversed the city’s IED-strewn streets, working alongside idealistic Iraqi translators—young men and women sick of Saddam, filled with Hollywood slang, and enchanted by the idea of a peaceful, democratic Iraq. It was not to be. As sectarian violence escalated, Iraqis employed by the US coalition found themselves subject to a campaign of kidnapping, torture, and assassination.
On his first brief vacation, Johnson, swept into what doctors later described as a “fugue state,” crawled onto the ledge outside his hotel window and plunged off. He would spend the next year in an abyss of depression, surgery, and PTSD—crushed by having failed in Iraq.
One day, Johnson received an email from an Iraqi friend, Yaghdan: People are trying to kill me and I need your help. After being identified by a militiaman, Yaghdan had emerged from his house to find the severed head of a dog and a death threat. That email launched Johnson’s now seven-year mission to get help from the US government for Yaghdan and thousands of abandoned Iraqis like him. The List Project has helped more than 1,500 Iraqis find refuge in America. To Be a Friend Is Fatal is Kirk W. Johnson’s unforgettable portrait of the human rubble of war and his efforts to redeem a shameful chapter of American history.
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About the Author
Kirk W. Johnson has become the leading public voice on the plight of America’s Iraqi allies. A graduate of the University of Chicago, Fulbright Scholar, and recipient of fellowships from the American Academy in Berlin and Yaddo, his writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post Magazine, Los Angeles Times, and Foreign Policy. Founder of the List Project, Johnson lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.
Read an Excerpt
To Be a Friend Is Fatal
December 29, 2005
Two fingers pressed firmly against my forehead. The hand they belonged to wore a pale blue surgical glove the color of oceans on maps, except for the spatter of wine-dark blood. I was lying on a table, writhing but unable to free myself. Other blue gloves pressed against my chest, waist, legs, ankles, arms. My eyes stung. I thrashed again and freed one arm. I heard shouting. More hands appeared, forcing down my bucking knees.
“Motherfucker, how much longer?!”
A needle entered my blurred frame of vision and burrowed itself into a laceration running between my eyes. My forehead numbed for a moment before the anesthetic seeped back out with the blood, useless.
“Viente por ciento!” Loudly. Slowly.
My face was splayed open, and my lunatic flesh needed tying down. A gash ran from my right eyebrow into my left eyebrow and stopped above the eyelid. A piece of my nose was missing from its bridge, leaving behind a divot. My front teeth, dangling from a shattered jaw, had trifurcated my upper lip. Drained of blood, it looked like a worm baking on the sidewalk. My chin appeared as though it were falling off.
My brain was a captured wasp, thudding furiously against the glass walls of a jar, striking everywhere and nowhere. A suturing needle punctured through the cliff of flesh along my brow, ran a thread across the seeping ravine, before reversing course and knotting off where it started. A millimeter to the right, and repeat. After each suture, the surgeon pressed his thumb against the slowly forming rail of stitches, nudging the tracks in line, refashioning the putty of my face.
They ignored my English cries for painkillers, so I pleaded in Arabic, “Dawa, biddy dawa!”
Disconnected thoughts erupted with maniacal force: Twenty percent . . . teeth missing . . . Sheikh Kamal . . . blue gloves . . . beach . . . Fallujah . . . Mom . . . jaw . . . painkillers . . . Who are these people? . . . twenty percent.
Adrenaline coursed through each limb and muscle until my mind, exhausted, finally relaxed. My legs followed; the flailing subsided. I no longer felt the slow-moving needle, my broken wrists, my crushed nose, my jaw, my bleeding toes. The lava stilled and cooled.
The rubbery hands eased cautiously from my body. The room went quiet, save for an occasional instruction to an attending nurse and the sound of suturing needles clanking upon a steel tray.
Ninety minutes later, my face was stitched shut.
I was wheeled down the hallway on a gurney, bright ceiling lamps sweeping swiftly into my field of vision like rising and setting suns, one after another, lingering eclipse-like when I closed my eyes. The din of the waiting room hushed as orderlies pushed me through. In the operating room, the next team of doctors and assistants was preparing its tools. My jaw would need wiring, my arms would need fiberglass, my face would need masking. At last, they dosed me with general anesthesia, and I fell into a deep sleep.
October 13, 2006
The war was in its fourth autumn when Yaghdan’s future was swallowed up.
Late on a Friday afternoon, Yaghdan checked the clock on his computer screen and sighed. A few cubicles away, an American grazed on a microwaved bag of popcorn, and the scent of butter and salt tugged at Yaghdan’s hunger. The Muslim holy month of Ramadan was in its final week, and the required fast, made brutal by the long hours and his proximity to nonfasting Americans, was almost over. Yaghdan consoled himself with the thought that his wife, Haifa, was at that moment preparing an iftar feast far more sumptuous than American junk food.
The walkie-talkie on his desk squelched, and a young male American voice warbled through the handset, “Dispatch, we need a pickup from the white house, please!”
A few seconds passed, and an Iraqi driver in the motor pool replied flatly, “Okay, ten minutes.” The driver had probably only just returned from dropping off the American, Yaghdan thought. “White house” was their radio code word for the liquor store in the Green Zone. Through the thin blue walls of his cubicle in the massive bomb- and mortar-proof office building of the US Agency for International Development, Yaghdan sometimes overheard stories about the Americans’ parties. He had seen bottles strewn in the yards of the mortar-proof houses in the compound and recognized how a hangover sat on a face. He had no chance of seeing a party for himself, since Iraqis working for USAID were not allowed to stay overnight in the Green Zone.
At five o’clock, Yaghdan powered down his computer. He nodded at the Nepalese security guards as he exited through the building’s doors, reinforced to repel bullets and improvised explosive devices, or IEDs. He climbed into the Chevy Suburban idling out front, alongside other Iraqis who worked for the agency. The van snaked past demolished palaces and the sixteen-foot blast walls of the secretive compounds clotting the Green Zone. Yaghdan’s colleagues quietly removed their USAID badges and stuffed them into socks, brassieres, hidden pockets. His went into his shoe.
This daily ritual made Yaghdan nervous, but nervousness had become a function as natural as breathing or eating. It had a use, keeping them vigilant. The women wrapped hijabs around their hair and donned sunglasses. The men removed their ties and donned shemaghs.
The Suburban pulled up to the checkpoint known as the Assassins’ Gate and emptied its passengers. They stood on the edge of the Green Zone. Yaghdan smiled at a listless marine manning the US side of the checkpoint as he walked toward what Americans called the Red Zone, his country. The marine nodded slightly, his face expressionless.
Yaghdan’s gait was unsteady. Shortly after the fall of Baghdad, a 7.62 millimeter Kalashnikov round tore through his left leg, but that story belonged to a more hopeful era of his life that he didn’t like to think about anymore. He had spent six feverish months on his back, while tens of thousands of soldiers, marines, aid workers, diplomats, mercenaries, and contractors poured into his country and snarled barbed wire atop blast walls. When he could walk again, he took a job with the Americans to help rebuild Iraq.
As he filed around the chicanes rimmed with menacing spindles of concertina wire, Yaghdan’s pace quickened. From this point forward, the Iraqi employees of America did not speak to one another. The 14th of July Bridge connected the Green and Red Zones, and the Iraqis trained their eyes on the ground as they crossed.
Yaghdan felt the USAID badge shift uncomfortably under his sock. He saw a handful of men gathered on the other side of the bridge, and lowered his head. These were called alassas, slang deriving from the Arabic verb “to chew”: militiamen who hunted Iraqis like him by studying the faces of those who emerged from the gates of the Green Zone.
For three years, Yaghdan had avoided the chewers by varying the entry and exit points he used to enter the Green Zone each day, never falling into a pattern. Most days, he switched taxis more than once, wore disguises, and was never dropped off directly in front of his home.
This day, exhausted and hungry, he slipped up.
As he crossed the bridge, he heard a hoarse voice call out his name. “Yaghdan!” Before he could suppress the instinct, he looked up, and in that split second confirmed his identity. Realizing his mistake, he tried to avoid eye contact, but not before his eyes fell upon the familiar face of a neighbor from Street Number 2.
His eyes locked with the menacing glower of his neighbor, and the adrenaline felt cold as it drained into Yaghdan’s gut. In any other country, in any other neighborhood, in any other decade, this would have been an unimportant event. He would have smiled and waved, said hello, shared a smoke, asked about work.
But here, just after five o’clock on the twenty-first day of Ramadan in October 2006—1426 hijri on the Islamic calendar—the alassa opened his jaws wide and chewed him up.
Yaghdan woke early the next morning to the frantic drone of flies; the sound of a feeding frenzy. He opened his front door slowly. At his feet he found a sheet of paper, the kind used in the school workbooks that had been supplied through one of his education initiatives at USAID. He crouched down and picked up the note. Written in blue ink, just below the Date and Subject lines, he read:
“We will cut off your heads, and throw them in the trash . . .”
The buzzing of the flies seemed incomprehensibly loud. He looked up from the letter and settled his gaze on the delicate eye of a small dog. A fly was buzzing around its clouded cornea. Past the upturned ear, he saw the thick cake of blood around the creature’s severed neck.
He walked back inside and set the letter on the table. Haifa was still sleeping. He called to wake her and sat down before the letter. She came in with a groggy smile, read the concern on his face, and then saw the letter. She started to cry. He told her not to open the door for anyone, not to call anyone, not to walk by the windows even once. He wrapped his arms around her, but there was no more comfort to be found in this home.
Yaghdan took the letter and slipped out the front door. The air was foul from the scent of rotting flesh. He picked up the severed dog’s head and dropped it in a pale green trash can in the corner of the courtyard.
He made his way back to the Green Zone. He would ask his American bosses for help. Surely after three years of distinguished service with the US government, they would do something.
Weeks later, in the Al-Mahata neighborhood of Sharjah in the United Arab Emirates, Yaghdan slinked into an Internet café crowded with other Iraqi refugees and drafted a desperate email to me.
Table of Contents
Part 1 7
1 Jesus and Basketball 9
2 Yaghdan 23
3 Incoming 35
4 USGspeak 45
5 Raise High the Blast Walls 55
6 Fallujah 71
7 Fugue State 95
8 Human Rubble 105
Part 2 111
9 The Insurgent of West Chicago 113
10 Homeboy 133
11 The Dog's Head 153
Part 3 163
12 Wake Up 165
13 Bureaucrats 177
14 Journalists 189
15 The List Project 197
16 Pod 23 207
17 Waiting 223
18 Politicians 231
19 George W. Bush 243
20 Barack H. Obama 249
21 Past Is Prologue 263
22 Game Over 275
23 Subjective Fear 283
Authors Note 309
Glossary of USGspeak 315
Further Reading 317
To Help the List Project 321
Reading Group Guide
This reading group guide for To Be a Friend Is Fatal features discussion questions that are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. In To Be a Friend Is Fatal, Kirk W. Johnson recounts the stories of numerous Iraqis who stepped forward to assist the United States during the course of the Iraq War. Did any particular story stand out to you?
2. In chapter 2, we are introduced to Yaghdan, on the eve of the war. Were you surprised by any aspects of Iraq's pre-2003 history? How do you think Yaghdan's life experiences affected his decision to help the Americans?
3. Kirk describes how his impressions of life in the Green Zone changed his perspective on the US government's efforts in Iraq. What did he find there, and what did it compel him to do?
4. In "USG speak," Kirk describes the orientation given to newly arrived American USAID staffers. What lessons can we draw from the way in which the agency's Iraqi employees were discussed?
5. There wasn't always a stigma in Iraq surrounding the Iraqis who worked for the Americans. What caused the Iraqi public's opinions to harden against those who assisted the US?
6. What does the story of MOAG, the Mother of All Generators, reveal about how the Americans tried to rebuild Iraq?
7. What stands out the most from Kirk's description of Fallujah?
8. After Kirk's accident in the Dominican Republic he faces months of recovery, but he harbors a wish to return to Fallujah as quickly as possible. Why do you think he wanted to go back?
9. In "The Insurgent of West Chicago," Kirk struggles to make sense of what America has done in Iraq. Imagine another country invaded the United States and occupied your hometown, all while informing you that they were there to help you. How do you think you would react?
10. Kirk describes his struggle with posttraumatic stress and depression following the accident. Do you know anyone who has experienced PTSD? Do you think his condition influenced his reaction to the desperate emails he received from Iraqi colleagues?
11. What do you remember most about Zina from her story in "Pod 23"? Why do you think she was motivated to work for the Americans? Why couldn't she and her family just stay inside Iraq or in a neighboring country?
12. Why do you think the United States was so reluctant to grant visas to its former Iraqi employees? Do you think the circumstances in Afghanistan are any different?
13. What do you think of the people who work in the refugee resettlement bureaucracy in the Departments of State and Homeland Security? Does their slow process—which may take years to dear a single case—represent a moral failing?
14. What are the historical analogues that Kirk brings up in "Past Is Prologue"? Can you think of any other historical situations that relate to these issues? Who said "To be an enemy of the United States is dangerous, but to be a friend is fatal"? To what group of people was he referring?
15. Why do you think our allies in Iraq and Afghanistan—the United Kingdom, Denmark, Poland, Australia, and Germany—were able to put their Iraqi and Afghan employees on military flights and rescue them with relative ease? Why do you think America responded to the same issue so differently?
16. What is Blackstone's Formulation, and how does it apply to the moral dilemma posed by helping Iraqis who worked for America?
17. Each year, tens of thousands of Americans die on the highways. Tens of thousands die in gun violence. Yet according to National Counterterrorism Center statistics, Americans are more likely to be crushed to death by their own furniture than to be killed in a terrorist act. Why do you think Americans respond so differently to the threat of terrorism than to other types of risk?
18. Do you think To Be a Friend Is Fatal is a story about success or failure? If you were Kirk, how would you know when "enough is enough" and it is time to move on to another focus in life?
19. Do you think that the United States has learned anything from Iraq, or from the fate of the Iraqis who worked alongside it? Do you think America will act differently in future wars?
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
This is one of those times when I want to be bossy and DEMAND everyone read this book. It is that good and one that needs to be read. My grammar school classmate wrote To Be A Friend Is Fatal about his time in Iraq and the birth of the nonprofit The List Project to Resettle Iraqi Allies. The way the US treated the Iraqis who helped us is shameful. Future generations will judge our government, the way we judge those who did not act during WWII and the Holocaust and those who left Vietnamese allies behind after the US pulled out of that war. I commend Kirk for his tireless efforts. Truly an eye-opening and insightful read.
Rose latched the gate behind her and went inside. As she walked, a thick envelope signed to her fell to the ground. She picked it up. The envelope was adressed to her, so she opened it. Blah de blady blah. And they all lived happily. Except for Elisha, who got turned into a frog. THE END! :)