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Book Review

‘To Be a Friend Is Fatal’ by Kirk W. Johnson

Kirk W. Johnson’s List Project has helped rescue 1,500 Iraqis who feared for their lives in their homeland. Annett Hornischer

Whatever your position on the justifiability of the Iraq War, there is no denying that the United States bungled the running of the country following its ousting of Saddam Hussein. In the devastating “To Be a Friend Is Fatal: The Fight to Save the Iraqis America Left Behind,” Kirk W. Johnson focuses on another foul-up: the abandonment of Iraqis who worked — often as interpreters — with the US Army and its affiliates.

As violence rose in Iraq during US occupation, insurgents began targeting Iraqis who aided Americans for assassination. These Iraqis then turned to America for help in escaping their riven homeland. What they got from the Byzantine and disobliging State Department was “a mindless and insatiable demand for more information” in the form of documents of every conceivable kind, even as they spent days and nights dodging potential killers.


Part memoir, part impassioned plea, Johnson’s book traces his experiences in Iraq, his personal breakdown, and his struggle to rescue the legions of young, idealistic Iraqis left behind by US administrations plagued by post-9/11 paranoia and gridlock. Because militants continue to kill such people despite the US withdrawal, it is difficult to imagine a book more urgent than this.

A native of west Chicago who now lives in Somerville, Johnson, who has a degree in Near- Eastern studies and is fluent in Arabic, had “felt that despite the unjust rationale for the war, it was unethical to ignore the just and critical efforts to rebuild the country.” So the then-24-year-old spent 2005 in Iraq working for the US Agency for International Development. After months amid unrelenting tension and violence, Johnson, suffering from a form of post-traumatic stress disorder, sleepwalked out an open hotel window while on leave in the Dominican Republic. He returned to the United States to mend body and spirit.


In late 2006, a couple of chance e-mails alerted him to the plight of Yaghdan, a former colleague in Baghdad who feared for his life. After Johnson wrote an op-ed for the Los Angeles Times about his former co-worker, Iraqis in similar straits inundated him with e-mails.

With help from the Tides Foundation, an anonymous donor, and legal firms, Johnson established the List Project in 2007 to enable the immigration of Iraqis whose lives are imperiled by their having worked with Americans. As of this book’s writing, Johnson’s program has helped rescue 1,500 Iraqis.

Many more could have come, as legislation spearheaded by the late Senator Ted Kennedy created 25,000 visas for US-affiliated Iraqis. But “[w]herever an opportunity to narrow the impact of the Kennedy legislation existed,” the frustrated author observes, “the Bush administration’s lawyers seemed to find it.” Barack Obama’s presidency has not much improved the situation. In Johnson’s view, the main reason behind all the dithering is a fear of terrorism so great that it subverts basic logic, with “the United States government regard[ing] even its closest Iraqi friends as potential enemies.”

The penultimate chapter of “To Be a Friend Is Fatal” bears out the book’s blunt title (taken from a comment attributed to former secretary of state Henry Kissinger about what can befall America’s allies). Johnson reproduces e-mails exchanged over a year between a hunted Iraqi named Omar and State Department employees. In response to Omar’s desperate but unfailingly polite messages they repeatedly ask for employment-verification documents he has already filed.


As his potential executioners close in, Omar writes, “I fear for my life and the life of my family, and I’m asking for you to help me by transferring my case to a neighboring country” in an attempt to hasten his escape. The State Department denies his request and counsels patience. Meanwhile, the insurgents murder Omar and set their sights on his family. “The List Project is now trying to get Omar’s widow, son, and brother’s family resettled to America, on a dead man’s application,” notes Johnson.

Don’t hold your breath. The State Department has informed the List Project that “if a case is not expedited, our estimate is that it will take approximately two years from first enrollment in the program until the first interview.”

“As of July 2013, Omar’s family is still in hiding in Kirkuk.’’

Rayyan Al-Shawaf, a writer and book critic in Beirut, can be reached at