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Authors: Kirk W. Johnson

To Be a Friend Is Fatal

BOOK: To Be a Friend Is Fatal

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More praise for


“Kirk W. Johnson's rage-inducing account of government indifference is a tale of lost innocence that, in our American twilight, feels devastatingly allegorical.”

—Megan O'Grady,

“From the ruins of the war in Iraq and his own broken body, Kirk Johnson made it his cause to redeem the one American promise to Iraqis that honor required us to keep. He tirelessly fought the political resistance and bureaucratic indifference of two administrations. His account is riveting, darkly funny, heroic, and shaming.”

—George Packer, National Book Award–winning
author of
The Assassins' Gate
The Unwinding

“I have long been an admirer of Kirk Johnson—for his humanitarian advocacy on behalf of forgotten Iraqis and for his honest and poetic writing. . . . His is a story that arcs from charity to futility to pain to charity again, and how much he needs to tell it equals how much it deserves to be read.”

—David Finkel, Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist
and author of
Thank You for Your Service

“What is so intriguing about this beautifully written book is that while it is a scathing critique of America's policy toward Iraq, it is not one of your usual policy books.
To Be a Friend I
s Fatal
is a deeply personal and poignant story about how one young American's passion and curiosity led him to a distant and troubled land, where his empathy and sense of justice prevent him from giving up on the people abandoned by the US government.”

—Azar Nafisi,
New York Times
author of
Reading Lolita in Tehran

“Johnson makes sharp criticisms. . . . A well-written account of one man's righteous quest to overcome government bureaucracy.”

Kirkus Reviews

“[This] well-written book—the author is an honest, engaging, and indomitable guide—warrants a special place in nonfiction shelves.”

—John Kael Weston,
The Daily Beast

“This authentic patriot has written a must-read memoir.”

—Trudy Rubin,
The Philadelphia Inquirer

“A poignant story . . . a fascinating and intimate look at the inner workings of military occupation and its effects.”

Los Angeles Review of Books


Men's Journal



Part One

1. Jesus and Basketball

2. Yaghdan

3. Incoming

4. USGspeak

5. Raise High the Blast Walls

6. Fallujah

7. Fugue State

8. Human Rubble

Part Two

9. The Insurgent of West Chicago

10. Homeboy

11. The Dog's Head

Part Three

12. Wake Up

13. Bureaucrats

14. Journalists

15. The List Project

16. Pod 23

17. Waiting

18. Politicians

19. George W. Bush

20. Barack H. Obama

21. Past Is Prologue

22. Game Over

23. Subjective Fear


Author's Note



Glossary of USGspeak

Further Reading

To Help the List Project

Reading Group Guide

About Kirk W. Johnson


When men fight, there is a continuum of war, rubble, and human flight. Sometimes the flight comes before the war. Sometimes the war persists even after all is made rubble. Sometimes the flight lasts longer than both the war and its rubble. But these immutable three come together, reliable as gravity.

I made no war. I went to Iraq to turn rubble back into schools and power plants, and failed.

But the third element is flight. I did help some flee. This is their story, and this book is dedicated to them.


December 29, 2005

wo 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.

, 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
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
around their hair and donned sunglasses. The men removed their ties and donned

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.

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