The “searing” (The New Yorker), “must read” (The Philadelphia Inquirer) memoir of “one of the few genuine heroes of America’s war in Iraq” (Dexter Filkins).
In January 2005 Kirk Johnson, then twenty-four, arrived in Baghdad as USAID’s (US Agency for International Development) only Arabic-speaking American employee. Despite his opposition to the war, Johnson felt called to civic duty and wanted to help rebuild Iraq. Working as the 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. 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.
To Be a Friend Is Fatal is Kirk W. Johnson’s “truly incredible” (Ira Glass) portrait of the human rubble of war and his efforts to redeem a shameful chapter of American history. “It is difficult to imagine a book more urgent than this” (The Boston Globe).
Though the Iraq War is over, Iraqis who worked with Americans during the struggle continue to live in fear of retribution from embittered fellow Iraqis. Here, a modern-day Oskar Schindler fights to help those in danger while simultaneously battling his own demons. In 2005, Johnson traveled to Iraq as a translator for USAID. He was just a 24-year-old kid from the Midwest, but he was fluent in Arabic and eager to help. But as the violent and complicated reality of life in Iraq became clear, Johnson's spirit plummeted, prompting him to throw himself from his hotel window. His injuries required him to return to the States for an extended recovery period. While there, he receives an e-mail from an Iraqi friend explaining that the latter's life is in danger. Johnson rallies and founds the List Project to Resettle Iraqi Allies. Not surprisingly, the challenges keep on coming, but so do the successes. To date, the organization has helped over 1,500 Iraqis immigrate to America. Johnson's writing style varies from comparisons to Norse sagas to the style of op-eds that caught the attention of George Packer and heartfelt indictments of the leadership in Washington, D.C., but ultimately his story is about finding a safe place to heal for himself and for our allies. Photos.