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To Be a Friend Is Fatal

To Be a Friend Is Fatal

The Fight to Save the Iraqis America Left Behind

  • reading group guide
  • freshman reading
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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  • Scribner | 
  • 352 pages | 
  • ISBN 9781476710488 | 
  • September 2013
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Kirk Johnson: What Are You Reading?

Kirk Johnson on why he's reading things that have nothing to do with Iraq, war, or refugees.

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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 see more

About the Author

Kirk W. Johnson
Photograph by Annett Hornischer

Kirk W. Johnson

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 TheNew York Times, The Washington Post Magazine, Los Angeles Times, and Foreign Policy. Founder of the List Project, Johnson lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.

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