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Q&A with Kirk Johnson

Johnson, AB’02, author of To Be a Friend Is Fatal, fights to save the Iraqi allies the United States left behind.

Carrie Golus, AB’91, AM’93

Johnson has helped more than 1,500 US-affiliated Iraqis settle in the United States—including Yaghdan and Haifa, who moved into a cottage on Johnson’s parents’ West Chicago property in August 2007. The family now refers to Yaghdan as “the fourth Johnson brother.”

He has been interviewed on 60 Minutes, the Today Show, and in numerous periodicals. His work was the subject of a 2012 documentary film, The List, and featured on a 2013 episode of This American Life, “Taking Names.”


In your book, you explain that you started studying Arabic after your grandmother took you to Egypt at 15.

I grew up in a fairly nondescript suburb of Chicago. To go all over Egypt, to be exposed to the language and thousands of years of history—I held onto it as a way to embrace something that had nothing to do with high school. As soon as I got back, I started studying Arabic at the College of DuPage.

Did your undergraduate studies in Near Eastern languages and civilizations prepare you for the Middle East?

I’d already spent some time in the Middle East before I got to U of C. I did a FLAG grant to Syria through U of C, then the Fulbright. My professors trained me to look at any body of knowledge and charge into it without being intimidated. When I got to Egypt or Iraq, I felt like, OK, this is complicated, but how complicated can it really be?

The portrayal of USAID in your book—from the misinformation given out at orientation to the party atmosphere in the Green Zone—is damning.

I had many close friends whose hearts were in the right place and did a lot of good work, but on balance, there was an intense lack of curiosity. I had a copy of Hanna Batatu’s Social Classes of Iraq—this incredibly pertinent history, showing the tensions that developed between the cities and the rural life, how the tribes were played off each other over the last hundred years—forces that are still evident now. I would scan five pages at a time and send them around to senior staff. I don’t think anyone read them.

The need for us to cast Iraq as a success shaped the way we looked at the country. I was shocked by how poorly Iraqis were treated. If you’re not even willing to learn someone’s name, of course you’re not going to care when they need your help.

Why start the List Project, when you had so many problems of your own?

I grew up surrounded by people who did things, who acted on things, who stood up against things. My dad was an elected official. People would sit on the front porch, he would take out his legal pad and take notes as they would describe some problem, then he would try to fix it.

The Iraq War is the defining issue of my generation. I wanted to play a small part in pushing back against the forces that dragged us into that.

What’s it like to receive so many desperate e-mails?

So much misery comes into my in-box. On the other end of the spectrum, there are all these Americans thanking me for solving a problem that I didn’t really solve. I think Americans get discomfited by something out there in the world, and they look for the nearest hero. The List Project has achieved a lot of good things, but as a nation, we have all failed these people.

What’s the biggest misconception Americans have about Iraq?

When people say, “Oh well, it’s just these Sunnis and Shias, they’ve been fighting each other for 1,500 years, what are you going to do about it?” That’s the most ignorant and intellectually lazy position that you can take, and absolves the United States of its own role in the catastrophe in Iraq.

On a more subtle level, I meet people on the left who say, “How could these Iraqis be so stupid?” The attitude is almost like, they got what they deserved for stepping up to help an unjust occupation. But in the first six months or year of the war, there was no stigma in stepping forward to help the Americans. Abu Ghraib hadn’t happened, we hadn’t messed up the occupation. These people made a decision at a more innocent and optimistic point in the war, and that early decision is haunting them for the rest of their lives.

(Photography by Annett Hornischer.)