America’s Moral Shame
When it comes to a story as massively multi-faceted as the Iraq War it is inherently difficult to stay on top of the daily drip of news – for reasons both of complexity and endurance. One opens their morning paper (or, as the case may be, browses the pixelated pages of their morning paper) and unless they are blessed with an abundance of time and an insatiable appetite for detail, stories must be skipped. Then every once in a while a story comes along that brilliantly captures the zeitgeist, providing the reader with a sense of the big picture, the broad trends, that are unlikely to change on a day-to-day or week-to-week basis. Over the course of the four year Iraq War many of these pieces have been reported by George Packer of The New Yorker (much of it distilled in The Assassin’s Gate).
He has done it again. His very lengthy article graces the current issue of the magazine and it deftly captures the plight of those Iraqis who threw in their lot (and their lives) with the Americans. It simply must be read in full. It is the most substantial and moving piece of reporting from Iraq I have read in recent memory.
To pull but one of the many intricately woven narrative threads in the piece, Packer tells the story of Yaghdan, an Iraqi official who took a job with USAID. After a threatening note and the severed upper half of a small dog was left at his home, Yaghdan (after receiving no concrete assistance – especially a transfer outside the country – from his American employers) fled to Dubai with his young wife. Once in Dubai he sent his resume to several companies thinking his many years experience working with USAID would be an asset. I quote from Packer:
He got a call from a legal office that needed an administrative assistant. “Did you work in the U.S.?” the interviewer asked him. Yaghdan said that his work had been in Iraq. “Oh, in Iraq . . .” He could feel the interviewer pulling back. A man at another office said, “Oh, you worked against Saddam? You betrayed Saddam? The American people are stealing Iraq.” Yaghdan, who is not given to bitterness, finally lost his cool: “No, the Arab people are stealing Iraq!” He didn’t get the job. He was amazed—even in cosmopolitan Dubai, people loved Saddam, especially after his botched execution, in late December. Yaghdan’s résumé was an encumbrance. Iraqis were considered bad Arabs, and Iraqis who worked with the Americans were traitors. The slogans and illusions of Arab nationalism, which had seemed to collapse with the regime of Saddam, were being given a second life by the American failure in Iraq. What hurt Yaghdan most was the looks that said, “You trusted the Americans—and see what happened to you.”
The only job Yaghdan could obtain (after never procuring an interview with American companies) was as a gofer in the office of a cleaning company. After several months Yaghdan and his wife had to return to Jordan to renew their visas. After a week of expensive haggling in Amman the visas came through but after returning to Dubai, Yaghdan learned that the Emirates would no longer extend the visas of Iraqis.
A job offer as an administrative assistant came from a university in Qatar, but the Qataris wouldn’t grant him a visa without a security clearance from the Iraqi Ministry of the Interior, which was in the hands of the Shia party whose militia had sent him the death threat. He couldn’t even become a refugee, which would have given him some protection against deportation, because the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees had closed its Emirates office years ago. Yaghdan had heard that the only way to get a U.S. visa was through a job offer—nearly impossible to obtain—or by marrying an American, so he didn’t bother to try. He had reached the end of his legal options and would have to return to Iraq by April 1st. “It’s like taking the decision to commit suicide,” he said.
The article is riddled with compelling, jaw-dropping, heartbreaking, enraging, and stupdefiying scenarios like this – much of it caused by American callousness, incompetence, and ignorance. Hopefully it is being read in precincts of the American government where concrete action can be taken to honor the sacrifice and the courage of those Iraqis who stood with us. To paraphrase Gerald Ford’s explanation for his decision to admit a hundred and thirty thousand Vietnamese after the fall of Saigon: To do any less would add moral shame to our humiliation.