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A Man's Life: 'Death Goes to Pick the Finest of All'

by John Agresto
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"I was, from the start, a believer in the war," writes John Agresto in the opening chapter of Mugged by Reality: The Liberation of Iraq and the Failure of Good Intentions. "I now believe that American foreign policy and American interests are in a worse position than if we had never ventured down this path."

The former president of St. John’s College in Santa Fe and a self-described neo-conservative who left Wabash in 2003 to help rebuild the university system in Iraq, Agresto says his book is "not a catalogue of errors as much as an analysis of what we did right, where we went wrong, and above all, why."

An excerpt:

Sunday, January 18, 2004—It began like any other morning. Scrambled eggs, bacon, coffee, grits. Then came the thud that meant that a bomb had gone off or a mortar had landed someplace nearby.

This was odd. Since Christmas, when the attacks against the Green Zone had begun in earnest, almost all the bombing came at night, between eight and midnight. Still, this seemed pretty far away. So we kept on eating.

Soon soldiers started running through the dining hall. Then some soldiers ran in and told others who were still eating to get to the north gate—"Assassins’ Gate," as some Iraqis call it—immediately. "Yes, stop what you’re doing, put down the coffee, and get out now. Now!" In seconds, all the soldiers who had been having breakfast with us civilians were gone. We had no idea what was going on; though today the war became different, and worse.

Today the war took a new turn, and the problems we were soon to confront became clearer. Today the fighting turned from attacks on Americans and Brits toward the Iraqis themselves. Someone had blown up his car, and himself as well, at the entrance to the north gate, the entrance where most of the Iraqis who work with the Coalition entered. Thirty-six Iraqis were killed trying to get to work in the Green Zone.

Among them was Hadeel.

I met Hadeel for the first time just the day before, Saturday, at lunch, though I had seen her working down the hall from me, in the Finance Ministry office, perhaps 100 times before. She was 23, with light brown hair and a flirtatious smile, and engaged to be married, I was told. That Saturday I had sat with her and perhaps four or five other women, all the same age, with Suhail, one of our translators, and his wife. Like Suhail, Hadeel was a Christian and had actually taken catechism lessons from him.

Today, however, she was dying. The next day she was dead. "Burned black all over," I was told by those who were, amazingly, allowed to visit her as she lay in the hospital. The other women in the car had been blown out of it when the bomb went off. Hadeel burned as the car melted around her.

In some ways, Hadeel is the lucky one. The others, I am told, no longer have faces. Blind, deaf, ears and noses ripped off, with metal and glass pieces embedded in their bodies. I don’t know the truth of this firsthand, and it’s a mistake to believe all one hears in Iraq. But it’s likely true. And, for sure, Hadeel is dead.

Hadeel’s death and the maiming of the other young women cast a morbid pall on the Coalition Provisional Authority.


"As they always say, ‘Death goes to pick the finest of all.’ We have lost the friend whose smile never leaves her face, always cooperative and ready to help. Till now I never heard anything bad of her. May God bless her soul in the heavens and spread peace on earth. Let’s pray for her family and relatives to be given patience and condolence. Amen.

"Sirs, May God the Almighty keep us all in his care and safety and give us the persistence to work it out to rebuild this country."

This was the email that Imad, the devout Muslim and the quietest and most serious of our three translators, sent around our office the afternoon we heard about Hadeel’s death. Like most Iraqis who came to work for the Coalition, he signed on right after the fall of Baghdad. He and the two others who worked in our office—Hasan and Suhail—now knew that they, too, were marked for death. All three were at the Assassins’ Gate checkpoint perhaps an hour before the bomb exploded that Sunday. They liked to get to work early. Had they slept a little later, or been slowed down and harassed a little more than usual by a scared or arrogant soldier at the entry, they, too, would be among the dead and maimed. And they knew it.

The forces arrayed against the Coalition had little hope of getting a bomb through the checkpoints that bottleneck entry into the Green Zone. It’s not that a bomb couldn’t go off in the Zone; it’s just that if it ever does, it will have been constructed inside the Zone by one of the many Iraqis who still live there. But while we Americans were waiting for something like this to happen to us, the suicide bomber was much smarter. He made it happen to them, to the Iraqis.

Not all the Iraqis killed that morning were going to work for the Coalition. A van of girls going to high school was unlucky enough to be crossing the path of the bomber as he blew up his car. They, too, burned to death.


Not at all.

Toward what end? Put yourself in the place of those who worked with us. For all America’s might, it was now clear that there was nothing America could do to keep you as an Iraqi safe if someone wanted you dead. We can cover ourselves, more or less, but not the Iraqis. What seemed so promising just six months before—working for the most powerful forces that history had ever seen, working for pay that made you the envy of all those who knew you, working for a new Iraq in which you would be an important part—now seemed like the admission ticket to death.

Soon after January 18, a number of Iraqis who worked for the Coalition quit. Most stopped telling people where they worked or for whom. All seemed to have lost that mixture of pride and smugness that characterized their attitude when they thought they were on the side of history. By the end of six months, of the three translators in the office, only Imad—quiet, serious, and without wife or children—would be left.

The word on the street was that it was a foreigner who blew himself up. An Afghan, most said. A Yemeni, others said. He spoke Arabic badly, at least to the Iraqi ears of those who claimed to have heard him as he talked out the window of his car before he set off the bomb.

The next day, there were no public protests. No howls and cries for revenge. No headlines screaming for a massive Iraqi response to the mayhem. Thirty-six innocent fellow countrymen slaughtered, and hundreds maimed, and all the grief was quiet and private. The Iraqis who worked with us became downcast, introspective, and petrified. The Iraqis on the street said … nothing. Imagine if, on September 12, 2001, New Yorkers slowly went about their business, numb!

The dread that Iraqis had once experienced under Saddam now returned as terror.

This was the insight of the insurgency that January morning, 2004: In order to stop or hinder the liberation of Iraq, forget attacking just Americans. Terrorize the Iraqis instead. The "Lesson of Vietnam"—that over time America’s determination can be worn down by casualties and that voters will grow weary of protracted foreign involvement and withdraw—might take too long to implement. But Iraqis, beaten down as they already were, hesitant and frightened as they already were, could easily be made to cower. If the Americans won’t surrender, perhaps the Iraqis will.

January 18, 2004: Today the insurgency signaled that a different war had begun.


"No ordinary democracy"

Ours is no ordinary democracy— and we should try to understand what was done in America to make our democracy the fine thing it is before the next time we try to export it.

We Americans love democracy. And we love it for very good reasons. We have lived under a form of democracy for well over 200 years, and we all understand that, somehow, this way of life is at the heart of our freedoms, our national security, and even our prosperity and our personal happiness.

Yet ours is no ordinary democracy—and we should try to understand what was done in America to make our democracy the fine thing it is before the next time we try to export it.

I don’t say this out of a kind of reflexive patriotism or chauvinistic pride. I say it because it’s the simple truth—before America, to refer to a country as a "democracy" was, more often than not, a term of reproach. If America has done nothing else for the world, however, it has done this: It has tamed democracy, and made democratic government safe for the world.

Indeed, we have been so successful in calming the repressive and illiberal character of historical democracy that we now run into the opposite problem: We now see democracy simply as good; we see it as a cure-all for the ills of the world and all nations; we see it as simple, and we see it as infinitely exportable.

What we have lost sight of is the fact that democracy may not be simple at all—that our own democracy had to be constructed out of any number of arrangements and institutions that tempered democracy’s tendencies to be chaotic and unjust. And we have lost sight of the fact that even the best democracies aren’t simply "exportable" the way a country might ship off toys or new fashions.

In fact, free democracies may work only in certain times and places, with people of a certain character. It may be false to think that any nation can become democratic any time it wants simply by throwing off its current rulers and giving people the vote. Or, more precisely, it might, by doing that, become "a democracy," but not a good one.


The former president of St. John’s College in Santa Fe, John Agresto has taught at such institutions as the University of Toronto, Kenyon College, Wabash, and Duke. He is author of The Supreme Court and Constitutional Democracy, Cornell University Press, and currently lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

Contact him at