Iraq War 10th Anniversary: What Does Fiasco Mean?

That’s what an Iraqi English teacher asked former State Department official John Kael Weston in 2007. As he handed out blood money, Weston writes about not having the answer then—or now.

A lot of articles will be written this week about our experience in the Iraq war from primarily a U.S.-centric point of view. My goal is different: to help convey the stories of ordinary Iraqis and how our voluntary war affected them, and still does, even as Washington and the American public have largely moved on. These vignettes, which will run across consecutive days this week, include: The Teamster (Bassam), The English Teacher (Abbas), The Highway Patrolman (Waleed), and The Last Grand Mufti (Hamza). I also describe my interaction outside Fallujah with former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, a primary architect of our “shock and awe” war.

The final piece in the series is forward-looking. I interview an Iraqi, Ameer, from Baghdad who worked at the American Embassy and now lives in the U.S. He supported the invasion and continues to believe it was the right decision, with some caveats.

One day let's hope Iraqis will write their own books about the Iraq War. When they do, their stories in their words should be required reading for all.

Finding Words For Fiasco

“What does fiasco mean?” asked the round English teacher, Mr. Abbas, with dark eyebrows arched. He waddled when he walked, books under arm and sheets of paper in hand–a happily disheveled image that made me grin. Iraq had become defined by rage and revenge. Adrenaline followed by grieving on all sides. Abbas represented a chance at better relations. He wanted to help. Half a year earlier, he presciently said Sunnis had begun to “awaken” (his word) in Anbar Province. Longstanding Marine outreach efforts to tribal leaders, including in Amman, were finally paying off.

It was late January 2007 and on that day I sat around a table near the outskirts of Fallujah.” With Abbas, my impromptu interpreter to my right, three teenagers surrounded me. Their fathers—a council chairman, Kamal, a deputy police chief, Khudairi, and a grand mufti, Hamza—had been assassinated. I was there to offer condolences and make amends of a sort, via U.S. dollars. Stares, language, and the invasion separated us. A Marine corporal counted out $50 bills with thick fingers trained to pull a trigger, not shuffle money like a Vegas teller. Then he left. Blood money. Each boy got $2,500 bucks.

The meeting did not last long. Our green currency couldn’t bring back their dead fathers, all of whom I knew well having asked them to partner alongside us. I could tell the sons did not want to take the American cash, but they needed it. Now father-less, avoiding poverty trumped pride. Before they departed, Abbas said one day we would pay his family, predicting his own death. I told him not to say that; Fallujans had been jinxed enough during the war. Marines, too.

Few words baffled Abbas. Fiasco was one. I had previously handed over a book by Tom Ricks with that title, one of several tomes the English teacher wanted to translate into Arabic. Abbas believed Iraqis deserved to read American books by Americans about our shock-and-awe war. I told him Americans needed to read Iraqi books by Iraqis about our inept Occupation. But I knew that would not happen soon enough.

I wondered what they might title their books. I had my own ideas.

For decades Abbas taught English grammar to Iraqi children in Fallujah, sharing with the older ones the American literature he safeguarded in his small library. He was Shi’a and they were Sunni, a difference that did not divide them. After the biggest battle of the Iraq war, he volunteered to collaborate with Marines and me. We needed partners to help rebuild the rubbled city. Volunteers were wary and rare. Iraqis understood how dangerous it would be to work with us Americans, no matter their reasons to others.

“Collaborators all” became the indictment. The noose.

I departed Fallujah a few days after the meeting, the last time I saw Abbas. I avoided Baghdad’s Green Zone—too many Emerald City ghosts and my own naïve mistakes to be reminded of—before heading to Springfield, Illinois. I wanted to leave Pandora’s sandbox behind, finally—and for good.

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Prior to boarding a military plane to Amman, I checked my email.

From: khaled

Sent: Friday, February 02, 2007 12:15 PM

Subject: Sad Situation

My Friends

I am so sorry to tell that our teacher Abbas Dabas ,the nobelman was killed before 30 Minutes agao,I was sent some mail with my one team to his houes and he saw him on the land killed and his family in very hysteria.


The English teacher, my friend, had been right. I emailed the Marine commanding general at Camp Fallujah, who replied he had already approved a $5,000 payment. We Americans had priced out another Iraqi life, doubling the usual amount. It didn’t make me feel any better. Their lives, Abbas’s now too, tendered yet again with our money.


I never was able to provide Abbas with an answer to his question that felt good enough or right. All of us lived the Iraq fiasco, un-definable and un-translatable in any language. Abbas’s exit coincided with mine. His was final.