“Johnny Walker,” as the US Navy SEALs dubbed him, was more than your average wartime interpreter (or “terp,” as soldiers often call them). He was as quick with his wits as he was with a pistol or AK-47. He could calm the living room while SEALs were searching for the man of the house. He knew how to push the Iraqis’ buttons. He would tell the suspect sporting the fake ID that he could go free but that the Americans would be taking his family away – a bluff that often worked.
Or he would make the suspect think he had passed the interrogation with flying colors before casually asking him, using the suspect’s real name, to reclaim his false papers. If the “perp” took one fateful step forward, game over.
For those who think they’ve heard the last word, or too many words, on the Iraq war, Code Name: Johnny Walker is an eye-opener. With Jim DeFelice, Walker has written a mesmerizing memoir about his life, including the six years in which he helped American forces during the worst of times in his country. This “terps-and-perps” drama is riveting, as are Walker’s insights on the war, America, and Iraq. The author remains anonymous for the safety of his family here and in Iraq.
Walker grew up in Mosul, quick with his fists and a slingshot and sensitive to the slights and injustices that abound in a poor, corrupt land ruled by a dictator. In school, he was smitten by Ernest Hemingway’s “The Old Man and the Sea.” He played basketball and ran track and liked American country music.
He narrowly missed the Iran-Iraq War that ended in 1988 and was an Army gunner during Desert Storm in 1991. Later, his brother would be jailed by the Fedayeen Saddam, only to be released and then killed in the sectarian violence that accompanied the second war with America.
A Sunni, Walker married a Shiite, and they were barely scraping by when American forces invaded again in 2003. His life, like those of his fellow countrymen, went from precarious to desperate. When American forces reached Mosul, they were welcomed – but not for long.
Walker solved his family’s survival problem (there were four children) by learning English and becoming an interpreter. He was 40 years old and making $500 a month, big money for that time and place. Other Iraqis found other patrons, and working for the Americans soon put him and his family in danger from all sides, whether from Sunni extremists or Iraqi soldiers. The latter searched his house while he was with the SEALs in Baghdad and stole the family’s life savings.
This is a very personal look at the war. Walker portrays the SEALs – Sleepy Boy, Chief Tatt, Singer, and the rest – as quintessential warriors whose hearts were in the right place. They were trying to help, to do the right thing for Iraq. The closest he comes to questioning the war’s overarching strategy arrives late in the book: “There’s no denying that America made mistakes in the war and elsewhere ... the occupation, though well intentioned, had its share of mistakes and even outrages.”
But he points out that the Americans also did many good things, and he places the blame for sectarian violence squarely on the perpetrators themselves who, he believes, cynically exploited his country’s misery for their own gain. Iraqis, he writes, “had the seeds for this destruction within us all along, and whether it would have come out so soon or been delayed for years, eventually the killing would have started; cancer will do its job later if not sooner.... Saddam was his own cancer. If we had been able to deal with him ourselves ...” – he doesn’t finish the sentence.
Walker wrote his book from the safety of America. The SEALs most certainly did the right thing in helping their Iraqi brother escape his own country and get settled in the United States. The author’s affection for America and Americans is endearing to the point of tears. He knows his new countrymen are not perfect. He arrived in the US only after a bureaucratic ordeal and knows that 4 out of 5 of his fellow Iraqi interpreters – roughly 20,000 have been authorized to come to America – are languishing in limbo.
But Walker also knows that he is in a good place. On Sunday mornings, he rises early and frequents a local swap meet, not to buy as much as to savor it: “There is great freedom in this place – no one at the swap meet tells you where to go, or what to buy, or what to think. Every item for sale is a possibility.... [W]hat joy might this toy bring to a child?”
David Holahan is a regular contributor to Monitor Books.