The Values That America Represents
Kirk Johnson, Yaghdan, Ibrahim, Anna, Christopher Nugent, Marcia Maack
Tribeca Film Festival: 28 Apr 2012
My grandmother believed that the best form of education was travel.
“There is the impression in the United States that Iraq had some problems in 2005 and 2006, but then we sent more troops, we sent Petraeus, and we won the war and we solved all of the problems. And so now there’s no more violence and the Iraqis who worked for us are in peace and they can just go home.” As Kirk Johnson looks out on a Baghdad hotel room full of Iraqis “who worked for us,” they look defeated and hopeful, sometimes both at once. Their lives are at risk precisely because they worked for the Americans. And they’ve been waiting for months—sometimes years—to leave Iraq. When Johnson asks about recent threats, they tell him: one man’s wife was kidnapped, another’s son was kidnapped, a woman was beaten and knifed and her son was killed. Another young man’s father was murdered.
There’s no shortage of such stories in The List, Beth Murphy’s poignant documentary about Johnson’s efforts—along with lawyer Chris Nugent—to help Iraqi allies leave Iraq. Screening at the Tribeca Film Festival, the film underlines the crises now faced by thousands with a focus on a few, Yaghdan, Ibrahim, and Anna, as well as the strategic use of Johnson’s own story. A good-looking kid from West Chicago, Illinois, he appears in childhood photos here traveling around the world with his family, experiences that inspired him to start learning Arabic when he was just 14. His parents smile as they remember his reaction to 9/11: “You see why I’ve been learning Arabic?”
Johnson’s commitment to continuing, mutual education is at the heart of List Project. A former USAID worker who landed in Fallujah in 2005, shortly after four US security guards were killed, he saw that distrust and disappointment were shaping Iraqi perceptions of the US. When he learned that some of his Iraqi coworkers were deemed traitors because they worked with the US, and further, that the US was not protecting them, Johnson took up the cause on his own.
The film uses Johnson—and a sometimes overstated musical score—to make the case that the US should honor its moral obligations and not leave vulnerable allies behind. And yes, this recalls Hugh Van Es’ indelible image of the 1975 fall of Saigon, even as it reminds you that this bit of chaos was meant to save Americans in Vietnam, while thousands of Vietnamese allies were not included in any plans for evacuation.
Even as the humanitarian case seems obvious, the movie includes scenes from Congressional hearings that reveal how apparently easily this case is forgotten. In 2005, an outraged Gary Ackerman, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on the Middle East and South Asia, chastises then-Assistant Secretary of State Ellen Sauerbrey for her display of seeming ignorance (if not outright lying) and then again, in 2008, Ackerman takes on the State Department’s James Foley (who claims the office is still trying to count up the numbers of Iraqi employees at issue). This clip ends with the astounding assertion by Dana Rohrabacher that “The last thing we want to do is have people who are friendly to democracy and friendly to stable government and prosperity, and educated people from Iraq, moving here in large numbers at a time when they’re needed to build a new thriving Iraq, not subsidizing their exit from that country.”
Rohrabacher’s awkward phrasing notwithstanding, he exposes here the misunderstandings (not to say cruel calculations) confronting Johnson’s organization. Sometimes, as the film shows, such misunderstandings lead to misdirected energies, as when Johnson walks you through a website for “No Buddy Left Behind,” a program to rescue dogs from Iraq. The stories are heartfelt (one soldier hopes to bring back a dog so it might join him in “enjoying everything there is to enjoy about America”) and the hugs and tears are surely genuine. Dogs, even when quarantined in other countries before making their way to the US, are waiting only 60 days or so to be processed. “Maybe the Iraqis just need to grow fur,” Johnson says.
The costs of abandoning the moral charge are multiple. Apart from the injuries done to Iraqis, the US suffers as well: as Johnson puts it in “We Can’t Abandon the Iraqis Who Aided the US,” “Who will step forward to help us in future conflicts if we turn our backs on those serving us now?” Ibrahim offers another, historical angle on this concern when he testifies at a 2009 Congressional hearing chaired by Alcee L. Hastings. Ibrahim, who has made it to the US with help from the List Project and now works for the Project, reminds House members of their mission: “They deserve to have their voices heard,” Ibrahim says of his colleagues still in Iraq. “Their efforts to help America should be appreciated. Please do something to preserve the values that America represents.”
The List makes clear how the US has been shamefully remiss in representing such values during this ongoing crisis, whether out of fear, design or what one military representative calls “shocking” incompetence. But it also shows how individuals who come together as a group can do right, even remarkable things. If the film helps to make the List Project more visible, if it pushes Congress and especially the president to act, it’s making its own contribution to the effort.