Magazine | May 18, 2015, Issue

A Question of Honor

As the wolves circle, Iraqis who helped us are pleading for visas

In 2008, Ryan Crocker, then serving as U.S. ambassador in Iraq, met with a group of visiting journalists. He addressed the question of public opinion back home. “People are tired of Iraq,” he said. “They say, ‘Let’s get it over and done with. We don’t want to watch the Iraq movie anymore.’ But the Iraq movie will go on for many more reels, with or without us. And it will have a big effect on us, whether we like it or not.”

There is another reel in the movie, so to speak. Or a late scene in the movie. In February, a lawsuit was filed in a U.S. district court on behalf of nine Iraqis who helped American forces in the war. The lives of those Iraqis are in grave danger. ISIS and other such elements are threatening to kill them for the help they rendered us Americans. According to U.S. law, the threatened Iraqis are entitled to visas, and refuge in America. But they have not received what they are due.

The nine are being represented by the Iraqi Refugee Assistance Project and a law firm, Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer. IRAP was founded in 2008 by a group of Yale Law School students (one of whom was a veteran of the Iraq and Afghan wars). They have helped to resettle more than 3,000. I regard IRAP as a “point of light,” to borrow language from the first President Bush.

On behalf of the nine Iraqis, IRAP and Freshfields are suing Secretary of State John Kerry and his department, and Security of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson and his department. These are the people charged with carrying out the SIV program, established by Congress in 2008. “SIV” stands for “Special Immigrant Visas.” These visas are intended to go to Iraqis who helped U.S. forces and are now threatened with death for it — in other words, Iraqis exactly like the nine. Frustrated with bureaucratic slowness, Congress issued a further instruction in 2013: Visa applications should be acted on within nine months.

Since 2008, 6,000 visas have been issued, but something like 1,800 Iraqis remain in limbo. The nine plaintiffs have been waiting an excruciatingly long time: an average of four and a half years. One has been waiting for more than five and a half.

Already, thousands of Iraqis have been killed in reprisals. No one knows the exact number. But if you helped the Americans — and are known to have done so — you’re in danger. By helping the Americans, of course, the Iraqis were helping themselves, certainly as they understood it: They were working for a better Iraq.

Each of the nine plaintiffs — plus the 1,800 others who are waiting — has a story. They worked alongside the Americans as interpreters, doctors, engineers, and so on. In the lawsuit, they are known by nicknames or pseudonyms. Obviously, they have to lie very low.

One interpreter, the Americans nicknamed “Frodo.” He was part of some 20 firefights during the war. He, like the others, stuck his neck out. An American captain, Doug Vossen, considered Frodo his protector and adviser. Vossen told CBS News that, without him, “I’d have been dead.”

Another interpreter, called “Alpha” in the lawsuit, was shot in the back during the war. Upon recovery, he rejoined the effort. In 2008, someone threw a bottle of gas into his home, burning it down. Alpha and his son were injured but survived. He now, like the others, receives regular death threats.

Last October, a logistics contractor who worked with the Americans was driving in Baghdad. Men pulled up beside him and shot up his car. He survived. In November, someone texted him and said, “Don’t think we forget you, dog.”

All of the others have similar stories, each more horrifying than the story before. One plaintiff said, “I exist in a middle world between death and life.” He applied for his Special Immigrant Visa in 2009. He says he prays that it will be granted “before it’s too late.”

Why have the State and Homeland Security departments not moved? That is a good and vexing question. Bureaucratic lassitude? Too great a backlog? Indifference? Even a little hostility toward all things having to do with the Iraq War? Each of those explanations is possible. It may also be that people in government are worried about letting in a terrorist and later being blamed.

There is no disagreement about the bona fides of the plaintiffs, by the way. The State Department has already found that the nine Iraqis did indeed serve alongside us, faithfully, and that their lives are in danger. Yet their visa applications molder. The departments’ typical reply is that the applications are in “administrative processing.”

What’s more, the law says that our government “shall make a reasonable effort” to protect our Iraqi allies while their visas are pending. If we cannot protect them on their native soil, we must arrange for their “immediate removal from Iraq, if possible.” Currently, the visa applicants have no protection whatsoever.

As Saigon fell, we airlifted thousands of Vietnamese — not a couple thousand but 130,000 — to bases in the Philippines and elsewhere. They were our allies, they had counted on us, and we felt we owed them protection from slaughter.

In my view, nine months is too long a time to sit on a threatened Iraqi’s visa application. Should it really take the length of a baby’s gestation? But our government is not acting on the applications in four, five years. Our allies’ situation is all the more serious since the rise of ISIS last summer.

At stake is American credibility — do we keep our promises or not? — and also our honor, which is related. Some of us believe that our pullout from Iraq, before the country was secured, was dishonorable. In the matter of the visas, we are compounding dishonor with dishonor.

We did not save all the Vietnamese who helped us, obviously — that would have been much of South Vietnam. Before we left, in that panicked evacuation, our personnel did not have a chance to destroy all sensitive records. The conquering Communists found a list of 30,000 Vietnamese who helped us. They systematically hunted those 30,000 down and killed them (a small fraction of the million they ultimately killed).

In those last days, we ferried as many as possible in helicopters. Dorothy Martin, the wife of our ambassador, Graham Martin, left her suitcase behind so that a Vietnamese woman could squeeze in beside her.

South Vietnamese came in their own helicopters, to our fleet at sea. After the pilots and their families disembarked, we pushed the helicopters overboard, to make room for more. On the Midway, we pushed our own helicopters overboard — $10 million worth — so that a Cessna could land. A Vietnamese major, his wife, and their five children were thus saved. I suppose we did what we could, in those terrible hours.

Three weeks later, President Ford signed the Indochina Migration and Refugee Assistance Act. This turned out to be the precursor of the Refugee Crisis in Iraq Act and the SIV program, a little more than 30 years on. Ultimately, we welcomed some 750,000 Vietnamese as refugees.

In a visit to Iraq, I found myself thinking a lot about Vietnam. This was in early October 2008, just a month before the U.S. presidential election pitting two senators against each other: Barack Obama and John McCain. They had starkly different positions on Iraq. Obama was itching to get out; McCain wanted to secure victory, or something like it. He wanted to keep Iraq stable.

The group of journalists of which I was part met an Iraqi colonel named Abbas. He was more pro-American than the most patriotic American, I think. He was fighting for a new Iraq, one free of tyranny. I suggested to him that Americans might not stick with the program. He was indignant: He knew Americans, and they would never abandon Iraq, he said.

At some point in our discussion, I asked the colonel to indulge me in a hypothetical question: What would he do if we Americans, in fact, departed Iraq too soon? “I would leave the country with my family,” he said. “Otherwise, we’d be killed.” He had already had an infant daughter killed, when the Mahdi Army attacked his house.

Lately, I’ve wondered what happened to Colonel Abbas and his family.

Campaigning in 1980, five years after Saigon fell, Ronald Reagan said that Vietnam had been a “noble cause.” This caused a ruckus. Yet nothing could be more obvious, to me, than that Vietnam was a noble cause, whatever the mistakes of the war. The same is true of Iraq, I think. Yet it’s understandable that Americans want to wash their hands of it. We are tired of the movie, and long ago were.

In the first year of his presidency, 2009, President Obama won the Nobel Peace Prize. In his lecture, he noted the incongruity of being both a peace laureate and the leader of a country engaged in two wars. “One of these wars is winding down,” he said. He did not even utter the word “Iraq.” He defended our war in Afghanistan.

Two months later, Vice President Biden said, “I am very optimistic about Iraq. I mean, this could be one of the great achievements of this administration.” It has not proven so. In a recent interview with me, Senator McCain said, “Barack Obama wanted out.” And when administration officials say that “they tried to leave a decent force behind, a stabilizing force, they are lying, and I don’t say that very often.”

The whole of my life, I’ve heard conservatives say, bitterly, “It’s dangerous to be a friend and ally of the United States.” The Iraqi visa-seekers most likely agree. There are lots of immigrants in this country, including millions of illegals from Mexico and Central America, who are on track to be amnestied. Surely we can find room, in our vast country, for a few thousand Iraqis who risked their lives alongside us and, for their pains, are now threatened with murder?

Soon, we will have desperate Afghans to think about, or ignore. The Iraqi Refugee Assistance Project helps them, too. IRAP’s website says, “Every day we receive emails and letters from Afghan interpreters and former and active-duty U.S. Service Members concerned about their interpreter’s fate.” IRAP also cites a “recent news estimate,” and a painful estimate it is: One Afghan is killed every 36 hours owing to his affiliation with the United States.

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