• Book Review: Father of Money, Buying Peace in Baghdad

    July 6, 2011 // 2 Comments »

    While I especially wish I had read this book before I went to Iraq, I am glad to have been able to read it after I came home.

    Among the many things we lacked in Iraq (good food, loved ones, adult supervision), the history of the place, specifically what previous Americans had done on the same ground interacting with the same people, was high on everyone’s list. There was simply no record keeping, no oral history of what happened just before you arrived. That meant not only ignoring Santayana’s famous dictate (“don’t remember history, doomed to repeat it”), it meant flushing it right down the pooper.

    This mattered to us, and it matters to you if you are interested in the full story about how things went so wrong in Iraq. Until some future historian ties all of these threads together and produces a definitive history of the invasion and occupation, you the reader will need to do it one book, one year of duty, at a time, pretty much the same way it happened. Jason Whiteley’s story will help.

    In March 2004, Army Captain Jason Whiteley was appointed the governance officer for al Dora, a mixed Sunni-Shia ‘hood that was one of Baghdad’s most violent districts. His job was to use US money to oversee a council structure for Iraqis that would allow them to begin governing themselves. The nature of persuading Iraqis to support the coalition quickly progressed from simply granting them privileges to a more complex relationship defined by illicit dealing, preferential treatment and a vicious cycle of assassination attempts. In al Dora, Whiteley was known as Abu Floos–or “Father of Money.”

    Money was indeed Whiteley’s weapon. He immediately fell into the trap of failed quick fixes to complex problems, and slipped deeper into the muck when clever attempts to play one Iraqi side off the other backfired in violence (Hint: they have been playing this game way longer than we have). His early enthusiasm and optimism fade into a familiar pattern of cynical “making do,” sadly capped off with the death of a close teammate in a fight that accomplished nothing. The book ends in 2005 with Whiteley and his unit returning stateside, their war in al Dora thankfully over. There was little to show for the effort.

    I say that with some authority, as the same ground Whiteley covered, and many of the same characters, were in my own area of responsibility as a PRT Team Leader in Iraq 2009-2010. Five years after Whiteley left, al Dora remained a nasty, violent place. The Sunni-Shia violence he writes about continued, albeit at a slightly lower tempo as so many Sunnis had been killed or driven out between Whitely’s tour of duty and my own. We did still keep digging the same hole, however, and a chapter in my own book We Meant Well chronicles the silliness of the USG paying to hold an art show in this same violent neighborhood.

    Some other well-meaning American is there now, no doubt meeting some of the same questions, ignorant of the other Americans who walked those same streets. I hope he gets the chance to read Jason Whiteley’s book.

    Click to buy Father of Money: Buying Peace in Baghdad

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    Posted in Embassy/State, Iraq, Military