Book Review: ‘Father of Money: Buying Peace in Baghdad’

Capt. Jason Whiteley in Iraq with his personal security team, known as "the Misfits". (Photo courtesy of Jason Whiteley)

Former Capt. Jason Whiteley will be the first to admit some of things he was doing in Iraq were not exactly legal. But as a young officer in charge of building democracy in a volatile Baghdad district, ethics came in second to survival.

“Shaking down quasilegal operations for money to hand back to my council members could be my solution to the Army’s slow bureaucracy,” Whiteley writes in his new book, “The Father of Money: Buying Peace in Baghdad” , which candidly describes his efforts to get around that slow bureaucracy.

As the Army’s governance officer of Al Dora from March 2004 to the beginning of 2005, his task was “to establish and oversee a council structure that would allow Iraqis to begin governing themselves and reconstruct their homeland.” He quickly learned that Iraqis were running out of patience for American solutions.

“Every day our soldiers collided with cars, raided the wrong houses, broke furniture, and sometimes, shot the wrong person,” he writes. “These cases all generated paperwork, and it took months to pay the victims. The army’s lack of efficiency meant that the months of anguish, anger, and frustration among the Iraqi people served to solidify their resentment at our presence.”

Whiteley found he could win a lot more respect and cooperation by handing out pistols and money for projects. His ability to dole-out quick-fix payments earned him the nickname “Abu Floos” — or, the “Father of Money.” But more importantly, it held the budding district council together.

The implicit exchange was this: Members would show up to meetings and obtain funding for projects that would improve Iraqi lives (and coincidentally benefit their friends and family members). In return, they would work with the Americans, help them win allegiance from the locals, and tip them off to where roadside bombs were buried. It seemed like a win-win situation.

But by the end, Whiteley learns that in a tribal society, money only goes so far, and can’t keep loyal Iraqis or his own men alive. He finds that his way was not the right solution either, and indeed, that there may just never be an American-made solution.

A hybrid between first-person war memoir and counterinsurgency war history, Whiteley’s book gives the reader a front Humvee-seat to the war after the war — installing a Western-style democracy into an area increasingly hostile of the Western presence.

The book exposes how ill-prepared Whiteley was for his mission as governance officer of Al Dora, and how little training was provided towards that end. For instance, pre-deployment, Whiteley spoke no Arabic and knew “nothing” of Islam. Upon arrival to Iraq, Whiteley finds that his battalion’s tasks sound more like “political science hypotheses” than military objectives: Establish a police force, promote effective self-governance, and encourage economic activity. A West Point grad, Whiteley is ever the willing soldier. But with rules, yet little instruction, it is little wonder that Whiteley resorts to the most expedient means to meet his goals.

The book exposes how ill-prepared the U.S. was at that time to fight a counterinsurgency war in Iraq, where it knew little about the terrain. For example, the U.S. Army ordered thousands of black T-shirts with the words “Iraq Peace and Prosperity” written on him in English and Arabic, as part of a public relations initiative.

However, since black was a favorite color of the Shi’a insurgent military, Whiteley wryly notes that in effect, “the U.S. taxpayer had supplied thousands of mujahideen uniforms in sizes ranging from extra small to extra large.” Whiteley also notes the poor communication between the Army and State Department at that time, resulting in waste and duplication of work, such as the same school being painted twice, only two months apart.

The book also illustrates the difficulty of fighting a counterinsurgency war where the presence of Americans — regardless of their intentions or goodwill — are seen as a temporary foreign occupying force. Add to this the disruption of city services in the form of sewage-flooded streets, hours-long lines for gasoline, and in some places, less electricity than during Saddam’s rule.

It is easy, from Whiteley’s description, to see why the Iraqis had little patience with the Americans, and why it was tempting for Shia and Sunni Iraqis to turn to their respective religious militias, which could better keep them safe after the Americans’ inevitable departure. The book is not all shady dealings — towards the end of Whiteley’s deployment, there’s a fair amount of ambushes, bombings, and bloodshed. At least it is here that Whiteley’s traditional military training comes in handy.

Whiteley concludes in his book that the “American way” didn’t prevail in Iraq, and perhaps, may never. However, it is not clear that Whiteley ever tried the “American way.” Thus, the book is less of an indictment of the American way than it is of the Army’s lack of a way. What results is inefficiency, questionable legality and unsustainable progress.

Yet it is Iraq War veterans like Whiteley who must grapple with their perceived failures to build a sustainable democracy in the short period they had, evident in that Whiteley still thinks a lot about what he could have done differently. In fact, he said in an interview with ABC News, when it was his time to leave Iraq, he actually volunteered to stay another year, in the same place and unit.

If there was one recommendation Whiteley would make, it would be to extend each deployment to five years, so that soldiers could have the chance to make a deeper impact. But with the U.S. troop presence winding down from Iraq and the future of Iraq uncertain, veterans like Whiteley may never get the chance to see their hard work materialize. Yet the memories live on in their minds forever. At least, they can write a book for future war-fighters.

Note: The author of this book review attended Georgetown University’s Master of Science in Foreign Service program with book author Jason Whiteley.

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