In early 2005, when the U.S. government was desperate to prove that Iraq could hold an honest national election, Kael Weston HBA’96 was serving with the State Department in sprawling Anbar province. Weston was 33 then, a University of Utah graduate who hoped for a long career as a diplomat.
He had been assigned as a political adviser to the Marines, and on this January day he and the Marines were faced with a dilemma. Word on the street was that Sunnis would boycott the election, but, as Weston pointed out, if polling places weren’t provided in isolated areas, Sunnis could claim the vote was unfair. The question on the table was whether Marines should be helicoptered out to provide election support that the Iraqis couldn’t afford. Finally, after top Marines argued against the move, Weston was told: “It’s your call.”
A few weeks later, an election-support helicopter carrying 30 Marines and one Navy corpsman to a remote Anbar town crashed in the desert.
It’s not guilt Weston feels but accountability, so the 31 deaths are a thread that runs through The Mirror Test, his 2016 book that provides an unflinching look at the costs of going to war.
The book is a memoir about Weston’s seven years in Iraq and Afghanistan. It is also, unapologetically, his indictment of President George W. Bush’s decision to invade Iraq.
The book’s title refers to that moment when someone—a soldier perhaps who has lost lips, ears, a nose in a roadside blast and has undergone multiple surgeries—is finally willing to look in the mirror. It’s a metaphor, of course. “When we look into that mirror,” he writes about the rest of us, “let’s not turn away.”
Immediately after the late 2004 Battle of Fallujah, the most deadly battle in the Iraq War, Weston was sent to a makeshift morgue the Marines had set up in a potato factory, where decomposing Iraqi bodies retrieved from the city’s ruins were kept in coolers and then put in body bags. The body count eventually reached 1,052, mostly Iraqi insurgents but likely also civilians who had not evacuated the city. The Marines buried the bodies in what was essentially a mass grave.
And then came the questions from Fallujah’s leaders. Were the bodies properly buried? Was it true that dogs had carried some away? Families were intent on digging up the bodies, finding their missing kin, and burying them facing Mecca. It’s at a time like this when a friendly, straight-talking American in blue jeans can maybe make a difference.
Weston arranged a meeting with Sheikh Hamza Abbas al-Isaawi, Fallujah’s grand mufti, by then a close contact in the war-torn city. “Please tell them we are treating the remains with respect,” Weston asked the religious leader, hoping to avert a large-scale disinterment or protest. After a long silence, Hamza replied. “I will tell people to stay away. I trust you.”
Weston eventually became known among the locals as Kael al-Falluji (Kael the Fallujan). It wasn’t a title bestowed lightly, says Saad Manthor, a Fallujah policeman. “Kael was a special guy,” a man who listened and spoke to everyone, Manthor explained recently in an email from Fallujah.
Weston ended up spending almost three years in the city, as the situation there improved, then deteriorated. Here’s an image retired Marine Lt. Col. Patrick Carroll remembers: Weston walking, unarmed, day after day, to the Police Station or City Council building, across the same couple hundred yards where two Marines had recently been shot by snipers.
“He was eager to engage everybody, people who agreed with us and people who didn’t,” remembers Lt. Gen. Larry Nicholson, who worked closely with Weston in both Iraq and Afghanistan. “He would wade right in.”
And he wasn’t afraid to question the strategies of the colonels and generals, Nicholson adds. “It was good to have someone always ready to speak truth to power.”
In high school, in Utah County, Weston hung maps of the world on his wall, watched history shows on PBS, and was thrilled when his parents invited foreign students to dinner. “What I liked was being in a room with people who had unpredictable things to say,” he remembers. “There was a lot of ‘same’ in Orem, and I guess I was looking for something different.”
Kael is the take-charge one, says his twin, Kyle, who remembers that more often than not it was 3-year-old Kael who got to sit on the tricycle seat while Kyle pushed. Kyle calls his twin “the pragmatic one who likes to get things done,” the one who “likes sitting around a table working toward a consensus.”
“Kael’s great quality is compassion,” says Prof. John Francis, a mentor since the 1990s, when Weston majored in political science (with a minor in history) at the U. “On the one hand he’s hard-headed, able to survive under challenging conditions, but that’s combined with a sort of innocence of believing the best about people.”
After getting a degree at the U, Weston got a master’s from England’s Cambridge University. Following a year as a Fulbright Scholar in Amsterdam, he passed the State Department’s Foreign Service exam and took a job in the U.S. Mission to the United Nations, where he served on the Al Qaeda and Taliban Sanctions Committee. He was in the UN Security Council chamber in 2003 when Secretary of State Colin Powell made his game-changing speech arguing that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction.
Weston thought Iraq was “the wrong war” (and points out that the war initially had bipartisan support). Despite his misgivings, he was ready to represent the U.S. in Baghdad, arriving in the summer of 2003. But he soon discovered that the administration had entered Iraq unprepared to run a country left leaderless after Saddam was toppled.
State Department officers sent to outlying areas, as Weston was, are expected to send frequent cables back to the embassy, assessing the situation. Weston wanted to make sure his included Iraqi voices, and he didn’t shy away from, say, the smell of rotting bodies at the potato factory.
You hope, he says, that your cables might affect policy. But the more realistic aim was to make a tactical difference on the ground. There was, for example, the case of Sara al-Jumaili, a young woman from a prominent Sunni tribe who was twice detained by an Army Delta Force team, enraging Fallujans to near revolt. The Delta Force squad had swooped into town in their Black Hawk, blindfolded her, bound her hands, and then flown away with her to question her about her connection to Abu Musab al- Zarqawi, Al Qaeda in Iraq’s self-proclaimed leader.
“The detention risked becoming the ideal flashpoint extremists needed to turn Fallujans against us, and for good,” was Weston’s assessment. Again, he went to Sheikh Hamza for help. “You Americans are putting me personally at risk,” Hamza said. Still, he agreed not to support public demonstrations. Weston then sent fourstar Gen. George Casey an email explaining that “Sara’s face will launch a thousand IEDs in Fallujah.” The Delta team brought her back later that evening, and Weston oversaw her release.
A month later, Hamza was gunned down outside his mosque, one of a dozen of Weston’s Iraqi collaborators who were killed for helping Americans.
At the request of a Marine who wanted a memento of the historic 2005 Iraqi election, Weston kept several hundred empty ballots. Later, he discovered that some families of fallen service members had put framed ballots on their walls. “All of those purple fingers meant that my son, and all the other fallen, did not die in vain,” one father wrote to him.
Yet war is complicated, especially this war, and so are Weston’s reactions. He feels for the parents looking to come up with an equation for their loss but points out that only about two percent of potential voters in Anbar ended up voting. He argues that the election only served to divide Iraq between Shia and Sunni.
But if Iraq was “the wrong war” in Weston’s calculation, Afghanistan seemed like the right one. He was happy to be reassigned to Khost in 2007, and was soon meeting regularly with provincial officials, imams and tribal leaders, ex-Taliban and Guantanamo detainees, and with university and madrassa students.
At Khost University, he was greeted at first suspiciously, especially by a student Weston identifies in the book as Sohaib, who challenged him to prove that America didn’t plan to occupy the whole Muslim world. Despite this initial reaction, Weston kept going back week after week for a seminar with the students. And in a recent email, the initially distrustful student wrote that men “like Kael are born once in a half century.”
Guantanamo detainees and the families of children killed by overeager U.S. military raids were less enthusiastic. The ex-Taliban met him with AK-47s perched between their legs. The detainees blamed Americans for mistakenly using coalition forces to settle tribal feuds.
There were plenty of successes (new schools, improved infrastructure) but also mishaps. In a message to Kabul and Washington, Weston chronicled what family elders told him after innocent civilians, including children, were “collateral damage” during a U.S. raid on insurgents. “These kinds of operations gone wrong is how we fed the insurgency, how we guaranteed hidden if not outright support among the local population for the Taliban—not for weeks but for years,” he argues.
Arif Mangal, who was Weston’s interpreter in Khost, says Weston “became a legend” in the province. On second visits to towns, “people would rush towards him,” eager to shake his hand. “I believe that a few more Kaels can more easily and honorably fix the issue of Afghanistan than a few hundred generals.”
By the time Weston was reassigned to Baghdad in 2008, says State Department colleague Rebecca Fong, he had perhaps become “too rogue.” An example: “He was supposed to meet regularly with Iraq’s Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi, but Kael would not wear a suit coat, or tie his tie.... Even though you want to make a statement that you are not like the other diplomats and have ‘street cred from Fallujah,’ you should show VP al-Hashemi the respect of dressing suitably,” Fong says.
“She’s right,” Weston admits. “There’s a certain level of protocol that I’ve never been good at.”
And then there was the op-ed Weston dashed off and sent to The New York Times in 2009. In it, he lamented the fact that Iraq had been without an American ambassador for six weeks. “I told him not to write that op-ed,” because it looked like the State Department was being disloyal to President Obama, says Ambassador Robert Ford, at that time the Baghdad embassy’s political counselor, and later ambassador to Syria.
“There’s an element of action junkie in Kael,” says Ford. “I think it comes when he’s in the following situation: when American soldiers are being killed and when innocent civilians are being killed. Somewhere deep down in Kael there is a deep sense of altruism: when there’s something that needs to be fixed. We’re talking about a level of commitment that borders on religious.”
Weston is “a self-starter, and he’ll work his eyeballs out,” says Ford. “But he doesn’t like to be micromanaged.... He doesn’t like bureaucracy, and the State Department is a bureaucracy.”
Weston had expected a career as a diplomat, but after seven consecutive years in two wars, he left the State Department in 2010. In the seven years since then, he has worked as a consultant in Washington, D.C., but also spent much of his time back in Utah writing his book. As an outsider, he decided, he could be blunt about America’s involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan.
But “the ultimate ‘mirror test’ will never be written by Americans in these wars,” he says. “It will have to be the Iraqis and Afghans. They’re the only ones credible and qualified to hold us to account.”
There are many days, he says, when he wakes up missing his old job, and he still feels pulled to public service. “War taught me what the cost of bad policy is. I’m not yet finished, I hope, in trying to make sure we don’t start another wrong war.”
In the meantime, he’s been hired as a Writer in Residence at Westminster College in Salt Lake and will teach a course called “Going to War” beginning in January. There are plans for him to teach in the U’s Capstone program in the fall of 2018. He is also in the planning stages of a second book about the wars.
He thinks, always, of those 31 men killed in the helicopter crash in 2005. Every year since his return he has visited at least one of their graves, and he plans eventually to visit them all, crisscrossing the United States to pay his respects.
—Elaine Jarvik is a Salt Lake City-based journalist and playwright and a frequent contributor to Continuum.