Culture

Lost in Translation

Review: ‘Code Name: Johnny Walker’

Navy SEALs
Navy SEALs / AP

"An autobiography is a book a person writes about his own life and it is usually full of all sorts of boring details," Roald Dahl informed his young readers. And even if a person’s life is exceptional, there’s still no guarantee it will be worth reading.

Code Name: Johnny Walker is the New York Times Best Selling autobiography of an Iraqi interpreter for the U.S. Navy SEALs. Out of concern for his safety, we know him only as "Johnny Walker." Walker’s life is remarkable. He watches as Saddam Hussein falls and Iraq staggers into war and abject poverty. His skills as a negotiator land him a job as a "terp" for the SEALs, despite his limited knowledge of English.

Walker, unlike other interpreters, proves fearless and self-sacrificing mission after mission. He gains a level of authority among the SEALs that no other interpreter has ever had. He molds himself into a master of interrogation. He saves the lives of American soldiers. He stares down the barrel of a gun one minute and veers away from a car chase down a dusty street in Iraq the next, trailed by ruthless Mujahideen assassins.

Code Name does not lack for exciting material. But then again, neither does a bad action movie. And much of Code Name reads very much like the script of a low-budget flick. Take this reflection on Walker’s mental state during battle: "Motherfucker, you want to take my life? Well, fuck you, I will take yours. That was the sensation I felt at the moment. And after the adrenaline faded, after things calmed down, it was joined by another, deeper feeling: Motherfucker, you aren’t going to take my country away. You aren’t going to win. Fuck you…"

Deep feeling, indeed.

Walker is prone to philosophizing and social commentary. This is sometimes interesting: "Democracy? It was too lofty a concept to consider. What most of us thought about was simple: What things did we have to do to get through the day?" For the most part, though, he relies on heavy-handed clichés: "My America is your America, and your America is mine …" and "if we made things rather than destroyed them—what greatness could we achieve?" It helps to read them as voiceovers in a movie script. PAN TO sun setting over Baghdad…

There are noteworthy takeaways from Code Name, particularly Walker’s comments on life in Iraq. He likens it to living under the Mafia—everyone, especially the police, is working with the bad guys, and no one is safe. For example, the SEALs rely on informants to identify and capture terrorist leaders. But, Walker explains, like in an Al Pacino movie, everyone might be dirty.

Often informants falsely accuse their enemies of terrorism. At times it is nearly impossible to identify a real target. Walker develops tricks to use in these situations, like questioning the target’s children, since the truth is easier to extract from them. "Using children to identify suspects? Was it ethical? Was it moral?" He concludes that it was.

He tells the SEALs "my country, my rules." But his rules frequently run afoul of U.S. military procedure. Walker bemoans American values for restraint. "Our logic," he explains, is "Why does this person not hit back? Because he can’t. He is weak. He is a fool. Hit him again. Get what you want. He is weak and will give in."

Occasionally Walker may seem ruthless. He openly reflects upon this: "It was just simple arithmetic—them or me. The equation had only one answer." After pushing a terror suspect out of a window, he ruminates for a half-page "sorry not sorry" soliloquy. He wishes the circumstances were different—but he also wishes Saddam did not exist, there were no war, and the world were perfect, etc.

Working with the SEALs eventually became too dangerous for Walker and his family. The SEALs slogged tirelessly through the bureaucratic loopholes necessary to obtain Walker a visa for the United States. Walker and his family now live in Southern California. The story ends with Walker living the dream, strolling along the pier in San Diego with the wind against his face.

In an afterword, Code Name’s co-author Jim DeFelice discusses his task of translating Walker’s poor English into a readable manuscript. DeFelice says he attempted to duplicate the rhythmical cadence of Walker’s native Arabic with "rhetorical flourishes." It is possible that these added "flourishes" are part of what gives Code Name its canned feel.

DeFelice likely hoped to engineer Code Name into another SEAL-book-turned-movie-deal, like his last New York Times Best Seller, American Sniper—and before that, the Rogue Warrior fiction series, which spawned an eponymous video game. And let us not forget the SEAL books not penned by DeFelice, such as Lone Survivor—in theaters now.

Code Name’s screenplay potential has not gone unrewarded. 28 Entertainment has already acquired film rights to Walker’s story—making this one of the rare instances where you probably do not need to read the book before you watch the movie.