DATE July 22, 2008 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: Editor of the Army/Marine counterinsurgency manual,
retired Lieutenant Colonel John Nagl on the insurgency in Iraq
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
The war the Bush administration says we need to win in Iraq is not the war we
intended to fight. Quote, "The sad fact is that when an insurgency began in
Iraq in the summer of late 2003, the Army was unprepared to fight it. The
American Army was organized, designed, trained and equipped to defeat another
conventional army." Unquote. That quote comes from Lieutenant Colonel John
Nagl's introduction to the US Army Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field
Manual, which was written to remedy the situation and was published in 2006.
Nagl was on the team that wrote and edited the manual. Before that, he was
one of the first military leaders in Iraq to practice counterinsurgency
tactics. He was the operations officer of a tank battalion task force that
was deployed to Anbar province in the Sunni triangle in 2003 and '4. After
Iraq, he went to Fort Riley, where he trained teams of combat advisers
preparing for Iraq. He's also the author of "Learning To Eat Soup with a
Knife: Counterinsurgency Lessons from Malaya and Vietnam," which he wrote
before serving in Iraq. He recently retired from the military and is on
terminal leave. He's now affiliated with the new think tank the Center for a
New American Security.
Colonel Nagl, welcome back to FRESH AIR. What would you advise the next
president to do regarding how and when to leave Iraq?
Lieutenant Colonel JOHN NAGL: Well, it's going to be a phase transition,
Terry. And we're seeing signs, really, I think, of what this is going to look
like. So the number of American combat brigades will gradually withdraw. I
think the Iraqis are becoming far more capable. They're exerting signs of
sovereignty, which in some ways complicates our planning. But this is
absolutely, I think, on balance a good thing. But they are going to continue
to need an American advisory effort for a number of years, and I think those
advisory teams are going to have to become larger as the American brigades
become fewer in number and more widely dispersed. Currently our advisory
teams are very small. They average about 11 soldiers. And those are going to
have to be built up to probably 25 soldier teams, which will embed with Iraqi
units and continue to provide the air power, the length stayer power, the
training support, the logistics support and advice that is so essential to the
Iraqi units becoming increasingly capable and increasingly able to stand on
GROSS: You know, you mentioned that now that there's a sovereign government
in Iraq, that's a good thing, but on the other hand it poses certain problems
for the United States. Example number one, the Iraqi prime minister, Nouri
al-Maliki, Saturday in the German publication Der Spiegel was quoted as saying
that he basically supported Barack Obama's plan to withdraw American troops.
And, you know, the Iraqi government and the Bush administration are now
negotiating for a new contract, a new plan stipulating the United States'
responsibilities in Iraq.
Lt. Col. NAGL: We're working on a status of forces agreement.
GROSS: Thank you, status of forces agreement. Yes, because...
Lt. Col. NAGL: Status of forces agreement.
GROSS: Because the UN Security Council resolution that officially authorizes
the American military presence in Iraq expires at the end of the year. So
what was your reaction when you heard al-Maliki's comment?
Lt. Col. NAGL: Al-Maliki is practicing domestic politics, of course. So
any time a politician says anything, you have to think about all of the
different constituencies that he's addressing that to; and Maliki has, after a
number of months, I think, found his legs and exerted some command presence
and command authority, made some good decisions, I think, in a lot of cases
with American advice, and is now trying to appeal to the nationalism of the
Iraqi people, who do not enjoy universally an American presence in Iraq, or
certainly the American presence in Iraq as it has been constituted to this
point. So I think he is doing absolutely understandable play to his domestic
That said, I think that there is some truth to what he says. I do think that
we can continue to withdraw American troops from the direct counterinsurgency
role, as we've been doing now for a number of months. And the last of the
surge brigades, I believe, will be withdrawn this month. And General Petraeus
then has asked for some 45 days to make a determination as he rearranges his
forces, and as he looks at the battlefield geometry and at the state of both
the Sunni insurgency, the status of al-Qaeda in Iraq, the Shia militias, as he
balances all of those things out, the capability and competence of the Iraqi
government and its security forces. He's asked for about 45 days to evaluate
I hope to see him next week. I assume he will run me into the ground, as he
usually does when he sees me. And on that run, if I'm able to breathe, I will
ask him some of these questions. But I assume that, to the extent that he is
able, he will continue to draw American forces down and increase only--rely on
American advisers to help the increasingly competent Iraqi security forces
fight that counterinsurgency fight themselves.
GROSS: You're on terminal leave with the military now, but you are retired.
Now that you are retired, can you give us your opinion about whether you think
we should have fought the war in Iraq in the first place?
Lt. Col. NAGL: That's an enormously difficult question to answer because I
didn't have access to all of the intelligence that was available to the
decision-makers at the time. And I think those decisions have to be evaluated
in light of what the decision-makers knew at the time, and in light of their
concern about preventing another attack. I am very cognizant of the costs of
war, the dangers of war, and the fact that once you start a war, you never
know where it's going to end. It has its own grammar and its own logic, and
it writes its own story. So it strikes me that we have to be enormously
careful when we fight wars to ensure that it truly is the last course of
action available to us, to ensure the deterrents can't work.
And as a student of international relations, I have respect for the theory of
deterrence and for the understanding that states can be deterred, that
nonstate actors cannot. For nonstate actors, for terrorist groups to do truly
society-altering damage with chemical weapons, nuclear weapons, biological
weapons, they would probably have to have state sponsorship. They would
certainly have to have a safe haven in a state. It strikes me that there are
things we can do in international law to hold states responsible for the
security of those things and for what happens inside their borders.
So it's hard for me to say whether the decision to invade Iraq was the right
one in 2003. It is pretty clear to me that we didn't fully think through what
we were going to do after Saddam was toppled from power.
GROSS: Do you think that the military leaders had some idea that there might
be an insurgency, even though the Bush administration did not? In other
words, I'm wondering if you know if military leaders advised the Bush
administration, advised then Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld that things
weren't going to be as smooth as they were telling the American public it
Lt. Col. NAGL: There were certainly people who thought that an insurgency
was likely to emerge in the wake of an invasion of Iraq in 2003. One of
those, interestingly, was Dr. Conrad Crane, another retired Army lieutenant
colonel and a lead author of the counterinsurgency field manual. He published
a paper with Andrew Terrill before the invasion of Iraq, in 2002, that
suggested that insurgency was likely and that the hard part of the war in Iraq
was likely not to be defeating the Iraqi army, deposing Saddam Hussein's
government, but what came afterwards, creating security and stability in that
General Shinseki, of course, made an estimate that several hundred thousand
troops would be required to maintain security and stability in Iraq after
Saddam's government was toppled. And General Shinseki did that based on what
he had seen in Bosnia with a number of troops, the percentage of troops to the
population required to maintain security and stability in Bosnia-Herzegovina
after his operations there.
GROSS: Well, in fact, General Shinseki was forced out after he said we needed
more troops than we'd be providing. So I'm wondering if you think...
Lt. Col. NAGL: General Shinseki actually retired on time, but was pretty
severely chastised, as I understand it, for his statements that several
hundred thousand troops would be required, which was far more than the
administration believed at that time would in fact be required.
GROSS: Do you think that there was, in any way, a climate of fear that
developed in the military regarding criticisms of the Bush administration?
Lt. Col. NAGL: A climate of fear. Hm.
GROSS: Or reluctance?
Lt. Col. NAGL: You mean reluctance to speak out?
GROSS: You know, a lot of people--reluctance to speak out in the sense that a
lot of people have said, people both who worked in the Bush administration and
journalists who've covered it, that if you disagreed with the highest placed
people within the administration, you'd either be ignored or condemned.
Lt. Col. NAGL: There is a strong tradition of civilian control of the
military in this country, and I'm a big fan of the Constitution of the United
States and I support that fully. That said, I believe that military officers
do have a responsibility to give their unvarnished advice to high level
decision-makers when asked for it. I think that that can happen behind closed
doors and doesn't always have to happen in public. I am confident that there
will be additional bright young captains and majors writing doctoral
dissertations--I'm sure it's happening now--on just these questions you talk
about. I haven't done the specific research. I'm not sure exactly what
happened. I have a lot of faith in our military leadership; but there can be,
I think, there's something we have to think about as a military profession,
what is our responsibility as military officers when we give our best military
advice and it is not accepted by our civilian decision-makers? And what
should we do then? And I don't think the profession has a full answer to
GROSS: And that's the position you think a lot of military leaders were in,
of giving their best advice and feeling that that wasn't heeded?
Lt. Col. NAGL: I know that that was the case for Marine Lieutenant General
Greg Newbold, for instance, disagreed strongly with the invasion plan and
ultimately retired from the military, although he was the director of
operations on the Joint Staff, a position that often leads to further
promotions. But he disagreed strongly and retired, but retired quietly and
then came public several years later. So is that the right thing to do when
military officers disagree with civilian policymakers? Should they retire
publicly, should they retire privately? There is no consensus in the
profession about this, and I think that as my generation and the generation
beneath me, who came of age on the streets of Baghdad and Kabul, as they rise
to positions of senior leadership, they will be looking hard at these
questions; and I think the military profession will come to a new
understanding of what it means to disagree respectfully, and of how to balance
the competing responsibilities that are inherent in civilian command of the
military and providing best military advice to civilian decision-makers.
GROSS: My guest is Lieutenant Colonel John Nagl. More after a break. This
is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: My guest is retired Lieutenant Colonel John Nagl. He was a leader of
a tank battalion in Iraq's Anbar province and is an expert on
When you co-wrote the US Army Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual,
Lt. Col. NAGL: I was the managing editor and mascot of that particular
GROSS: What's it mean to be the mascot?
Lt. Col. NAGL: I became, justly or unjustly, I became in a lot of ways the
public face of that project.
Lt. Col. NAGL: Which was written by literally dozens of people. Conrad
Crane was the lead guy and I was his managing editor. I helped bring in
chapter authors. We, Con and I, outlined it together. But my most important
role, I think, was in popularizing it and in making it--helping the American
people understand the kind of war we were fighting and showing them that we
were getting smarter as an organization in how to fight it.
GROSS: One of the things the manual emphasizes is the ambiguous environment
of counterinsurgency, and it says that counterinsurgency places a premium on
leadership at every level, from sergeant to general, because of the ambiguous
environment. Can you give us an example from your experience of the kind of
ambiguity and difficult decisions you had to make in a leadership position?
Lt. Col. NAGL: I remember very clearly a particular improvised explosive
device strike on a dismounted patrol that killed a lieutenant, his radio
telegraph operator and later severely wounded an Iraqi interpreter, one of our
interpreters who I helped put on a stretcher and carry to medevac. He didn't
make it. That IED was placed inside a guard rail, and so it was a high IED,
which is why it was able to do so much damage. The IEDs buried underground,
the ground obviously absorbs some of it, some of the explosive impact. This
one was up high and did enormous damage. And it was right downtown, right in
the heart of downtown Chaldea, which was a tough little town in between Ramadi
And it was clear to me when I got on the scene that people in a crowd
gathered--an Iraqi policeman was also killed in that fight. This was one of
the best signs. We'd worked hard to get the Iraqi police to work with us.
Police are absolutely essential in defeating an insurgency. They're the folks
on the ground. They're the beat cops. And we worked really hard, and then
there was a car bomb attack on the police station that killed 30 or 40 cops.
And despite that, they came back, and the cops were on patrol with us, and one
of the cops was killed, the Iraqi police was killed, and his buddy stood with
us and helped us do the cordon and talk to people and try to interview
witnesses. And it was clear to me that there were people there in that crowd
standing around looking who knew who it was who had done it, but I couldn't
get that information out of them, and it was all I could do to restrain.
They'd killed an enormously popular platoon leader, a great young officer.
He's very popular radio telephone operator at that--an interpreter which was
like gold for us, and a very brave Iraqi policeman, and I knew there were
people there who knew what had happened. It was all I could do to keep from
just breaking down in rage and screaming, and instead we cordoned it off and
we pulled out all our interpreters, and we did as much intelligence gathering
as we could.
But that's the kind of conflict, of ethical dilemma that faces every leader in
a counterinsurgency campaign, because the war is among the people. You don't
know who your enemy is, and literally the person you're having tea with could
be the person who set the improvised explosive device. You just can't know.
And that's one of the things that's so debilitating and so difficult and so
hard about this kind of war. The strain is immense because you don't know who
your friends are.
GROSS: And as the counterinsurgency manual points out, and as you just said,
ethics become very complicated because it's hard to tell who's a friend and
who's the enemy. And that must make it hard to tell, too, when it's
appropriate to fire and when it's not. Can you tell us about a difficult
judgment call you had to make about whether or not to fire on individuals or
on a crowd?
Lt. Col. NAGL: Absolutely. I was--interestingly, you interviewed Peter
Moss some years back. Peter embedded with my unit, and...
GROSS: And that's what our interview was about, about embedding with you, and
the article's all about you.
Lt. Col. NAGL: Mm-hmm. And Peter was a good sport and a brave man, not a
great Frisbee football player, almost as bad as I am. But in one particular
episode when Peter was with us, this was the day after Saddam was captured and
we got stuck in downtown Ramadi, which was not a good place to be stuck. My
boss's humvee was high-centered, and a crowd was approaching in protest of the
capture of Saddam Hussein the previous day. There were thousands. The shop
owners were shuttering their shops, which is never a good sign. There were
people rioting, demonstrating at least, on the rooftops. They held the high
ground, and we were pinned down.
And the question of keeping fire discipline, of firing only when you saw a
clear and identifiable threat to us was evident, present in all of our minds.
And we talked to the soldiers behind the 50-caliber machine guns, who could've
evaporated the crowd, but at enormous cost to our counterinsurgency campaign
in Ramadi. And we exercised very good fire discipline, I'm proud to say, in
that particular episode.
In another episode, when we were similarly pinned down, this was after the car
bomb attack on a police station, there were a large number of funerals that
day, and I happened to be still at the police station when a funeral
procession came by and the funeral procession turned angry and violent, and we
retreated behind barbed wire, and the crowd stood outside the barbed wire and
stared at us and shook their fists at us and showed us the soles of their
shoes, a very severe insult in the Iraqi and the Arabic culture. And in both
of those cases, my soldiers exercised the kind of fire discipline that makes
me so proud to have been an American soldier.
GROSS: Were you ever in a position where the troops withheld fire in a
volatile situation and then were fired on, and you lost soldiers because of
Lt. Col. NAGL: No, because it really isn't that kind of a war. The number
of direct fire casualties we took was actually relatively low. The majority
of our casualties were improvised explosive devices; and in those cases, what
happens, in sort of a picture of the complexity of this kind of war, is you do
social network analysis, and you try to figure out who the IED, the improvised
explosive device, cell maker is. And you build an intelligence picture, and
you develop sources, and you correlate intelligence sources and you try to
figure out who's telling the truth and who has a personal vendetta against
somebody. And you build the intelligence picture, and you figure out who the
guy is. And you map--you build an event database and figure out what his
modus operandi is. And sometimes you are able, with lots of hard work and
with a little bit of luck, inshalla, you're able to bring the guy in, and then
you have to do a legal packet on this individual that will stand up in an
Iraqi court of law, and it is enormously frustrating.
What did happen to me is, in some cases we did not do the legal packet well
enough, or we didn't have all of the information we needed to be absolutely
convincing to an Iraqi judge and an Iraqi court of law. And I sympathize with
American policemen, who I know have these same feelings. And we knew that
there were designated bad guys, absolute bad guys who were released from
detention and who came back and got into the fight. And I do wonder sometimes
if some of those folks came back and attacked us again because we didn't
either build the justice system at the high levels or implement justice
procedures at my level as well as we possibly could have.
GROSS: Lieutenant Colonel John Nagl will be back in the second half of the
show. He's now a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security.
I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
We're talking about the moral and ethical dilemmas of the American
counterinsurgency in Iraq. My guest is retired Lieutenant Colonel John Nagl,
an expert in counterinsurgency tactics. He was the operations officer of a
tank battalion in Iraq's Anbar province in 2003 and '4. After returning to
the States, he was on the team that wrote and edited the US Army and Marine
Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual. He also trained teams of combat
advisers at Fort Riley before they were sent to Iraq. He's recently retired
from the military and is on terminal leave. He's now a senior fellow at the
Center for a New American Security.
In the introduction to the counterinsurgency manual--and again, you were on
the team that wrote and edited the manual--Sarah Sewall writes in that
introduction, "Counterinsurgency can bring out the worst in the best regular
armies. Even when counterinsurgency forces explicitly reject insurgent tacts,
they often came to imitate them. In particular, the insurgents' invisibility
often tempts counterinsurgents to erase the all-important distinctions between
combatants and noncombatants." Was that difficult with you and your troops,
that because you couldn't tell the difference between the good guys and the
bad guys, that it was sometimes tempting to just assume the worst and either
shoot and arrest or whatever?
Lt. Col. NAGL: We rarely assumed the worst and shot, I'm proud to say. I'm
sure there were cases where it happened. We did often, I'm afraid, assume the
worst and arrest. And I am confident, and I'm embarrassed to say this, but
I'm confident that it's true, that some of the innocent people we arrested and
who lingered in Abu Ghraib and other prisons for long periods of time, became
disenchanted, became in some cases, probably, committed to removing the
American presence from Iraq because of the way they were treated. And I'm
pleased and proud to say that we've done a much better job recently of being
more precise in our targeting and in whom we arrest, better in the legal
procedures that we use to keep them under custody. And in particular, we've
started practicing what we call counterinsurgency inside the wire, which
Marine Major General Stone was responsible for this at Abu Ghraib, and his
deputy was my old friend Lieutenant Colonel Paul Yingling. Paul is still
there doing this.
We practiced counterinsurgency by setting up job programs inside the detention
facilities, by getting better at releasing the people we didn't have firm
evidence on. And so we've learned and adapted as an organization and become
better at that important part of counterinsurgency, that is treating detainees
with respect. This is something H.R. McMaster did when he was in command of
the 3rd ACR. When he released people from his detention facility, he set up a
program he called Ask the Customer, so he asked them how they were treated and
asked them for recommendations on how to do it better, how to perform
detention operations better. That's something we've institutionalized now as
an Army, as a Marine Corps on the ground in Iraq. We've got Air Force and
Navy folks helping us guard these prisons, so it's a true DOD effort.
And we've gotten far better at something that I don't think my own
organization or all of us at the time back early in the war did very well, and
that is understand that the way you treat the people you detain can influence
whether they come back speaking well of you or shooting at you. It matters.
GROSS: And your point is, it's in our best interest to do that.
Lt. Col. NAGL: It is absolutely in our best interest to do that. Every
person we convince not to fight against us is somebody else we don't have to
kill, and is somebody else who may not kill one of us, or more of us. And
that's one of the really frustrating things about this kind of war. The
number of actively committed insurgents fighting against is actually
relatively small. I had a sector of about 60,000 people I was responsible for
between Ramadi and Fallujah. Of those 60,000, as near as we could tell about
300, about 1/2 of 1 percent of that population was actively dedicated to
killing me and my guys. So everyone matters.
And if you can turn one of them, if you can turn a leader and he brings his
10-man cell with him, you've made a huge impact. And even better, if he turns
hard and he's going to tell you who the other cells are and provide you with
some of that information, and even better, if he's able to bring a number of
cells with him and says, `I'm no longer going to fight against you, Americans.
These al-Qaeda guys, these are bad people.'
GROSS: You mentioned that you fear that some of the people who you detained
ended up in Abu Ghraib. When you were...
Lt. Col. NAGL: I know they ended up in Abu Ghraib.
GROSS: You know they did. OK, so...
Lt. Col. NAGL: And some of them should have, and some of them should still
be there. Some of them were very, very bad people. What I'm afraid of is
that, first, some of them I sent there I shouldn't have sent there, or they
weren't treated as well there as they could have been. We weren't as advanced
in our counterinsurgency inside the wire. But I'm also concerned that some of
them were released because of problems in the justice system, perhaps starting
at my level. Right? We're making this up as we went along, and we didn't get
great training in how to prepare a legal package on an Iraqi detainee. We
developed these systems as we went. So I'm concerned both that we imprisoned
some of the wrong people and that we released some of the people we shouldn't
have released, and we paid the price for that on both sides.
GROSS: At the time that you were in Iraq, in 2003 and '4, did you have any
idea what was going on in Abu Ghraib?
Lt. Col. NAGL: Not until that was publicly released. What I did know was
that we didn't have a good program for sorting the wheat from the chaff, the
bad apples from the good, and that system wasn't as well developed as it could
have been, and that we didn't have a good rehabilitation program inside Abu
Ghraib so that people coming out of Abu Ghraib at least were no more opposed
to the United States' presence in Iraq than they were when they went in. So I
didn't know about the Lynndie England stuff until everybody, until the world
knew about it. What I did know was that...
GROSS: Were you still in Iraq then?
Lt. Col. NAGL: Yes, I was. That was discouraging.
GROSS: What impact did it have on the ground level? Because like, quoting
the counterinsurgency manual again, it says the abuse of detained persons is
immoral, illegal and unprofessional.
Lt. Col. NAGL: Yeah, we felt pretty strongly about that, as a matter of
fact, in the manual. And we continue to do so, obviously.
GROSS: Oh, and I can't remember if it's the manual or something you
personally said, but the quote is, "Lose moral legitimacy, lose the war."
Lt. Col. NAGL: Lose the war.
Lt. Col. NAGL: Lose the war. I think that's Conrad Crane's phrase, and
that's exactly right.
GROSS: My guest is Lieutenant John Nagl. More after a break. This is FRESH
GROSS: My guest is retired Lieutenant Colonel John Nagl. He was a leader of
a tank battalion in Iraq's Anbar province and is an expert on
Can you reflect a little bit about what it was like for you either in Fallujah
or any other part of Iraq, to be engaged in a battle that you thought was
misguided, knowing that you were likely to lose men in it?
Lt. Col. NAGL: I was certainly in a situation where--I don't think any of
the battles we fought were misguided, although some of them started for--so
the battle of Fallujah, for instance, where I didn't lose guys, but my sister
battalion did, and I lost a number of friends there and had some friends
severely hurt in the November 2004 fight for Fallujah. You have to have great
faith as an Army officer or as a soldier in the people above you and in the
people around you, and I was very, very fortunate in that the levels of
command around me and on my sides, I had enormous confidence in, and
ultimately you're fighting, when you're down in the dirt fighting, you're
doing it for them, and you're trying to take care of your buddy and perform as
admirably as you can under enormously difficult conditions. And so that's
what you think about.
And the question of what it all added up to and what it meant comes later.
They ran a five-kilometer road race in downtown Ramadi, which was the
epicenter of the insurgency when I was there, and I saw the pictures of folks
running with numbers. It looked, you know, like a 5K through the world of
"WALL-E," right, this incredibly desolate, damaged society, but shops open and
people cheering on the streets and the capital of al-Anbar coming back, and I
wept with joy. I couldn't help myself. I sat at my desk in Fort Riley and I
cried, because that meant that the soldiers from my task force who fell in
Ramadi and in that area, fighting against Sunni insurgents and against
al-Qaeda in Iraq, have accomplished something. Right? We have, particularly
with the help of the Sunnis, with the help of The Awakening, we have pushed
al-Qaeda essentially out of Iraq. It's essentially, inshallah, it is no
longer operationally effective, it can still blow some things up, it can still
do enormous and horrific damage, but it is no longer a threat to the stability
of Iraq as a whole. The Sunni insurgency has largely decided no longer to
fight. And so my soldiers who rest at Arlington and in other places around
America, I think, can rest in some degree of peace, knowing that they have
done something that matters.
GROSS: Maybe this is a good time to bring up a review that you wrote of a
book of poetry.
Lt. Col. NAGL: Mm-hmm.
GROSS: The poet is Brian Turner, and the book was called "Here, Bullet." And
you wrote a really eloquent review of that book. Would you mind if I quote
some of it?
Lt. Col. NAGL: No.
GROSS: "It is Halloween as I read this, and I'm being visited by ghosts, some
friendly, some not, whom I've kept away, locked inside me for years. But
Brian Turner, Ghost 1-3 Alpha, that son of a bitch, he's calling them back.
I've put them away, kept them inside, the ghosts of the lieutenants and the
captain and the first sergeant, their bodies torn by shrapnel or a sniper's
bullet or gone, just gone, into hundreds of shreds of flesh the size of my
still-living hand. But Ghost 1-3 Alpha speaks to ghosts. He calls to his
ghosts, and they bring mine along for company, and now they will not go away."
And you go on to describe, you know, some of what you experienced in war. And
let me just read a little bit more. "If you have been to war, if you have
held a microphone in your hand, begging for medevac with the blood of your
friends on your hands, pouring out your soul over the airwaves to keep your
friends from becoming ghosts, from joining the shades in an unholy company of
men who have given limbs and eyes and hearts; if you have held that bloody
hand mike, then Ghost 1-3 Alpha will take you back to that day, that day when
time stopped and life stopped and never really started again, no matter how
hard you try to make the ghosts go away."
That's really beautifully written. Do you write a lot?
Lt. Col. NAGL: I wrote poetry. I still write poetry. I'm working on a
novel, actually, about Iraq. So someone--I think it was Alfred Lord
Tennyson--said that poetry is powerful emotions recollected in tranquility,
and I was asked to write a review of Brian's wonderful book "Here, Bullet,"
and it was Halloween, and got to deal with some ghosts. And that was a good
thing. And it is an enormous privilege to have worked with and fought with
the men I fought with, and I will never forget them.
GROSS: Are the emotions that you expressed in that review that I read things
that you can't really keep on the surface when you're actually fighting the
Lt. Col. NAGL: In the particular battle scene that I was remembering when I
talked about that, with the hand mike in my hands, calling for medevac,
someone told me afterwards that when I came on that scene and it was my job as
the operations officer to report to places where things were happening, so I
saw the worst of what happened and also the best. Someone said that one of
the soldiers told me that I came in smiling and calm and collected, and I was
shocked. That wasn't at all what I was feeling at the time. And I'm pleased
that I was able to maintain a positive attitude, because it's important in
that kind of environment to keep the soldiers focused and professional and try
to ensure that they maintain their professionalism. And if you show anger or
rage, that can create an unhealthy dynamic, and so I tried very hard in those
circumstances to be as professional as I could. And apparently, in that one
case at least, I succeeded, although the turmoil inside was very real and
GROSS: You know, you were talking about the ghosts of the soldiers that you
lost, the friends that you lost. You're now with a think thank, the Center
for New American Security. You've recently retired from the military. What
responsibility do you feel you have to those ghosts now, as somebody who's at
a think tank that describes its mission as developing strong, pragmatic and
principled national security and defense policies that promote and protect
American interests and values, what do you feel you owe to those ghosts in
your position now?
Lt. Col. NAGL: Well, I came back from Iraq and I felt very strongly that
we, as an Army and as a nation, weren't practicing counterinsurgency as well
as we could or should. And so I was privileged to be able to work with
General Petraeus, Con Crane, General Madison, others on the counterinsurgency
field manual; and I've spent a bunch of time popularizing, proselytizing--Joe
Collins calls me the Johnny Appleseed of counterinsurgency, as I wander around
talking about this kind of war and trying to help people understand this kind
of war. I still very much have that responsibility. I feel that I still have
that responsibility. And what I'm doing now is working full-time on these
problems of Iraq, of Afghanistan, which unfortunately we haven't been able to
talk about, a war I'm very concerned about right now. I'm going to Iraq on
Friday for a couple of weeks as a civilian to see what's going on and to
learn, and also, conceivably, hopefully to help a little bit around the
So I remain dedicated to the security of the United States. I hope that I'm
able to contribute to smart defense policies that benefit from my perspective
of having seen warfare on the ground, but also that think hard about second-
and third-order effects of our decisions, and that I can use all of that
somehow to continue to meet my responsibility to my soldiers who have given so
GROSS: Well, let me just ask you one question about Afghanistan, which is
maybe all we'll have time for, unfortunately. But, you know, it's been
reported that more radical Islamists from various countries are going to the
tribal areas of Afghanistan, that border area between Afghanistan and
Pakistan, which is exactly where Osama bin Laden was believed to have been
hiding right after September 11th. As American troops are still in Iraq and
more and more radical Islamists go to these tribal areas in Pakistan, do you
feel like we fought the wrong war?
Lt. Col. NAGL: I certainly believe that Afghanistan has been the forgotten
war, and we certainly need more troops in Afghanistan. What we most need in
Afghanistan is additional combat advisers to embed with the Afghan security
forces, the Afghan police and the Afghan army. And I also believe that we
have an opportunity to build a much larger Afghan national army than the one
that we currently have on the books. I was privileged to be able to go to
Afghanistan briefly last year. The Afghan soldiers I met absolutely wanted to
fight. There just weren't enough of them. And I think that addition of more
Afghan national army soldiers, with more American advisers, could dramatically
improve the situation in Afghanistan, which is a war I believe we absolutely
have to win.
GROSS: Well, I want to thank you very much for talking with us, and I hope we
talk again. Thank you.
Lt. Col. NAGL: Thank you, Terry.
GROSS: Lieutenant Colonel John Nagl recently retired from the military and is
now a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security. After hearing
the impact that Brian Turner's poems had on Colonel Nagl, we wanted to talk
Coming up, Turner reads two of the poems he wrote about his experiences as a
soldier in Iraq. This is FRESH AIR.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Interview: Poet/soldier Brian Turner reads poems and talks about
TERRY GROSS, host:
As you heard, Brian Turner's poems took Lieutenant Colonel John Nagl back to
his days fighting in Iraq, back to the ghosts he tried to put away. Turner is
a poet and soldier. He was a team leader for the 1st Stryker Brigade to be
sent into the combat zone in Iraq in 2003. His book of poems about Iraq is
called "Here, Bullet." He's now in Marfa, Texas, where he has a writing
residency through the Lannan Foundation.
Brian Turner, welcome to FRESH AIR. Let me ask you to read the title poem
from your collection "Here, Bullet."
Mr. BRIAN TURNER: Sure.
If a body is what you want,
then here is bone and gristle and flesh.
Here is the clavicle-snapped wish,
the aorta's opened valves, the leap
thought makes at the synaptic gap.
Here is the adrenaline rush you crave,
that inexorable flight, that insane puncture
into heat and blood. And I dare you to finish
what you've started. Because here, Bullet,
here is where I complete the word you bring
hissing through the air, here is where I moan
the barrel's cold esophagus, triggering
my tongue's explosives for the rifling I have
inside of me, each twist of the round
spun deeper, because here, Bullet,
here is where the world ends, every time.
GROSS: When you wrote that poem, which side of the bullet did you think of
yourself being on?
Mr. TURNER: It was coming towards me. And that poem has a lot of bravado to
it, and I think that's really just the fear masking itself. I'd say about 80
percent of that poem is fear, and then there's 20 percent of sort of an ugly
psychology of finally wanting to meet that moment, because so often, as an
infantry soldier, what I actually experienced wasn't direct combat, but was
indirect attacks against us: roadside bombs, snipers, mortar attacks, those
types of things.
GROSS: Did you write that poem while you were in Iraq?
Mr. TURNER: I did. I wrote this book while I was in Iraq, except for two or
GROSS: What's the closest you came to the bullet actually hitting you?
Mr. TURNER: One of the times I remember, for example, is going around a
traffic circle in Mosul, and the vehicles have to slow down to make the
circle, and as we were going around this, there's many streets, of course,
that sort of spiral out of those circles, and from one of them, a guy fired a
rocket-propelled grenade, an RPG, that slammed in the back of our Stryker, an
event that made me think about people that might be trying to kill me. And I
remember writing in my notebooks that night, questioning whether or not, if I
could meet that person tomorrow and if we could break bread and sit down at a
table and eat lunch together and eat and talk, would he still fire at me the
day after that? Or would I fire at him, you know? And I still don't know the
answer to that.
GROSS: Was it after that that you wrote the poem?
Mr. TURNER: Yes, it was, actually. There were a few events. There were two
or three different rocket attacks in the space of about a week, and I think it
was shortly thereafter that I wrote that poem. I wrote it in about 10 to 15
minutes. It's one of the fastest poems I've ever written, if you discount
like 20 years of study prior to that. But I wrote it while listening to the
Queens of the Stone Age, this rock band, and as sort of wallpaper music so I
couldn't hear people outside. And I wrote it, and it's verbatim what it was
when I wrote it. And I took it, and I folded it up and I put it in a Ziploc
bag and I carried it in my chest pocket the rest of the time that I was in
country. And it seemed sort of like a talisman, an acknowledgment of where I
GROSS: Forgive me for bringing this up, but had a bullet or an IED found you,
that would have been with your remains.
Mr. TURNER: Yeah.
GROSS: And if it was legible, it kind of would have been your epitaph. Were
you thinking that when you carried it with you?
Mr. TURNER: I can't really remember exactly what I was thinking, as far as
that goes; but prior to going over to Iraq, I was chosen, my company did it,
to take this one class with the mortuary affairs specialist. He was a
sergeant first class. He taught me, if they're on a battlefield, for example,
if there were, say, 40 people killed and we came across the scene, and I was
supposed to come out, and they would secure the area, and then I was trained
on how to mark the area and to properly bag the remains of people and body
parts and things like that. And I saw him again in Kuwait, and then I saw him
again in Mosul in the dining facility. And I remember, it felt sort of like
death was following me. Because I knew that if I did die and that poem was
with me in my pocket, then my body would be processed through him, and he
would maybe read it somehow. You know?
GROSS: I'm going to ask you to read another poem from your collection "Here,
Bullet." And this is called "What Every Soldier Should Know."
Mr. TURNER: This poem begins with a quote from Rousseau, which says, "To
yield to force is an act of necessity, not of will. It is at best an act of
"What Every Soldier Should Know"
If you hear gunfire on a Thursday afternoon,
it could be for a wedding, or it could be for you.
Always enter a home with your right foot;
The left is for cemeteries and unclean places.
O-guf! Tera armeek is rarely useful.
It means, `Stop! Or I'll shoot.'
Sabah el kahir is effective.
It means `Good Morning.'
Inshallah means `Allah be willing.'
Listen well when it is spoken.
You will hear the RPG coming for you.
Not so the roadside bomb.
There are bombs under the overpasses,
in trash piles, in bricks, in cars.
There are shopping carts with clothes soaked
in foogas, a sticky gel of homemade napalm.
Parachute bombs and artillery shells
sewn into the carcasses of dead farm animals.
Graffiti sprayed under the overpasses:
I will kell you, American.
Men wearing vests rigged with explosives
walk up, raise their arms and say Inshallah.
There are men who earn $80
to attack you, 5,000 to kill.
Small children who will play with you,
old men with their talk, women who offer chai--
And any one of them
May dance over your body tomorrow.
GROSS: Brian, I know you're completing a new book now. Are you still writing
about combat in Iraq?
Mr. TURNER: I'm actually writing about what I feel is missing back here. I
was trying to write poems that were in Iraq, the poems that I'd started over
there but never were finished, and I found that they weren't working. And I
realized that, you know, of course I'm no longer there, so I can't write those
poems. But I started looking around and seeing that, you know, we're a
country at war, but disturbingly, I don't see war like in Marfa, Texas, or
Fresno, California, where I'm from. I'm not seeing it in my daily life. I'm
not experiencing. And yet there are these sort of imagistic rhymes all around
I went into Lowe's home improvement center, for example, and I was buying some
nails. I started looking at them, and I realized that there was a type of
scaffolding nail, double-headed nail, that looks a lot like the firing pin
inside my weapon that I used to carry. And then, like, when you go to the
register and you pay for the cash, and the register slides open, that
shuh-shuh, that sound when it slides, sounds a bit like a machine gun being
charged. And the fan blades above, you know, they're imagistically rhyming a
bit with the rotors of a helicopter, for example.
So these are the poems I'm writing now. I'm writing about the soldiers that
have come back. What is that experience like for us, as we come back? And
then, what is experience like as a nation? It seems to me a bit obscene that
we can bury so many people in the earth and yet know so little about them.
And that's what I'm writing about now.
GROSS: Brian Turner, thank you so much for talking with us.
Mr. TURNER: Oh, no, it's an honor. Thank you.
GROSS: Brian Turner's book of poems is called "Here, Bullet." He spoke to us
from Marfa, Texas, where he has a writing residency through the Lannan
You can download podcasts of our show on our Web site, freshair.npr.org.
GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
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