DATE June 1, 2006 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: Hanx Blix, former director of International Atomic
Energy Agency and now head of Weapons of Mass Destruction
Commission, talks about the commission's goal and its report to
the UN on weapons of mass destruction
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
As headlines focus on Iran's nuclear program and diplomatic efforts to stop
it, Hans Blix is taking the longer view on weapons of mass destruction. As
you probably remember, during the lead-up to the invasion of Iraq, Blix was
the head of the U weap--UN weapons inspection team in Iraq. Before that, he
spent 18 years as the director of the International Atomic Energy Agency, the
After the invasion of Iraq, Blix left the UN and was asked by the Swedish
foreign minister to head a new independent international commission to examine
how the world could tackle the problem of weapons of mass destruction. The
Weapons of Mass Destruction Commission's work is largely financed by the
Swedish government. Blix presented the commission's new report to the UN
today. It proposes ways to reduce WMD around the world and eventually outlaw
I spoke with Blix yesterday. I said to him, `You could argue that writing
proposals is simple, but getting countries to comply and give up their weapons
is very difficult.'
Mr. HANS BLIX: It's often said that nothing is so strong as an idea whose
time has come and if you come with a message and you've come with some
proposals at a moment when there's no receptivity for it, well, then you don't
get very far. I was at the IAEA when the Chernobyl accident took place in
1986, and that was the moment when we certainly could do a great deal to
improve nuclear safety through conventions and other means. And I was there
also in 1991 when we discovered how the Iraqis had been hiding their programs
of weapons of mass destruction. And thereafter it would prove possible to
strengthen their whole safeguard system, the verification system, the
inspection system of the IAEA. Before that, it would not have been possible.
Now we are in a similar situation. We are coming out with a number of
messages here, and what is the world--what is the receptivity for it today.
And then, I'm--I have some hope for that. I think that with the Iraq war,
Saddam Hussein was ousted, and that's the--a great benefit of the war,
although I think if he had stayed, if the war hadn't occurred, he probably
would have faded a bit like Castro or Qaddafi. But, anyway, that was a gain,
but what we also experienced was, first of all, that a big war was fought to
eliminate weapons of mass destruction that didn't exist in the first place.
In the second place, that the military approach to doing away with weapons of
mass destruction was very, very costly. So today maybe the question there is
should one not use other means less bloody, less expensive means to try to
avoid a proliferation and the threat of weapons of mass destruction. I think
that's what we are witnessing now in the case of North Korea and in the case
GROSS: Let me quote something from your report. You write, "So long as any
state has weapons of mass destruction, especially nuclear weapons, others will
want them. So long as any such weapons remain in any state arsenal, there's a
high risk that they will one day be used, by design or accident." What are you
saying about countries like the United States that have quite a large arsenal
of nuclear weapons. Do you--what do you think this country should be doing?
Mr. BLIX: We are telling Iran that `Don't go on with enrichment of uranium.'
We're telling the North Koreans that they should do away with the nuclear
weapons they claim they have. But, at the same time, we see discussions about
the acquisition of bunker busters, new types of nuclear weapons in the US.
And in the UK they are beginning to discuss whether they should have the
Trident program replaced by a more modern program. The French will be in
front with the same question. Now surely the Russians, the Chinese are also
discussing the US weapons, but it is difficult to tell others to stay away
from these things which we are refining and developing.
GROSS: One of the things that your report recommends is that countries that
do have nuclear weapons sign "no first use pledges." What would a pledge read
like, and would you like to see the United States sign a pledge like that?
Mr. BLIX: Right, well, that is a proposal that has been on the table for a
long time. I mean, we--not all our proposals are brand-new. We are not so
presumptuous as to think that we can come with new proposals of everything.
And the non-first use idea is one that has been around for a long time. But
it has a special actuality now, and that is that we hear that the US, for
instance, is saying that they might use nuclear weapons in retaliation for or
perhaps in pre-emption of a use of the other weapons of mass destruction, of
biological or chemical weapons of mass destruction. We have heard President
Chirac also saying that if there were--if there was a risk of a country
assisting terrorists in the use of some weapons of mass destruction, they--it
would be an open question what the--France would use in return. Now that
would mean that if someone were to use gas somewhere or a biological attack,
that the other state could use nuclear weapons in retaliation. There would
be--that would be a first use of nuclear weapons which now seems to be open to
them and which we think would be very risky because then it might develop into
a duel of nuclear weapons being used by other states as well. So we would
like to--them to affirm that "no first use" in any circumstance.
GROSS: Let's take a look at Iran. What kind of mix of carrots and sticks do
you think should be offered to Iran now?
Mr. BLIX: I think that waving of sticks is often counterproductive because
many states will say, `Sorry, but we will not negotiate under a threat. If
you remove the threat, then we can talk about it.' And they will know what the
sticks are--the threats are anyway. The first carrot you might say is that if
they should refrain from making their fuel--enriched uranium for fuel, then
you must assure their supply. They have two units of nuclear power plants and
they will need fuel, so they must be assured that they can get fuel from
abroad if they stay away from producing it themselves. I think that the
question of assurance of supply in the case of Iran or fuel for their nuclear
power industry is manageable, and we have recently heard how the western
European states have said that they might even offer Iran to be sold like
water reactors. I think that's very good suggestion, a good carrot, because
it demonstrates that the Western world is not against Iran coming--and going
for modern technology. The Iranians have often said that, that `the Western
world wants to stop us to go into the nuclear age.' But this proposal I think
is one, a carrot, that is very effective maybe. Helpful in the first place
and shows that they don't want to stop the uranium.
Another feature which is important is--relates to security. With seeing so
many US soldiers--over 100,000 soldiers--in Iraq in American bases and
Pakistan and Afghanistan, and seeing US activity also in the former Russian
Soviet republics to the north, I don't think France should be surprised if
they are concerned about this kind of encirclement, and therefore, the
question of security and possible security guarantees have come up.
GROSS: I think a lot of people are wondering is what we are seeing now, in
terms of negotiation about Iran, going to lead to what happened when we were
negotiating about Iraq? I mean...
Mr. BLIX: Yeah.
GROSS: ...we ended up invading Iraq. Is that going to happen with Iran, and
Mr. BLIX: Mmm.
GROSS: ...I know you can't predict this with certainty, but you're certainly
as informed as anyone. What do you think? Do you think that there
might--that the United States might lead an invasion of Iran?
Mr. BLIX: Well, they could...
GROSS: Or use military force? You know. Bomb Iran.
Mr. BLIX: The commission whose report I'm here to present does not pronounce
itself on this but suggests what one must do including the question of
security and assurance of supply, etc., but I understand your question. I
mean, if the Iranians were simply to shrug it off or defy the Security
Council, it might send them to escalate into something new and if then the
Russians and Chinese were to come and vote negatively with the veto in the
Security Council, then theoretically the US might say well, `The Council again
is not fulfilling its duty, so we will have to do something separately.'
However, my impression is reading what Washington is saying that they really
have no intention to go for a military force in Iran and judging also by what
I see from US public opinion, I think that's highly unlikely. I think the
other way of both of providing incentives for them to--and assurances that
that is more hopeful. But I come back to the need for disarmament measures,
you see. To simply tell Iran that `You must behave yourself' or to tell them
that `You are troublemakers,' I don't think that will lead us where we want
GROSS: What's at stake in Iran? If Iran actually does develop a nuclear
weapon, what would that mean?
Mr. BLIX: Well, I think it changes the strategic balance in the Middle East.
The Israelis will certainly feel exposed, especially after the warnings or the
rhetoric of the Iranian president that he would like to wipe Israel off of the
map of the Earth. But we must remember also that Iran is not Iraq. When the
Iranian president had said this, he was criticized in the Iranian parliament
for it. If someone had said--criticized Saddam Hussein in Iraq, he wouldn't
have been alive very many minutes after it. So that may be a question whether
this is horrible rhetoric or whether it is something more serious.
But certainly it is that the Israeli superiority and their possession of a
couple of hundred nuclear weapons, if that was matched by some nuclear weapons
on the Iranian side, it would change the picture very much and would be much,
much more dangerous and, therefore, I think it would be desirable that they
stay away from this. It would be desirable that the whole world, including
Israel, will try to do things that would convince the Iranians that it is not
necessary that we are walking towards peace and not towards an increased
GROSS: My guest is Hans Blix. He now heads the Weapons of Mass Destruction
Commission. More after a break.
This is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Hans Blix, and he's now the
chair of the Weapons of Mass Destruction Commission, and their goal is to
propose ways for reducing weapons of mass destruction around the world.
They've issued a new report called "Weapons of Terror: Freeing the World of
Nuclear, Biological and Chemical Weapons."
You've just completed the Weapons of Mass Destruction Commission's report
"Weapons on Terror." What are some of the proposals you're making in that
report for dealing with terrorist access to weapons of mass destruction? What
are some of the ways that you're proposing to prevent terrorists from getting
biological, chemical or nuclear weapons?
Mr. BLIX: Well, one of the most important ways is to prevent that they can
lay their hands on equipment or indeed on weapons themselves. So putting
locks on the weapons stores is a good start, and there's a lot of that being
done in Russia, and lots of Western money and lots of US money that has gone
into improving the locks and the control, because during the Soviet time, then
you had a sort of a police state that was everywhere, and when the police
state disappeared, more or less, then they need to have better legislation and
better technical means of protection. So this is one means.
You also have conventions which are there for the protection of nuclear
material. You need to have good accountants, for instance, of nuclear
material. And sometimes talk is about the so-called dirty bomb. A dirty bomb
is not a nuclear weapon that would explode, but it's a weapon that contains
radioactive material, like cobalt or cesium or other stuff, and you put some
conventional explosives together with it, and then you explode it in a public
space in London or New York or Paris, and it brings a lot of radiation. It
will contaminate. It will not kill all that many people but it will certainly
bring a lot of panic. And so keeping control over these radioactive materials
is an important part.
GROSS: How does your Weapons of Mass Destruction Commission propose dealing
with somebody like AQ Khan, who is, you know, like a nuclear freelancer who
sold technology and weapons designs to countries and perhaps to individual
terrorists? There--you know, AQ Khan is not a country. You can't--you don't
like negotiate with him. You don't--you know what I mean? It's--he's a
Mr. BLIX: Mmm.
GROSS: ...how do you propose dealing with people like that?
Mr. BLIX: Well, we support the ideas which have already been acted upon that
states members of the UN should have criminal legislation which will be
operative against individuals, whether the individuals themselves are trying
to make weapons of mass destruction or they're trying to sell them. And the
resolution adopted by the Security Council--there was less than 15:40, those
are up from a couple of years ago--precisely requests--requires member states
to take such criminal action.
GROSS: My understanding is that AQ Khan is basically under house arrest in a
very nice house and that he is protected from any kind of questioning from the
international community. And, in other words, he got off very easy is my
understanding because the United States wants to maintain a good relationship
with Musharraf so that Musharraf will cooperate on the war on terror, but in
the meantime, one of the possible real guilty parties is getting off really
easy, and I wonder what your reaction to that is.
Mr. BLIX: Well, I think that the--we must think forward. I don't think that
Mr. Khan will be able to do this thing once again, but any reaction or
punishment to him I think should send a signal to others. But you also have
to be aware that in every country you have your own domestic concerns, and I
assume that one of the constraints the Pakistani government has felt is that
he's also regarded as a national hero because he helped to develop a nuclear
weapon that the majority of the people in Pakistan perhaps feel that they need
to balance the nuclear weapons in India. I don't know the exact movements or
the thoughts but that's what I imagine is at play.
GROSS: I've been wondering if the war in Iraq weighs on you in a personal
way. You know, what I'm thinking is, you know, your team couldn't find
weapons of mass destruction. You wanted more time to keep looking. That time
was denied you because of the invasion. Weapons of mass destruction have not
been found in Iraq. So, you know, if you were given more time, perhaps there
wouldn't have been a war. So, do you think of the war in Iraq in a very
Mr. BLIX: No, not really. I mean, I feel more like an analyst, and I don't
feel a grudge. I mean, I regret what happened. I think it's--it was tragic.
I think that if the Security Council would have allowed inspectors to continue
inspections for a few months, we would have been able to report that all the
sites we'd gone to had no weapons of mass destruction, and since many of these
sites were given to us by intelligence organizations, including the CIA, they
would have realized that the tips they had, the sources they had, were
unsatisfactory. We had told them about three dozen locations, which they had
given to us, that there was nothing, so they should have realized that in
those cases, their sources were unsatisfactory. And maybe it would have
prevented the war. It would have certainly been more difficult to move toward
war. However, that is history, and I think that now it's more important to
try to learn from the Iraqi affair.
And one lesson that I think must be learned is that the use of international
inspection was more objective than the national ones. The national ones
turned out to be much more influenced by either wishes or instructions. It
says more influenced by wishes of their governments, of Blair in the UK
government and of the executives in the US government. They were more
susceptible and accepting of such pressures, whereas we international
inspectors had the orders from the Security Council, and our only instinct was
to do a good professional job. We did not say that there were no weapons of
mass destruction. We said that we had carried out 700 inspections
and--professionally, and we didn't find any. So--and some people accused to
us and said, `You should have said there weren't any weapons,' No, we stuck to
the truth. We said what we knew. And it turned out that this critical
professional attitude came closer, much closer to the truth than what the UK
and the US and even other countries' intelligence did.
GROSS: Clearly, you're very worried about the threat of weapons of mass
destruction. There are tens of thousands of nuclear weapons that Russia and
the United States has now. When you think of that, and when you think about
the possibility of accidents, how worried are you?
Mr. BLIX: Well, we should be worried, and I am worried because you have a
great many of these are on high trigger alert, and they have systems of launch
on warning. So there is a risk as you say that they could be something
launched by accident. Right now, there's a discussion in the US whether they
should develop some conventional types of weapons that can be fired from--with
Trident from the US submarines, and the risk would be that another country may
mistake and say that, well, `Trident, that's usually nuclear weapons.' So it
might blur the distinction between conventional weapons, and that's a risky
think. And all this risk of accident. Yes, it is there, and it does worry
both me, and it should worry everybody else.
GROSS: One more question. Do you know that you were a character in the
animated movie "Team America"?
Mr. BLIX: I've heard about that, yes.
GROSS: Have you seen it?
Mr. BLIX: No, I haven't seen it. But I heard it described and I know that
my head was lopped off and then thrown into some pool of sharks or whatever it
was and--but, you know, my reaction was simply that they made me say that `If
you do not behave, we will make a report.' And that was made to sound
ridiculous, that a report has no importance at all, it has no weight at all.
I think that's a mistake. If we had reported to the Security Council that
`Well, we have listened to the CIA, we've listened to the others and we have
no reason at all to doubt that what they say has a lot of evidence,' such a
report would have carried a lot of weight. We did not. We said that we had
carried out 700 inspections and we had found nothing.
Now, it didn't sway the US and the UK or Spain, but the majority in the
General Assembly, the majority of the Security Council were impressed by that
report. Maybe they wanted to come to that conclusion, I don't doubt that, but
at the same time, that report, what we said, carried a weight and it prevented
the Security Council from authorizing a war, which in my view, it shouldn't
authorize. I think the Council was right in not authorizing the war, and I
think it really speaks in favor of the UN and the wisdom rather than that it
sort of betrayed the US.
GROSS: Well, Hans Blix, I want to thank you very much for talking with us.
Mr. BLIX: Thanks very much for good questions.
GROSS: Hans Blix heads the Weapons of Mass Destruction Commission. To find
out more about the commission and its new report, go to our Web site at
I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Interview: Sergeants Zack Bazzi and Stephen Pink, both with
New Hampshire National Guard, discuss documentary "The War Tapes,"
part of which they filmed themselves while deployed in Iraq
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
(Soundbite of "The War Tapes")
Unidentified Man #1: Can't you...(unintelligible)...them down?
Unidentified Man #2: (Unintelligible)...them down.
Unidentified Man #3: There they are, right there! Corner of that building
(End of soundbite)
GROSS: That's a clip from the beginning of "The War Tapes," a new documentary
filmed by soldiers in Iraq. The director of the film, Deborah Solomon,
offered 180 soldiers in Charlie Company the chance to be given minicameras so
they could film the war from their point of view. Ten soldiers said yes. My
guests are two of them: Sergeant Zack Bazzi and Stephen Pink of the New
Hampshire National Guard. They arrived in Iraq with their cameras in March
2004. They each mounted their cameras on their Humvees. Sergeant Bazzi is a
Lebanese-born American who joined the Army and was previously deployed in
Bosnia and Kosovo. Later, while in college, he joined the National Guard.
Sergeant Pink joined the Guard to help pay for college. He's now a carpenter
living in Cape Cod.
"The War Tapes" won the best International Documentary Award at the Tribeca
Film Festival. Zack Bazzi, Stephen Pink, welcome to FRESH AIR.
We see in "The War Tapes" the results of several IED explosions. You
obviously spent a lot of time driving on roads that were mined with--you know,
that were set up with IEDs. What are you taught to look for?
Sergeant STEPHEN PINK: Well, we're trained to look for foreign objects in the
road that don't look like they should be there. Also, you know, pavement that
looks like it's been chipped away or broken up. Boxes. Just random things
like that. And obviously abandoned vehicles are a huge, you know, a huge
caution and something that we certainly are aware of at all times.
At the same rate, you know, when you're traveling 65 miles at hour, you know,
with a convey in tow, you know, even though you've got three guys looking out
at all times, there are just some things that are impossible to see. Plus
Iraq is completely littered with trash everywhere so, you know, what's an old
cardboard box, you know, may be just a cardboard box, but there also may be
something inside there that's going to explode.
GROSS: There are--there are shots of casualties of IED explosions within the
movie. I'm trying to remember if any of those shots are from either of your
Sergeant ZACK BAZZI: Specialist Helman, I believe, you're talking about.
Sgt. PINK: Right. One of the guys in my squad. He got a lot of shrapnel
injuries to his face after an IED went off just beside his truck. I think
that if it wasn't for the M1114 up-armored Humvee which has three-inch
ballistic glass all around it and reinforced steel on all the doors--I think
if it wasn't for that vehicle, we probably would have lost close to half the
company to the IEDs. That windshield will stop a .50-caliber bullet, and it
certainly did stop a lot of IED explosions from killing our guys.
GROSS: How did you feel about having casualties captured on film in the movie
"The War Tapes"?
Sgt. PINK: I thought it was beneficial, not only, you know, for the film and
for people to see what was going on, but also to get a soldier's account of,
you know, what happened to him, you know, hours after he got out of the cache.
And you know, to just document the complete frustration by getting hit by an
IED. It's so much different than getting engaged by the enemy with a weapon
where you can see who's shooting at you and you can fire back and use the
training that you have and the skill you have as a soldier to defeat the
enemy. And against an IED, there's really not too much you can do except be
completely frustrated and hope that you survive it.
GROSS: Sergeant Stephen Pink, within "The War Tapes," you describe seeing a
casualty whose flesh is being eaten by a stray dog. Would you describe what
you're talking about?
Sgt. PINK: Yes. The--what we're talking about is--our platoon was assigned
to assist the Marines on the outskirts of Fallujah during the offensive of
November in 2004. One of the squads in our platoon was clearing buildings and
encountered three insurgents inside the buildings, one of whom shot and
wounded Sergeant Nathan Smith. And the squad pursued the insurgents and shot
and killed all three of them, took their ammunition and their weapons, and
after that, it was our squad's turn to come onto duty with 12-hour shifts.
They evacuated Nathan and our squad took over the scene. We finished clearing
the buildings and basically kept an eye on the bodies until the toe-tagger
showed up to remove them. During that--you know, a stray dog came by and took
bits of flesh that were kind of strewn around the area and then, you know,
kept going on. And I remember joking about it at one point, how, you know,
`We're kind of getting the Marine scraps on the outskirts of the city, and you
know, maybe this dog is getting our scraps.' And I just thought, you know, to
finally see, you know, dead insurgents who are definitely insurgents who, you
know--it was so difficult to distinguish who was who in many cases in Iraq, to
finally see our enemy face to face and dead, after, you know, wounding one of
our troops in our platoon. It was a rewarding feeling.
GROSS: Sergeant Zack Bazzi, you describe in "The War Tapes" part of your
mission was to escort and protect KBR--Kellogg, Brown and Root--supply
Sgt. BAZZI: Mm-hmm.
GROSS: And these were--KBR's a subsidiary of Halliburton, and this is a
company that's a private military contractor and part of their job is to
supply the food and bring the food, prepare the food...
Sgt. BAZZI: Yes.
GROSS: ...for the troops. What's a KBR mission like when it's your job to
escort and protect the trucks?
Sgt. BAZZI: Well, that was actually a fundamental part of our overall
company mission in Iraq, escorting convoy trucks. Yeah. Sometimes it was KBR
trucks. Sometimes it was what you'd call TCN trucks, third-country national
trucks, where the people driving them usually come from countries such as
India, Pakistan and Turkey. And we would escort them--the convoy--from Point
A to Point B. And the way that worked is there are certain rules of
engagement, I guess, that we went by on a convoy mission, so if we got hit by
an IED, we would just keep going. If the IED damaged one of the vehicles, we
would try to recover it on the spot. If not, we would call recovery assets.
If we got engaged by insurgents using AKs and RPGs, our Humvees--also known as
platform--would engage insurgents. The Humvees in the middle would break off
out of the formation, go there and focus on the insurgents while the rest of
the convoy kept going out of the kill zone. Basically kind of ambush
procedures. Nothing too fancy. So that's pretty much how it worked.
You know, a lot of times you'd have situations that just would come up out of
the blue--somebody would throw rocks. Rock throwers. We had certain specific
rules of engagement how to deal with that. Also, you know, one of our Humvees
might break down or one of those trucks might break down. Some of the
frustrations, I think, you hear in the movies with soldiers is when you have
TCN trucks, usually they're manned by non-Americans. They were really rundown
and in bad shape. And they would break down on us quite often so sometimes
you'd see the soldiers kind of venting off about that because, you know,
whenever a truck breaks down, you're static, you're prime rich target for the
enemy to engage you when you're static. So it really is not in our best
interest to go out there out on the wire with less than optimal trucks.
With that being said, it's just amazing about how--what you see on the road,
how the soldiers react to kind of unforeseen situations. I mean, you get out
there with a really bad truck, but then, you know--that's the great thing
about the US infantry soldier is, regardless of the obstacles, ultimately you
adapt, you overcome and you drive on with your mission till it's accomplished.
GROSS: Stephen, what was your mission?
Sgt. PINK: My mission was the same as Zack's. I had the same rank, and we
spent the better part of the second half of the year in the same platoon, and
it was convoy security, it was combat patrols, and it was manning a radio
station. We also had some occasional missions that were different. We spent
a few days escorting South Korean troops from southern Iraq in Scania all the
way up to Erbil which is in Kurdish country, and that was a four-day mission
where we worked hand-in-hand with the South Korean troops, and that was
interesting mission and certainly one that I was glad to get because it was
different from the monotony of what we were doing for a whole year. And also
to go up to Kurdish country and see Erbil, which was basically a working
Muslim city. Our rules of engagement were entirely different in Kurdish
country. We really couldn't show much forms of aggression at all. Our
weapons needed to be pointed up and away at all times, but for good reason.
The threat level there was a lot lower, and it was really good to get a view
of Muslim culture in an area that we didn't see anything like that before in
our entire tour.
GROSS: What did you think of `the mission.' I don't mean your individual
missions, you know, but I mean the larger mission of the war, once you were
there? Or did you not think about that a lot as a soldier?
Sgt. BAZZI: Actually, I think you hit the nail right on the head. Look, the
Army, I think, always tells you what to do, and rightly so, if you, you
know--the system would collapse otherwise. Soldiers can't cherry-pick their
war, otherwise, we'd be like a militia or something. But the US soldier is
very complex and very sophisticated, I think. And everyone had their views on
it; everyone had their two cents. No different than if you just get, you
know, 100 college kids together. I'm sure they all have their different ideas
about all sorts of things. By the end of the day, again, it's the behavior
that counts, not--yes, people had different political perspectives, but
as--professionally speaking, everyone did their mission. Was there a little
bit of cynicism? Yes, I think it comes through in the movie. Was there, you
know, but the morale and the professionalism, I think, was always of the
GROSS: My guests are Sergeants Zack Bazzi and Stephen Pink, two of the
soldiers whose footage of the war in Iraq is used in the new film, "The War
Tapes." We'll talk more after a break.
This is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guests are Sergeant Zack Bazzi and
Sergeant Stephen Pink, and they're two of the soldiers who are--who had
minicameras during their year of duty in Iraq, and their work is included in
the new film "The War Tapes," which is the war shot from the point of view of
soldiers in Iraq who were given cameras.
Sergeant Zack Bazzi, you were born in Lebanon, where you lived for the first
what, eight or 10 years of your life?
Sgt. BAZZI: Roughly speaking, yeah. I came here when I was roughly eight or
GROSS: And you speak Arabic and I believe you're of Muslim descent, Shiite
Muslim. Do I have that right?
Sgt. BAZZI: Yes, that's my--I was born into that--I'm not really a religious
person at all, but...
Sgt. BAZZI: ...yup, so I speak Arabic just like, I guess an American born in
America would speak English, so...
GROSS: So, how did that affect your relationship with Iraqis, you know, and
did you end up doing a lot of informal translating while you were there?
Sgt. BAZZI: Yes, I did actually. My language ability in a way was a vehicle
for empathy and understanding but also more importantly, it was a vehicle that
allowed me to do my mission better as an infantry sergeant because in a
regular situation if you didn't know the language, you'd have maybe one
interpreter with an entire squad and usually he's attached to the squad leader
and so it would make communication, you know, a little more complicated, while
for me, at least, it was, you know, one on one. I could speak with Iraqis,
see what they need, see what we can do to solve the problem. Let's say a
vehicle broke down or we came upon a accident or we were at a checkpoint, and
it really--I thought it was a blessing because I like to be in the middle of
things and I like to be involved in what's really happening. So sometimes it
allowed me to do things above my rank because, you know, usually if you're
just a regular sergeant, you're with your platform. The squad leader might
set your Humvee or platform somewhere and pull security. In my case, he'd let
me dismount and go with him and handle what's going on. So for a soldier that
likes to be in the middle of stuff, it really was a blessing. Sometimes, as
you can see in the movie, it can be a bit frustrating, having to be the
messenger to deliver some, you know, bad news to people. It can be a little
taxing sometimes, but for the most part I enjoyed it. It allowed me to do my
mission better. It also allowed me to help the Iraqis better.
GROSS: Did you find--were there any times that fellow soldiers were saying
derogatory things about Islam and--not knowing perhaps that you were of, you
know, Islamic descent?
Sgt. BAZZI: Well, you know, I'm not religious so, you know, I'm pretty...
GROSS: So it didn't matter to you one way or the other.
Sgt. BAZZI: No, I'm pretty thick-skinned, you know. Being Lebanese-American
in this man's army for eight years now...
Sgt. BAZZI: ...if you're not thick-skinned, you would have been gone a long
time ago, so, you know, I...
GROSS: What do you have to be thick-skinned about?
Sgt. BAZZI: Well, you know, part of the esprit de corp, the cohesion that
comes in an infantry outfit is the joking, the bantering, the, you know, the
fooling around, and all that stuff. So we, you know--it's what makes a unit
bond, is the fact that we all tease each other. So if someone's short or has
a funny last name, you know, we make fun of each other about these things.
Trust me, I dish it out as well as I receive it, so I have no issue with it.
Because, at the end of the day, I know these soldiers, my fellow soldiers, are
going to do their job, and they're going to have my back and I'm going to have
their back, and, ultimately, that's what counts.
GROSS: Now, there's a couple of scenes with your mother talking about you and
she describes you--you know, she talks about having moved with you from
Lebanon during the civil war there and...
Sgt. BAZZI: Mm-hmm.
GROSS: And she talks about--one memory that she has of you when you were like
four years old or something, and there's like fighting outside and it's very
unnerving to you as a four-year-old, and she talks about how so much she
wanted you--to take you out of this country that's torn by civil war and bring
you to a safe place, and she manages to do that, and now she feels--but you've
decided, you've voluntarily gone to one of the most unsafe places in the
world. And I'm wondering if you've thought about that a lot...
Sgt. BAZZI: Hm-mmm.
GROSS: ...you know, if you've thought about growing up in a country torn by
civil war. Your family gets you out of there and then you join the military
and get sent to a place...
Sgt. BAZZI: That...
GROSS: ...torn by war.
Sgt. BAZZI: ...the irony of it all. Yes, well, not really. I think, yeah,
not really. Not really that dramatic about this. Point is, I've got--I think
part of my personality always--I have a soldier's personality. I was--yes, I
was born in a country with a lot of civil war. Iraq was not the first time
I've seen a car bomb go off or AKs going off and, you know, firefights and so
on, but I think that helped me. I'm a fairly resilient person and
thick-skinned, and it helped me do my job better whereas you know, somebody
else who hasn't experienced that stuff growing up might be very shocked to see
it the first time.
And again, it wasn't my first deployment. When I was on active duty with the
101st Airborne Division, I deployed a couple of times to Bosnia and Kosovo, so
one thing I've seen a lot in my life is war, and, well, unfortunately, also
it's going to be with us for a long time to come.
GROSS: Sergeant Zack Bazzi, you signed up for another tour, am I--in the
National Guard, do I have that right?
Sgt. BAZZI: Yes.
GROSS: So, do you want to go back to Iraq?
Sgt. BAZZI: Well, look, I'm--I've been there eight years. It's not
something if you--something that's not--that does not suit your personality, I
would have gotten out a long time ago. Like I said, it's something I like.
My contract was up a few months upon my return from Iraq, which was last year.
I went ahead and re-enlisted. For the time being, I consider myself a career
soldier in the National Guard. I plan on staying in. So that being said, if
the order came down for me to deploy to anywhere in the world, and regardless
of the dubious political context stateside, I would go. Like I said, a lot of
these things I do have very definite opinions on them politically, but
professionally I do my duty.
GROSS: Yeah. In the movie you say, `I love being a soldier. The only bad
thing about the Army is that you can't pick your war.'
Sgt. BAZZI: And, no, you can't and nor should you be able to because, like I
said, then we'd be a bunch of Boy Scouts instead of soldiers.
GROSS: Is this a war you would not have picked?
Sgt. BAZZI: Well, you know, as a staff sergeant in the United States Army, I
don't think it's up to me to pick or choose national security issues. If
that's the case, I certainly wouldn't be here in the studio. I'd be somewhere
GROSS: I doubt you'd think this way but I'm not a soldier, so that's why I
think this way. This is why I'd never make a good soldier. Were you ever
worried that the cameras that you had mounted on your Humvees would end up
filming your own death or injury? Is that--I--it's probably something you
can't even allow yourself to think about.
Sgt. PINK: Wow, it's funny, I've never thought about that. I never thought
about that once before. There were several times where, you know, I was
frustrated with the camera and several times I didn't bring it out with me at
all although it was along for the ride for many of the times. There were
several times when it wasn't, but as far as worrying about the camera filming
my own death, that just sounds graphic and, oh, I don't know.
Sgt. BAZZI: Yeah, Terry. You're on your own on that one. Terry, that's a
little morbid, don't you think?
GROSS: I think, maybe, yes.
Sgt. PINK: Wow! Don't give you a minicam any time soon.
GROSS: Don't give me a soldier's uniform, I think. I just, you know, I think
there's a certain degree of worry and self-consciousness that you cannot have
if you're a soldier.
Sgt. BAZZI: Well, yeah, of course. I think if you focus too much on the
possibilities of you dying a gruesome and drama--fiery death, you're probably
not going to be able to do your job well...
Sgt. BAZZI: ...especially as a sergeant, when, you know, you've got men
looking up to you, looking for guidance, and if you're worry about, you know,
your own well-being then you're not going to be worrying about their
well-being and in a way, not doing your duty.
Sgt. PINK: I remember several times just really being very concerned with my
gunner, who was, you know, just basically the most vulnerable one in the
truck. My gunner happened to be fairly tall as well and he spent a lot of
time exposed. And I spent several times going through my head exactly what my
actions were going to be and what we were going to do when my gunner got hit.
It wasn't even a matter of if, it was when it happens, how am I going to
react? How are we going to take care of the situation? And I played that
through my head several times, or if my driver were to get hit. Like Zack has
been mentioning, when you're in a leadership role, your obligations change
entirely, and your concern becomes not for just you but for everyone that's
below you, before you.
GROSS: Well, thank you both so much and best to you.
Sgt. BAZZI: Thank you, Terry.
Sgt. PINK: Thanks, Terry.
GROSS: Sergeants Stephen Pink and Zack Bazzi shot much of the footage used in
the new documentary, "The War Tapes." It opens in New York Friday and will
later open in other cities around the country. Coming up, should English be
declared our national language? This is FRESH AIR.
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Interview: Linguist Geoff Nunberg discusses proclaiming English
the national language as part of Senate version of immigration
TERRY GROSS, host:
The Senate version of the immigration bill includes a clause proclaiming
English the national language and calling on the federal government to
preserve and enhance the role of English. Our linguist Geoff Nunberg isn't
sure if this is a good idea.
Mr. GEOFF NUNBERG: To hear supporters tell it, declaring English the national
language is a purely symbolic gesture, like establishing a national anthem or
proclaiming that June is national ergonomics month. That isn't quite true.
The declaration could be used by states to deny various services, like
providing interpreters for immigrants in child custody proceedings or workers
compensation hearings. But the bill doesn't actually bar states of the
federal government from providing bilingual services that are already being
offered. But it's precisely the symbolism and timing of the declaration that
make it such a loaded political gesture.
For more than 200 years, after all, the United States and the English language
have been happily cohabiting without benefit of clergy, even in periods when
there were proportionately more immigrants than there are today. Why do we
suddenly need to officially tie the knot? Do immigrants really need to be
sent a message about the importance of English in American life? That seems
to be what a lot of Americans believe anyway. In a recent Pew survey, 60
percent of Americans said they thought immigrants weren't doing enough to
learn English, and a large plurality said that immigrants today were less
willing to adapt to the American way of life than immigrants in the early
1900s were. But that's merely another reminder of how easy it is for
pollsters to get Americans to pronounce on matters that they couldn't possibly
have an informed opinion about. If people were trying to give honest answers
to a question about whether the pace of language assimilation has decreased
over the past century, you'd expect 97 percent of them to say, `Now, how in
the world would I know that?'
And as it happens, all the evidence suggests that it takes recent immigrants a
generation or so less to learn English than it took the Germans, Poles or
Italians of the early 20th century. True, first-generation immigrants are
often slow to learn the language, particularly if they live in ethnic enclaves
or work at menial jobs. But their children are virtually all English
speaking, unlike the children of first-generation immigrants a century ago.
Immigrants aren't stupid after all. Surveys show that 90 percent of Hispanic
immigrants say that English is necessary to succeed in this country, and in
fact, the biggest impediment to learning English these days is simply the lack
of opportunity. Right now there are 20,000 people on waiting lists to get
into English classes in Massachusetts, 6,000 in Maryland, 10,000 in Arizona,
and so on down the line. But none of the immigration bills before Congress
provides a dime to make that wait shorter in what has to be a singularly
literal example of not putting your money where your mouth is.
Still, people persist in believing that today's immigrants are unwilling to
learn English. One reason for that may be that foreign languages are a lot
more conspicuous in modern American than they were a century ago. Even if you
don't actually encounter many immigrants, you're reminded of their presence
whenever you click down the TV dial, get cash at an ATM or drive past a
Spanish-language billboard. That helps to explain why people who live in
areas that have few immigrants are actually more likely to believe that
immigrants aren't trying hard enough to learn English, and for that matter,
they're also more likely to believe that Latin American immigrants increase
crime. In the absence of any real contact with immigrants, those people have
nothing to fall back on but familiar ethnic stereotypes and the alarm they
feel when they see Spanish popping up on Burger King menus and socket wrench
Those stereotypes are reinforced when politicians make a show of insisting
that immigrants have to learn English, as if some people were still unclear on
the concept. That doesn't just slight the good faith and intelligence of
recent immigrants. It also sells the majority culture short. Europeans
probably understand this better than we do. As it happens, I was attending a
conference on language and law in Dusseldorf when the Senate amendment was
adopted. When the topic came up at dinner, the European linguists and lawyers
were a bit mystified by the declaration, not that they don't have their own
issues with language and immigration, but does anybody in the US really think
that the English language needs the government's help to step in to preserve
it? To Europeans, that sounds a little like putting crab grass on the
endangered species list. It should sound pretty ridiculous to us, too, but
Americans seem to have lost sight of just how compelling our language and
culture are. So long as America is a receptive society that rewards
initiative, immigrants don't need any urging to learn English, just the
opportunity. In fact, American immigrants are assimilating linguistically
more rapidly than recent immigrants in Germany, France or Spain, which are
relatively less open societies than ours is. That's the irony of this whole
business. Our doubts about immigrants' willingness to adapt to American life
are really the signs of a loss of faith in our own irresistible charm.
GROSS: Geoff Nunberg is a linguist with the School of Information at the
University of California at Berkeley. His new book on language and politics
called "Talking Right" will be published this month.
GROSS: I'm Terry Gross, and we'd like to welcome the listeners of WNPR
Connecticut Public Radio, which just picked up FRESH AIR.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.