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'Why Iraq Has No Army'

In a cover article for the December issue of Atlantic Monthly, reporter James Fallows argues there is no easy way out of Iraq for American forces. Pressure is mounting to withdraw U.S. troops, but the move would almost certainly leave Iraq in chaos. It will take years to train an Iraqi security force.

21:37

Other segments from the episode on November 16, 2005

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, November 16, 2005: Interview with James Fallows; Interview with Nikki Silva and Davia Nelson.

Transcript

DATE November 16, 2005 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
NETWORK NPR
PROGRAM Fresh Air

Interview: James Fallows discusses his article Why Iraq Has
No Army
TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

Yesterday the Senate voted by a 4-to-1 margin to ask for quarterly reports
from the Bush administration on progress in Iraq. The proposal states that,
quote, "2006 should be a period of significant transition to full Iraqi
sovereignty," unquote.

In other news connected to the war, over the weekend American troops
discovered a secret detention center in the basement of Iraq's Interior
Ministry building where the detainees were allegedly tortured. Interior
Ministry officials reported that the torturers appeared to have been police
officers. My guest, James Fallows, says it will be difficult for the US to
pull out of Iraq until Iraq has a reliable security force, but they're not
even close. Fallows wrote the cover story for the December issue of The
Atlantic magazine. It's called Why Iraq Has No Army. Fallows is a national
correspondent for The Atlantic.

James Fallows, welcome back to FRESH AIR. In your story, you say that you
think we're basically in an impossible situation. Would you describe the
quandary that you think we're in?

Mr. JAMES FALLOWS (The Atlantic Monthly): The quandary we're in involves the
presence of US troops in Iraq. On the one hand, everybody now acknowledges,
concedes, warns about the fact that the very presence of those troops is an
irritant in Iraq and is one source--not the only source, but one source--of
the continued insurgency, the continued violence, including the fact those
troops are themselves targets. And one of the things which is very desired by
the insurgents is to kill as many Americans as they have.

So on the one hand, the American troops can't really stay there. On the other
hand, they can't really go because now, two and a half years after the fall of
Baghdad, the elimination of Saddam Hussein, there really is not any other
force for order or even such order as exists in Iraq now other than the US
military and some few allied forces, mainly British. So the dilemma is we
can't stay and we can't go. The way out of the dilemma allegedly and
desirably would be the creation of a native, Iraqi security force. But why
that's difficult is the main thing I was trying to look at in this article.

GROSS: And before we get to why that's difficult, what do you think the
consequences would be if we decided, `Well, it's just too difficult to stay
and, you know, there are so many attacks against the military now so we will
just go'? What will the consequences be?

Mr. FALLOWS: Well, if you look long into the future, you know, 10 years from
now, 50 years from now, you would assume that one way or another, this would
sort itself out for Iraqis. If they are to be one country--which historically
they've only been, you know, for a relatively recent time of history--but if
they are to be one country, one way or another in terms of ethnic balances,
military pressures, democratic institutions or non-democratic institutions,
they'll work it out. In the shorter term--the shorter term in which we all
live, which is to say the next year or two years or five years, I think
there's a wide assumption the country would essentially break into the famous
three components, with the Kurdish component, the Shiite and Sunni regions.

And the reason that would matter to the US, apart from just the carnage that
might be involved for the people there, is that the central Sunni district,
which is the heart of the insurgency now, it is assumed will become
essentially an insurgent-controlled, warlord-controlled, sort of tyrannical
type region that would have as its main reason for being, being an outright
enemy of the United States. What was the--the role that Afghanistan played
under the Taliban before September 11th as a haven for terrorists is what it
is assumed this Sunnistan would play if the country just broke apart.

GROSS: One of the reasons why it's difficult for us to pull out of Iraq now
is because there isn't a strong military or a police force to maintain order
in Iraq. It was the Coalition Provisional Authority that dismissed most or
all of the Iraqi military. What was the reasoning behind that?

Mr. FALLOWS: Well, this is going to be historically one of the hotly debated
issues about the Iraq War. We're all familiar with the debates about, you
know, WMD intelligence and all the rest. But I think when military historians
and diplomatic historians look at this war, they're going to spend a lot of
time looking at this question of why one of the first things that Ambassador
Bremer did as the head of the new Coalition Provisional Authority was to get
rid of the Iraq army. Before the war, the Bush administration had planned to
keep the Iraqi military in place, stripping off, you know, just the generals
and commanders--some of the generals and commanders--on the argument that
while these people had some disadvantages, they were associated with the
brutality and Saddam Hussein, they had the advantage of being a force in
place, some force for order. They had their own transportation. They could
do some good in their reconstruction. So on a narrow basis, the
administration decided they would work with this pre-existing army sort of as
had been done in Germany or Japan, where you strip off the very top layer of
real bad guys and deal with the average soldiers.

As a side note, one complication in stripping off the top layer of the Iraqi
is that it had about 10,000 generals in it. The US Army, which has about the
same number of troops, has 300 generals. The Iraqi Army had 10,000 generals.
So that's a whole separate question.

After the invasion of Iraq and the fall of Baghdad, there was, you know,
widespread disorder and the judgment on the ground by Bremer's people was
there was no more structure in place. You know, the barracks had been looted.
They'd been emptied out. And so their judgment was the pre-existing
advantages were no longer there and so they might as well just, you know,
recognize the disadvantages and clean house and start over.

GROSS: What was the argument against dismissing them?

Mr. FALLOWS: The main argument against this step of dismissing the Iraqi
Army is that you instantly created a hostile class. These were people who
suddenly had no paycheck but who still had their weapons and now had a
motivation to be against the US occupation. So everything was--suddenly
became harder once you had these cashiered soldiers in the country.

GROSS: What are some of the reasons your sources in the military told you we
were having such a hard time training the Iraqi military and Iraqi police? On
the one hand, it seems like it shouldn't be that big a deal. You know, you
train them, they learn, they do their job.

Mr. FALLOWS: Well, there's sort of an ascending series of difficulties
starting with the fact that training an actual professional army is a very
hard thing. You know, the United States military spends years and years and
years trying to develop an officer corps, and it has all these graduate
schools and it thinks it's going to take a long time to shape people's
careers. And even creating your ordinary Marine to the extent--that's not a,
you know, a self-contradiction--or your ordinary Army soldier is require--is
regarded as a real effort of changing some--it's not simply teaching people
skills. It's sort of changing their identity. They go in as civilians and
they come out as Marines or they come out as soldiers.

So doing this in a country where the starting point of the military culture
was entirely different is a real shift. And the pre-existing Iraqi military
under Saddam Hussein had officers who were largely parasites, and it had
ordinary troops who were largely cannon fodder. And in between it did not
have the crucial element that actually makes the US military work, which are
the NCOs, non-commissioned officers, the sergeants, you know, who--the
grizzled sergeants who make everything operate. So trying to create--that was
one problem, just creating a military would be difficult in any circumstance.

Then you have the situations in Iraq itself where you have all the famous
ethnic tensions and the fact that the main effective force were the Kurdish
militias and, to a degree, the Shiite militias, so having some national
identity was tough.

Then, just to kind of cut off the list at three or four rather than 20 items,
there were incentives inside the US military. Historically, training duties
on the whole have not been really for the A team in the military. There are
exceptions like the Special Forces and the Green Berets, which are--do a lot
of training work, but generally the combat commands are the glamour commands,
and the training commands are the less glamorous commands. So there was not
that much emphasis before the war and at the early occupation within the US
side of really putting a lot of emphasis, a lot of talent, a lot of pizazz on
the training missions.

GROSS: You mentioned that a lot of the people in the military are part of
factions. You know, they're Kurdish, they're Shiite. They have an ethnic
identity above and beyond Iraqi. So are the ethnic differences that we're
seeing in Iraq in general reflected in the army, and is that holding back the
military from being a really well-functioning military?

Mr. FALLOWS: There certainly are--there is--has been a distinct effort,
especially in the last year, by the US to try to have not purely ethnically
defined military units and to have as many sort of combined units as they have
and to post people outside their home region. All of that creates all kinds
of tensions when you have, you know, Sunni troops in a Shiite area, etc. So
there's emphasis on it being more nationally Iraqi and less purely ethnic than
it used to be. But certainly, as was described to me, the essential nature of
most of these troops is still regional. One man I talked to, Robert Pape of
the University of Chicago, who wrote a great book on suicide terrorism, was
saying the way to imagine this would be as if the victorious Union forces had
gone into the South after the Civil War and tried to have units of white and
black Southerners fighting side by side. You had, you know, 200-plus years of
history making that difficult the US and so, too, in Iraq.

GROSS: Now your military sources told you that we're doing a better job
training the military in Iraq now than we were early after the invasion. What
are we doing different?

Mr. FALLOWS: Part of the difference seems to be a simple increase in
emphasis at the personnel level. A man named David Petraeus, a lieutenant
general in the Army, who is one--at each era of military history there is a
handful of people who are sort of the obvious high-fliers or fast-movers. He
has been one of those. He was the commander of the 101st Airborne during the
actual war. In the summer of last year, he took over command of the training
mission, and since he himself was so obviously a man on the rise from the
military, this was taken as an important sign that this was a more important
mission. He has been able to shift a number of the tactics and strategy for
the training. Just to give two examples: the main measure or metric, as they
say in the military, for how the Iraqis were doing, it used to be things as
crude as how many people were on the rolls, which included a lot of ghost
soldiers, or how many were so-called trained and equipped. And under Petraeus
this had been shifted a unit readiness or unit capability measure in four
brackets. There's much more emphasis on having American advisers be connected
for a long time or embedded with Iraqi forces and a number of other sort of
nuts-and-bolts sorts of things, which are having an improving trend on the
Iraqi force.

GROSS: But some of the people who told you that also told you, `But it's too
late.'

Mr. FALLOWS: It's--in an ultimate sense, you know, it may or may not be too
late in just--in a `There's no hope' sense. But what they did say is that as
the situation of training Iraqi troops has been getting better, the
surrounding situation has been getting worse and getting worse faster than the
troops are improving. So by a measure of the gap that there is to fill for
Iraqi forces, the whole effort is falling behind because the situation is
getting worse faster than the Iraqis are being prepared to deal with it.

GROSS: Can we talk about this and say, well, who knew? Who knew that it
would be this hard to train the Iraqi military and a security force, and who
knew that there would be an insurgency? Do you feel like you knew?

Mr. FALLOWS: In the summer of 2002, which is to say nine months before the
combat began, I was finishing an article for The Atlantic, sort of
interviewing people who had run past occupations and this was published as an
article called The 51st State, and all of them said then that for a very, very
short time, the US is going to be seen as a liberator. They'll become an
occupier. Language will be a problem. Dealing with the existing Iraqi Army
will be a problem. The ethnic tensions, of course, will be a problem.
Keeping social order after these years of oppression is going to be a problem.
So before the war, there were all sorts of people that I, as an average,
unclassified journalist, was able to talk to.

After the war began,I was able to re-interview a larger set of people who
showed me the actual documents--again, not classified--but saying there were
sort of prescriptions and checklists and plans, all the things that the
administration should have been aware of because its own people were preparing
these reports in the months before the war and the early months of the
occupation. So I think one could claim the whole WMD controversy involved
things that nobody really knew for sure. But the maintenance of order it's
very much harder to make that case because lots of people should have known
that problems were ahead.

GROSS: My guest is James Fallows. He wrote the cover story for the December
issue of The Atlantic. It's called Why Iraq Has No Army. We'll talk more
after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is James Fallows, and he has the
cover story in the new December issue of The Atlantic Monthly, and it's called
Why Iraq Has No Army.

Now I want to get back to what you were saying before, that you talked to all
of these experts. You, a journalist without access to classified sources,
talked to all these experts who warned you that, you know--who shared their
warnings that the problems that we're now facing, we would be facing. So did
you ever ask members of the Bush administration their reaction to these
warnings that you were getting from other experts, and what did they tell you?
Warnings that there'd be an insurgency, warnings that it would be hard to keep
order, that it would be hard to train the military.

Mr. FALLOWS: I wish I could speak with more authority about the Bush
administration's answer to these criticisms--or more firsthand authority. The
unfortunate reality is that since 2002, I haven't been able to get interviews
from people in the positions of political authority, although I've spoken to
more and more military people.

In January of 2002 I interviewed Paul Wolfowitz, and in the fall I spoke to
Doug Feith, but nobody at the top since then. What I understand from
inference and reporting and off-the-record conversations and all the rest is
essentially this: A number one in the administration would say, `Oh, sure,
it's easy to second-guess. You know, if you look at the horoscopes you'll
find anything predicted you can come up with, and so it's irresponsible to go
back through the record and say people warned against X, Y and Z. What about
all the things they warned against that didn't happen?' The answer to that,
of course, is there was a consensus of the main bodies--the CIA, the Army War
College, lots of other people--about what the main problems would be.

I think the other main theme that's come from the administration is there was
one big thing that they failed to prepare for. It wasn't WMD. It wasn't the
looting. It wasn't things like that. They didn't realize, as they now see
it, that Saddam Hussein all along had been planning an insurrection. All
along, in their view now, he'd been planning to sort of play possum and then
have his bitter enders come up and lead that kind of insurgency that's under
way now. But I--there's certainly been no indication in public statements by
anybody in the administration that they regret anything about the occupation.

GROSS: Well, you say you've had trouble talking to members of the Bush
administration. You've spoken to a lot of military leaders. Many of the
people who--not all, but many of the people you quote are anonymous, and why
do you think they feel they need to remain anonymous?

Mr. FALLOWS: This has been, I should say, a really bitter pill for me or a
bitter bargain. Because something I've tried very hard to do in, lo, these
many decades of writing about this kind of issue, is to name the people I am
quoting. And I've taken pride in having few or no unnamed sources in most of
the stories I wrote. What's been impressive or striking to me in the last two
or three years is that with each passing month, it's been easier to talk with
people in the military but harder to be able to quote them by name. Easier to
talk with them because I think there is a sense of concern, disaffection,
whatever you want to call them, on people in the military about the way things
have been going for their institution and in Iraq. At the same time, you
can't quote them by name because the sense of lines being drawn and authorized
and unauthorized statements, that's become clearer and clearer. So I'm able
to quote in this article a few general officers and colonels who are
authorized by the Pentagon to speak with me. But a large number of people
with whom I've been maintaining e-mail correspondences while they're in
Baghdad, while they're in Fallujah, while they're in Tikrit saying, you know,
`Here's what's been going on,' but I can't quote them by name.

GROSS: We've been talking a little bit about why Iraq has--why their army was
basically dismissed and how difficult it's been to train an Iraqi Army and
police force. You are puzzling through a question that, you know, Congress
has been debating and America in general has been debating, England has been
debating, which is so what do we do now? Do we pull out? Do we stay? If we
stay, for how long? If we pull out, what kind of time table do we present?
You've thought this through. In your personal opinion, what do you think we
should do?

Mr. FALLOWS: Well, I don't pretend to have an answer that eludes the rest of
the civilized world on this front. What I do try to add to the discussion is
this degree of clarity. I ended up thinking it really was a pretty stark
choice that we face, that if we want to constitute an Iraqi force that is
capable of preserving order in that country, so that we can leave in an
honorable fashion--by which I mean not with civil war immediately on our
heels, not with mass ethnic slaughter immediately following our withdrawal,
something at least as decent as the withdrawal from Vietnam, that's my
standard, where there was sort of two years where the South Vietnamese army
was able to hold off the North Vietnamese--if that is our goal, it's going to
take a very long time to do that, that even if all the training plans for the
Iraqi Army go as planned, it's going to be many, many years before they have
air support sufficient to their needs, that is both airplanes and helicopters.
It's going to be a very long time for the intelligence systems the US has are
adequate, also to provide their logistics factors.

So if this is to happen, it will require quite a long-term commitment and also
a different sort of human commitment. One real problem in the training
exercises so far has been the one-year rotation period for Americans. We have
sort of a presence of continual fresh faces because they're taken in and out.
Americans now stay there too long for their own good but not long enough for
the training mission. So it would mean having more people there for a longer
period of time, more people who are trained linguists, all sorts of other
serious commitments. So on the one hand, making this work in the way that we
envision of a decent departure from Iraq I think will mean facing a commitment
through the next presidential term, whoever comes after George Bush, to be
there in a serious way, not as many soldiers as now but quite a few.

If we're not willing to face that serious commitment, it seems to me, we
should face that fact that we cannot leave there honorably and we're going to
leave dishonorably. And so if that's the case, then we might as well do it
sooner rather than later. But that, to me, that's the main thing. I want to
add, it seems to me that clear a choice.

GROSS: What do you think the debate is like within the Bush administration
about this? Do you have any idea?

Mr. FALLOWS: I wish I knew. I wish there were signs of two things. One is
signs that the president himself exposed himself or sought out really
contending points of view. For example, on the question of whether Iraq has
helped or hurt in the larger effort against terrorism, as far as I've been
able to tell, there's no indication the president himself has ever wrestled
with that idea. You know, he has often stated, you know, time and again that
Iraq and the war on terrorism are inseparable and the same. It would be nicer
to think that he had come to that conclusion after some debate than just
coming to that conclusion.

As a side note here, I love listening to the C-SPAN tapes in the weekend of
Lyndon Johnson's conversations, and Lyndon Johnson--I mean, I just--you know,
the tape recordings of LBJ--it was obvious that man was tormented over
Vietnam. Signs of a president being tormented over this difficult situation
might be worse for him but more reassuring to the country.

I guess the other thing I would like to see from the Bush administration is
some sign they're addressing the serious challenges to their Iraq policy.
What we get is a lot of responses to straw men. You know, some people say we
should cut and run. Some people say the Iraqis aren't worth it. Having them
actually address the serious complaints about their policy would be a welcome
thing. But I don't know what they're actually saying to each other.

GROSS: Well, James Fallows, thank you very much for talking with us.

Mr. FALLOWS: My pleasure. Thank you.

GROSS: James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic. His
article, Why Iraq Has No Army, is the cover story of the December edition.
I'm Terry Gross and this is FRESH AIR.

(Announcements)

GROSS: Coming up: Lost and found sound, the Sonic Memorial Project and
Hidden Kitchens. We talk with The Kitchen Sisters, Nikki Silva and Davia
Nelson, about searching for sounds and voices for their NPR series. They have
a new book adapted from their Hidden Kitchens series.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Interview: Nikki Silva and Davia Nelson discuss their audio
projects and their new book "Hidden Kitchens"
TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

The Kitchen Sisters have searched America for the sounds and voices that
capture our time and the recent past. They describe their work as chronicling
the hidden parts of history, traditions and rituals that people carry with
them. The Kitchen Sisters, who aren't really sisters, are Nikki Silva and
Davia Nelson. In conjunction with Jay Allison, they've produced the NPR
series "Lost and Found Sound," "The Sonic Memorial Project" and "Hidden
Kitchens." They've won two Peabody Awards. Now they have a new book called
"Hidden Kitchens" adapted from their radio series. "Hidden Kitchens" isn't so
much about food itself as it is about the meaning of food in people's lives
and how people get together around food. The Kitchen Sisters searched for
stories, as they often do, by asking NPR listeners to call with their
suggestions.

(Soundbite of music)

Automated Female Voice: Message 23 was received at 1:10 PM today.

Ms. MARGARET ENGEL: I'm Margaret Engel. A woman who works for legal aid was
talking to me about how many of her clients get dinner, the people who
struggle to get food on the table because they don't have an official kitchen,
and who are using George Foreman Grills and the like. The George Foreman
grill has ben an amazing success story as a kitchen appliance, but what I
think many people don't realize is that immigrants and low-income people have
contributed to that popularity. That is, to me, the epitome of the hidden
kitchen.

Mr. GEORGE FOREMAN: Wow. What a wonderful story. I'd never considered it at
all. I am George Foreman, two-time heavyweight champion of the world, former
Olympic champion and king of the grills. Growing up in Houston, Texas, my
whole life was spent trying to get enough to eat, having seven kids--my mother
did--and there just was never enough food for me. Always dreamed about not a
car, not a beautiful home, but enough to eat.

Unidentified Man #1: (Singing) My name's Piggly Wiggly, I've got groceries on
my shelf.

Mr. JEFFREY NEWTON: My name is Jeffrey Newton from Chicago. I'm a great
cook, a trait that I had learned from my grandmother, but I just haven't had a
kitchen. I'm living in a shelter at this particular time, but I've been
homeless all my life. I lived under Wacker Drive, where the expressway goes
through, and it's about 30 or 40 refrigerator boxes down there. That's going
to be your home. I would get a George Foreman grill. That's the grill that I
had for a while under Wacker Drive, me and a fellow by the name of Smokey. So
you just get your long extension cord--they got a lot of electrical plugs on
the poles down there--and just hook up. We was making hamburgers...

GROSS: Nikki Silva, Davia Nelson, welcome to FRESH AIR. A real pleasure to
have you on our show. The George Foreman story's such a wonderful story. I
mean, I never would have considered that people who are homeless can cook food
with the help of a Foreman grill or, like, how useful an electric grill is if
you're living in an SRO. But let me back up a little bit here. How did you
first come up with the idea for "Hidden Kitchens"?

Ms. NIKKI SILVA (The Kitchen Sisters): Well, Davia lives in San Francisco
and she hates to drive; she takes taxicabs everyplace. And she started
noticing that all these cabdrivers, particularly in the Yellow Cab Company,
were Brazilian. And you know, she started talking with them and, of course,
they talked about food and music. And whenever they talked about food, this
woman Jenetch(ph) came up in the conversation, and it turns out that there was
this woman who was from their same hometown, Gwoyanya(ph)--all these guys are
from Gwoyanya--and this woman from Gwoyanya would set up each night in the cab
yard outside the Yellow Cab Company--set up a blue tent and cook the food of
their hometown. And the men would come, and pretty soon other cabdrivers
started to come. And she was just sort of gathering her community like a
campfire, and these men were finding home and community through her cooking.

And so we headed down there to see what that was all about. It sounded like a
real Kitchen Sisters kind of story. And we just began to think, if Jenetch is
doing this here with music and people and language and community, then who
else is out there? And it sort of got us thinking about little hidden-kitchen
economies in the rest of the country and what was happening on street corners,
and how were things changing and who were the unsung kitchen heroes that were
bringing their communities together? And that's how it was born.

GROSS: As with some other projects that you've done, you found people by
putting the word out on "All Things Considered" that you were looking for
people who had these hidden kitchens, and then you asked them to call and
leave a message on an answering machine. Have you found this technique to be,
you know, really effective, putting the word out on the radio and then waiting
for people to call in?

Ms. DAVIA NELSON (The Kitchen Sisters): Absolutely. Somehow the answering
machine is sort of almost like this natural microphone. People know how to
talk into a phone. It's not intimidating. And people love to give you the
lowdown, the secret, the thing below the radar, something only they know
about, whether it's some extraordinary old piece of tape that they have or
some little hidden kitchen that they know about that's tucked away or some
kitchen ritual that's just theirs or their community's. And somehow the way
that phone line works, just thousands of people keep calling it and wanting to
spill the beans.

GROSS: Do you get a lot of crank calls and obscene calls?

Ms. NELSON: You know, remarkably few. More we get product people. They
think, `For your "Hidden Kitchens" series now, we have knives. We have a
special folding table.' I mean, when you hear those kind of messages--we
also get a lot of people how--`My dissertation is on the tradition of
pierogies in the basements of Polish halls in an upper section of Ohio
accessible only by cattle car,' you know, I mean, things so obscure, but so
heartfelt. And so a lot of people sort of are pitching their unpublished
novels.

GROSS: In your "Hidden Kitchens" book, you say that you think food is really
about fellowship. And of course, who could argue with that? But I was
wondering, do you like to eat alone, too? And do you guys ever eat alone,
either at home or in a restaurant?

Ms. SILVA: Me? I don't like to eat alone. This is Nikki. I'd rather not
eat. It's...

GROSS: Really?

Ms. SILVA: Yeah.

GROSS: Why is that?

Ms. SILVA: I don't know. I think I just take a lot more pleasure out of the
conversation and the making of it than actually even the eating of it, for me.

Ms. NELSON: Well, Nikki lives on a commune. You should know that, Terry. So
she's lived on a commune for 27 years. So when Nikki sits down to dinner,
there are three families there, and they cook one night a week each. And
she's eating on an epic level every single evening.

GROSS: And, Davia, what about you? Do you eat alone ever?

Ms. NELSON: Sometimes I eat alone. Yeah, actually I like eating alone. I
like eating with people more, absolutely, and I like eating--you know, I'm out
a lot on the road doing these stories, so a lot of the times I'm eating by
myself there. And something about being alone--you may start out at the table
alone, but you're almost never alone by the end of it.

GROSS: I am.

Ms. NELSON: Something happens...

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: I'm always alone at the end of it, just me and my newspaper and my
book.

Ms. NELSON: Oh, my God. Really? I pick up strays. I don't know. There's
something--I'm sort of always scanning the perimeter, and...

Ms. SILVA: Davia's parents taught her to talk to strangers.

Ms. NELSON: Yeah, I think that's true. And my father from when I was really
little brought me into the back of restaurants to show me--there was this one
Italian restaurant in LA that he loved because it reminded him of New York,
where he was from in Little Italy. And so he was always bringing me, his
little girl, into the back of it. So I think somewhere I didn't learn about
those boundaries, the places in restaurants you're not supposed to go. And I
don't know, there's always a good story back there somewhere.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guests are The Kitchen Sisters; that's
Nikki Silva and Davia Nelson. And I'm sure you've heard a lot of their pieces
on National Public Radio on "All Things Considered" and "Morning Edition."
And their new book "Hidden Kitchens" is a collection of stories and recipes
from their "Hidden Kitchens" NPR series, and there's also an audiobook version
with the actual pieces in them.

Let's talk a little bit about an earlier series that you did, "Lost and Found
Sound." And this is--why don't you describe what this series was?

It was a series that we created at the turn of the century for the
millennium. And we turned to the country and we said, `We're looking for how
sound has shaped history and history has been shaped by sound, people
possessed by sound, sound on the verge of extinction. How is the soundtrack
of America changing? Vanishing voices, shifting accents.' And that was the
first time we opened up that phone line on NPR. And we said to the
nation--this was a big collaboration with "All Things Considered," with
independent producers, with artists from all kinds of mediums, musicians, you
name it. Everyone was involved with that project. So some 1,500 people
worked on it.

Anyway, we opened up this phone line and people all around the country sent in
stories and recordings, and we set out--there were 92 stories now in the "Lost
and Found Sound" collection.

GROSS: Now in your "Lost and Found Sound" series, there's a combination of,
like, rare archival recordings from well-known people, you know, important
cultural and historical figures, and there's also just kind of sound
recordings, like ephemeral recordings that weren't even supposed to last, made
at penny arcades and made on home cassette machines and--that we don't even
have the means to play back because the playback versions--the playback
technology for these recordings barely exists anymore. But--so, you know,
it's this wonderful mix of, you know, unprofessional recordings of every sort.
What got you interested in that kind of recording?

Ms. SILVA: Well, we were doing a live radio program--that's how Davia and I
started working together 25 years ago--on a little community radio station in
Santa Cruz, California, KUSP. And we did this live show which was music and
interviews and very eclectic. We would--filmmakers would come through town
and we'd interview filmmakers and writers. And we were searching for old
recordings. You know, we'd played a lot of old jazz. And my dad had this
notorious garage where everything you could ever want was in this garage. And
when we started doing the show, he said, `Well, you know, we've got some 78s
in the garage, your mom's 78s.'

So we hauled this huge box of 78s back to the station and started going
through them. And one of the records was in a plain brown wrapper, and it was
just handwritten, `To Louie, love, Mrs. B.' And it was a 78 recording. We
put it on, and it was this woman Mrs. B--and we still don't know who she is,
and my father doesn't know who she is; his name's Ernie, not Louie. And we
put this on and it was a woman in her kitchen using a home recording machine,
which were popular during the '40s and '50s, and she was talking to her
husband who was overseas during World War II. And there was just something
about this woman's and her use of language and words, you know, `Do they
jitterbug over there, Louie? Gee, Lou, they don't dance as good as we do, do
they, hon?' I mean, just a sort of anxiousness and love and concern and, you
know, `We'll ski in '43. Gee, Lou, I hope so.' There was something about
this woman's voice that just captured all these things we'd read about but,
you know, how do you portray that in words? I mean, it was her voice; it was
her soul coming through her voice that really caught us.

And we began asking around, and almost everybody we talked to had some home
recording in their attic or in their stereo console or something tucked away
that--an old recording that their family had done. You know, my mother had
done one at the boardwalk in Santa Cruz. She said she used to sing like--she
thought she sang like Ella Fitzgerald. You know, she'd get in there and just
sing away.

So we began gathering these things and we just found, wow, what a window, what
an ear into the past these recordings were. And that was the beginning. We
began on that little radio show sort of exploring that avenue, and it really
came through. It's come through in all the stuff we've done since.

GROSS: My guests are Nikki Silva and Davia Nelson, The Kitchen Sisters.
Their new book, "Hidden Kitchens," is adapted from their NPR series of the
same name. We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guests are The Kitchen Sisters, Nikki Silva and Davia Nelson.
They've collected sounds and voices from around the country for their NPR
series "Lost and Found Sound," "The Sonic Memorial Project" and "Hidden
Kitchens." They have a new "Hidden Kitchens" book.

I think you really found a kindred spirit, in a way, when you started working
with Sam Phillips, the great Sam Phillips who founded Sun Records and, you
know, was the first to record Elvis Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash,
Charlie Rich, Roy Orbison. And so you went down to talk with him not about
Sun Records but about the era right before that when he was running something
called the Memphis Recording Service, which did what?

Ms. SILVA: `We record anything, anywhere, anytime.' That was the slogan at
the Memphis Recording Service. And that was his operation that sort of
bankrolled everything else he was doing with all the musicians. It was just
the bread and butter that kept him solvent, or barely solvent, at the time.
And he would go and record funerals and weddings and talent shows, anything
you could think of, beauty contests. And he'd just show up with his tape
recorder and convince people that they really wanted to get this documented.
Then he'd print the records and he'd sell them to everybody who was in
attendance.

GROSS: Well, let's play an excerpt of the piece that you did about Sam
Phillips. And he's talking here about why he wanted to record funerals for
his Memphis Recording Service.

(Soundbite of "Lost and Found Sound")

Unidentified Man #2: The savior is my shepherd. He maketh me to lie down in
green pastures.

Mr. SAM PHILLIPS: To keep my little studio, Memphis Recording Service, open,
I had to record many different things. Now I went in as a very young man to
talk to the manager of the National Funeral Home about recording funerals.
Most people had never thought of anything like that. And he wanted to know
how in the world could you be approached at a time like that to make a
recording. I told him that, Lord have mercy, I would under no circumstances
interfere with, quote-unquote, whatever the flavor of the funeral was and the
intimacy of it. How much more intimate could you be than to hear the minister
or feel the crowd or if there's somebody that's crying or something like that.
The sound made you smell it, taste it, feel it through your bones, your entire
body, I mean, your soul.

And when I got through talking to this man, I convinced him to let me record
funerals. He gave me restrictions. I mean, the mike could not be in sight.
I had hid it in the wreaths and sprays. Marion did one for me. I had to
stand in there and ask her. I had gone out and set it up for her and
everything. All she had to do was stay behind the curtain and turn the little
recorder on. And she said, `Sam, how in the world did you ever think'--I
said, `Well, if you are out of money'--and I was looking for sources, frankly,
to make money to do what I wanted to do.

GROSS: That's Sam Phillips as recorded for "Lost and Found Sound" by The
Kitchen Sisters, my guests, Nikki Silva and Davia Nelson.

You know, I feel like you really found a kindred spirit in him because, like,
hearing him talk about what the sound did--you know, `The sound of the funeral
made you taste it and feel it through your body to your soul.' You feel that
way about sound, don't you?

Ms. NELSON: I think the best compliment we were ever given on the planet
Earth was Sam Phillips saying, `I think you know something about the acoustics
of life.' I mean, Sam Phil...

GROSS: (Laughs) That's so great.

Ms. NELSON: Oh, it's this thing--you know, it'll be on The Kitchen Sister
grave marker, I'll tell you. And he--you know, no matter--there--Sam Phillips
for us was like going back to Thomas Edison. I mean, he was ground zero for
sound of the century. When we first even imagined the idea of "Lost and Found
Sound," we brought it to Sam Phillips, and he kind of gave us his blessing,
and he gave us his time. And no matter what we were working on, he had some
take on it that just sent us reeling and sent us spinning, and back and forth
to Memphis for--ultimately we did four stories out there. He sold Sun
studios--you probably know this; he sold Elvis Presley's contract and opened
up the first all-girl radio station in the nation in 1955. I mean, you know,
the same guy that would record Rufus Thomas or B.B. King or Jerry Lee Lewis
would imagine an all-girl station. This guy was just--he was lighting the
path.

GROSS: And one of the most interesting moments, I think, in the history of
public radio conferences was when you brought Sam Phillips to the annual
Public Radio Conference which, you know, people from all the NPR stations
used to meet and, you know, discuss NPR issues and programming and stuff. And
there in the middle of this conference was, like, Sam Phillips, and it was
this meet--kind of like meeting of two worlds and you were right in the
middle, like you were the intermediary between Sam Phillips and everybody else
in public radio. What was that like for you to bring him to the conference?

Ms. NELSON: He just grabbed the mike and ran. We had no way of knowing where
he was going to go with it or what he was going to do. It was beautiful. It
was inspirational.

Ms. SILVA: Sam was on a wavelength of his own, and he was--Sam was almost
like a preacher, and he was preaching the gospel of sound. He said to us, `I
can end wars with sound.' And I think he just was on a mission with his music.
When he opened his mouth, he was never going to stop, and I don't think public
radio will ever be quite the same. We also had--because Memphis is the
headquarters of FedEx, we had FedExed 400 pounds of ribs in from Memphis as
well. So something about that smell of the ribs and Sam's stories. And then
Sam's son Knox stood up in the midst of it and he sort of testified. It was
one of the more holy moments in public radio.

GROSS: My guests are Nikki Silva and Davia Nelson, The Kitchen Sisters.
Their new book, "Hidden Kitchens," is adapted from their NPR series of the
same name. We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guests are The Kitchen Sisters, Nikki Silva and Davia Nelson.
They've collected sounds and voices from around the country for their NPR
seres "Lost and Found Sound," "The Sonic Memorial Project" and "Hidden
Kitchens." They have a new "Hidden Kitchens" book.

There's one other project I want to ask you about, and that's the project you
did after September 11th, "The Sonic Memorial Project." How did you figure
out what you wanted to do to document the life and death of the World Trade
towers?

Ms. SILVA: We thought, OK, we know what having voices means. We know what
archival recordings mean to people, and we know what these little phone
messages can mean. And we don't just mean the last words, not only that,
those last recordings, but we called Verizon right after 9/11, a few days
after 9/11, and we said, `We know the towers went down, but usually voice mail
isn't in the towers, isn't in the physical building, the same building as the
telephones are. And we were thinking about those thousands and thousands of
voice mail messages.' Some people would have perished; some people were still
alive. But we just thought even the most mundane thing like someone's voice
saying, you know, `Meet me for lunch at 2:00 on Wednesday,' let alone the
final messages. And we thought if we could get those messages to the families
of people from the buildings, that would be important to them. Some were
having those little recordings, those most present recordings.

So we got through finally to Verizon. Verizon said yes, in fact, those
messages still exist, and the automatic telephone janitoring system had kicked
in; I guess this must have been about 10 days because you know how your
messages get deleted after a certain amount of days? The first batch of
messages had been deleted. And so we were sort of in this race against time.
Somehow this became our way to connect--you know how everyone wanted to do
something?

Anyway, Verizon worked with us, and they--anyone that wanted to get their hard
copy of the messages because the voice mail system was down, they helped us to
get those messages to family, the contents of those voice mail box, and then
it led us to the idea of opening a phone line on NPR and asking people--and
WNYC; they were extremely part of that project. And we just reached out
around the country. But we said, `Let's not just contemplate 9/11; let's look
into the whole recorded history of Lower Manhattan and let's celebrate the
life and acknowledge the history and honor the death and take a retrospective
look of this piece of ground, this land, and look at the life and history
through these archival recordings.' And that led to "The Sonic Memorial."

GROSS: Well, let me play an excerpt of "The Sonic Memorial Project." And
we're going to hear a judge who married people at the top of the World Trade
Center, Windows of the World--Windows on the World, and then we're going to
hear somebody who actually got married there. Do you want to introduce this
for us and tell us about these marriage ceremonies that took place there?

Ms. SILVA: It was odd because it was one of the first stories that we aired,
and it was so not what you would think of when you'd think of what had just
happened at the trade towers, but I think it really resonated with people that
this building had a history, it had a life, it was about love, it was about
business, it was about daily life and it wasn't just about the destruction.
And in that way, I think this was an important piece.

GROSS: Well, here's an excerpt of the piece that you did about people who got
married at the top of the World Trade Center.

(Soundbite of "The Sonic Memorial Project")

Judge FREDERICK BERMAN: I want to welcome you to the World Trade Center. I'm
Judge Frederick Berman.

Unidentified Woman #1: Thank you.

Judge BERMAN: And it is my pleasure to be able...

I'm Judge Frederick Berman. For many years, I've had the pleasure and
privilege of performing weddings on Valentine's Day atop the World Trade
Center. We did three an hour, every 20 minutes. They would put ads in papers
around the country and abroad saying, `If you are interested in getting
married atop the World Trade Center on Valentine's Day, write us a letter and
tell us why you would like to do it.' The weddings that I actually performed,
I have copies of all those letters so that I could personalize each of the
ceremonies.

The top cards are my notes. `They met at the World Trade Center two years
ago. He works in the food and beverage department.'

Mr. BARRY GEMAHILLA(ph): And I am Barry Gemahilla, and I work in a food and
beverage department. I wrote that I just couldn't see myself getting married
nowhere else but up here.

Unidentified Woman #2: I was working downstairs as a tour guide; he was
working up here. So it was like everything happened here. We got engaged
last year by my friends. They called me over to the window to see the view,
and then he just popped the question. And everybody from the food and
beverage came with wine glasses and just started celebrating it.

Mr. GEMAHILLA: My family's in Jersey, so my mother's talking about she's
scared of Vegas, so she wasn't coming. Her family is the same thing; they're
scared of everything, of heights. So when we told them the 107th floor, they
were like, `No, no, that's all right. When you finish, come see us, you
know.'

GROSS: That's an excerpt from The Kitchen Sisters' piece about people who got
married at the World Trade Center, part of their "Sonic Memorial Project."

When was that interview with the couple recorded? It almost sounds like it
was recorded at the World Trade Center before it was attacked.

Ms. NELSON: Yes, exactly. It wasn't a post--there--it was someone recording
them when they were there for their wedding.

GROSS: Oh, I see. It was actually recorded at the wedding.

Ms. NELSON: Yes, exactly.

GROSS: Archival tape.

Ms. NELSON: Yes, exactly. It's archival tape.

GROSS: Oh, wow. That makes it more--even more poignant. Wow.

Ms. NELSON: Yeah, and when we were working on that series, we had not been
able to find them, so I was just thinking as I was listening and praying that
they were hearing this, because we don't know what happened to them.

GROSS: Well, I want to thank you both so much for talking with us.

Ms. SILVA: Thank you, Terry.

Ms. NELSON: Thank you so much.

GROSS: The Kitchen Sisters have a new book called "Hidden Kitchens." The
audiobook version includes features from their NPR "Hidden Kitchens" series.

(Credits)

GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
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.

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