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Assessing the Human Cost of Air Strikes in Iraq

As chief of high-value targeting for the Pentagon, Marc Garlasco helped plan the targets of laser-guided bombs during the invasion of Iraq. Now a senior analyst with Human Rights Watch, Garlasco visits war zones where he assesses the damage being done to civilians by bombs and lobbies for greater deliberation in the use of air power.


Other segments from the episode on April 8, 2008

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, April 8, 2008: Interview with Mark Garlesco; Review of James Morrow's "The Philosopher's apprentice" and Charles Baxter's "The soul thief."


TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A

Interview: Marc Galasco, formerly of the Pentagon and now with
Human Rights Watch, on his career planning targeted strikes and
his career now of estimating unintended human costs of strikes

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

My guest, Marc Garlasco, knows a lot about bombs: how to target them, and
what their human cost is. He was the Pentagon's chief of high-value targeting
during the Iraq war in 2003, meaning he recommended the targets. And through
the Pentagon's imaging systems, he sometimes watched in real time as the bombs
hit or missed their targets. After the first phase of the war in Iraq,
Garlasco crossed over to human rights work. He joined Human Rights Watch as
their senior military expert. One of his first jobs was to travel to Iraq and
report on the intended and unintended damage done around some of the various
sites he recommended for bombing. He's been reporting on the collateral
damage of bombs in Iraq, Afghanistan and the Middle East.

Marc Garlasco, welcome to FRESH AIR. I'm going to start by asking you to
describe what your job was at the Pentagon at the start of the war in Iraq and
in the lead-up to it.

Mr. MARC GARLASCO: I was basically the chief of high-value targeting, which
meant that I led a cell of people in the Pentagon that were looking at finding
Saddam Hussein, tracking him and the rest of the regime, the people on the
deck of cards, so that they could be targeted and killed during the invasion.
And so prior to the war, we were developing targets and target packages that
eventually would be destroyed; and we switched over to more of a
time-sensitive targeting, which was more real time, tracking people and trying
to hunt them with bombs. But, you know, we were doing target recommendations.
The actual decision-making was happening at CENTCOM forward, which was in
Doha, in Qatar, and we were really only providing them with recommendations.
I don't want to, in any way, misrepresent what I was doing.

GROSS: So how much of your work dealt with intelligence, and how much of it
dealt with the actual weaponry?

Mr. GARLASCO: Primarily, it was intelligence. You're dealing with getting
the information from a variety of national technical means and different
sources, putting it together, trying to package a target and explain to people
why you think someone is going to be there, why they're there at a certain
time, why this target should be destroyed. And of course, you pick up a lot
on weapons, because there are weaponeers that you work with. You know, they
need to know, `Can you tell me, is this a hardened facility? Where is there a
door?' You need to know at least something about the weapons that are going to
be used so that you can make a recommendation, but the final decision on the
actual weaponeering is done elsewhere.

GROSS: Is there an example you can give us, without violating any security
concerns, of how you chose a target and how, you know, just in terms of
knowing where they would be and how to approach that with a weapon?

Mr. GARLASCO: Well, there are really two different types. I mean, one is
the planned attack, and those were all the ones that we did prior to the war.
We finished it up in, it was January of 2003 at Shaw Air Force Base; and there
was myself, the CIA targeting person, the NSA targeting person, and a whole
host of Air Force and other targeteers. The Brits were there as well; lot of
weapon folks. And we sat there and literally went through every single target
in the deck. And then we would just walk through each target and try to
explain what the significance of the target was, and what the key points were.
Because we're at a position now, or at least the US military is at a position
now, that really granular intelligence can be exploited to the point that you
put a specific weapon on a specific part of a building and have a desired
effect. You don't need to destroy the whole building. Maybe you can take out
just the telecommunications are, for example. And that was the deliberate
planning, where you're doing these long collateral damage estimates where
people can actually look at it from the engineering perspective, try to figure
out if there are going to be any civilians in an area. They can crank out a
specific number for how many people, how many anticipated casualties there are
going to be, and you work through all of these.

And then we rack and stack them, which means you really put them in order of
preference. And so what are the ones that need to go in the very first
moments of the war, what are the ones we can wait till later in the day, which
ones can we push on till even later? And you literally just prioritize all of
the targets. And that was done before the actual invasion.

Then, with Dora Farms, when that happened and there was this attack in which
people thought that Saddam was going to be at the Dora Farms down in southern
Baghdad, this really changed everything, because now this was a
bolt-from-the-blue strike, and we had to re-rack and re-stack a lot of the
targets because we were as surprised as the Iraqis were when those bombs hit
the ground. And now all of these plans that had been drawn up had to be
re-done, and re-done very quickly. And it's not just bombs that're going
down, you're talking about refueling aircraft, jamming aircraft, radar
aircraft. There's a lot of different planes in the air all at once, and this
planning has to be done all over again because there are some targets now that
you don't want to destroy, because what if Saddam's dead? If he's dead, for
example, you don't want to take out the telecommunications facilities because
war's going to be over and we'll need to use those. Eventually we hit them in
the second week of the war, but they were pushed back.

GROSS: Did you think for a moment that we were going to, or you were going to
actually get Saddam Hussein in his bunker and there'd be no need to invade

Mr. GARLASCO: Whew, that's a tough one to answer. No, I did not ever think
that we really had a chance to kill Saddam with a bomb. He was quite adept at
moving around, and we just didn't have a really good history of doing that.
You know, it's a lot harder to hunt someone with 2,000-pound explosives than
people realize. We weren't able to get Milosovic back in '99. We haven't
been able to get any of the top members of al-Qaeda, except the number three
guy, which we apparently kill every week; and, you know, it just didn't seem
to me like we were going to be able to get Saddam just because we didn't have
that level of granular intelligence.

And you need to understand how you put a target package together. When you're
doing a planned strike, it comes from, you know, I had gone for a number of
years overseas to meet with Iraqis who had left the country, to learn, you
know, where things were, how things were, to show them satellite images, to
work through different things with them. Obviously you're reading transcripts
from NSA, you're meeting with people from CIA, and you're putting together a
picture of a place that you've never been and you're likely never to go to,
and trying to understand a person's routine schedule. And so that's something
you do with a planned strike.

As soon as a war happens, though, they're going to move to their relocation
facilities. They're going to totally change their pattern of behavior. And
so you've got to understand, it's very, very difficult to actually get someone
in their own country. I mean, look at Eric Robert Rudolph and the FBI hunt
for him. That was years in an open society, and they couldn't find the guy.
And finally, they locate him in his own hometown; and now we're talking about
doing it in countries where we don't have people, and eventually in Iraq,
after the many, many months it took to find Saddam, you know, they found him
back in his own hometown.

GROSS: Can you discuss any of the targets that you've worked at once the
bombing of Iraq began?

Mr. GARLASCO: Sure. We had received information during the war that the
Iraqi intelligence service had relocated, and they had relocated across the
street from a maternity hospital in downtown Baghdad. And this presents
several problems, from a targeting perspective. You know, obviously you don't
want to have any effects on the hospital. You don't want to kill civilians.
But you desperately need to get these guys, and so what do you do? And not
only that, the are they moved to was rather large. There were a number of
buildings that had to be destroyed. And eventually, we ended up dropping nine
2,000-pound bombs, which is fairly significant for a small area. That's
18,000 pounds of high explosives.

But there are things that weaponeers, targeteers and pilots can do to minimize
the anticipated civilian casualties, to minimalize what eventually happens.
One is, you look at the time of day, and so this strike went down something
like 2 or 3:00 in the morning so there are less people on the street. Then
you change the fusing on the bomb. So instead of exploding above ground or
once it hits the target, you explode it below ground so that it basically
implodes the target and reduces the fragmentation damage, the stuff that flies
out once the bomb goes off. You can also change the angle that the plane is
coming from and the bomb is going to fly from.

So what we did was, we had the plane approach over the hospital so that when
it flew, the bomb actually came in and moved away from the hospital, so that
when it hit, any debris was pushing in the exact opposite direction from the
hospital. And that one went off very well. I mean, we actually got the
target. We took the buildings down. I eventually went there, and was amazed
at the level of destruction from nine 2,000-pounders; and across the street is
this hospital, and I went there and they had nothing but a few broken windows.
So that one went really, really well.

GROSS: Now give us an example of one that didn't go so well.

Mr. GARLASCO: Well, the one that really springs to mind is the attack on
"Chemical Ali," which was April 5th, 2003, and this is one in which we had
information that Chemical Ali, Ali Hassan al-Majid, who was Saddam's cousin,
very bad guy. He had, you know, been involved in gassing the Kurds back in
the 1988 incident up there; and so this is, you know, a really nasty fellow.
We're going after him, and we receive information he's going to be in this
house, this residential area down in Basra. And so we very rapidly have to go
through a collateral damage estimate, try to look at it, pull all the
intelligence together. And this one actually looked pretty good. It looked
like we had some good stuff on him. And you're not just using--at least you
try not to use just one type of intelligence. You want to use a number of
different things, much like reporters use various sources, you know,
intelligence professionals do the same thing.

And so we put the target package together, and I was actually sitting in the
Pentagon with my targeting cell, and we ended up watching it on the computer
screen. We had Predator feeds overhead. And, you know, there were two
500-pound bombs that went down on it. First one went down about three blocks
away, and oh, we were so angry. You know, how does a laser-guided bomb fall
three blocks away? And we were very frustrated with that. But moments later,
the second weapon came in; and I'll never forget, I was watching this guy, he
was walking outside the building, and we were saying, `Buddy, you are in the
wrong place at the wrong time.' And moments later, pft, just white. The whole
screen goes white because we're watching it in infrared. And so everything
that's hot is white, and everything that's dark is black. And for a moment,
the sensors on the Predator were basically overwhelmed with the information,
and everything's white.

And suddenly you can see the picture start to coalesce, there's this huge
explosion of fire, and we can see this rag doll, this dark rag doll person
just coming down to earth. The legs--I'll never forget--were just flailing in
the air, and came down and hit on the ground and bounced. And, you know, I'll
be honest with you, we thought we had killed Chemical Ali. And we cheered and
patted ourselves on the back, and we even bet breakfast on how many times that
person ended up bouncing.

And two weeks later I was standing in that crater working for Human Rights
Watch, and I was facing this old Iraqi with this leathery skin and, you know,
the 1,000-mile stare. No tears, just telling me about how his family had been
wiped out, and the family next door had been wiped out. Seventeen civilians
were killed. We never got Chemical Ali. Eventually, he was captured; and
today, as we're doing this interview, Iraq is preparing to execute him. And
so that was a strike that went very, very badly.

GROSS: Did you ever find out who that person was who you watched probably get
killed by the bomb?

Mr. GARLASCO: No, but I have absolute and total belief that was a civilian.
I mean, I have no reason to believe it was otherwise. I mean, standing in
that crater, there was this little bunny, and it was gray, gray with all of
the debris and soot; and it just really hit me because I have these two little
girls and, you know, everyone's got a floppy bunny in bed. And it just, it
really struck me. It was very difficult at that time. And then going to some
of the different targets that I had planned, and you see some went great, no
problems, and some didn't go so well.

But, you know, people need to realize that the military works very hard. They
really care. And there's even a number--at least there was back then--in
which, this number of civilians needs to be killed in order for it to go to
President Bush or the secretary of defense to get their permission to actually
initiate the strike. And I think that that speaks a lot to the care that the
military puts, that they actually have a number, and I...

GROSS: Wait a minute, explain that number.

Mr. GARLASCO: Yeah, whenever you do a collateral damage estimate, people,
you have engineers who look at the building type, the construction of the
building, what it's made of, the population density of the area, who's
supposed to be around at that time of day. And the type of weapon, what angle
it's coming in on, and all the different things that that weapon is supposed
to do when it hits where it's supposed to hit, and how many people you think
are going to die. And so for every target, you always have this number that
comes out, and back then, if you hit this threshold of 30 civilian deaths, it
had to go to President Bush or to the secretary of defense to get their
express permission for that strike.

And I've just got back from Afghanistan, actually, and I met with a number of
the chief US targeteers, and I talk to them quite often, and that number is
down now. It's down in the single digits. I don't know what the number is.
They wouldn't tell me specifically. But it just goes to show the care that
they've put into it, that if you reach a certain threshold, they have to go to
the highest authority in the land to get the OK to do that.


GROSS: Now, you were talking about the calculus of how many civilian
casualties it takes before a bombing attack has to be reported to the
president, and the number's 30. What's it like for you, when you were
planning the attacks, knowing that likely a certain number of civilians would
be killed in order to successfully bomb your target? These are civilians who
you won't see, you're not even in Iraq; like, you're in an office in the
Pentagon and you're watching it happen on a screen, so you know that there are
deaths that this bombing is causing. You feel that the target--I imagine you
feel the target is justified, and so it's this kind of like combination of
like personal responsibility in some way for the deaths, but on the other
hand, must be so odd to be watching it at this great distance from an office
like a gazillion miles away. Can you talk a little bit about what that
experience is like?

Mr. GARLASCO: Well, I think my appreciation for it was very different in
2003 when I was in the Pentagon than my appreciation is for it now, when I've
actually gone on the ground and seen the effects.

GROSS: As a Human Rights Watch person.

Mr. GARLASCO: As someone working for Human Rights Watch. So now I really
have an understanding of what happens when weapons hit, and so that definitely
colors it. But you have to remember my frame of mind. You have to think
about my frame of mind at the time. I had been looking for another job before
the invasion. I had been actively interviewing in a variety of places. And
so I was looking to get out. And when I was speaking with Human Rights Watch
about the job, it took a while, you know, back and forth and whatnot. And
eventually when they offered me the job, it was just as the invasion was
beginning. And I said to them, `Well, now you're going to have to wait. If
you want to hire me, you've got to wait until this thing sees itself through,'
because I felt I had a responsibility. I had a responsibility to those who
are flying the missions and to those on the ground; because whether it's
hubris or not, I thought that, you know, look, this is my target set. I know
it better than anybody, and I know what the Pentagon's going to do. It's a
bureaucracy. They're going to get a warm body, put it in the seat, and that
person's going to, you know, pull these target jackets out and just go through
everything rote, whereas I actually know what these targets are, I know what
I'm talking about. And I understand it better than someone who's just going
to walk in out of the building.

And that happened to me. I mean, back in '99, I knew absolutely nothing about
Yugoslavia, about Serbia, and I got pulled in to the bombing of Kosovo and
Serbia, and then eventually went on the ground to see what things were like at
that time. So, you know, working in the Pentagon in '03, I still felt a
certain responsibility, you know, to people on the ground that were not going
to hit something that we shouldn't hit, and also to those flying the missions,
that we're not going to unduly endanger them for some idiot target that
doesn't need to be struck.

GROSS: Well, I was wondering that, too, if maybe you can't allow yourself to
really think about civilians being killed as collateral damage during the

Mr. GARLASCO: Well, you have to understand what a legitimate target is, that
warfare, the application of weaponry is a political act towards an end. And
whether you agree with a war or not, it's going to happen, and so I wanted to
make sure it was done the best way that I could possibly do it. But even now,
you know, with Human Rights Watch, you know, we see some stuff that's just
bad. You know, kids with the guts hanging out, and real-deal after effects of
war, and stuff real time. And it's not easy. And if you don't have that kind
of ability to compartmentalize, if you don't have a really flexible, malleable
personality, you know, kind of the "M*A*S*H" syndrome, where you watch the
guys on "M*A*S*H," and they're standing there in the operating room and
there's blood everywhere and they're operating on these kids, and they're just
joking with each other. And if you can't do that, then you shouldn't be in a
job like this.

GROSS: Did you watch CNN at all during the bombing of Iraq, and can you talk
a little bit about how watching the bombing on television compares to watching
it in your office on the computer screens that show what's happening from the
laser-guided planes' point of view?

Mr. GARLASCO: Yeah, we had TV on going 24/7. Different offices have
different networks running. Some offices have Fox News, some have CNBC, some
have CNN. In my office we had CNN running 24/7. And so you're always
watching it. You're not only watching the effects of the bombing to see what
they're able to tell you--because that's also a source of intelligence. We
called it back when I was intel, OSINT, or open source intelligence, because,
you know, there are guys on the ground there with a camera, and maybe you can
learn something about it. And we were really actually, you know, collecting
off of the news, and it was an important thing for us.

You remember the time when Saddam was parading around in the street and was
walking around and trying to prove that he hadn't been killed at Dora Farms?

GROSS: Right, and everybody was wondering, `Is this a body double? Is it
really him?'

Mr. GARLASCO: Exactly. And, you know, at that point, we had a group of
people over at Bolling Air Force Base at DIA whose sole purpose in life was to
compare every single angle of the video with locations, looking at the sun at
that time of day, where it's striking, what angle it's at, where the windows
are, and comparing it with physical facilities to actually find out if that
was Saddam. And then eventually, when we figured out, `Yes, he is alive,'
watching the news and say, `OK, where was he at that time of day?' So now we
know where he was X number of hours ago. How far could he go? Where do we
think he could be?' And so that was really an important source of intelligence
for us at the time.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

Let's get back to our interview with Marc Garlasco. During the invasion of
Iraq in 2003, he was the Pentagon's chief of high-value targeting. He tracked
Saddam Hussein and his regime, and recommended the targets to bomb in order to
kill them. When the invasion was over, Garlasco left the Pentagon and joined
Human Rights Watch as their senior military expert. Now he assesses the
unintended damage of airstrikes. He's done this work in Iraq, Afghanistan and
the Middle East.

Did you have a position on the war in Iraq? Did you even allow yourself to
think about whether you thought the war was justified or not? I mean, I think
it might be sometimes difficult, when you're in a position like that, to look
up from the actual work. Like, you have this job to do of targeting, and
maybe you can't allow yourself to think too much about the context that all
that's happening in.

Mr. GARLASCO: Oh, on the contrary, it was something that was discussed a
lot, not just by myself, by people at CIA, in the military. There was an
awful lot of discussion about the justness of the war and whether or not this
was something that we should be doing. And I remember, just before the actual
invasion, speaking to my counterpart at CIA on our secure phone, saying, `Hey,
what are we doing?' You know, `We're really going to do this.' And she said to
me, `Yeah, we're going to do this in a big way.' And really trying to figure
out why is it happening. Because, you know, we had gone out and met with
Iraqi sources. We had sat down with people from Iraqi national congress that
Chalabi had sent out in these ruse attempts to prove to us that, you know,
that there chemical or biological weapons or there was some link to al-Qaeda,
and, you know, we had worked through all of this. And as the political
machinery is making its discussions and public pronouncements, some of us are
sitting back, scratching our heads, saying, `Well, OK, I don't work in the WMD
office, I can call my friend who works there, but maybe they know something
that we don't know, because we're not seeing this.' And so absolutely there
was a discussion about that.

Not only was there a talk about it, but you may remember, there was this kind
of secret side intelligence group set up that Vice President Cheney and others
had put in the Pentagon and at CIA to pick through the raw intelligence and to
find the things that they wanted to find in order to help justify the war.
And I remember bumping into people at the Pentagon, like Newt Gingrich for
example, and I thought, `What is he doing here?' And then being asked to talk
about certain things. I'm going, `Well, is he still cleared? I mean, he's
out of his position; how do we do this?' And so, yeah, there was an awful lot
of talk about that.

But when the final decision is made, I mean, that's what you do. That's the
job. You, you know, if you're military, you salute and you move forward; and
if you're a civilian, you know, you've got to work through what you've got to

GROSS: So in the lead-up to the Iraq war, were you skeptical of anything?
Was there any information you were skeptical of?

Mr. GARLASCO: Oh, we were hugely skeptical. I mean, a lot of the
information was based on a source called "Curveball," which DIA and CIA had
long ago put down as being an absolute liar. I had been to Germany a number
of times, where Curveball was. I had not actually sat face to face with him.
But you certainly got the perception from the Germans that Curveball was not
credible. And they were...

GROSS: That's why he was called Curveball, right?

Mr. GARLASCO: Well, you know, I think that's one of those names that fits so
well that it's almost painful to talk about, that when Colin Powell sat at the
UN and made his pronouncements with George Tenet sitting directly behind him,
which is very obviously saying `The intelligence is behind me,' and he talks
about these biological weapons vans and, you know, you sit back and go, `Yeah,
that's all based on that German source who's garbage. Don't we have anything
else?' And, you know, really when the intelligence professionals who are doing
the targeting start to wonder about, well, what the policymakers are basing
all their stuff on, and they're taking raw intel and doing their own things
with it, then you know you got problems.

I mean, that's a big problem. There's a huge problem with just taking raw
intel. You need to have someone who knows what they're talking about, who's
looked at the country, who knows it very well, and can say, `OK, this says
that, you know, Saddam was here or he does this, but he's not going to go
there. This is a Shia area in the south. His security would be at risk,'
etc., etc. And you need to be able to put things into context based on other
sources, as well, and explain away some of this raw intel, which is just
absolute garbage.

GROSS: So before the war started, you were already looking to get out of the
Pentagon. You were already looking for another job.

Mr. GARLASCO: I had a foot out the door.

GROSS: You had already interviewed with Human Rights Watch, but you were
reluctant to take the position until after the bombing strikes in Iraq.

Mr. GARLASCO: That's right, yeah. I thought that I really needed--I had a
responsibility to those in the air and those on the ground to do my best to
help plan the strikes.

GROSS: So at what point did you think, `OK, it's all right for me to leave

Mr. GARLASCO: Well, when the statue of Saddam fell. When Baghdad was taken.
After the thunder run into Baghdad, I knew it was basically over and it was
time to cut and head out. And, you know, I went to my boss and I said, `Hey,
I got to tell you, I'm leaving. I'm putting in my--I'm resigning. I'm going
to leave on Friday'; because Baghdad fell on the 9th, which I believe was a
Wednesday, and I left on the 11th, which was a Friday. And, you know, there
was some discussion, and there's--you know, it's not like they can crazy glue
you to the chair. So on that Friday morning, I went in, I gave my last
briefing, planned my last airstrike, handed in my security clearance, and I
walked out the door.

I flew up to New York, Human Rights Watch brought me in. They brought out a
huge hose, washed me down, completely engulfed me in human rights lingo and
international law and tried to explain to me all these different things I was
going to have to know. And I got on a plane, and next thing I know I'm, you
know, with a group of folks I'd never met before, and there's an Iranian and a
Belgian and a Russian and a French guy and I'm working with an
African-American former naval officer and a redhead, and we're going through
Iraq. And I'm like, `Oh, my God. Here I am. I'm walking through the streets
that I, you know, watched for all these years from above.' And all of a sudden
I'm walking in the craters that I helped to plan and helped create.

GROSS: So just in terms of joining Human Rights Watch, I'm thinking that
while you were working for the Pentagon, that you might have felt on the other
side from human rights groups, because you're planning these targets, and
you're probably proud of the fact that, say, 15 civilians were killed when
really, if you hadn't done your job well, 100, 200 might have been killed. So
it's your job in part to minimize damage; and even when you succeeded, there's
still going to be some damage. And that's what the human rights groups are
going to pick up on. So did you ever feel like, from your point of view, that
they weren't quite getting it, or that they were on the opposite side that you
were, and now you were crossing over to that side?

Mr. GARLASCO: In a way. I mean, in a way I even felt, when I left
initially, you know, `One of the things I'm going to do is I'm going to show
these tree huggers exactly how good we did it. I'm going to show them the
care and the level of professionalism and as close to perfection as I can, and
bring to them an understanding of how it's done.' And I received an education.
And I think I've helped them to understand things a little better, but I've
really been the one who has benefited from understanding, you know, both sides
now, with a foot in each world, and try to bring credibility to the
organization's discussion on warfare, you know, coming from the perspective of
someone who knows it from the inside, and also being able to explain more to
the military, you know, what things are like on the other side.

GROSS: Tell us a little bit about the education you got walking through the
streets of Baghdad, going to places that had been your targets. Maybe you
could give us an example of a target where you had watched on the laser screen
in your office at the Pentagon and then you actually went there in person and
saw for yourself what the actual damage was.

Mr. GARLASCO: Well, one of the things that really got me was the color,
because when you're looking at satellite imagery, first of all, it's all black
at white. And then when you're looking at Predator feeds, it's always in
black and white. And I was really struck by the vibrant colors. I mean, I
would walk around Baghdad, and I would look at up at a dome and I would say,
`It's blue! It's like a teal blue! That's incredible! I didn't know that,'
or look at the tiny little tiles that I would find. And I was really struck
by the colors of things. That was something that was very interesting.

And also, things really look a lot different from the ground, when you're on
that ground-level perspective, than they do from space. And you're looking at
height and size and distance in a very different way. And so that perception,
that appreciation was different. But then also, when you're at a target and
when you're at a crater trying to look at the depth and look at how many
buildings were affected and then, you know, how many lives may have been lost
in an area, and putting all that in perspective, you know, that's something
then that goes in a different compartment in your head and you try to digest

So you just--I guess all of my senses were being slammed pretty hard and, you
know, you're just trying to digest everything. It was a pretty wild
experience, to be honest with you. I'd never through I would ever go to Iraq.
I mean, I spent years in the Pentagon planning for a contingency for a war I
never, ever thought would be fought. And then we fought it, and I was walking
on the ground with an aim different than I ever thought that I would have.
And it was a very interesting and enlightening experience.

GROSS: Did you meet anybody who you know for sure was injured in one of the
bombing attacks that you planned?

Mr. GARLASCO: Oh, sure. Absolutely. No, I met survivors from some of the
strikes that I helped to plan. I met people who were not at places, but whose
family members were killed at those, and that was hard. And sometimes it's
still a little bit hard to comprehend. Yeah.

GROSS: Did you let them know what your role had been or what...

Mr. GARLASCO: No, no, no.


Mr. GARLASCO: I couldn't do that. I mean, for a variety of reasons:
security. You know, I don't think that that would've been very smart to do.
And then also, it always seems, whenever you're speaking to victims, whether
it was then in Iraq or later, when I've gone to Afghanistan or Lebanon or
Gaza, you name it, there's this level of intimacy when you're speaking with a
victim of war, and, you know, you have to have a certain respect. And I think
it would be very disrespectful to say, `Well, you know, I helped plan this
strike, and I did the best I could, and, you know, you were just a casualty of
war. Sorry that happened.' No, I think that would be completely
inappropriate. And I think I have a different appreciation of things now, as

GROSS: If you were targeting again now, would you choose different weapons?

Mr. GARLASCO: Well, the one interesting thing is now the military does
low-collateral-damage weapons in their arsenal, and I think that's having a
marked effect. We've seen the effect in Afghanistan. It's important, though,
that you don't get sucked into this American idea that technology cures all
ills. Because, you know, we can say, `Oh, well, we're going to use this
low-collateral weapon, and because of that we're going to get the bad guy and,
you know, we're not going to kill any civilians.' That's not correct. Because
if you don't have the right intelligence, if you don't know where somebody is,
or even know if civilians are in an area, you're going to still kill them.
But, be that as it may, there are weapons now that have much smaller blasts
and fragmentation effects, weapons that are on aircraft that we've seen
drastically reduce civilian casualties. We've seen them in Afghanistan, for
example, go--from 2006 to 2007, we saw tripling of civilian casualties from
civilian airstrikes; and yet, since 2007, we've seen almost no civilian
casualties from airstrikes. And part of the reason is because of the use of
these low-collateral-damage weapons that are only recently in the military's

GROSS: So are you in the position now of talking to former colleagues about
collateral damage from a human rights perspective?

Mr. GARLASCO: It's what I do.

GROSS: Yeah?

Mr. GARLASCO: It's what I do, yeah. I talk to people all the time. I talk
to the head folks out at the CAOC, the Combined Air Operations Center, where
the military plans both Iraq and Afghanistan's air war every single day. I
talk to them on an almost daily basis. I look at every bomb that they drop.
They send an e-mail out to me every single day, and I'm able to chart it. And
I look at every weapon, what type of plane is dropping it, what was the
specific type of bomb, what was the target that they hit. And we chart these
every day, and there's a very good dialogue back and forth.

And I think one of the things that I bring to Human Rights Watch is I have a
level of credibility with the military that they know I'm not going to just
politicize things and say, `Hey, you guys are baby killers,' and that I know
that's not the case, and they know I'm going to come to them in a very
professional manner and say, `Hey, here are some of the things that we see
that you're doing right. This is how things are changing for the better.
Here are some things you still need to improve upon.' And then they also come
to me at times and say, `Hey,' you know, `here's something that we're seeing
that you may want to look into.' And I think now there's a very good give and
take. There's still a certain level of animosity. I think when you go from
the Pentagon to a place like Human Rights Watch, you really learn who your
friends are. You know, some people don't talk to me anymore. But there are a
lot of people who do and take me very seriously because of the work I've done
and because of the work that I'm now doing.

GROSS: Can you give us an example of information that you've given to the
Pentagon that you think was constructive?

Mr. GARLASCO: Well, I've actually got one that's coming up that's, you know,
right in line with this. I was invited by DOD policy for South Asia to come
in and brief them on my findings for the air war in Afghanistan; because I
just recently returned from Afghanistan. I met with all the senior folks at
NATO, with the US, a lot of the targeting people. I met with Afghans, Afghan
civilians, Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission, and did a lengthy
investigation on why civilians are being killed in airstrikes in Afghanistan.
And we're about to publish a report at Human Rights Watch talking about that,
talking about the changes that have been made and our concerns for the
upcoming offensive in the spring. And so they've invited me to come in and
give them a briefing before we publish this. And I'm hoping that, you know,
that will energize them and that'll get back to the people who need to know
about it, and they'll make changes that need to be made and take our findings
and recommendations seriously.

GROSS: Would it be premature to give us a preview of what you're going to
tell them?

Mr. GARLASCO: There are a number of things that are contributing to civilian
casualties in Afghanistan and have contributed to an increase in casualties
from 2006 to 2007. Clearly, absolutely one of those is the use of civilian
shields by the anti-government forces, whether that's the Taliban, militants,
al-Qaeda, criminal elements. It's not a monolithic enemy. And so yes, that
is definitely a contributing factor, and a major contributing factor.

But the other is what's called troops in contact, and that's going to be the
title of our report, "Troops in Contact." When you have a small group of
forces on the ground bumping into a large enemy that's dug into a civilian
area, and then that small force on the ground feels the only recourse they
have is to call in an airstrike, you don't have the opportunity to do the
lengthy collateral damage estimates, the collateral damage mitigation
procedures; and you really don't have the right weapons on the planes because
instead of calling in that low-collateral weapon you might have on a planned
strike, now it's, `Whoever's flying overhead with whatever bomb you got on it,
drop it and come save us.' And that's one of the things that's really
contributed to the increase in civilian casualties. And so it's a real issue
that they don't have enough guys on the ground.

And the Iraq war is not only affecting the civilians in Iraq, but it's having
a detrimental effect on the civilians in the military in Afghanistan; because
just the dearth of boots on the ground is leading to a lot of problems,
whether it's civilian casualties or increased drug trade, lack of security for
civilians, there's absolutely no transitional justice plan in Afghanistan.
All of these things are kind of this trickle-down effect of the war in Iraq.

GROSS: One of the big changes in your life is that you've gone from a
Pentagon culture to a human rights culture. Has that caused big changes in

Mr. GARLASCO: You know, I've always considered myself this round peg in a
square hole. I've always fit wherever I go, but haven't always fit
comfortably. In the Pentagon, I was always left of center; and at Human
Rights Watch, I'm clearly right of center. I'm fairly malleable, and I
believe, you know, all these sides have their perspective and are doing
important work; whether it's, you know, fighting against an enemy that needs
to be engaged, from a military point, or looking at it from the human rights
perspective and trying to look at the non-kinetic ways that you can take on
the same enemy. And so for me, I don't really know where I belong. Maybe I'm
still on that journey, trying to figure out where I'm going to end up fitting
in; but it's certainly interesting, and it's an incredible experience with a
lot of different opportunities, and who knows where that road's leading.

GROSS: Well, Marc Garlasco, thank you very much for talking with us.

Mr. GARLASCO: Hey, it's been my pleasure. Thanks for having me.

GROSS: Marc Garlasco is the senior military expert at Human Rights Watch, and
the former chief of high-value targeting at the Pentagon.

You can download podcasts of our show on our Web site, This

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

Review: Maureen Corrigan on the books "The Philosopher's
Apprentice" by James Morrow and "The Soul Thief by Charles Baxter

Two new novels that have caught book critic Maureen Corrigan's attention
feature egghead heroes who know too much for their own good.

Ms. MAUREEN CORRIGAN: For many of us who suffered the experience firsthand
and live to tell the tale, graduate school--in the humanities, at least--was,
and doubtless still is, a veritable psychic cesspool of despair and identity
confusion, where insecure young people were always quoting someone else,
always affecting the mannerisms of their mentors and always trying to be as
smart or smarter than Hegel or Foucault or Woolfe. Two weird new novels
feature main characters working toward advance degrees for whom too much
knowledge, indeed, turns out to be a dangerous thing.

James Morrow's book "The Philosopher's Apprentice" is a hyperkinetic mishmash
of horror story, sci-fi yarn, Renaissance allegory, Greek myth and modern
morality tale. It's set in motion when a grad student in philosophy named
Mason Ambrose torpedoes his academic career by making enemies with a powerful
professor. Adrift, Mason is rescued by a peculiar job offer. A billionaire
geneticist invites Mason to fly to her private island off the Florida Keys in
order to become a tutor to her teenage daughter, Londa. Because of a swimming
accident, Londa has lost her memory as well as her conscience. For a hefty
fee, Mason's task will be to fill Londa's brain with Plato and Wittgenstein
and the basics of the Judeo-Christian tradition. Or, as he quips when he
first hears the job proposal, "Maybe I should print up a business card: Mason
Ambrose, failed philosopher, superegos installed while you wait."

The laughter stops, however, once Mason finds that he's landed on a kind of
lost island of Dr. Moreau. Mason soon susses out that Londa is not the
geneticist's biological daughter, but rather, as he dubs her, a vatling
assembled out of potions, electrodes and beakers. What ensues, for the next
300 or so rollicking pages, is an ingenious riff on Mary Shelley's
"Frankenstein" and Edmund Spenser's "Faerie Queene," with ongoing commentary
on anti-abortion activists and Satanic academic pride tossed in.

"The Philosopher's Apprentice," despite its overlay of allusions to the great
minds of Western civilization, is not a novel that makes a reader think.
Rather, it's the fiction equivalent of a roller coaster ride, where readers
are meant to hold on tight and enjoy the giddy thrills of an over-the-top and
overeducated plot.

Charles Baxter's delicious new tale, "The Soul Thief," unwinds much more
deliberately and sensuously. It's about identity theft: the old-fashioned
kind, sans Internet con artistry. The evildoer of Baxter's story lifts his
victim's personal profile elegantly, through hands-on psychological
manipulation. Does this gambit sound familiar? It should, at least to fans
of the late Patricia Highsmith and her series featuring the jolly sociopath
Tom Ripley. Baxter explicitly doffs his hat to Highsmith, but puts an even
more sinister, Hitchcockian spin on the classic plot.

From its very first pages, we readers know that "The Soul Thief" will be a
glittering addition to the canon of confiscated identity stories because of
its setting: an unidentified, dreary graduate school program in Buffalo, New
York, during the 1970s. The reigning smartest guy--there was always a
smartest guy back then--in this fish tank is Jerome Coolberg. Our naive hero,
a fellow student named Nathaniel Mason, recalls hearing legends of Coolberg
long before he met him:

"Coolberg was given to public performative thinking. When his college friends
lounged in the rathskeller, drinking coffee and debating Nietzsche, he sipped
tea through a sugar cube and undermined their arguments with quotations from
Fichte." The quotations were not to be found, however, in the volumes where he
said they were. They were not anywhere. Like spaghetti on a fork, Nathaniel
finds himself twirled around by Coolberg, and slowly--too slowly--he catches
on that Coolberg has begun appropriating parts of his personal history.

Throughout "The Soul Thief," Baxter ruminates on how people become someone
else, either through death or trauma or the slow disintegration of aging.
Lots of things out there lie in wait to steal our identities, Baxter warns.
Sure, vampires like Coolberg are to be avoided, but how can any of us hope to
escape the more mundane identity thieves of time and change?

GROSS: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University. She
reviewed "The Philosopher's Apprentice" by James Morrow and "The Soul Thief"
by Charles Baxter.
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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