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The Capture of of Saddam Hussein

Journalist Vernon Loeb covers the military for The Washington Post. He just returned from five weeks in Iraq. He discusses the situation there and the capture of Saddam Hussein.


Other segments from the episode on December 15, 2003

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, December 15, 2003: Interview with Vernon Loeb; Review of Neil Gordon's “The Company You Keep," Susan Braudy's “Family Circle: The Boudins and the Aristocracy of the…


DATE December 15, 2003 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A

Interview: Vernon Loeb, defense correspondent with The
Washington Post, tells about his time embedded with the US
military in Iraq

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

My guest, Vernon Loeb, is the defense correspondent for The Washington Post
and is one of the Post reporters who is following the story of Saddam
Hussein's capture. Loeb was in Iraq from mid-October till late November
covering the US military. He spent three to four days with each major
division in Iraq and was briefly embedded with the brigade that later captured
Saddam Hussein.

After embedding with the division, Loeb would spend a couple of days in
Baghdad at The Washington Post house, where he'd make arrangements to embed
with the next division. This morning I talked with Vernon Loeb about his
experiences covering the military in Iraq and about the capture of Saddam

What have your military sources been telling you about the significance of the
capture of Saddam Hussein and how it may or may not affect the insurgency?

Mr. VERNON LOEB (Defense Correspondent, The Washington Post): Well, I think
they all think it's a huge development, primarily because it's a final sign to
the Iraqi people that this guy is gone; he's not going to come back and
terrorize them. But I think they're also very unclear about what it's really
going to mean for the insurgency.

One of the striking things about the US military involvement in Iraq is that
commanders don't really seem to know all that much about who they're fighting.
And in fact, a number of them we spoke to yesterday, you know, hours after
Saddam's capture basically said, `We think there's going to be a spike in
attacks now,' which is kind of counterintuitive.

GROSS: Why do they think that?

Mr. LOEB: Well, I think they think the insurgents will attempt to show that
they have independent power, that they weren't dependent on Saddam for
leadership, for financing, for direction. And many of the insurgents may not
be Baathists following Saddam. And one of the big unknown questions in Iraq
is, as I said, `Who is the enemy?'

American commanders are fond of saying it's 90 percent Baathists. But that's
really just a guess on their part, and there's a whole lot of people in the
country, some in the military, who basically think that it's a lot more than
just Baathists; it's foreign terrorists possibly linked to al-Qaeda. It's
local Iraqi religious extremists call Wahabis, and a large element may purely
be a rocky nationalism. So I think, to a great extent, we're going to see,
now that Saddam Hussein has been captured, who the US is really fighting in

GROSS: In an article that you co-reported, there's a quote from Major General
Raymond Odierno, who is the man who captured Saddam Hussein. And he says that
he didn't believe that Saddam Hussein was coordinating the effort because he
didn't think there really was any national coordination for the insurgency.
What did he mean by that?

Mr. LOEB: Well, you know, I think, to a great extent, military commanders
are just kind of guessing about that point. I mean, Ray Odierno is the
commander of the 4th Infantry Division. He has responsibility for sort of
Tikrit and north central Iraq. And he has a pretty good picture of the
insurgency in his area of operations. I'm not sure he coordinates all that
well with the 1st Armored Division down in Baghdad or with the 101st up north.
So I don't really believe commanders in Iraq have ever really put the national
picture together very well. And thus, they tend to draw, I think, conclusions
on the basis of their own areas of operation. So to General Odierno, there
doesn't seem to be much national coordination because, again, he is primarily
focused on his area of operations.

I personally believe, and again, this is a guess on my part as well, that
there is more national coordination than US military commanders typically

GROSS: Why do you think that?

Mr. LOEB: Well, you know, I think if you look back at the attacks going all
the way back to the bombing of the Jordanian Embassy in Baghdad back in the
summer, you know, and then that was followed by the bombing of the UN
headquarters, the car bombings of the police stations, the attacks on the
Italians and the Poles, clearly, the insurgents have a pretty well thought out
campaign plan, in fact, a number of analysts here in the US have commented
that it seems as though the insurgents have a better campaign plan than we do.
All of this suggests to me that there is some level of national coordination,
that they have been quite deliberate in striking US allies after the US
targets became too hard to hit, and they've been quite deliberate in showing
almost sequentially that they're able to strike all over the country, even in
cities like Mosul, where the US military thought they were making great
progress. All of this to me suggests that there is some national

GROSS: When you were in Iraq and you were there for about five weeks in
October and November, could you get any sense of a popular support for the
insurgency? Were people willing to express to you support for it?

Mr. LOEB: I think there is a fair amount of popular support for the
insurgency just as I think there's a fair amount of popular support for the
Americans. When I was there I spent most of my time being a defense
correspondent with US military forces, so I was kind of reporting on the war
as they saw it. My colleagues in The Washington Post Baghdad Bureau spent
most of their time on the other side of the divide talking to Iraqis about how
they perceived the US military. And I was constantly struck by how we were
really looking at two worlds apart. The commanders would say one thing and my
colleagues would get a completely different take from the Iraqis themselves,
and it really led me to believe that one of the biggest problems the American
commanders face in Iraq is that they get their intelligence from the Iraqis
who are basically working with them. And to a great extent I think the Iraqis
working with them are very much into telling the Americans what they think the
Americans want to hear. And I think that while the American military does
have some support among the Iraqi people, I think nonetheless, it gets a very
skewed picture of the kind of support that it really has. And I don't think
its support among the Iraqi people is as deep as commanders sometimes think it

GROSS: Can you give us an example of the kind of discrepancy you're talking
about between what you saw in the military and what your colleagues who are
reporting on civilians were telling you?

Mr. LOEB: Sure. Commanders uniformly would tell me that the Iraqi Civil
Defense Corps that they are training and standing up in their sectors was a
terrific new force, that the soldiers taking part in it were thrilled to be,
you know, operating with the Americans, had real military potential. And,
indeed, one of the primary metrics the American commanders use for gauging
their own success was the willingness for Iraqis to volunteer for this new
force. And by Iraqi standards, they're actually paid pretty well. I think
the salaries are anywhere from $120 to $180 a month. Saddam, by contrast,
paid his officers about $50 a month.

I was struck when one of my colleagues then went out and spent the day with an
ICDC unit on the ground in Baiji. This colleague of mine is named Anthony
Shidiq. He's a Lebanese-American; he speaks fluent Arabic. So it's very hard
for people in Iraq really to tell who he is. I'm not sure they even know he's
an American reporter, so that when he goes out, he's not suffering from this
plague of Iraqis telling Americans what they think the Americans want to hear.

And what Anthony got from the ICDC was a completely different picture. They
basically told him they don't like the Americans very much; they're serving
with them only for the money because they need to feed their families and that
as soon as the Americans leave, they're going to take their silly baseball
hats and throw them away and, you know, make some other kind of calculation
about where they fit into Iraqi society.

To me that was a striking example of how you had these completely different
takes on the quality of the Iraq Civil Defense Corps.

GROSS: My guest is Vernon Loeb, defense correspondent for The Washington
Post, and he was last in Iraq during October and November. Have you met Major
General Odierno, the major of the troops that captured Saddam Hussein?

Mr. LOEB: I have. I've interviewed him, I've spent some time with him,
flying around his sector. And he's quite an interesting and remarkable man.
He's very large. He's 6'5", I think he weighs 250 pounds. He once played
tight end for the West Point football team. He's also quite cerebral. He has
a master's degree, an engineering degree in nuclear effects, so he's this sort
of, you know, typical Army combination of, you know, sort of, muddy boots,
brawn and brains.

GROSS: And as this is an example of the kinds of things he has to deal with,
one or two days before the capture of Saddam Hussein, he was dealing with
fining one of his own men for having done something he shouldn't have done.
Why don't you explain what that was about?

Mr. LOEB: Sure. One of General Odierno's battalion commanders, a lieutenant
colonel named Allen West. This summer, while he was interrogating an Iraqi
detainee, basically to frighten this detainee into divulging information, he
fired his pistol by the detainee's ear. This came after he had basically
allowed his men to beat the detainee. They believed this Iraqi had
information about a planned ambush against US forces, and they were determined
to get some information out of this guy. General Odierno learned of this
interrogation through some anonymous letters from troops who witnessed it, and
he immediately commenced a criminal investigation. Then it was up to him
after the facts were in and after Lieutenant Colonel West basically
acknowledged what he'd done, General Odierno had to decide, do I court-martial
this guy or do I punish him administratively? And it became a huge cause
celebre within the Army. Many, many officers rallied to Lieutenant Colonel
West's side. People on Capitol Hill were expressing outrage that he was being
court-martialed or could face court-martial. And last week General Odierno
finally ended the controversy by administratively fining the lieutenant
colonel $5,000 and basically ending his career.

GROSS: Do you know why he decided to take that route instead of the

Mr. LOEB: Well, I think it was basically the extenuating circumstances of
the whole thing. I mean, the whole case really spoke to the kind of moral
difficulties of fighting an insurgency. West's supporters basically said,
`Look, here was a guy who believed his men might be killed by these
insurgents, and he had somebody in front of him who had the information so he
was left with a choice, how far do I go in getting information from this Iraqi
in order to protect my men?' And I think it was because he faced that very
difficult moral choice that General Odierno ultimately decided that it would
be inappropriate to court-martial, you know, criminally send this man to jail
for what he had done.

Many disagreed. I know some legal military experts basically believe that
West should have been court-martialed for allowing his men to beat the
detainee. They saw that as a more egregious act than actually firing his gun
in the Iraqi's ear. But, again, it was a very tough situation. I mean, think
of it yourself. Think of your children. If somebody had kidnapped your
children and you had someone before you who had information about their
whereabouts, how far would you go in trying to get information out of that
individual? That's sort of the choice that West faced. And in punishing him,
Odierno had to weigh not only his acts but sort of the context in which he

GROSS: Vernon, I don't know if this is anything you want to speculate about
or not, but do you get the impression that actually there's a lot of behavior
like this going on that isn't getting reported and therefore isn't getting
officially scrutinized by the military?

Mr. LOEB: My sense is that there isn't a lot of this going on, that this was
kind of unusual and indeed so unusual that it was reported to the commanding
general by troops who witnessed it. My sense was that US soldiers are quite
disciplined and professional over there. None of them want to spend a year in
Iraq obviously, but I thought morale was quite high because, you know, most of
the active duty forces at least were doing what they joined the military to
do, which was to fight.

All the studies show that actually retention in units is higher when units are
in the field fighting than it is when they're back sitting around their bases
training. So I found morale to be high, and I found professionalism among the
troops to be remarkably high.

GROSS: My guest is Vernon Loeb, defense correspondent for The Washington
Post. We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is Vernon Loeb, defense correspondent for The Washington

One of the places you visited when you were in Iraq in October and November
was Al-Awja, which is near Saddam Hussein's hometown, and many of his
relatives live in Al-Awja. The town is basically been fenced in. Can you
describe what the town looks like now?

Mr. LOEB: Sure. Al-Awja is actually very close to Adwar, where they captured
Saddam. It's probably five miles away. It's actually Saddam's birthplace,
and because it was his birthplace, he went there and basically leveled all the
shacks where he was born and built quite nice houses, perhaps even mansions
for his clansmen and his family members. You know, it looks like a suburban
American neighborhood. It's got probably 300 or 400 houses inside, maybe on
five square kilometers. And right now it's encircled in concertina wire, and
everybody who lives there must come and go through one common checkpoint.

One of General Odierno's lieutenant colonels came up with the idea of using
this sort of reverse strategic hamlet method to control the population. They
felt that a lot of the people plotting the insurgency were living inside
Al-Awja, and they were just having, you know, a terrible time sort of getting
control of these people, figuring out when they were coming and going and kind
of getting through to them. And so they encircled the town in barbed wire,
they gave everybody ID passes except for about 40 people in the town, and
those 40 people they thought were the real bad guys. They basically said to
them, `If you want to leave this town, you gotta come and talk to us and you
gotta come and tell you what you know. Everybody else can come and go through
our checkpoint, but you 40 bad guys have to remain in place.' And it's when
they really started working on the family members like this back in early
November that they really started sort of breaking through the web of
connections that had been protecting Saddam. And I think it's just this kind
of attention to family members and clansmen that actually led them to Saddam
on Saturday.

GROSS: There's a risk that a maneuver like that would backfire because there
could be so much resentment that a town is basically being fenced in like that
and that people who had been important under Saddam Hussein are prevented
from, you know, from leaving town. Has there been any backlash against this

Mr. LOEB: Well, that's a really good point and repeatedly, you know,
American military commanders over there stress that, you know, we have to do
our offensive operations in such a way that we don't create more bad guys and
alienating the population than we take off the street in, you know, detaining
the people we're looking for. So there is this constant sort of calibration:
Okay, we're going to do a raid, but how can we do it in such a way where we
don't alienate everybody in the neighborhood? In fact, even sometimes after
raids, they have these parties that come back the next day with engineers to
fix any broken doors they may have broken down during the raid to, you know,
hand out soccer balls, to talk to the people, to sort of do counter-raid, you
know, repairs.

In the town of Al-Awja, I think that's less of a problem because everyone in
Al-Awja intensely hates the US military. They don't really have a hearts and
minds problem there because you're never going to win the hearts and minds of
these people. So I think in this particular case, there was less to lose in
terms of alienating the population than is the case, you know, everywhere else
in Iraq.

GROSS: Were you traveling with the military when you were in Al-Awja?

Mr. LOEB: Yeah, I traveled with the military all over the country. Actually
it was one of the most sort of scary things you had to do, which was just
riding around with them. You know, when you ride around with the US military,
you basically have a target, you know, painted on you, and a lot of these
roadside bombs are command detonated, and the insurgents only detonate them
when military vehicles are going by. So, yeah, just traveling around with the
military in Iraq can be pretty dangerous. In fact, one of my ex-colleagues
from The Washington Post, a reporter named Michael Weiskopf, lost his hand
last week in Baghdad when he was with troops from the 1st Armored Division in
a Humvee and somebody threw a hand grenade in.

GROSS: I heard that he had caught the grenade and threw it out. Is that

Mr. LOEB: Yeah, apparently he didn't catch it. He picked it up--It sort of
landed at his feet--and threw it out of the Humvee, and it went off either in
his hand or shortly after he'd let it go, and in doing so, he probably saved
his own life and those of the four soldiers and a photographer in the Humvee
at the same time. Even as it was, he lost his hand, his photographer was
seriously injured by shrapnel and all four of the soldiers were injured. And
again, that's just sort of, you know--riding around in Baghdad you have no
idea when an incident like that is going to happen. And oftentimes, you know,
the things that seem the safest turn out to be the most dangerous.

GROSS: Like what?

Mr. LOEB: Just riding around in a Humvee. Going to get the mail. Riding
down to Baghdad International airport. I mean, a lot of these soldiers who've
been killed or seriously injured have been, you know, clerks taking the mail
down to the airport. In fact, the main road to the airport was so bad that
the US military has sort of defoliated the whole thing how, cut down all the
trees on either side of the road so, you know, the insurgents can't hide in
there and fire RPGs and plant these bombs. I think they're actually getting
on top of the roadside bomb problem now, but it's one of the things that makes
being with US military, you know, quite scary in Iraq.

GROSS: My guest is Vernon Loeb, defense correspondent for The Washington
Post. We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with Vernon Loeb, defense
correspondent for The Washington Post. He spent five weeks in Iraq beginning
October 15th, covering the US military. He spent three to four days with each
major division in Iraq. Fighting the insurgency has proved to be difficult
and dangerous. I asked Vernon Loeb about the morale of the troops.

Mr. LOEB: Well, I think morale is really horrible among Reservists and
National Guardsmen. These are guys who went over there thinking that they
were going to be there for six months and in September, coming up to the end
of their six-month tours, they were suddenly told, `Oh, guess what? We've
just changed the rules and it's one year in country.' A lot of these people
have jobs that they are not in and watching other people take; they've been
away from their families for a long time. These are just sort of, you know,
ordinary people who are the weekend warriors and suddenly find, you know, four
weekends a year becoming a year in Iraq. So their morale is quite low.

On the other hand, the active duty forces I found morale to be quite high.
These are people who primarily break down into two groups, you know, 21- and
22-year-olds who volunteered for the military because they wanted to fight and
their officers who have been in the military for, you know, anywhere from 10
to 20 years, training and studying for this very moment, the ability to go to
war. So I think the morale is very high still among the active duty forces.

And I think another key thing in understanding the US military is the way they
see casualties. While, you know, us civilians looking from the outside think
one or two soldiers killed a day are high casualties, the military doesn't
really see it that way. Casualties are a fact of life in the military and I
don't think casualties are anywhere near high enough to start affecting

I mean, remember, you know, at the height of the Vietnam War, casualties were
like 500 a week; here they're more like five or six a week with maybe, you
know, 30 or 40 soldiers being wounded. I was with battalions who had been in
Iraq for, you know, going on eight or nine months at that point who hadn't
lost a single soldier. So I think casualties, while high and while, in some
sense, you know, distressingly high to those of us on the outside are not that
high to the military mind.

GROSS: Did you find that there was any friction between the military and
civilian leadership in Iraq? I'm not sure if you had a seat where you could
see that kind of difference even if it did exist, but were you able to see how
the two are connecting?

Mr. LOEB: Well, I never saw them interact per se but I repeatedly heard
military commanders expressing extreme frustration about the Coalition
Provisional Authority in Baghdad. The military commanders saw the CPA people
as, you know, bureaucrats, as impediments to work around, as people who for
one reason or another, you know, could never make things that the military
commanders needed on the ground happen.

A classic example was the Commanders Emergency Response Program which was
created early on upon their arrival in Iraq. Basically somebody had the
really good idea of taking Iraqi-confiscated dollars and giving them to
military commanders almost in sort of slush funds, a very unencumbered funds
that they could use however they wanted to get things moving very quickly in
their communities. And the commanders used them to great effect, you know,
they would give a sheik a thousand dollars to have his men, you know, police
up a school in their neighborhood. They used them to start rehabbing schools,
rehabbing soccer fields. They really used this money to get things going in
Iraq, and by September all of these Iraqi confiscated funds were gone, they'd
been spent. And so the commanders started asking for American dollars to
replace this money so they could keep these, you know, hearts and minds
activities going and the CPA basically said, `Well, you know, the
supplementals, you know, being debated in Congress and we can't give you any
money right now. You're going to have to do without for a while.'

So they had this critical period this fall of a couple of months where all of
the, you know, emergency response funds dried up and I think a lot of
commanders really believe this sort of surge in attacks coincided with that.
As their ability to do good things for the Iraqi people waned, the insurgents
took advantage of that, moved in and stepped up their attacks. I understand
the money is now flowing again but to me it was a classic example of a
bureaucracy just not being able to move fast enough to give these commanders
what they needed.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Vernon Loeb, defense
correspondent for The Washington Post and he was in Iraq for five weeks
starting in mid-October. What was one of the most interesting missions that
you accompanied troops on?

Mr. LOEB: Well, one was definitely when I embedded with the 82nd Airborne.
No sooner had I arrived then they told me we were going downtown to relieve
about 100 soldiers who were literally holding the mayor's office in downtown
Fallujah which had been burned and overrun the day before by Iraqi rioters.
So our mission was to go in and relieve about 100 guys who'd been holding this
police station/mayor's office compound for a day. And no sooner had we
arrived at this compound, sort of driven in and had the gate closed behind us
then, you know, a rocket-propelled grenade sailed over the compound walls and,
you know, I found myself sort of in the midst of a huge firefight for about 15

At one point I asked a sergeant, I said, `you know, what's the mission here?'
And he said, `Well, the mission is just hold this place.' And I said, you
know, `If you guys weren't here?' And he said, `Well, the bad guys would just
come in and take it over again.' So, you know, the firefight ended in about
15 minutes. Darkness fell. We then, you know, just sort of stayed there for,
you know, the next nine hours waiting for another attack, none came and at
3 in the morning the commanders decided, `OK, we've had enough of this
place.' So they opened the gates, everybody loaded up onto their Humvees and
we just sort of drove back out to the 82nd's base on the outskirts of town and
just sort of abandoned the place, I guess having shown that, you know, they
were willing to come in and back up the Iraqis if need be. That was certainly
one memorable event.

GROSS: Do you know what happened there after the military left?

Mr. LOEB: Shortly thereafter the mayor fled. You know, Fallujah, I thought,
was one of the few areas in Iraq that had sort of reached the tipping point
where the insurgents and the population were sort of in sync to the point that
US troops saw the entire place as hostile and had virtually given up, you
know, trying to win the hearts and minds and were just almost engaged purely
in combat operations.

GROSS: What kind of protection do you have?

Mr. LOEB: Well, I wore body armor and a helmet whenever I was with US
soldiers and that wasn't just, you know, on patrol or anything, it was riding
around on vehicles. I remember even on the 82nd base I once walked to
interview somebody like all the way across the base which happened to be in
one of, I think, it was Uday Hussein's old resorts and as I was walking
through the base without my helmet and without my body armor, mortars started,
you know, coming down. And, you know, they started hitting actually just as I
had gotten to the cabin of the officer I was going to interview and, you know,
I felt very vulnerable. Here I was, you know, all the way across the base,
mortars were landing, I don't have my body armor, I don't have my helmet. So
that sort of taught me, you know, even when you're on the US bases, it's a
good idea to wear your body armor and your helmet.

GROSS: Is it uncomfortable?

Mr. LOEB: It's actually not. You get used to it and it's amazingly
comfortable when you find yourself, you know...

GROSS: Under attack.

Mr. LOEB: a firefight. When I was with the 82nd there in Fallujah I
felt myself, you know, trying to crawl inside my helmet. So, no, it wasn't
uncomfortable at all then. It's actually not that heavy. I think the body
armor that the US forces wear weighs about 16 pounds although they load it
down with all sorts of, you know, grenades and magazine clips and things like
that that make it weigh about 40 pounds. It's a camouflaged Kevlar vest which
itself can stop, you know, 9mm pistol shots and shrapnel and then in the
front and the back of the vests are these very hard ceramic plates that are,
you know, the product of much, you know, military research that are both light
but very strong and can stop an AK-47 round. And I interviewed soldiers over
there who, you know, would pull their plates out of their vests for me and
show me the bullet holes in their plates.

GROSS: Did they not know whether they were actually hit or not when they felt
the impact of the bullet?

Mr. LOEB: Usually they know they're hit. Funny, a number of them told me
they took a hit, usually the force of the bullet knocks them right off their
feet. And they start, you know--they start feeling around on their bodies for
blood and wondering, you know, how badly they're wounded. You know, are they
bleeding? What's really happened? And then they realize nothing has
happened, you know, the bullets have hit the plates and they're OK.

I wrote about one guy who was shot from about 10 yards away by an Iraqi with
an AK-47; the bullet hit his front plate, ignited tracer rounds and smoke
grenades hanging off his body armor, knocked him off his feet. So there he is
lying on the ground, smoke is pouring from his body and his colleagues run up
to him and he starts asking them, `Am I bleeding? Am I bleeding?' And, you
know, ultimately they figured out, `No, the only thing that's hit is your

GROSS: My guest is Vernon Loeb, defense correspondent for The Washington
Post. We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Vernon Loeb. He is defense
correspondent for The Washington Post and he was in Iraq most recently from
mid-October through mid-November.

Vernon, I'd like to ask you about a story that you covered that proved to be
very controversial and I'd love to hear your take on this. You co-wrote an
article for The Washington Post about Jessica Lynch just as that story was
breaking. And you reported a couple of things that turned out not to be true.
Do you want to just mention what those things were that you thought were true
at the time?

Mr. LOEB: Yeah, we were told by some really good intelligence sources here
in Washington that, you know, there were indications that she had, you know,
fired back and resisted her capture and actually been shot and possibly
stabbed doing so. None of this turned out to be the case as we, you know,
quickly learned. But, you know, we basically told our readers that day what
the US intelligence community was telling senior members of the US government.
It just kind of goes back to the old adage that, you know, initial reports
from the battlefield are almost always wrong. We since went back and sort of
tried to piece together what happened there. And it's kind of interesting.
Apparently part of these intelligence reports were based on, you know, signals
intercepts of Iraqis talking about, you know, a blond American firing back.
And I guess those reports quickly became interpreted by some intelligence
analysts to be Jessica Lynch firing back. A lot of people now think there was
a blond male sergeant or soldier firing back who might have been the blond in
these, you know, signals intercepts. So, you know, the story was, you know,
an accurate reflection of what the very initial sketchy intelligence was from
the battlefield, which, you know, upon examination almost immediately turned
out to be wrong.

GROSS: So you don't think that the reports you were given were intentional
attempts to mythologize or to create a hero out of Jessica Lynch so that
there'd be a good positive symbol?

Mr. LOEB: No, not at all. I mean, I've been asked this over and over again.
Our sources for that story were not Pentagon sources. And, in fact, I could
never get anybody from the Pentagon to talk about those reports at all. I got
indications that they had, in fact, received those intelligence reports, but
the Pentagon was completely unwilling to comment on those reports at all.
They wouldn't say anything about Jessica Lynch. I've never believed that, at
least as far as the story we wrote goes, that it was a Pentagon attempt to
create a hero there. You know, then there was the--her rescue and a lot of
people made the same charge there that they had going in with videotapes and
tried to make the rescue something that it wasn't. I didn't really buy that
either. I just didn't see the Pentagon trying to create a hero where there
was none. I mean, I just--I didn't think they--they never showed any interest
in doing that, to me.

GROSS: What were the conversations like at The Washington Post about how to
deal with it that you learned that your sources were wrong and that she--it
wasn't a fight to the death, she didn't resist, she didn't fire back, that she
was already injured?

Mr. LOEB: Well, it's kind of confusing at first because it wasn't clear what
had happened initially. We got these intelligence reports right as she was
being rescued. And nobody had had a chance to really examiner her when these
reports were coming out. The reports we received were based on, you know,
intelligence from the battlefield that had been gathered, you know, for the
previous, say, week to 10 days while she was being held prisoner. So they
were surfacing just as she was surfacing and almost immediately once she got
out of Iraq, it became clear that, you know, some of--much of those reports
were wrong because, in fact, she hadn't been shot or stabbed and even that
was confusing because she had some wounds and it wasn't really clear how she'd
gotten them. I think--I felt very good about the paper ultimately going back
a month or two later and investigating the entire episode again and coming to,
you know, a very full set of conclusions about what had happened. And finally
kind of setting the record straight about, you know, what had happened to
Jessica Lynch.

GROSS: Do you think you've been unfairly criticized by some media watchers?

Mr. LOEB: For the Jessica Lynch story?

GROSS: Yeah.

Mr. LOEB: I don't think so. I mean, you know, we wrote a story that turned
out to be wrong because intelligence information we were given was wrong. I
mean, that happened--it happens, you know, quite often. I mean, look at the
whole war and the whole, you know, weapons of mass destruction, you know,
intelligence. You know, it was a very sensational story. It happened at a
key moment in the war. I have no problem with people saying, you know, was
the Pentagon trying to create a hero here, where they using The Washington
Post; I mean, that's fair game. I think we've, you know, done a pretty good
job with explaining where we were coming from and what we did and why we did

Again, you know, in retrospect, sure, I wouldn't have done the story, or at
least I would have written it in a more, you know--or in a less dramatic
fashion, but, you know, at the time we wrote it, you know, it was an absolute
legitimate story. I thought we had very good sources. As I say, the
intelligence community was telling the very highest levels of the US
government the same thing that we reported. So at the time we had absolutely
no idea that any of this information was wrong when we reported it and when we
did find out it was wrong, we corrected it.

GROSS: Vernon, one other question. We spoke just before the start of the US
invasion of Iraq. Is there any one thing that has particularly surprised you
in how the past year has unfolded?

Mr. LOEB: Well, I guess I've--I don't know if surprised is the right word,
but just the intensity of the insurgency is something that while a lot of
people predicted it, you know, it would have been impossible to sort of
completely forecast in advance. Just the difficulty of this mission we now
have I find really striking. I--you know, even with Saddam Hussein's capture,
I find it hard to be too optimistic about Iraq. It's such a fragile country,
it's so, you know, badly devastated by bombing, by years of sanctions, it's a
fractured country with, you know, ethnic groups that mistrust each other.
There are these insurgents who we can't fully identify. There are foreign
terrorists coming in to some degree or another. It's an incredibly difficult
mission and I'm really struck by just how daunting the challenge is, and,
again, a lot of people forecast this, but it's hard to fully grasp just how
difficult Iraq is going to be probably for years to come for this country in

GROSS: Well, Vernon Loeb, thank you very much for talking with us.

Mr. LOEB: Sure, my pleasure.

GROSS: And safe travels when you go back to Iraq.

Mr. LOEB: Thanks.

GROSS: Vernon Loeb is the defense correspondent for The Washington Post.

Coming up, book critic Maureen Corrigan reviews three books about the politics
of the '60s.

This is FRESH AIR.

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

Review: Holiday picks include three books on the politics of
the '60s

During this holiday season book critic Maureen Corrigan looks back to the
politics of the '60s. She says both in fiction and in non-fiction, these
books reflect on another time, yet contain lessons for today.


The ghost of Christmas past is haunting bookstores for the holidays. He's
decked out, not in the flowing robes that Charles Dickens imagined, but in
hipper threads: bell bottoms, a headband, maybe an Army surplus jacket.
That's because in literature this season the '60s have been resurrected with a

A couple of months ago I raved about Susan Choi's new novel, "American Woman,"
which was inspired in part by the Patty Hearst kidnapping case. Neil Gordon's
superb suspense novel, "The Company You Keep," can be thought of as a fugitive
companion volume to Choi's. His anti-hero, Jason Sinai, is a former member of
the Weather Underground, the splinter group of SDS that advocated violence as
a means to stop the Vietnam War.

Sinai, like Choi's heroine, has constructed a good life under an alias in
upstate New York. That is, until a reporter stumbles onto Sinai's true
identity and outs him. Sinai then embarks on a cross-country odyssey to prove
himself innocent of a decades-old murder charge in connection with a bank
robbery gone haywire. One of the elements that makes "The Company You Keep"
such an extraordinary suspense novel is its powerful evocation of fatherly
love. Sinai has custody of his seven-year-old daughter, Isabel. In order
to grab at the fragile straw of clearing his name and thus keeping Isabel,
Sinai has to desert her in a New York City hotel room as she sleeps. The
horror of that brutal yet necessary act echoes throughout the novel.

Another element that distinguishes Gordon's writing is its wry intelligence.
At one point in the novel, an FBI agent who fought in Vietnam makes this
pronouncement about the war, and thus provides Gordon's book with its title.
`Where you fell on the question of Vietnam didn't depend on what you believed.
Where you fell on the question of Vietnam depended on the company you kept.
Nothing more, nothing less. Your friends went, your neighbors went, your
family went, then you went, too.'

If that's the case, then actual Weatherman Kathy Boudin was fated for a life
of revolution by the company she was born into. That's the reductive thesis
of Susan Braudy's non-fiction book on Boudin and her parents called "Family
Circle." Boudin, who lived underground for 11 years, and made the FBI's Most
Wanted List, was unexpectedly paroled from prison earlier this year. While
the young Kathy Boudin was absorbed in her Weatherman activities, her father,
famous left-wing attorney Leonard Boudin, was busy defending Dr. Spock, Fidel
Castro and Daniel Elsberg.

Author Susan Braudy insists that Kathy's revolutionary activities were
motivated by her yearning for her father's approval. And that he in turn
thrilled to his daughter's escapades. And enjoyed his sexual access to her
counterculture friends. "Family Circle" is new left history writ as Freudian
melodrama. But it does provide great fodder for holiday trivia games. Did
you know that Kathy Boudin went to high school with Angela Davis? Or that the
New York town house she grew up in appears nightly in reruns of "The Cosby

Now to go from the entertaining if often ridiculous to the sublime, David
Maraniss' book, "They Marched Into Sunlight," is that miraculous thing, a
substantive, exhaustively researched work of history that reads like a novel,
a novel you can't put down but frequently have to because it's so emotionally
wrenching. Maraniss, who's a Pulitzer Prize-winning author, and an editor at
The Washington Post, had an inspired idea: to focus his book on two crucial
events that happened on October 17th and 18th in 1967. Maraniss' narrative
alternates between the University of Wisconsin where the student protest
against campus recruitment by Dow Chemical, maker of napalm, unexpectedly
erupted into a violent clash with police. And a jungle in Vietnam where a
celebrated battalion of 1st Infantry Division marched into an ambush by North
Vietnamese troops. They were outnumbered 8-to-1.

Hovering above the infernos at home and in Vietnam is Lyndon Johnson who
sounds, in the conversations Maraniss quotes, like the paralyzed character out
of a Samuel Beckett play. Maraniss sees both the students and the soldiers as
marching into a sunlit ambush by forces both physical and historical, larger
than themselves. Among the epic cast of characters Maraniss interviews are
the wife of slain battalion commander Terry Allen, who in 1967 was about to
divorce her husband because of their opposing views on the war. He also talks
to the surviving North Vietnamese commanders and Vice President Dick Cheney
and his wife, Lynne, who were then graduate students at Wisconsin and recalled
feeling the demonstrations were a pain the neck, interfering with their class
schedules. The soldiers, of course, paid a much higher price than the
students. But the triumph of Maraniss' book is that he illuminates the
transformative effects of the two battles, both on the individuals involved
and, particularly in the case of the Wisconsin protest, on the nation.

The ghost of Christmas past takes Scrooge on a tour of what's gone before in
order that he repent and not repeat his mistakes. Perhaps these '60s books
also give us readers some cautionary insights to apply to the present,
insights about the price of fanaticism as well as the price of ignorance.

GROSS: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University.


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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