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Former Fighter Pilot Keith Rosenkranz

During the 1991 Gulf War, he flew 30 combat missions in his F-16. He wrote about the experience in his book, Vipers in the Storm: Diary of a Gulf War Fighter Pilot.

34:33

Other segments from the episode on March 31, 2003

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, March 31, 2003: Interview Keith Rosenkrantz; Interview with Sam Hamill.

Transcript

DATE March 31, 2003 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
NETWORK NPR
PROGRAM Fresh Air

Interview: Captain Keith Rosenkrantz discusses his experiences
as a US Air Force fighter pilot in the Gulf War
TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

My guest, Keith Rosenkrantz, knows what it's like to fly an F-16 fighter plane
in combat missions over Iraq. During the Gulf War of 1991, he flew 30 combat
missions over Iraq and Kuwait. He was awarded four Air Medals and two Aerial
Achievement Medals. He wrote a memoir about his war experiences called
"Vipers in the Storm." Rosenkrantz is a former Air Force captain who is now a
pilot for a major commercial airline. I asked him what it's like to watch TV
and see soldiers fighting the war in Iraq.

Captain KEITH ROSENKRANTZ (US Air Force, Retired; Author, "Vipers in the
Storm"): It's very surreal in the sense that I feel like I'm going through it
again, and it's been 12 years. And it's different also in the sense that this
is much more ground-intensive than when I was in the campaign, where I feel
that air power won the war.

GROSS: Are there any particular memories that have been surfacing a lot
watching this new war?

Capt. ROSENKRANTZ: I think watching the initial air strikes over Baghdad at
night and seeing the triple A rise above the city. There were a number of
times where I flew in the middle of the night; in fact, 27 of the 30 missions
I flew were at night. So can vividly recall the triple A coming up at me and
exploding. And also the trips that I flew to Baghdad--I remember those very
well also.

GROSS: What is the triple A?

Capt. ROSENKRANTZ: Triple A is anti-aircraft artillery, and ground forces on
the ground will generally fire that. They could lock you up with their radar,
or they can just fire it optically. And in many cases you see the snakelike
tracers going up into the sky. And that's what the triple A is.

GROSS: Can you describe what it's like to be in the cockpit when
anti-aircraft artillery is being fired at you? What do you see? What does it
feel like physically?

Capt. ROSENKRANTZ: The first two missions I flew to Baghdad, I was probably
more terrified than I've ever been in my life, and flying up at 25,000 feet,
ingressing to the target. And then as you get close to the city itself you
start to get tones and buzzes in your radar attack warning indicator that give
you an impression that there's triple A sites or surface-to-air missile sites
down below. And as you get closer, when they lock you up, you get a series of
seven beeps when they finally fire upon you.

And ultimately your objective is to get the good bombs on target. And as I
was rolling in there were missiles being fired at me, and I could see the
black flat clouds of triple A exploding around me. And I can remember
thinking it kind of reminds you of a John Wayne movie when you see the big
black bursts all around you. And you're absolutely terrified, but then for
those 30 to 45 seconds that you're rolling in you kind of lose sight of it all
because you're concentrating so hard on putting your bombs on target. And
once you pick all the bombs off and roll off, then all of a sudden it comes
back again and you're scared again.

GROSS: What can you do to evade or counteract the missiles, or the
anti-aircraft artillery, that's directed at you?

Capt. ROSENKRANTZ: We had pods on the aircraft that would help jam the radar
sites on the ground. That's one way. We also have chaff, which is shredded
bundles of aluminum that we could dispense from the aircraft. And there's
also flares that will dispense from the aircraft to draw off a heat-seeking
missile from you. The triple A itself, depending on the altitude that it's
exploding at, sometimes it's luck. If you have a missile coming up at you,
what you'll generally try to do is put that missile off of one wing or the
other, and then as it's coming toward you, you want to kind of barrel roll
around it to force it to overshoot and avoid being hit by the shrapnel or the
warhead.

GROSS: Can you hear the triple A or hear the heat-seeking missile as it's
heading toward you?

Capt. ROSENKRANTZ: Not at all, no. All you hear really is the constant hum
of your engine. You're inside a cockpit. You have a helmet on, and there's
nothing outside that you can hear. You can't hear bombs. You can't hear
triple A. You can't hear missiles.

GROSS: Does that make it even more eerie?

Capt. ROSENKRANTZ: Not that it's eerie. It's more of a sense of being safe,
and it's maybe sometimes a false sense of security...

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Capt. ROSENKRANTZ: ...'cause you feel safe in the cockpit, whereas you're
very susceptible to being hit.

GROSS: Are you alone in the cockpit?

Capt. ROSENKRANTZ: Yes. The F-16 is a single-seat fighter.

GROSS: And who are you in contact with?

Capt. ROSENKRANTZ: Well, you have a formation. We always fly in at least a
minimum of two aircraft in a formation. On the missions that we flew to
Baghdad, the second mission I flew to bomb the nuclear research facility was
the largest strike package of the war. We had 78 aircraft. And generally
you're talking with AWACS, the Airborne Warning And Control System controllers
and amongst yourselves, within your formation.

GROSS: That's a pretty big target, the nuclear research facility.

Capt. ROSENKRANTZ: That was probably one of the most significant targets of
the war. When we came in to brief that morning, our wing commander had told
us that President Bush and many leaders around the world were going to be
looking and paying attention to how we did that day, so it was a very
important mission. And we went in, we took off and refueled, went up to
Baghdad, dropped our bombs. I can remember having two guys shot down about 60
miles behind me and listening to them on the radios, or listening to one of
them on the radios, as he tried to escape to the south. It was very
eye-watering, to say the least.

GROSS: Tell me more about that.

Capt. ROSENKRANTZ: Well, I'd just come off target and lost sight of my
wingman, and I was flying to the south trying to get away. I can remember
there was a surface-to-air missile, what we called an SA-6, that was shot up
toward me, and I looked down to my right and I saw it coming up. And I was
kind of slow, and you want to have air speed to give you more maneuverability,
and so I hit the emergency jettison button to punch off my wing tanks. And I
kind of wanted to see what that looked like, so I banked to the left and
looked back, and I can still close my eyes today and see those wing tanks
tumbling toward the ground. And then I turned back to the right and the
missile went behind me.

And so as I proceeded south and started to climb to gain altitude, all of the
sudden one pilot was yelling on the radio--his call sign was Stroke 1--and he
talked about being hit, and he'd lost his avionics system. And I would say
for the next 20 minutes he was basically just trying to get to the south and
get as far away from Baghdad as possible. And all of us were just quiet. We
were just listening. And eventually he started to lose oil in his engine, and
we just have one engine. And eventually that engine seized, and I can
remember him saying, `I'm giving it my best Bogart up here.' He was trying to
be calm and cool. And eventually he said, `That's all I've got, guys.' And
he ejected, and that was the last we heard of him. He was captured as a POW
and eventually returned home.

GROSS: What does it do to your confidence as a pilot when someone who you
know, someone you're flying with, you know, gets shot down?

Capt. ROSENKRANTZ: Well, it teaches you that you're not infallible, and it
also gives you strength in the sense that, you know, when you can come back
and make it back to the base and see most of your friends make it back there's
a real strong sense of camaraderie and unity within the group. And you pull
together, and you come together as a group, and that helps you.

GROSS: The F-16 is equipped with night vision, so you can fly at night as if
it were daytime, but you can't actually see your target.

Capt. ROSENKRANTZ: Well, at the time of the Gulf War you could roll in on a
target and you could program it to either appear as white hot or black hot in
the type of shade that you would see. So if you were going to roll in on a
group of tanks, for example, the metal from the tanks would retain heat over
the course of the day and would show up as black dots.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Capt. ROSENKRANTZ: And so that would be how you would identify your target at
night: with radar and then the forward-looking infrared system. The
difference today, though, is many of the pilots will fly with night-vision
goggles. So the difference there is that when we flew our window was what was
in the head-up display, whereas today a pilot with the goggles can look around
anywhere and see the same picture.

GROSS: Is it unnerving when you're seeing, you know, something on your radar
screen that's like a square or whatever but you can't really visualize the
target itself? Is it unnerving to drop the bomb on it, not having that visual
reality? I mean, you're too high up. It's too dark. I mean, you know,
there's things that you just can't see.

Capt. ROSENKRANTZ: It's not unnerving in the sense that I wasn't nervous
about it or worried. You don't see people die. When you drop your bombs from
a higher altitude you see little puffs of smoke down on the ground and you
don't get a sense that people down there may be dying from that. So there's a
difference there. I learned to separate my emotions when I got inside the
cockpit. Sure, on the ground I could think about the people that are dying
and the effect that I'm having on the war, but once the canopy closed I was
all business and took care of whatever I needed to do to make sure that I
achieved the objectives of my mission.

GROSS: And what about when you'd land after the mission? Could you allow
yourself then to, you know, ask yourself if people died or if people who, you
know, weren't military, you know, people who were not targets, if they died?
Or is that something that you can't really let yourself think about?

Capt. ROSENKRANTZ: I started to reflect on it when I was leaving the target
area and returning to base. I would climb up into the 30,000-foot range, put
the autopilot on and eat some granola bars and spend the next hour reflecting
on the mission. And I wasn't upset, or I didn't feel bad. Supposedly you
never question whether or not there are civilians vs. military personnel. You
do the job and then you come back and land, and you sleep 12 hours 'cause
you're mentally and emotionally exhausted.

GROSS: My guest is Keith Rosenkrantz, author of the memoir "Vipers in the
Storm: Diary of a Gulf War Fighter Pilot." We'll be back after a break.
This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is former Captain Keith
Rosenkrantz, and he flew F-16s during the Gulf War in 1991. He has a memoir
called "Vipers in the Storm."

Was there a mission where you realized for the first time that your bombs had
actually killed someone?

Capt. ROSENKRANTZ: There was. We were flying at night and I had targeted a
vehicle on a highway, and I rolled in and dropped the bombs and saw the
vehicle explode. And that was the first time I realized that yes, I had
indeed taken a life. And I wrote about this in the book because I wanted
people to understand that these people were human beings, too.

And this person I talked about was basically a fuel truck driver who had
probably wanted to do his job, he's trying to get some fuel so he can help out
his tank division. And maybe some of the guys that night said to him, `Hey
we've got these invitation cards that they've been dropping, and we can defect
and get out of this war.' And he probably thought about it and decided not to
simply because he didn't want to, you know, have any retribution toward his
family, or maybe even toward himself.

So he's out there in the middle of the desert at 3:00 in the morning driving
this fuel truck, and at that time I'm going through my briefing, getting ready
to fly. And as he's thinking about his family, I'm flying and thinking about
mine. And eventually I roll in, and maybe he's reminiscing of his childhood,
just driving in the middle of the night, and then he's gone.

GROSS: Did you think about that kind of thing a lot?

Capt. ROSENKRANTZ: I did more so on the ground sometimes watching the news
coverage when you would see the news reporters talk about civilian damage and
the collateral damage that was occurring. Sometimes you think about that. But
again, you have to separate those emotions and when the canopy closes do the
job at hand.

GROSS: Were you ever flying a mission where you hit the wrong target and you
knew that there were unintended victims, that there were civilians who died?

Capt. ROSENKRANTZ: No, I never flew a mission like that. And I can tell the
people that we did everything we could to avoid missions like that. And one
perfect example is one night we were preparing a briefing and one of the
intelligence officers came in with some satellite photos of a park in an Iraqi
neighborhood near Basra, and in this park Saddam Hussein had put a bunch of
tanks and armored personnel carriers thinking that maybe since they're kind of
in a civilian area that they would be safe. And they were far enough away
from some neighborhoods that we thought we could drop on them and still take
them out. And the commander in charge of the mission looked at the park that
these vehicles were in and said, `On this one right side of the park it looks
like there's some homes there, so nobody drop anywhere near that side, and
we'll just take everything over on the left side of the park.' So when we
rolled in we could specifically target that left side and avoid the collateral
damage on the right, and we made a point of doing that.

GROSS: You described a little earlier what it was like when you were flying
and one of the other planes you were flying with was shot down and the pilot
was captured, taken prisoner of war. What kind of training were you given
about how to prepare if you were shot down?

Capt. ROSENKRANTZ: Well, after I graduated from pilot training we are sent to
a base up in Washington state where we go through survival training. And
during survival training you receive classroom lectures about becoming a
prisoner of war. You're taught escape and evasion techniques, and you're also
taught how to avoid giving certain amounts of information to your captors.
Every one of us that has ever been in the military over the last 20 years is
very familiar with the Vietnam War and the fact that we had a number of
prisoners in what we used to call the Hanoi Hilton in Vietnam, and so the code
of conduct, so to speak, was the bible of how to act.

And back then it was very stringent on what type of information you can give.
And it's more lenient now because every soldier, every human being has a
breaking point, and I think in the Vietnam War soldiers resisted to the point
of torture, where today you don't have to do that. I think the American
public is smart enough to realize, when they see a prisoner of war on
television saying something under duress that he doesn't like the United
States or what we're doing, that he's in a stressful situation and being
forced to say that, and to not believe it as propaganda.

GROSS: Have the rules officially been changed about what you're supposed to
do if you're tortured?

Capt. ROSENKRANTZ: Well, you are allowed to give information, and there's
ways of giving information without giving information. A lot of the other
countries and the militaries really have no idea what the technology is or
what you're doing, so you can make things up and talk about things and act as
if you're giving information and really not be.

GROSS: Was it ever difficult, when you were under a lot of strain and when
you hadn't gotten a lot of sleep, to keep your mind focused on a mission?

Capt. ROSENKRANTZ: I was never tired during my missions. We were
well-prepared and well-rested. I would come back from a mission, as I'd
mentioned earlier, physically and emotionally and mentally exhausted, and I
could sleep a good 12 hours. And so when I would come in the next day to
brief I was fully refreshed and ready to go.

GROSS: And they'd let you sleep the 12 hours.

Capt. ROSENKRANTZ: Yes.

GROSS: What about go pills, which are basically speed? They're uppers to
keep you awake and alert. You had to take those sometimes.

Capt. ROSENKRANTZ: Well, the pills are basically five milligrams of
Dexedrine.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Capt. ROSENKRANTZ: And the first time you're exposed to those pills are when
you're going through the lead-in fighter training program. You're given
classroom lectures on their effects. You're even given some pills to take
over a weekend just to make sure that you don't have any adverse reactions.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Capt. ROSENKRANTZ: When I flew from the United States to the Middle East, I
was in the F-16 by myself for 17 hours, and during that period I took seven of
the pills, one every two hours over the course of the mission. And they're
just enough to keep you alert, keep you awake and make you feel a little bit
more comfortable, and there are times when you need them. And they're a
controlled substance. The flight surgeons will come in before a mission and
pass them out, and if you don't take them they're collected when you return
back. So I think they're an important help for fighter pilots during long
missions.

GROSS: How does combat compare to what you thought it was going to be when
you first enlisted?

Capt. ROSENKRANTZ: Well, the first couple of combat missions you fly, I don't
care if you're the best fighter pilot in the world, you're going to be scared.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Capt. ROSENKRANTZ: And if you can imagine being in a theater watching a scary
movie how every muscle in your body is tense, and then feeling that for six or
seven hours straight, that's how you feel. But after those first two or three
missions, when you've experienced it, you've seen the missiles, you've seen
the AAA, all of the sudden you think, `OK, I can get through this now. I know
what it is.' It's more of a fear of the unknown in the beginning, but once
you've experienced it then you move forward, and then your training and your
skills take over.

GROSS: You mention in your memoir that there were moments when you were very
depressed or very anxious, and you actually asked yourself did you make the
right choice in becoming a fighter pilot. What triggered that kind of second
guessing?

Capt. ROSENKRANTZ: When I graduated from F-16 training, my twin girls were
only four months old, and my first assignment was a one-year remote to Korea.
Shortly after I returned from that assignment I was in school for eight weeks,
and then another course for six weeks. And then all the sudden the invasion
of Kuwait occurred and I was off again for six more months. So I missed
almost 21 out of 24 months of my girls' life. And I thought during that time,
`Here I am on the other side of the world. I don't know if I'll ever see
these girls again or come home.' And sure, you question whether or not you
made the right decision, whether flying a fighter was the right thing. But I
made that commitment when I took the oath to join the Air Force, and
ultimately I was proud to have served.

GROSS: How much did you allow yourself to think about your family when you
were fighting the war? I know some people think it leaves you too vulnerable
to have your emotions be that exposed, to have your emotions that close to the
surface.

Capt. ROSENKRANTZ: Well, prior to the war I felt that I was as best as a
human being as I had ever been. Most people die--they may have a heart attack
or a traffic accident--and they don't have an opportunity to say the things
that they want to say to their family or their friends. For me, in the weeks
and the months leading up to the war I had that opportunity 'cause I knew what
I was facing. A couple of nights before the war started, I sat down in a
trailer and spoke into a camera and made a tape for my wife and my girls and
just talked about my life and what I'd experienced and the happiness that I
felt and the ease that I felt going into combat. So I was able to write the
letters that I wanted to write to my family, to my friends, say the things I
wanted to say to my wife and my children. And then when I was ready to go
into battle I was perfectly comfortable with whatever was going to happen.

GROSS: Keith Rosenkrantz is the author of "Vipers in the Storm: Diary of a
Gulf War Fighter Pilot." He's now a pilot for a commercial airline. He'll be
back in the second half of the show. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(Announcements)

GROSS: Coming up, former fighter pilot Keith Rosenkrantz tells us about his
most difficult mission during the Gulf War in 1991. And poet Sam Hamill reads
a few anti-war poems. After declining an invitation from Laura Bush to
participate in a poetry symposium, he created the Web site poetsagainstthewar.
He's edited a new anthology of anti-war poems submitted to the site.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with Keith Rosenkrantz, a
former Air Force pilot who flew 30 combat missions during the Gulf War of
1991. He wrote a memoir about his war experiences called "Vipers in the
Storm." Rosenkrantz is now a pilot for a major commercial airline.

What was the most difficult mission you flew during the Gulf War?

Capt. ROSENKRANTZ: Two nights before the war ended I was flying a combat
mission and we took off in the middle of the night and proceeded across the
gulf, and the weather was solid clouds from 30,000 feet all the way down to
7,000 feet. So at nighttime I rejoined on a KC-10 tanker and took on fuel in
the weather at night and then dropped down to fire a Maverick missile against
an Iraqi tank just west of Kuwait City. And after I fired that missile my
wingman called me and asked me what my position was off of a particular steer
point that we were navigating from, but he made a mistake and said the wrong
steer point. And during that 20- to 30-second period of time I was trying to
correct my position for him and I stopped flying the aircraft. And my
training as a T-38 instructor kind of came into play because the very first
mission you fly with a new student is a supersonic mission. You take a
student up, you accelerate, go supersonic and you teach that student what the
handling characteristics of the aircraft are like.

So here I am flying in the middle of the night over Kuwait, and all the sudden
the noise in the cockpit is real loud because of the wind blasting against the
canopy and I notice that the controls are real sensitive, and I suddenly
realize I'm close to being supersonic, if not so already. I looked down at my
attitude indicator and I was 30 degrees nose low. I looked up at the head-up
display and I was going through 1,600 feet. And all I did was say, `Hold on,'
and I pulled back as hard as I could.

I have no idea how close to the ground I bottomed out, but it was a very tense
moment. And I got one more Maverick kill, and then on the way home a part of
me just wondered whether or not I was alive or not. And just for the
experience of it, I was still shaking. That was probably the hardest mission.

GROSS: What would have happened had you not successfully pulled back?

Capt. ROSENKRANTZ: I wouldn't be here talking to you today. I would have hit
the ground.

GROSS: How many feet away from the ground were you?

Capt. ROSENKRANTZ: Well, our floor that they didn't want us to go below was
5,000 feet. And when I was 30 degrees nose low and looked at the head-up
display, I was descending through 1,600 feet. So I was within two to three
seconds of hitting the ground.

GROSS: Wow. And were you pretty calm through that?

Capt. ROSENKRANTZ: Well, the moment I realized it I just pulled as hard as I
could on the stick to pull the nose out from the dive that I was in. I spent
the next few minutes locking up one more tank and getting one more kill. But
then when I had time after the mission to reflect on what had happened I felt
pretty lucky and fortunate.

GROSS: So when you're in an F-16 you can't feel that your nose cone is down
and that you're in imminent danger of crashing?

Capt. ROSENKRANTZ: At nighttime it's very easy to become what they call
spatially disoriented. The horizon is not visible, and sometimes the stars in
the sky blend in with small lights on the ground. So you may feel that you're
in a 30-degree bank turn, whereas you might be inverted and upside-down. So
when you start to feel a sense of, you know, misperception in how you're
flying, you have to get on the instrument gauges and believe them and then
react accordingly.

GROSS: Now you used the word `kill,' that you did `one more kill.' And the
language of war is very complicated. If you use the word kill it sounds kind
of crass, you know, like `one more kill.' On the other hand, if you use the
euphemisms then you're kind of not acknowledging what it is you're really
doing. If you're dropping ordnance on the bridge instead of bombing the
bridge, it's like masking what's really happening. As a writer, having
written this memoir, have you thought a lot about the language of war and the
language that you're most comfortable with?

Capt. ROSENKRANTZ: What I wanted to do with this book was to put the reader
in the cockpit with me. I wanted them to experience the war. I realize
there's a lot of technical things that are involved with flying F-16s, so I
tried to explain it in a way that the average person would understand.

But to give you an example, when you're flying on the Highway of Death imagine
if you're driving down the highway and from 30 miles away, at 20,000 feet,
with my ground-moving target-track radar, I could sweep and anything that's
moving on the ground puts out a little line on my multi-function display. I
can put my crosshairs on that vehicle. We'll say, for this example, it's your
car. I could lock it up, and now I have distance and range to your vehicle.
I start to descend and continue toward you, and within about 15 miles I'll
call up the Maverick video. I can slew the Maverick coordinates and
target-tracking gates right over your vehicle and lock it up, and within
inside of eight miles fire that Maverick, turn around and leave, and within
about 20 seconds your car will be gone.

And that's the technicality side, the video game side of it, if you will. So
I tried to put the reader in the cockpit with me so that they can experience
that.

GROSS: Since we're talking about the Highway of Death and your mission, first
of all let me ask you to refresh everybody's memory about what the Highway of
Death was. And tell us how it looked to you from the air. What were you able
to see?

Capt. ROSENKRANTZ: There was a highway that leaves out of Kuwait City and it
goes west a short ways, and then it turns to the north, and it goes all the
way to Baghdad. And I believe they refer to it now as Highway 80. During the
Gulf War we had kill boxes that were 30-square-mile areas, and this particular
kill box was titled Alpha Gulf 6, and it included that highway from Kuwait
City up north toward Basra. And during the last week of the war many units
were assigned that kill box, including the squadron that I was in, and we were
given what we called 20 minutes of play time. And during that 20-minute
period myself and my wingman owned that kill box, and anything that moved into
it we had clearance to destroy.

If you recall, the Iraqis were trying to leave Kuwait, and their armor was on
that highway heading to the north. So when we would come in and drop down
into the kill box itself, I would have two Maverick missiles; my wingman would
have four canisters of cluster bombs. We'd make a couple passes each along
that highway and destroy whatever we could. I can recall in my head-up
display and my forward-looking infrared display seeing Iraqi tanks, armored
personnel carriers. I can recall at one point even having locked up a
Winnebago van, which I didn't fire on. But I did destroy some tanks and
armored personnel carriers along the highway.

GROSS: How did the Highway of Death look to you from the ground photos that
you saw after you finished your mission?

Capt. ROSENKRANTZ: Completely different than what you see in the air: a lot
of carnage, destruction, a lot of death in the pictures. From the air it's
more, again, like a video game, so to speak. You have infrared pictures of
tanks rolling along a highway that's black in your picture with sand next to
it that's a lighter shade. And you have your weapons on board and your radar,
and you're tracking these targets. You're locking them up. You're firing
missiles. Then, when you go back and you sit in the squadron or come home and
you see pictures of the highway itself, it's hard to imagine that you and your
friends caused so much damage.

GROSS: Did it make you feel any different about the mission?

Capt. ROSENKRANTZ: No. I knew that those soldiers had raped, killed and
pillaged people in Kuwait City and in the country of Kuwait. And my wingman
asked me one day when we were going to the squadron, you know, `How do you
feel tonight? We're going to go in and we're going to kill these people.'
And I said, `Well, right now there's probably a group of Iraqi soldiers that
maybe just finished doing some destructive things to people. They're going to
sit down and have dinner. In a little while they're going to get in their
armored personnel carrier, and during this mission you and I are going to fly
up there and I'm going to target them and they're going to be dead tonight.
And that's just the way the war works.'

GROSS: Any final thoughts you'd like to leave us with?

Capt. ROSENKRANTZ: I think the American public should be confident in our
military, in our men and women. And while I understand and appreciate and
would fight for their right to protest peacefully, at the same time I think
they should get behind our troops, support them whether they agree with the
war or not, send letters to any servicemen. And I know for myself and my
friends that gave us the courage and the sense of purpose to really do well
and achieve what we did in the past war. And I know that these soldiers would
appreciate the same from their hometown friends.

GROSS: You know, a lot of people who think that this war is misguided and
shouldn't be fought feel that they really do support the troops and that
they're very much behind the troops, and that's part of the reason why they're
against the war, 'cause they're afraid that some of the people who are
fighting will be losing their lives for no good reason.

Capt. ROSENKRANTZ: Well, I would say that freedom isn't free, and every
generation is going to have to fight for it and some of the freedoms that we
have, our hope, I think, is that the people of Iraq can experience those same
freedoms, and the fact that some of our soldiers will die for that speaks
highly of what kind of country this is.

GROSS: Thank you very much for talking with us.

Capt. ROSENKRANTZ: Thank you for having me.

GROSS: Keith Rosenkrantz is the author of the memoir "Vipers in the Storm:
Diary of a Gulf War Fighter Pilot." The introduction is by Dick Cheney.

Coming up, poet Sam Hamill reads selections from the new anthology "Poets
Against the War." This is FRESH AIR.

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

Interview: Sam Hamill discusses the new anthology "Poets Against
the War"
TERRY GROSS, host:

Sam Hamill was one of the poets invited by Laura Bush to participate in a
White House symposium on poetry scheduled for mid-February. Hamill declined
as a statement of his opposition to the war. Then he went a step further: He
started the Web site poetsagainstthewar.org and collected around 13,000 poems
written in opposition to the war with Iraq. Nearly 200 of those poems are
collected in the new book "Poets Against the War."

Hamill is the founding editor of Copper Canyon Press, a poetry publishing
house, and is the author of 13 volumes of poetry. He's also the co-editor of
the new book "The Complete Poems of Kenneth Rexroth." Before Hamill tells the
story behind "Poets Against the War," let's start with the first poem that
appears in the new anthology and a description of the poet.

Mr. SAM HAMILL (Poet): This is Virginia Dare, who was discovered as a poet
when she was about 80 years old. She's 90 now and lives in a nursing home in
California. Her poem is called "Casualty(ph)."

(Reading) `Fear arrived at my door with the evening paper. Headlines of
winter and war. It will be a long time to peace and the green rains.'

GROSS: Did she write this about the war in Iraq?

Mr. HAMILL: She wrote this specifically for "Poets Against the War," yes.

GROSS: Tell us a little bit about this project, how it came to be.

Mr. HAMILL: I was, in January, invited to attend a White House symposium on
Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson and Langston Hughes by Mrs. Bush. And I
couldn't possibly go to this White House. I am a diehard liberal, and I
object to and resent the whole policy of this administration, and particularly
its international relations and this war. So I asked a few fellow poet
friends to send me poems to put together a small anthology to send in my
place, and it turned out by the first week of March we had 13,000 poems by
almost 12,000 poets. They canceled that program the day after we began "Poets
Against the War."

GROSS: And those are the poems--an edited version of those poems is what this
book is.

Mr. HAMILL: We edited 13,000 poems down to an anthology of 193 poems in five
days, working with 25 editors.

GROSS: Your book is actually dedicated to Laura Bush. Does she know that?

Mr. HAMILL: I don't know if she knows that yet, but how could I not dedicate
it to her? She's a librarian. I believe she's a woman with honorable
intentions. I don't think the policies of this administration are the least
bit honorable, but I feel a great sympathy for Laura Bush. I think she's
naive to believe that you can discuss poetry at all, and especially the poetry
of Whitman, Dickinson and Hughes, without discussing the political
consequences of their poetry.

GROSS: I'm going to ask you to read another poem from "Poets Against the
War."

Mr. HAMILL: This is a poem by W.S. Merwin, who I believe is perhaps the most
important poet of the last probably hundred years in the American language.
It's called "Ogres."

(Reading) `All night waking to the sound of light rain falling softly through
the leaves in the quiet valley below the window, and to Paula lying here
asleep beside me, and to the murmur beside the bed of the dog snoring like
small waves coming ashore. I am amazed at the fortune of this moment in the
whole of the dark this unspoken favor, while it is with us, this breathing
peace. And then I think of the frauds in office at this instant devising
their massacres in my name. What part of me could they have come from? Were
they made of my loathing itself and dredged from the bitter depths of my
shame?'

GROSS: That's a...

Mr. HAMILL: I think it's really remarkable the way Merwin, rather than
looking outwardly and casting blame, he looks within himself. And I think
that's really important in that poem.

GROSS: And that's a poem by W.S. Merwin, included in the new anthology "Poets
Against the War." My guest, Sam Hamill, edited the anthology. He's also the
founding editor of Copper Canyon Press, and he's a poet himself.

Have you been writing many poems about the war?

Mr. HAMILL: I've been living in a suitcase for two months. I have talked
myself to death on politics and I've written exactly one poem since this all
began. It's the poem in the anthology called "Sheep Herder Coffee(ph)."

GROSS: Would you read it for us?

Mr. HAMILL: "Sheep Herder Coffee."

(Reading) `I used to like sheep herder coffee, a cup of grounds in my old
enameled pot. Then three cups of water and a fire. And when it's hot,
boiling into froth, a half cup of cold water to bring the grounds to the
bottom. It was strong and bitter and good as I squatted on the riverbank
under the great redwoods all those years ago. Some days it was nearly all I
got. I was happy with my dog and cases of books and my funky truck. But when
I think of that posture now, I can't help but think of Palestinians huddled in
their ruins, the Afghani shepherd with his bleating goats, the widow weeping
sending off her sons, the Tibetan monk who can't go home. There are fewer
names for coffee than for love. Squatting they drink, thinking, waiting for
whatever comes.'

GROSS: You've just edited this anthology "Poets Against the War." Why are
you against the war in Iraq?

Mr. HAMILL: Well, I'm a practicing Zen Buddhist and have been for 40 years,
so I am against basically all war. But this particular war, it seems to me,
is senseless and cruel and stupid in ways that other wars, including the
stupid ones, haven't been. It seems to me entirely self-serving of this
administration, and I'm concerned about the Constitution of the United States
and our civil rights and the accumulation of power by these people and the
accumulation of wealth by corporate America. Mussolini defined fascism as the
perfect marriage of corporation and state, and that's what I see coming down
the pike.

GROSS: Now you describe yourself as a pacifist, but you were in the Marines.
Did you fight in war?

Mr. HAMILL: No. I was pre-Vietnam. I was discharged in the spring of 1965.

GROSS: Where did you serve?

Mr. HAMILL: I served mostly in Okinawa, where I began my Buddhist practice
and became engaged with classical Japanese literature. I've spent most of the
last 30 years trans-studying ancient Chinese and Japanese poetry.

GROSS: So did serving in the Marines and going to Okinawa where you learned
about Buddhism lead you also to become a pacifist?

Mr. HAMILL: Yes, it did. I saw the consequences of what we had done there,
and I became involved with the Japanese movement against nuclear arms, and
then later the American movement against nuclear arms. So I've been
struggling against this kind of stupidity all my life. And I would add the
fact that I was orphaned during World War II where my birth father fought in
the Pacific.

GROSS: Was your mother already dead?

Mr. HAMILL: I don't know anything about my birth mother. My father came
back from the war and carried me around for about a year. He was an
illiterate fry cook. And he gave me to people in Utah with the promise that
they not turn me over to the Mormons and that they teach me to read and write
so I wouldn't end up like him.

GROSS: And what did they do?

Mr. HAMILL: They taught me to read and write, but I escaped Utah at age 14
to go to San Francisco to be a beatnik in the late '50s.

GROSS: Did you succeed at becoming a beatnik?

Mr. HAMILL: Well, I was too young and too naive. I picked up a heroin habit
at age 15, and the poet Kenneth Rexroth kind of set me on the straight and
narrow as a poet and told me that that kind of stuff would ruin me, as it had
ruined so many other people. And fortunately I got out, and it was getting
out of that scene, actually, that brought me to the Marine Corps and a ticket
to Japan where I began to grow up.

GROSS: So the Marines, although you're anti-war, actually helped you break a
habit, see the world.

Mr. HAMILL: Yes, they did. Yes, they did. The Marine Corps builds men, and
I guess I'm one of the men they built, but I doubt I'm their proudest moment.

GROSS: What about poetry. How did you find poetry?

Mr. HAMILL: Well, I found poetry through my adoptive parents, both of whom
had degrees of English and used to read to me the poetry of the romantics and
Walt Whitman, surprisingly enough. So I grew up listening to poetry, and by
the time I was six I was writing poetry.

GROSS: Now you're here today because of the new anthology that you edited
"Poets Against the War." I'm wondering if anti-war poetry has always been,
you know, ever since you were in the Marines, an important part of your
reading, if there's any older anti-war...

Mr. HAMILL: Oh.

GROSS: ...poems that have meant a lot to you.

Mr. HAMILL: Absolutely. When one reads the ancient Greek poets one finds
anti-war poetry. And a lot of classical Chinese poets were exiled by the
government for their comments on war policies and other policies. And some of
the poets I've published over the years and whose careers I've managed to
resurrect are people like Thomas McGrath, who served in the war during World
War II and became a socialist, and Hayden Carruth, a great pacifist poet. So
while not doing it consciously, it's simply a fact of poetry that politics are
part of what we do.

GROSS: Are there any older or ancient poems that you would like to quote a
few lines from for us?

Mr. HAMILL: Let me give you my all-time favorite anti-war poem. It was
written 305 years ago by the great Japanese poet Basho.

(Reading) `Summer grasses, all that remains of great soldiers' imperial
dreams.'

When we were at war in Kuwait I sent a copy of that poem to General
Schwarzkopf and received back a letter from the Department of Defense thanking
me for supporting our troops.

GROSS: My guest is poet Sam Hamill, editor of the new anthology "Poets
Against the War." More after our break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is poet Sam Hamill, founder of the Web site
poetsagainstthewar.org and editor of the new book "Poets Against the War."

There's another poem I'd like you to read from "Poets Against the War," and
this is a poem by Katha Pollitt, who is an essayist as well as a poet. I know
you like this poem a lot, too. Tell us what you like about it, and then read
it for us, if you will.

Mr. HAMILL: Well, I love that she combines the very personal, simple daily
fact of life with a little bit of high literary knowledge and some plain,
ordinary, every-day language and experience. It's called "Trying to Write a
Poem Against the War."

(Reading) `My daughter, who's as beautiful as the day, hates politics. "Face
it, Ma. They don't care what you think." All passion, like Achilles, she
stalks off to her room to confide in her purple guitar and await life's
embassies. She's right, of course. Bombs will be hurled at ordinary streets
and leaders look grave for the cameras. And what good are more poems against
war, the real subject of which so often seems to be the poet's superior moral
sensitivities. I could be mailing myself to the moon or marrying a palm tree,
and yet what can we do but offer what we have? And so I spend this cold day,
this cold, gray, glittering morning trying to write a poem against war that
perhaps may please my daughter, who hates politics and doesn't care much for
poetry either.'

GROSS: Thanks for reading that. Katha Pollitt's poem is about the
hopelessness of thinking a poem is going to have a big effect on the world,
but at the same time you do what it is you do. You offer what it is you're
capable of offering. What are your thoughts about what poetry can actually
do?

Mr. HAMILL: Poems change lives. It's not a matter of trying, or expecting,
poets and poetry to change this administration's policies; it's simply a
matter of allowing poets to do what they do. And many of us have felt
suppressed by this administration. We've felt unwelcome. This is not an
administration that has much tolerance for diverse opinion. And I know that
people will read these poems and they will think about our behavior as a
society and they will think about their personal responsibility. And if
poetry does nothing else, it elevates our sense of personal responsibility and
personal participation in our culture. And this movement has created perhaps
the first really great public conversation about the role of poetry in our
culture in many, many years, maybe ever.

GROSS: I'd like you to leave us with another poem from the new anthology
"Poets Against the War."

Mr. HAMILL: This is a poem by Ruth Stone, who's 87 years old and won the
National Book Award last year. It's called "Be Serious(ph)."

(Reading) `Perhaps it will snow. Oh, do be serious. We know that Washington
is thick in bunting and Bush posters. A crow of sadness for the myth of
democracy. A Supreme Court-appointed head of government, a Republican Supreme
Court-appointed Republican president. But what's a president, and what is
democracy? Now we can see how all those other countries and states and
republics live under their tyrants, how the poor die in the streets.'

GROSS: Thank you for reading that. And, Sam Hamill, thank you very much for
being with us.

Mr. HAMILL: It's a pleasure.

GROSS: Sam Hamill is the editor of the new anthology "Poets Against the War"
and the founder of the Web site poetsagainstthewar.org.

(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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