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Journalist David Carr Fact-Checks His Own Story

Hostile womanizer, crack addict, New York Times journalist — David Carr has been all of those, sometimes simultaneously. For his memoir The Night of the Gun, Carr put on his investigative-reporter hat — to reconstruct his various sordid lives.

32:19

Other segments from the episode on August 12, 2008

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, August 12, 2008: Interview with David Carr; Interview with John Geddes.

Transcript

DATE August 12, 2008 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM
NETWORK NPR
PROGRAM Fresh Air

Interview: Journalist David Carr talks about his memoir "The
Night of the Gun," and how he used his reporting skills to
reconstruct his former life as a crack addict and thug
DAVE DAVIES, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, senior writer for the Philadelphia Daily
News, filling in for Terry Gross.

"To be an addict," David Carr writes, "is to be something of a cognitive
acrobat. You spread versions of yourself around, giving each person the truth
he or she needs, you need actually, to keep them at remove. How then to
reassemble that montage of deceit into a truthful past?" Though Carr is now a
successful journalist, he spent years as a crack addict who acted often enough
like a thug. When he decided to write his memoir of addiction and recovery,
he knew he couldn't trust his own memory to accurately render the story so he
used his reporting skills, conducting 60 interviews and reviewing medical
files, legal documents and journals to reconstruct a version of himself he
barely recognized. The result is his new memoir called "The Night of the
Gun."

David Carr has written for The Atlantic Monthly and New York Magazine. He's
currently a columnist for The New York Times focusing on media issues.

Well, David Carr, welcome to FRESH AIR. I wondered if you'd begin by giving
us a taste of your experience by reading this description of addiction from
your book on page 91?

Mr. DAVID CARR: It's from chapter 14, "Time Heals, Time Forgets." It begins:

(Reading) "Mornings for an addict involve waking up in a room where everything
implicates him. Even if there is no piss or vomit, oh blessed be the small
wonders, there's the tipped over bottle, the smashed phone, the bright midday
light coming through the rip in the shade that says another day has started
without you. Drunks and addicts tend to build nests out of the detritus of
their misbegotten lives. It is that ecosystem, all there for the inventorying
within 20 seconds of waking, which tends to make an addiction a serial matter.
Apart from the progression of the disease, if you wake up in that kind of
hell, you might start looking for something to take the edge off, nothing like
the beer goggles and the nice bracing whiff of something to help you reframe
your little disaster area. `Hmm, just a second here. Little hair of the dog,
umph, yep, now, hmm, now that's better.' Everything is new again."

DAVIES: Well, let's talk about your story. You began drinking heavily in
college and then traveled around a lot, found your way into journalism in
Minneapolis, where much of this story unfolds, and then got into cocaine. Is
there a point at which it was clear that this wasn't something recreational,
even done occasionally to excess, but something that was really what your life
was mostly about?

Mr. CARR: You know, it's interesting that you say that, Dave, because I
don't think that ever occurs to anybody. People bring such monumental denial
to the meaning of addiction that what is normal keeps changing and morphing
until it can accommodate almost anything, which means, `Yeah, I stayed up till
4 in the morning; but, boy, I made it to work. Yes, I got to work and I'm
reeking of alcohol, but at least I'm here. Yes, I needed a bump at work to
get through the day, but at least I stayed put.' And somehow the new normal
just keeps setting in and setting in and setting in. And so until there was
employment or legal or marital intervention, I never really had epiphanies.
The police department of Minneapolis tended to do for me what I could not do
for myself, which is slow me down, give me some time sometimes in a holding
cell to think about what I was up to.

DAVIES: How many times were you arrested?

Mr. CARR: I don't know, a bunch probably. It's all misdemeanor. I picked
up one felony. I was felony charged but never convicted. I don't know. In
Minneapolis and elsewhere probably 11, 12, 13 times. The cops there got so
tired of seeing me that one guy when I walked in he looked up and, you know,
he saw me and knew I was a frequent flyer and that I had been in there a lot;
and he said, `Well, let me guess, lurking with intent to mope.' Which is his
way of saying, `You're just a knock around guy. You're never going to amount
to anything. All you do is float in and out of here.' And in the meantime I
was out--when I was out at large I was working fairly industriously as a
reporter and trying hard to excel, and did in fact do well as a reporter.
It's just every once in a while I was upstairs at the police department.
Every once in a while I was downstairs where they kept the bad guys.

DAVIES: You know, your addiction went through phases. And it seems that it
changed a lot when you went from drinking and snorting powdered cocaine to
freebasing and crack. Explain the difference.

Mr. CARR: You know, I don't even know if--how big of a issue crack is these
days. I don't know if people are doing it. Back when I was doing it 20 years
ago it--I think the issue with crack cocaine and the reason that people end up
getting in such profound trouble with it is it provides all of the euphoria
and rush of injectable drugs with none of the consequences. There's no
needles, there's no blood, there's no nothing. All you do is what you do with
a pipe full of tobacco or a pipe full of marijuana, you put a flame to it and
it metastasizes into smoke and you take it into your lungs. In the instance
of crack cocaine, you have something that's specifically aimed right at your
endorphins and sends the bell, sends the ringer right up to the bell almost
immediately.

And once you experience that you think, `Well, I'd like to do that again.' The
problem is the ringer goes up less and less high each time you do it as your
endorphins attenuate. And so that chase sometimes goes on for minutes, days,
weeks. And seeking that same result that by now is elusive, you're in an
endorphin depleted state, and the only thing you can do by ingesting smokeable
cocaine is sort of get back to level. Nothing more.

I never really knew anybody who did it more than once or twice who didn't end
up in a world of hurt because of it. I don't--I never actually met that
social crack user.

DAVIES: You know, I found really compelling your description of what crack
users are like as distinct from coke users in some ways, powdered cocaine
users. You said that, `Smoking crack is less of a party and more of a
religious ceremony.' What's the image there?

Mr. CARR: If you think of snorting coke, which I know because I live in New
York people still will take a toot here and there. They go into the bathroom
and they inhale some coke and then come out and resume drinking and dancing or
laughing or whatever they do. That's not the point of the evening. When it
comes to crack cocaine, it is the experience. There's only that. It's an
indoor activity. It requires equipment. People generally gather in a circle,
the pipe is passed from person to person. It's, in sort of practical terms,
probably equivalent to some Native American ceremonies for passing the pipe
around and sharing some ceremonial time, with the exception that everybody
around that pipe is going crazy and losing their mind and just waiting for the
next hit. Partly the issue with crack is it goes away very quickly, so it
tends to be a very chronic affair. So you do it and then you do it again and
then you do it again.

DAVIES: And there's not like excited conversation. It's not like enhancing,
you know, the interaction among the people?

Mr. CARR: People mostly keep an eye on the flame. It seems religious in
that way. Just waiting, biding their time, sort of putting their hands on
their thighs and waiting. People might make a remark about the size of a
particular hit, but it's not like you're going to talk about the Yankees or
the Mets or Obama or McCain. It's just not as compelling as your next turn.

DAVIES: David Carr's new book is "The Night of the Gun." More after a break.
This is FRESH AIR.

(Announcements)

DAVIES: Our guest is New York Times columnist David Carr. His new memoir
about his experiences with drug addiction is called "The Night of the Gun: A
Reporter Investigates the Darkest Story of His Life, His Own."

Well, David Carr, you were with a number of women in this period of your life
and you were apparently a charming guy. Tell us about Anna, the mother of
your twins, what kind of person she was.

Mr. CARR: Anna was a smart, tough cookie from northern Minnesota, got a lot
of bad breaks in terms of her upbringing. And one of the things--her adaptive
characteristic was to get involved in selling drugs. She was very good at it.
When I met her she was moving a kilo a month of pressed cocaine. And she had
a weakness for losers, and that would have been me. And she tried to enroll
me sort of in the business at hand. And we ended up sort of finding each
other in weakness. In other words, I lost my job.

I was a very successful award winning journalist at the time, and she was
somebody who was making a lot of money by selling drugs to the elite of the
city we lived in, in Minneapolis. And probably within a year of getting
together, we had both lost our respective gigs and were pretty much at bottom.
And then I found out that Anna was pregnant. Pretty clear signal from God
that it's time to straighten out some lifestyle issues, but that didn't
happen. My kids were born two and a half months premature and were in
neonatal intensive care unit at the University of Minnesota for 30 days. And
when they came out, I don't think either Anna or I were capable as parents. I
mean, they lived with us. We got by after a fashion, but it was clear after a
while that this center would not hold.

DAVIES: And when did you know that you had to do something and get yourself
into a program?

Mr. CARR: There was this night when Anna was busy. She was out somewhere,
and I was at home and I was watching the girls, and they were probably, I
don't know, eight or nine months, and I was out of drugs. And I was not the
kind of person that would leave them home, but I needed to go somewhere. So
they came with me, and I left them parked in the car while I went inside for
what was supposed to be five minutes and probably turned out to be more like
two hours. And when I came out, I didn't really know what I would find in
that car, you know, two babies alone in a crummy part of the city, cold night,
tucked in their snow suits. And I opened up the door and I could see their
breath; and I just, you know, if there's any kind of moment that was when I
just thought, `You know, I've been a bad husband.' I'd been married earlier in
life. I never married Anna. I'd been a bad sibling. I'd been a bad son. I
had been a bad employee. There was nothing really in my upbringing that
suggested it would be OK to be a bad father. I was raised, and raise well, by
wonderful parents. And I just got a clear feeling that I was up to something
that God would not easily forget.

DAVIES: So you left the kids with your parents and made your way into rehab,
which was a long road. You point out the importance of time and getting out
of it. You know, there's a point where you have 12 rules for recovery, not
the, you know, the 12 steps that one hears of. But one of them was to go into
a rehab place that you never, ever want to go back to, avoid treatment centers
with duck ponds, good food or a record of admitting Britney Spears. What was
your rehab center like?

Mr. CARR: Eden House, it's still there, 1025 Portland Avenue, low bottom,
meaning people probably duly diagnosed with what would be called MICD, where
they're mentally incompetent, chemically dependent. Most of the place was
criminal justice referrals, so it was people coming out of county jails, state
prisons. And some of them were gaming and trying to find a way to shorten
their sentence. Some of the people were really actually done. But it was
like a house full of 60 knuckleheads. There were--I ended up in charge with
the basement--in charge of the kitchen. And there were rats in the basement.
Not like abundant, like any sort of old city building. But I have to admit
that that just absolutely terrified me to go down there in the morning to open
up the kitchen. And I, you know, I don't want to pretend like it was Abu
Ghraib, but it was a very serious place full of very serious people. And sort
of the soft white boy from the suburbs who used to be a journalist, who
self-invented as some kind of half-cocked gangster. I didn't get a lot of
play there, I got to say. They were not impressed by me.

DAVIES: You were not the tough guy on the block, huh?

Mr. CARR: No, I was not. I was an easy, easy mark. But I found real
friends in there, friends I have to this day. And it's the kind of place
where they have all sorts of goofy slogans like, "The answer to life is
learning to live." And you know when I woke up this morning, I was having a
really difficult day today. And there I was saying the goofy slogan from Eden
House from ump-ty-ump years ago. And the weird thing about all those
aphorisms and slogans, millions and millions of people have used them to stay
alive. So, you know, I have no--I think you have to be absolutely,
frantically earnest to find recovery. My whole--I went through four
treatments sort of motoring along on cynicism and irony. And you know what?
It doesn't usually turn out that well.

DAVIES: Right. So you got out and managed to stay clean and take care of
these twins and begin your journalistic career, which I want to talk about.
How did Anna fair, the mother of the twins?

Mr. CARR: Anna did OK. She was in short-term hospital treatment, 28 days,
came out, was sober for a while. But, you know, I had grown up and I had a
craft. I was a journalist and I could find work right away. Her whole
history was that she had been involved in the drug lifestyle, and so to make
money she necessarily ended up back with those same folks. And it isn't long
before you're going to succumb to the abundant blandishments of that
lifestyle.

And so I went to pick up the kids one time and they were wet and tired and
hungry. And I took them to 7-Eleven and got them bottles and bananas and
stood in the parking lot and thought, `You know what? I'm not going to bring
them back.'

DAVIES: Tell us about rebuilding your journalistic career. I mean, you had
long had a knack for this, you say. Even when you were using, you went after
crooked politicians and stories of trends and social issues in Minneapolis.
How long did it take you to get back into being a real successful working
journalist?

Mr. CARR: Well, Dave, you're a journalist and so you know there is something
obsessive and frantic about wanting to know. And so it wasn't like it was a
terrible fit to begin with.

DAVIES: Right.

Mr. CARR: I--part of the reason I probably sobered up is I couldn't stand
being out of the game. I love writing. I love reporting. And I was in the
position of seeing as my whole support system, as a single parent of twin baby
girls, I had no idea what I was doing. I was pretty much stuck in
Minneapolis, and that meant I was going to work for every single editor that I
had kind of screwed over when I was flapping around as an addict. And the
trouble with that is, even when you are sincere and you are for real, you're
just saying the things that you said the last time around, which is, `I'm
better, things are going well, I'm going to meetings, everything is great.'
And then you face plant. And so even thought I knew I was back and I knew I
was for real, there was no different rhetorical set to really use on people.

DAVIES: But you got a job at a weekly in Minneapolis editing the paper,
right? Doing well there. And then ended up in Washington at City Paper,
right?

Mr. CARR: Yep.

DAVIES: Learned to run a staff and help other people do good stories, not
just do them yourself. How did you get to The New York Times?

Mr. CARR: I wonder that sometimes, too when I walk in there. And I wonder
if my--like I'll be traveling on a story and I'll see my luggage bag go around
and I'll see that tag on my bag and think some horrendous mistake has been
made. When I got my job there, my dad said, `Well, David, you've always
wanted to work at The New York Times.' And I said, `Dad, I've never said that
in my life.' The New York Times is one of humankind's greatest creations. And
even though the majesty of it is not always apparent from within, everybody
there is trying real hard to make it good. And it's a spectacular work
environment in that way.

I came to New York, worked for a dot com run by Kurt Andersen and Michael
Hirschorn in a brown called inside.com, then went to work at The Atlantic and
New York, and I got a call to be a business reporter and cover publishing at
The New York Times. And I was skeptical at first, but I had never worked at a
daily in my life. I sort of thought a guy should give this a whirl if he's
got a shot. I think part of the reason I got hired there is I'd been covering
publishing and entertainment on and off for different publications in the
city. And even though I sort of fell off a turnip truck and didn't really
know anybody and know what I was doing, I fumbled my way to a few decent
stories. I'm clearly a productive writer. I'm a person who works a lot, and
I'm comfortable in a variety of voices covering a variety of topics. So that
makes me a decent tool to have in the belt.

DAVIES: David Carr's new book is "The Night of the Gun." He'll be back in the
second half of the show. You can read an excerpt of the book, or listen to
some of the interviews Carr recorded at our Web site, freshair.npr.org.

I'm Dave Davies and this is FRESH AIR.

(Announcements)

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies filling in for Terry Gross, back
with New York Times columnist David Carr. He used his reporting skills to
reconstruct his former life as a crack addict in a memoir called "The Night of
the Gun."

In your book "The Night of the Gun" you use first names for everybody,
including in describing your experience at the Times a reporter named Jayson
who ends up getting into trouble for making stuff up.

Mr. CARR: Yeah, Jayson Blair.

DAVIES: Yeah, we're talking about Jayson Blair here obviously. And he ends
up--you end up popping up in his book at a moment when his deceit is all
crashing down upon him. Describe that moment if you would.

Mr. CARR: Well, I mean, like a lot of people, I really liked Jayson. Jayson
was an extremely charming young man, still is. I don't stay in regular touch
with him. But it's so funny given my background and the amount of sort of
pathology I've rubbed up against in my life that Jayson totally got over on
me, that I was his last and most stalwart defender and everyone else had to be
crazy, and it couldn't have been. I can remember a friend of mine, Eric
Wemple, at the Washington City Paper, called me and said--now runs it--and
said, `You know what? These stories are bad. They're bad all the way
through. Bad to the bone.' And I just said, `You got it all wrong.' And it
turned out that Jayson had, for reasons I still can't fathom, I don't think he
would be able to explain, he more or less wound a rope around his neck and
then tied it around our feet, everyone else who was there, and then just like
jumped off a cliff.

And when it all came crashing down, I felt that Jayson, who had a history of
drug use, was just going to leave the Times and go west into the projects,
where he used to cop, and probably never come back again. And regardless of
what you think of what he did--I find what he did to be reprehensible and
appalling in all regards because I value so much this thing of ours--but as a
human being, and that was the concern of the leadership, Gerald Boyd now
deceased, managing editors said, `Go out and find that kid. Find out what he
is doing.'

And I walked up to him and I gave him a speech, and it was full of all kind of
program claptrap and recovery stuff, and the things that you say to people
when they're in a desperate circumstance. And the weirdest thing was when his
book came out, that whole speech was there word for word as I had said it.
And I thought to myself, `Well, if you could do that on the worst day of your
life, remember a 200, 300-word speech that a colleague gave you on a street
corner, how is it that you couldn't just go and do the news stories? What was
so hard about that?'

DAVIES: You know, I wanted to ask you, you know, part of the premise of your
book is that a story of addiction and recovery, which as you said has been
written many times before, that...

Mr. CARR: And some of it really grand and wonderful, you know.

DAVIES: Right.

Mr. CARR: And I tried not to read those books before I got started.

DAVIES: Huh. Why not? You wanted it to...

Mr. CARR: Just because, you know, you're sort of living the cliche. It's
not enough that you spend so much time with your life wrapped around, you
know, your lips wrapped a bottle or a crack pipe or God knows what. It's now
that you're finally sobered up, why not just shut up about it and get on with
it? Why do you have to squeeze something else out of it?

DAVIES: And what's your answer to that?

Mr. CARR: My answer is that after 14 years sober from very low bottom, I
sobered up. I got custody of my twins. I got them off welfare. I got
cancer, Hodgkin's lymphoma, as a single parent, survived, prospered, kept my
job, ended up running newspapers, met a wonderful woman, married her, had a
wonderful kid. And after 14 years of all these promises sort of piling up
around me, I decided to pour whiskey on it and give it a try, give being a
suburban drunk a try. And it didn't go very well. It lasted about two a half
years. I got arrested for drunk driving. And about six months after it
happened, I was due--I really needed to write a book. I had kids going to
college. And I thought to myself, `You know, for me to do what I did, I've
done a lot of forgetting.' I don't think if I ever knew who I was. I had
forgotten who I was. And worse things could happen for me and for the other
people who might read this, and for me to really go back and look at what
happened. And it's been a nice thing for my health.

DAVIES: You know, I guess one of the things that I wondered was, when one
writes a memoir of addiction and recovery solely from their memory then
they're, as you noted, probably getting some very inaccurate stuff, memories,
the version that they wanted to hear, and not remembering things that are
simply clouded by their substance abuse. When you do it more thoroughly as
you did and interview people and go through documentary evidence and really
try to reconstruct it honestly, do you think the story is fundamentally
different? Are there lesson--is it--are there different lessons that you
learn from a more...

Mr. CARR: Wow, what a cool question. I love that, because the baseline
story is the same. You know, I was normal, then I drank or did drugs, then I
lost my mind, then I sobered up. Now everything is new again. So whether
you're sitting in your basement typing about that or going and talking to
people, here are some things that I found out. One of the things I found out
is it's a tenant of recovery that you must always recover for yourself. Well,
I never managed that until I had two sort of defenseless children in my life
and they needed parenting. So regardless of what the cliche said, in my own
instance I needed to come to grips with, you know, `Yes, I'd like to feed the
monster but I'm not willing to destroy children to do it.'

The other thing is is recovery narratives are often writ in personal heroic
terms where you--like the story I told standing there with the snowsuits and
deciding, `Well, I'm never going to be this man again.' Hey, guess what? My
parents were there to take the kids. They put them in temporary foster care
with Patrick and Zelda. They looked after them. When I had cancer, my sister
came over every single day because I couldn't stand to have anybody else in
the house. This whole cliche of the village pulling and lifting the fabric,
the fact that we're all in this together became so manifest in the reporting
because when people would talk to me, a lot of times the talk would turn away
from me and turn to the people around me and the people who lifted me and
pulled me at every single turn. And I think you forget that. I think people
who make it to the other side seem to think that they had a moment of clarity
and then everything was made new again. Didn't happen that way.

DAVIES: Well, David Carr, thanks so much for speaking with us.

Mr. CARR: It was an absolute pleasure.

DAVIES: New York Times columnist David Carr. His memoir of addiction and
recovery is called "The Night of the Gun: A Reporter Investigates the Darkest
Story of His Life, His Own."

Coming up, a memoir from a mercenary in Iraq. This is FRESH AIR.

(Announcements)

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

Interview: John Geddes talks about his new memoir "Highway to
Hell: Dispatches from a Mercenary in Iraq"
DAVE DAVIES, host:

For many Americans the image of private military contractors in Iraq has been
shaped by the fatal shooting of 17 Iraqi civilians last year by employees of
Blackwater Worldwide, which had been engaged by the State Department to
protect diplomatic personnel. That incident is now the subject of a grand
jury investigation in Washington. For years, contractors held immunity from
prosecution in Iraq; but that's likely to change as the United States and Iraq
negotiate a new security agreement.

My guest, John Geddes, worked for years as a military contractor in Iraq,
usually providing security for business people and journalists as they
traveled about the country and held meetings or covered stories. Geddes is a
former British paratrooper who saw action in the Falklands and other
conflicts. He says his operation was very different from large American firms
like Blackwater. Geddes says he did his best to maintain friendly relations
with Iraqis. He kept a low profile and tried to keep his clients, many of
them TV journalists, out of dangerous situations. But that wasn't always
possible. Geddes carried an AK-47 and fired it more than once to defend his
charges. He's written a book about his experiences called "Highway to Hell:
Dispatches from a Mercenary in Iraq."

Well, John Geddes, welcome to FRESH AIR.

Besides escorting crews while they're actually shooting news stories, you
often had to transport them hundreds of miles. And you tell a harrowing story
of taking a news crew from Jordan to Baghdad, I believe. And as you were out
there on the open road a car pulled out and obviously had menacing intentions.
It looked like they wanted to perhaps kidnap your crew. What happened?

Mr. JOHN GEDDES: I picked up a couple of what I call combat indicators,
Dave, which is, you know, changes in the atmosphere. Vehicles were starting
to pull away, slow down, move away from us. And then this seven series pulled
up to the rear. It was a black vehicle, blacked out windows. And it was
pretty obvious that they meant some kind of derogatory business. Pulled up,
the left side window pulled down and out came an AK-47, put a burst of fire
across the front of the vehicle.

DAVIES: Across your vehicle, right?

Mr. GEDDES: Yeah, across the bonnet, clipped the lights, and obviously with
the intention of pulling us over.

DAVIES: So when they fire at the vehicle or across the front of the vehicle,
does your driver slow down, speed up? What do you want him to do at that
moment?

Mr. GEDDES: Well, previously to that, the crew, after a heavy night of
drinking in Jordan, an intercontinental, the crews were asleep in the back
prior to the gunshots. As soon as they opened up, the driver started slowing
down. And I told him...

DAVIES: Your driver, you mean? Yeah, yeah.

Mr. GEDDES: Yeah. I told him in no uncertain terms, with a few expletives,
`Put your foot down and go.' So we carried on. They dropped back momentarily,
came back; and both sides of the windows were rolled down, and two AK-47s were
pointed at the vehicle at point blank range. At this stage I have an AK-47 on
my lap and pulled the trigger and fired at their vehicle before they had a
chance to take us out. That was basically it.

DAVIES: And what was the effect of your fire?

Mr. GEDDES: Well, it was close quarter. I didn't hang around to find out
what damage had occurred. But a burst of armor piercing rounds at close
quarter would cause considerable damage. The car started to fishtail and I
pulled away.

DAVIES: And you fired through your own door, is that right?

Mr. GEDDES: Fired through the own door to maintain the element of surprise.
Otherwise, as soon as they saw that weapon, we'd have been dead.

DAVIES: How do you feel after an encounter like that?

Mr. GEDDES: Pretty shocked. I think, you know, I'm an experienced guy so it
didn't upset me too much, initially. It's later on in the day when things
unwind that you get a bit of post trauma stress and need a couple of Jack
Daniels at the time to sort my head out. But at the time, I looked back to
the crew, who were now awake by this time, and said, you know, `Welcome to
Fallujah.'

DAVIES: Oh, boy. And they continued on their way and did their business?

Mr. GEDDES: Yeah.

DAVIES: Now, one of the things that happens when you're escorting news crews
around is that you have to deal with their interest in being aggressive and
getting the great camera shot and balancing that against your imperative,
which is to keep them safe. How do you deal with that? I mean, are
there--were there occasions when camera people wanted to do things that you
thought were simply too hazardous or which you accommodated them but worried
if you'd let them go too far?

Mr. GEDDES: You know, they've got their task. They have their job to do.
And they sort of work in parameters of that, are very delicate, you know.
Like you say, Dave, there has to be a balance brought where you can
successfully protect a client and they can get their story. So when a
journalist looks through, or a cameraman looks through a camera, that's all he
can see is through that lens. He doesn't see anything behind him, to the left
or right, and completely unaware of what's going on around him. I've got a
security guy there, or girl, gives them the opportunity to literally watch his
back and flanks while they get on with their job. But even then they try and
push the parameters.

DAVIES: One of the things you write about in the book is that there was a
difference between the British and American contractors' approach to moving
around, getting from point A to point B safely in a dangerous environment.
How would you describe the difference?

Mr. GEDDES: The main difference is the American PSDs, they are...

DAVIES: That's the private security detail, yeah?

Mr. GEDDES: Yeah. They have a particular method of operation. They've got
a particular way they dress and the vehicles that they use. I think it's sort
of State Department rules and regulations that they have to abide by. And
they will travel in humvees, and they virtually wear everything, even down to
the weapon...(unintelligible)...of the US Army. But they wear one color
camouflage instead of disruptive pattern material. That's the only overtly
physical difference. So they'll travel looking, by all intents and purposes,
as a military convoy. Whereas we travel as a civilian convoy, civilian
vehicles, four by fours, sometimes armored, sometimes not, and communicate as
much as we can with the locals, and try and reduce the risk to the client.

DAVIES: You say that you like to travel low profile, the expression is
jingly-jangly. What does that mean?

Mr. GEDDES: Well, it's traveling in low profile, sort of saloon cars that
are adapted for, you know, high speed. They're sometimes armored, sometimes
not. And the vehicles are dressed to look like everybody else on the highway,
so they look like the locals.

DAVIES: Did you say saloon cars?

Mr. GEDDES: Yeah.

DAVIES: What do you mean by that?

Mr. GEDDES: Sedans.

DAVIES: Ah. So what does that mean? Odd, mismatched paints, some scratches
and nicks on the fenders?

Mr. GEDDES: Yeah, yeah. So no matter what vehicle you use, no matter
whether it's a sedan or a four by four, then it's, you know, it's not clean on
the outside. It's a bit scratched, a bit battered, but mechanically sound so
it can make a quick getaway in the event of a problem. And concealed weapons
rather than the vehicle bristling with weapons. So from a distance you're
like everybody else. So you travel from A to B in not truly undercover, but
low profile.

DAVIES: You describe one trip that you took from Baghdad to Jordan at which
the night before you were to leave a number of folks in the hotel bar found
out you were going and you agreed to bring them along. They were some
Japanese tourists and I think a couple of Israeli businessmen, and you agreed
to let them ride along with your convoy, if they kept up, at no charge. And
off you go barreling down the road with the Israelis in the rear. They fall
behind and sure enough get into trouble. What happens?

Mr. GEDDES: They wanted to get back to Jordan. The way they got in was by
taxi, and they just didn't want to go back by taxi. The mood of the Fallujah
road had changed, as it did on a daily basis. Sometimes it was fairly safe to
travel up the road. This day it wasn't. The intelligence came back that, you
know, could be a few problems on the highway. Intelligence reports from the
American authorities, from the locals, from the drivers, from the interpreters
said, you know, it's not a good day to be on the Fallujah road.

DAVIES: But you're out there anyway, right? And...

Mr. GEDDES: But we're out there anyway. It's, you know, at that time it was
running a gauntlet. So the Israelis asked me to come along. I did attempt to
sort of charge them a fee. But, you know, at the time I was sort of drinking
quite a lot of Jack Daniels and Diet Coke at the time. And at the end of the
evening, you know, decided to let them travel on the cavalcade the next
morning that was quite quickly growing.

DAVIES: So here you were, you're bombing along this road at high speed with
an AK-47 and a hangover and trying--hope all these vehicles stay together, and
you notice that these two Israeli businessmen are not keeping up the pace.
They fall behind. And then what happens?

Mr. GEDDES: Well, they fell behind. They got pulled over and...

DAVIES: Pulled over by whom, do you know?

Mr. GEDDES: Pulled over by bandits, probably bandits. I say in my book
Baathists, bandits, insurgents, who knows, you know. But they were pulled
over by armed men and quickly sort of subjected to conditioning. In other
words, thrown out of the vehicle, thrown on the floor, and being searched
obviously to find out their identity, to see if they're worth anything, do
they have anything, take the vehicle, maybe hostages, etc. And the deal was
the night before, you know, if anybody falls behind, you know, that's it.

DAVIES: But you didn't just let them go. What did you do?

Mr. GEDDES: We pulled over. I took to the back of the vehicle, the offside.
I got everybody in a ditch. Got my AK out with a tripod in front of the
weapon, put that down, had a nice sort of fairly accurate times 15 site on
there, and put down a couple of rounds to persuade the aggressors to think
again.

DAVIES: Now when you pulled over, how far away were you from the point where
these two Israelis were being captured by these guys?

Mr. GEDDES: I think it was probably about two-and-a-half hundred meters.

DAVIES: And did the bandits or insurgents, whoever they were, did they
realize that you had pulled over and were taking aim at them?

Mr. GEDDES: No. There was too much traffic. They didn't know at that time.
We were just part of the traffic at that point. There was very heavy traffic
at that time.

DAVIES: So how many of them were there, and what did your fire result in?

Mr. GEDDES: I identified two. And as far as I could see, I hit at least one
of them and created enough diversion for the second guy to get in his vehicle,
which gave the opportunity for the Israelis to extract.

DAVIES: We're speaking with John Geddes. His book is about his experiences
as a military contractor in Iraq. It's called "Highway To Hell." We'll talk
more after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.

(Announcements)

DAVIES: If you're just joining us, our guest is John Geddes. He worked as a
military contractor in Iraq. He's written a book called "Highway To Hell:
Dispatches from a Mercenary in Iraq."

You know, you've described a couple of occasions where you shot and hit
Iraqis, probably killed some. What legal consequences, if any, would you face
for having shot an Iraqi?

Mr. GEDDES: That's quite a question, Dave.

DAVIES: Well, on the occasions when you did fire at someone, did you simply
move on? I mean, it was obviously situations of hostile fire. I mean, it
wasn't like this was a civilian dispute. What were the laws that governed
hostilities between private contractors and Iraqis?

Mr. GEDDES: Well, the laws that govern sort of private contractors
aren't--it's pretty much a gray area. You know, the companies that operate,
they have their own, I mean, they're all, you know, particularly the British
ones, they have their own sort of set code of conduct. They have orders for
opening fire. And basically they operate within British army rules of
engagement, not legally but morally, if you understand what I mean.

DAVIES: Mm-hmm.

Mr. GEDDES: They're all ex-soldiers and that's their standard they work to,
and that's the sort of criteria of their standard operating procedures. But
as far as accounting for action, there is no authority even today to answer
to.

DAVIES: Well, of course, I mean the incident that is most widely known was
September of last year when the American company Blackwater Worldwide had this
shootout in a Baghdad traffic circle and killed 17 civilians. And there's an
American grand jury looking into that. And as the United States negotiates a
new security agreement with Iraq, what I've read is that the immunity that, in
effect, has governed contractors will be removed, but it's not so clear what
the rules will be. Was it simply unclear what rules, if any, governed your
contact with Iraqis then?

Mr. GEDDES: Well, it was, at that time, it was the law of the gun really.
It's, you know, I was defending myself. I was defending people around me, and
against armed insurgents or armed bandits, whoever they are. Being paid to
transport people from A to B. Working within my own moral parameters, I can,
you know, honestly say that I never fired a weapon without good reason.

DAVIES: You know, you've spent a life in the military and saw action in a lot
of places before you became a private contractor. Why did you do what you did
in Iraq? Is it the adventure? Is it the money?

Mr. GEDDES: Initially it was the adventure. It's, I mean, that's a
soldier's lot. That's why people become soldiers, to work in that environment
and ultimately go to war. And there's a certain amount of
institutionalization that takes place when you spend so much time with the
military. And when it's time to leave, it's a hard transition into civilian
life. I found it quite easy until Gulf War II, and the sort of specter of the
private security company in hostile environments became evident and big
business. I just felt I had to get out there to experience the job, money was
pretty secondary, and find out myself what was going on.

DAVIES: You know, pilots in World War II used to have, if I know the story
correctly, used to have so many missions that they would fly and would look
forward to finishing that number of missions because they knew that the more
missions they flew, the longer the odds were that they would go home safely.
Do you feel like you've had enough of getting out there and risking your neck,
or is that something you want to continue to do?

Mr. GEDDES: Yeah, it's a question I ask myself all the time. It is a law of
averages. It is Russian roulette, especially on the streets of Iraq. But
it's--the way I rationalize it is, you know, if you take a year out then the
crud is back in the books and you can go out there and do some more.

DAVIES: So you think you'll be back out there with an AK-47 in a big vehicle
again?

Mr. GEDDES: Most definitely at some point.

DAVIES: Yeah.

Mr. GEDDES: Most definitely.

DAVIES: Well, John Geddes, thanks so much for speaking with us.

Mr. GEDDES: Thank you.

DAVIES: John Geddes' memoir is called "Highway To Hell: Dispatches from a
Mercenary in Iraq." You can read an excerpt of the book at our Web site,
freshair.npr.org.

(Soundbite of music)

(Credits)

DAVIES: For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies.
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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