DATE June 22, 2004 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: James McPherson discusses his new book, "The Most
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
On April 15th, 1861, the (technical difficulties). With the start of the
Civil War, newspapers became more important than ever. A new book called "The
Most Fearful Ordeal" collects The New York Times' newspaper coverage of that
war. It not only gives us an idea of how the battles were described in their
own time, it shows the state of journalism in that year (technical
difficulties). He's a professor of history at Princeton University and the
author of several books about the Civil War, including the Pulitzer
Prize-winning "Battle Cry of Freedom." Here's a short reading from the
beginning of George Smalley's report on the Battle of Antietam which was
written for the New York Tribune and was also published in The Times. Smalley
was actually a volunteer aide for one of the generals at the battle.
Mr. JAMES McPHERSON (Author): `Fierce and desperate battle between 200,000
men has raged since daylight, yet night closes on an uncertain field. It is
the greatest fight since Waterloo, all over the field contested with an
obstinacy equal even to Waterloo. If not wholly a victory tonight, I believe
it is the prelude to a victory tomorrow. But what can be foretold of the
future of a fight in which from five in the morning till seven at night the
best troops of the continent have fought without decisive results?'
GROSS: It wasn't easy for George Smalley to get his copy from the battlefield
to the newspaper. James McPherson told me how Smalley did it.
Mr. McPHERSON: And when it was over, he went to Frederick, Maryland, hoping
that he could telegraph his report on what he saw to the Tribune. But the
lines were tied up and he couldn't get through, and so he hired a locomotive
to take him to Baltimore. He tried to get through from Baltimore and couldn't
get through, so he took a train from Baltimore all the way to New York, stayed
up all night long and all the next day writing his article while he was riding
on the train and got into New York on the morning of the 19th and, exhausted,
hadn't slept for probably more than 48 hours, turned in his article. And the
Tribune published it on the 20th, and it is generally regarded as--and it's
several thousand words, it's five or 6,000 words. It's generally regarded as
the best example of Civil War reporting and maybe one of the best from the
GROSS: What was the importance of newspapers for Americans during the Civil
Mr. McPHERSON: Newspapers were really the only medium of communication for
civilians in the Civil War. It's the only way they could find out immediately
what was happening in the war. The telegraph had been invented about 15 years
before the war and during the 1850s, just about every part of the country was
wired so that reporters could send in information from considerable distances
to newspapers and the War Department in Washington could get reports from
far-flung Army commanders and then give that information to the newspapers so
that, unlike any previous war where there had not been telegraphic dispatches,
people in Boston or New York or Chicago could read about military operations,
great battles that had taken place just a day or two before.
GROSS: News reports are often called the first draft of history. You point
out in your notes in this book that the news reports were sometimes wrong.
What was an example of that?
Mr. McPHERSON: There was a tendency--and this was true of all newspapers on
both sides in the war, especially in their first reports of a particular
battle--to exaggerate the success of their own side, to minimize the
casualties of their own side and to maximize the casualties of the other side,
a little bit like the body count statistics that many of us can remember from
the Vietnam War and that we're actually seeing again sometimes in Iraq.
A good example of that is the second battle of Bull Run which was one of the
most humiliating Union defeats at the end of August of 1862. And the initial
reports sent in by the special correspondent of The New York Times talking
about the Confederates in this battle writes, `They are in a country utterly
barren of supplies and have been too busy to forage for them if the country
did afford them. The rations they carried with them must be exhausted, and
the opinion, therefore, begins to be suggested as probable in well-informed
circles that today's battle'--the battle was even then going on--`or at least
tomorrow's must exhaust their resources and compel either a surrender or a
Well, a Northern reader reading that story would assume that the Confederates
were on their last legs, that this was going to be a great Union victory. But
then two or three days later, the news comes that, in fact, it was a great
Confederate victory and it's the Northerners who are beating a hasty retreat.
So here is a story that raises hopes high only, when the truth finally comes
in, to dash them all the more severely.
GROSS: Since the treatment of prisoners has been such a big news story in the
news from Iraq, I thought I'd ask you to read a paragraph that was from a news
item in July of 1861. And this is about the treatment of the wounded Union
soldiers by rebels who captured them. And would you read this paragraph for
us on page 84?
Mr. McPHERSON: I surely will. `The treatment of our wounded by the rebels is
reported as having been brutal to the last degree. Several soldiers assert
that they saw them repeatedly draw their knives and cut the throats of our men
as they lay upon the ground. Others stabbed them with their bayonets and
inflicted every conceivable indignity upon them. In charging up the hill on
the Warrenton road, they set fire to the house used as a hospital for our men,
some of whom escaped the flames by getting through the windows. A
Massachusetts man passing a wounded rebel stopped and gave him water but had
not gone five rods when he saw him trying to stab another wounded man lying by
his side. Such brutality would disgrace savages.'
Let me say about that that atrocity stories like this were fairly common on
both sides in the early months of the war, when the war was a novelty, when
the level of demonization of the enemy was at its highest. As the war went on
and as it became clear that these early stories were quite exaggerated, there
were far fewer atrocity stories. People were more realistic about that. And
while the treatment of POWs on both sides in the war certainly left a lot to
be desired and there was a high mortality rate among prisoners, that was more
often a consequence of disease and neglect rather than deliberate atrocities.
This reporter in this story is reporting what he's been told. For example,
`several soldiers assert that they saw them repeatedly draw their knives and
cut the throats of our men.' He's not necessarily reporting what he saw
himself. What's important about it, though, I think is that when people in
the North read this, they believed it; at least, at first they believed it. I
think they became more skeptical and even cynical about reports as the war
went on, but it did a lot to mold Northern opinion and, for that matter,
similar stories in the Southern press to mold Southern opinion in the early
months of the war and probably, I think, had something to do with making this
war more and more bitter, violent, more and more thorough as it went on. The
Civil War started out as a war merely to suppress an insurrection, a kind of
police action. And as time went on and as casualties on both sides mounted
and as the stakes for both sides grew larger and larger, the war became far
more bitter, far more violent, far higher number of casualties. And I think
these early atrocity stories probably had something to do with that.
GROSS: Do you think the Civil War changed journalism?
Mr. McPHERSON: It did change journalism. It gave a much higher profile to
reporters and to reportorial journalism than had existed before that time. If
you take a look at newspapers even as late as the 1850s, they consist of
shipping news, some financial news, short stories that are continued from one
issue to another, unimaginative advertisements, a lot of editorials and
editorial correspondents but relatively few news stories of the kind that
we're familiar with today. The war really brought journalistic reporting into
or at least toward the modern age. It came of age as a consequence of the
war. I think there's no question about that.
GROSS: My guest is historian James McPherson. He wrote the introduction and
commentary for the new book "The Most Fearful Ordeal," a collection of The New
York Times' coverage of the Civil War. We'll talk more after a break. This
is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: My guest is Pulitzer Prize-winning historian James McPherson. He
wrote the introduction and commentary to a new book collecting The New York
Times' reports on the Civil War. It's called "The Most Fearful Ordeal."
You know, one of the things that interested me in these reports from The New
York Times is that included in the reports from reporters, there's also
reports from generals, you know, verbatim. It's their report. It's not
folded into an article. It's just a dispatch from a military leader. In
fact, I thought I'd ask you to read one because we don't read anything quite
like this in newspapers anymore. I'm going to ask you to read a dispatch from
General Hooker on page 184.
Mr. McPHERSON: Let me preface that by saying that, in fact, much of what was
reported as the initial information from the battlefield were telegrams sent
from the front to the War Department and then passed along by the secretary of
War to the Associated Press which was then, as now, a consortium of newspapers
to pool information. And so you're quite right that much of the initial
reports of fighting came from the front itself. And here is a report from
General Hooker from Maryland on September 17th, 1862, which, of course, was
the day of the Battle of Antietam.
`A great battle has been fought, and we are victorious. I had the honor to
open it yesterday afternoon and it continued until 10:00 this morning when I
was wounded and compelled to quit the field. The battle was fought with great
violence on both sides. The carnage has been awful. I only regret that I was
not permitted to take part in the operations until they were concluded, for I
had counted on either capturing their army or driving them into the Potomac.
My wound has been painful, but it is not one that will be likely to hold me
up. I was shot through the foot.'
That's entirely accurate. Even an historian who knows about the battle can
say that Hooker was telling the whole truth in that very short dispatch.
GROSS: And it's a really interesting dispatch and something different than
what we see in newspapers now since, you know, military dispatches aren't
printed verbatim like that. It's a very different description of the battle
than a reporter filed, and I thought I'd ask you to read a description of
Antietam which was one of the worst battles of the war. Before you read this
description, why don't you just describe why Antietam was so important?
Mr. McPHERSON: Antietam was fought in September 1862 when the Confederates
were on a roll. And it was an invasion of Maryland by Robert E. Lee's Army of
northern Virginia that was happening at the same time that another Confederate
army was invading Kentucky. And these dual invasions were hoped in the South
that it would knock the North out of the war, that it would achieve British
and French recognition of the Confederacy, that it would undermine the Lincoln
administration and the fall congressional elections of that year. And so the
Northern victory in that battle was really--reversed the momentum toward
Confederate victory in the fall of 1862, and it was one of the first major
turning points in the war that led, ultimately, to Union victory.
It was also the single bloodiest day in all of American history. It was a
one-day battle with about 23,000 casualties, 6,000 of them killed. And on no
other day in American history have so many Americans been killed.
Here's the description by the reporter, and it's really quite eloquent. `Late
last night and early this morning I visited the scene of the most deadly
conflict during the battle yesterday and examined particularly the plowed
field where Hooker's, Sedgwick's and Banks' troops, in turn, contended against
the rebel hosts, and the side hill, the cornfield and the road where French's
left was repulsed and where Richardson's division gained so signal a triumph
and Meagher's, Caldwell's and Brooks' brigades made such terrific slaughter in
the enemy's ranks and gained imperishable renown.
`The dead and wounded were strewn upon the places indicated in hideous
confusion. Here was a perfect winnow of butternuts and Graybacks'--These were
Confederate soldiers--`interlanded with Uncle Sam's bluecoats. At another
point, the dead and wounded rebel and Union troops were in heaps, as if
designedly placed so for a funeral pyre or an auto-dafe without the
combustible material. And everywhere could be seen stern, unmistakable
evidence of the desperate struggle which always characterizes civil war among
the whole human family, be it between a savaged or civilized people. Here was
the pile made by Kirby's battery. There was a heap by Thompson's and Hazard's
grape and canister, when the real leader, maddened to desperation by the
exigencies of the hour, hurled his massed columns upon certain destruction.
`Scattered here and there were groups of blackened corpses, indicating but too
plainly the deadly certainty with which the German New York battery hurled its
thunderbolts from the hill east of the Antietam. Mangled humanity in all its
ghastly forms could be seen upon this field. To the left, to the right,
behind and before, on every hand, the eye beheld the horrors of the field.
Mingled with the dead came up to the ear the groans of those in whose breasts
there yet remained a spark of vitality, but whose lamp had nearly expired.
`The hopeful cases, so far as possible, were removed for medical assistance
before midnight of Wednesday. The hopeless cases were allowed to remain upon
the field, some, in a perfectly conscious, others in a half-conscious state,
while more were insensible to all worldly affairs. One of the latter class, a
Rebel soldier, while we were walking over the field at night vainly attempted
to rise. He had received a wound upon the temple from which the brain
protracted. He clutched at the air, and a helping hand was extended to him
and words of sympathy were spoken, but no sign of recognition followed. And
in a moment more, the helpless victim fell over upon his face and was numbered
with the dead. God grant that we may never witness another such scene.'
GROSS: This collection of The New York Times' coverage of the Civil War also
includes coverage of the assassination of President Lincoln, and it includes
coverage of the execution of John Wilkes Booth's co-conspirators, who were
hanged, and those co-conspirators included a woman. Was it very unusual to
have a woman hanged?
Mr. McPHERSON: It was extremely unusual, and therefore it was highly
controversial at the time, and has remained so ever since in historical
literature. There have been debates--there were debates at the time and have
been debates since then about the degree of Mary Surratt's guilt as part of
the conspiracy. She certainly knew what was going on in the plot to kidnap
President Lincoln, which preceded the plot to assassinate him. Her son, John
Surratt, who escaped, was very close to Booth, and she was also close to
Booth, so she probably knew more than her defenders have conceded, but whether
should have been hung--she was mostly an accessory before the fact, I guess
you might call her, and the punishment may have been too severe, but the fact
that she was a woman made it even more controversial, because as far as I
know, no woman had been hung before this time in American history.
GROSS: There's an actual description of the execution that was printed in the
The Times. I'd like you to read that, because I think it's just very
interesting to hear this document.
Mr. McPHERSON: All right. Here is the description from The Times: `General
Harttramp(ph) read the order of the War Department embracing the president's
executive order for the execution. The limbs of each of the prisoners were
now pinioned. The caps were drawn over their heads, Mrs. Surratt exclaiming
in a faint voice, "Don't let me fall. Hold on." Atzerodt exclaimed in a loud
tone, "Gentlemen, take warning." Then after an interval of about two minutes,
he said, "Goodbye, gentlemen who are before me. May we all meet in the other
`It was now 25 minutes past 1:00. The officer in charge of the scaffold here
made some preconcerted motions to the attendant soldiers to step back from the
drop. And then, with a motion of his hand, the drop fell and the bodies of
the criminals were suspended in the air. The bodies fell simultaneously and
swayed backward and forward for a few minutes. Mrs. Surratt appeared to
suffer very little. Payne and Herold, on the contrary, writhed in apparent
agony, the first for about two minutes, and the later for about five minutes.
The muscles of their feet and hands were visibly contracted. Payne's hands,
which were more exposed than the others, became purpled, as did his neck near
where the rope was fastened. Atzerodt's agony seemed, like Mrs. Surratt's, to
be of but very short duration.'
GROSS: In the war in Iraq, the military encouraged anyone who was reporting
on the war to apply to be an embedded reporter as opposed to just going off on
their own. What was the military's reaction during the Civil War to the
reporters covering the battles?
Mr. McPHERSON: That varied enormously from one commander to another. There
was no centralized policy on this in the case of the Civil War, as there has
been in more recent wars, and some military commanders welcomed reporters,
especially if the reporters would write flattering things about them. Others
hated reporters. Most notably in that respect was General William Tecumseh
Sherman, who barred reporters from his units, drove them out if they tried to
sneak in. When he heard once that a reporter had drowned on the Mississippi
River--turned out not to be true, but when he first heard that, he said,
`Well, now we'll have news from hell before breakfast tomorrow morning.' That
represented his opinion of reporters.
General Meade, after reporters in 1864 had written something unflattering
about him in the Wilderness overland campaign, banned reporters, and from then
on, the reporters all agreed they would never mention his name favorably in
any of their newspaper articles. So this varied from general to general.
GROSS: Well, James McPherson, thank you so much for talking with us.
Mr. McPHERSON: Well, thank you for having me.
GROSS: James McPherson is a professor of history at Princeton University. He
wrote the introduction and commentary for the new book, "The Most Fearful
Ordeal," a collection of The New York Times coverage of the Civil War.
I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: Coming up, Washington Post reporter Pamela Constable. She's based in
Kabul and has recently reported from Iraq. She's written a new memoir about
covering wars and natural disasters and how that's affected her life. Also,
jazz critic Kevin Whitehead reviews a new reissue by Mary Lou Williams.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Interview: Pamela Constable discusses her book, "Fragments of
Grace," her life as a journalist and struggles in Southeast Asia
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
After reporting on the Taliban regime, my guest Pamela Constable is covering
the attempts to build a democracy in Afghanistan. In April she was embedded
with a Marine regiment in Fallujah. She's covered Southeast Asia for The
Washington Post since 1999. She's also covered conflicts and natural
disasters around the world, including Chile, El Salvador, India and Pakistan.
In her new memoir, "Fragments of Grace: Our Search for Meaning in the Strife
of South Asia," she admits that she's lived an extraordinary life, but she
also reflects on the costs of that life, the things she has not had, like a
real home and family. Constable is in the US for a few weeks before returning
to Afghanistan. We spoke yesterday.
As you see that there have been more beheadings, what goes through your mind?
Do you feel like you're in--that you've gone back in time to another century
when these things were more common?
Ms. PAMELA CONSTABLE (The Washington Post): It's a particularly gruesome and
barbaric kind of behavior. It's calculated to send, you know, a very, very
strong message of real hatred and vengeance. It's funny that you should
mention going back in time. I mean, I live in Afghanistan, a country where
barbaric forms of behavior towards one's enemies, you know, have been
practiced up until very, very recently, including a civil war. And after the
civil war, you had a regime in place that used barbaric methods of punishment,
including executions and stonings and amputation of limbs. So this is
something I've actually been working in an environment of for a number of
years. And obviously, it's a terrible thing and it's strange to most people.
But at least in Afghanistan, which is struggling to begin a very fledgling
democracy from basically zero, you know, there's a whole legacy of violence
and vengeful retaliatory violence that the country is trying to overcome even
as we speak.
GROSS: Are you the one who seems strange in an environment like that, strange
for not comprehending that chopping off an arm is a just punishment?
Ms. CONSTABLE: Well, I should distinguish between, you know, past and
present a little bit. I worked in Afghanistan a number of times during the
Taliban regime. I was there 10 times. And yes, I felt extremely strange, you
know, for a variety of reasons, one, being a woman on the street, which was
absolutely unheard of. Often you'd walk down the street and you wouldn't see
a single Westerner, let alone another woman. And then being a journalist was
very strange there, because there weren't any. So for a whole variety of
reasons, not to mention, you know, being Christian in an extreme Islamic
regime, I always felt very odd, and I tried my best to sort of fit in or make
gestures or pretend. I always wore very, very baggy clothing, for example.
We were not required to cover our faces, because, you know, only Muslim women
were required to cover their faces, but we did have to cover everything else
as shapelessly as possible. So, you know, I did try hard, but, you know,
automatically everybody who saw me knew that I was a complete oddity, and I
would just have to forge ahead and try to do my job.
GROSS: In your book you mention that in Kabul, there were--and I can't
remember whether this was during the Taliban regime or after that--that there
were very few public rest rooms in all of Kabul and only two in all of Kabul
for women. Was that during or after the Taliban?
Ms. CONSTABLE: That was during the Taliban. Since then, many, many hotels
or restaurants and public accommodations have been built, and it's completely
different on that score, but there were a number of times in Kabul before the
Taliban fell where, you know, you really had to plan your whole day around
whether you'd be able to get to a certain restaurant, the only restaurant that
actually allowed women inside and even had a bathroom for them as well. And
even now, if you're crossing the desert or you're crossing, you know, a long
road, I mean, there are very, very few bathrooms throughout this very rural
and poor society. So one becomes quite shameless and adept at adjusting to
GROSS: Well, that's such a great paradox. I mean, you mentioned that you
would kind of find a hidden place in the ruins in Kabul, but you know, it's
such a paradoxical situation because it's the whole sense of modesty...
Ms. CONSTABLE: That's it.
GROSS: ...that forbids women to be in the street or forbade women from being
in the street and that, you know, accounted for the lack of rest rooms, and it
kind of forces you to behave in a very shameless way. It's crazy.
Ms. CONSTABLE: That's true, although for better or worse...
Ms. CONSTABLE: ...the Taliban always treated us like honorary men when we
GROSS: Mm-hmm. Who are the greatest security threats coming from now--and
just, like, regular safety threats? Is it from terrorists, from former
warlords, private militias, common criminals?
Ms. CONSTABLE: There's not a huge amount of common crime. Basically the two
other sources you mentioned, you have these revived Taliban fighting forces
and various allies and extremist groups that operate along the border between
Afghanistan and Pakistan, which is a very difficult, rugged, porous area, very
hard to patrol or control, and they primarily attack individuals, aid workers,
others in rural areas of the south and southeast. You have an entirely
different problem in the north and west, where you have other militias which
are allegedly allied with the government and allied with Western interests but
who are trying to make sure they keep a grip on the kind of power they've had
over their regions for a very long time. So their threat is more of
intimidation and abuse, extortion, putting pressure on the populace, vendettas
and feuds, whereas the threat from the revived Taliban in the south and their
allies is really more of a serious terrorist threat. So the situation is
quite serious, but I should add that it's limited to certain areas. They
certainly do not control the country or even a large part of it.
GROSS: Afghanistan is preparing for an election. Are the former warlords
cooperating with the elections, and are they negotiating for power in return
Ms. CONSTABLE: Well, that's what's been happening with some of the big ones.
When I was last in Afghanistan several weeks ago, there had just been this
round of talks, a very controversial round of talks between the president and
some of his emissaries and some of these big militia leaders. And they had
reportedly agreed that they would not field a unified candidate against him.
But that has been a very controversial development because, you know, there
are sort of two versions of history in the Afghan public's mind. There is the
version of history that is put forth by the militia leaders that, you know,
`We were great warriors. We helped the world defeat the Soviet Union. We
brought them down with our Stinger missiles, and we deserve, you know, an
honored, revered place in history forever and ever, not to mention a nice
share of power and money.'
The other version of history is that these same people were responsible for
this vicious civil war that destroyed Kabul and displaced many, many people,
killed many, many people in Afghanistan during the early 1990s, and that's the
way they're remembered by many people who think they should have no part in
public life, no role, no honored place at all. Karzai has continually said he
believes in the `bringing them inside the tent' philosophy, better than having
them outside the tent shooting in, and that's the way he's approached it. But
it has been a very criticized approach.
GROSS: Would you say that there's truth in both of those historical readings?
Ms. CONSTABLE: I would. I mean, these were America's heroes in the '80s.
You know, they were the rugged mujahedeen who fought with plastic sandals in
freezing cold, wearing cotton robes up in the mountains and, you know, shot
down Russian helicopters, and, you know, they were the heroes of the Reagan
era. And it was just astonishing to see these same people, you know,
completely change their spots and to see what happened after the Russians
left. And you had basically a sort of chaos and mayhem and horrendous
conflict among these militia leaders that--they literally destroyed the
capital of Kabul, I mean, until very recently. There's been a lot of building
in Kabul in the last year and a half, but for the first year after the Taliban
left, you could drive through Kabul and it literally looked like Dresden, it
looked like, you know, Warsaw, it looked like a city after World War II that
had not changed at all. It was the strangest, surreal most--place to live.
Now it's gotten much more bustling and lively. There's money coming in.
There's Internet cafes. There ar cell phones shops. It's very quickly
catching up with the world, which is exciting to see, although it's a pain in
the neck since now you can't get across the street without being hit by a
taxi. But that's better than having no taxis at all.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Pamela Constable. She's the
Kabul bureau chief for The Washington Post, and she's written a new memoir
about her life as a foreign correspondent. It's called "Fragments of Grace:
My Search for Meaning in the Strife of South Asia." Let's take a break here,
and then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: My guest is Pamela Constable, and she's the Kabul bureau chief for The
Washington Post. She's written a new memoir called "Fragments of Grace: My
Search for Meaning in the Strife of South Asia."
You lived an extraordinary life covering trouble spots around the world:
India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq, Cuba, Chile. You write in your book about
traveling around the world. You also write in your book about the costs of
this extraordinary life that you've led. What are some of the costs?
Ms. CONSTABLE: Well, the main cost, and one that really prompted me in many
ways to write the book, was I realized that in traveling, you know, so far and
wide to sort of find all these exotic places and cover the strife and turmoil
and come to grips with the struggles of distant peoples and societies--that I
really had neglected my own family, my own friends, my own life. I've missed,
you know, every family wedding, every family funeral. You know, I regret
that. I mean, obviously, the other big issue was, you know, having children.
I never had children, and that's because I was on the move and I wanted to
keep going and I wanted to be sharp and fresh and mobile and agile and all
those things that a journalist needs to be. And I really was afraid of losing
GROSS: Well, it seems to me, though, that from moment to moment, you probably
didn't want that more secure, anchored life of home, family, children, with
all the responsibilities as well as all of the pleasures that one gets from
Ms. CONSTABLE: Well, that's right. As I said, I was always sort of on the
move. I mean, I've been through periods of time--I have been married in the
past, I have had houses in the past; I've had sort of semblances or periods of
normality in my life, but it never lasted in the sense that I always wanted to
go off and do something else. I was never really ready to settle down, and
within myself was never really ready to settle down, and I always felt like--I
don't know. I felt as if I could--the places I was needed or the places I
could do something of value were not home. And I'm still not convinced that
that was a right decision, but as I say, I don't regret it, and I do think and
hope I have added something of value.
You know, I have a part in the book where I talk about I have a very, very
close friend, and, you know, while I was off in some horrible place, she was
having a baby, and so there's a parallel there. You know, she stays up at
dawn with the colic, and I'm up at dawn because I'm trying to catch a plane,
you know. We've had these sort of parallel but very, very different
experiences, and it's something we talk about often.
GROSS: You also have a friend, Elizabeth Neuffer, who was killed in Iraq
shortly after the official fighting ended, and she was killed in a car
accident on the highway. She wasn't driving; she had a driver then. She
reported for The Boston Globe. It sounds like you were pretty close and that
you used to compare notes a lot, because you had similar lives, you were
similar in age, you were close in age. How did her death affect your view of
the decisions you made in your life and the dangers that you were continuing
to expose yourself to?
Ms. CONSTABLE: It affected me a lot. You know, when she died, I had already
finished my book, and it really made me think a lot and feel a lot, and I
ended up rewriting the entire epilogue of the book to be about her and to
reflect even more on some of the choices I have made and she had made. And
you know, we understood each other's compulsions and each other's sort of
idealism and what it was that drove us to do these difficult assignments and
to be far from the people we cared about who cared about us.
You know, I sat down to write the book partly because I was at an incident
where four of my colleagues were killed in Afghanistan in 2001. So that sort
of theme of `It could have been me' really runs through the book and runs
through a lot of what I've been thinking about in the past several years.
I've known a number of people who've been killed now, some close, some
acquaintances, some not people I knew at all but people I'd met once who have
been killed in covering or being in part of the conflicts that I've been
working on for the past number of years. And it adds up. That feeling of
horror adds up, and that feeling of, you know, `Is it worth taking that risk?'
also adds up. And I think Elizabeth's death brought it probably closer to
home than any other that I had experienced.
GROSS: How were your four colleagues killed in Afghanistan?
Ms. CONSTABLE: We were driving in a convoy that--the Taliban had just
fallen, and we were all driving in a convoy. We had come across the border
from Pakistan after a great deal of difficulty, and we were driving toward
Kabul in a convoy of, I don't know, eight vehicles or something, but it was
sort of a spread-out convoy. It wasn't like a military convoy. We couldn't
really necessarily see the next car. And this was just around Thanksgiving of
2001. And all of a sudden, we saw this cloud of dust and this taxi in front
of us was spinning around and came back towards us, racing, racing towards us,
and we looked and there was the driver and there was no one in the car. And
the driver was screaming at us to follow him, so we all turned around and
followed him. And we finally got to a gas station and stopped, and he was
crying and he was, you know, hysterically trying to explain what had happened
in the Pashto dialect. And gunmen, possibly Taliban, renegade Taliban, had
flagged down the taxi at gunpoint, had pulled out the two passengers and had
shot them dead. And this happened with the second taxi that was following it.
And they were just too far ahead for us to see when it happened.
But, you know, that was awful, and one of the people who was killed was
someone I knew quite well from Pakistan, and it turned out I was the only
person in this whole group that knew him, and so I had to identify his body in
the morgue the next day, and that really was shocking because he was a very
jovial, sort of wisecracking, cheerful guy, a photographer from Reuters, and
I'd known him. The night before, we were sitting in our hotel cracking jokes,
and he was helping me with my computer, and we were laughing. And I saw him
in the morgue. He just looked like a piece of stone. He didn't look like a
human being at all, and I just thought, `Oh, my God, you know. Maybe 100
yards closer, 100 yards further down the road and this would be me.' It was
GROSS: Did you write about this for The Washington Post?
Ms. CONSTABLE: I did. I did. I wrote a piece for the Outlook section,
which was, in fact, the genesis of this book, and it is the prologue of the
book as well.
GROSS: So you were able to write in a first-person kind of way about the
Ms. CONSTABLE: I did, but it was very difficult. They kept sending back the
piece and saying, `We want more of you. We want more of you.'
GROSS: Really? 'Cause--that's interesting. I guess it's because it's the
Outlook, the magazine part, you know, as opposed to--guess in the news
section, they might be saying, `We want less of you.'
Ms. CONSTABLE: Well, in the news section, I was very careful. In fact, in
my book I describe that whole incident, and I describe sitting down to write
the story, and I couldn't even type the words. You know, it was so
dispassionate and so objective and so removed, I didn't feel like anything--it
didn't feel like me at all. And that's why I was very glad I had the chance
to actually sit down and write something for Outlook a week later, 'cause I
was able to actually say a bit more about how it affected me and the rest of
us. There were 40 of us in that hotel when this happened, and it was--you
know, it sort of sent this incredible chill through the whole press corps.
GROSS: Now your book ends with you being summoned by your paper to go to
Iraq, and before you go, you call a contractor and ask the contractor, who's a
friend of yours, a carpenter, to build an addition to your cottage that you
live in with a reading nook and a music den, kind of like preparing to have
more of a stable, physical home to return to. What's the status of that now?
Ms. CONSTABLE: I spent my first night there last Saturday. It was
Ms. CONSTABLE: Yeah, it was great. I mean, I've kept the house all along.
I've had friends staying there. I've had a menagerie staying there. I'm
always bringing stray dogs and cats back, and people keep taking care of them
for me. But it was just really nice. I do feel more solid. I feel like I've
really--you know, I've been on the road for so long, and my life has been in
boxes for so long, that it just feels really nice to maybe put down a few
roots and spend a little time in my garden and unpack a few of my mementos
that most people keep on their coffee tables. So I'm looking forward to that.
GROSS: Thank you so much for talking with us, and good luck with your work
and your life.
Ms. CONSTABLE: You're very welcome. It's been a pleasure. Thanks.
GROSS: Pamela Constable covers south Asia for The Washington Post. Her new
memoir is called "Fragments of Grace: My Search for Meaning in the Strife of
Coming up, jazz critic Kevin Whitehead reviews the new reissue of Mary Lou
Williams' recording "Black Christ of the Andes." This is FRESH AIR.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Review: Reissue of "Black Christ of the Andes" by Mary Lou Williams
TERRY GROSS, host:
Pianist Mary Lou Williams established herself in Kansas City in the 1930s
composing for Andy Kirk's Twelve Clouds of Joy and playing on all-night
jam sessions. Later she moved to New York, where she arranged for Duke
Ellington and Dizzy Gillespie and played with newfangled be-boppers. After
that she got religion and her music took another turn. Jazz critic Kevin
Whitehead says, `Williams is one of the rare jazz musicians whose concept kept
evolving over decades.' He reviews a Mary Lou Williams reissue from the early
(Soundbite of music)
KEVIN WHITEHEAD reporting:
Mary Lou Williams, circa 1962, showing off the floating sense of time that
helped make her a great jazz pianist. "My Blue Heaven" is a fitting vehicle
for her. It came up in the 1920s, as she did, and in later years, the blues
and heaven were never far apart for her. Williams became a devout Catholic in
the 1950s and before long, she was mixing religious subjects with secular
music. Her "Anima Christi" is a prayer in blues form, supported by dense
vocal harmonies and a dancing waltz beat. It gave new meaning to the term
(Soundbite of "Anima Christi")
Mr. JIMMY MITCHELL: (Singing) Soul of Christ, be my sanctification. Body
of Christ, be my salvation. Blood of Christ, fill my veins. Water of
Christ's side, wash out my stains. Passion of Christ, my comfort be. Oh,
good Jesus, listen to me. Lord, have mercy on me.
WHITEHEAD: Jimmy Mitchell on vocals. This music comes from an expanded
reissue of a 1964 Folkways LP titled "Black Christ of the Andes," referring to
the 17th-century Peruvian saint Martin de Porres. He's the subject of a short
cantata performed here by the Ray Charles Singers. Mary Lou Williams always
had an open mind, boasting that `No one can put a style on me.' She
befriended hip young pianists Thelonious Monk and Herbie Nichols when they
were unknowns, and from a distance inspired avant-garde piano king Cecil
Taylor. You can hear her kinship with those mavericks on her blues
(Soundbite of piano "Koolbonga")
WHITEHEAD: The CD "Black Christ of the Andes" is divided between Mary Lou
Williams' spry combo pieces and ambitious choral works. Jazz arrangements for
harmonized voices tend to be pretty dismal, either bland as MUZAK or tacky as
Manhattan Transfer. But Williams, with one foot in the cathedral and the
other in a nightclub, balanced those opposing forces with a heroic command of
(Soundbite of "Devil")
Chorus: (Singing) The devil never rests come day, come dusk, come dawn. You
compromise and wind up soul in awe. So don't it strike you funny when you
look him in the eye? The devil looks a lot like you and I.
(Soundbite of piano solo)
WHITEHEAD: Maybe Mary Lou Williams could pull off something like the "Devil,"
because she practiced as well as preached. Back in the '60s she ran a
Manhattan thrift shop, which helped fund her efforts to rehabilitate musicians
with addiction problems. For her, playing and praying and good works were
inextricably linked. That helps explain why her diverse musical activities
don't sound like post-modern style shopping but like the emanations of one
complex personality. She did it all and did it blessedly well.
(Soundbite of choral music)
Chorus: (Singing) St. Martin de Porres, he shall ...(unintelligible).
GROSS: Kevin Whitehead writes for the Chicago Sun-Times, The Absolute Sound
and Down Beat. He reviewed "Black Christ of the Andes" by Mary Lou Williams
on the Smithsonian label.
GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
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