DATE January 13, 2004 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: Peter Maass discusses his cover story in New York Times
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
My guest, Peter Maass, spent last month in Iraq observing Major John Nagl on
his mission, which is to defeat the Iraqi insurgency. Maass' profile of Nagl,
called The Counter Insurgent, is the cover story of this week's New York Times
Magazine. It's one of several reports from Iraq that Maass has written for
the magazine; he's a contributing writer.
Nagl is the operations officer of Task 1/34 Armor, an 800-soldier battalion
that's part of the 1st Infantry Division. They're stationed in Camp
Manhattan, 90 miles west of Baghdad near Fallujah, in an area of intense
anti-American activity. Major Nagl is a West Point graduate and Rhodes
scholar who commanded a tank platoon during the 1991 Gulf War. He studied
counterinsurgency and wrote his doctoral dissertation on the counterinsurgency
lessons from Malaya and Vietnam. I asked Maass if Major Nagl's scholarly
research led him to adopt a philosophy of how to fight an insurgency.
Mr. PETER MAASS (New York Times Magazine Contributing Writer): He pretty
much is a follower of the notion of total war, which, although it sounds like
a phrase that means a scorched earth policy and often is interpreted as that,
actually what it means is that you don't just fight the war militarily in a
unidimensional fashion, but you also fight it in an economic fashion, you also
fight it in a political fashion, you also fight it in a propaganda
fashion--that is, on all fronts, you use all levers of national power and
that's not just military power. And that's what he and pretty much the other
American commanders in Iraq are trying to do, fight a total war.
GROSS: What are some of the biggest victories the insurgents have scored in
the area that Nagl is in?
Mr. MAASS: By far, the biggest victory, in a sense, is the victory for
hearts and minds--that is to say that militarily, they haven't defeated the
Americans and that's not even their goal. No insurgency really tries to
defeat militarily the occupier. What they try to do is make it impossible for
the occupier to rule.
One of the ways that they accomplish this is by instilling fear in the
population of the occupier and by also instilling a certain amount of
hostility amongst the population towards the occupiers so the occupation
becomes difficult, if not impossible, to carry out. And that the insurgency
has definitely succeeded to do, I think, to a great extent but not entirely.
In the region that Nagl operates in, there is a large amount of hostility,
silent opposition. It's still unusual to see a lot of very large
demonstrations of support for the Americans in this hostile area that Nagl
GROSS: You write that a counterinsurgency needs to form local security
forces. What are some of the reasons why that is so important? Some of the
reasons that Major Nagl passed on to you?
Mr. MAASS: It's important because it's really only the local forces that can
really get a handle on insurgency and extinguish it. Because foreign forces,
particularly the Americans now in Iraq, they don't speak the language, by and
large; they don't understand the culture, by and large; they don't understand
body language; they don't understand facial expressions in the way that locals
do. They can look at somebody and know whether that guy belongs there,
whether that guy is kind of acting shifty or not.
And so for that reason, you need to have these local forces be the ones who
are carrying out the counterinsurgency operations, who are identifying the
people who are the bad guys, finding them and getting them. And they're more
successful at that generally because they can get that information much more
easily from the local population because they are part of the local
population. And the Americans, particularly in Iraq, are very definitely not
part of the local population. They are garrisoned at these incredibly
well-defended bases, and when they go out, they're going out in convoys that
consist of a number of military vehicles. And they don't mix with civilians
in a way that tends to generate a large amount of contact and goodwill.
GROSS: The major gave you a very basic example of the problems that the US
would face, even if a local person came up to them and said, `I know who one
of the insurgents is. He lives in a certain house.' What are some of the
problems that the US military would have actually getting this guy after he
was informed on?
Mr. MAASS: Well, they do have a lot of informers coming to them offering
them information, sometimes good, sometimes bad. But even when the
information is good, it can be very difficult to act upon. For example--and
this happens quite frequently with Nagl. He'll have an informer come to the
entrance to the base or go up to a checkpoint that soldiers of his have
somewhere, and they'll say, `OK, there's a bad guy who's in my village and
who's been firing mortars at you and planting IEDs.' And, you know, Nagl will
talk with this informant and say, `Great, great, fantastic. OK, so where does
this bad guy live?' And the problem is that in Iraqi villages, streets don't
have names, houses don't have numbers, and all the houses on each street look
pretty much the same. So the informant can't give you an address that you can
The next question then is: OK, well, how do you figure out where this place
is? Well, you can offer the informant--and this Nagl does all the time--maps,
including overhead satellite imagery of the village or even the streets that
this bad guy is living on. But the problem is that Iraq being a very
secretive country, there haven't been a lot of maps. People aren't really as
familiar with reading and understanding maps as they might be, let's say, in
America. So it does no good to show a map or an overhead satellite imagery to
a local informant.
Then the next problem is, well, OK, you've got to take the guy to the street
or close to the street so he can physically point out the house where this bad
guy lives. But then you have another problem, and that is, well, you know,
you offer the guy a ride to the neighborhood in the Humvee but the informant
obviously doesn't want to get into the Humvee because then all of his
neighbors will see him in the Humvee and say, `Oh, he's a collaborator,' and
the guy will wake up dead the next morning.
So even when you're presented with a guy who's got good information and wants
to give it to you, actually kind of pinning it down and then acting upon it is
a very, very difficult chore that Nagl, even with the extreme amount of study
that he had made in the field of counterinsurgency before going to Iraq,
really wasn't prepared for and didn't expect.
GROSS: OK, so that's one simple example of why you really need a local
security force, in addition to, say, the American military. What are some of
the problems the Iraqi Civil Defense Corps has been running into so far?
Mr. MAASS: Well, the Iraqi civil defense corps is one of the main new
security forces that the Americans are creating in Iraq. And these tend to be
kind of local villagers who are put through two weeks of training and then
given checkpoint patrols and things of that sort to do either on their own or
with the Americans. But the problem--and I attended some training courses for
ICDC personnel--is that the training is just two weeks' long. You know, you
can't make a soldier in two weeks. You can hardly--you can't really make a
soldier in two months. And part of the instruction is just classroom
instruction in English so that the ICDC personnel can understand the commands
that the Americans that they're working with are giving them. And the result
of this is that the ICDC is not coming along as quickly as the Americans hoped
or would have liked in the form of becoming a force that can do independent
operations that are aggressive and that really get at the root of the
It usually takes years, and this is a result of the American experience in
Vietnam as well as El Salvador and other places. It usually takes years
actually to develop and train a good indigenous force that does kill but
doesn't kill indiscriminately.
GROSS: Are most of the people on this force people who have experience in
police and military work?
Mr. MAASS: A lot of them have been in the military previously so, you know,
they've fired AK-47s before and things of that sort, and that's very useful to
the Americans so you don't have to teach them all of the basics. But military
training in Iraq, you know, wasn't terribly great. Iraqis, when they do--you
know, even the insurgents, when they're firing at the Americans, they are very
bad shots, which has actually saved a lot of American lives 'cause they get
shot at but they don't get hit. So just because somebody has military
experience doesn't mean that he's a good soldier and that just with a quick
refresher course, he's going to become that again or become it for the first
GROSS: What are some of the other problems that the Iraqi civil defense corps
is running into, including the problems of gaining the trust of the people
Mr. MAASS: Well, with a lot of these guys who are in the Iraqi civil defense
corps, they're facing threats and harassment from the local population, even
from members of their own family. When I was at this training course, the
American commander said, `Yeah, you know, these guys have been threatened with
death by relatives because they're working with us.' That problem is beginning
to go away somewhat, but it still exists. So this is something that really
kind of, you know, hinders the enthusiasm or morale or willingness of ICDC
soldiers to go out on aggressive operations because they don't want to piss
off more people than those who are already angry at them.
GROSS: Is Major Nagl worried about where the loyalty of the new recruits on
the ICDC really lies? I mean, during an insurgency, it's very possible that
men who will volunteer for a new police force will actually use the weapons to
turn them against, in this case, the Americans and the democratic leaders, if
and when there are...
Mr. MAASS: Right. Well, Nagl actually--his battalion doesn't yet work with
ICDC. So his familiarity with it and his views on it are somewhat distant
since he's not yet working with it. He knows it very well and what the
problems are but, in general, this is an issue. You know, if you're in
insurgency, one of the things that you want to do indeed is to infiltrate the
enemy. This is a matter of intelligence and this is also a matter of
crippling the enemy.
And in this one base where I went to where they were training ICDC, in the
very first class they had, there was a guy who was in the class, who was
trying to get the other members of the class to use all of the information
that they were getting, as well as the weapons that they were going to be
getting from the Americans, to launch attacks against the Americans. And this
guy was found out. He was turned in by other members of the class, and he's
now in prison.
But you also had as well--in that first class, the first two commanders of the
ICDC had to be fired because they were extorting kickbacks from all the
recruits. They get paid about $60 a month, and the commanders were saying,
`OK, you've got to give us, you know, 25 or 50 percent of that because we're
the ones who are allowing you to get in the class.'
GROSS: My guest is journalist Peter Maass. His article, The Counter
Insurgent: A Profile of Major John Nagl, is the cover story of this week's
New York Times Magazine.
We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is journalist Peter Maass, and
he's a contributing writer for The New York Times Magazine, the Sunday
magazine. And this week he had the cover story called The Counter Insurgent
about Major John Nagl, who is based in the Sunni triangle and is one of the
leaders of the counterinsurgency there.
One of the things that Major Nagl believes is very important is, you know,
winning the support of the people in Iraq. What are some of his tools to
accomplish that? What are some of the things he is trying to do to get the
support of the people in the Sunni triangle where he's based?
Mr. MAASS: He's trying to win their hearts and minds by getting them to
focus on the future in the sense of, you know, look, do you want to have
security? Do you want to have jobs for your family? If you do, we the
Americans can and will provide that to you. We're doing it now because
they're involved--the American military--in his region as in every other
region in doling out money to health clinics, to schools, to hospitals, things
of that sort. In a typical day for Nagl, he'll maybe do a raid or two and
then, somewhat paradoxically, he'll also perhaps on the way back, stop off at
a school, check it out and see if they need something and then try to get them
whatever it is they need. And so these are kind of the tools that he uses,
you know, economic incentives basically, to get people over to his side.
GROSS: Did you accompany him on meetings with local leaders?
Mr. MAASS: Sure. There were a number of meetings that he had with, you
know, local contractors, with local sheiks who come to the gate of the base.
And, you know, they have their tea. And you know, the ones that he knows, he
kisses them on the cheek and things of that sort. He's a fairly culturally
aware individual, much more so, obviously, than the average enlisted soldier.
And there was one meeting that I attended with him which was actually with a
local contractor who was doing some refurbishing of the buildings on the base.
And as we were just kind of walking around, inspecting the work that was being
done, Nagl pointed to this worker who was on a roof of the building, painting
the roof of it. And, you know, he said to me, `The counterinsurgency aspect
of the work that's being done just on this base is that that guy up there
who's painting the roof of that building isn't out planting IEDs trying to
kill my soldiers.' And, you know, Nagl said, `What we need here is a WPA,' you
know, which was obviously the works job creation program during the Depression
The problem that he has in terms of trying to, with these sorts of economic
incentives, win over the population is that he doesn't have enough money.
Even though there's been, you know, billions appropriated by Congress,
actually getting it down to the grassroots where it's needed has not happened
as quickly as it should. One morning, I was having breakfast with Nagl in the
canteen, and I asked him about the CPA, or the Coalition Provisional
Authority, which is officially in charge of reconstruction and political
development in Iraq. And he had a hard time, almost, containing his anger.
There was an empty seat at the table, and he just pointed at the seat, and he
said, you know, `Where is the guy from the CPA? He should be sitting right
there in that seat. You know, I have never seen at this base, anybody from
the CPA.' And this a very crucial area. This is the heart of the Sunni
triangle. He's responsible for Khaldiya, which is, let's say, one of the top,
you know, fi--maybe one of the top five, perhaps one of the top 10 towns in
terms of trouble that it's causing for the Americans, and nobody from the CPA
has yet sat down with Nagl, who's third in command of the battalion, to ask
him what he needs.
GROSS: What's his interpretation of that? Does he think the CPA is
understaffed or apathetic about this?
Mr. MAASS: Well, it's not understaffed. I mean, I've visited the CPA
headquarters in Baghdad, and there's no shortage of, you know, men in khakis,
Dockers, perhaps, or Gap, you know, clothes, you know, nice yuppies from
Washington, running around there, looking fairly busy, making calls back to
Washington, or trying to make calls back to Washington, because communications
still aren't terribly good. There are a lot of these guys there, a lot of
these women there. The problem is that they're not getting out, you know,
because of security concerns. They spend most of their time hunkered down in
the Republican Palace in the center of Baghdad. They don't get outside the
gates of the Republican Palace often enough. When they do go outside the
gates of the Republican Palace, they usually are escorted by, you know, a
Humvee or two or some civilian guards with Kalashnikovs or Uzis or M-16s.
This does not really kind of engender a great amount of communication, open
communication and relaxed communication, with whatever locals they might be
visiting. On top of which, a lot of these civilians who are there, are there
on, you know, 90-day contracts, and it takes them 30 days to just kind of
figure out, you know, which direction is north, which direction is south.
And even people in the CPA, you know, acknowledge these problems and say,
`Yeah, it's a very serious problem.' One day, I visited the CPA, and the
person I was visiting had to come out to the gate to meet me. This is the new
security rules there. And so he picked me up at the gate in his SUV, and we
drove to the Republican Palace and had lunch there, and then had to go back to
the parking lot to get back into his SUV. And it was a large parking lot
filled with nothing but SUVs, and he couldn't even find his SUV. We had to
kind of wander through the parking lot with him with the little key alarm,
clicking it on and off, you know, waiting for the horn of his SUV to beep.
And it was a very interesting kind of humorous metaphor, you know. This
gentleman, who's a very smart guy, you know, was wandering around this parking
lot trying to find his SUV, and so it made me kind of wonder--and him, too,
you know--how's he going to do once he gets outside of the gates of this
GROSS: Right. How often have Major Nagl's men been directly attacked by
insurgents in Iraq?
Mr. MAASS: All the time. You know, basically every day, there's an attack
or two or three. He's lost--his battalion has had six soldiers killed and
more than 40 injured. That's a battalion with the strength of about 800. All
the time. I was with him on a number of patrols and occasions where we came
under attack where they had to fire back. The gunners in the Humvees fired
back at crowds, because they were hostile to us. At all times, whenever you
leave the gates of the base, you know, your stomach automatically clenches,
because there's just this ever-present threat, particularly of IEDs,
improvised explosive devices, which are these bombs that the insurgents plant
by the sides of roads and detonate them when the American vehicles go by. And
this happens frequently, frequently. And it's the cause of greatest, greatest
concern for the American soldiers, more so than an ambush, because the Iraqis,
the insurgents actually, you know, they're not good shots. But these IEDs,
these are quite deadly. They're very large explosives. A lot of American
vehicles have been hit by them.
GROSS: Major Nagl's studied insurgency and counterinsurgency. He studied the
war in Vietnam. He has very strong views about how a counterinsurgency should
be waged. Does he feel like he's able to actually follow those lessons, or
does he ever feel like the reality of what he faces forces him to violate his
own rules and to violate the lessons that he learned?
Mr. MAASS: He thinks that he's doing as good of a job as he can do given the
difficulty of counterinsurgency, given the limitations that exist upon him.
He's number three in command of the battalion, not number one. The soldiers
under his command are, by and large, 18-year-old kids who have never been
outside of America before and don't speak a word of Arabic. He actually
thinks that he's winning the war, or not that he personally is winning the
war, but that they're doing a pretty good job, that they're making a lot of
mistakes, and that that's making their lives more difficult in terms of making
the progress that they would like to see. So he thinks it's a kind of--might
seem to be a strange contrast, but he sees the mistakes that are being made.
He tries not to make them.
There was one day when there was this very big raid that we went out on. And
it was kind of a slight fiasco, because it involved a very large number of
very large vehicles, including tanks. And tanks are pretty much the worst
vehicles to use when you're trying to do a surreptitious raid. And also the
target that they were going after, a high-value target, they knew, actually,
was not in the village that they were raiding. But since they had planned
this raid, they decided just, `Well, we'll go ahead with it anyway. Who knows
what will turn up.' And when I asked him about that particular raid
beforehand, I said, `Well, why are you doing this? You know that this is, you
know, not going to be successful, and it's just a brute use of force that was
the kind that textbooks tell you you shouldn't be doing.' And he just kind
of--he looked at me, and he just pointed to his major's stripes on his
shoulder and just said, you know, `This is all I got.'
You know, so he can't do everything that he wants to do. But even within
those limitations, he thinks that he's making more progress than lack of
progress, that it's three steps forward, two steps back.
GROSS: Peter Maass. His profile of Major John Nagl is the cover story of
this week's New York Times Magazine. Maass will be back in the second half of
I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with journalist Peter Maas.
He's covered several wars, including Bosnia, Afghanistan and Iraq. Last month
he was in the Sunni triangle, a focal point of anti-American activity,
observing Major John Nagl, whose mission is to defeat the insurgency. Major
Nagl is the operations officer of an 800-soldier infantry platoon 90 miles
west of Baghdad near Fallujah.
You were with Major Nagl in a convoy that could have been sitting ducks at
some point. Could you describe what the mission was and what happened?
Mr. MAAS: Well, the mission was actually, ironically, to just go to another
base for a memorial service for a soldier who had been killed a couple of days
previous by an IAD, and we had to drive through Ramadi to get there. And the
drive through was OK. There's a mile-long stretch where traffic is always
quite intense, and you are sitting ducks as you drive through. On the way
there, it wasn't a problem. On the way back it became quite a problem because
two lanes of traffic where shut down. So instead of the usual four lanes,
there were only two lanes available--became immediately gridlocked. And then
there was actually a demonstration that nobody was aware of that began at a
mosque at the end of the road. And a crowd of about a thousand people started
marching towards us, and this was the day after Saddam was captured, and the
demonstration was against the capture of Saddam. It was pro-Saddam. It was
And the mob--well, it was a crowd initially, but then when they saw us, they
kind of became a mob. They were all firing their weapons into the air. There
was gunfire all around us. And then in an effort to get out of town as
quickly as possible, the vehicles in the convoy--and there were just five
Humvees--tried to jump this very large median. And one of the vehicles got
stuck, so the convoy stalled there.
GROSS: The median was about two feet high.
Mr. MAAS: It was about two feet high. And, you know, Humvees have extremely
high clearance, and they can jump over, you know, quite large medians, and
that's what they're made for: to be able to take all kinds of terrain. This
median was extraordinarily, unusually high, and, indeed, the convoy
commander's Humvee got stuck, so we couldn't leave. So they had to kind of
stop, set up a perimeter there. The crowd surrounded us. They're firing
their weapons in the air. They're shouting at us. They're waving the soles
of their shoes at us. They're spitting at us. The American soldiers are
pointing their weapons at the crowd, scanning the rooftops, gunfire all
around, in the midst of which Nagl turns to me and says, `Peter, have you ever
seen "Black Hawk Down"?'
GROSS: (Laughs) Was that his sense of humor? I mean...
Mr. MAAS: He's got a very good sense of humor, and it's a very useful and
necessary resource, I think, for anybody who's in a war zone, which might
sound kind of paradoxical. But things are so heavy and so serious and so
intense there that you need to somehow get away from it, and one of the ways
you get away from it is by just making jokes about it and trying to see the
lighter side, if there is a lighter side to be seen. And Nagl is quite, quite
good at that, and that perhaps is one of the reasons why he's a very good
GROSS: And where are you at this point? You're in a tank? You're in a
Mr. MAAS: Well, no. Well, we got stuck in the traffic and then tried to jump
the median, and then when the one vehicle got stuck, we had to stop and try to
get it out. And so I got out of the Humvee, as did all the soldiers, because
you don't want to be stuck in a Humvee when the shooting starts because the
Humvee is a sitting target. The Humvee that I was traveling in, which was the
major's Humvee, was not even armored. So I was outside of the Humvee just
kind of staying a few feet away from it, near the major. Nobody was walking
any distance away from the Humvees because there were so few soldiers on the
ground that nobody wanted to get spread out, and they kind of formed a very
GROSS: So how'd the story end?
Mr. MAAS: Well, after about five or 10 minutes, you know, that seemed like
five or 10 years, the Humvee that was marooned, actually, was unmarooned, and
so we were able then to drive away. But there was the crowd still kind of on
the sides of the street shouting at us, throwing rocks at us and shooting at
us. And so as we left town, the Humvee right behind us, which had a .50
caliber machine gun on the top, opened fire on some people who the gunner
thought were firing at us. We then kept going down the road back towards the
base, and all along the route there were people, you know, shouting and
jeering and throwing rocks and things of that sort.
And we got to Khaldiya, and somebody threw a smoke bomb in the road in front
of us, and more rocks were thrown at us. And it was a very tense moment when
Nagl's driver, who was steering the vehicle, the Humvee, with his left hand
and cradling his M-16, which was pointed out his window, with his right hand,
was very close to taking a shot at some of the people who were throwing rocks
at us, many of whom were kids. And so Nagl just leaned over to him and
shouted, `Don't shoot! Don't shoot the kids!' He didn't, and we got out.
But the Humvee behind us didn't. He fired some shots. Don't know what
happened in terms of casualties.
GROSS: What are some of the lessons about the difficulty of this
counterinsurgency, lessons that you can take just from this one incident
Mr. MAAS: From that incident, when we were sitting ducks with the crowd
around us in Ramadi, it was quite interesting that they did not shoot at us
when we were the sitting ducks. They did, apparently, some people, shoot at
us as we were leaving. One of the reasons they didn't shoot at us is because
anybody in that crowd who was an insurgent, who wanted to take out some
Americans, would have known by virtue of experience, the Americans now being
an occupying power for--What?--seven or eight months, that if you fire at the
Americans, if you even begin to raise a weapon in the direction of the
Americans, they will fire on you, and they will kill you because their fire is
Now that's very good for the Americans because it means that people are scared
of them, and people aren't going to try to take them out without thinking
twice about it. The bad side of that is that because the Americans have used
lethal force on a number of occasions, and sometimes the lethal force has not
been exact, because the Americans have pointed their weapons at civilians and
knocked down their doors and things of that sort, they have not won as many
hearts and minds as they would like. So their tactics, on the one hand, make
the Americans safer to a certain degree perhaps because people do think twice
before shooting at them, but it detracts from the American goal of winning
over the hearts and minds of the people. And this is the crux of any
You want to, and you need to, kind of finely, exquisitely calibrate the amount
of force, whether it's lethal or otherwise, that you use because all of the
kind of texts and all of the experience of counterinsurgency show that you do
need to kill and capture and intimidate the enemy. That's just an absolute
necessity. But you also need to win over to your side the general population
because that's, in a way, the battleground. It's not getting the guy with the
gun, although you need to do that. You need to get the guy who doesn't have
the gun because the insurgents need that guy to provide him with food, with
money, with hiding places, whatever. And you need to get that guy to not
provide those things to the insurgents and, in fact, to tell you where the
insurgents are and who they are.
GROSS: Here's one of the things I was thinking as you were describing the
scene when the convoy was finally pulling out, and, you know, there was a mob.
And in the mob, you know, among the people were kids, who were throwing rocks
at the convoy. And you had the colonel, who has his gun trained on the crowd,
and the major saying, `Don't shoot the kids.' Well, what happens when one of
the kids is shot? If that happened, then the American military starts to look
really bad. They're shooting at kids. And it's easy for the population to
really turn against the occupying force when something like that happens. I
mean, do you fear, does Major Nagl fear, that a mistake like that is almost
inevitable and that the consequences will be horrible?
Mr. MAAS: It's not simply inevitable. Yeah, it's happened. We're not
talking about a future possibility that is nearly certain. There have been
civilians, including children, who have been killed in bomb attacks and who
have been shot by American soldiers. When you fire a .50-caliber machine gun
at somebody, even if you hit the target, that bullet keeps going. The
stopping power of a .50-caliber bullet is not just one human body. It goes
through several rows of people. So this is something that happens.
And the problem is that the cost of killing a civilian or injuring a civilian,
particularly if it's a child, particularly if it's a woman, is geometric.
It's not just, `Oh, you know, sorry we killed this child,' or this woman.
And, you know, the husband or the father or the mother is upset and becomes
somebody who's now willing to support the insurgency. It's a very large
number of people, probably not just even locally in that village, but if it
gets onto Al-Jazeera or any television network broadcast even more widely,
then it hits the general population and turns them against you.
So, you know, during the Vietnam War there was a famous American colonel, John
Paul Vann, who was kind of the military dissident and a very tragic figure.
And early in the war he could see the problems that the Americans were
creating in Vietnam by using indiscriminate firepower that killed civilians.
And he told, in particular, David Halberstam, who was then a young reporter
for The New York Times, in a conversation in Saigon, `The weapon that we need
to use in this war is a knife. We can't use bombs. We can't use artillery.
And rifles really aren't even the proper weapon for this war. We need to use
a knife because what we really need to do is know who we are killing. We have
to kill the right people. We can't kill the wrong people because the cost of
killing the wrong people is extraordinary.' And that was one of the things
that, obviously, made the American experience in Vietnam a failure.
Nagl and other American officers are very acutely aware of that. He knows
very well the cost of shooting kids. That's why he shouted at his driver,
`Don't shoot kids.' But he also knows--and this is what makes
counterinsurgency so devilishly hard--just how difficult it is to shoot only
the right people or to point your weapons only at the right people or to break
down only the right doors. It's a task that may not even be possible.
GROSS: My guest is journalist Peter Maas. His article, The Counterinsurgent:
A Profile of Major John Nagl, is the cover story of this week's New York
Times Magazine. We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Peter Maas, and he's a
contributing writer to The New York Times Magazine, the Sunday Magazine. He
has the cover story this week, which is called: The Counterinsurgent. And
it's about Major John Nagl, who is working in the Sunni triangle in Iraq.
Well, you know, you end your article by writing, `No army has achieved a
successful counterinsurgency that does not drag on for years and does not
involve a large amount of killing.' Did you say that to the major and say, you
know, `What makes you think this one's going to be different?'
Mr. MAAS: Oh, I did. We had long talks about this. He thinks that it's
going to be different because the Americans have learned from their mistakes
and the mistakes of others. He also thinks it will be different--and this is
an important consideration--because the insurgency in Iraq is not necessarily
a popular insurgency. It's largely a Sunni insurgency. The Shias don't seem
to support it. The Kurds certainly don't support it. And even amongst the
Sunni population, it's not absolute support because one of the hindrances of
the insurgency is that it doesn't seem to have much of a view of the future of
Iraq that is a positive view. And, OK, it wants the Americans out. What does
it want in their place? What can it do better than the Americans or what the
Americans want to leave in their place? And he sees that as a major benefit
for the occupying forces because their enemy doesn't have, you know, as, for
example, the Vietcong did in Vietnam, a general political strategy that
offered a vision of the future that was, at the time at least, more attractive
than what the prevailing option was.
GROSS: I don't know if you saw it, but on Thursday of this past week Tom
Ricks, the Pentagon correspondent for The Washington Post, had an article
about the Marines' approach to dealing with the insurgency as compared to the
Army approach. And Major Nagl, who we've been talking about, is Army. Ricks
writes: `As the Marine Corps prepares to take over occupying much of western
Iraq from the US Army, it's planning a fresh approach that emphasizes
restraint in the use of force, cultural sensitivity and a public message that
the new troops aren't from the Army, according to an internal Marine document
and interviews with top officers.' Ricks goes on to quote a Marine officer,
who speaks on the condition of anonymity, who says, `I'm appalled at the
current heavy-handed use of air strikes and artillery in Iraq. Success in a
counterinsurgency environment is based on winning popular support, not blowing
up people's houses.' And the `blowing up people's houses' is a reference to
the fact that the Army has punished some insurgents by blowing up their
family's house. Any comments on the Marine vs. the Army approach to dealing
with the insurgency?
Mr. MAAS: Sure. Well, you know, among other tactics that the Army has been
using, also on a couple of occasions they've surrounded villages with barbed
wire. They've been taking into custody relatives of people whom they're
looking for. They've been using aerial attacks against insurgent targets.
Aerial attacks, obviously, aren't quite as precise as using, as Colonel Vann
in Vietnam suggested, a knife. The Marines--the tactics that they are
proposing are, indeed, of a softer nature, part of which involves even kind of
less force protection; that is, one of the suggestions that the Marines are
looking at and hoping to do is to have more of their soldiers kind of based in
towns and villages--obviously a little bit more vulnerable because they
wouldn't have the same level of protection that they have at these big
It's a different approach. The Marines historically are better and have more
experience at counterinsurgency than the Army does because it's the Marines,
you know, who are the first ones sent to land on foreign shores. And in 1940,
the Marines published the study called the Marines' small war manual, which is
a classic of counterinsurgency, and it's a text that's as valuable today as it
was when it was first published. So they have a lot of experience. The
question is--and I talked with Nagl about this. I said then, `Well, what do
you think about this strategy that the Marines are thinking of using?' And,
you know, he just kind of shrugged, and his attitude was, you know, `Well,
wait till they get here.' The Marines have not actually been based--when they
were part of the invasion force and afterwards, no Marine battalion was based
in the Sunni triangle. So the tactics that the Marines found successful in
the non-Sunni areas that they were occupying after the invasion were used in a
population that was much friendlier, less hostile towards than the population
that the Army is encountering in the Sunni triangle.
It's probably worth trying a slightly different approach, you know, to the
extent that even the Marines are saying, `We're not going to let our Marines
wear sunglasses because that kind of alienates people.' Things like that,
sure, they should be used, and, you know, maybe indeed they will be more
successful. But one of the problems that happens in any military conflict,
whether it's a guerrilla war or a conventional war, is that you can have
certain plans and you can have certain ways that you want your soldiers to
react, particularly in a kind, gentle way. But once you start taking
casualties, once your soldiers or your Marines start getting there's just a
psychological process that begins amongst the survivors of becoming much more
hard-nosed. And that's one of the key problems of being kind and gentle.
Maybe it can't last very long. Once actually there, there are casualties, and
there will be.
GROSS: You wrote an article in Outside magazine about being a reporter who
was not embedded during the war in Iraq. And you write in that: `War
correspondents run terribly high risks, but the truth is that it's safer to
take high risks in the company of James Nachtwey, a Time photographer, or John
Burns, a New York Times reporter, than moderate risks in the company of
someone with less experience.' Now as you know, after you wrote this article,
James Nachtwey was in a tank in Iraq that--he was badly injured. A grenade
was thrown into the tank, and a Time magazine...
Mr. MAAS: This was the back of a Humvee.
GROSS: Back of a Humvee, I'm sorry.
Mr. MAAS: He was riding in the back of a Humvee.
GROSS: Yeah. Thank you for correcting me. And a Time magazine reporter who
was in the same Humvee threw out the grenade, but it exploded in his hand, and
both the reporter and James Nachtwey were injured. And I'm wondering what
impact that had on you since you were using James Nachtwey as a barometer of
the really savvy war correspondent, who, you know, up until that point, had
Mr. MAAS: Well, I was in Baghdad when Nachtwey was injured, and I visited him
at the hospital in the Green Zone the next day. It's a very sobering
event, obviously, when any journalist gets injured or killed and particularly
when it's somebody who you've worked with before. And this might sound kind
of strange: It didn't really affect me in terms of my awareness or desire to
continue doing this kind of stuff because I've known for a long time just how
mortal I am and that covering a war is an incredibly capricious endeavor. You
know, when I covered the war in Bosnia, afterwards I wrote a book about it.
And I wrote about how, you know, you can be, you know, at the Holiday Inn in
Sarajevo and some new, young guy comes in and goes rushing out to the front
line foolishly, and you go back up to your room to take a nap. And that young
guy can come back from this foolish adventure just fine, and you could have
got blown out of your bed by incoming RPG.
So I've been aware, and I don't need to see Jim Nachtwey or anybody get
injured to understand, in the pit of my stomach, that anything can happen at
any time. And the more dangerous the situation is that I put myself in, the
more likely that is to occur, which is why I don't feel comfortable doing
these things. I didn't enjoy the time when we were stuck like sitting ducks
in Ramadi. I didn't enjoy hearing the gunfire behind us that was aimed at
somebody who was shooting at us. You know, yes, I continue to do it but in
controlled doses, and I try to do it as smartly as I can, reducing as many
risks as I can but understanding that I can't reduce them all and that there's
a certain amount that is just beyond my control.
GROSS: Well, Peter Maas, I wish you safe travels. I thank you very much for
talking with us.
Mr. MAAS: Thank you.
GROSS: Peter Maas' profile of Major John Nagl is the cover story of this
week's New York Times Magazine. Maas is a contributing writer to the
Coming up, Kevin Whitehead reviews a new CD by Alexander von Schlippenbach,
one of the pioneers of the European school of improvised music. This is FRESH
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Review: Alexander von Schlippenbach's "Broomriding"
TERRY GROSS, host:
German pianist Alexander von Schlippenbach helped establish the European
school of improvised music that branched off of the free jazz of the 1960s.
Schlippenbach's various groups have included the Globe Unity Orchestra and
Berlin Jazz Composers Orchestra. He's also arranged music by Jelly Roll
Morton, Thelonious Monk and Eric Dolphy for big band. A new Schlippenbach
Quartet CD includes a pair of Dolphy tunes. Jazz critic Kevin Whitehead has a
(Soundbite of "Straight Up And Down")
KEVIN WHITEHEAD reporting:
"Straight Up And Down" by Eric Dolphy. His 1964 version was weird enough, but
Alex Schlippenbach's shambling take is a central European twittering machine
out of modernist art as much as modern jazz. Europe's pioneer free
improvisers have had an ambivalent relationship with jazz. Its robust grace
made them want to improvise, too, but some players stake out their own turf by
not swinging like Americans. They wanted rolling momentum without anyone
having to maintain a steady pulse or a consistent texture. Spontaneous
rhythmic counterpoint is trick, and there was lots of trial and error
involved, but in the end they got really good at it.
(Soundbite of "Straight Up And Down")
WHITEHEAD: Alexander von Schlippenbach's Quartet from the CD "Broomriding" on
the Psi, or P-S-I, label. The drummer is his old colleague, Paul Lovens, one
of Europe's great percussionists and a master of clattery textures. On cello
is the Vermont-born expatriate and instigator Tristen Honsinger. He brought
two tunes, including "Poetica,"(ph) where he nudges the free-thinking Germans
into a jazzy waltz.
(Soundbite of "Poetica")
WHITEHEAD: Music like this declares all distinctions between jazz and
improvised music null and void on the grounds that it's more fun to play
whatever you like than haggle over identity issues. The Eric Dolphy tunes
make that point; Dolphy, the open-minded jazz improviser, who incidentally
died in Berlin in 1964. The other Dolphy tune here is "Something Sweet,
Something Tender" from the same year. Berlin's Rudy Mahall is on bass
clarinet, an instrument Dolphy put on the jazz map.
(Soundbite of "Something Sweet, Something Tender")
WHITEHEAD: The lyricism in that melody is pure Eric Dolphy, though the
Schlippenbach Quartet's texture is closer to 20th century chamber music. But
then Dolphy played some of that himself as well as songs by Germany's Kurt
Weill and a tribute to the Italian flute virtuoso Severino Gazzelloni. The
moral here being curious musicians will use any good idea, no matter what
borders they cross to get at it.
GROSS: Kevin Whitehead writes for the Chicago Sun-Times, The Absolute Sound
and Down Beat. He reviewed the new CD "Broomriding" by German pianist
Alexander von Schlippenbach.
GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
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