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Journalists Thomas Ricks and Vernon Loeb

They cover the military for The Washington Post. They'll discuss military preparedness for the war with Iraq. They collaborated on the special report "Unrivaled Military Feels Strains of Unending War: For U.S. Forces, a Technological Revolution and a Constant Call to Do More." In it they said, "The more capable the U.S. military has become, the more it has been asked to do, and now strains are beginning to show."



DATE February 19, 2003 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
 TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
 PROGRAM Fresh Air

Interview: Thomas Ricks and Vernon Loeb discuss the preparedness
of the US military for a possible war with Iraq

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

My guests, Tom Ricks and Vernon Loeb, cover the military for The Washington
Post and have been writing about the military preparations for war with Iraq.
They've written about the US military's unrivaled power and its new high-tech
weapons. But they've also described the strains that are showing as the
military readies for war with Iraq while fighting a war on terrorism and
preparing for possible action against North Korea.

Tom Ricks has covered military activities in Somalia, Korea, Bosnia, Kuwait,
the Persian Gulf and Afghanistan. He wrote about the military for The Wall
Street Journal before joining The Washington Post. He was part of two
Pulitzer Prize-winning teams of reporters covering military preparations for
the 21st century and the war on terrorism.

Vernon Loeb was The Post's intelligence and national security correspondent
before covering the Pentagon. He covered the Gulf War and served as the
Southeast Asia correspondent for the Philadelphia Inquirer before joining The
Washington Post.

In a recent piece that you both wrote, you said that the United States now
stands astride the globe, more dominant than any armed force since the legions
of the Roman Empire. What's different now for us?

Mr. THOMAS RICKS (The Washington Post): Basically, the US military, over the
last 10 years, has harnessed the information revolution and really moved into
the information age of warfare. No other military in the world was there.
And it's usually different, not just from every other military, but from the
US military we had at the beginning of the Gulf War. When the Gulf War began,
Colin Powell, then the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, as he watched the video
of the first cruise missile launched, said, `Now we're going to see if these
things work.' They had that level of doubt about their own technology. They
don't have that level of doubt about their technology now. The US military is
hugely confident that its technology is going to work this time.

GROSS: You also write that some of the commanders who've known nothing but
victory are confident to the point of cockiness. How have you seen that

Mr. RICKS: Basically, when I spent a good part of January knocking around the
US military in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and aboard an aircraft carrier, there's a
sense that these people know how good they are. They are very, very good.
It's a real contrast to the mood of the commanders going into the Gulf War.
Barry McCaffrey, who commanded the 24th Infantry Division of the Gulf War,
told me that when they got off the plane in Saudi Arabia on August 1990, they
had no food, no beds and no idea what they were doing there. They'd never
been there before. Now you have a US military that's fought there for 10
years, that's done constant training rotations through Kuwait. They know what
they're about. They know what they're doing there. And there's a little
worry at the margins. It's not a core worry, but the edges you hear a little
word of worry, inside the military and out of it, about hubris, about, you
know, pride going before a fall, or people figuring out what the
vulnerabilities are of the US military.

GROSS: You said that we're so much more militarily advanced than our allies
that the Pentagon doesn't necessarily like to fight alongside the allies
because they may slow down the US forces. That's an unusual way of looking at
it. Is that really a concern, that our allies would slow us down?

Mr. VERNON LOEB (The Washington Post): Yeah, they wouldn't just slow us down.
They wouldn't be able to play the same game we play. The only ally we're
really comfortable fighting with at all is Britain, and the others just simply
play a different game than we do. I mean, the US military is into, you know,
digital age combat. It's not just the ability to hit a target, but it's the
ability to move information around the battlefield so quickly that you can hit
a target while it's still moving on the battlefield. And the US military, and
perhaps the Brits, are the only military that can come close to doing this.

GROSS: Is that one of the reasons, possibly, that President Bush doesn't seem
that concerned about not having more allies going into this war?

Mr. RICKS: I think it probably is because the Pentagon's view of the world
really does permeate, I think, this administration's assessment, and it led
into a kind of dead end in that neither France nor Germany is really a
militarily significant country at this point. It sounds harsh to say it, but
it is true, as a military assessment. They simply do not have the ability to
project power globally. They can't move forces, and when they get there, they
really don't have very adept forces. As individual soldiers, they have all
the bravery in the world, but as units, they don't. They're not very good
militarily, and I think that really did enter the Bush administration's
assessment. `We don't need these people. These people actually are kind of
an impediment on the battlefield.'

At the same time, they're finding, it makes it much harder to go to the war
that they're, I think, determined to go into because of that lack of support.
The other worry is also that while you may not need these people to fight, you
do need them in the peacekeeping, the post-Saddam Iraq. And it's going to be
harder to get them there now.

GROSS: And do you think that because the United States has such superior
military capability unmatched by any country that the use of that military is
entering more into, like, political strategy...

Mr. RICKS: Well, the military term for this is when the only tool you have is
a hammer, everything begins to look like a nail. You know, it's--the military
calls it the militarization of foreign policy, and there are worries about

GROSS: What are they?

Mr. RICKS: That the military is so good at what it does that it tends to be
the tool of first resort rather than the last. And this is not just an
ideological or partisan view. I mean, Bill Clinton seemed very fond of firing
cruise missiles off during his presidency. I once figured out that I think he
fired an average of one every three days in his presidency, if you took all
the cruise missiles he used during his presidency to hit Sudan, Afghanistan,
Iraq. And this administration came in, saying, `No, we're not going to do
nation-building. We're not going to go and use the forces that high an
operational level.' Yet, they already have had a war in Afghanistan. They
look like they're moving into a war with Iraq. And occupying Iraq is going to
take huge numbers of troops for a long time. The military feels that every
foreign policy question seems to have a military answer.

GROSS: At the same time that we're preparing for this probable war with Iraq,
we have military commitments in other parts of the world: peacekeeping
missions in the Balkans, the war--you know, rebuilding Afghanistan, the war on
terrorism, a threat from North Korea. In your assessment, I mean, do you
think the military can handle all of that, and what kind of reaction have you
been getting from commanders and other military people you've been speaking to
about their feelings about whether the US military can support that much

Mr. RICKS: When I was knocking around Saudi Arabia and the Persian Gulf
region last month, it was really striking to me that on the one hand, they do
feel very confident; on the other hand, they feel tired. One guy made the
point that he'd been in the Air Force seven and a half years and had done
seven tours of duty in Saudi Arabia in that time. They make the point that
the US involvement in World War II lasted about four years. They've been out
there doing these sort of things now--the US military has been dealing with
Iraq now for 12 years. And even if you get Iraq included, you're still going
to have an occupation there and you might have other engagements coming up in
the Mideast. So they feel like they've kind of entered into an age of
continuous warfare. And I think they don't feel well-understood by the
American people back here, that this is not a sustainable pace for the people
in the US military, that being deployed for 220 days a year indefinitely will
ruin your marriage. People are worried about their families, about not seeing
their kids grow up.

GROSS: This must be an issue for a lot of people because, as you've pointed
out in your writing, the military is older than it used to be and also more
people in it are married.

Mr. RICKS: It's very much a married military and this is one of the
consequences of the end of the draft. Rather than fill out the ranks with
18-year-olds who are going to be there for a year and a half or two years or
something, it's people who are making a career of it, 20 or 30 years. But it
is a real concern in the military that they're going to wind up breaking the
force. You hear this--the Army, especially, talks about it. The Army's kind
of internal lobbying organization called the Association of the United States
Army, which is basically a group of retired generals, has been running essays
in their own magazine warning that if the current pace of operations keeps up,
they are going to break the force.

GROSS: What does that mean?

Mr. RICKS: It means that you're--as they put it, you will return to
Vietnam-like conditions, Vietnam era-like conditions in the US Army, with a
demoralized force, with people leaving, with good, seasoned experienced people
leaving, being replaced by a less experienced, less trained and less capable
people, and it becomes a much less capable military.

GROSS: My guests are Tom Ricks and Vernon Loeb. They cover the military for
The Washington Post. We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guests are Vernon Loeb and Tom Ricks.
They cover the military for The Washington Post.

Let's look a little bit at exactly what kind of weapons we're going to be
using now in this new very high-tech military. What are some of the new
high-tech innovations that will let the military do things it was unable to do

Mr. LOEB: Well, the military smart bomb of choice right now is a
satellite-guided bomb that was developed after Desert Storm when the primary
bomb was a laser-guided bomb. The problem with laser-guided bombs was they
don't work when it's cloudy or when it's dusty in the battlefields. The haze,
you know, obstructs the laser beam. So after Desert Storm, the military
decided it needed an all-weather precision-guided bomb. So they basically
took the laser-guided bomb and they added a GPS receiver to it, which means
the bomb is dropped from an airplane, it has its own inertial guidance system,
it starts steering it to the target and every second it gets an update from
global positioning system satellites. And this enables the bombs to strike
within about 10 meters or less of their target in all weather. So that'll be
the starring smart bomb of the next Iraq war.

And similarly, GPS receivers have been added to Tomahawk cruise missiles which
are fired from sea. So that our precision strike capabilities have increased
enormously since Desert Storm when I think it was 9 percent of the bombs--only
9 percent of the bombs dropped were precision-guided bombs. This time around,
it'll probably be more like 90 percent.

Mr. RICKS: One thing I would add to that is while the next war in Iraq will
look on the television in many ways very similar, that's because the
platforms--ships, aircraft--are basically the same. What's really different
about the US military is what's inside them. Basically, the information
revolution has come home to roost in the US military. You know, the reliance
that the US society has, in our business and personal lives, on e-mail to move
information around has its parallel in the US military for the last 10 years.
So now you have images going from aircraft over the battlefield back to
headquarters in, say, Kuwait or Saudi Arabia instantly also shipped to CIA
headquarters in Langley, Virginia, and to intelligence analysts across the
country who are then looking at it, responding to analysts back in Saudi
Arabia, who then communicate information back into the cockpit of a pilot
still in flight.

GROSS: Now during the Gulf War in '91, the smart bombs looked really smart
and different from anything we'd ever seen before. When the war was over, we
learned that some of the smart bombs made mistakes, or if the bombs didn't
make mistakes, some of the people guiding the bombs made mistakes. Is the
military expecting that the smart bombs this time around, even though they're
more high-tech, will make errors, too?

Mr. LOEB: Well--and smart bombs are dependent upon smart intelligence. I
mean, you can hit with great precision exactly the wrong thing, as we saw them
do during the Kosovo war when they used satellite-guided bombs to destroy the
Chinese Embassy in Belgrade thinking it was actually a Yugoslav arms
bureaucracy. So smart bombs are very dependent upon good intelligence which
we're sometimes not that great at. The ability to hit a target with
precision, we have pretty much mastered. The ability to do so with the kind
of intelligence we need is something we're still working on and, in fact, a
lot of people say we're not nearly good enough at yet.

GROSS: Now a lot of the military's very high-tech now. You know, we're
talking about smart bombs and this, you know, e-mail-like system of
communication hooking up the battlefield to the CIA at home. What about the
ground troops, the soldiers on the ground? Do they have high-tech stuff or
are they basically fighting as if it were World War II?

Mr. RICKS: To a surprising degree, they don't. When we're talking about the
e-mail, the military keep the US Marines out. I actually got an e-mail this
morning from a Marine in Kuwait who said, `As soon as the war begins, I'm off
the Net. You're not going to hear from me.' It amazes me how
disproportionately we do not spend on our ground forces. I don't know why
this is. I've covered the military for over a decade and I'm still deeply
puzzled by it. Why we have satellites that can see license plates from outer
space, but we still have troops probing the battlefield with sticks to look
for mines.

GROSS: I mean, I read that the troops are going to be carrying about 100
pounds on their backs. That's a lot.

Mr. RICKS: That's a good day. I've seen people carry 120, 150.

GROSS: Really?

Mr. RICKS: Yeah.

GROSS: What's in there?

Mr. RICKS: Well, you need everything to live with as if you're going on a
camping trip, and then you need your weaponry and, you know, then ammunition
for the weaponry and the ability to keep that weapon working, if it's a
machine gun or something. And then you need your chemical suit and your
chemical protection and a gas mask and then you have a little medical kit
hanging off you. Don't forget it's the desert. You better have a couple of
quarts of water hanging off you at all times. And then you have body armor.
Body armor is actually one the change I've seen in the military, is they're
much more willing to give the infantry good stuff that actually can stop at
least some small caliber weapons. That was not true 15 years ago. You're
seeing it more and more these days. It's one of the lessons learned from the
battle of Mogadishu from "Black Hawk Down," is that a little body armor can go
really help forces survive.

GROSS: Now what about the chemical bioweapons suits that the ground troops
have to carry with them, that they really might have to wear? Do you get the
sense that the troops have confidence in these suits, or that their commanders
have confidence in these suits?

Mr. LOEB: I think they do. We're now actually, I think, on a second- or
third-generation suit, a step up from what they had in the Gulf War. Again,
they're very rigorously tested, but, you know, they've never been used in
combat. They've never been used in the real thing, and I think that's where
the real problems would come in. The problems would not be with the suits
themselves. It would be with the discipline of the soldiers putting them on,
putting them on rapidly enough, putting them on in the correct way. If you
put on the gas mask and the seal is not correct around your chin, it does you
no good whatsoever. So you've really got to train repeatedly putting these
things on, putting them on quickly enough, making sure once you have them on
you keep them on and you've put them on in the right way. I think those are
where all the uncertainties come in.

GROSS: How much have you been able to learn about what the US military
strategy is for entering Iraq?

Mr. RICKS: I've written several stories about this over the last seven or
eight months. We've kind of watched this process unfold. There has been a
lot of talk about it partly because it's been a vigorous process. Inside the
Pentagon, there's been a lot of argument back and forth. It started off with
some people talking about an Afghanistan-like approach of using a few Special
Forces on the ground working with indigenous fighters to pull in US air
strikes. And it's evolved to what other people now call Desert Storm Lite, a
smaller version of the Gulf War, and then from there to kind of more something
that looks more like a heavy, big version of the Panama invasion that a lot of
people have forgotten about, where the US came in overnight and simultaneously
hit targets across Panama; I think about 45 targets in the first night,
landing troops on them and also conducting air strikes. So I think you're
going to see that sort of 1989-like Panama version updated with a higher-tech,
information-laden military. That's what they hope to pull off.

Another thing I'll point out is that it may not begin like a lot of people
expect, with cruise missiles down to Baghdad. That may come at the end of the
equation rather than the beginning. There's no particular reason to start off
with that. You might want to hit a few what they call `high-value targets,'
the pillars of the regime, maybe where you think Saddam Hussein is, maybe a
few weapons of mass destruction spots that you think you can safely hit from
the air without sending up a plume of poisons. But you also might see what
they call a `soft launch' in marketing, of moving in and protectively taking
oil fields, of putting troops into the north and the west and biting off big
chunks of Iraq without much fighting.

GROSS: Americans were just, I think, shocked by the amount of force used at
the opening of the Gulf War, the amount of American military force. Do you
think that it's likely to have that much or even more military force on the
opening night, for instance, or opening day?

Mr. RICKS: I think there will be a multiple of that amount of force, but
it'll be done simultaneously across Iraq and mainly won't be visible. So it
may not look like that.

GROSS: What do you mean it won't be visible?

Mr. RICKS: Well, you're not going to have people out in the oil fields,
reporters, necessarily. You're not going to have TV cameras capturing where
it's occurring if it's way out in the Iraqi desert.

GROSS: Oh, I see what you're saying, yeah. Mm-hmm.

Mr. RICKS: So it may happen offstage, as it were.

GROSS: Right. And what do you think the US military is preparing for Iraq to
do if we start the war?

Mr. LOEB: I think the main thing they're expecting Iraq to do is to disperse
its forces and fall back into Baghdad and perhaps into the regional cities,
having learned the lesson from the Gulf War, which was, you know, when you
amass your forces on the battlefield, you are sitting ducks for American
technology. And there's also a belief that Saddam Hussein spent quite a bit
of time studying Yugoslavia from 1999 and learning the Serbian lesson of
decoys, decoys sometimes even with a heat source. So a decoy with a heat
source to one of our infrared sensors looks like a tank when, in fact, it's
not a tank, and also, again, the dispersion of forces.

You know, when your forces are in the city, not massed, just dispersed in
various small groupings, they're very hard to hit from the air, and it's a
great equalizer. It's a great way to neutralize the US technological
advantage. So I think that's what they're expecting from Saddam Hussein's
elite forces. I think the expectation--and this will be interesting to see
whether this is correct, but I think one of their main expectations is that
the regular Iraqi military, about 400,000 people, are not going to fight.
They feel the fight will boil down to, ultimately, the US military against the
Republican Guard and the Special Republican Guard, which are basically regime
preservation forces amassed around Baghdad.

GROSS: And I think the United States has already been telling people in the
Republican Guards and their commanders that since the United States will win,
if there is a war, that they might as well surrender, not fight. And,
therefore, they'll be good guys after the regime change, as opposed to bad
guys who will be punished by the United States. How are they going about
doing that? How is the United States military going about sending out this

Mr. RICKS: Well, supposedly, they've even sent e-mail. They've gotten into
e-mail accounts and sent them to commanders of units; not only just telling
them that, you know, `If you don't fight us, you have a chance of surviving,
even in being part of a post-Saddam Iraqi military,' but also telling them
that, `We know who you are and we know where to you find you if your unit uses
chemical weapons, and you will be held accountable personally and directly.'

GROSS: Is anybody assessing how effective these communications are?

Mr. RICKS: Well, it's hard to at this point. I'm sure the US military is
trying. There are CIA people and the Special Operations people inside Iraq
now, and I think they're trying to track that.

One of the surprising lessons after the Gulf War was that psychological
operations were pretty effective during the Gulf War. When they surveyed POWs
who had surrendered and asked them if they had seen American leaflets, about
90 percent, I believe, said they had seen American leaflets encouraging them
to surrender and telling them they wouldn't be harmed, and about half said
that they had been encouraged to surrender by those leaflets. So while the
military tends to make fun of that sort of thing, you know, the trigger
pullers and the bomb droppers--`Oh, you know, they hate to go out and just do
a mission where all they're doing is dropping leaflets'--the record says that
those do have some effect.

GROSS: Tom Ricks and Vernon Loeb cover the military for The Washington Post.
They'll be back in the second half of the show. I'm Terry Gross, and this is


(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: Coming up, what could go wrong in Iraq? We continue our conversation
with Thomas Ricks and Vernon Loeb, who cover the military for The Washington

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with Tom Ricks and Vernon
Loeb. They cover the military for The Washington Post. They've been writing
about how the military is preparing for war with Iraq. Let's pick up where we
left off.

Saddam Hussein has threatened to set Iraq's oil fields on fire the way he did
Kuwait's oil fields. Do you know if the US military has a plan to either
prevent that from happening, or to minimize the damage of the fires

Mr. RICKS: I think it's likely to be one of the first steps you see by the US
military. That's one reason I was saying don't expect to see cruise missiles
in downtown Baghdad as the opening gambit. A smart plan would get to those
oil fields and get to dams very early on and prevent them from being
destroyed, the oil fields from being torched, or the dams from being blown up.
If you blew up the dams and the dikes in southern Iraq, it would make it
enormously more difficult for the US military to travel across southern Iraq
and to mount an attack in Baghdad.

It's a difficult issue, though. Oil fields are long and large. They're
hundreds of square miles, so you can't just drop a company of infantry and say
`Protect this.' You have to have supplies, you have to have vehicles to get
around, you have to have fuel for those vehicles. It's a difficult military
proposition, and I'm sure that some damage will be done to the oil fields
early on.

On the other hand, keep in mind that the US military had never confronted an
issue like this back in '91 when the Gulf War was kicked off. They've been
thinking about issues like this for 10 years. They learned they do, indeed,
have to study the nature of an oil field, where the key vulnerabilities are,
where the manifolds are, and I think they will move in on key points in the
oil fields very quickly and very early on in any invasion.

GROSS: But what about like remote controlled explosives, so, you know, Iraq
could possibly blow up the oil fields without having an personnel on site to
do it?

Mr. RICKS: I'm sure it's a possibility, and I'm sure they're worried about it and
and trying to figure out how to stop it.

There's a very long list of nightmares here. I have to tell you, though, that
most of the nightmares, when you talk to senior military officers, most of the
nightmares that they talk about are not tactical, that is, not part of the
battlefield. Yeah, they're worried about chemical and biological weapons,
yeah, they're worried about urban warfare, but what really worries them are
the consequences of a war internally in Iraq. Can you hold the place together
after a war, or do the Shiites in the south and the Kurds in the north kind of
spin off, officially or unofficially, into their own independent worlds?

If you do this badly, if it's messier than you expect, if it takes longer, if
you have a drawn-out siege of Baghdad, if a lot of civilians are killed by
chemical weapons as they drift downwind, these are all things that could
really affect the region, and the nightmare scenario is that you really blow
it in Iraq, you mess it up and you destabilize regimes across the
region--Egypt, Saudi Arabia, even Pakistan, and wind up with a far bigger
problem on your plate than the one you began with.

GROSS: Do you think, though, the Pentagon, or, you know, anyone else in the
Bush administration thinks that Saddam Hussein might either surrender, flee,
or, you know, go into exile?

Mr. RICKS: Or get killed by somebody in a coup. I think they're hoping
against hope. I'm sure that they're following the Afghan pattern there, of
trying to spread some greenbacks around and encouraging people to act. I
mean, a coup would be a whole lot cheaper and easier, and easier for the
region than any US invasion. And so while, you know, they don't like a lot of
the diplomatic yammering that's going on now, with Germany and France putting
roadblocks in their way, at the same time, it does give them a chance to let
that quite strategy of subversion unfold inside Iraq.

GROSS: There are Special Operations forces already in Iraq. To what extent
has the war already begun?

Mr. RICKS: It's funny, actually, the lead I wrote on that story when I wrote about it
last week was that the question everybody's asking around Washington is when
the war in Iraq will begin, and the answer may be `It already has.' I mean,
one of the classic measures of a war, it's when you have troops on the ground
somewhere, and when you're bombing almost every day. Well, that's what we're
going in Iraq right now.

There are some people in the US military who say the first Gulf War, the '91
Gulf War, never ended. They went into kind of a low-key phase. We had
operations in northern Iraq for years. We had an intense bombing in 1998, the
Desert Fox campaign, which was a very effective campaign, and now it's simply
escalating again. So yeah, I think you could make an argument that we've been
at war for 10 years, but the signs of an increasing war, of an escalating war,
are there right now.

GROSS: Now you were talking earlier about how the United States military is
so more high-tech than any of its allies are, that the allies sometimes would
only slow down the United States as opposed to really helping in a military
campaign. What does the military want our allies to do, outside of giving
bases to the US military?

Mr. LOEB: In a word, peacekeeping. After the war is over, there's going to
be a huge demand for troops in Iraq, you know, anywhere from 50,000 to
250,000, and Rumsfeld is no big fan of peacekeeping. He doesn't like to tie
up US forces, you know, the world's pre-eminent fighters, doing peacekeeping.
Right now in Afghanistan, you know, who's heading the international
peacekeeping mission but Germany? We have 1,000 forces there, still doing
basically combat patrols, and we're relying on Germany and a whole bunch of
other NATO allies to do the peacekeeping there, and that's certainly a model
we want to follow in Iraq, so the Pentagon does not want to have three Army
divisions tied up in Iraq for the next five years.

GROSS: The US military wants to keep Israel out of a war with Iraq. What are
the plans that the US military has to keep Israel out and to offer protection
to Israel?

Mr. RICKS: Well, we've had troops in the region, I think probably operating
out of Jordan, going into western Iraq. The Israelis have also had
reconnaissance troops in and out of western Iraq, last summer, all for the
purpose of making sure that the western Iraqi desert is not a launching pad,
either for Scuds or, more likely, for drone aircraft loaded with chemical and
biological weapons. I actually think it's going to be easier in this
situation than it was in '91 to keep Israel out of the war. Jordan is being
much more cooperative now than it was in that conflict, so I think you'll have
US forces quietly operating out of Jordan. You'll probably have US aircraft
flying out of the Mediterranean Sea off of carriers across Israel and across
Jordan into western Iraq, which you did not have in '91. All that, I think,
will make it much harder for Iraq to try to get off strikes against Israel
that would regionalize the conflict and make it an Arab-Western conflict.

At the same time, during the last war, Saddam Hussein never really was
personally threatened with the loss of his regime or his life. This time that
clearly is the US intent, so there is a kind of worry that there's an
apocalyptic ending where as he realizes he's not going to survive, his
regime's crumbling, his forces, wherever they are, hidden across mountains,
out in the desert, do get off a few final shots, and that is a worry that
Israel has, and I think wants more reassurance from.

GROSS: How worried is the military that as they're preparing for this war in
Iraq or further down the line, as they're fighting a war in Iraq, that they
won't need to deploy forces to North Korea as well, and be, you know, faced
with a conflict on two fronts?

Mr. LOEB: I think they're really worried about that. I think a lot of people
in the military see North Korea, actually, as a greater threat than Iraq and a
greater threat because there is far less they can do immediately to stop North
Korea if North Korea wants to do something incredibly provocative. In fact,
North Korea's now saying that they're withdrawing from the 1953 armistice that
ended the Korean War, so that as the US gets deeper and deeper into Iraq,
Korea acts more and more aggressively. So I think that's a large worry for
the US military.

I think they're also increasingly worried about al-Qaeda staging terrorist
attacks, either here in the US, somewhere abroad or increasing terroristlike
attacks in Afghanistan in concert with an invasion of Iraq. I think the upper
echelons of the military are full of people asking very tough questions about
the war, perhaps not to Rumsfeld and Bush but at least internally. I think
there is far more enthusiasm for this war at the White House and among the
civilian leaders of the Pentagon than there is among the uniformed leaders of
the military. The uniformed leaders of the military are basically saying,
`We're confident we can carry out this mission. We'll do the mission if we're
told to do the mission, we'll salute like good soldiers, but we have a lot of
questions about whether we really need to do this right now.

Mr. RICKS: I have heard some muttering over the last six months in the
Pentagon. `You know that Clinton administration? They weren't so bad after
all, you know? Didn't like them back then, but, you know, in retrospect, they
were easier to handle, easier to push around than these guys.' Rumsfeld has
pushed very hard on the military, has said basically, `I'm in control. Thank
you very much for your advice. Now I'm going to do what I want to do here.'
The military's not used to that. The military got its way much more with the
Clinton administration, and they still are getting used to the change.

GROSS: My guests are Tom Ricks and Vernon Loeb. They cover the military for
The Washington Post. We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guests are Vernon Loeb and Tom Ricks.
They cover the military for The Washington Post.

Vernon, you recently wrote about the defense budget, and pointed out that the
money for war in Iraq and for the rebuilding of Iraq isn't really budgeted in.
Where is the money supposed to come from?

Mr. LOEB: Well, it'll come from the deficit, basically. The Bush
administration just sent up its new budget. It's the biggest increase of any
department in the federal government. It's the sixth straight military
increase in a row, and yet it includes no money for the war on terrorism in
Afghanistan and no money for the war in Iraq, which will have to be
appropriated in a supplemental bill later by Congress. What that basically
means is we're going to deficit-finance the war. We're running a big deficit
now, and we're just going to keep adding to it as we fight the war. So
despite this rather large buildup in defense spending over the first three
years of the Bush administration, it's not nearly enough to pay for the war,
and in fact, it's not even nearly enough to pay for the military. We're
basically, even with these large increases, having to choose between
continuing current systems or discontinuing some of them in order to pay for,
you know, research into the newest generation of weapons that Rumsfeld wants.
So money is a huge question, and I think it will become a bigger and bigger
question as the war rolls along and the debate over defense spending really
heats up on Capitol Hill.

GROSS: So some of the more conventional weapons are getting old because we're
spending the money on the new weapons?

Mr. RICKS: If you looked at the US military inventory, it was built with the
idea that labor was a free good because you could have a draft and you could
bring in as many hands as you needed to maintain things, to fix them. With
the end of the draft, it took the military about 10 years to recognize that
maintenance suddenly was a hugely expensive thing to obtain, and so the new
military weaponry they're buying, new aircraft for example, is much easier to
fix, much faster to fix. Some of the Cold War aircraft, you have to actually
lift off the wing to get at the engine, on the Harrier, for example. When you
repair an F-18, you basically take out one computer card and put in another
computer card. The mechanics say it's boring; the pilots say, `This is great.
I can have my plane back in 15 minutes.' That's a huge difference.

GROSS: Do you get the feeling that the military is competing with homeland
defense for money?

Mr. LOEB: The military is competing with everybody for money and winning the
competition hands down. In fact, the Bush administration is already
underfunding homeland security and holding the line on everything else while
it continues to build up military expenditures. I think the military budget
for '04 is $379 billion. That's more than a billion dollars a day, or $42
million an hour, as Rumsfeld likes to point out. The rest of the budget, the
rest of domestic discretionary spending, is $316 billion. So the military is
already far larger than the rest of the entire federal budget.

GROSS: Combined?

Mr. LOEB: Combined.


Mr. LOEB: We spend--a few other comparisons--we spend 10 times what Britain
or France does on our military, and we spend twice what all of the other NATO
countries combined spend on their militaries.

GROSS: It was recently announced that journalists will be able to actually
cover battles, that journalists will be assigned to accompany combat units in
Iraq, which they were not allowed to do during the Gulf War. What kind of
tough decisions do you think the reporters with the front-line troops will
have to make?

Mr. RICKS: Well, simply going in itself and doing it is a fairly tough
decision. When I look at some of the things these reporters are having to do
now, you know, to get vaccinations, some of them a little bit scary, to
prepare themselves for dealing with a chemical environment. You have
reporters looking at the prospect of wearing a chemical suit for days or even
weeks at a time. And that's a difficult life. Front-line infantry life is
extraordinarily difficult, and I think it's my biggest concern for reporters
going into it is it really is another world. It's almost a psychotic
environment to be in, to be in front-line foot ground combat. I think just
going in's going to be difficult.

Once they're in there, there's going to be issues about casualties, how you
report casualties, how you talk about them, how you talk about troops who are
undergoing enormously emotionally wrenching problems. There's going to be a
lot of problems with civilians. You're going to have displaced people across
the battlefield. You're going to have refugees, and you're going to have
hungry kids and thirsty kids asking troops for food and water. And my
experience is that no matter what their orders are, American troops give
hungry and thirsty kids food and water. They don't like walking by them.

GROSS: And they might not have any water for themselves if they do that.

Mr. RICKS: Or they've been told not to do it, or there's always the
concern--you see this played out in exercises where the soft-hearted soldier
gives the kid food, the kid comes back the next day, he gives him food again,
the third day the kid throws an explosive over the fence and blows him up.

GROSS: Right.

Mr. RICKS: And they teach you, don't do this. Baghdad, no matter how well
the war goes, could be a pretty difficult experience.

I'm equally worried, though, about the independent reporters. Because of the
Gulf War experience, no media fully trust the promises of the US military on
this, and so every organization is going to have both embedded reporters and
independent reporters. And I think it's going to be an enormously lethal
environment to be trying to drive an SUV or a Land Rover around in.

And you're probably going to see independent reporters flexi-cuffed by US
troops and thrown down in the dust because the US troops don't know who they
are. You're going to have US reporters trying to hide out in Baghdad probably
as the war begins, and who knows how they'll be treated by civilians angry at
having that capital invaded.

GROSS: Would either of you ever want to be a reporter covering this war where
weapons of mass destruction might be used?

Mr. LOEB: Unfortunately Tom and I are stuck back here at the Pentagon. I
think we'd both love to be embedded with one unit or another. I actually
covered the Gulf War in Israel, and one of my jobs was to cover the Scud
missile landings in Tel Aviv. I've often thought that, you know, had Saddam
used his chemical warheads back then, I'd probably be dead. But I think, you
know, any military reporter worth his or her salt would love to be out there
with the forces.


Mr. RICKS: I don't know. It would be something, I'd have to say, that I'd
talk to my wife and my kids about before I went. It's really a job ideally
for a single person to be out there on the front lines. At the same time I'm
not that worried about US forces and chemical weapons. The best military
answer to a chemical weapons attack is to step on the gas pedal. And a lot of
civilians don't have that option. But a fast-moving force is very hard to
attack with chemical weapons effectively. So I'm not so worried about that.
But I am worried about reporters wandering around independently. You could be
enormously vulnerable. As a reporter over in Afghanistan looking across
minefields and just thinking, you know, if your taxi goes the wrong way,
suddenly you're trapped in a minefield. That's what really worries me for

Mr. LOEB: Yeah. The far more dangerous assignment will be to be an
independent foreign correspondent over there. I think the reporters embedded
with US forces by and large are going to be pretty well taken care of. I'm
not convinced that even if you're with the 101st Airborne the embedded
reporters are going to be with the leading edge of that force. I would
suspect they'll be somewhat to the rear. But when you're an independent
foreign correspondent out there on your own, you can get killed in all sorts
of ways. I remember those reporters in Afghanistan who were killed convoying
from Bagram to Khost. They just got held up by a bunch of bandits and
executed. So it's an extremely dangerous environment, but I'm not sure it's
that dangerous for reporters embedded with US forces.

GROSS: My guests are Vernon Loeb and Tom Ricks. They cover the military for
The Washington Post. We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guests are Tom Ricks and Vernon Loeb.
They cover the military for The Washington Post.

Vernon, you were just in and out of Kuwait. You made a really fast trip there
over the weekend. You spent more time getting there and getting back than you
were actually there. I think you were there for like seven hours. What did
you find out during that seven hours in Kuwait?

Mr. LOEB: Well, the main thing I found out was that there are no Kuwaitis
around, which was kind of surprising. They flew me on a helicopter from
Kuwait City down to a new base they've got about 40 miles south of Kuwait
City. And the general I was with was marveling at how there was all this
beachfront property and there wasn't a Kuwaiti to be found. The country is
full of Americans. The day I was there the Kuwaiti government ruled the
northern half of their country off-limits to civilians. So what you've got
basically in Kuwait City is the huge American logistics machines, wide-body
aircraft, coming in one after another, tanks all over the place. And then up
north you've got all the forces actually massing. So Kuwait is like a giant
US military camp right now.

GROSS: Tom, one of the things you've recommended to reporters who will be
going to cover war in Iraq is that they read Ernie Pyle, the World War II
correspondent. What is it that you so respect about the late Ernie Pyle's
writing that you think should be a model?

Mr. RICKS: There are a lot of lessons to be gleaned from Ernie Pyle, from his
reporting techniques. He pays as much attention to the enlisted troops as to
officers. I think especially for today's Ivy League-laden newsrooms it's all
too easy to be swayed by credentials and paying too much attention to
officers. I tell myself, I know I'm doing my job when I'm talking to the
sergeants, not talking to generals. That if I have talked to a sergeant
lately, I know that I'm doing good reporting.

What I particularly liked in going back and looking at Pyle's essays in the
collection called "Brave Men" is that he didn't just go and look at the
glamorous units. He also did really good reporting on units that don't get
that much attention. My favorite section of "Brave Men" is an account of an
engineering unit in Sicily. Not much happens in this account. They clear a
road, they fill some huge potholes, they build a bridge. But in the course of
this, he shows you what they're doing, why it's important, what is significant
to these men. And he actually brings them to life. The sergeant in his
account of these engineers is the central figure, not an officer. And the
sergeant is sort of this bluff, loud guy. I've always thought that Sergeant
Horvath in "Saving Private Ryan" was based on the sergeant in this engineering
unit. He just seemed so similar. He's a force of nature. He's this
personality he's using to basically get this bridge built at a crucial time so
US forces can move forward.

We don't get as much Ernie Pyle type reporting as we used to, partly 'cause
the US military is warier of having reporters around, partly because we don't
have a lot of experienced reporters. There's not that many veterans in
newsrooms anymore. So military units are kind of alien beasts to them rather
than familiar things that they grew up or spent time in themselves.

GROSS: Ernie Pyle died in the war, died covering the war.

Mr. RICKS: Yeah, he was shot in the Pacific near the end of the war.

GROSS: So that's something to think about, too.

Mr. RICKS: Yes. Unfortunately, yes.

GROSS: Right. Is there any way out of war now, do you think? Everybody's
been asking this question. I'd be interested in hearing your opinions.

Mr. LOEB: I've been saying for weeks now that it's inevitable. It just seems
to me the Bush administration's mind is made up. Yeah, they're willing to go
through another couple of weeks of diplomacy now, but I think basically
they've decided that this is a war they have to fight; better to get it over
with now than wait two, three months to really no end. So, yeah, you can
conceive of situations where Saddam suddenly disarms, which strikes me as
totally unlikely. You can dream up the exile scenario. But I think the war
is going to happen and I would be very surprised if by mid-March the United
States is not at war with Iraq.

Mr. RICKS: During the Gulf War, the first Bush administration's nightmare
scenario was that Saddam Hussein at the very last moment withdrew his forces
up into the northern part of Kuwait but kept the Kuwaiti oil fields.
Similarly my guess is right now this administration's nightmare scenario is
that at the very last moment Saddam Hussein says, `Fine, you can have all
these biological, chemical weapons. I'm sorry I didn't tell the truth. Here
they are,' and you can have inspectors here for a year or two. We have
inspectors, everything's all over the country, he's totally disarmed and he
says, `Now leave' after two years and everybody says, `That's right, the guy
fessed up; he's clean.' And then he takes that enormous oil revenue and pours
it all into acquiring nuclear weapons.

Mr. LOEB: But that's what it would take, I think, to avoid a war at this

GROSS: You've both covered the military for several years. I know you
understand the military's need for secrecy on certain war-related information.
Is there a place where you draw the line between the secrecy that a military
needs to keep and the secrecy that's kind of above and beyond when it comes to
not giving information to journalists?

Mr. RICKS: It comes up all the time. What you don't want to do is endanger
troops or endanger current or future operations. You're constantly trying to
balance that with the sense that: Are the American people being told what
they need to know? Are they going in with their eyes open? I wrote a story a
week ago about US Special Operations troops inside Iraq. And, yes, we were
trying to be sensitive to US concerns. We talked to the US government about
the story before it ran. We withheld details, the parts that the government
asked us to withhold. Nobody asked us not to publish the story, by the way.

And still, I got a lot of hate mail from across the country about it, and I
wrote back to these people saying, `Yes, we have those concerns. We did work
with the government on this to try to publish it in such a way that it was not
harmful.' But you need to keep in mind also that this is a democracy and if
the American people are having a war waged in their name, they should know
about it. And I don't want people coming back two years to me as a reporter
and saying, `Why didn't you tell us what you knew when you knew it? Why did
you hold back?' So you constantly try and balance those two things.

GROSS: Tom Ricks, Vernon Loeb, thank you so much for talking with us.

Mr. RICKS: Thank you.

Mr. LOEB: Thank you.

GROSS: Tom Ricks and Vernon Loeb cover the military for The Washington Post.


GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.

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