DATE May 4, 2006 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: Lieutenant Paul Rieckhoff, author of "Chasing Ghosts,"
talks about the needs of troops in combat and veterans and about
his tour of duty in Iraq
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
My guest Paul Rieckhoff is the founder and executive director of Iraq and
Afghanistan Veterans of America, IAVA. In 2003 and 2004, he was a first
lieutenant leading an infantry platoon in Iraq for the US Army National Guard.
He's an advocate for the needs of the men and women in the military, as well
as veterans, but he's critical of how the war has been handled by the Bush
After he returned home, he was invited to give the Democratic response to
President Bush's weekly radio address on May 1, 2004, the first anniversary of
the president's "Mission Accomplished" speech. Rieckhoff has been critical of
Democrats, as well as Republicans, and describes himself as an Independent.
He's written a new book called "Chasing Ghosts: A Soldier's Fight for America
from Baghdad to Washington." He's now an infantry officer in the New York Army
Paul Rieckhoff, welcome to FRESH AIR.
When you came back home from Iraq, was there a void that you felt in terms of
support for yourself as a veteran?
Mr. PAUL RIECKHOFF: I don't think there was a void for supporting veterans
like me. To be honest with you, when I came home everybody was fantastic.
And no matter how people felt about the war, they embraced me. They bought me
beers. They welcomed me home. They shook my hand. And I think that's in
large part a testament to the work Vietnam veterans have done. They've taught
this country to separate the war from the warriors.
But I also saw that, my perspective and the perspective of people like me,
wasn't involved in national dialogue. You heard from Al Franken, and you
heard from Bill O'Reilly. But you very seldom heard from a sergeant who had
been on the ground in Fallujah or a lieutenant who walked the streets of
Ramadi. And they really understood the complexity of what was happening in
Iraq, and they didn't have a partisan agenda. They weren't coming from a
political standpoint or running for office. They were grunts who had been on
the ground who were a lot like the son or daughter that you may have in your
family or somebody down the street. That's what really bothered me, that
those folks weren't really on television. They weren't on the radio. And
they weren't writing enough about their experiences. So that was really a big
part of what motivated us to create the group, was the need to inject that
very credible and very important voice into the national dialogue about the
number one issue facing America which is the Iraq war.
GROSS: You know, as you point out in your book, we now have an all-volunteer
Army, and you write that you think a lot of soldiers feel guilty about
knowingly risking their lives to join the military and then go to Iraq because
they know this can have an effect not only on their life but the lives of
their families. And they can't say, `Well, I was forced to do it, I was
drafted.' So is that something you thought about a lot when you were risking
your life in Iraq, that there were people who you would be hurting if you were
Mr. RIECKHOFF: I did think about it, especially on my way over to Iraq for
the first time where you had time to contemplate all your decisions and all
your life. When you're in the mix on the ground in Iraq, you don't always
have time or space to think about all these issues inside your head. But I
did think about the fact that I volunteered for this. It wasn't something my
government made me do. I didn't get a draft notice. I had other options.
And when you volunteer to join the military, you're not just volunteering
yourself, you are volunteering your family. So, in a way, my girlfriend, my
mom, my dad, my brother, they were all in this with me. And I think that's
the piece of this war that is often forgotten. The entire year I was in Iraq,
you know, my family's on pins and needles watching the news or not. My mother
sold her television the week I left for Iraq because she didn't want to know
what was going on over there. She wanted to keep it out of her mind as much
So I think that there is a bit of guilt that comes into, at least my mind,
when I think about my decision to join. And I know fathers and mothers go
through the same type of contemplation, thinking about, you know, what they're
really getting their family into when they decide to do this.
GROSS: You oppose the war. You've opposed it all along. You opposed it when
you went to Iraq, but you went anyways. Do you consider your veterans group
to be anti-war?
Mr. RIECKHOFF: No, we're not at all an anti-war group. And I really don't
consider myself in opposition of the war. I think--you know, I didn't think
the war was a good idea going in, but that doesn't mean there's an easy
solution now. I think the problem in this country, in large part, is that
we've fallen into a false choice. It's not a very black and white dynamic.
Our only options are not stay the course and be with George Bush, or bring
them home now and get with Cindy Sheehan. You know, I didn't agree with the
rationale for war. I'm obviously upset that there were no weapons of mass
destruction. I think we've done this war incredibly badly. But I don't think
there is an easy solution and we can just pull them out right now.
I think that's really what I want to communicate to people when I talk about
the war, is that there are no easy answers. If we stay, it's going to be bad.
If we leave, it's going to be bad. And I think that's a much more complex
situation than we've seen in the past and that we saw in Vietnam. So what I'm
really working to try to do is get people past the anti and pro war argument.
I think that's why you haven't seen anti-war protests at the high levels you
saw after Vietnam. I think that's why the discussion has really been
polarized because we haven't gotten into the meat of the third and fourth and
fifth options that we can propose that aren't just rearranging deck chairs on
the Titanic but are really coming up with creative solutions that can make an
immediate impact. So, you know, when we talk about opposing the war, I don't
consider myself speaking out against the war. I'm speaking out about the war.
And I'm going to lay out my opinions and my experiences and let people decide
for themselves what they feel about this war.
GROSS: But do you think of your group as being a political group?
Mr. RIECKHOFF: I think so. I mean, Clausewitz once said that war is the
extension of politics by other means. So when you send a million people to
war, it becomes political. And it's hard to separate veterans benefits from
deployments. You know, we have to look at the troop numbers because they're
going to impact the number of people coming home to the VA. And the VA is
busting at the seams as it is. It's underfunded by close to $3 billion. So,
you know, veterans issues and the discussion of the war must be political.
And what I am upset about is the way it's been thrown around like a political
football, especially between the two parties, especially in 2004 when I first
came into the public sphere. You know John Kerry and George Bush were
throwing it back and forth like a chew toy. And neither one of them was
really getting into the dirt or getting into the nitty-gritty discussion about
what we can do to change it.
And I think that when it comes to political parties in this country, guys like
me are without a party. The Republicans got us into this mess, and the
Democrats don't have a plan to get us out. And I think we see among our
membership that they're very independent-minded. And I think they're really
disgusted with both sides of the political dynamic right now and looking for a
third way and looking for new options.
GROSS: Now, you officially are an Independent. You're registered
Independent. But you did give a Democratic address back on May 1, 2004, on
the first anniversary of the "Mission Accomplished" speech that George Bush,
you know, that President Bush gave. And so you gave like the Democratic
answer to his radio address on Saturday, May 1, 2004. One of the things you
said in your radio address was this: `When we got to Baghdad, we soon found
out that the people who planned this war were not ready for us. There were
not enough vehicles, not enough ammunition, not enough medical supplies, not
And you write in your book about how, in your platoon, there was not enough
water. You sometimes had one bottle a day per person. And so, as the leader
of that platoon, what did you try to do, like what was in your power to do to
try to get more water?
Mr. RIECKHOFF: We got creative. There's an old saying in the military:
adapt, improvise and overcome. And thankfully I had some noncommissioned
officers and soldiers in my platoon who were creative. And they, you know,
raided Air Force bases in the rear where they could find pallets of water.
And they tried to buy water from the local community if it was safe and they
determined it was drinkable. And, you know, we limited our water intake and
really rationed. I think that, you know, the water story is an excellent
example of how the planning failed guys like me on the ground. When we got to
Baghdad there wasn't a plan to secure the peace. You know, we all kind of
looked at each other and said, `OK, do we go home now?' And they said, `No,
you're going to stay here for a few months.'
Well, we were jumping into a world that we really weren't prepared for. We
didn't have interpreters. We didn't have an understanding of the culture. We
definitely didn't have enough troops to control the area we were assigned to.
So we really felt like we were out on an island. And I think the water is one
example, but it goes all the way up to our policy and understanding how
difficult it was for the soldiers on the ground to try to figure it out.
You know, Rumsfeld and President Bush really didn't give us direction on how
to deal with the looting. We really didn't understand how to build the Iraqi
army up or that the police were going to be gone. So, you know, the soldiers
on the ground I think have done a tremendous job of trying to make the most
out of what they were given. But I think at the same time, we have to
understand there needs to be accountability for these failures because it
shouldn't just be the soldier on the ground who gets shot or gets wounded who
pays the price.
GROSS: What kind of accountability would you like to see?
Mr. RIECKHOFF: I think it starts at the top. I think the president needs to
admit that there have been mistakes and fire somebody, whether it's Rumsfeld
or somebody else within the Department of Defense. When I was a platoon
leader, I was always taught that I was responsible for everything my unit did
and everything they failed to do. If one of the guys in my platoon screwed
up, it was my fault. So the Department of Defense and Rumsfeld need to take
the same level of accountability. There have been numerous failures from the
flaws in planning to Abu Ghraib. And the only people that have really
suffered have been the lower level people.
So there needs to be some level of accountability that sends a message not
only to the military but to people around the world that the failure and these
miscues are really not accepted within the military or within America.
GROSS: You mentioned that there were not enough troops, that you didn't have
enough men to secure the area that you were responsible for. Now, this is a
theme that we've heard throughout the criticisms of how the war has been
planned. Would you give us a sense like on the ground what it meant for you
to not have enough troops? Give us a sense of what you were assigned and the
difficulties that you had because you didn't have enough men?
Mr. RIECKHOFF: Sure. When we first got to Baghdad, we climbed the roof of
the Ministry of Finance building with one of my sniper teams. We looked over
the city, and one of my soldiers turned to me and said, `Hey, sir, where the
hell is everybody else?' We had this huge landscape of area to control with 38
guys. The way I try to explain it to people is imagine if you took three
quarters of the New York City Police Department off the streets tomorrow. The
work load for that quarter that remained would be tremendous. They would be
running all over the place trying to secure the peace and maintain a level of
order. That's what we saw in Iraq.
We had Medical City, which was this huge medical complex where people were
wounded coming in every day. With only 38 guys, we can only pick one section
of that hospital to secure. So we picked the ER. We picked the emergency
room. That meant that the wards where people were stacked up who were wounded
or injured were left unsecure. It meant the morgue was left unsecure. It
meant that the ambulances coming in weren't checked for bombs or grenades or
insurgents. We just had to pick our spots and try to prioritize. And at the
same time try to cover our own butts when we really felt like we were running
around with a bullet target on our back.
So I think it just ends up being a tremendous number of tasks for a very small
number of people, and we get overextended, we get exhausted and we're less
GROSS: Another criticism that you have, and this is another criticism I've
heard from some other soldiers, too, is that the best-trained soldiers are not
designed to be humanitarians, yet that's what the American people expected
them to be in Iraq, is what you write. What were some of the humanitarian
parts of the mission that you feel you and your men weren't trained for, and
what were the problems you had with your men because they weren't trained for
Mr. RIECKHOFF: How to fix an electrical grid. We were taught in the Army
really how to break things and blow things up. Kill people, break things,
blow them up. That's what an infantry soldier is trained to do. I didn't
know how to get the water system up and running in our area in Baghdad called
Adamiyah. I didn't know how to fix the electricity in the hospital. I went
in and tried to work with the teachers to disseminate, you know, good
information and education to the local kids, but I don't know how to get
school books. I can't even get the medical aid because the Red Cross hasn't
come, and our medical units can't take care of all the people who were hurt.
So, you know, we weren't really trained on even how to talk to the Iraqi
people. I didn't have an interpreter who spoke Arabic. I had to hire one
from the local community. So it made every bit of communication difficult.
And, at the end of the day, soldiers are not always well-versed in the
escalation of force that is sometimes necessary to secure the peace, knowing
when to shoot and when not to shoot. We were always really trained for a
linear battlefield somewhere in Europe against a Soviet enemy. They really
hadn't taught soldiers how to walk in these complex environments and deal with
the soft skills that are necessary in order to win over the American
people--win over the Iraqi people and win over their hearts and minds.
GROSS: One of the things that you felt you were under supplied with when you
were in Iraq was body armor. And some of the men in your platoon ended up
buying it themselves or families would buy it and send it to them. I think
there is legislation pending now that you support that's trying to address
that in some way.
Mr. RIECKHOFF: Absolutely. When I was in Iraq my platoon had inadequate
body armor. We had the old stuff that wouldn't stop an AK-47 round. And back
home, I heard politicians saying everybody's got everything they need. So
when I came home, body armor was a big issue for us. Forty thousand troops,
approximately, went into Operation Iraqi Freedom without adequate, updated
body armor. And that's unacceptable. So when I got home, one of the big
issues for IAVA was to lobby and bring attention to the fact that everybody
didn't have body armor.
So towards the end of 2004, the Department of Defense said there was body
armor for every soldier, and I think that's due in part to our push in the
media and getting veterans out there to tell their stories. That's a good
example of how we were able to make a difference and try to reconcile
something that had been bad. And then a few months later Senator Dodd from
Connecticut introduced the Equipment Reimbursement Act, which would provide
over a thousand dollars reimbursement to any troop who had to pay out of
pocket for sunglasses, body armor or any other protective equipment. So I
think, you know, that piece of legislation is a good example of how veterans
can lobby to take care of their own and bring the fight to Washington to try
to improve the standard of living and improve the survivability for the people
on the ground. And if soldiers hadn't done it, if veterans hadn't done it, it
definitely would have taken longer.
GROSS: My guest is Paul Rieckhoff, founder of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans
More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Paul Rieckhoff. He's the
author of the new memoir "Chasing Ghosts." And he's the founder of Iraq and
Afghanistan Veterans of America.
You write a little bit about what it's like to be a soldier when a lot of
people doing the work in Iraq are private military contractors. The feeling I
got from what you were saying was that there was a certain degree of friction
between the soldiers and the private military contractor? Is that right?
Mr. RIECKHOFF: Absolutely. Absolutely. There's definite friction down to
the lowest levels. You know if I have a young soldier who's driving a truck,
and he's 19 years old from Alabama, he probably makes around $20,000 a year.
If there's a Halliburton driver in the same compound doing essentially the
same job, he's probably making $100,000 to do exactly the same thing. It's
demoralizing for that soldier. And, in addition, you know, we're less
effective because these contractors are on the battlefield. If the firefights
get heavy and the danger increases, these guys can pack it up and go home.
They can quit. And they also don't answer to the same chain of command that
So, you know, for example, there was a military contracting unit that operated
throughout Baghdad that was kind of like a special ops unit. They wore black.
They didn't have marked uniforms. They didn't have marked vehicles. And the
local Iraqis called them "black death." They were, you know, brutal. They
were effective, I guess, militarily. But they didn't answer to the same chain
of command that my soldiers and I did. So it sends a dangerous message to the
Iraqi people, who are these guys? We didn't know. And the Iraqis thought
they were all Americans.
So I think it really causes a serious lack of continuity on the battlefield.
And it's definitely demoralizing to that average soldier who feels like, at
the end of the day, his country really doesn't value you him as much as it
values a Halliburton contractor.
GROSS: So what kind of direct contact did you have with workers from
Halliburton and other military contractors?
Mr. RIECKHOFF: One example was they delivered our food. We were told for
months that when Halliburton and KBR came in our food was going to be awesome.
We were going to get great food, and morale was going to increase. Well, the
food stunk. But beyond that they were responsible for bringing us our food to
our kind of remote compound in Baghdad every day. So if there was an attack
on a convoy and a Halliburton truck driver quit, our eggs didn't come that
day. Our pancakes didn't come that day. So we saw an immediate impact in
just the deliverable services that were coming to us on the ground.
In addition, we ran checkpoints throughout the city. And when contractors
would come through, these guys didn't abide by the same rules. And they would
literally try to blow us off. They'd say, `You guys, I work for somebody
higher than you. I don't have to tell you my name. I don't answer to your
chain of command. You need to let me through this checkpoint.' And my
soldiers were saying, `Well, look, I don't know who you are. I can't verify
your identity, you're not going through my checkpoint.'
So we'd have these standoffs with contractors where they're trying to do
essentially what they want or need to do. And we're trying to do our jobs as
well. And there's a terrible level of communication between the two. And
when you hear about situations like Abu Ghraib and others, it's easy to
understand how the lines are blurred and how miscommunications can occur. And
mistakes can prove catastrophic.
GROSS: Do you think that the opinion you're expressing was shared by a lot of
the men you worked with?
Mr. RIECKHOFF: Absolutely. I haven't talked to many soldiers who think
contractors are a good idea. And, you know, it's obviously an opportunity for
soldiers, I know a few guys who've gone back, and I was offered a position to
go back for over six figures and work as a contractor. But I think, you know,
it may be a better situation for the people immediately involved. You can
improve your standard of living for you and your family. You can make a lot
of money. But for our country and for our military, this is setting a
dangerous precedent that I really think needs further examination. And if
Congress can have hearings on whether or not baseball players are using
steroids, I think we can have congressional hearings into the role of
contractors in Iraq.
GROSS: It seems from your book that the experience in Iraq that was most
fulfilling to you as a soldier was your experience with some Iraqi children,
particularly in a school that your platoon more or less adopted. Tell us
about the school and the relationship that you developed with it.
Mr. RIECKHOFF: There was a little school at the end of an alley that we
called Little Mogadishu referencing "Black Hawk Down" the movie. It was kind
of rundown. It looked kind of like a bombed-out housing project. And there
was a small school at the bottom of it, at the bottom of that alley, that was
the local elementary school. And there were a few hundred kids that would go
to school there. And they had been shot at by snipers intending to try to
shut the school down and disrupt their education, I guess. And send a message
to local community. They hadn't been paid in weeks. The teachers hadn't been
paid in weeks. And they had no materials, no books, no pencils, anything. So
my platoon was able to go down there and eliminate the sniper threat. We were
able to provide security and keep the school open.
The guys in my platoon actually went into their own pockets and pulled
together a few hundred dollars to give to the teachers so they could keep the
school open, so they could pay their rent, and they could keep teaching the
kids. And then they organized a campaign to write letters home and have
binders and pencils and paper sent from Wal-Mart and sent from their families
back home to try to give them materials to keep the school open. And those
types of instances are really the shining light for the guys who are over
there. You try to make a difference on the ground at least with a few kids so
you have something you can hang your hat on and try to claim some success.
GROSS: And you write that you were thinking winning over the kids was really
important because they are the future. If the kids grow up hating Americans,
we're in trouble.
Mr. RIECKHOFF: Absolutely. I mean, the future of Iraq is under 18. These
young kids are watching our every move, are monitoring our occupation, are
seeing how we act. And if they don't like us, they're going to go to the
other side. They're going to go to al-Qaeda. They're going to go to the
insurgency. And they're going to try to get us out of their country. So, you
know, the children on the ground are really the ones that we have to win over
if we want to succeed in Iraq. And I think that starts with showing them a
better way of life. Showing them that our way is better than the alternative.
And that starts with security.
And until we can keep those kids safe, until we can make sure a mortar doesn't
go off in their backyard or they don't get shot on their way to school, we're
going to have a hard time winning them over. But we can also be creative on
how we did it. Handing out an Eminem's CD or a pair of Reeboks to a young
16-year-old was infinitely more effective in my experience than sticking an
M-16 barrel in his face. There are a number of creative ways we can try to
win those kids over and try to give us a fighting chance to succeed in Iraq.
GROSS: What's happening with that school now, do you know?
Mr. RIECKHOFF: I have no idea. I know that when we pulled out of that area,
another Army unit did not replace it. They pulled back into a forward
operating base. So I know that my section of Adamiyah has increasingly become
violent. There's still an incredible number of mortar attacks and IED attacks
in that area. I keep in touch with one of my interpreters who still lives in
the area over e-mail every few weeks. And he tells me it's worse, it's much
worse than when we were there. And it continues to get worse. So I really
worry about how those kids are and how that school's doing.
GROSS: Paul Rieckhoff's new memoir is called "Chasing Ghosts." He'll be back
in the second half of the show.
I'm Terry Gross. And this is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: Coming up, giving the Democratic response to President Bush's Saturday
radio address on the first anniversary of the "Mission Accomplished" speech.
We continue our conversation with Paul Rieckhoff.
And Maureen Corrigan reviews the first and last novel by the late playwright
Wendy Wasserstein. It's set in a post 9/11 Manhattan.
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR.
I'm Terry Gross back with Paul Rieckhoff, the founder and executive director
of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, IAVA. In 2003 and 2004 Rieckhoff
led an infantry platoon in Iraq for the US Army National Guard. He's now an
infantry officer in the New York Army National Guard.
He describes the IAVA as nonpartisan and says he's registered Independent.
But on May 1, 2004, the first anniversary of President Bush's "Mission
Accomplished" speech, Rieckhoff gave the Democratic response to the
president's weekly Saturday radio address. I asked how that happened.
Mr. RIECKHOFF: I had come home from Iraq, and I was ticked off. I really
wanted America to understand the urgency of what was happening in Iraq and
understand the needs of the soldiers coming home. And understand about issues
like body armor and the inadequate number of troops. And when I came home, I
saw Janet Jackson's exposed breast dominating the media. And I think that
that really, you know, it really got to me. And I wanted to find a way to
push Iraq and push veterans issues to the front of the American consciousness.
And I reached out to the Bush administration and didn't get much of a response
there. And I reached out to the Kerry administration and didn't get much of a
response there either. And I gave a speech at my alma mater Amherst College
in Massachusetts, talking about the war and talking about my experiences. And
a few weeks later, I got a call from the Kerry campaign and they asked me if
I'd like to do some radio. Initially, I thought they meant, you know, I could
go on a radio show or two and talk about Iraq. And they said, `No, we'd like
to give you the opportunity to do the Democratic response to the president's
weekly radio address.' It's usually given by a congressman or senator, so I
thought they were jerking my chain. I didn't think this was at all possible.
But I did it on my terms. I had complete control over what I said. I didn't
endorse John Kerry. And I didn't really rail into President Bush. I just
tried to represent the voice of the soldiers. And people may say I was used
by the Democratic Party, but I used them. After that, I broke ranks with the
Kerry campaign, and other veterans did as well. And we really started our own
movement that became IAVA. So, you know, I went to the Kerry administration,
I think, looking for a place that would understand me and look for a place
that would elevate the discussion about Iraq, and I was disappointed. But I
used that opportunity to thrust my issues and other veterans issues into the
national dialogue. It gave me a platform. And it was an opportunity that I
saw I had to take advantage of. I didn't want to let that slide by because it
would have taken much longer for these issues to come out.
You know, when I came home from Iraq, I was surprised that there weren't other
veterans involved in the dialogue. 2004, well, you know, was months after the
war had begun, so I figured there would have been veterans speaking on behalf
of Bush or on behalf of Kerry or on behalf of themselves. And there was
really a vacuum. And this was an opportunity that I saw and I seized it and I
used it to demand accountability from the administration that still wasn't
recognizing the severity in the insurgency, that was still denying that we had
an inadequate number of troops on the ground, and that was still denying that
there were body armor and Humvee armor problems. And I hope that that speech
at least moved the ball forward somewhat.
GROSS: When you were working on the address that you gave as the Democratic
answer to President Bush's radio address in 2004, you were warned that you
might get court-martialed because you were still in the New York Army National
Guard. And you were told that this kind of address by someone still in the
National Guard was unprecedented. What were the concerns, and were you
disciplined at all?
Mr. RIECKHOFF: I wasn't disciplined, but there were a number of concerns.
And I didn't know up until the day I gave the speech whether or not I would be
court-martialed. We talked earlier about the fact that this is an
all-volunteer Army and the first time we fought a war with an all-volunteer
army. Well, we're breaking new ground in the political sphere as well. When
I gave that speech, people didn't know if I fell under the Hatch Act that
applied to government employees. They didn't know if I was subject to the
UCMJ, the Uniform Code of Military Justice, or not. But after doing research
and talking to a few JAG attorneys and scholarly people who understand these
issues, they said that, you know, `We really can't give you a definitive
answer.' Basically, they said, `Don't cross the line.' But they couldn't tell
me where the line was.
So until I actually gave the speech, we didn't know if there were going to be
legal repercussions for my giving the speech. But I was motivated, and I was
really impassioned by the fact that I needed to do this. And I needed to
represent the views. And I figured that the military would be smart and the
American people would support me, and in the end, it would work out. I really
did have faith in people to stand behind me and understand that I wasn't
saying anything that was damaging our country. I was saying something that
would hopefully move the dialogue forward. And I looked at it through the
same lens that I looked at a lot of things in the military. After every
engagement, after every exercise, every physical training session we'd do an
AAR, an after-action review, where we sit down and talk about what went well,
what went poorly and what do we need to differently next time.
And that's what I saw this speech as doing, is trying to initiate a national
AAR. And I still think, you know, two years later, we're only starting to
have that real AAR. We're only really starting to analyze where we've gone
wrong and how we could correct our mistakes.
GROSS: Now, you were in Iraq when President Bush declared "Mission
Accomplished" and said that the major combat operations in Iraq have ended.
What was your reaction to the "Mission Accomplished" address then?
Mr. RIECKHOFF: Initially, it was fury. It was really anger, and just, I was
baffled. How could the president be standing on an aircraft carrier saying
mission is accomplished when we're doing combat patrols and getting shot at in
Baghdad? It just didn't make sense to me. And it really just rattled my
head. I couldn't understand the audacity or the disconnect that would bring
him to that point. The mission wasn't accomplished. We were still in
Baghdad. We had a lot to do, and it didn't look like it was going to be
accomplished any time soon. So it looked like these guys were really detached
with the battlefield, and they didn't understand how bad things were. And
they didn't understand things were getting worse. And it was almost like this
hopeful idea that they were going to will it into getting better.
But I learned from one of my commanders on the ground that hope is not a
course of action. We need a plan for success. So hoping the insurgency is
going to go away and hoping the mission is going to be accomplished isn't
going to get it done.
GROSS: You were in Iraq when President Bush issued this warning to
insurgents. He said, `There are some who feel like the conditions are such
that they can attack us there. My answer is bring them on.' And that `bring
them on' became a very famous phrase from President Bush. What was your
reaction in Iraq?
Mr. RIECKHOFF: I thought that was ridiculous. I mean, to taunt our enemy
while you've got 150,000 troops on the ground is just ridiculous. I think it
illustrated how little of an understanding the president had of the
battlefield. And I think it illustrated how his advisers were really forcing
him to be dangerously disconnected from the realities on the ground. To turn
to your enemy and say, `Bring 'em on,' is just a level of audacity that
baffles my mind. It really was inappropriate, and it's some cowboy stuff
you'd see in the movies. And, you know, President Bush has never served on
the ground so maybe he doesn't have that immediate connection. Maybe he
doesn't understand what soldiers are going through. But that's not the type
of thing a soldier wants to hear when he's on patrol and thinking about his
two kids and his wife back home. He doesn't want our president taunting our
enemy saying `Bring it on.'
GROSS: But why not, in a way? You're supposed to be able to think, `We can
handle it,' you know, `whatever you do, we can handle it. We can secure the
area. We can fight back. We can keep people safe.'
Mr. RIECKHOFF: Well, it's a level of arrogance that I think is unnecessary.
And it sends a bad message to our enemies, and it also sends a bad message to
the world. We don't need to arrogant. We don't need to be boisterous. Just
get the job done and let the results speak for themselves. I think we need to
be humble about where we are and be honest about our progress. So to say
`bring 'em on' is this cowboy mentality that I think doesn't really do us any
good at all and sends a very bad representation of what America is to the
Ultimately, you know, winning this war is not going to be a military affair
only. The military is not going to be the sole solution to this problem.
There needs to be diplomatic, there needs to be economic and political ways
that we try to win the peace in Iraq. And to assume that we can just say
`Bring it on' is to assume that we can just push everybody over. And we don't
have to listen to anyone. And we don't have to work with anyone or negotiate
with anyone. And having been on the ground I understand that Iraq is
dominated by worlds of gray. And it needs to be also dominated by
negotiations and compromise.
GROSS: My guest is Paul Rieckhoff, the founder and executive director of Iraq
and Afghanistan Veterans of America. His new memoir is called "Chasing
Ghosts." We'll talk more after a break.
This is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Paul Rieckhoff, and he's
written a soldier's memoir about his time in Iraq. It's called "Chasing
Ghosts." And Rieckhoff is also the founder of the group, Iraq and Afghanistan
Veterans of America.
Explain something to me. When you went to Iraq, you were already very
skeptical of the war but you wanted to go.
Mr. RIECKHOFF: Yeah. I wasn't convinced by their rationale, but at the same
time we didn't know. We didn't know at the time that there were no weapons of
mass destruction. So when I got on the plane I said that George Bush had
better be right because he was betting the house on the mother of all poker
hands. He said there were weapons of mass destruction there. And I wanted it
to be true. I didn't want to see our country with egg on their face. I
didn't want to see our country be committing a catastrophic mistake that would
jeopardize our standing in the world forever. And at the same time, I am a
soldier. So this is my job. My job is to try to lead a platoon in combat.
It's what I signed up to do. And when the call comes and my generation is
asked to go to war, I didn't want to be sitting on the sidelines.
It's not that I'm hungry for combat. But it's kind of like practicing for a
soccer game that never comes. When the game does finally come, you want to be
in the game. You don't want to be sitting on the sidelines. So I hoped that
I could make an impact on the ground, even if the rationale for war turned out
to be wrong, which it did, and things started to go badly. At least me and my
platoon on the ground, my 38 guys, could make a difference. We could try to
show the Iraqi people that Americans are good and that we do mean well, and
that our intentions, at least within that group, are good.
And that's really what I sought to do when I went to Iraq. Because, at the
end of the day, even if I oppose this war, holding up a sign in Union Square
or in Washington, DC, wasn't going to stop the war. It was happening anyway.
So I had to think about how I was going to make an impact on the ground to
make a difference.
GROSS: You are now in the National Guard. You are in the New York Army
National Guard. So does that mean you could still be called up to serve a
second time in Iraq?
Mr. RIECKHOFF: Absolutely. I still go to drill on weekends. And I'll do
two weeks this summer, and I'm subject to reactivation. And, you know, if
that call comes, I'll shut my mouth. I'll pick up the rifle and I'll go back
on the line and do the job that I committed to do.
GROSS: How would you feel about that?
Mr. RIECKHOFF: Oh, I wouldn't be thrilled about it. My mother definitely
wouldn't be thrilled about it. But, you know, ultimately my job is to lead
those 38 guys and get them home alive, and try to do what we can to make good
in the process. And I think I can do that. I can put my political opinions
in my back pocket and try to execute the mission to the best of my ability. I
think that's what a lot of soldiers are doing every day. I think a lot of the
guys and girls who are over there right now are not thrilled about the
mission, but they know they have a job to do. So when you're in the military
and you're put on active duty, you put your political ideology and your
personal opinions on the back burner until you're done with the mission. And
at the same time, you're so busy trying to accomplish your mission and do your
job that you don't have a lot of time to think about politics. And you don't
have a lot of time to keep track of what's happening in Washington. So I
think if I go back, I'll definitely be more than overwhelmed with the job at
GROSS: You know, I've heard the argument very strongly made by some veterans,
that some of the remarks, like some of the ones you've been making today that
are very critical of the war in Iraq, are bad for the troops, because the
troops are there, the troops are in jeopardy, the troops are doing their best.
And to question or discredit the mission itself can't be good for the men and
women serving in Iraq. As the head of a veterans rights group, what is your
response to that?
Mr. RIECKHOFF: I think that's dangerous talk. I think that nobody has more
of a right to talk about the way this country is going than somebody who's put
their life on the line for it. You know, guys like me go half way around the
world to get shot at so that people back home can have these types of
discussions. And a time of war is the most important time to question your
government. And, you now, Mark Twain once said that "I love my country
always, and my government when it deserves it."
I think that, you know, it's up to veterans to help inject their experience
into this dialogue. They know what's going on on the ground. And they're a
lot like the average American. They're not some politician or policy wonk.
And they have very valuable understandings of what's happening in Iraq. And
they've got to be involved in the conversation. This has happened in every
generation. You know, going back all the way to the Revolutionary War and
George Washington, veterans have served in combat and come home and educated
the American people and become part of the dialogue and run for office. John
McCain did it. Chuck Hagel's done it. John Kerry's done it. And these guys
provide very, very important perspectives on this critical issue.
So the troops are way to busy over there anyway. They're not worried about
what John Murtha's said or what Trent Lott said. They're worried about the
IED that just blew up at the back of their convoy. So, you know, this talk of
trying to, I think, intimidate people from dissent is really a dangerous
precedent. And I think it's really unfounded with regard to the morale of the
GROSS: What are you hearing from veterans in your group about how their
health-care needs are being handled?
Mr. RIECKHOFF: Well, we've got veterans in all 50 states. And I think the
trend that we see overwhelmingly is that this country is not ready to receive
the veterans coming home. We hear about increased wait times at the VA, a
reduction in services, failure to assess and treat posttraumatic stress
disorder and other mental health issues. And it's not just in one place.
We're hearing more and more stories around the country. And, you know, it
shouldn't be a surprise. Every major veterans organization in the country
from the VFW to the Disabled American Veterans has called on the Bush
administration to fund the VA more fully, to mandatorily fund the VA so the VA
doesn't have to beg for scraps every year to fulfill their budget.
So, you know, what we're seeing is that in many ways America is repeating the
mistakes of Vietnam. We're seeing, you know, an increase in mental health
issues, divorce rates, suicides. Right now, our organization is tracking 21
homeless Iraq vets in New York City. And according to the VA's own numbers,
there are 400 nationwide. So I think we've made some progress from where we
came from in Vietnam, but we've still got a long way to go. In the recent
State of the Union address, the president never mentioned the word veteran
once. Right now, it's just not a priority for him and his administration. It
needs to be. Because after serving halfway around the world, these guys and
girls deserve to be treated properly and taken care of when they come home.
GROSS: But hasn't the president asked for a large, perhaps record amount of
increase in spending for veterans health care for 2007?
Mr. RIECKHOFF: Yes, he has, but it's not keeping up with demand. The
percentage increase is not keeping up with the percentage increase of veterans
and the percentage increase of strain on the VA services. It's also at a time
where you've got thousands of World War II vets and Vietnam vets who are
already straining the system. And now there's a new war with over a million
people who are going to come home and seek services of the VA.
The administration is playing Enron games with the numbers when it comes to
the VA. They've been unreliable in their ability to project any statistic
throughout this war. Whether it was the insurgency, the amount of body armor,
the number of troops. They've been wrong every time. And I'm here to tell
you they're wrong again about veterans. They're downplaying the severity, and
they haven't allocated enough money to take care of the people coming home.
GROSS: Before you joined the Army, you were in investment banking. Can you
just like go back to that time for us and tell us why you made such a big
change, going from investment banking to the military?
Mr. RIECKHOFF: Well, I had joined the military before I went into investment
banking. But when I went into investment banking, I was in the reserves and I
was still drilling on the weekend. But it was definitely a culture shock
between the two. I didn't enjoy being an investment banker. I got a lot out
of it, and I was paid well, and I learned a tremendous amount about business.
But, you know, my best day on Wall Street was still worse than my worst day in
Iraq. I just didn't love it. And being in Iraq was the absolute opposite.
It was something that I believed in, in leading men. And being in the
military was something I felt was really teaching me a lot about myself and
about my world. But it was definitely a contrast because I worked a few
blocks from ground zero. And in all my time in investment banking, I never
thought that we'd be attacked a few blocks away. And I never thought I'd have
to make a shift from banker to soldier that quickly. So it really did serve
as a shock to my system and everyone else's when 9/11 happened. And many
people like myself were called on to switch their profession from citizen to
soldier. Not just bankers, but bus drivers, teachers and everybody else
around the country who was in the National Guard and Reserve.
GROSS: But you said that your best days in investment banking was worse than
your worst day in Iraq. That you really believed in what you were doing in
Iraq, but at the same time, you didn't believe in the larger mission of the
war. So can you explain that seeming contradiction?
Mr. RIECKHOFF: Yeah. I believe in being a soldier, and I believe that it's
an honorable profession. And being in the military is something that our
country needs people to do. You know, we need smart people. We need creative
people. We need motivated people in our military because ultimately soldiers
don't choose which war they go to fight in, and if another attack comes, we
need a strong military. And we need good people in that military. And I
wanted to be a part of that. And I was proud to serve with 38 guys who were
fantastic Americans and were great soldiers and good people. And I really
enjoyed being around them. The camaraderie you have in the military and the
unity and the cohesion is like nothing else I have ever experienced. And I
like being a soldier. I like being around the guys. And I like trying to do
something for the betterment of our country. So, you know, it's a conflict in
that the mission has obviously become more troublesome, but at the microlevel
in my experience, being a platoon leader was the best job I ever had.
GROSS: Well, Paul Rieckhoff, thank you very much for talking with us.
Mr. RIECKHOFF: Thank you very much, Terry. My pleasure.
GROSS: Paul Rieckhoff is the founder and executive director of Iraq and
Afghanistan Veterans of America. His new memoir is called "Chasing Ghosts."
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Review: Book critic Maureen Corrigan reviews Wendy Wasserstein's
debut novel, "Elements of Style"
TERRY GROSS, host:
When playwright Wendy Wasserstein died of cancer this past January at age 55,
the lights on Broadway were dimmed in her honor. Her many plays, including
the "Heidi Chronicles" which won the Tony Award as well as a Pulitzer Prize,
explored intelligent women coming to terms with feminism, careers, love and
Wasserstein's debut novel, "Elements of Style," has just been published
posthumously, and book critic Maureen Corrigan has a review.
Ms. MAUREEN CORRIGAN: Ideally, a reviewer is supposed to regard a work of
art on its own terms, divorced from the author's life. But I'm finding it
impossible to clinically detach Wendy Wasserstein's debut novel from the
context of her untimely death. With ghoulish mistiming an advanced copy of
the novel called "Elements of Style" arrived in my mail just a few days after
Wasserstein died. The pink cover touted the media appearances and radio
interviews that Wasserstein would be doing as part of her anticipated big book
tour. Too much loss, says a character in "Elements of Style," reflecting on
9/11 as well as some fictional tragedies that the novel manufactures. Too
Wasserstein's death was followed a few days later by Betty Friedan's. That's
too, too many prominent feminists to lose in one year, let alone one week. Of
course, Wasserstein was much younger and funnier than Friedan, but both women
offered a grown-up vision of feminism that's largely absent from contemporary
chick-lit style fantasies.
The heroines of post-feminist sagas like "Sex in the City" for example may be
be sexually and financially liberated, but their adventures are retrofitted
with fairy tale endings, complete with prince and comfy castle.
Friedan and Wasserstein, in their different ways, told women the hard truth.
`You're not going to get it all, sister,' they said. `No one does. Grow up.
Keep the faith. We've still got a revolution to figure out.'
In "Elements of Style" one of Wasserstein's typical heroines, 40ish,
unmarried, Jewish, essentially feminist but wistful about other lifestyles,
goes head to head with a bevy of high society Stepford wives. Frankie
Weissman is a pediatrician in New York, renowned as someone people can count
on. But as Frankie wryly notes, quoting the prefeminist wisdom of her
stepmother, looking like someone you can count on, never found anyone a
husband. Because Frankie's office is deliberately located in the border lands
of upper Fifth Avenue, she treats both the underprivileged and the
ultraprivilege. But Wasserstein almost exclusively trains her wicked eye on
the rituals of the rich and fatuous. Here for instance is how Wasserstein
describes the post-9/11 emergency preparedness procedures adopted by one of
the society mothers whose children are among Frankie's patients.
Since 9/11 Judy Tremont had made a few obvious changes in her life. First of
all, she never let her nannies take her children in taxis anymore. Any turban
driver talking on a cell phone could be a terrorist. She kept a supply of
iodine pills in her home, plus gas masks for the entire family and their pets.
Every day, she carried a Fendi emergency kit in her purse, neatly packed with
Cipro and folding flat shoes. And perhaps the biggest change was she always
wore her good jewelry in the event she'd have to trade it for easy passage off
The plot of "Elements of Style" is figured like a square dance where Edith
Wharton is the caller. The chic parents of Frankie's patients switch partners
and twirl off to misalliances. And even Frankie herself gets drawn into a
romance with the dermatologist separated from his gorgeous wife. But because
he's the kind of society doctor who keeps his patients' butt fat in his office
refrigerator so that he can inject it into their facial wrinkles, we canny
readers know he's too shallow for the likes of Frankie. Her character is the
most vivid presence in this clever, but ultimately not very memorable novel.
Consequently, like so many of Wasserstein's other excellent women, because
Frankie is so much more substantial than everyone else around her, she's
destined to make her way alone.
"Elements of Style" gets decidedly darker as it goes on. Characters get sick.
Some die. And terrorists, again, attack New York City. And then in the very
last sentences of this novel, Wasserstein rallies, and has Frankie usher a new
infant life out of the hospital and off into the damaged city. It's the kind
of qualified, hopeful ending worthy of Wasserstein. A writer with a comic,
grown-up view of life. A woman too smart to ever willfully dumb herself down
to peddle fairy tales.
GROSS: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University. She
reviewed "Elements of Style" by the late playwright Wendy Wasserstein.
GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
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