TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest, David Wood, is a Pulitzer Prize-winning military correspondent for The Huffington Post. In his latest article, he reports now that Russia is determined to destabilize the West, Russia and the U.S. are brushing up against each other in perilous ways with alarming frequency in international waters and airspace. He says one miscalculation by one startled pilot can lead to a world war. And that scenario is keeping the military establishment up at night.
Tensions between the U.S. and Russia are also escalating in Syria, where Russia is fighting in support of the Assad regime, and U.S. planes are dropping bombs on ISIS. Now that the U.S. appears to be considering the option of taking military action against Syria's Assad regime in response to its chemical attack on Syrians this past weekend, Russia and the U.S. could end up fighting on opposite sides of the conflict.
David Wood's new article on The Huffington Post Highline about the U.S. military's run-ins with Russia is titled "This Is How The Next World War Starts." Wood won his Pulitzer Prize in 2012 for his reporting on veterans who returned home with severe life-changing injuries caused by IEDs. He was embedded with American troops in Iraq four times and Afghanistan five times and wrote a book about the moral injuries that soldiers suffer called "What Have We Done."
David Wood, welcome back to FRESH AIR. I'm wondering how this article got started. Did the military - did military leaders come to you and share their fears with you, or did you approach them?
DAVID WOOD: No, Terry. I was thinking back to the - during the Cold War, I spent a lot of time in Europe and was acutely aware of everything that the U.S. and the Russians were doing to prevent war from breaking out accidentally. And it was a huge, huge effort in which a lot of smart people were completely dedicated. And we don't have anything like that today.
I started looking at incidents that were happening where there weren't set procedures for managing a potential crisis, thinking this is not good. We don't have those kinds of arrangements. We don't have those kinds of communication channels already set up. And we don't have a regular exchange of military officers and senior officials with their Russian counterparts. And that kind of got me worried.
GROSS: We'll get to why we don't have that a little later. But first, share one of your concerns about how a war can start by accident between the U.S. and Russia with one miscalculation.
WOOD: Sure. I spent some time with the pilots and crews that fly U.S. and NATO surveillance aircraft out over the Baltic Sea. So this is an interesting part of the world. It's basically where the - Russia grinds up against NATO. And it's - there's a lot of contested issues right there, including Russia's seizure of Crimea and its interference in the Ukraine and its long history of meddling in the Baltic States. So there's a lot going on there.
When a U.S. aircraft, for example, is flying up the Baltic Sea in international airspace, inevitably a Russian jet will come up alongside in an intercept to identify what the U.S. aircraft is and what it's doing. Perfectly normal, absolutely routine, happens all over the world. Russians intercept us. We intercept the Russians. That's fine. Everybody's professional. And it's not a problem. Increasingly though. American pilots tell me that the Russians are undertaking really harassment actions.
For example, rather than closing gently with the American aircraft - approaching it maybe 30 miles an hour, closing the distance at about 30 miles an hour - they'll come really fast at the American aircraft and then veer off at the last second, kind of a frightening maneuver. The other thing is - become fairly common is what they call a barrel roll. And this is a maneuver where a Russian plane will approach an American plane, come alongside and then circle around the American plane while both are barreling along at about 400 miles an hour.
GROSS: Well, it sounds terrifying. There's a plane circling you, and you're both traveling at like 400 miles an hour.
WOOD: It's very concerning. For example, the pilot of a big four-engine American surveillance aircraft who I spent some time with them, they can't really see what's going on. They can't tell if the Russian is about to clip a tail or a wing tip. And it's frightening. And there's nothing you can do as an American pilot except sit there and hope the Russian guy knows what he's doing.
GROSS: OK. So let's talk about the possible consequences of this. Say intentionally or unintentionally, a Russian plane that's intercepted a NATO or U.S. plane through, say, a barrel roll clips a wing, the plane dives into the sea, the pilots are hurt or killed. How do you control the consequences of that?
WOOD: Well, the first thing that could happen is if there's an American or NATO aircraft in the vicinity, they are armed and - with missiles - air to air missiles - but also armed with the approval to defend themselves. If that pilot decided that he was under threat from this Russian pilot, he might decide to open fire, or he might decide to be in touch with his immediate air control center. And they might decide, yeah, take that guy out. We don't know what's happening here but take him out.
I mean, this is a far-fetched scenario, but it does illustrate the dangers that lurk in a situation like this. The bigger danger, I think, is that back in Washington at the White House, an event like that would become known immediately. And President Trump might decide to tweet a response which could set off a whole chain of events that would be uncontrollable. Now, in past times, that wouldn't be the case because there would be layers and layers of military and professional staff people between the incident and the president. But that's not the case anymore for two reasons.
One is a lot of the offices of the staff who would normally process a situation like that are empty because they just haven't been nominated or confirmed. So I'm talking about the Pentagon State Department and the White House. The other thing is that it's now possible because of social media and 24/7 news cycles for the president to know as much or thinks he knows as much as the people right on the scene. So all that argues for an itchy trigger finger in the White House.
GROSS: Well, speaking of itchy trigger finger, let me quote something that that you quote, which is something that candidate Trump said last April after a Russian fighter jet barrel rolled a U.S. jet over the Baltic. And candidate Trump said that the Obama administration had only lodged a diplomatic protest.
Trump said that if he were president, you want to make at least a phone call or two. "But at a certain point, when that sucker comes at you, you got to shoot. You got to shoot. I mean, you got to shoot." Is that the kind of response that concerns the military, like, an over eagerness to fight?
WOOD: Yeah, of course it does. I mean, there's a lot of concern in the military that as the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff has said and others have said that the decision time in responding to a potential crisis like that has been enormously compressed. And what they mean by that is, well, Terry, I went back and looked at the Cuban Missile Crisis, right? And it was weeks and weeks and weeks between when President Kennedy learned that the Russians were putting missiles in Cuba and when he decided what to do about it.
And there wasn't the kind of instant communication and social media. So they're constantly banging up against the White House. When are you going to do something? When are you going to do something? And that sort of gathering of antagonistic political pressure. You know, weeks and weeks went by. And we don't have that today. I mean, imagine if the Russians did participate in a incident in which a U.S. plane was clipped and went down. And by the way, those American planes flying over the Baltics, it's not just a three-man flight crew. There's, like, two dozen other people on board. So it would be an enormous loss of life. In that case, the White House would know pretty quickly what happened. And as I say, the political pressure to do something adds to the impulse of the president to do something. And, you know, that's not something the military is - looks kindly at.
GROSS: And in the meantime, you write Putin is using a deliberate strategy of intimidation and provocation. What's the evidence of that?
WOOD: There's evidence all around the world where U.S. or NATO forces come up against Russians. So in Syria, for example, the problem of Russian aircraft harassing or barrel rolling American aircraft is pretty common. There is a U.S. and Russia communications channel in which they can de-conflict or sort out where their aircraft go, where their aircraft can fly where our aircraft can fly. And if we're planning a mission into a different part of Syria, we let them know and so on and so forth. But that doesn't stop this harassment behavior.
It also happens over the Baltic Sea quite frequently in the air, and it also happens in the Black Sea. There have been a couple of incidents in the last few years where Russian fighters have flown attack profiles against U.S. ships in the Black Sea. You know, that's just not necessary from any kind of a military standpoint. And it's just - it's just pure harassment.
GROSS: One of the military leaders you spoke to described Putin's strategy as escalation dominance. What is that?
WOOD: Well, the way it was described to me is basically the game of chicken, that the Russian - deliberate Russian strategy is to ratchet up the pressure in a crisis until the other side backs down. Well, you know, that's a - that's kind of a scary thing. And, you know, they have shown a willingness to push the envelope, as it were, in those kinds of situations. Prime example is their backing of separatists in Ukraine. And there have been many, many documented instances of Russian conventional military forces crossing the border into Ukraine and fighting there and bringing in weapons and that kind of thing. You know, in a confrontation over that diplomatic confrontation with NATO and the European Union and the U.S., Russian President Vladimir Putin denied doing that and then pushed it even farther, basically daring NATO to respond. And, you know, the difficult thing here for NATO is that the Russian provocations never quite rise to the level where a response is demanded.
In other words, you know, the problem with NATO is that decisions have to be unanimous, and if NATO is going to respond to Russia, everyone has to agree. Well, that's a difficult problem because, for example, Italy might not want to risk going to war in order to protect Estonia, which is a NATO member along the Baltic Sea. And so this game of chicken that Putin plays, he stays just below the level where NATO would have to gather together and decide together to do something. And that's not likely to happen.
GROSS: But in the meantime, that can weaken NATO because of the dissension.
WOOD: Which is - I think Putin's goal is to weaken NATO and to drive wedges between its members. But again, you know, all that is OK. I mean, that's like international politics, right? That's OK. The problem is when it comes down to a potential crisis and what happens then.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is David Wood. He's the military correspondent for The Huffington Post, and his latest article is called "This Is How The Next World War Starts." We're going to take a short break, then we'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR, and if you're just joining us, my guest is David Wood. He's the military correspondent for The Huffington Post. He's been covering war and war zones and the military for over 35 years. His latest article is called "This Is How The Next World War Starts," and it's about how the military establishment is actually very worried about the possibility of war between the U.S. and Russia through a miscalculation.
You're concerned that if things come down to a crisis point that neither Trump nor Putin are good crisis managers, what are the - some of the traits that you think they share that are bad for crisis management?
WOOD: Well, one thing we don't know about President Trump is how he behaves in private. So publicly, at least, he is impulsive and shoots off his mouth and tweets things that make everybody else cringe. If he was in a room or on the phone with Vladimir Putin, how would he behave? Would it be different? I don't know, and I don't think we know that. And I don't think we'll ever know that until it comes to a crisis where there's just those two guys on the phone. So - but on the outside at least, it appears as if Trump is impulsive, makes decisions, you know, sort of flies by the seat of his pants, does not staff out new positions.
For instance, when President Trump has declared a change in U.S. nuclear strategy, it comes in the form of a tweet. And it's not been staffed out, and people are - people at the Pentagon are like uh-oh, now what? It's - it takes everybody by surprise. So that appears to be the way Trump operates. Putin, on the other hand, I think is very calculating, and the way he handled the situation in which a Russian jet was shot down on the Turkish border a year and a half or two years ago is a good illustration of that.
So that's one difference between the two men. But also they're both responsive to a - their political base of ultra nationalism, right? And this is worrisome in a crisis because you can imagine that if there is, for example, a - some kind of a small minor or military clash that threatened to grow bigger, that partisans both in the U.S. and in Russia would be clamoring for strong action. And that's kind of a dangerous dynamic.
GROSS: Well, another thing you point out just in terms of, you know, conflict management is that first reports can be wrong and that you need a thick skin to ward off insults and accusations and to acknowledge the limited value of threats and bluffs. How would you say both Putin and Trump do on that score?
WOOD: Well, we don't know. We can only guess because a crisis like that hasn't arisen. But if you look back at the - at a recent situation that could have gone really bad - and that was a year - just over a year ago when Iran seized 10 American Navy sailors who had strayed off course in the Persian Gulf and strayed into Iranian waters. And they were caught and taken ashore and held - detained. What could have happened in that situation is that our Navy warships in the Persian Gulf could have attacked.
They could have gone to get them, and that could have sparked a whole conflagration or the White House could have been tweeting that this will - all kinds of insults aimed at the Revolutionary Guards in Iran which might have invited a response and just ratcheted up the tension of both sides until something bad happened. I mean, you can imagine, for example, if the White House was insulting Iran that they'd say, OK, we're not going to give your guys back. But what happened instead was that then Secretary of State John Kerry got on the phone with his counterpart on a communications link that had been set up while they were negotiating the Iran nuclear deal.
And basically the U.S. acknowledged that the sailors had strayed into Iranian waters, that the Iranians had a right to detain them, but that there was nothing more to it than that. There was no apology given, and the Iranians released them. So there was a situation in which crisis management worked really, really well. Nobody got hot under the collar. Nobody wanted the situation to escalate. There were no threats or insults traded back and forth. There was no military action threatened. It was just very calm and very quiet.
Although after that was announced and the sailors were released, Breitbart News which was run by Steve Bannon at the time - Steve Bannon, of course, is now Trump's chief White House strategist - so Breitbart News set upon the release of those sailors that President Obama had been, quote, "castrated on the world stage," close quote, for allegedly having given into the Iranians in some way. That's the kind of response that's really unhelpful in a crisis and helps ratchet up the tension on both sides and can make bad things happen.
GROSS: David Wood is a Pulitzer Prize-winning military correspondent for The Huffington Post. His latest article in The Huffington Post Highline is titled "This Is How The Next World War Starts." After a break we'll talk about why diplomacy between the U.S. and Russia - the kind of communication that could avert war - has become more difficult than it used to be. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with David Wood, a Pulitzer Prize-winning military correspondent for The Huffington Post. His latest article in The Huffington Post Highline is titled "This Is How The Next World War Starts." He reports that now that Russia is determined to destabilize the West, Russia and the U.S. are brushing up against each other in perilous ways in international waters and airspace. One false move, one miscalculation can lead to catastrophic consequences. We were talking earlier about how some of the diplomats who go through diplomatic channels to prevent war from breaking out when there is an accident or a misunderstanding, those diplomats aren't in place right now. There's so many unfilled positions in the Pentagon and the White House and in the State Department. And at the same time, President Trump wants to cut the State Department staff by 28 percent. I'm wondering how your contacts at the military feel about that.
WOOD: Well, of course, they're worried because look, the staffs at the Pentagon and the State Department and the national security staff at the White House, those are the people who in a crisis are looking at various alternatives and plotting out consequences of various courses of action. So in the Cuban Missile Crisis, for example, the thinking about how to respond to this went back and forth and back and forth until everyone was pretty happy that they'd come to a good course of action, which was to put a quarantine around the island and prevent the Russian ships from coming.
So in a fast-moving crisis, that kind of really fast analysis and wargaming and what-if-ing (ph) the consequences of every proposed course of action is critical, critical, critical and can be done quickly if you have the staff in place. But, you know, if you walk down the 17 and a half miles of corridors in the Pentagon and look in people's offices, there's a lot of empty offices there. And those are the people who, by and large, are - even though they're political professionals - almost all of them are practiced in their craft of national security. And we don't have them in place now. So that's a real problem.
GROSS: Do we have assistant secretaries of defense and state yet?
GROSS: So what does that mean practically?
WOOD: Well, what it means is that those offices - the assistant secretary of defense for whatever, you know, there's a dozen or more assistant secretaries of defense for various issues. And what it means is those offices are being filled temporarily by the permanent civil service staff. And those people are really, really good. They are smart. They've been in their jobs for a long time. They know their subjects backwards and forwards.
The problem is that they don't have the political heft to be really heard. So I'm told that in meetings at the Pentagon, for example, where the military is meeting with their - the civilian assistant secretaries, you know, the military is like OK, but you're not the real political appointee. You don't have ties to the White House. You don't have any political heft. Of course, they don't say this out loud, but that's the way the thinking goes.
And so what comes out of the Pentagon policy-wise then tends to reflect the military judgments on issues. Now, the military judgments on issues are good and professional. And they're smart, you know, well-meaning patriotic good folks. But it's one - it can be one side. And as a result, those other points of view that political appointees might bring in don't get heard.
GROSS: So in talking about diplomatic channels between Russia and the U.S. and how those diplomatic channels have helped to prevent war for decades, what role as a diplomat does the Russian ambassador to the U.S., Ambassador Kislyak, play? We've heard his name come up a lot in terms of the investigation into ties between Russia or possible ties between Russia and the Trump campaign.
WOOD: Well, critical role. So it has to work that people in the Pentagon and the White House and the State Department can pick up the phone and have a conversation with the Russian ambassador. That's the way things get smoothed out really quickly. But even before you get to that point, the more critical piece is that the commander of U.S. ground troops in Europe ought to be able to call up his counterpart in Russia and say OK, something bad just happened but here's our view of it. And we're not pushing this. And here's, you know, here's where we are in that situation. But that can't happen.
We don't have those kinds of communications anymore, they don't exist. Those communications links don't exist in part because after Russia invaded Crimea, the Congress and the administration at the time decided that's it, we're going to punish them by having no more military cooperation. And so those communications links which used to enable a senior U.S. military commander in Europe to call his Russian counterpart, those went dead. Those don't happen anymore. And so the other thing that has stopped is that during the Cold War and in the few years after the Cold War, there was a huge amount of U.S., NATO and Russian military exchanges.
So even while the U.S. and Russia had nuclear weapons pointed at each other, in Europe on the ground it was common to have Russian inspectors come watch U.S. military maneuvers and vice versa. So what happens in that case, and I remember this very clearly, is that American military officers came to know their Russian counterparts in ways that they would, you know, go off and have a beer together, that kind of thing. We don't have anything like that anymore. That has all stopped for years. And so that kind of informal relationships which can really ease a crisis, when you can say, oh, wait a second, that's Boris, you know, Colonel Boris. I know that guy. He wouldn't, you know, I know how he would behave in this kind of situation.
Those kinds of relationships don't exist. There is in this administration in particular a cloud of distrust over what the White House is saying - right? - which is a really dangerous thing. So when there's a crisis, it is critically important that each side speak clearly and to be believed and trusted - right? - 'cause otherwise, things break down. Well, when you have a president who plays fast and loose with the truth, how are you going to believe what he says in a crisis?
GROSS: You report that a lot of military leaders are really worried about the possibility of war between the U.S. and Russia caused by an accident but leading to a conflict. And you say according to an analysis by the U.S. Army War College, the top Russian leadership is moving Russia onto a war footing. What are they doing?
WOOD: Yeah. So it's hard to know exactly what they're doing because we don't have that much visibility. Again, we don't have the kinds of military exchanges and inspectors and observers that we had even during the height of the Cold War. But from what we know, Russia has been rebuilding its military with an emphasis on hybrid warfare, which means special forces, cyber war, political destabilization, all those kinds of things that again would not quite rise to the level where they demanded a NATO military response.
So I think that's what the - what is referred to as Russia's new war footing. It's not that they're massing tanks at the border ready to pour across, which would lead to World War, but more this kind of creeping hybrid warfare which is deniable. We're not interfering in Ukraine, for example.
And a lot of emphasis on political and social destabilization, which we know was a strategy that was first enunciated by General Gorshkov, who was their chief of staff some years ago. And so that's pretty much out in the open. What's not in the open is how they're carrying it out.
GROSS: Let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is David Wood. He's the military correspondent for The Huffington Post. We've been talking about his article, "This Is How The Next World War Starts," which is about the possibility that military leaders are very worried about, the possibility that war will accidentally break out between Russia and the U.S. because of increasing tensions between the two countries. We'll be back after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR, and if you're just joining us, my guest is David Wood. He is the Pulitzer Prize-winning military correspondent for The Huffington Post. We've been talking about his new article, "This Is How The Next World War Starts," which is about the possibility of a miscalculation leading to war between Russia and the U.S., and that's something that military leaders are very worried about.
H.R. McMaster, who's the national security adviser who replaced General Flynn in that role, is famous for his book "Dereliction Of Duty," which was a book criticizing senior officers during the Vietnam War for not standing up against President Johnson and Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara in their strategy on Vietnam. Have you spoken to him directly about how he would apply what he wrote about in that book to his position now as national security adviser?
WOOD: I have not spoken to him directly about that, and I don't see that he's talked to anybody about that. But the implication is clear. What that book was about was criticizing the generals who went along with the president during the Vietnam War even though they knew that what he was - that the policies he was pursuing were counterproductive and wouldn't work. That book, "Dereliction Of Duty," has been on required reading lists for military officers for years and years and years. And the idea has infused throughout the officer corps that if you get an immoral or illegal order, you better resist it. And if you see something that you think is immoral or illegal or just tactically, strategically wrong, your obligation as a military officer is to stand up and voice your criticism.
So that has become an accepted part, I think, of the role of the professional military officer, to stand up and voice your opinion loudly and not sort of go along with things that you think are absolutely wrong. Of course, in the end, the military is a hierarchy, and its officers are sworn to protect and defend the Constitution and so forth. So how far that goes, I don't know. But I think that that book by H.R. McMaster has had a big impact on the officer corps where it now seems more acceptable to voice your opinions loudly within the military context. But of course, in the end, as a sort of a common military saying is you voice your opinion and then salute and carry out the orders.
GROSS: Or face court-martial, right?
GROSS: I want to move on to talking about another article that you wrote, and this was an article about how President Trump's military buildup promises little for working Marines and soldiers. And you're right about the class distinction between the defense contractors who are getting a lot of money and the people who are actually doing the fighting who have a lot of outdated equipment. So what are the kinds of projects that you know that President Trump wants to fund with the increased budget that he wants the Pentagon to have?
WOOD: Well, a lot of the buildup is already under way. So new aircraft carriers cost about $6 billion each, and one is almost done. It's way over cost and over budget. But there are two more in - sort of in the pipeline. So a lot of what is going to be done is already underway, and President Trump had nothing to do with it. I think what Trump has talked about doing is, number one, expanding the size of the military, and then really what he's - the way he's posed it is whatever the military needs, we'll have that and more of it. And so that tends to be those big weapons, costly technical weapons systems, that defense contractors love and that we end up not buying very many of them because they're always way more expensive than promised and don't work quite as well as promised. And so they they end up being politically controversial and stretch on for years and years and it's - tends not to be effective in actual warfighting. The problem is that that sucks money away from what the actual war fighters often need, and the people who do the most of the warfighting are infantry soldiers and Marines. And, you know, when you go talk to them (laughter) I asked a bunch of them, you know, these are sort of the working class - and I use that term fondly - the working-class military, you know, the trigger pullers and the watch standers and the wrench turners and truck drivers and the tank mechanics and all those people. I asked them what they needed and what they'd like out of the $600 billion defense budget. They were astonished and there was (laughter) like total silence. Nobody had ever asked them that before. But after a while as I kept prodding them, there were like, well, sir, we sort of need this and we sort of need that. We don't have any of this. And it turns out that the little things that make a fighting force effective are often broken or missing. For example, the Marines at Camp Lejeune who were required to be certified and fully trained in firing grenade launchers told me that the grenade launchers they have - there's an optic sight on the tube. And when you fire it, it falls off. Well, they shouldn't have grenade launchers where the range finder falls off. That's not OK. It's a small fix. It's not an expensive thing. But there's many, many of those kinds of examples.
Here's another example. Marines have to go from their main base out to a firing range to practice firing - right? - very simple thing. It's about eight or 10 miles. There are no trucks to take them out there, so they have to walk. There are no trucks because they're short on truck mechanics, and there are no spare parts, so all the trucks are broken. What that means is that the guys who have to be certified in firing in your weapons - it takes much longer for them to get certified because they have to walk out to the rifle range.
And there's this kind of domino effect of when you think about what you need to have in order to field an effective fighting force quickly. People have to be trained all the time, and they have to keep at it. And when they - when their optic sights fall off, their grenade launchers and then the trucks don't work and they have to walk out to the rifle range, there's a cumulative effect that could be fixed with not a lot of money that's now going to big weapons systems like the $6 billion aircraft carrier, which by the way needs another billion dollars worth of airplanes because otherwise, I mean - that's what you need an aircraft carrier for. The $6 billion price tag doesn't include airplanes.
GROSS: What kind of war would that aircraft carrier be used for?
WOOD: Well, it could be used in all kinds of wars. So if part of your response to armed conflict is that you need to conduct airstrikes, you move your aircraft carrier in whether the airstrike is on Crimea or Belarus or Syria or Iraq or wherever. So an aircraft carrier is a very useful thing to have, and I'm not against aircraft carriers.
What I am saying is that, perhaps, there's ways to save a little money building a $6 billion aircraft and shifting some of that money over to things that the working class military really needs. And if you're going to pump up the defense budget, you know, let's buy these guys good boots. And let's make sure that their weapons work. And, by the way, the infantry guys need new rifles, and they're out there. We could buy them. They need individual drones. ISIS has drones.
ISIS fighting in Iraq has surveillance and attack drones. They're not sophisticated and complicated. They're like a, you know - a toy drone that you can get from Wal-Mart and they hang a hand grenade on it and send it over to where, you know, where our allies and our troops are fighting. We don't have those things. Why? Because it's not in the budget. And so my point is that there's not enough attention paid in the budget to the people who do the real fighting.
GROSS: David Wood, thank you so much for talking with us.
WOOD: Thank you, Terry.
GROSS: David Wood is a Pulitzer Prize-winning military correspondent for The Huffington Post. His latest article in The Huffington Post Highline is titled "This Is How The Next World War" starts. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. Since bursting on the scene in 2012 with both a novel and a book of essays, the Mexican writer Valeria Luiselli has been garnering accolades around the world. Her previous book, "The Story Of My Teeth," written in partial collaboration with workers at a juice factory, won major prizes in both the U.S. and Canada. She returns to nonfiction with her latest book, "Tell Me How It Ends: An Essay In 40 Questions," which reflects on her work as an interpreter for child migrants from Central America who enter the U.S. immigration system. Our critic at large John Powers says it gives you an angle on the immigration crisis you haven't seen before.
JOHN POWERS, BYLINE: Back in the 1980s, Salman Rushdie wrote that the defining figure of the 20th century was the migrant. I think his claim may be even truer of the 21st century. These days, the whole world, including our politics, is being shaped by migration. A few people explore the nuances of this reality more skillfully than Valeria Luiselli, a strikingly gifted 33-year-old Mexican writer who knows the migratory experience firsthand. Born in Mexico City to an Italian family, she spent her childhood in South Africa, her teens in Mexico and now lives in New York with her husband and their kids. Not surprisingly, her first three books - two novels and a collection of essays - are bursting with ideas on dislocation, national identity and knowing where you belong. These lofty-sounding themes take immediate, painfully concrete form in her latest book, "Tell Me How It Ends: An Essay In 40 Questions," a deceptively slim volume just out from Coffee House Press.
While Luiselli's earlier work was marked by an elegant hyper-literary sensibility, this compassionate new one finds her in a head-on confrontation with daily reality. The book is based on her experiences working as an interpreter for dozens of Central American child migrants who risk their lives crossing Mexico to escape their fraught existence back home. To stay in the U.S., each must be vetted by the Citizenship and Immigration Services, a vast, impersonal bureaucracy. It's a bit like competing in the ultimate reality show, one in which it's terrifyingly easy to get voted off the island and sent back to the country you fear wants to kill you.
As a translator, it's Luiselli's task to help these kids who range in age from 6 or 7 into their teens, most of whom came alone and were either caught at the border or went to the authorities themselves. They must answer 40 official questions that will determine their fate. While these sounds simple enough, the first one is, why did you come to the United States? Answering each is like passing through a doorway covered in cobwebs that can't be shaken off. For instance, question seven asks, did anything happen on your trip to the U.S. that scared you or hurt you? Luiselli says that children rarely give an honest answer, not because they're lying or evasive but because the truth is too awful to tell.
You see, 80 percent of migrant girls and women who cross Mexico to the U.S. are raped along the way. That's 80 percent, not 8. When I have to ask that seventh question, Luiselli writes, all I want to do is cover my face and ears and disappear. But she swallows her shame and rage in hopes of hearing details that will help the child's case. Now, this book is fueled in no small part by Luiselli's bottled up shame and rage. She's aghast at the gap between American ideals and the way we actually treat undocumented children who are often seen as being, quote, "like a biblical plague."
That said, this is no hectoring screed. It's measured and fair-minded and expansive. Luiselli points out how cruelly Mexico treats Central American migrants, too. And she deftly shows how the U.S. and Central America aren't distinct entities but part of the same complicated social ecosystem. The street gangs that migrant kids are fleeing in El Salvador emerged during the American-backed civil war in that country. They began in LA, their members got deported back to San Salvador, and they now have branches on Long Island that menace refugees who left Central America to get away from them.
Still, for all its nuts-and-bolts look at the immigration process, what makes "Tell Me How It Ends" so moving and humane is that Luiselli doesn't serve up a catalogue of horror stories that soon grows numbing. In a touch that personalizes the migrant's story and makes it less alien to readers like us, she deftly thinks the experiences of migrant children with her own efforts to get a green card and make a life here with her family. Luiselli takes us inside the grand dream of migration, offering the valuable reminder that exceedingly few immigrants abandon their past and brave death to come to America for dark or nasty reasons. They come as an expression of hope.
Once you're here, Luiselli says near the end of the book, you're ready to give everything, or almost everything, to stay and play a part in the great theater of belonging.
GROSS: John Powers is film and TV critic for Vogue and vogue.com. He reviewed "Tell Me How It Ends: An Essay In 40 Questions" by Valeria Luiselli.
(SOUNDBITE OF ALEXANDRE MOUTOUZKINE'S "NINA CON VIOLIN")
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