Mark Danner interviewed by David Gelber of CBS News Sixty Minutes at Bard College, Annandale-on-Hudson, NY
Moderator: Thank you all for migrating over here with us. I’m going to let David Gelber introduce Mark Danner. I’ll only say that it was really one of the things that I’m most happy about in my five or so years at Bard so far that we were able to hire Mark Danner to come and teach here. I’ll let David explain why that might be a good thing to have Mark teaching here.
David Gelber on my left is a long-time senior network news producer. He currently directs what seems to be known as the ‘Ed Bradley UnitÃ® at CBS News, producing hour-long documentaries each year, as well as numerous segments of Sixty Minutes. He’s a, I think the word would be, the cliche would be fearless investigative journalist, who’s been around the world and around the country. He did really superb work with Peter Jennings in the 90s, two documentaries from Bosnia, one of which Professor Danner was a key part of; an amazing piece from Haiti in which he sent one of his associate producers out on a raft in the middle of the ocean. So I wouldn’t recommend working for him, but watching his work is superb.
David Gelber: There was a lot of suspense about whether he’d come back or not.
Moderator: At CBS he’s done an extraordinary film about AIDS in Africa, called Death By Denial, which we showed here a couple of years ago, with David; and a beautiful piece about the toxic poisoning of a small community in Louisiana; and a number of others, including an investigation of a company which runs private, I guess you might call them mental hospitals, or private clinics for disturbed kids. And David and a brave guy wearing a hidden camera busted what happened inside some of these hospitals, which had the enormously satisfying result of causing a rather significant drop in the stock price of the company—bankruptcy within the next couple of days.
Anyway, I’m really happy to have David here and introducing and talking with Mark Danner, so thanks for coming.
David Gelber: So um—hmm, introducing Mark Danner. Mark is one of my closest friends. We have collaborated on documentaries in Bosnia and Haiti. Mark and I actually were I guess the first camera crew at the market in Sarajevo when a bomb fell and killed 68 people, and Mark demonstrated then what anyone who’s read his work in The New Yorker or The New York Review of Books already knows, which is that he’s really one of the greatest journalists on the face of the earth. And if you haven’t read his work on Haiti and El Salvador and Bosnia, then it’s not enough for me to tell you about it; you should really read it, because it’s extraordinary. He ‘s teaching at Bard and the University of California School of Journalism, and rather than go on about how fabulous we are, why don’t we talk about that. I’m the Carl Reiner figure tonight to the Mel Brooks figure here. I’m the straight man here. I think what we want to do, Mark has been involved in some debates over the past year on the subject of the war in Iraq, generally arguing it wasn’t a very good idea. He’s argued with Christopher Hitchens and Leon Wieseltier at The New Republic, and will do so again. But I thought that tonight we would focus on telling people, just taking people to Baghdad and describing right now what the situation is. I’ll try and play, though half-heartedly perhaps, devil’s advocate on a couple of points. But let’s begin at the beginning: How did you get there?
Mark Danner: Well, I got there in a very sleep-deprived, drooling, unwashed, generally degraded and half-conscious state…
David Gelber: Which is fairly typical.
Mark Danner: That’s right, I didn’t want it to be any different from any other day. I’d never been to Baghdad before, so the couple of weeks I spent there was a real revelation to me. I’m always telling students, when they’re about to go to places they haven’t gone before or about to do things they haven’t done before, that they should make a virtue of their ignorance, which is to say when you arrive somewhere new, you have an enormous advantage over those correspondents who’ve been covering the story again and again over the last few years; that is, you actually see it. The plenitude of reality kind of descends around you, and you see things that people who’ve been there time and again just completely miss. My ignorance was heightened even more, my sensitivity, my nerve endings that were kind of vibrating all over me were heightened even more by the fact that I had flown, taken one night to fly from New York to Amman, which is an overnight flight, and had not slept at all, although I had planned to, because I had been seated next to this fascinating Jordanian, whose father had been chief of staff of the Jordanian army and who had all these stories to tell. So I planned to sleep; I didn’t sleep at all. I got to Amman around about 4:00 in the afternoon, was whisked into Amman, had a brief dinner with this famous [?] named [?], whom you probably know, [?], whom every journalist in the world knows in Amman, who gave me various quick briefings on what journalist was sleeping with what other journalist, which is very important information to know, and then I was brought down to this car, this four-wheel drive, and introduced to a man named [Munzer?], a big tough guy with a very big scar across his face, coming all the way down like this next to his eye, by his mouth, all the way down around his chin—obviously some kind of knife wound, although nobody told me what it was. And Munzer was this very solid, very tough-looking guy who spoke not a word of English and who was going to drive me the 12 hours from Amman to Baghdad. I had made this choice—there also are thrice-weekly flights from Amman to Baghdad—and the question everybody has to ask before you go from Amman to Baghdad is, Do you want to risk the road on which you can be attacked and robbed or possibly shot, or do you want to risk the flight, at which there have been a number of missile firings lately? As you know, in the last few days a number of helicopters have been shot down. I had intended to fly until I was told by the person at Royal Jordanian thatÃ³ I said, What about these missiles? And she said, Well, there have been 10 or 12 firing at our planes, but the general consensus is that these guys aren’t very good yet. She said, The time to start worrying is in about three weeks. This was the warning I was being given. And I wondered if the three weeks was a rolling number, or whether it was actually— Anyway, I was half-asleep when I was handed over to Munzer, and I basically didn’t sleep in that rather phantasmagorical drive either, and found myself at the border to Iraq with a lot of people shouting and screaming in a language I didn’t understand, my passport taken from me, an hour went by, I had no idea what was going on, handed back to me, I felt very much sleep-deprived, and about seven hours later finally drove into the city. It’s a tan city, a city of tan brick. The color even of the newer architecture, much of which has been charred and burned, in fact a lot of my dialogue with various drivers during the time I was in Baghdad had to do with that building, what is it? Was it burned? Was it looted? Was it bombed? I wanted to know the source of the destruction. Anyway, it’s a tan city, dusty brown, looks fairly normal—or at least to me it did—a lot of people running around, a great deal of activity on the street, and as the Americans will argue to you, things are getting back to normal. The Americans, as will be a theme in this discussion, are very frustrated with the press coverage, and think that the American journalists are only showing what’s bad. They’re only showing people who are being attacked, Americans that are killed, planes shot down, and so; they’re not showing the good things. And it is true that Baghdad is a thriving, busy city. And when you drive into it you say, Well, this is a thriving, busy capital—until you start to approach, say, a hotel. I went first to El [Hamara?] Hotel, which is kind of the journalists’ hotel. I wasn’t staying there, but I was bringing a couple of boxes of cookies and other things to the Newsweek bureau, which is in that building. As you get close to the hotel, suddenly you find yourself stopped by an enormous concrete barrier. This is about a five-foot high barrier which, as I learned during the course of my stay, is called a Berliner. Excuse me, the first one I got to is called a Jersey barrier, which is the barriers that are about this tall, go down and have very wide bottoms. The Berliners are the barriers that are about 12 feet tall. Anyway, you get to one Berliner, another one, you have to drive through this little very tight cordon, and then you have to stop, and four or five security guards coalesce around your car, pull you out. They have this mirror instrument that they use that’s on wheels, that they use to look under the car, they open the hood, they open the trunk, they search you, first your bags and then your person in a routine that I got very used to that happens 30 times a day if you go to a lot of hotels, or especially if you’re in American installations. Baghdad, though it first it looks like a normal city, a normal, dusty, brown city, has become a city of concrete, which was one of my first impressions of it, that you have this kind of phantasmagorical array of security procedures that you have to go through. And in particular if you’re doing what journalists do, which is visit American installations, visit hotels and so on, you are constantly going through a variety of securitiy barriers and being searched in all kinds of different ways. There are main streets in Baghdad that are now completely blind with concrete. The barriers that I called a minute ago Berliners, these 12-foot tall narrow barriers, are lined up one against the other for miles, so that you’re going down, you’re driving down what had before been this parade street with these monuments on either side, now is this kind of tube of concrete. It’s like a tunnel without a roof, so that parts of the city in effect have disappeared; you can’t see them anymore. Huge parts of what used to be Baghdad are no longer visible from the road. I, as you can tell, became fascinated with the security procedures. I started to think of these things with David, as he mentioned a moment ago, he and I were in Sarajevo during the war, also a city under siege, but a city that looked a lot different. I had been to Sarajevo before the war, and during the war it’s a recognizable city. It looked like it had before. There were various containers and things to hide you from the snipers, but the city looked pretty much the same. Baghdad, I think, looks very different. It is covered concrete, covered with barriers, which is one of the reasons, when the Rashid Hotel, about a week-and-a-half ago, was struck with rockets, why that looked very different when you were in Baghdad than it did from here, because that hotel is completely surrounded by these concrete barriers, so that whoever did that essentially was making a very blatant obscene gesture to the Occupation authorities, saying, Look, you can surround this thing with concrete as thick as you like, but I can still get to it, I can still threaten the people who are running the Occupation within this hotel.
DG: You spend your time there, I know, talking to a lot of people. Tell us about some of the most memorable conversations you had when you were there.
MD: I mentioned a minute ago the amazing thing when you haven’t been to a place like this before is you suddenly get assaulted by this kind of plenitude of just impressions, reality. You are confronted with all of the things that you don’t know. I felt the first week I was there was a general progress into learning about my own ignorance basically, learning about the depths of my own ignorance. And I certainly tried to classify different areas that I had to try to explore. One of them was the Occupation Authority. Essentially there’s this thing called the CPA, the Coalition Provisional Authority. You hear about it, it’s cited all the time, people talk about it, but you never see it, because it’s behind these enormous barriers. It’s essentially housed in one of Saddam’s old castles—palaces, as they’re called. Another thing I should mention—I know you’re asking about the interesting people I talked to but maybe I should begin by just talking about the obstacles preventing you from seeing the interesting people you want to talk to. There is no way to get somebody on the phone. If people are in this palace of Saddam’s, their cell phones don’t work. They have cell phones that are an MCI network, a 914 number, it’s like calling the States; but they don’t work within the security zone. The Americans essentially have jammed as part of their security procedure this area within the Coalition Provisional Authority in Saddam’s castle, or palace. In any event, one of the interesting people I met when I finally did get into this zone was a young woman who was the head of governance for the Coalition Provisional Authority. This meant that she was in charge of riding herd on what’s called the Governing Council. The Governing Council [is] the 24 people—23 now because one was assassinated—the 24 people who were appointed to be the provisional government in Iraq. They’re now engaged in putting together, trying to figure out how to put together a constitution. The Americans have set out a seven-point plan that will get them from occupation to Iraqi government. They’re now on point three, which is trying to put together a constitution. This young woman, who’s maybe 33, 34, 35, early 30s in any event, is someone who worked in a think tank in Washington and who now essentially runs the Iraqi project to put the constitution together—very smart, very aggressive, very—what’s the word—self-sacrificing, because she’s essentially living in conditions, she’s essentially in a barracks. She’s sleeping in this palace. She doesn’t have any access to Iraqis basically, she lives behind these incredible security procedures, the concrete barriers, the barbed wire, and so on, and she’s trying to put together the Iraqi government. Her job essentially is to urge these Iraqis on the Governing Authority to hurry up and write a constitution. The Iraqis on the Governing Authority, not surprisingly, who are mostly men in their 50s and 60s, don’t really think that they should be taking orders from her. And in fact I found this to be the case in a lot of areas of Iraqi life, that you have young Americans, who are very ambitious, very aggressive, trying to order rather experienced Iraqis around, tell them what to do, and the Iraqis are resenting it rather forcefully. Anyway, she’s one of the people I met. Let me see. Another person I would cite, also a woman, is the intelligence director for the American army in Iraq. Actually I better not cite her, come to think of it. I wasn’t supposed to have spoken to her. Let’s go on to something else.
DG: You talked about how, in your first week there, you were struck by the things that you didn’t know. What is it that you would have liked to have known that you weren’t able to find out?
MD: That’s such a good question. By the end of a few days you really realize that you don’t know what the hell’s going on. And by the end of about 10 days you realize that nobody knows what the hell’s going on. Which should be somewhat comforting, I guess, but isn’t. Part of my sort of journey of discovery there was, one, about the particular character of the kind of war that’s being fought in Iraq. When you first arrive, you find a sense of extraordinary frustration on the part of American officials you talk to. They express enormous anger at the press. They feel that the story’s being mis-reported. They will tell you again and again that the impression given in the United States about what’s going on in Iraq is very distorted, and they’ll appeal to you as someone new on the scene, as somebody who can actually try to correct this kind of distortion. I kept saying to people, whether they were American officials of Iraqis, that my purpose there was really to find out what the situation was on the ground. If this was a war, who was winning it? How is it being fought? What kind of war exactly was it? And I found out during the course of the time I spent there that that question was extremely difficult to answer. You have an army there that is very smart. I met officer upon officer who’s extremely impressive, people who are really well trained, who are just strikingly able in armored warfare, in use of various kinds of communications, censers, organization of various kinds, intelligence. I was very impressed by the military people I met. And yet, during the course of the time I spent there, the situation on the ground showed this very dramatic downturn. When I first arrived, there were an average of about 15 to 17 attacks a day. By the time I left, it was up to almost 40. Now the numbers, I cite the numbers because they bring up an interesting issue, which is, how do you know what is going on? How do you know what is going on in a conflict like this? You see news coverage and you see, well, there was an attack today. And that in some way is taken to exemplify what’s happening on the ground. Things are going badly in Iraq. The Americans are being attacked. The Iraqis are being attacked. To the American officials, that focus on a few attacks in the country every day is deeply distorted. It distorts the real reality. And I was presented with this question again and again when I talked to officials there, which was, Well, okay, let’s take what they’re saying at face value: the coverage is distorted. How do you decide, if you’re coming here fresh, what the situation really is? Are there empirical ways we can judge this? One way you can judge is the number of American deaths. A second way you can judge it is the number of American wounded. A third way you can judge it is the number of attacks. As I said a moment ago, the number of attacks went up dramatically during the time I was there. These American officials would argue, Well, even if it’s gone up to 40 attacks, what does that matter? As one officer said to me, You know, there have been no engagements above the platoon level. Which is to say, none of this is real. Ricardo Sanchez, the general, the commander on the ground, said when I was there about a week, he said in answer to a question I asked him, The attacks we’re seeing are strategically and operationally insignificant. Now this is what the military think, has been quoted widely as saying. He’s made several similar remarks to that. Again, as a journalist, I kept looking at this and thinking, Well, is the coverage distorted? We are focusing on the attacks. And indeed the people who are doing the attacks have as their major allies the press.
DG: I know you had an inside view of how CBS News was covering Baghdad. Mark stayed with my colleagues at CBS. So before we leave the issue of distorted press coverage, what was your impression of in fact how it was being covered by a major network.
MD: A major network? CBS. [laughter] That’s true. David— Because of a friend of mind, Mr. Gelber here, I was actually consulting for CBS while I was there, so that I was wearing this press tag that said New York Review of Books, which didn’tÃ³ [laughter] Actually I would go in—this became a joke with my CBS colleagues until we went into a base at [Habbaniah?], which is near [Falusia?], which is where the largest number of attacks are going on right now, and we walked in and this major came up to me, and my colleagues always made jokes about New York Review of Books, and this guy, he shook all our hands, and he looked at my tag and he said, New York Review of Books, that’s my favorite magazine. The CBS people nearly keeled over. The cameraman literally fell against the wall. It turned out this guy had an Oxford Ph.D. and had written this book on counter-insurgency warfare—fascinating man. In any event, I was fortunate enough to spend a lot of time with CBS News. It’s fascinating watching the operation of a major network news bureau at close quarters in a war like this, because it’s absolutely true that if there was no one in the forest to hear the tree fall, the tree in effect would not be falling; that is, these rockets that were hitting the Rashid Hotel, the car bombings at the Red Cross and at the police stations, all of these things need the press as amplifiers. They need them, which is why the military is dismissive of them and frustrated by them. But you watch at very close quarters, or I watched at very close quarters, the kind of heart-pumping drama of being part of this kind of news crew in a story like this. The bureau itself is a suite of rooms on the fourth floor of the Ramal Hotel. All of the cameramen’s rooms, the sound men, the correspondent, the couple of correspondents now, the producers, all of their rooms are right around there, so it’s like a little tribe living very close together, eating with each other constantly, constantly interacting, this very small incestuous network of people, and constantly on the job. You’ll be standing in the hotel in the bureau and hear BOOM, an explosion outside. Everybody immediately runs up to the roof, the adrenaline starts pumping, you look around and try to see where the smoke is. Can you locate this explosion? You’re immediately on the radio, trying to talk to various sources to find out where it was. You have to get there right away, and there is this adrenaline-pumping, driving notion or feeling about trying to cover this story. It’s happening all the time. You want to be immediately at the scene of these events and get the best footage. It sounds absolutely fundamental or even too fundamental to point this out, but there is no story without the pictures. The pictures make the story. And on Monday, last Monday, when the Red Cross was bombed and the four—three—police stations were bombed, one bombing was stopped, on that day, if you looked at Kimberly Dozier’s piece from CBS, from Baghdad, it looked like the entire city was burning. I was joking to David when I came in that she said that night on the piece, ‘The restaurants are empty tonight and the streets of Baghdad are clenched with fear,Ã® or something like that. And I had just gone out and had dinner at a perfectly lively restaurant and come back and seen this report. There were a lot of people in the restaurant I was in. Now does that mean she was completely wrong? No. But it does mean that each story has a kind of arc that follows a certain drama. That is, the city is under siege. We’re showing you a city under siege, and everything which doesn’t fit into that arc doesn’t fit into the story. I was on the scene, I was actually driving to interview this intelligence officer that I mentioned before that Monday, and we’re driving along, and suddenly BOOM, the car actually lifted up on its wheels and you hear—it’s a sound I actually remember from Sarajevo and once in Haiti too—this very distinctive sound of the windows along a street tinkling in their frames. Do you know what I’m talking about? You hear this [?]. I heard that, and the car lept up, and it was clearly a huge explosion. We immediately turnedÃ³ I was a block away. I was the first person on the scene, which was a huge feather in my cap, that I was the first person on the scene. I had no camera or anything, I just had my notebook. I got back to the hotel later and the fixers and the drivers who kind of congregate down in the lobby stood up and clapped when I walked in because they had seen me on [El Ar Vio?] which was the first camera crew that got there running in front of the explosion, apparently in the right direction, toward the explosion rather than away from it. But I arrived on the scene, and you know there is this enormous premium given to getting there first, getting the pictures first, and this is the very dynamic that drives the military crazy, because that day, what, 43 people were killed. Now that’s a horrible thing. But to that military, is that a significant military engagement? No, they think. I got to the scene and just saw this hellish, this completely hellish scene of flames 12, 14 feet high, these two SUVs, the frames of these two SUVs were outlined in these flames, this enormous [?] flames, and behind it this inky black curtain of smoke that utterly obscured the building behind it. I thought that the building itself had completely been obliterated, and it took me a while to find out what exactly the building was. But I was reduced, because I couldn’t get close enough because the heat was so strong, to essentially —ambulances got there very quickly because there’s a hospital nearby—to basically counting the ambulances to get some idea of the number of bodies. In any event, I was trying to make a much broader point, which is how do you tell how this war is going? It’s very difficult to tell because the normal military terms of judgment are rendered really rather pointless. When you have four bombings, suicide bombings, in Baghdad within 45 minutes, it is impossible for the Americans to claim that the capital is secure, even though to them these bombings are essentially somewhat beside the point. They want to stop them, but militarily they think of them, as General Sanchez says, operationally and militarily insignificant. So I found the more I got into it, a week into it for example, that my terms of reference, I felt like I knew less than when I first got there. The terms of reference of how to evaluate what exactly was happening on the ground were becoming less clear rather than more clear. And I also found out, the one thing I did I think learn after that first week, was that the military itself felt itself completely at sea. That is, the officers weren’t always frustrated; they were essentially trying to redefine what was happening on the ground—these bombings, the attacks—as something that really wasn’t their main concern, as something somewhat irrelevant to what the real story was, and something that the press was excessively focused on because they were perversely anti-American, or weren’t doing their jobs, or whatever.
DG: You know, the phrase ‘winning hearts and mindsÃ® is back with us again, for those of you who were around during the Viet Nam War, and Time and ABC just undertook a major project to try and plumb the hearts and minds of the Iraqi people. Also I think some of the pollsters are making a lot of money by doing polls of the Iraqi people. So this is sort of a two-part question: One is, did you find any way of gauging what ordinary Iraqis in the street feel, a? And b, would it make a whole lot of difference if we could find out?
MD: Wow, that’s a great question. Let me preface the answer by saying that I heard about this project, about hearts and mind by ABC, in which ABC News is essentially sending 17, I think the number was 17, people over to do stories that, at least the way it was interpreted to me, are positive stories about what’s going on in Iraq. I heard about this byÃ³ I walked in one day to what had become my office, which I was sharing with Kimberly Dozier, who’s the CBS correspondent on the scene. I had this desk, she had this desk. And I noticed on her desk just in passing [laughs]—I just couldn’t help noticing on her desk that there was this memo there that essentially said, ‘Kimberly, Dan had the following thoughtsÃ®—I have a copy of this for you, I’ll never be in CBS Bureau again, I have a feeling, after I say this—
DG: Speak that name with a little more reverence.
MD: It essentially was a list of positive ideas. One of them was, ‘Dan remembers a town somewhere between Baghdad and [Basra?], where there was a hospital where good things were being done. Can you check this out?Ã® Anyway, I won’t go on. But this was a very funny memo, and of course I started reading it aloud and laughing and was immediately essentially told that others weren’t quite as amused as I was by this. But essentially the point of the story is that as soon as DavidÃ³ As someone at the CBS Bureau said, Yeah, you know, ABC isÃ³ I said, Where did this come from? They said, Well, ABC is sending 17 people here to do positive stories. I said, Really? Why are they doing that? And someone said, Well, who knows what fucking cocktail party David Weston thought this up at—the president of ABC. So now you have pressure for positive stories from CBS. Of course, I shouldn’t say positive stories; this is trying to find out hearts and minds of the Iraqi people. I’m laughing about this, but this is kind of the natural way of this kind of commerce and pressure among the government and the press. If George Bush gets out there and Dick Cheney, and Condaleeza Rice, and Don Rumsfeld, and they give a series of speeches, as they did about three, four weeks ago, about things are better in Iraq than you’re hearing, and the press is distorting the impression of Iraq, then this will have its effect. It will have its effect. The news bureaus, the major newspapers, everyone will start to look at this as some kind of challenge and look for the more positive story. We can debate—and I hope we’ll have questions, I’m sure, we can talk about how terrible this is or how natural it is in a minute—but that is the natural course of events. It won’t completely change the coverage but it will have an effect on the coverage. Now, hearts and minds. I don’t know how you get the answer to that question. I do know there have been a number of polls. They’re relatively primitive in how much of the country they cover and their results, as polling results often are, are somewhat ambiguous. They show that most Iraqis are very happy that Saddam is gone. One of the more well known of them shows that the great majority think[s] that things will be better in five years than they are now, which is taken by people supportive of the occupation to mean that there’s a generally optimistic attitude, and taken by people critical of the occupation to mean that Iraqis are really pissed off about the way things are right now. The polling results are ambiguous. It is absolutely true, as American officials say, that if you simply cover the war as this showing violence in Iraq, that that is a simplified view and a somewhat distorted view of what’s going on. There are large areas of Iraq where it is not violent, where there are not attacks. On the other hand, the capital and the area in central Iraq, which you would think would be absolutely necessary to secure it, to say that the country is secured, is the center of the kind of activity, the kind of attacks, we’re talking about, point one. Point two: The number of attacks is growing, the number of attacks every day is going up. Point three: The area in which the attacks are happening is growing. Now that last point also is deeply ambiguous. Does it mean that the resistance, the guerillas, the insurgents, the terrorists, whatever you’d like to call them, are gaining more and more support, and thus the area of attacks is growing? Or does it mean that their groups—in the [northern ?] they’re called active service units —groups of attackers, small squads, that are moving around the country and attacking at different places, trying to give the impression that the insurgency is spreading. The answer to that question is, we don’t know. It’s possible that the American military has some idea of it, but this goes a bit far afield from the hearts and minds question.
DG: Well this occupation is now being analogized almost daily to other occupations. We’ve seen analogies to the U.S. war in Viet Nam, to the Israeli occupation of the West Bank, to the French occupation of Algeria. Do any of these fit?
MD: I think the French occupation of Algeria is a fascinating comparison. How many here have seen Battle of Algiers? I think this is sort of the best treatment of this kind of war that you can find, and I urge you people who are interested in this to rent that movie, Gillo Pontecorvo’s movie from 1966 about the Battle of Algiers in the late Ã«50s. That’s a very methodical look at howÃ³ It’s like a cookbook. How do you run an insurgency? The first half is kind of how you put that together. The second half is how you suppress an insurgency. And you do it through superior intelligence, which equates in that movie to torture, and Pontecorvo is very clear-eyed about that. Superior intelligence and quick units on the ground. They use paratroops essentially. And the interesting thing is the movie tells the tale, to use the Algerian comparison, of the French victory in the Battle of Algiers, because they did win, and then the French defeat in the entire battle in Algeria; that is, it’s quite easy to actually win the military struggle such as it is, but lose the [?] political struggle. You know, you can make comparisons, I think, obviously to Algeria. That’s a very different history, of course. The French had been there for nearly 140 years. The Americans have just arrived in Iraq. I interviewed this American major, this planning officer. He was a guy in Bagdad whose responsibility it was to plan these convoys, to plan the patrols. I wanted to find out, What do you think you’re doing when you’re trying to fight this war? So far as I could see—I spent a lot of time in Falusia—so far as I could see the American strategy was to send out patrols and wait till they were attacked. I couldn’t see much more of a strategy than that, and it seemed to me there must be more of a strategy than that. I interviewed this major who was very smart, had all kinds of post-graduate studies at Levenworth, at, where else, National Defense University—a very smart, very highly educated guy, who talked to me a lot about civil affairs, talking about hearts and minds. They’re putting together these [NAC?] councils, these neighborhood councils on the ground. He’d been involved in that. They’re trying to give power to the Iraqis, using Iraqi forces to guard the electricity grid. He told me all of these things they’re doing—very interesting—until I finally asked him what the center of gravity—center of gravity is […?] notion that the military is very familiar with—what’s the center of gravity of the enemy. And he was completely stunned. He hadn’t been thinking about the ‘enemyÃ® in those terms at all. So these guys, they’ve really been trained in heavy armored warfare, and despite what you can say about the lessons of Viet Nam, one of the clear impressions I had was that this is not a war that the Americans had been trained or organized to fight. That doesn’t mean that they won’t be able to fight it; it just means that it might take a long time for them to learn how to do it. Because at the moment they don’t really know what they’re doing on the ground, is my impression. Their intelligence isn’t good. They essentially have defined the enemy as something other than what they’re actually facing. I think this will change over time. The question is whether the American public will have the patience to let them learn. Because the other question I asked him was, What to the enemy is the American center of gravity? He was also kind of stunned at this notion, and he finally said, Well, it’s the American will. That’s what they’re attacking. That’s our center of gravity. Which I think is very much true, which is why the press is so important.
DG: One of the axioms of guerilla war is that guerillas win just by not losing. Is it possible, based on what you saw over there, that even if the outreach hearts-and-minds programs are successful, that this project could still fail as long as the organized cadres, whether they’re […?], whatever they are, or El Qaida, isn’t it possible that they could survive and sustain themselves even in a sea of people that are essentially quite happy that the Americans are there, or see that as a preferable alternative.
MD: I think that’s quite possible. But the question is, of course, what you define victory as. I think this administration probably would define victory as leaving some kind of vaguely stable government behind that isn’t an embarrassment to the United States or isn’t anti-American. And if there’s some continuing violence on the ground, as long as it isn’t constantly killing Americans or getting on the front page, they would define that, I think, as victory. You know, it’s interesting, hearts and minds, that notion: One impression I got was that hearts and minds strikes me as kind of a smaller phenomenon, and we’re really talking about rather large phenomena when we talk about the political forces at work that are letting this insurgency grow. There are some obvious errors that the United States made in the occupation that we’re all familiar. I think at this point one of the most obvious ones is this dissolving of the army, in which essentially the United States put on the street 400,000 young men who are armed, trained militarily, don’t have any means of support, and are pissed off. This was not a good idea. That was a major mistake, and it’s clear that Americans that are on the ground are rethinking that one way or another. Another major mistake was to let the looting go on. It’s now become clear that the looting was probably a planned operation put in place by the old regime. It was so thorough. You’re talking about ministry buildings, 20-floor buildings. The looters would come into a room like this, take not only the furniture—chairs, tables—but the light fixtures, the wiring, the drop-down ceiling, the clock, the doors, the door frames, the pipes in the walls, I mean absolutely everything, everything that could be taken out of the building would be taken, and then the building would be set on fire. And this was done all over the city, so that it was impossible, there was no way to set up a government because there were no offices, there were no chairs, there were no telephones. There was just nothing. The entire government in its physical manifestation was absolutely destroyed. So that’s a second very severe political mistake. Those things, it seems to me, put the Americans kind of in the minus zone. It’s like they were already behind the eight ball after those mistakes.
DG: I’m going to ask you one more question and then open it up to the audience: The two mistakes that you just cited, allowing the looting and disbanding the army, were mistakes that you were well aware of before you went to Iraq.
MD: Absolutely, yeah.
DG: We spoke about them. You had a very clear perspective on what you thought was happening. You spent some time there. How did the time that you spent there change, if at all, any of your basic assumptions about the Iraqi occupation.
MD: That’s a very good question. It’s true that I was pretty vocal in opposingÃ³ I thought this war was a foolish idea. I thought it was misconceived; it was built on dreams, badly planned, badly conceived. When I look back on it I think a lot of my views about the war were influenced by another story I covered a long time ago, which was the fall of Duvalier in Haiti. Haiti and Iraq have nothing whatever to do with one another, but that was a case of a national security regime, a regime that was built on the secret service, the Ministry of Defense, the army, the intelligence bureaus—that was its main center of gravity. And my first story about Haiti after the fall of Duvalier, the subtitle was ‘Haiti and Its Transition to Democracy.Ã® This was 1986. So we’re still waiting. I was very influenced by how difficult it is to influence the politics of a regime like this where you’ve had 30 years in which the regime in place has essentially destroyed all of its rivals, where it’s left the political field this kind of burned, barren ground. The idea that you could put forward a transition to democracy in a place like that left me very skeptical. So yeah, that was my view from the beginning, and there is a sense in which everything that’s happened has been this awful groundhog day of seeing something that you already feel you anticipated just unfolding in front of you. I was, I guess, surprised at how difficult it was to get a clear idea of what wasÃ³ Well, I wasn’t really surprised by it, but I was impressed by how difficult it was to get a clear idea of what was going on and how right the military was in saying that the press coverage is distorting some basic realities here, but how futile that point of view was as well. If there are four bombings in Bagdad on a Monday morning, that will be leads the news, because that is news. So I was impressed by the fact that the military and the American occupation authorities, in trying to pacify this country, are confronted with this impossible task, which they’re, they’re sort of like [Lakawan?]. They’re writhing against it, against these serpents around them—the press, this image of destruction that’s going on there, which they feel is unadulterated with the real good that is being done, but is being left largely uncovered by the American press. I don’t know if that answers your question.
DG: Okay, I’ll restrain my impulse to keep asking. They pay me a nickel a question though.
Q: I have a two-part question. The first is, did you ever make it over the concrete barrier in Bagdad to ask people […?]. And the second part of the question is, from everything I’ve read in The New York Times that Bush has handed down policies […?] not allowed to visit the mortuary [……?]. Did you get that sort of feeling when you were there about not being able to talk to lower-level military people? And if you were able to talk to them, what do they think […?]?
MD: Well, the first part of the question: I don’t want to leave the impression that what I described was me inside these concrete barriers. That’s not it at all. There’s a four-square-mile chunk of the city—it’s large, four square miles—and it’s surrounded by these barriers, and that’s where the Occupation Authority is. That is not where I was or where most journalists are. I was the [?] Hotel, people were in various hotels. They have barriers around them as well. But I was out in the city traveling around it, and eating in its restaurants, and talking to its people every day, all day. So no, what I was really trying to describe is this kind of way that you had to go through security every day. In fact, these kind of layers of security after the rocket attack on the Rashid—Paul Wolfowitz was there—I remember the next day I went into the military to see a military guy, and you had to go through barbed wire, several differentÃ³ It was just one after another, the security cordons. And whereas before we had had body searches twice, the day after this rocket attack there were of them. And I remember thinking distinctly, this is a pathetic. This is literally pathetic. This is really a reaction that’s somewhat [futile?/feudal?]. They had a rocket attack which essentially, you have these barriers and the rockets—I don’t know how aware you are of how this was done, but essentially you have these amazing, I mean these concrete things go to the ceiling, they’re huge, and the Rashid is where the Occupation Authorities stay, so all the people who are running the government of Iraq, the Americans, stay in this hotel that’s behind these barriers. Well, somebody in the middle of the night, I think it was about 5:30 in the morning, had drove this truck that had a generator behind it, this little two-wheel generator, they came right opposite the Rashid and these barriers, they sort of dropped it off, they clearly had planned this and aimed it beforehand, and they skedaddled, they run, and the things went off automatically, they had been aimed beforehand. So it essentially was very much a political message. Terrorism is a form of talk, terrorism is a way of talking, and this was a message saying—you’ll forgive me that—it was saying, Hey, all of your barriers, all of your protective devices, all of it, BOOM. We can kill you behind these barriers. And it was very eloquent. For anybody living in Bagdad, it was saying, You are the people who are most important to the Occupation Authority, you are the people running it. And Paul Wolfowitz, the Deputy Secretary of Defense, the guy who planned the whole war, they came within ten feet of killing him. It was an incredible thing. At the military briefing that night, the general responsible for Bagdad, Dempster, sort of made light of this and said, made a number of points. One of them was they had no idea Wolfowitz was there, that was a coincidence—which the press should have burst out laughing at; it didn’t, unfortunately. He also said this thing, these rockets, it was a science project. They sort of a welded together. He made light of it. Ray Bonner, the long-time reporter for The New York Times whom David and I both know well, afterwards came out of this briefing—he’s sort of Viet Nam era, slightly after it, Central America era especially—he came out after it and said, ‘The good news is it was a science project. The bad news is it was a science project.Ã® The other night I had this debate with Christopher Hitchens in which he said at a certain point, ‘You know, the U.S. is not going to lose in Iraq. The U.S. has absolute military superiority.Ã® And I said, ‘The good news is the U.S. has absolute military superiority. The bad news is the U.S. has absolute military superiority.Ã® Because these things are happening, and happening, and happening. So military superiority becomes a bad thing in the sense that all this is happening, but you have military superiority.
Q: So did you talk to those military guys?
MD: I did. I talked to military guys, a couple of the top generals in the country all the way down to privates, people on the ground, majors.
Q: Essentially my question is do they believe this bringing democracy thing? Do they really think that’s why we’re there?
MD: Yeah, I think most of the ones I talked to do believe it, absolutely. I think the military in general, the lower-down people are kind of pissed off, they’re kind of like, what are we doing here? Why are we spending all this money? Why are we here now? I got a lot of that from sort of private, specialists, people like that—very willing to express frustration. But the officer corps in general seemed very—at least to me, and of course you always have to realize that they know they’re talking to the press—but they seemed to me very much, you know, we’re doing good for the people here, we’re going to see this thing through. They were very determined. At least they gave a determined face.
Q: Knowing what you know now, do you think by next November America will be successful at […?]?
MD: I think that it’s likely that Americans will still be killed on a daily basis in Iraq a year from now. Partly, you know, that’s because when you talk about these insurgencies, they’re kind of different. The stuff going on in Falusia seems to be a lot of it based on personal grievances, there’s a lot of clan vengeance kind of thing where the Americans have shot civilians and their families have to kill an American soldier to take revenge. So that kind of thing I think is self-perpetuating and will go on a long time. Bagdad—you know, they apparently took down one of these cells the other night. It’s possible that they’ll make significant progress there because all of that depends on intelligence information. I think that the administration is giving a lot of signs showing that what they really want and hope is that by Memorial Day, which is really the beginning of the political campaign in earnest, they’ll be able to say they’re removing American troops. And I think the opposition in Iraq is very sophisticated, and they will endeavor to show that that’s not the case. I think they watch CNN. These people are very smart, is my impression.
Q: Who is the opposition in Iraq? Do you have any sense of the [……?] versus army-type […?]? And what’s the significance of catching Saddam?
MD: Well the first question is a very difficult one and it’s a key question, and it’s one I constantly asked everybody. I had become convinced of that a week into my trip, that if I could get the right figures and could map the kinds of attacks and the progress of attacks, I might be able to see through the statistics; for example, charting the kinds of attacks that went up when Osama made public statements, for example. There might be various ways to map the numbers to give you some indication to begin to answer the kind of questions you’re asking. By the time I left I thought I don’t think you can do it that way. My impression at the end of the day after talking to a lot of people is that most of this was an evolving plan, but one that was set in place before the regime fell, that’s being run by the mid-level intelligence people who were part of Saddam’s government. And that even though you have a lot of local stuff going on, you have this overlay of essentially [B-ist?] intelligence people who are doing this and who are employing military people who are unemployed, and of course there are several hundred thousand of those, and organizing them into cells into various parts of the country. And they’re trying to expand. The Islamist element—you know, people say a lot of different things about it. There’s no way to know. My impression was that the suicide bombings, for example, last Monday, they foiled one of them. They caught one of these guys who was a Yemenee with Syrian papers. He had come over the boarder less than 48 hours before, which suggests to me that even the suicide bombings I think are planned by the B-ist? and they’re using the bodies from El Qaida, that they’re being supplied, that this isn’t an infrastructure of El Qaida putting these on, that they B-ists, the intelligence agencies or what’s left of them, putting the things together and they’re funneling bodies in. But that’s just my impression after talking to a lot of people there. What was the second part?
MD: Oh, you know, clearly catching him is politically hugely important. One of the things really influencing what’s going on on the ground is that all of the special forces types who are in Iraq and who should probably be really fighting this war on the ground, are engaged in trying to find Saddam, and that is an enormous effort on the part of the American military which is sucking up huge amounts of resources. And they are really counting on this as the political coup de grace that will collapse this insurgency. Whether they’ll find him and whether that’s the case if they do find him is anyone’s guess. My impression is the longer it goes on, the less important it will be if they eventually catch him.
Q: I heard that the L.A. Times […?] resistance as resistance […?] WBAI […?]. I’m curious as to how well represented the press was [……?] alternative […?] alternative news sources in this country also there […?].
MD: No, no, although certainly the equivalent of cocktail parties is one of these bombings where everybody shows up obviously, so that’s where you see everybody from the press. I know a lot of people at The Times and Washington Post and people like that, and that’s who I saw. There are a lot of NPR people there. I don’t know about BAI. I didn’t say anybody. If you’re seeing reporting from BAI from the scene, I guess they’re there, but I don’t know. It’s very expensive to send somebody, not just transportation, but you needÃ³ CBS—I should mention this —the major news organizations have professional security people. The New York Times is in a house— [end Side A] —security types. CBS’s are from Pilgrim and they tend to be ex-SAS guys who are a fount of wisdom on insurgencies and military matters, because these guys have fought throughout the Middle East, Africa, Northern Island—
DG: Explain what SAS is.
MD: Oh I’m sorry, Special Air Service, which is the British, it’s really the British equivalent of the Delta Force. It’s a very small force, highly elite, much more elite than just the American Special Forces or even the Seals. It’s like Seal Team VI. It’s very small, very highly trained people. Anyway, the reason I bring this up is it becomes very expensive if you feel you have to secure your people to actually be there.
MD: No, I guess what I’m saying is the people I saw were mostly the major members of the press, but my impression is you get people cycling through.
MD: The first question about El Qaida and the B-ists I think is a very good one, and I think it was one of the risks of the war essentially that you’re essentially putting in place a recruiting poster for El Qaida and causing political marriages that wouldn’t have happened without the Americans entering into the region. Essentially, in the broad view—and this is what I argued before the war—we’re essentially responding to this attack on the United States which was trying to provoke this war of civilizations by invading and occupying a major Arab country. It seemed to me to be absolutely the worst thing we could do politically. So I agree with the drift of that question. The administration of course is saying that this is the central front of the war on terror, which is basically making a virtue of necessity, of the situation that they have now caused. They have also trotted out this thing that’s now being referred to as the ‘fly paper theory,Ã® which is that we should fight them in Iraq rather than having to fight them on the streets of New York. Which sounds good and apparently—they keep saying it so I’m sure it holds well. But it’s a pretty ridiculous statement because you’re talking about El Qaida’s somewhere between 8,000 and 30,000 people. Putting on September 11th took somewhere less than 30 people. It was very small scale as far as using resources, so the notion that fighting them in Iraq will stop terrorist actions elsewhere is completely unconvincing. The second part of the question about democracy I think is a really good point. In my experience a lot of everday Iraqis call the governing council, they call them ‘the exiles.Ã® Which is unfair, because a lot of them aren’t the exiles, but that’s the impression, that politically these people were indeed selected by the United States, as they of course were. So this is kind of a conundrum that the U.S. has put itself in. It doesn’t mean that this is a problem that’s insurmountable. It does mean that they start out with a political problem, which is that the democratic ground that the U.S. has established is by definition, because it is the U.S., somewhat poisoned politically. It’s one of the problems of imposing democracy. You’re kind of under the shadow of a ballooning nationalism. You are trying to create a democratic government that’s already partly politically poisoned by your very presence. And there’s like an indeterminacy effect here that I’m not sure you can conquer. So, good point I think.
MD: I’m glad you guys don’t have guns. They’re very different. I interviewed a lot of soldiers. I should mention this: One day when we were coming back from Falusia, we’d been stopped at a broad block. We were two four-wheel drive vehicles, I was with CBS, so two camera crews. And these people drove up behind us, these three four-wheel drive vehicles clearly also westerners, Europeans, whatever they were. And they came up to the road block, they turned around, and they went in the other direction. About two minutes later, BOOM, we heard an enormous explosion, we ran off after them, and we found these people who had just turned around basically lying all over the ground, and five of them had been killed and four had been wounded. And this happenedÃ³ If we had been two minutes slower it would have been us, or a minute slower. This is a very long story and I probably should have brought it up earlier, but basically after about a week of trying to unravel this, it turned out that the Americans had shot them. One of these explosive devices had gone off next to the road, next to this American convoy. The civilian vehicles had been next to the American military convoy, and the Americans swung their guns around and thought the civilians were attacking them and had shot them all basically. I interviewed a number of these soldiers. It took a while for us to find them, but I interviewed a number of them. They were very kind of admirable people really. I was impressed with them. They were very smart. They were very frank about what they had done. They basically said, These people were next to us, they had guns in the car—which they did, their security people had AK47’s, so they saw guns in the car—one of them had a walkie-talkie, so we thought that they were calling in this attack. They had a complete explanation for why they had done this. It sounds peculiar since they had shot these civilians to say they impressed me, but they did. They basically said, Well, war is war, they shoot at us, we shoot at them, sometimes people get caught in the middle, and this is what we do. They were very frank and relatively dispassionate about it. Soldiers are very, what’s the word, fatalistic and also tend to be superstitious. They’re not very demonstrative or dramatic in any way. They’re just very basic in the way they talk, very much not about ideas, but about the work on the ground. ‘We think we’re making progress every day.Ã® There was a lot of bewilderment about why the people weren’t more grateful to have them there, a lot of bewilderment about the impression of the people toward and the attitude of the people toward them.
DG: Let me interpose a question and then I’ll get to you: If you got a call tomorrow from Rumsfeld and Cheney, and they said, Mark, I think maybe we screwed up on this. What do we do now? What would you tell them?
MD: That’s such a good question, but it kind of haunts me, that question. I had this debate with Christopher Hitchens the other night in California, and we tore at each other about everything, but at the end, the last question really revealed that neither one of us thought that we should immediately withdraw from Iraq. And I hated to be put in this position because I had thought it was a terrible idea to begin with and I hated to stand up there and essentially say, Well, no, we shouldn’t withdraw immediately. But it’s very hard for me to see how withdrawing immediately the problem. I think that there have been an enormous number of mistakes that have been made already. It’s not in the American character to think that you can’t recover from certain things. We always think, Well, there’s a way to fix this. I think there are some mistakes that it’s going to be very difficult to recover from. I think that this is a mess that will probably get worse, is my sanguine approach to this. We chose to militarily occupy this country and to do it alone essentially. We could have probably if we’d had some patience and were willing to wait several months, we could have done it with other members of the international community, which would have been in many ways a lot easier, I think. Politically it would have been much easier, and it would have given the United States much more legitimacy. I still would have thought it was a foolish idea, but it would have been a lot smarter to do it that way. So we took it on alone, we’re there alone, and we’re suffering the casualties alone. If Rumsfeld and Cheney called me, I’d probably tell them, Sorry, you guys bought this war. You’re going to have to fight it. When I look at them I also see people who are somewhat torn in their political convictions. On the one hand they wanted to cause a democratic revolution in the Middle East; on the other hand, every time you seeÃ³ Bush comes out every time there is one of those days, like last Monday, and says, ‘The United States will not be intimidated.Ã® He gives that grimace he has, you know. But of course the next day Wolfowitz will announce that we’re going to hand over security responsibility more quickly to Iraqi forces, which essentially means that they’re grabbing these people, training them for two weeks, and putting them into these militias. These are militias that the bad guys are going to infiltrate. That’s what I would do. They will be infiltrated. And all of thisÃ³ This isn’t going to simply end however we get out of it. The question is what kind of government are you going to have there after this? That’s a question that’s unmistakable, because there is a transition going on one way or another that we have caused, and we will have to live one way or another with the results. I guess I feel that we’ve unleashed a tiger that we really don’t have control of. I’m sorry I can’t give a more positive answer.
MD: Well, the first part would simply be speculation. My sense is that if the U.S. essentially withdrew—we wouldn’t completely withdraw, but if we essentially withdrew—the forces that are best organized on the ground would have the best chance of taking power in one way or another. The forces best organized on the ground are the B-ists, the successor to the former regime, just the way the Duvalier-ists were in Haiti. […?] regime was there for 30 years. It doesn’t just go away unless you kill it, and they’re still there. So they would certainly have a leg up in the central part of the country. The Kurds presumably would protect their gains in the north, and it’s anybody’s guess in the south, and I’m not really qualified to speculate on what Iran’s role would be, and so on, in the south. But you know there is a struggle going on, and of course since we’re Americans, we’re thinking of this from an American perspective here, obviously. But there is a point of view, and probably a more legitimate one, that sees the American presence as the transitory one, regardless of whether they pull out early or pull out later, and that what is going on now is a struggle for the post-war dispensation. The question is, will Iraq continue to be run by a [?], which has essentially run the country during its existence—not just since 1920, but much farther back under the Ottomans and so on—or do you have in some way a Shiite government that will be ruling what is present-day Iraq in one way or another, in some federal system which would give Saudi Arabia and other countries serious problems, because they have their own Shiite minorities that they’ve worried about historically. Anyway, as I say, my impression is early U.S. pullout would give the advantage to those forces that are organized on the ground. As far as the Germans and the French go, I can’t see a situation where they would push for the Americans to stay in. Their whole policy now is a little strange, which is that the Americans should hand over authority sooner rather than the later to the coalition, to the Governing Council, which I don’t think is a very logical policy actually and has always struck me as kind of just contrary, kind of a French wanting to put forward policy that the U.S. won’t accept. It sounds rather simple, but the French wouldn’t be that simple, would they?
DG: I’m under orders to permit two more questions, so who really wants to ask a question? You’ve had your hand up for a long time.
MD: Sure. I’d love to preempt Dan. Look, first of all this enormous and horrible dictatorship is gone, which the guy who drove me around the first few days would say something like, Well, this guy used to live there, this guy. He kept saying this guy. And I finally realized about 24 hours into my stay that he was talking about Saddam. He wouldn’t say Saddam. This guy is very much in people’s heads. This dictatorship was very severe, it was fairly bloody, and it inculcated itself into the consciousness of the Iraqi people in a way that really is going to have to die out. The mature generation of Iraqis is going to have to