September 2, 2010 — Listen to the interview
NEAL CONAN, host:
Last night, President Obama declared the U.S. combat mission in Iraq at an end. Fifty thousand U.S. troops remain, much work needs to be done, but he said it's time to turn the page.
The best history of the war has yet to be written. It will benefit from distance, perspective and declassified documents. But first-person accounts are often best delivered fresh. In a moment, we'll turn to Tom Ricks to talk about the best and worst memoirs to emerge from seven years of war in Iraq. If you'd like to nominate a book in either category, give us a call: 800-989-8255. Email us: firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also join the conversation at our website. That's at npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION.
Thomas Ricks is a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security in Washington. He blogs for foreignpolicy.com and he joins us on the line from Maine. Tom, always nice to have you on the program.
Mr. THOMAS RICKS (Senior Fellow, Center for a New American Security): Thank you.
CONAN: And we have to begin by ruling your books out of this conversation, "Fiasco" and "The Gamble." But I wanted to ask you, as the author of some books analyzing the conflict, you agree future writers will have enormous advantages?
Mr. RICKS: No, I don't, actually. I think the advantage of declassified documents has already been taken. This is something I think that will be of historical interest in the future. "Fiasco" was a book written in the email era, which was different from any book I've written before.
When I wrote "Fiasco," every time I mentioned somebody by name, I would email to that person, if they were in the Army...
Mr. RICKS: ...the section of the book, because you can reach anybody in the Army basically at email@example.com. And so people I hadn't met would write back to me and say: Well, you know, you got some of that, but here is the affidavit I gave to the investigators about that, or here's the written statement I did, Here's the analysis, Here's the after action report, and so on. And then I'd do that again with the next version and sent it again to all the new people that were mentioned.
And so by the time the book came out, hundreds of people in the Army had had running conversations with me by email. So I think we are actually able to reach a lot more information a lot more quickly than people were in the past. You couldn't have done this, clearly, like in the Korean War, talk to people who would come in from firefights and say: Well, you know, I'm sorry I didn't get back to you yesterday. I was in combat.
CONAN: Mm-hmm. That's - I had not heard that. That's an interesting observation. So even if, you know, policy decisions that are, at this point, opaque, become clearer later or some of the techniques used to, you know, reconnaissance and that sort of thing become more available later. What we learn from codes and that sort of thing, that's not going to be to great advantage?
Mr. RICKS: I don't think so. I mean, when I wrote "Fiasco," I had access to about 30,000 pages of documents. I called it email declassification. We have seen WikiLeaks do this much irresponsibly lately, just by throwing out things they hadn't even read and putting them out on the Internet.
By the way, while we're talking about books and things like that, someone who I think has really covered this war beautifully and especially in the nature of communication has been the comic strip "Doonesbury."
Mr. RICKS: If I were in the Pulitzer committee, I would give Gary Trudeau a special Pulitzer for his coverage of the war. Much more, I think, than most journalism, he has captured the feel of this war. And specifically, I remember one strip about a guy coming back from a firefight and getting emailed by his wife. You know: How come you didn't tell me you were in a firefight? I saw you on TV. And he just starts banging his head on the desk.
(Soundbite of laughter)
CONAN: In general, who writes the best memoirs? Is it generals or is it lieutenants?
Mr. RICKS: Well, historically, it's been generals. I mean, the classic memoirs, when we think - go back through history, General Grant's memoir of World War I; Eisenhower's, I think, undeservedly not unnoticed memoir, "Crusade," of World War II, which I think is actually quite a good book. So it's been generals who have written the histories that we remember.
And there have been good individual memoirs that come out later. For example, I think one of the best military memoirs ever is Eugene Sledge's memoir, being a Marine in World War II, called "With the Old Breed," in the Pacific, I think. "With the Old Breed: At Peleliu and Okinawa"...
Mr. RICKS: ...is the actual title.
CONAN: Yes. And you just...
Mr. RICKS: In this
war has been kind of interesting because we've seen the best memoirs come from younger people and notably, from enlisted people, which has not been a category we have seen a lot from previous wars of terrific memoirs from. It's been junior officers, lieutenants, like my boss Nate Fick at the Center for New American Security.
Mr. RICKS: Kayla Williams wrote a very good memoir of being female soldier in the 101st Airborne. David Bellavia wrote a terrific and scary memoir of a fighting in Anbar province, called from - "House to House."
CONAN: And there have also - by the way, emailers, hold your horses. Tom Ricks knows that General Grant in the Civil War. He just misspoke. The - there have also been some journalists who have been writing a lot of first-person accounts when they were in embedded with these - with the troops.
Mr. RICKS: Yeah. I think those are okay, actually, the memoirs by journalists that struck me most, but - where two by people outside the military. Rajiv Chandrasekaran's book - I never liked the title. It's called, like, "What the Imperial Life in The Emerald City."
Mr. RICKS: I think he should just call it "The Green Zone." (unintelligible)
CONAN: That's what they did with the movie, which wasn't as good, though.
Mr. RICKS: No. And the movie was a bomb apparently. I never saw it. "The Hurt Locker" took care of all the movie I needed to see in Iraq for a long time.
Mr. RICKS: And also, Anthony Shadid, another former colleague of mine, now at The New York Times, unfortunately. Anthony Shadid wrote a lovely book called "Night Draws Near," which is the American occupation through Iraqi eyes. I remember being very impressed with it. But I was taken aback one day. A captain in the 82nd Airborne said to me, my God, if only I've read this book before my first tour, I would have done everything differently.
CONAN: It's - did you read "The Forever War" by Dexter Filkins?
Mr. RICKS: I have not read it yet. I have it. My mother's given it to me. I've just been off working on my next book, and so - for which I have to read about 1,000 books to begin with...
Mr. RICKS: ...from the history of American generalship. And so, I haven't had time to keep up with all the Iraq and Afghanistan books, lately.
CONAN: Dexter Filkins' book, I would put right up there. Let's see if we get some callers in from some listeners. 800-989-8255. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org. Tom Ricks is with us from the Center for New American Security. We're talking about the best and - well get to the worst books coming out of the war in Iraq as well. Let's see if we can start with - this is Adam(ph), Adam with us from Tallahassee.
ADAM (Caller): Hi, there. How's everybody today?
CONAN: Good. Thanks.
ADAM: Good. I'm calling to recommend - it's not a traditional memoir. It's a book of poetry, actually, by an army sergeant named Brian Turner. His book is called "Here, Bullet." And the reason I'm recommending it is think poetry is has, historically, a really fantastic documentation message for a lot of things, but war, specifically. Percy Bysshe Shelly said that poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world. And I think, in this case, that definitely holds up. I think this book - and, you know, if he's lucky enough, would go down in the annals of war poetry along with - people like Wilfred Owen.
CONAN: Well, Wilfred Owen, from - we associate poets in the First World War, in particular. Tom have you read "Here, Bullet?"
Mr. RICKS: I have. Not particularly to my taste, that book. But I agree that poetry, sometimes, is the best medium through which to catch the intensity in this - in the really scarring nature of warfare, much more than clothes or movies.
CONAN: Adam, thanks very much.
ADAM: Thank you.
CONAN: Bye-bye. Let's go next to - this is John(ph), John with us from Bowling Green in Kentucky.
JOHN (Caller): Hey. How are you guys doing today?
JOHN: Yeah. I'd like to recommend I know it was mentioned earlier. But "House to House" is a phenomenal book and it was just a visceral tale of the fight for Fallujah. As was "Chasing Ghosts" from more of a National Guard unit's perspective, about trying to maintain peace in Baghdad in the early parts of the war. But both were very fantastic books that I thoroughly enjoyed.
CONAN: "House to House," one of your suggestions, too, Tom.
Mr. RICKS: Absolutely. I remember blurbing it and I stand by what I said, which was that people used to say that real war will never get in the books. I was a saying in World War II. I think what "House to House" David Bellavia, an army sergeant, came as close as I've ever seen to getting the real war in a book.
JOHN: Oh, it was extremely well-done. And as a junior officer, those are books that we read to kind of capture the enlisted experience and kind of get that experience from someone who had been there and done that. And I appreciate you for taking my call.
CONAN: All right, John. Thanks very much. Let's see if we can go next - this is Randy(ph), Randy with us from Madison.
RANDY (Caller): Yes. What I wanted to do is to just sort of tell you what it gives the parents who has children in the service, when you read somebody like Ricks. You exhale because you realize someone has the courage. All of these books like I consumed them like water because you often can't say things for fear of being, you know, branded unpatriotic or something. And when you read and then can discuss the book, it lets you sort of be - it was like physical therapy or something. So, first of all, that's just what I want to say. Thank you for being courageous and even reviewing the books. So, Mr. Ricks, just would let you know as parents of multiple children in the service who do these tours - I don't know. Just - look for whatever. It's just like exhaling or something.
CONAN: Randy, you said multiple? How many kids do you have in the forces?
RANDY: Well, four.
CONAN: And are they all okay?
Mr. RICKS: Wow.
RANDY: They're all okay, thank goodness. One did four tours in Iraq and he had some danger, believe me.
CONAN: And is everybody home at this point?
RANDY: At this point, they haven't all been back. And, actually, they feel that they've done and accomplished their goal, the mission was won as well, for whatever its worth.
CONAN: Well, Randy, thank you...
Mr. RICKS: You know, I think it's harder to be a parent of someone who is deployed than to be deployed. I think it's harder...
RANDY: It's unbelievable.
Mr. RICKS: I think it's harder to be the spouse of someone who's deployed than to be deployed.
Mr. RICKS: I talked to my wife about this that, you know, what is in Iraq you've been kind of caught up in the moment? But when your - you know, your wife is just back here, your spouse is back here and doesn't know what you're going through or whether you're safe or in danger.
CONAN: And - Randy, go ahead.
RANDY: But it's unreal, you know, because you can't disagree with what's going on for fear you'll discourage your children, and yet you want to (unintelligible). There's no way to describe it, so books like yours are just as so valuable.
CONAN: All right. Randy, thank you so much for the kind words. We appreciate it.
CONAN: Bye-bye. We're talking with Tom Ricks about the best and worst books, memoirs to come out of the war in Iraq. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
And we'll get back to that in a minute. But we had some questions regarding Ken Rudin's trivia question earlier this hour. The last woman to be elected governor or senator to be defeated in a primary. Some callers and emailers wanted to know why not Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison, who was defeated this year in a primary for governor. Ken said that while the question did not specifically say women who were defeated for renomination, that language was part of the conversation after some wrong answers came in. So yes, Hutchison did lose a primary this year, is an elected senator - that's not what Ken meant in the question even if, as he acknowledges, it may not have been precisely what he asked. So we'll take that as an apology of sorts.
Anyway, Tom Ricks, we were talking about the memoirs by enlisted men and junior officers. The generals, have they produced anything interesting?
Mr. RICKS: The generals have produced junk - and other top officials. On my blog on Foreignpolicy.com, I did a list recently of the kind of worst books in the Iraq war. And my all-time-stinker winner was by Tommy R. Franks, his memoir, "American Soldier" - for my money, one of the worst memoirs that I've ever read; closely followed by L. Paul Bremmer's "My Year in Iraq." You know, I thought it would hard to write a dull book about Iraq. He managed to do it. It's just - it's totally out of touch. You get the sense this guy had no idea what was going on when he was ostensibly in charge there.
Mr. RICKS: Ricardo Sanchez, another American general, also produced a piece of junk called "Wiser in Battle," which was an odd title, given that, by general consensus, he was a failure and not particularly wise in his handling of Iraq in '03, '04.
CONAN: What made Tommy Frank's book so bad? Was it poorly written? Or was it, I mean - just a lot of people didn't agree with, you know, what he did. Did he acknowledge the criticism?
Mr. RICKS: No, he kind of blew it off. He doesn't really grapple with the hard questions. He struck me as not only a stupid man, but an unself-knowing man, unself-aware. And he just, kind of, falls into this pattern that you see in a lot of memoirs that have ghost writers. He kind of gives you a once-over lightly of his career, talks a little bit about Iraq, and then skedaddles sideways, which is kind of what he did in Iraq.
Remember, Tommy Franks retired in July 2003 just as the real war in Iraq began with the rise of the insurgency. As one person high up in the U.S. government said to me, Tommy put down his backpack when everybody else was picking up theirs.
CONAN: Let's see if we can go next to Victor(ph), Victor with us from Baltimore.
VICTOR (Caller): Yeah, hi. Can I turn it around just for a second and ask Mr. Ricks if he can recommend a good analysis, that he likes, as to the - what the future holds for Iraq?
Mr. RICKS: Yeah, it's a good question. You're not going to find it in a book, I don't think. I think you'll find it in blogs and news articles and commentary that's being written right now. On my blog, I try to mention good articles I see. Somebody I pay particular attention to, who I linked to today on my blog, is Reidar Visser, who is extremely good on Iranian influence in Iraq, which I think will be a major story over the next couple of years. But I think if you want to see where Iraq is going, follow blogs and news articles, not books.
VICTOR: Yeah, okay. Thanks.
CONAN: Victor, thanks very much. And we're talking about books coming out of the war in Iraq. There's also been a slew of books out of Washington, about Washington's role in the war in Iraq. Any to recommend there?
Mr. RICKS: Well, I think that Bob Woodward's - it's not a trilogy, now, I guess it's a quadrology or...
CONAN: I guess, yeah.
Mr. RICKS: But his series of books have been an extremely good account of the view from Washington. If I'd fault Bob on anything and Bob is an old and valued colleague of mine at The Washington Post - it would be that it's entirely a Washington perspective. You don't get an Iraq perspective. It is sort of trying to look at the war in - say war in Vietnam without ever having any account of what's going on on the ground. But Woodward's books about the Bush handling of the war, I think, are essential and will be for many years to come.
There've been a couple of memoirs out of Washington. Douglas Feith, a Pentagon official, Richard Myers, who is chairman of the Joints Chiefs, wrote a couple of books. Well, for my money, two more pieces of junk that just killed a bunch of trees, needlessly.
CONAN: All right. Here's an email we'll end with, this from Richard(ph): I would like to nominate the book "Babylon by Bus" as one of the best. I think it captured the tone, ineptitude and wildly inaccurate ideas of the Iraqi population by our government at the early days of the war. Highly readable. That's from Aaron(ph), excuse me, in Kingston, New York.
So Tom Ricks, thanks very much for your - are you blogging on vacation in Maine?
Mr. RICKS: I'm not on vacation. I'm actually hiding out here, trying to write a book.
CONAN: Well, we'll talk to you then when you get it done. Appreciate your time, Tom.
Mr. RICKS: Thank you, you're welcome.
CONAN: Tom Ricks is a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security here in Washington and author of "The Gamble" most recently. He joined us on the line from Maine. You can see his top five picks of Iraq war books at our website, npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION.
Tomorrow, we'll try to make sense to this up and down economy. Plus, Academy Award-winning actor Martin Landau joins us. Join us for that. This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.