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ISIS Is Trying To Create A Doomsday Bomb, But Is The Key Ingredient A Myth?

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ISIS Is Trying To Create A Doomsday Bomb, But Is The Key Ingredient A Myth?


ISIS Is Trying To Create A Doomsday Bomb, But Is The Key Ingredient A Myth?

ISIS Is Trying To Create A Doomsday Bomb, But Is The Key Ingredient A Myth?

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

New York Times reporter C.J. Chivers discusses efforts by ISIS to weaponize a mysterious substance known as red mercury. "It's never been seen," he says. "It essentially is an urban legend."


This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. ISIS has been trying to get its hands on a lethal substance called red mercury. If ISIS succeeds in getting it, they could potentially create a weapon as powerful as a neutron bomb. But ISIS is up against a big obstacle in fulfilling its doomsday dream - red mercury does not exist. My guest C. J. Chivers wrote an article called "The Doomsday Scam" that's in the current edition of The New York Times Magazine. Chivers is an investigative reporter for The New York Times who spent long periods in war zones including Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and Syria. He's conducted extensive analyses of weapons used in wars and how those weapons got to into the hands of extremists and rebel groups. Last year, he revealed that some American troops in Iraq were exposed to and wounded by chemical weapons left over from the Iran-Iraq War of the 1980s. The compound where many of these weapons were tested and stored was taken over by ISIS last year, but it's no longer under their control. Chris Chivers has given up reporting from war zones. He'll tell us why a little later. Chivers served as an infantry officer in the Marine Corps and is the author of the book "The Gun," a history of the AK-47. Chris Chivers, welcome back to FRESH AIR. Let's start with red mercury. What is it supposed to be?

C. J. CHIVERS: That depends on who you ask. It's supposed to be almost anything. But most spectacularly, it's supposed to be a shortcut to building a nuclear bomb.

GROSS: But scientists who you've spoken to don't believe it actually exists - why not?

CHIVERS: They don't believe it exists because it's never been seen. It's never been analyzed. It's never been found. It essentially is an urban legend.

GROSS: But ISIS apparently does believe that red mercury exists. Do you know why ISIS would believe that it exists?

CHIVERS: ISIS and a lot of other people in organizations believe it exists because there's ample material out there that would suggest that it might exist, on the Internet and in folklore. There is this belief that the substance that remains from various points of origin, including Soviet nuclear weapons programs, that's on the black market and is available for sale, and as I said a moment ago, can be used to make a weapon that would change the character of a war.

GROSS: And as you write, red mercury, if it did exist, would be the perfect apocalyptic weapon for a terrorist group driven in part by its belief in the end of the world - the imminent end of the world.

CHIVERS: The way it was explained to us by the - if we could call them a purchasing agent for the Islamic State - was that if they were able to get their hands on red mercury they could use it to change the frontline battles in Iraq and Syria and break out and essentially expand the caliphate.

GROSS: So why is it important to write a story about ISIS's pursuit of a doomsday substance that doesn't exist?

CHIVERS: We had a number of reasons for looking into this. And one of them was that we were contacted early in June by this same purchasing agent, Abu Omar, who had a photograph or a set of photographs of what he thought was red mercury. And he had essentially called us up to taunt us by showing us these pictures and saying that he was hunting for this substance. And that initially intrigued us. I've heard about red mercury for years but I'd never seen sort of a scam in real time. And as we sta.rted to look into it, we wanted to know, how is it that the red mercury myth still is out there duping people? Why does it have such a long life in the public imagination? We also came to realize this myth is hurting people, that the red mercury is many things but it's - for people who are trying to find it or sell it or pass it off, it's a way, perhaps, to make a lot of money. And in portions of the world where the myth exists, it takes one form, which is that if you open up conventional munitions you might find small samples of it in, say, a land mine or a mortar bomb. And people have been killed trying to do this, so there was one level of public service announcement sort of quality to try to refute the myth. And then we had some other motivations as well, that by looking at how the Islamic State is pursuing red mercury you can also see how they're pursuing many other things. This was a way to have a conversation with Abu Omar about other things he's doing in the procurement of supplies for this war.

GROSS: What other things?

CHIVERS: Well, those were the things that you would more expect - flak jackets, helmets, medical kits, surgical instruments, cellular phones. It grew from there a bit to include small commercial drones and then the oddball items that any marshal or guerrilla force - which at the end of the day is made up of people - might want. So, you know, he's also done some shopping individually for members of the Islamic State, including one character who he said asked him to buy a house cat.

GROSS: A house cat - to buy a house cat?

CHIVERS: A house cat. He apparently had tried raising or living with a Syrian cat or some Syrian cats, and they weren't friendly enough, so he wanted a more civilized pet.

GROSS: So you describe Abu Omar as a purchasing agent. What does that mean? What kind of network - what kind of smuggling network is he part of?

CHIVERS: He's part of a large smuggling network. It's hard for us to map it, but you can palpably sense that, you know, all sorts of cross-border traffic into Syria continues, even with - you know, what would appear as you drive by it - a hard and secure border with, you know, guard towers and checkpoints and the like. But a lot flows back and forth across the border. And there's a lot of people involved in this trade. The trade involves almost any number of items from the sundry to the spectacular. And he is one part of, you know, a very big operation that doesn't just exist, by the way, for the Islamic State. It exists to bring normal, everyday household supplies to the populations in Syria. And it existed before the war. It has existed in various phases of the ongoing conflict there. And he happens to have sentiments, or sympathies, for the jihadists - for both Jabhat al-Nusra, the al-Qaida affiliate, and for the Islamic State. So he works in large degree for them.

GROSS: I still don't really understand why he'd contact you.

CHIVERS: Well a lot of these - you know, it's interesting you say that because a lot of the people who have joined Jabhat al-Nusra, or who have joined the Islamic State have passed through different phases of this war. And early, when the war was an uprising, a revolution, and it was more narrow in its scope and more innocent in its behaviors, many of these people knew a lot of the people who have gone in different directions, meaning they knew people who have become refugees, who have become translators for journalists, who have become drivers for non-governmental organizations, and who live and work along the border. And they are, in some ways, long-time contacts. I mean, I can tell you one story about a friend of mine who used to work for the Associated Press and now works for The New York Times. And he assembled a team several years ago, working as a journalist inside Syria, that included a driver and an interpreter, a translator, news assistant. So the three of them would come and go on their work inside Syria and back and forth to Turkey in 2012 and, I think, into 2013. And as the war evolved, both the interpreter and the translator and the journalist came to work for the New York Times. And the driver went to work for Jabhat al-Nusra. And they knew each other three or four years ago. And they're very different in outlook now, but they still have each other's phone numbers and there is still communication that occurs like this among all sorts of people along the border of all sorts of persuasions.

GROSS: So Jabhat al-Nusra is a group affiliated with al-Qaida?

CHIVERS: Yes, it's the al-Qaida affiliate in Syria.

GROSS: So do you think by coming to you he was hoping to scare Americans into thinking that ISIS was very close to acquiring red mercury, this potential, like, doomsday chemical...

CHIVERS: Well, no, I don't want to create that impression. He - I don't think he came to me with the understanding that we would have any intention of doing a story about this.

GROSS: I see.

CHIVERS: He came to us because he was sending a picture of something he was trying to procure, and he was sort of curious for our assessment of this red mercury - or supposed red mercury - rocket warhead that he had two or three photographs of. And, I mean, my assessment of it when the call came in and I was sitting in a shed that I work in in New England and I opened the image and I said, I don't know what this is, what is it? What you think this is? And the answer came back, it's red mercury. And my assessment of it was almost to fall off my stool. I think he was looking for confirmation and I had no idea what it was. I had never seen a photograph like that before. It didn't match anything. I puzzled over it for a few minutes, wasn't even convinced that it was a weapon - often, people send us photographs of things that are not weapons. And I was sort of scratching my head, and I said, I don't know what it is, what do you think it is? And he was sort of like, haha (ph) you arms expert, it's red mercury, you don't know anything.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is C. J. Chivers who is a reporter, an investigative reporter, for The New York Times. And his article in the current New York Times magazine is called "The Doomsday Scam." And it's about how ISIS is trying to acquire a substance called red mercury which, if weaponized, would be lethal - kind of like a neutron bomb. Except scientists say the substance doesn't exist. Let's take a short break. Then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is New York Times investigative reporter C. J. Chivers. He contributes to the foreign and investigative desks. He writes about conflicts, politics, crime and human rights. He's covered war and conflict in Afghanistan, Iraq, Russia, Georgia, Chechnya, Syria, Libya. And his article in the current New York Times Magazine is called "The Doomsday Scam." And it's about how ISIS is trying to get its hands on a substance called red mercury, with - which, if weaponized, would be like a neutron bomb. But scientists say this substance doesn't really exist. So since scientists say that red mercury doesn't really exist, what is, for you, the most interesting origin story of this myth?

CHIVERS: Well, I think that there were consistent origin stories that came out, and they sort of went in two very different directions. One was a set of origin stories that said this is an ancient substance that goes all the way back to, you know, several centuries into our past or beyond and that can be found by tomb looters in the graves of old sultans and princes. But the more interesting story, for me, was the origin story that came out of the Soviet Union, which said that late in the Soviet period, that Soviet arms designers and their nuclear program had found a way to create and store red mercury and that as they sensed that the Soviet Union was crumbling, they were worried about it falling into American hands. So they took red mercury in small parcels and inserted it into sewing machines and old radios and old television sets as well and exported it under the nose - under the nose of the authorities. They exported it out into the world and to the Arab world, and so that now, if you're looking for red mercury, the place to find it would be to take apart an old sewing machine or an old television set. And if you take apart enough of these, you may get a critical amount.

GROSS: There's another version of - you know, another origin story that you write about in your article in The New York Times Magazine, is that the U.S. and Russia collaborated in circulating red mercury stories to flush out nuclear smugglers and waste terrorist's time. How much credibility do you put in that story?

CHIVERS: There are certainly people who believe that. That is, when you talk among Western nonproliferation officials, that is a prominent theory. I wouldn't say it's prevailing, but a lot of people do seem to believe it. They also say they don't have any evidence for it when you question them on it. But the idea that this was an information operation, a deception put out first perhaps by the KGB - although in other variants of the story, it was said to have been put out in collaboration with the West and with Washington - as a way to convince people that there's some sort of substance out there that will be their shortcut to a neutron bomb or a nuclear-like blast and that this is designed or was designed as - exactly as you described, to waste people's time. I don't know that this is true, but it's interesting that this story, along with all of these others, kind of are out there battling each other on the Internet and in some fringe portions of the public imagination, to the point of which, if you sit with someone and try to convince him that red mercury doesn't exist, they may tell you that you're part of the information op, that - or that this New York Times article is part of the information op, that anything official or Western that tries to say that red mercury doesn't exist only proves that it does.

GROSS: You know, in some ways, there's almost a comic aspect to ISIS's search for red mercury since they believe it exists and it apparently does not exist. On the other hand, it's terrifying because it shows that if it did exist, they would gladly use it. They would gladly use the equivalent of a nuclear bomb.

CHIVERS: I think both things you just said are absolutely true. I mean, you asked why did we decide to do the story. And one reason we decided to do the story was to puncture, to a degree, this idea of, you know, grand terrorist sophistication or expertise or masterminds. I mean, these organizations are full of people, which means they have their bunglers. And they have their fools. And they have their fools' errands. And this is one of them. And, in some ways, you could say it's reassuring to see them chasing their tail in this way. On the other hand, what you just said is equally true. The fact that they're looking for the ultimate red button signals an intent to use it. And I would also argue, though, we know that already. We know they don't play by anybody's rules but their own. We know that they're sinister. We know that they have, as a policy, brutality and, as a practice, extreme violence. So there's no reason to think that anything that they could get their hands on to do others harm, they wouldn't try to acquire.

GROSS: Are there other reasons you wrote this article about red mercury which scientists say does not exist?

CHIVERS: Part of what I'm doing there is an act of subversion. That story, in some ways, spoofs a body of journalism that types up whatever its told. We, out there on the war beats, constantly are presented shoddy information, even silly information, you know, crazy information. And sometimes, you will cover something and, in the course of covering it, you'll hear about all of these outlandish tales. For example, there was a whole body of them in 2003 - or late 2002 and 2003, pre-invasion in Iraq. And you'll not write these stories. You'll hear about them, but you won't write them because you can't demonstrate them in any way to be true. You don't trust them. And you can sense in your bones that they're nowhere near the standards that would be worthy of a serious public discourse. But then you'll read them somewhere else as the story replicates and travels to another reporter from another organization. And so there's a whole body of work out there in which people, like Abu Omar in this case is talking about red mercury, a substance that doesn't exist, and that you can just say unequivocally has never been seen, has never been found and is not scientifically viable. So this was sort of easy, in a way. Like, you knew that Abu Omar was trafficking in a fantasy, whether he knew it or not. But there's a whole body of stories out there. You know, you could swap out red mercury for chemical warfare or swap out red mercury for any other number of things, swap out red mercury for ISIS defector. And you can't be sure they're true. You read these stories. Every journalist has this experience where they're reading a story that they strongly suspect is false because they've looked at it but is appearing somewhere else as if it's true. And when I wrote the red mercury story and was signaling throughout the story that this was not to be believed, I had in mind many stories I've felt that way about as a reader over the years that was presented as if it were to be believed.

GROSS: Chris, you're a weapons expert. And a lot of what you've written for The Times is analyzing not only how weapons work but also how weapons get into the hands of the militias and the other armed groups that use them. What can you tell us about how ISIS has gotten its more conventional weapons, such as the ones that were used in the attack on France?

CHIVERS: Well, the way we've described it is that ISIS gets its weapons sort of through a vast arms watershed that's all around the Middle East - and that many of the weapons that have been documented by researchers in the hands of ISIS or that were captured from ISIS positions or captured ISIS fighters, many of these weapons were often formerly - and not in the very distant past - in the hands of the people who were fighting ISIS. So what we see is often there are arms provided, say, to the government of Iraq, which is fighting ISIS. Or there are arms provided to the government of Syria, which also is fighting ISIS, or to Kurds. And these weapons rather quickly turn up in the hands of ISIS. They capture them on the battlefield. Often, there's been weapons that have been given to rebels who were being funded by the outside Syrian rebels, who are being funded by the outside to fight ISIS. And in many cases, those weapons rather quickly make their way to ISIS, either through defections or corruption or sale. So often what you see is a hodgepodge of weapons in the Islamic State's possession that were sent into the region to fight the Islamic State.

GROSS: My guest is C. J. Chivers, a New York Times investigative reporter who has covered wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and Syria. His article, "The Doomsday Scam," is in the current edition of The New York Times Magazine. After a short break, we'll talk about how some American troops were exposed to and wounded by abandoned chemical weapons in Iraq, weapons left over from the Iran-Iraq war of the '80s and how that chemical weapon's compound fell into the hands of ISIS last year. ISIS no longer controls it. We'll also talk about why Chivers has given up reporting from war zones. I'm Terry Gross. And this is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with C. J. Chivers, an investigative reporter for The New York Times who's spent long periods reporting from war zones including Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and Syria. He's conducted extensive analyses of weapons used in wars and how those weapons got into the hands of extremists and militias. His latest article, "The Doomsday Scam," is about ISIS's search for red mercury, a deadly substance that doesn't really exist, but apparently ISIS doesn't believe that.

So you did a groundbreaking investigative series last year about how U.S. soldiers were exposed to chemical weapons in Iraq - a nerve agent and a blistering agent. This wasn't from an active weapons of mass destruction program that the Bush administration said existed in Iraq, the rationale for invading Iraq. That program didn't exist. These were old, abandoned weapons from the Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s.

CHIVERS: The weapons that were used against the American service members and against Iraqi forces and probably against Iraqi civilians during the American occupation from - the incidents were from 2004 through at least 2011 - were old junk essentially of the Iran-Iraq War. These were rotting or corroded pieces of munition that as near as we can tell did not have a real modern battlefield utility. You couldn't fire them. They couldn't be used as designed. In many cases, they'd been buried and they were pitted and their - they weren't associated with the propellant it would take to fire them. And they were out of caliber with all of the deterioration. They might not have even fit into an artillery piece or a rocket launcher. So they weren't really chemical weapons as we understand them. They were hazardous materials that could certainly harm someone, but principally people who were handling them. And then the others - the question about the contents - we're talking about two very different chemical warfare agents here. One was distilled sulfur mustard which is a blistering agent and that the Iraqis made in the 1980s in a very high quality. It was quite pure at point of production and it was stable so it lasted a long time. That weapon would still be dangerous to this day if properly stored or if it was buried for a long time, the old sulfur mustard could still be a problem.

Sarin on the other hand, the nerve agent, the Iraqis never made a very high quality nerve agent and never was stable. And the nerve agent that they found in Iraq in small quantities in a few still potentially viable warheads meeting that they hadn't been punctured yet, they still had sarin within them - was a higher quality than had been projected in the government's analysis because they assumed that it would be almost completely broken down. But it was still very, very low purity. I mean, you're talking single-digit purity in most cases or less. So these aren't weapons that I would think compared to the routine tools at ISIS's disposal for hurting and killing people - these are not weapons that are a great menace. I mean, look what happened in Paris with a few rifles and some homemade bombs or some locally made bombs. These weapons - the ordinary everyday weapons of the battlefield - tend to be far more dangerous than these old chemical weapons that have received so much attention.

GROSS: So how are U.S. troops exposed to these degraded, decaying, old chemical weapons from the '80s?

CHIVERS: They were exposed in two ways. The weapons were occasionally used by bomb makers in bombs that looked just like all of the other or many of the other roadside bombs in Iraq. So they'd be detonated along the roads or in other places and an American team that would go forward to do what's called a post-blast analysis, would go into the area where they thought a high-explosive shell perhaps had been a dud because there hadn't been a loud explosion to collect the evidence. And when they approached the remains of the bomb, they found that they were in an area that a chemical shell had been burst. And they were exposed either by inhaling the vapors or in some cases by picking up the shell fragments and moving them, often sometimes even putting them in their trucks to drive them to arrange for destruction. So they were in other words often wounded by handling them or by coming in very near proximity with them.

And the other way that they were exposed was - another aspect of the counter-IED campaign that the Americans were involved in - was trying to collect up loose ordinates around the battlefields where they would get a call that weapons had been found in this bunker or in this hole or in this building somewhere in Iraq. And they would go and they would pick up those weapons to put them into what they call a shot to stack them for destruction. And in the process of carrying them and stacking them, the weapons would leak onto them and they would get mustard burns in this way.

GROSS: The weapons compound in Iraq where these weapons were manufactured and stored has actually fallen into the hands of ISIS. That's pretty frightening.

CHIVERS: Those bunkers fell back, as I understand it, to government control within a few months. But a few months, of course, is a more than adequate amount of time to remove contents from those bunkers, so even temporary possession of them could pose some hazards or could've given them opportunity to acquire things they didn't have before. That said, it's important to note that there is a real dispute about what was in those bunkers and it's quite hard to trace to a good understanding, to a solid understanding of what might have been gained by holding them. In other words, there's a body of people who say anything that everything in there was so old or so degraded that it couldn't have been used. There's also people who say that the way the bunkers had been sealed that accessibility might not have even been possible. And there are others who say - and there's a sort of rival sets of official documents - that says there could have been items in there that would be menacing. But how do we describe or define this menace? Are these materials that could be fired? I would be much more worried about chemical weapons that could be fired through an artillery piece which ISIS now has - you know, across a range of many kilometers - than I would be about an old mustard shell that in order for it to harm me, I have to approach and even handle. So I'm not sure that the Al Muthanna complex is the gravest threat that ISIS presents to the people it's battling.

GROSS: Some of our troops did find remnants of old, chemical weapons from the 1980s Iran-Iraq War that was supposed to be destroyed but weren't adequately destroyed or overlooked. And they're not functioning weapons. They're just like pieces of weapons, but they still contain chemical agents that some of our troops were exposed to in trying to transport them or dismantle them not knowing that they were chemical agents. You uncovered the story and it broke up a story that was actually covered up by the U.S. military. You initially reported that 17 U.S. troops and seven Iraqi soldiers had been exposed to these chemical or nerve agents. How many people now have you found out about?

CHIVERS: There are hundreds of people who were potentially exposed, but it's tough to sort out who may actually have suffered an effect from the exposure. What the U.S. military did in response to those articles was to set out an effort to identify which units may have been handling the chemical agents. And they had a list of those units. Many of them were from our article but other units came forward. And they've been screening the veterans or the active-duty troops who are in those incidents to see who may have been exposed. And so the number has gone up. I wouldn't say that the number of potentially exposed people is very close, though, to the number who were actually exposed. In many cases, these incidents were quite local, so the fact that one person or one team in a unit was exposed didn't mean that the whole - the whole unit was.

GROSS: You found out about this through vets coming forward to you and also through filing for papers through the Freedom of Information Act. One of the things you learned was that this story was covered up, that vets didn't get adequate health care after they started showing symptoms. Would you describe the extent of the cover-up?

CHIVERS: Yeah. That's - it's interesting. We didn't really find out about this through Freedom of Information Act. We found out about this through veterans who came forward, people who'd been involved in these incidents and were unsatisfied with how they'd been handled by their services and by the DOD. They contacted me, first in small quantities. For a long time in small quantities and then gradually it built. It sort of became a word-of-mouth that I was looking at this and more people came forward and met with me. And this cover-up that you mention, it persisted even as we worked. At some point, I thought I had a rich enough understanding of this to go talk about it officially with the DOD. And I did and so I went and had a meeting with - I can't tell you his name, but let's just say a prominent American general - why don't we leave it at that. And this prominent American general was flanked by two other senior officers and they knew I was coming in to talk about this. And in the meeting, he - the prominent American general took out a folder and said, you know, I know that you think this is true but let me tell you it's not. And proceeded to say a few other things to convince me that I had it all wrong. And I said to the general, you know, you're reading off a folder, and I have to tell you that whoever made that folder for you is either lying or lazy because I'm going to tell you a guy's name now. And I said the last name. And I'm going to tell you a date and I said the date. I said look up the incident with this guy at this date at this place, and you will find he was exposed to an M110 shell. And he was burned by mustard and it is actually a matter of record and you guys have the records. Go have a look. And the general to his credit turned to the other two officers and said within the bounds of the law find out what is going on here.

And I walked out of that meeting a little while later and I went and sat. And I realized they're not even telling the truth to themselves on the inside. This information is so sensitive for some reason. Maybe it's a political sensitivity more than an actual military sensitivity, but I have to tell you, Terry, that this problem was a manageable problem. It was not a spectacular problem. It was a relatively small in scale. The problem became worse because of how the military handled it, not because of the scope of the chemical weapons problem that persisted in Iraq set against the scope of the small arms problem and the improvised explosive device problem in Iraq. This was killing no one. This was wounding a very small number of people. And the American military had at its disposal a well-trained professional cadre of chemical warfare specialists. And it was sitting atop the country with a - an extraordinarily, by this point, well-trained and growing counter-IED force. All these EOD-techs were scouring the country and scouring the weapons stockpiles and going into each and every explosive device incident and collecting evidence. I mean, they had in place the tools to deal with this, and yet they didn't.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is C. J. Chivers who is an investigative reporter and former war correspondent for The New York Times. And he's also an expert on weapons tracing where they've come from and describing how they work. He's a former Marine. Let's take a short break here then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us my guest is New York Times reporter C. J. Chivers, and he's reported on wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria. One of the things that he does is follow arms - weapons. He analyzes where they end up, where they came from, how they work, how they're being used.

Chris you've worked in many war zones. About a year ago, a little more than a year ago, you gave up working in war zones. Would you explain why?

CHIVERS: There's a lot of ways to cover wars. I haven't given up covering war. I, for years, pursued a particular model that was sort of an immersion model in which I would go out and spend long periods of time with frontline troops of almost every description on various sides of different wars. And try to understand them and understand the mechanisms for the violence that they were participating in which meant often tracing the arms trade by gathering and organizing my own data by looking at what was on the battlefield. It was a pretty consuming lifestyle. And it was professionally fascinating. And it had - it came with a lot of rewards, intellectually and in terms of trying to solve to the extent I could, some of the puzzles in front of me.

But it had real costs. And those main costs were borne by my family. My wife and I have five children. When I started out in this we had one, and he was an infant. As the family grew and the kids got older and they understood what I was doing a state of dread settled over my household. I was gone a lot -sometimes eight months a year. And even when I was home it seemed like I was about to go - if that makes sense? Imagine life on a pager where as your kids learn to read and they're reading the paper and they see one country and another heat up or they see a big event in a country that they know their father covers, they would go to school and not know if my pager would go off or my - you know, I'd be called and sent somewhere. So they would go to school in the morning on a busy news day and not know if I'd be home in the afternoon. And if I wasn't at home in the afternoon, they wouldn't know when I'd be back. I might be back in a couple weeks. I might be back in several months.

GROSS: Can I add - or if you'd be back? They probably worried about that, too.

CHIVERS: Well, the thing that - you know, the straw that broke the camel's back, as they say, and in my case I bear a burden of guilt because the straw that broke this particular camel's back was probably about 1,000 straws late. I got called to go to Iraq, and for a peculiar reason that just had to do with the difficulty of getting Iraqi visas at that moment and the call came on a Friday. And the visa offices were closed until Sunday. I got a call, and instead of dashing out the door, I knew I was going, but I knew I wouldn't be on a plane for a day or two to fly off to - and in turn stop to get a visa and then on to Baghdad. And so I was home for a day or two waiting to go. And that Friday night, my wife and I, and two of my sons were playing a four-person card game called Pitch. And one of my sons broke out in hives visibly - his face, his hands, his arms. And actually, we got the doctors involved, and we couldn't figure it out. You know, there's a lot of things that can cause hives. And I live a pretty chaotic life. And we raise a lot of poultry. And we have a dog and cat, and there's just a lot going on all the time.

And I wondered, what, you know, has he - is he getting something from the chickens? Like, what is this? And it didn't make any sense. And the doctor said as much. The doctor couldn't quite figure out, but I went on the trip. And it wasn't a long trip. It was about three weeks I think. And throughout, I was calling home, and he was still - the hives were coming and going while I was gone. They would subside to a degree, and then they'd come back. And I came home, and within 36 hours they cleaned up. They vanished. The doctor said, you know, this is a autoimmune system miscue caused by stress. And essentially, at that point I understood that the cause of my son's condition, his illness, was me. And it took me a little while to realize I wasn't going to go back into that immersion combat model any longer. That I couldn't - and I say a little while, I don't remember exactly. But I had a run of nights where I almost didn't sleep. And I was, you know, thinking if I stare at the problem I'll find a solution for it, right? Like, this is what I do. This is how I've wired myself. This is a body of knowledge that I've built. I need to keep doing it. But I can't keep doing it. And I finally decided that I wasn't going to. And I wrote a note to my boss asking to be reassigned.

GROSS: My guest is New York Times investigative reporter and former war correspondent C. J. Chivers. We'll talk more about giving up reporting from warzones after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. My guest is New York Times investigative reporter C. J. Chivers. He's covered wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and Syria. But last year, he gave up immersive war reporting after realizing that one of his children was so overcome by anxiety, he was breaking out into hives worrying about Chivers' safety. Once you realized that your reporting was causing your son's anxiety and leading to health problems, once you got yourself out of war zones, did you realize stress-related issues you were having that had been kind of covered up by your pursuit of the story? And I'm thinking specifically in 2011 while you were in Misrata, Libya, you were nearly killed by a NATO bomb. You were thrown into the air. It was a 500-pound bomb?

CHIVERS: Five-hundred - yeah, 500-pound...

GROSS: And you were thrown in the air, I would imagine you had a concussion. You were temporarily deafened by it. So, like, that's probably just, like, one of many incidents that could've had a lasting impact on you physically as well as psychologically. Has that become more apparent with you out of war zones?

CHIVERS: I guess I should just say it. Covering war up close comes with a drug. And the drug has got a lot of different rushes to it. Part of it is the adrenaline of it is the intensity part of it is the odd state of freedom that comes when it's you and the photographer and a long open road to go try to figure out what is happening to your fellow human beings in these conflict zones. It's also in some ways a privilege. But it does rewire you and incidents rewire you and also this constant state of readiness and always being prepared to go rewires you. So you can't go out and hop in the pickup truck to go get your groceries without making sure you have a tourniquet. There are habits of survival that become inculcated in your thinking. Many of these were a part of my thinking before I became a journalist. The Marine Corps - the hatchery that makes Marine infantry officers made me a Marine infantry officer when I was much younger. And you picked up a set of habits and behaviors from that. And all of these things together change how you think and how you act and how you feel. And to some extent, you stop feeling a lot about yourself because you don't have time to because you're too busy with the work and too busy paying attention. It takes a huge amount of your bandwidth to do this. And so I was aware of what was going on while I was doing it. I could feel myself changing. I could feel what I had become. I was aware of it. I was also OK with it. It had a function. It had a purpose. It didn't strike me as being all bad. The challenge has been since I left is trying to - I call it spin the dimmer, and get some of my bandwidth back by being less ready all the time and by trying not to lust for that drug.

GROSS: What's the process been like of finding things that give your life meaning and keep you focused in the way that your mind had been focused in war?

CHIVERS: Well, first of all, I don't have to look very far. You know, I have a great family. I have five kids. It's sort of, like - a lot of my bandwidth goes there just to make it through each day. But I know what you're asking, and the answer to that - what are the substitutes, right, like, and what are the things that can satisfy these incredible itches? And what I've learned - and this may preexist having gone to war - but I guess there's an argument to say, did war make me this way, or was I kind of inclined this way and war gave it an outlet? But I found that I feel my best and do my best when I'm completely overwhelmed. And so I overwhelm myself as a course of my every day and weekly and monthly and annual existence. I've put more in front of myself than I can possibly do. And that treadmill that never stops is satisfying for me. And maybe it's another form of escapism, but, you know, I just keep myself incredibly busy on a lot of different levels. And I have a lot of repeatable tasks that have to be done, and if they don't they end in failure or even ugly little catastrophes. So I'm taking care of a pretty big body of burdens. I mean, this week, we're butchering a bunch of turkeys to distribute for friends for Thanksgiving, so up early with the knives to do that. You know, we've been raising them all year, and then we save some breeding stock and repeat for next. And I, with my family, we grow an awful lot of root crops. We sort of joke we have, like, almost a root farm. And so the crops have to go in and the crops have to come out. And I never have a minute to myself. And in some ways, that blots out what I just told you was something like a drug or an urge to be doing something else.

GROSS: Well, I think you've proven that even though you are not immersing yourself in war zones anymore, you're still doing incredible reporting that I'm really grateful for. It's always so good to talk with you. Chris, thank you so much.

CHIVERS: Thanks for having me.

GROSS: C. J. Chivers is an investigative reporter for The New York Times. His latest article, "The Doomsday Scam," is in the current edition of The New York Times Magazine.

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