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'Mirror Test' Reflects On The Consequences Of The Wars In Iraq And Afghanistan

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'Mirror Test' Reflects On The Consequences Of The Wars In Iraq And Afghanistan

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'Mirror Test' Reflects On The Consequences Of The Wars In Iraq And Afghanistan

'Mirror Test' Reflects On The Consequences Of The Wars In Iraq And Afghanistan

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The Mirror Test

America at War in Iraq and Afghanistan

by J. Kael Weston

Hardcover, 585 pages |

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The Mirror Test
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America at War in Iraq and Afghanistan
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J. Kael Weston

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While serving as a State Department adviser in Iraq and Afghanistan, J. Kael Weston instigated a military mission that resulted the death of 31 service members. His memoir revisits the tragedy of war.

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. As we approach Memorial Day weekend, it's a good time to reflect on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and remember the U.S. troops who were killed there.

My guest, J. Kael Weston, feels personally responsible for 31 of those deaths because he sent those men on the mission in which their helicopter crashed. It remains the single largest casualty incident from the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars. That's a burden Weston is likely to carry with him the rest of his life.

The story of what happened, which he'll soon tell us, is one of the many stories he tells about the consequences of war in his new memoir, "The Mirror Test." He served seven consecutive years as a State Department adviser in Iraq and Afghanistan. He received the Secretary of State's Medal for Heroism.

Before the wars, he led America's effort in the U.N. Security Council to freeze and block al-Qaida-linked assets. Kael Weston, welcome to FRESH AIR. Before the war, you were at the U.N. And you were working, you know, diplomatically. You describe diplomacy before the Iraq War as having failed by design. Would you describe what you mean?

J. KAEL WESTON: Sure. I think there were a small number of people in our government at that time who wanted the Iraq War, and they got it. I was part of a U.N. Security Council team with the State Department that was trying to get international support for the invasion, basically. We were doing two tracks, really, which is telling the world, you know, let's slow this down and maybe talk before the bombs fall.

But at the same time, I had a guard at our mission, who was a Marine reservist, who said - and I'll always remember this - that well, we just got, basically, the roadmap into Baghdad.

And of course, that was well before the U.N. vote had actually taken place on the resolution that then-Secretary Powell was trying to get unanimity for, which he did eventually. I separate the two wars out a bit differently. I think the Afghanistan War was a necessary war. I believe the Iraq War was not.

GROSS: And you believed that at the time - that the Iraq War was not a justified war. But you decided - I think, like, you volunteered for the mission of going there, representing the State Department. So what was your job in Iraq?

WESTON: It was a surprising job. I got there thinking I was going to continue to work political issues. My time in New York had, I think, prepared me well for negotiating with Chinese, Russian diplomats and others.

But when I got there, pretty quickly, I was told I was going to be working with Iraqi truckers, the teamsters, in effect, of Iraq. And we had a challenge right away, which was how to keep them on the roads moving food while the insurgency started to pick up. So I became basically like a Jimmy Hoffa, I guess...

GROSS: (Laughter).

WESTON: ...Is the best way to put it for the Coalition Provisional Authority. And it was basically, I learned eventually, the best job I could have ever hoped for. Initially, I was very hesitant about leaving the suit and tie world and sitting down with a bunch of truckers in Baghdad.

GROSS: So what do you feel like you accomplished with the truckers - with that part of your job?

WESTON: I think we got a better understanding of who really matters in a war zone. It's not the official high-level people. It's the people that have to suffer the war on a daily basis.

And I think what we did immediately is - we cut deals to keep all of the things that the Iraqi people depended on from stopping, you know, literally, on the highways and byways of Iraq. So that was an immediate, you know, policy objective.

Personally, I started to realize that these wars were about human beings and not about pieces of paper in New York or Washington being shuffled between high-level war cabinet people. And I think that was a learning curve that I needed at that point in my career. And I got to know Iraqis. And that was also a goal by going to Baghdad.

GROSS: So what was your job representing the State Department, advising the Marines?

WESTON: I was basically being pulled on both sides. I was kind of the link between the local people in Fallujah and the military. The day-to-day would include sitting in meetings to figure out how we managed, at that point, about 38,000 troops in western Iraq.

And then the other half of the week, I would be downtown, dealing with tribal leaders, religious leaders, everything from - if there's a wounded civilian, how do we compensate the family?

How do we try and make the situation better? So it became a very busy time because the battle for Fallujah - the big one - the second one - was about three months out when I arrived.

GROSS: Did you have the means to make anybody happy - if not happy, at least satisfied that they were being treated fairly?

WESTON: Over time, when you invade a country, especially among the Sunni population where I was based, we had turned their world upside down. So unlike northern Iraq or - I would say among the Shia population - the Marines and I were dealing with the most recalcitrant, the most skeptical and really the most violent part of the country.

So no matter how much money we spent, and no matter how much listening I did - and the Marine corporals, captains, colonels and generals all did - we were still the ones responsible for basically removing them from power. And so that was always going to be a huge, huge, huge challenge for us.

But yes, I do think what Iraqis wanted were Americans who sort of understood we didn't ask to be where we were. But we were going to do our best to make it a little bit better if we had the opportunity. And I credit a lot of our troops for doing that. And maybe I had a 0.1 percent rule as well.

GROSS: You describe a visit to a potato factory in Iraq that was serving as a morgue. Would you describe the aspect of war that you saw there?

WESTON: That's a tough question - but I think one that you needed to ask. That is the ugly face of war. That is war at its worst. And what went on there is - we found ourselves, basically, a few days into the battle with bodies in the streets of Fallujah. And the Marine Corps actually hadn't had a lot of experience dealing with bodies since Vietnam.

Iraqis were the priority - and also eventually what became our own guys being killed. And so we had to implement a plan to take care of the bodies. And in Baghdad, there was a lot of pressure from the higher levels of the government about what was going on in the battle.

So the potato factory became the morgue. And the Mortuary Affairs team there had probably the most difficult job in our entire military at the time, which was how to respectfully dispose of Muslim bodies, but also how to take care of a real health issue.

Sometimes, I think war is viewed as so heroic. And we only want to hear the good stories - that we also occasionally, again, need to test ourselves in that mirror and look at war at its worst. And I definitely experienced that.

GROSS: Part of your job at this potato factory-turned-morgue was to make sure that insurgents got a proper burial. Why was that considered important?

WESTON: It was considered important at a political level between our government and the Iraqi government. High-level people were calling my bosses, the ambassador and Robert Ford - Ambassador Ford, who was the political counselor at the time, saying, we're receiving reports that the bodies are out being fed upon by animals - by dogs. And some of that was going on.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WESTON: And yet, the Marine Corps took very seriously, in a horrible situation, what's the best plan we can come up with? And I think the think the importance there is that we also knew we were going to have a city to rebuild and that the Fallujans were going to come back into Fallujah and ask, you know - what happened? My son was here protecting my grandfather.

Where are they? And that became my role with the chief religious leader in the city, the Grand Mufti. And his name was Hamza, and he was extremely important in how we tried to make, again, a horrible situation somewhat manageable. If we hadn't done it, I think, again, the city would've become even more dangerous very quickly.

GROSS: How did you identify the remains - like, you have a photograph in the book of the remains of one man. And I think it would be very hard to determine the identity of the body based on what I saw in that photograph.

WESTON: From a mortuary affairs point of view, they spent a lot of time trying to figure out how the person was clothed, what was in their pockets. But, yes, that photo, I think, is important because it's very clear that there's not much left. I also, in the book, am very honest about what our assessment was of were these foreign fighters from Syria, which, of course, at the time was sort of the headline that our government wanted to broadcast.

And even the Marine Corps colonel, who gave a press conference in the Pentagon, was open that of all the bodies we'd processed, it was a small percentage that had been, as you say, identified as sort of the foreign fighter.

And every year in Fallujah, I understood 1 percent, which over three years meant 3 percent, which was not a heck of a lot. But it was a lot more than anyone else. And I tell people that we were fighting the homeboys. We were fighting the locals more than we were fighting the foreign fighters.

GROSS: So what did you have to learn about what a proper Muslim burial is?

WESTON: Well, I did my homework as much as I could at the time. But, you know, I'm not going to kid anyone. We had a lot of bodies. And the bodies eventually were buried in trenches north of the city. So in war, you can kind of try and do the best you can. And then there's just the pragmatism behind helping get the situation stabilized. So the team did as best as they could.

And then when the Iraqi leadership asked me about what we had done, I was honest. I didn't try and pull anything over them. And if not for this chief religious leader, who basically quieted the city, we would've been in a huge, huge, huge problem because a lot of the families believed if they went north and started to dig up the bodies, that they would be able to find their dead brother or father or sister.

And he made sure that didn't happen.

GROSS: How did he do that?

WESTON: Because of his wasta (ph), which is an Arabic word for influence. And at that time, even Zarqawi, who was the chief al-Qaida guy, could not kill Sheikh Hamza. He was untouchable. He had so much influence. And I have another chapter that, again, motivated the entire book, which is about how Sheikh Hamza, because he worked with us, became a much bigger target.

And if there's one theme I'm trying to get across is that we had a lot of Iraqi and even Afghan people who stood with us. And they paid a huge price for that. So Sheikh Hamza told the other clerics in the city, let's not rile the people up.

What eventually happened to him was that I think because of his cooperation with us, he became a target that got killed, as opposed to someone who they could intimidate but not kill.

GROSS: So did the fact that Sheikh Hamza got killed because he was a target make you feel like you were poison - you know, that if you associated with Iraqis, it would make them a target, if you did your job and reached out to people, that they would be targeted and killed?

WESTON: I did. And that is a hard issue to deal with at the time. And I'm finding it's hard to deal with now because part of me wishes I could get in a time machine and go back and say, don't collaborate with us. As the leaders were targeted and killed, their sons would come in. And I think one of the most powerful photos in the book is of three sons whose fathers were assassinated.

And yet, the Marine colonels and generals and I used to stand up and say, yes, you know, Kamal was just killed. But unless you work with us, this war will not end. And there was a moral honesty to that. But I think there was also a facilitation that we were trying to work, which is hard to think about now because you wonder maybe the more honorable and the better thing to have done would've said, here's what I have to say in my job representing the U.S. government in Fallujah.

But here's what I really want to tell you, which is leave or, you know, protect your family. It's not worth it because we won't stay. Our endurance is not going to outlast the terrorists. And unfortunately, with the headlines today, that probably would've been a message I should've conveyed.

GROSS: So you're thinking that now, but did that thought cross you mind then?

WESTON: It did. But I think I was in a more numb and pragmatic mode at the time, which is, I think, I could self-justify trying to work through the next assassination. But I think there was a cumulative gnawing going on on my conscience. And yet, you still had hundreds of Marines in the city.

So from another side, if we hadn't had our collaboration and our collaborators working with us, more Americans would've been killed. So, you know, Iraqis were being targeted on one side and Marines were being blown up or sniped. And we had huge sniper issues in the city at the time.

So I think I was in very much a pragmatic mode. I think sometimes our conscience catches up with us later.

GROSS: Let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is J. Kael Weston, author of the new war memoir "The Mirror Test." He was in Iraq and Afghanistan for seven consecutive years working as a State Department official and political adviser. His book is called "The Mirror Test." We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is J. Kael Weston, author of the new war memoir "The Mirror Test." He served seven consecutive years in Iraq and Afghanistan between 2003 and 2010. He was working as a State Department official and political adviser. Prior to that, he led American efforts in the U.N. Security Council to freeze and block al-Qaida-linked assets. He received the secretary of state's medal for heroism.

I think it's fair to say that the most personally devastating part of the war for you was when 30 men, 30 Marines and one Navy corpsman, died in a helicopter clash over the Anbar desert in Iraq. They were all killed. And you hold yourself responsible for the mission they were on and, therefore, consider yourself responsible for their deaths. That's a terrible burden to carry. What was the mission? And what was your goal in creating that mission?

WESTON: We had an Iraqi election coming up in January of 2005. So Marine leaders and I were in Fallujah trying to come up with the best strategy to allow, you know, those purple finger moments if we remember the Iraqi voters. And in a province as big Iraq, we had a couple of options. One option was to just focus on the two primary population centers, Fallujah and Ramadi, which had the support of a top general - in fact, General Dunford who's now the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. And it was a very logical, wise policy.

And then there was the other side of the argument, which I advocated. And that was we needed to go wide rather than just deep. We needed to give more Sunnis in Anbar, more Iraqis the opportunity to vote. And I believe that because one, politically, if you're a tribal leader in a small community and Marines have not protected your polling site and your people can't vote, the day after the election, you may point a finger at the Americans or at the election commission and say, you know, my people didn't have the chance to vote for me. So there was that practical side.

The problem was - and here's where the conscience comes in - is that the Sunni leaders had been telling me they were going to boycott the election. So I basically overruled the staff officers. And it was a political issue. It was a State Department issue. And so we decided to go wide. And that is the mission they were on, flying low and fast over a dark, cold desert, and one of the helicopters crashed. And to make tragedy even more tragedy, the lives were lost and, sure enough, very few voters voted. I also think that, you know, responsibility and accountability in wartime goes to us making the decisions on the ground but also goes to other people as well.

GROSS: So how come you, as a State Department representative, were able to overrule what the military commander wanted to do?

WESTON: Well, I had a great general sitting to my right name General Hejlik. And he turned to me - and again, this is imprinted on my memory and will be until I'm, I hope, 90 - and he said Kael, this is a State Department issue. It's political. It's your call. And he was the senior commander at the Marine Expeditionary Force, which is the higher-level command over the division which was based in Ramadi.

And since it was an election it wasn't, you know, going after terrorists in another part of our province. It was truly, you now, the U.S.'s top priority at the time, which was how to get Iraqis to vote. It was a civilian call. If I could obviously go back, I would in an instant turn to him and say General Dunford's right. And let's just focus on Fallujah and Ramadi.

GROSS: OK. So I think this is a great kind of focal point for the hopelessness and despair of war. So you send men on this mission. The mission is kind of hopeless because you're trying to protect Sunnis who want to vote. The Sunnis are boycotting the election. So there really isn't a Sunni vote turnout. And 31 of the men on this mission are killed. I mean, what better picture is there of despair for you?

WESTON: Yeah. And the ultimate tragedy and blackness of war, which is lives lost at a very young age, you know - the pilot of the helicopter was about my age. I think he was actually my age. But everybody else in that helicopter, you know, were so young. And I think that war refocuses you on right and wrong wars. And I'm not anti-war, but I'm anti-wrong-war. And I feel that Iraq met that standard of being a wrong war.

I think that young Marines are owed policy and policy decisions that match their sacrifice. And unless those decisions match the risks and the sacrifice, as well as the Iraqi and Afghan people who didn't ask to be invaded in the case of Iraq, it really calls into question when we go to war and then, once we are in war, how we fight those wars. But yes, I think anyone who spent time in Iraq, especially in that early period, will look back and have a reckoning of the decisions we each made, but also the decisions our nation made.

GROSS: My guest is J. Kael Weston, author of the new memoir "The Mirror Test." After a break, we'll talk about how he reunited two veterans with the dogs that served with them in Afghanistan. And Maureen Corrigan will recommend suspense novels for summer reading. I'm Terry Gross. And this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with J. Kael Weston, author of the new book "The Mirror Test." It's about the consequences of war he witnessed during the seven consecutive years he served in Iraq and Afghanistan as a State Department adviser. When we left off, we were talking about how he feels personally responsible for the deaths of 30 Marines and one Navy corpsman. He sent them on the mission in which their helicopter crashed over the Anbar desert in Iraq. How did you handle your sense of responsibility, and what did you consider to be your responsibility to the families of the men who were killed in the crash?

WESTON: I decided then I wanted to know more about each of them. I sure as - I knew Iraq real well by then. And I wanted to get to know where these Marines and this corpsman came from. So I promised I would, however long it took, go see where they're from, where they're buried. And I've done that. I've been now to quite a few of their gravesites.

And people focus on Arlington, and some are buried in Arlington, but many, many more are buried in small, out-of-the-way places. And I think that helps me, obviously, come to terms with the decision I made. But I think it also shows respect to them and to their families.

GROSS: Some of your memoir, "The Mirror Test," describes your visit to some of the graves of men who were killed in that helicopter crash that you feel so responsible for. Who decides whether a Marine is buried at a place like Arlington, at a military cemetery, or at the small-town cemetery where their family lives?

WESTON: The family. And I think while Arlington is special and honorific in all the ways that the nation's cemetery should be, the most moving cemeteries I have visited have been the small ones, including one in Menard, Texas. And there's photos in the book, actually, but Menard was everything Arlington is not.

It had a chain-link fence around it, coyotes were in the background, a semi, I remember, rolled by, Latino names overwhelmingly. And Paul Christopher Alaniz is buried there next to his mother. And on the concrete cover are tiles that had been handmade by his wife and children. And I think that is powerful because you get a real sense of who he was, where he came from and where he returned.

And he returned to a small town of, I believe, about 15,000 people, in the western flatlands of Texas. And I wanted to personalize him and his story by going there. Otherwise KIA, killed in action, remains statistics.

GROSS: Would you describe a couple of the markers that you found?

WESTON: In Texas?

GROSS: In any of the cemeteries that you visited...

WESTON: Sure, I...

GROSS: ...Ones that had, you know, images or words engraved that you found especially moving.

WESTON: Sure, in Texas it was the tiles, you know, by his wife and children. In Wyoming, Brian Bland's headstone is shaped like a mountain peak. And as someone who loves mountains as well, that I found to be moving. He has a picture of him on a Bullet Bike as well on his gravesite. And I learned later on that, you know, he had worked at a Pizza Hut to save money for his first motorcycle.

Wyoming, you know, the towns, his cemetery sits above two rail lines and an oil refinery. Again, these are places that aren't the postcard that we see every Memorial Day at Arlington. But I found them to be that much more powerful because of it. You know, the final thing I would say is that in Texas, Christopher Alaniz is buried next to his mother.

And Corporal Schubert in Iowa is buried next to his father. And that was a pretty powerful image there as well.

GROSS: Did you meet with any surviving family members?

WESTON: One, and that was because I was challenged, I think in a good way, by a Marine who is here in Colorado, actually, who said to me, you know, aren't you giving up the chance to be forgiven by avoiding the families? But I wasn't sure if I met with any what I would say to them. But I did. In San Diego, I met with the father of Mourad Ragimov, his sister, a cousin.

And I hope it helped them. I think it did me a little bit - but only one family so far. And I should think about them more than me. I think for a while, I was worried, you know, how would I react? But that's really the wrong question. And I think the issue in my mind now is if it'll help them, I should do it.

And what that family told me is we wanted to know, we wanted to have answers about what was going on in Iraq at the time, about the mission. And I was - subsequently was able to help get them some information about the crash from the Marine commandant at the time. And that, I think - I hope - helped them process it a bit more.

But it was not easy. And I chose not to write about it because I think it's a personal thing that I wanted to keep maybe between them and me.

GROSS: You made some other trips to the graves of the men killed in the helicopter crash on a Memorial Day weekend. And since Memorial Day is coming up, I'd like to hear what Memorial Day means to you and why you chose to make those visits on a Memorial Day weekend?

WESTON: It means we need to take very seriously not just the weekend of when we remember our dead - there's a memorial in South Boston for Vietnam dead that says if you forget my death, only then will I have died in vain. And I think that's the cleanest, most powerful message that should apply to every war, whether a right war or a wrong war.

So remembering the cost of war, remembering the dead, I think, is the role, as citizens, that we have. I also think there's a responsibility and an obligation, really, to think hard over Memorial Day weekend about who our commanders in chief are. I vote based on that profile - which person, male, female, Republican, Democrat, is going to be the commander in chief that our troops deserve and need, especially at a time when these two wars go on and on and on.

And so I think Memorial Day is reflection reckoning but also responsibility. And I think citizens shouldn't just do the barbecue or go shopping at the sale or go to the beach. We should think hard about, you know, when you go to war, people die. And is that person making the ultimate decision worthy of that sacrifice?

GROSS: Will you be going to a cemetery this Memorial Day?

WESTON: I am. And I - there's a ritual I have when I go. You know, I say they're - you know, cemeteries are where we all have things to say and things to leave behind. And so what we say and what we leave behind is personal, whether it's your family member who's buried or your cousin who was in the war.

So that makes it, you know, maybe a little bit easier for me every time I do it because I feel like I'm trying to do right by their memory.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is J. Kael Weston, author of the new war memoir, "The Mirror Test: American At War In Iraq And "Afghanistan." We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is J. Kael Weston, author of the new war memoir "The Mirror Test." He served seven consecutive years in Iraq and Afghanistan between 2003 and 2010, working as a State Department official and political adviser. Prior to that, he led American efforts in the U.N. Security Council to freeze and block al-Qaida-linked assets. He's received the secretary of state's medal for heroism.

So one of the missions that you took on yourself - and I think - was this after you were home? This was - you tried to and succeeded in reuniting a couple of veterans with the dogs who they worked with in the war. And they were very attached to the dogs. So where were you in your life when you took on this mission? And why did you take it on?

WESTON: I was in Washington, D.C., and had attended a fundraiser for the Semper Fi Fund. And there was a wounded Marine there named Sean. And Sean came up afterward and said hey, Sir, you know, I have a dog, you know, that I'm trying to get back. And he was a military working dog named Freeze in Afghanistan - they were in Afghanistan together. And I said sure. And General Nicholson, at the time, was also a dog owner. And he and I are kind of the two through the book that kind of try and do the best we can. But he said yeah, let's see what we can do.

So Sean sent me some photos. Freeze was retired at the time. And we managed to track down Freeze pretty quickly - he's a black Lab - and get them reunited. The harder challenge was the second dog and the second Marine Matt O'Hara. And his dog's name is Rocky. And the challenge there was that Rocky had been promoted since leaving Afghanistan. He was now a presidential, in effect, a commander-in-chief dog. He was chasing birds near where Marine One, the president's helicopter, takes off and lands. So I knew that's a hugely important job. But I also thought, well...

GROSS: Wait, though. So chasing birds so they don't get caught in the engine?

WESTON: That's right. So I thought - this is going to be a bit more of a big challenge. And sure enough, you know, the colonel in charge of the presidential helicopter fleet emailed me and said, yeah, Rocky is a great dog. We love him. He's doing a hugely important mission here by protecting, you know, the president's helicopters from birds. And I thought, well, Rocky's probably not the only dog that can chase birds well.

And again, to the credit of the Marine Corps, they said, you know, tell us more about, you know, Matt and everything. And Matt's mother had contacted me actually initially and said Matt had had some, you know, transition issues like we all do. And she thought the dog would help. And with a lot of understanding Marines, a lot of help from General Nicholson and others, we did finally get Rocky retired from service for good. And now he's living with Matt in Virginia playing fetch, which I did for a while...

GROSS: (Laughter).

WESTON: ...With him when I eventually - which I eventually met him.

But the family told me, you know, when Rocky first kind of redeployed for good, he would be in their backyard in the big, green lawn, you know, sniffing in a pattern just like he had been trained to check for homemade explosives. And it took him, according to Matt and the family, a while to figure out there aren't Taliban insurgents in rural Virginia.

But one of the best photos that I have in the book and one of the best stories, I think, in the book is actually, you know, that Matt and Rocky are doing well. And it was really an honor to help get them reunited. Sean has also reunited, but living in Ohio if - I think he's still there - with Freeze. That is the name of his dog.

GROSS: Your book ends with a quote from Walt Whitman who, among other things, was a nurse during the Civil War and wrote about that in some of his poems. Would you read that quote for us?

WESTON: Sure. (Reading) The real war will never get in the books.

GROSS: Why did you choose to end your book with that quote?

WESTON: Like you said, his experience, you know, kind of listening to the dying troops in the Civil War, I found it to be very powerful because what he was basically doing is writing letters home to family and friends of, you know, these horrifically wounded troops from the war that divided our country.

And I think that the part of that book that it prefaces is a journal by a soldier who served in Sadr City. And what I love about that part of my book - and it's not my writing. It's not my words. It's not my craft. It's not my - here's what John Kael Weston thinks. It's what Baylen Moore (ph) thinks. And he was writing a journal in Sadr City. And it's such pure writing. I know if there's a part that sticks with people, I hope it is that part.

And I think Whitman put his finger on something very important, which is just get the journals out there, you know. Get the raw material out there. And it will probably be the most powerful. And I believe that. And that's why it's there.

GROSS: Would you like to read just a brief paragraph of your choosing from the soldier's journal?

WESTON: Sure. I think probably the most powerful part is when he describes coming to the location where his buddies had just been badly, badly wounded by an NEFP, which is an electronically formed, basically, IED, the molten metal that just gets, like, buckshot from hell, thrown into a Humvee. And he describes what it was like to see that. And I guess I should probably read that part.

(Reading) When we got there, the vehicle was messed up. The entire front was just blown to pieces. There was motor oil everywhere. The truck had been hit, gone out of control, slid, like, 75 meters onto and across the median, and slammed into the curb. When we got to the site, me and George (ph) were called to come get all the sensitives out of it. As we were walking up, I remember them pulling out an M4 with one of the seize under the influence stickers. I immediately knew it was my good friend Forbes' (ph) weapon. I just felt an internal sigh is the best way to describe it.

We started cleaning out the truck of all the sensitive items. And it was just blown to hell. The entire truck was just messed up. There was blood everywhere - blood and chunks of meat were all over the place. What it reminded me of was Uncle Quinn's (ph) meat plant in Monticello. The smell was just like it. Copeland (ph) got out and started working on Forbes immediately. He didn't know it yet, but he had lost several fingers and couldn't get the tourniquet on tight enough. So he made a makeshift one out of the rip cord from his IDA. He then went and started working on Levi (ph). He was trying so hard to work on Levi. But because his fingers were gone, he was having trouble getting the tourniquets on tight enough.

Once the medic got over there, he had to force Copeland off of Levi to work on him. Copeland was so resistant. He just wanted to help get Levi better. Finally, Doc told Copeland that if he wanted to help to just hold his aid bag.

So that's writing at the time. It's not writing after studying about writing. It's writing from a soldier who's trying to come to terms with what has happened. So back to the Whitman quote, I believe Baylen's journal is the true war story. It is as close as we will ever get to what it's like - to what it's like on the ground and to what it's like to lose, you know, a brother, a friend, a drill instructor.

GROSS: Well, Kael, thank you for telling their stories. Thank you for telling your story. Thanks for joining us today.

WESTON: Thank you, Terry, to you and your team. I'm grateful for the opportunity.

GROSS: J. Kael Weston is the author of the new book "The Mirror Test: America At War In Iraq And Afghanistan." Coming up, Maureen Corrigan recommends several suspense-filled novels for summer reading. This is FRESH AIR.

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