Several Policy Changes Modify Military Culture

Guests

Gordon Lubold, Pentagon correspondent, Christian Science Monitor
Phil Ewing, reporter, Navy Times

The Navy has announced it will integrate women into submarine duty by 2012. The news follows a smoking ban on subs, set to take effect by the end of 2010. And in the Air Force, more pilots are assigned to "drone jock" duty — flying unmanned aircraft and drones in war zones, from Nev.

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JENNIFER LUDDEN, host:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. Im Jennifer Ludden in Washington.

The repeated military deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan have taken a toll on the military in ways large and small. But there are other changes under way that could have a big effect on military culture.

Earlier this year, the Navy announced smoking will be banned on submarines. Soon, women will be allowed on them. That will mean integration of one of the military's few remaining all-male posts.

Meanwhile, the role of fighter pilot is changing. The top guns of Hollywood fame still exist, but more and more pilots are doing duty as drone jocks, controlling and firing unmanned aircraft and drones from the comfort of a desert location in Nevada.

The military says all this is needed to maintain a strong armed forces. Today, a changing military and what it means for military culture. Later in the hour, the massive oil leak in the Gulf of Mexico and why it may not be such an environmental catastrophe after all.

But first, the evolving military. We want to hear from our listeners in the military or veterans. What do these changes mean for military culture? Our number here in Washington is 800-989-8255. Our email address is talk@npr.org. And you can join the conversation at our website. Go to npr.org, and click on TALK OF THE NATION.

We begin with Gordon Lubold. He is the Pentagon correspondent for the Christian Science Monitor and joins us from NPR's booth at the Pentagon. Welcome.

Mr. GORDON LUBOLD (Pentagon Correspondent, Christian Science Monitor): Thanks for having me.

LUDDEN: So the Air Force has been defined in many ways by, you know, fast planes, top gun pilots. But it's becoming more of a, you know, remote-controlled aircraft here. Tell us about the change that's taking place. And how fast is it happening?

Mr. LUBOLD: Probably too fast for a lot in the Air Force. The right, the Air Force, which is the youngest service, has worked to identify itself and create a real identity. And it's been doing that, and then 9/11 happens, and for the most part over the last several years, they've played a very important role but not a very visible one to the American public.

But the last couple, few years, commanders in Iraq and Afghanistan realized just how important the unmanned Predator drones and other unmanned aerial vehicles are. The Air Force is the primary service that fields those, that operates those, so...

LUDDEN: And they're largely surveillance, is that right? I mean, it's very they're basically keeping an eye on things for the troops on the ground. Is that the main mission?

Mr. LUBOLD: I would say that feeds the biggest part of the demand. They're not all surveillance. They are armed, some of the drones are armed and are effectively used in places like Pakistan and places that military and the government doesn't like to talk about.

So there's kind of an unending demand for these drones. And the Air Force has had to really try to make this shift. And I think this kind of narrative that they've gone kicking and screaming into this new era is probably a fairly accurate one, a fair one. There's less kicking and screaming, but it's still a tough transition. Go ahead.

LUDDEN: I read that this year, the Air Force will actually train more officers on remote-controlled aircraft than combat fighters for the first time. Is that right?

Mr. LUBOLD: Right, yeah.

LUDDEN: And this is the way this is seen as there's goals to increase this in the future, right?

Mr. LUBOLD: Well, yeah, the demand is so high that they have set goals of more and more pilots, we should say drone pilots, over the next several years. But right - one of the significant milestones happened the last six months, late last year and then again early this year, with a graduation of pilots who are drone pilots but who have never seen, essentially, the inside of a cockpit ever.

LUDDEN: Wow.

Mr. LUBOLD: And so that, for the Air Force, was a significant thing.

The thing is that these are this is the thing the Air Force is most needed for right now. So culturally, it's just difficult because everybody, you know, Air Force officers, pilots, join to kind of live this dream of flying off, you know, into the sunset, Billy Mitchell, these kinds. But the reality is that they're needed in a different way. So they've really had to come to terms with that.

LUDDEN: Or they're going to have to change their recruiting techniques now, go hit up MIT a little more, maybe.

Mr. LUBOLD: Well, I mean, it's true. The kind of image of the perfect Air Force officer, you know, the ideal is a different one. It's a guy who in my case, where I visited, at Creech Air Force Base outside of Las Vegas, and there's several of these around the country, you know, they operate inside trailers, and they've got a dozen monitors in front of them, and they're chatting with people on IM, other operators around the world and in the war zone. But that's the for now, that is the future of the Air Force.

I would do a quick likening it to kind of a personal issue is journalists who worked online for years were always kind of seen as maybe not as important as the ones who got their work in print, if we talk about just newspaper reporters.

LUDDEN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. LUBOLD: It's really turned on its head now for us. That's the future. And people who work and are able to embrace the online world, you know, are kind of maybe seeing in the future for where it's going to go. And I think but it doesn't feel right, and I think it's the same thing for the Air Force.

LUDDEN: So there's some internal tensions there, some kind of between the do you call them pilots, drone pilots, drone jocks? What are they called?

Mr. LUBOLD: Yeah, I mean, drone jocks. I think some people say, you know, joystick boys. You know, they're felt or perceived to be a leper colony within the Air Force, but that is that perception is beginning to diminish.

LUDDEN: Now, we're going to hear from listeners in just a second, but I want to ask if you spoke with some of these drone jocks, pilots. What did they say about it? It just must be such a disconnect, you know, to have a kind of a nine-to-five existence in America while your job really is in the combat zone over in, you know, the Middle East. What do they say about that?

Mr. LUBOLD: It's a really fascinating phenomenon, and I did get a chance to spend some time with them and seeing what they do. You know, they literally are their head is completely in the war for 10- to 12-hour shifts, and then they go home, maybe pick up a gallon of milk and a video on the way home and see their kids.

These guys who work really hard and who have in effect been prevented from moving on to other assignments within the Air Force because of the demand are probably perceived a little bit unfairly by folks within the military who do work in the battle on the battlefield. I mean, it's hard work. It's very stressful for them, even though they get to go see their families at night. They really have to turn it off, turn it on, turn it off. Whereas somebody who is obviously deployed for a year, they can have a different dynamic.

LUDDEN: Much more separation, right.

Mr. LUBOLD: Well, there's much more separation, but they kind of they're all in for the whole time. These guys have to, as I say, turn it off each day.

LUDDEN: Let's hear from a veteran pilot. Roger(ph) is in San Francisco, and he's on the line. Hi, Roger.

ROGER (Caller): Yes, I am a veteran Marine, but I'm a private pilot. I never flew in the Marines.

LUDDEN: Oh so sorry, okay.

(Soundbite of laughter)

LUDDEN: Well, what do you make of this shift?

ROGER: What I wanted to point out is that I think the days of the top gun is coming to an end. Once they developed a fighter aircraft that could be robotically controlled or have inboard computers that can operate, those aircraft can handle more Gs, loiter longer, stay in the combat zone longer than manned aircraft.

It's a simple fact of life. Computers can operate better than a pilot. We all know that autopilots worked, fly a plane better than the pilot in the aircraft.

As far as the culture changing, there will always be a need for pilots in the Air Force. They may not fly the most advanced fighter aircraft any longer. Even the F-35 has its limitations. But in time, in not-too-distant-future time, we're going to start developing robotic fighters like we have the drones today, which are simply robots manned from the ground. They can loiter longer, and they're devastating to the enemy.

LUDDEN: And so Roger, what do you see this doing? You said the top gun attitude will die out. What do you see this doing to the military culture?

ROGER: Well, I think the former belief that the fighter pilot, swashbuckling type is probably going to go away, and you're going to have the MIT specialist out there. And he's going to be wearing the white scarf in the cockpit.

But it just it will change it, but we're our new young people today are used to computers, are used to systems like that. It's a change for us older guys, but it won't be the change for the young ones. And that's just the way it is, progress.

LUDDEN: Well, thanks for calling. Gordon Lubold with the Christian Science Monitor, what about that? I mean, are you seeing, you know, do the younger people coming into the service not have as much a problem with this shift?

Mr. LUBOLD: Right, I think that you're going to see this change and, you know, for example, the pilot I spoke with in particular during my visit, you know, he admitted that he will do whatever it is he needs to do for his service. He'll salute smartly, but he really wants to get in that cockpit and fly F-16s.

I wanted to quick put this into a broader context, which is the Air Force still believes, and even its leadership and all kinds of smart people out there, that you still need the capabilities that fighter jets bring to the fight. And even if they're not they dont appear to be relevant in this fight, and they certainly really have played a smaller role than they have in others, there's still a push for the U.S. military needs to have a conventional capability to fight near-peer-like enemy I don't want to call it an enemy, but a country like China if we were to ever enter into a conflict with that country or a country like them.

And you're going to need you won't be able to just do it by remote control. And so some of the kind of budgetary tension that's occurred here at the Pentagon and on Capitol Hill about where the Pentagon should be putting, you know, its dollars when it comes to airplanes, and especially for the Air Force, stems a little bit from this tension about, you know, wither the Air Force, and what is it going to look like in 10 years or 20 years.

LUDDEN: All right, Gordon Lubold, Pentagon correspondent for the Christian Science Monitor, you're going to stay with us. We are going to talk more about changes in military culture in a moment, and we'll go from the air to the sea and look at some changes happening on submarines.

We'd also like more of your calls. If you serve in uniform or used to, what do these changes mean to you? The number is 800-989-2855, or email us at talk@npr.org. I'm Jennifer Ludden. It's TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

LUDDEN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. Im Jennifer Ludden in Washington.

We're talking about some of the recent changes for the U.S. military. Women officers will be allowed on submarines, but smoking will not be, and the Air Force is more focused on drones now than dogfights. Changes in rules and operations inevitably change military culture, and some aren't happy about it.

Rear Admiral Barry Bruner headed a task force studying the issue of women on subs and acknowledged as much in a blog last month. He wrote: I recently spoke with a number of our retired submariners who were vocal in their opposition to the integration of women on submarines. He said: We've looked hard at the impediments to successful implementation of the plan, and I continue to feel this change of policy is needed to maintain the readiness of the most operationally active submarine service in the world.

If you've served in the armed forces, what do these changes mean for you and for the culture of the military in general? The number to call is 800-989-8255, or email us at talk@npr.org. And you can join the conversation at our website. Go to npr.org, and click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Our guests are Gordon Lubold, Pentagon correspondent for the Christian Science Monitor, and here in the studio with us is Phil Ewing, a reporter with the Navy Times. Welcome to you both.

Mr. PHIL EWING (Reporter, Navy Times): Thank you.

LUDDEN: So Phil, these changes, no smoking but women allowed, that's happening next year or really the beginning of 2012, is that right?

Mr. EWING: Correct, yeah, the military wants to do away with smoking on submarines by the 31st of this year, and by 2012, I think at the latest, they hope to field the first officers on the first submarines (unintelligible).

LUDDEN: Must they do them both at the same time?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. EWING: That's right.

LUDDEN: For some people, that's going to be stressful, no?

Mr. EWING: The changes are coming one on top of the other, which for the submarine force, two big changes is causing a lot of quiet consternation in what is the silent service, and so that's why a lot of retirees have been active about this in speaking out. But a lot of current submariners feel that it's not their place to speak out openly about changes the decision makers are making, and so you hear about it quietly but not as much as you do from former submariners or retired Navy people.

LUDDEN: I want to ask you about the quiet opposition, but first why? Why have they decided to allow women on submarines?

Mr. EWING: Well, the Navy has three big warfare areas: aviation, surface and submarines. And submarines are the last of those big three areas that have not been integrated with women so far, and historically, there have been a couple of reasons.

Submarines are very small, intimate, confined spaces. They involve a lot of close-quarters work for long periods of time.

LUDDEN: I read one description that said they'll be having to pass in hallways that are not wide you have to brush against each other as you walk down the hall, right?

Mr. EWING: Correct. There's a lot of very close, personal contact with your shipmates on a submarine, just in the day-to-day life of walking to and from your duty station or eating in the crew's mess, et cetera. And so that's one reason historically people have been leery about including women because, you know, you can imagine the kind of challenges that might be associated with that from certain people's perspectives. So...

LUDDEN: And they're deployed, what, three months, right?

Mr. EWING: Well, it depends on the ship. There are two and a half kinds of submarines in the Navy, approximately. There are small, fast, fast-attack submarines, and there are big missile submarines. And of those, four have been converted into special, custom missile boats that don't carry nuclear missiles but rather conventional attack missiles and special operators.

And those latter two and a half latter bigger boats, the missile boats, are going to be what's carrying the first women. So there's much more room than there is on fast-attack submarines but still a lot of, like I said, quiet opposition from people who are wondering how well this is going to work.

LUDDEN: So who are you hearing that opposition from? What are they saying?

Mr. EWING: They're saying online and in kind of quiet conversations by email and blogs that it's going to be very disruptive to take a culture that for 100-years-plus has been male-only and all of a sudden put women into those situations. And I think people fear that they won't be able to be as free and as casual as they have been with women around.

Submariners are very competent, very professional, but they're also very insular and closed in. They used to call the Air Force the Junior Stealth Service when they first began to field stealth aircraft because they have been the quiet, seldom-seen, seldom-deserved part of the military for so long, and as a part of that, they've developed a very distinctive but inward-focused culture that doesn't get a lot of public attention. And now, for the first time, politicians and top leaders are paying attention because women are going to be serving at sea.

LUDDEN: The lines are full. There's a lot of public ready to comment about this. Let's hear from Jim(ph). You're in Danielson, Connecticut. Hi, Jim.

JIM (Caller): Hi, how are you doing today? Thanks for taking my call. He touched on a couple issues, the issue of being closed quarters. Even on a boomer boat, they are I'm retired 20 years riding those things. You know, it's not going to be an easy job. You know, I've got nothing against women itself, but, you know, I might be a little chauvinist. I don't know how they're going to deal with it and, you know, sexual harassment issues, anything that is inappropriate is just going to cause issues.

LUDDEN: All right, Jim, thanks for calling. Can you tell us: What about the logistics of making this happen? I mean, are there separate quarters? Are there you know, what about the bathrooms? How is it going to work logistically?

Mr. EWING: They'll be able to modify the larger boats much more easily than they will the smaller submarines just in terms of bulkheads you have to move theoretically. In fact, I don't think you have to make very many physical changes to the boat to be able to create a separate space for women. So they'll...

LUDDEN: So we're not looking at new design of subs in the future necessarily?

Mr. EWING: Correct. And that is one reason historically the Navy has resisted this because they've said to modify what are extremely expensive, extremely complicated, nuclear-powered ships, to have men and women crewmembers would just be so expensive that they've questioned whether it's worth it. But for the big boats, the boomers and the SSGNs, they can kind of close off one of the officer's staterooms and have three or four women just stay in there themselves.

LUDDEN: What about bathrooms?

Mr. EWING: I believe they will have their own custom arrangements on the ship. And that's one of the friction points because a colleague of mine interviewed some of the first Naval Academy midshipmen who just were selected to do this, and one of them made a joke about how, you know, we're not going to be able to take an hour in the bathroom on the submarine to get ready to go to work. And she was being less than serious, but it does touch on kind of a core cultural issue between men and women getting ready, you know, how do they behave in close quarters, and that's what makes a lot of current submarine people nervous, I think.

LUDDEN: Let's hear from Bob(ph) in Charlotte, North Carolina. Also, I believe you're a retired Marine. Is that right, Bob?

BOB (Caller): Yes, I'm a retired Marine Corps officer, 13 and a half years active and nine and a half reserve. I retired in 2002.

LUDDEN: Welcome to the show.

BOB: Yeah, and I saw a lot of changes beginning early in my career. You know, I went in in '79, and I didn't serve with a Marine unit that had women in it until 1992. And so, you know, that was a big culture change for Marines. There were certainly Marines in the female Marines in the Corps, but we just didn't see them if you were in the combat arms.

LUDDEN: Did you go through a transformation yourself? I mean, did you welcome it at the time, or was it kind of hard and got easier or what?

BOB: Well, we had to modify our language rather extensively. You know, the whole thing about, you know, sexual harassment really came to the fore. And really I think the bigger change that happened in the '80s was the was technology, and it was the gas chromatography test used to detect drug abusers.

I mean, when that system hit the fleet, I mean, we got rid of drug abusers, and we got rid of them lickety-split. And I would bet today that there probably is still some drug use in the Marine Corps, but, you know, it's hard to escape detection anymore, and that really did a good thing for the service.

LUDDEN: Are you saying there's a connection between getting rid of that and maybe gender relations within the service?

BOB: Yeah, yeah, absolutely, absolutely. I mean, you know, they got rid of the bad old days, you know, the leftovers from Vietnam, you know. Then Reagan came into office, and man, we got a new military, and we won the Cold War without firing a shot.

LUDDEN: Right, well, Bob, thanks for calling. What do you make of that?

Mr. EWING: It's a great point, and it sounds like a superficial thing or a silly thing, but just the way men feel like they can speak when women are around or when women aren't around has been a big thing that submariners have kind of talked about among themselves because all of the sudden if you're if you've got a bunch of salty, 20-year Navy veterans on a ship, and there's a new, young, female ensign who's there as a part of the operation, it makes people nervous. They're going to change their behavior because of her being there.

I have no doubt that submariners will eventually get used to it, and these kind of initial speed bumps will probably get smoothed out, but it's going to be a different world for those guys for the next couple of years.

LUDDEN: All right, Phil Ewing with the Navy Times. We have a call now from Marcus(ph) in Philadelphia who wants to talk about the smoking ban onboard submarines. Hi there, Marcus.

MARCUS (Caller): Hi, how are you doing?

LUDDEN: Good.

MARCUS: I'm an ex-nuclear-submarine officer, served back in the '80s, did my department head tour on fast attack boats, and I actually have opinions on both.

First of all, the smoking thing, I think it's about time. When you walk around a submarine that has smoking aboard, if you go into the crew's mess, you'll see the overhead is absolutely stained with nicotine and all the byproducts, I guess, from smoking. I'm not a smoker myself.

And it's kind of silly when you think about we're being in a closed environment with CO2 scrubbers and burners and all kinds of requirements to ventilate every so often if you haven't been up at periscope depth for a while. It just seemed counterintuitive that we were allowing smoking to go, you know, as a matter of course.

LUDDEN: It was kind of surprising to find out this hasn't happened before. Is it because you can just be out there for so long, essentially it means - it's not like not smoking in restaurants. It means, you have to give up. Is that...

MARCUS: That's absolutely true. And I'm sure the smokers that are - the three-pack-a-day guys are the ones that really have a problem getting used to it. Now, I do know that even when I was leaving the submarine force back in the early '90s, there were actually volunteer boats, where there were - boats that had a full crew that kind of did an unwritten pledge to say, okay, I'm not going to smoke. So I don't think it's going to be a cold turkey sort of thing. When you look at the cost of smoking to not just, you know, the atmosphere on an enclosed environment but just to the health of the guys, it can't be a bad thing.

LUDDEN: Well, thanks so much for calling. Phil Ewing, are you hearing any quiet opposition to the smoking ban or is it being well-received?

Mr. EWING: Definitely. I think it's another - and coming on the heels of the adding-women-to-crews change is a big deal for the submarine force today. And it's kind of an unfair but inescapable fact of life on a submarine that unlike on a surface ship, where you kind of designate a part of the deck topside as the smoking area where everybody who smokes can take a break every once in a while and, you know, relax and have a smoke. On a sub, you're in an enclosed environment, you're on - and the only place you can get away is a closed-off room some place else.

And so, if you're on a tense patrol, you know, on a deterrence patrol on a missile boat, on a ship full of nuclear submarines and you're in a tense situation, you know, I can imagine a lot of people enjoy unwinding with a cigarette now and again, especially you're heavier smokers. And so, yeah, I think there are a lot of people who are leery about whether they'll be able to get away from this habit and have the Navy successfully wean them off.

LUDDEN: Well, is there any effort to do that ahead of time? Does the Navy have any, you know, programs, handing out the patch or anything?

Mr. EWING: There is, and my understanding is that boats are going to appoint a crewmember whose job will be the kind of shepherd people through this process, and that the ships will be providing nicotine gum and patches and quit materials and other things. And so, by giving the force some time - before the end of the year - to quit smoking, I think there's a little bit of leeway there as well as these other things the Navy is going to provide to help them quit. But still, if you've been smoking, like our caller said, three packs a day for 10 years of whatever, then it's a difficult obstacle to try to jump over.

LUDDEN: And this is - it's not like you're - this is probably going to be one of the more stressful periods of your life.

Mr. EWING: Absolutely.

LUDDEN: All right. Let's hear from Rob(ph) in Greensboro, North Carolina. Hi, there.

ROB (Caller): Hi, how are you?

LUDDEN: Good. Go right ahead. You're an ex-Marine, is that right?

ROB: Yes. I'm a former Marine and former Air Force.

LUDDEN: Okay.

ROB: I'm just kind of sitting back surprised at all of the - well, what I would characterize as whining, coming out about these issues here. I mean, people complained about blacks being integrated into the forces, and that went over fine. We've had gays in military forces for years and there have been no issues with that. They're performing very well. It's the people who complain about it that are causing the problem. We're talking a lot about stress and, you know, oh, my gosh, I can't stop smoking, it's so stressful. We're talking about people who have taken on the role of being stressed out as their livelihood, and they've been through some of the toughest training in the world, and that's very stressful. But they can't get pass giving up cigarettes or dealing with a woman being in a room with them. I think that's pretty ridiculous for our military forces.

LUDDEN: All right. Well, Rob, thank you for calling. And let me just pause to note here that you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

We have another call now - Doug(ph) in Annapolis, Maryland. You are currently in the Navy, is that right?

DOUG (Caller): Yes, I am, yeah. I'm active duty military. And I just kind of wanted to weigh in on this whole issue because you've been having callers that are either retired or they've been in, they've been out. But that's from a person who's peer group is actually going to be the first Naval - the first women on submarines, and I'm speaking to these - and knowing these people, these women personally, I can assure you that, you know, this kind of an issue is being blown a little out of proportion because it's being handled by - well, I'm not got to bring all that into this. But basically, the issue is that from our level, from the people who are actually going to be doing this it's not -it's a nonissue.

The issue we have is just getting the job done, accomplishing the mission. That's our focus. Who you work with is - you know, as long as they're competent, as long as they can do their jobs - and I assure these women who will be joining the submarine force are more than qualified to be submariners. They...

LUDDEN: And I heard - go ahead.

DOUG: And then they - there's not - as long as they can do their jobs and they're competent and they show the qualities of a good officer, gender doesn't really play an issue of it. Then, of course, logistically, yeah, you're going to have to figure out separate (unintelligible) and things like that. But that's - that's just - those are the details that can be ironed out. And the whole issue of having them on the submarine should be a - not an issue at all.

LUDDEN: Well, I've read that they actually do have maybe, like weeklong training on submarines and so that - I mean, have you yourself trained with them? Have you had times when there have been women on the submarine?

DOUG: Well, no. Actually, I know these women personally just from interacting with them. Having women on the submarine, I had - I spent some time (unintelligible) with women on a submarine. And I do (unintelligible) accommodations for them and it's not - really not that big of a deal. It's more of a just like, okay, you know, this is little - we'll have figure this out and we'll move on. It's not - we don't focus on it as much as - we don't give as much attention to it as everyone else is. It's just something that, okay, it is what it is. Let's just move on and take care of business.

LUDDEN: All right. Doug, well, thanks for calling.

DOUG: Thank you.

LUDDEN: Phil Ewing, is there a generational divide here where the younger folks not as bothered by all this?

Mr. EWING: Absolutely. I think it's an excellent point, and both callers make a great point. When you look at personnel changes in the military historically, President Truman desegregated the military in 1947. And initially, it was a big deal and there were a lot of tensions in the force in Vietnam. But then, by the late '70s and '80s, it was a nonissue. Same thing with the integration of women into the aviation and surface forces in the Navy: Initially, there were scandals and anecdotal stories about things going wrong. But at this point, women are flying combat missions over Afghanistan, off aircraft carriers today and commanding surface ships in the fleet. And there are very few of the problems that people at the time said they thought would take place.

So I think the callers make great points that eventually, sooner or later, this will be worked out. And I think the Navy will be better for it.

LUDDEN: All right. We've been talking about some changes in the military with Phil Ewing, a reporter with the Navy Times. And earlier, we spoke with Gordon Lubold, a Pentagon correspondent for the Christian Science Monitor.

Coming up next, why the oil leak in the Gulf of Mexico may not be so catastrophic after all. Ken Ringle will put the spill in context. I'm Jennifer Ludden. It's TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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