A Search for Military Strategy in Iraq

Alex Chadwick talks with New York-based writer Tom Bissell, who describes his personal search to understand U.S. military strategy in Iraq in the latest issue of Harper's magazine.

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MADELEINE BRAND, host:

And with me, Alex Chadwick, and, Alex, you're here with another one of your Iraq conversations. Tell us about it.

ALEX CHADWICK, host:

Right, Madeleine. You know, I've been talking to people for months now, various politicians, thinkers. This is a journalist. His name is Tom Bissell. He's a contributing editor for Harper's Magazine. He's got the cover story in this month's Harper's about a recent visit he made to Iraq. He was embedded with a Marine unit there and he writes about the search for American military strategy in Iraq. And, well, this is the conversation.

Tom Bissell, how did your experience in Iraq compare with what you thought you'd find before you got there?

Mr. TOM BISSELL (Contributing Editor, Harper's Magazine): Well, I originally went trying to find the good news aspect of this story. I just spent a long time writing a book about Vietnam. My father's a Vietnam vet and sort of immersing myself in the mistakes the American military and Department of Defense had made in Vietnam, and while I can say that a lot of the mistakes that were made in Vietnam are definitely not being replicated in Iraq, a lot of kind of very basic cultural insensitivities, just a kind of sense in a lot--on a part of a lot of the soldiers I met to have no interest in Iraqi people, to have no trust for Iraqi people and to have almost--virtually no day-to-day contact with Iraqi people. That to me was truly shocking and also sort of suggested to me that the rhetoric and the reality of what soldiers there are seeing on the ground are many galaxies apart.

CHADWICK: So you are inspired on this reporting mission by your father's experience in Vietnam but about halfway through this article you say, `You know, Vietnam is not really the correct analogy for this war.' The right analogy is the Philippines, which is a war the United States...

Mr. BISSELL: Yeah.

CHADWICK: ...fought 100 years ago after we took the Philippines from Spain. It was a Spanish colony. After the Spanish-American War, we got the Philippines, along with Cuba.

Mr. BISSELL: Yes, it's a war that started in the Caribbean and somehow morphed into something that a very hot-headed junior member of the McKinley administration, Teddy Roosevelt, decided that the way to do this was to attack the Philippines and the Philippines-Iraq comparisons are kind of haunting in a lot of ways.

CHADWICK: And why is that?

Mr. BISSELL: They were wars that began as one thing and then morphed into something else, which became an occupation of a country that pretty much had nothing to do with the fight that had been going on before that. There was sort of a brief period of jubilation and then a long, brutal grueling war that aroused a lot of disgust in the United States, a lot of very high-level hand-wringing, a president who is totally besieged and completely at a loss to explain why on Earth we were stuck in this mess.

CHADWICK: You write about the war in Iraq today after being stationed with this Marine unit where you are looking for evidence of success in strategy, in tactics. You honestly don't find it. You're then on your way out of Iraq, you're in Baghdad, and talking to an American military officer within the Green Zone, the headquarters. There you get a discussion of strategy. What happens?

Mr. BISSELL: He was the guy that I had kept been getting pushed up to. I kept asking questions about strategy. Enlisted Marines had no--they didn't want to talk about it. They had no idea. I talked to officers. Officers had their idea of what they were doing, their mission. And I talked to the general at the base I was at. He said, `Well, that's not really my area,' and I began to become very alarmed that no one wanted to talk about strategy. And why did no one want to talk about strategy? Was it because people really didn't know what the strategy was? I do believe there is a strategy. I don't believe it's in wide circulation. But this lieutenant colonel, Boylan, he really believes that we are training the Iraqi army--we're going to train them so well that they're going to be able to defeat the insurgency, and then everything will be much better.

CHADWICK: I want to ask about your own view of the mission and what's happening there because you wrote an article that we did not interview you about but which we noted last summer that was quite critical of the anti-war movement. Because you said it was ideologically bankrupt.

Mr. BISSELL: Yeah. I considered myself someone who was neither pro- nor anti-war, and I wrote an article. It was about my ambivalence for the anti-war movement, which was framed in a discussion of Solzhenitsyn's "The Gulag Archipelago" in which Solzhenitsyn again and again attacks Western intellectuals for supporting basically Stalinism for, you know, two decades at least. And some of, you know--then there--there remain hard-core pockets of Stalinist apologists, and one of those pockets happens to be Act Now to Stop War and Racism, which is one of the biggest organizers of anti-war rallies. And these people are pro-Baathist, you know, for lack of a better term. They're pro-Kim Jong Il. They're pro-dictator. They're pro-dictatorship.

And I wrote a piece about the anguish I felt about having to throw my lot in with such people. And like a lot of people who are ambivalent about the war, I spent an inordinate amount of time writing about how dumb the anti-war movement was, and I'll be perfectly honest with you now, and I spent a lot of time asking myself why that seemed important to me. I have a very hard time figuring out where I stand on this, and I'm hoping that I will come to some sort of peace about where, you know, my feelings, intellectually and emotionally, really are on it.

CHADWICK: Tom Bissell is a writer based in New York. His article about Iraq is the cover story in this month's Harper's Magazine. Tom, thank you.

Mr. BISSELL: Thank you, Alex.

BRAND: Stay with us on DAY TO DAY from NPR News.

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