NEAL CONAN, host:
In the months after the invasion of Iraq, Rajiv Chandrasekaran spent a lot of time in the Green Zone, the heavily-fortified quadrant of the Iraqi capital, home to the U.S. Embassy and the governmental apparatus then known as the Coalition Provisional Authority. It was - The Washington Post Baghdad bureau chief quickly realized - a strange place where Muslim cafeteria workers served pork chops and bacon flown in by Halliburton, and it was a kind of cocoon.
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Mr. RAJIV CHANDRASEKARAN (Author, "Imperial Life in the Emerald City"): It was a whole motley assortment of Americans. There were some diplomats. There were some military officers. But there were also an awful lot of people who came in not because they possessed any great skill in the language of Arabic or experience in the Middle East, but they were recruited because of their political fidelity, their loyalty to the Bush administration and the Republican Party.
CONAN: Rajiv Chandrasekaran wrote a book about that time and place called "Imperial Life in the Emerald City." That book inspired a movie that opened this month, "Green Zone," directed by Paul Greengrass, starring Matt Damon. If you've read the book or seen the movie, give us a call: 800-989-8255. Email us: firstname.lastname@example.org. And you can join the conversation on our Web site. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.
Rajiv Chandrasekaran, now associate editor of The Washington Post, with us here today in Studio 3A. Nice to see you.
Mr. CHANDRASEKARAN: Good to be here with you, Neal.
CONAN: And when you were there and all this was playing out, did it seem to you cinematic?
Mr. CHANDRASEKARAN: You know, never in my wildest dreams did I think that a movie would come from all of this. I thought maybe in, you know, late-night moments as I was trying to process all of this, maybe yield in decades to come a "M*A*S*H"-like TV show, sort of darkly comedic...
Mr. CHANDRASEKARAN: ...because it did feel absurd. I mean, it was a theater of the absurd unfolding in front of my eyes that they would bring in, you know, young Americans with no subject matter expertise, you know? A 24-year-old kid who hadn't worked in finance being assigned to reopen the stock exchange. A 21-year-old young man who hadn't even graduated from college who boasted that his most meaningful job before going to Iraq was as an ice cream truck driver being put to work with the team of Americans trying to rehabilitate the Ministry of the Interior.
And I think your listeners know just what an important job purging the Interior Ministry of militiamen was way back then. That all of this stuff could unfold -the bacon in the cafeterias, the swimming pool, the disco - at a time when the Americans faced this very sort of narrow window of opportunity to reach out to the Iraqis, to try to establish some degree of public order and governance.
And so looking back on all of it - you know, while I was there at the time, I thought, I didn't in a million years think it would come to this. But years pass, we start to process this information, and what we as a journalists on the frontline see eventually get's turned into long form non-fiction that eventually gets read by folks in Hollywood, and they start to do their thing.
CONAN: Don't spoil it. Don't tell us how it turned out, okay?
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CONAN: Let's see if we can get some callers in on the conversation. We'll begin with Mike, and Mike's calling us from Denver.
MIKE (Caller): Hey, I saw the movie recently. I did not read the book. And - but I did see the movie, and it was a, you know, second to the "Hurt Locker," it kind of captured for me the chaos, the just the insanity of the whole Iraq thing. I just thought what a mess it all was from watching it. I wonder how the movie differed from the book. I know that it took a lot of license and stuff like that. But would you say it was, you know, honest to what you wrote in the book?
Mr. CHANDRASEKARAN: That's a very good question. You know, the movie was inspired by the book. It wasn't based on the book. There is no Chief Warrant Officer Roy Miller character. That's the protagonist of the movie played very, very brilliantly by Matt Damon. There is no individual figure as played by Greg Kinnear. My book was really a nonfictional account of that wacky world inside the Green Zone for the first 15 months.
What the book did was it helped Paul Greengrass unlock an Iraq movie concept that was sort of banging around in his head the time, and it helped Paul and Matt get a place for this movie. And so the "Green Zone" serves as the backdrop for what is a fictional action storyline - a thriller, if you will.
CONAN: Did they talk to you about the script?
Mr. CHANDRASEKARAN: A little bit. They certainly sought some of my input when it came to how, you know, the Green Zone should be depicted, et cetera. But they went off and did a lot of their own research on the issues of weapons of mass destruction and on how the military operated there, which was a little beyond what I was covering at the time.
CONAN: Mm-hmm. Mike, thanks very much for the call.
MIKE: Yeah, thank you.
CONAN: Bye-bye. Let's go next to - this is Anne(ph). Anne is calling us from Hotcheson(ph) in Delaware.
ANNE (Caller): Hi. Thanks very much for having us - having me on. Hi, Rajiv, it's Anne. How are you?
Mr. CHANDRASEKARAN: Oh, hi, Anne.
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CONAN: A friend of yours.
ANNE: Yeah. The comment I wanted to make - and I really enjoyed both Rajiv's book and the movie, although I think the movie took some artistic license with the staff sergeant doing the kinds of things Matt Damon did. But one thing that Rajiv and I talked about before is that these young people who were pushed into these jobs for which they might not have had the subject matter expertise, in many cases, it wasn't really their fault. I mean, they were sort of shoved in there, not quite knowing what to expect, with virtually no training. And I, sort of, came in maybe, I don't know, three or four months after that first wave of the young folks.
And what I was struck by was sometimes they didn't know enough to know they shouldn't be asking certain things or doing certain things. And I found from time to time that some things got done that I never thought could have been done because of sort of normal protocols that you would go through in a reconstruction setting.
CONAN: Oh, it's, of course, totally unheard of for Hollywood to take artistic license, so...
Mr. CHANDRASEKARAN: And - but the point that Anne, I think, was driving at is a good one to make, which is, you know, regardless of political affiliation, regardless of the length of their resumes, almost everybody who went out there in that first 15-month period went out there with the best of intentions. They all wanted to try to make Iraq work.
The problem was, you know, do the people who don't possess those necessary skills, are they the right people to send out there? In their defense, officials of the Bush administration would argue that they weren't really inundated with resumes from other sorts of people. However, there is, you know, what I found from my research was that there were a lot of qualified people whose applications were, sort of, thrown into the dustbin. And people were asked questions, like, you know, do you support Roe v. Wade before they were allowed to go out there? And, obviously, if you said you did, that was seen as a demerit.
CONAN: Let's get another caller in on the conversation. Let's go next to Kevin(ph), Kevin with us from El Sobrante in California.
KEVIN (Caller): Hi. I saw the movie, and the question I have is the lapses of intelligence that were depicted in the movie that resulted in the death of the civilians and U.S. troops as that was depicted in the movie, was that - in your opinion, was that an actually a common thing in Iraq? And I'm asking this because I'm thinking that if that was happening in Iraq and people were just willing to act on the - a really flimsy intelligence, I'm wondering, is that happening in Afghanistan and Pakistan now, too, especially with the drone killings?
CONAN: Mm-hmm. Rajiv?
Mr. CHANDRASEKARAN: Well, the lack of good intelligence, the lack of actionable intelligence as depicted in the movie, I think, is spot on with what really did occur there. I covered the U.N. weapons inspection process in the run-up to the ground invasion. And, you know, U.N. weapons inspectors would go into facilities that they were being told by the Americans potentially housed scud missiles, and they were actually turned out to be chicken coops.
Mr. CHANDRASEKARAN: So that part of it, I think, is spot on. Where the movie maybe goes one step beyond what we definitively know from, you know, reporting and the factual record is that, you know, it asserts that there was a, sort of, a clear conspiracy there. And I think that as people have sort of dug in to this, the truth is somewhere, you know, in that continuum between gross negligence and, you know, outright malfeasance. And it's somewhere there.
The movie, of course, because Hollywood has wanted to do this, makes it seem just a little bit more cut and dried than it might be in real life. With regard to Afghanistan, I mean, we still face some very significant intelligence challenges there and, you know, that's a subject for a whole separate discussion...
CONAN: It is, yes.
Mr. CHANDRASEKARAN: ...but, you know, I do think that as our troop presence increases there, one of the biggest challenges is trying to better understand the environment in which we're operating in Afghanistan and across the border in Pakistan.
CONAN: Well, briefly, one of your last pieces from Afghanistan was about the situation in and around Marjah...
Mr. CHANDRASEKARAN: Yeah.
CONAN: ...what you call Marinistan(ph), people operating under, well, their own rules at this point.
Mr. CHANDRASEKARAN: Well, the U.S. Marine Corps which is operating in that part of southern Afghanistan, really - is trying to actually take lessons that it felt it learned from operating in Iraq, in the western Anbar Province where it felt it had to, as the Marine Corps, sort of, be creative, be inventive. And so, they've gone out to Marjah and neighboring parts of Helmand province and just sought to, sort of, do things in their own way. And sometimes that's, you know, has ruffled some feathers with their colleagues in the Army and in the NATO headquarters in Kabul.
CONAN: Because they want the Marines to - well, they want consistency and they also want some of those troops to be available elsewhere.
Mr. CHANDRASEKARAN: Exactly. I mean, they see a much bigger challenge in the neighboring province, in Kandahar, Afghanistan's second largest city, the spiritual capital for the Taliban, home to nearly a million people. And you've got all these Marines sitting in the desert in Helmand province and they're saying, well, those guys are doing counterinsurgency pretty well out there, but does Helmand really merit that many American service members? Should we not reallocate some of them?
But the Marines have come with this condition saying, look, we need to have a contiguous battle space. We need to operate with our own helicopters, with our own logistics units. And that means it's much harder for General Stanley McChrystal, the commander of all the forces in Afghanistan, to essentially move those troops around as he sees fit.
CONAN: Well, not the first time the Marines and the Army have disputed over tactics or operational ideas. Rajiv Chandrasekaran, thank you very much. And I hope the book sells well in the aftermath of the movie.
Mr. CHANDRASEKARAN: Thank you very much, Neal, a pleasure to talk to you again.
CONAN: The book is "Imperial Life in the Emerald City." And the movie is "Green Zone." And Rajiv Chandrasekaran is now associate editor of The Washington Post, and he joined us here in Studio 3A.
You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.