This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry gross.

My guest C.J. Chivers, just got back from Libya where he's been on the frontlines of the war, traveling with the rebels who are fighting Gadhafi's forces. Chivers is a foreign correspondent for The New York Times. He's come under fire during battles, has documented the remains of an atrocity, and has reported from villages near the frontlines that have been deserted and looted.

He's also been tracking what arms are being used by each side in Libya and what that reveals about the global arms trade. As part of his work at The Times, he reports on the arms trade. Chivers is also the author of the book "The Gun," about the history of the AK-47, the Kalashnikov. It comes out in paperback in September. Chivers shared a Pulitzer Prize for his coverage of combat in Afghanistan.

Before becoming a journalist, he was a Marine Corps infantry officer.

C.J. Chivers, welcome back to FRESH AIR. But just describe what you think the state of the war in Libya is now.

Mr. CJ CHIVERS (Foreign Correspondent, The New York Times): Well, I would say that militarily it's come to not quite a standstill. There's some movement, but there has been very little movement since mid to late spring.

GROSS: So you said there's been little movement in terms of the fighting, you know. But meanwhile, you know, NATO is still involved, the U.S. is still involved. What are they accomplishing?

Mr. CHIVERS: Well, that's a good question. From a military sense, some of the things that could be done relatively quickly have already happened. You know, the Gadhafi air force was grounded almost immediately once the air campaign started from NATO. The areas where the rebels had very deep support, popular support, quickly went over to their side.

Some of the areas that are left, we suspect have maybe perhaps a bit more loyalty - or mixed loyalties - to the Gadhafi government, than what was perhaps predicted by the people who expected this to be a quick war. So what's left now, in front of these, you know, opposition forces, militarily on the ground, often cases looks difficult. They are facing towns that are, you know, heavily garrisoned - cities and towns that are heavily garrisoned by the Gadhafi military. They're facing populations that in some cases may hold loyalties to the regime.

In other cases, because there's been an awful lot of violence against those populations by the Gadhafi forces, the populations are not, perhaps, in a position to rise up in a, you know, in a critical mass and help take the cities and the towns that are still contested.

And so what you see there now, as we head into what could become a Ramadan lull, is something that, you know, notwithstanding some progress here and there in this front, potentially could look to someone like stalemate.

GROSS: So is the NATO air power not really helpful right now?

Mr. CHIVERS: Well, it's hard to measure some things. I would imagine that, you know, when you talk to the frontline fighters what you hear is an awful lot of frustration that NATO's presence is not as regular, as aggressive as they would like. Which means, you know, they're saying we're not getting enough bombs -you know, we get attacked from this the direction or that direction by convoys, or we are getting rocketed by, you know, rocket launcher systems that leave a big signature on the ground.

I mean these are little rockets that are being fired off of wooden frames into our towns. I mean these are mounted on big Soviet-era trucks, and the driver on the battlefield and have to be re-loaded. And why are these being hit? So, you hear a lot of frustration.

But what you're not may be able to measure, but probably is likely happening, is the diminished logistics that that Gadhafi forces have. The rockets might be much more frequent and much more intensive in their barrages, if it weren't for the fact that the air power is up there, making it harder for the Gadhafi forces to move their trucks and re-supply about the battlefield.

So I think it's having an effect. I think it would be foolish to say otherwise. But it's become more complicated and more of a long-standing fight than I think most of the people who got in this expected. And so there is a lot a frustration with NATO. You hear it from the rank-and-file everyday.

GROSS: What exactly is America's involvement, now, in Libya?

Mr. CHIVERS: I don't know exactly what the air power is up in the air. I've been trying to get it at that. And the governments that are involved, when they sign on for NATO, some of them seem to get sort of nondisclosure agreements with NATO. So I don't really know. I'd rather - they also almost bombed me one day...

GROSS: Oh, my God. Really?

Mr. CHIVERS: They did bomb. They actually did bomb me but they missed...

GROSS: The U.S.?

Mr. CHIVERS: Ooh, I don't know.

GROSS: Whoa.

Mr. CHIVERS: I don't know. That's the point, you see? Who did it? That's what I've been trying to figure it out which country dropped a bomb right next to me and my translator and the driver was working with. We were working in Misrata. I was working, that day, just outside of the city after the airport had fallen. It was in mid-May. And the Gadhafi forces had abandoned, sometime before, a network of what looked to be an anti-air defense system - radars and the like, old Soviet-era stuff.

Junk. It had been hit too many times before and it was all broken up. You know, imagine big trailers sort of fully ventilated by shrapnel and warped by flame and just shattered.

And I had stopped there because it was a piece of the higher terrain that overlooked the city. I had been trying to trace down which weapons the Gadhafi military had been firing into the city. We had done this already, extensively, by picking up the remnants of the munitions in the streets and the houses where they hit in the city. And we were getting some sense of how, you know, how the military was punishing the city, if you will, with a whole range of things.

But I wanted to go through the positions where they were firing from, to look for other things, like the packaging, and try to figure out who had provided these munitions to the Libyan government and when. And so that brought me to this - call it a hill. It's more like a big knoll. And we were there, a young Libyan man - Abdul Hadi and I - poking around. And I immediately found a mortar position, but it wasn't particularly interesting munitions that had been left behind.

And so we were wandering around the site for a bit. And I kind of looked at my watch. I was making pictures and it was late in the afternoon and I had a deadline. And I realized I had literally tapped the watch and said: damn, I better go. This isn't - been out all day reporting, and I've got stuff to write. Time is tight. I need to check in with my paper. And we walked away. And we've walked, I don't know, all say 25 meters perhaps.

And the area we had been headed to up until the point where we made that U-turn, there was this incredible roar. I mean just, it sounded like the sky splitting and I knew immediately what it was, because I've been close to a bunch of air strikes in Afghanistan. And I had enough time for one thought, you know, it was kind of two words fuses as one thought: air strike - dead.


Mr. CHIVERS: You know, I thought they got us. But the lay of the terrain was such that there was - I had walked off the top of the hill or knoll, or whatever you want to call it, and come off about 25 meters. And it hit on the facing side. And so there's this huge blast wave and it kind of blew us over like blades of grass. But there wasn't any shrapnel, cause of the wave, the slope, it must've gone overhead. You know, I've seen a lot of these hits where they hit a vehicle or they hit some - they hit, there are some massive amounts of debris go up in there. And there wasn't as much of it in this case.

And we got up and kind of weaved and ran away, naturally. But

GROSS: So do you know whose bomb it was? Do you know?

Mr. CHIVERS: Well, we later approached - I mean it was one of those situations. We came back and, you know, I was suffering from some headaches and having trouble hearing. And so we came back and I, you know, I called the paper and let them know very briefly what had happened - told them I was fine. And then we started to ask a few questions. Because, you know, it struck me as unusual that they would bomb something that was very blown up. They would bomb something that was, in this case, behind rebel lines.

The rebel lines and shifted the previous day. So this area had been in rebel possession for at least 24 hours, maybe longer. I mean I'd driven right by it the previous day, that's why I had decided to go back. Because I'd thought, I sort of made a mental note that'll be a mortar firing position, maybe an artillery position up there. I need to sort of get that on my checklist and go through it tomorrow, when I swing through hear it again.

So we had a lot of questions about that. What we first saw from NATO was they released a statement. Well, you know, the sort of summary statement of their bombing runs. They do this each day. And the summary statement from that day said, simply, that they'd hit an air defense system near Misrata or at Misrata. I don't remember exactly how they phrased it. And that struck me as odd because it was already destroyed so at a minimum it would seem to me like a wasted munition.

It was also a little bit odd because two of us were standing on the place. And two other gentlemen had been there just before - two Libyan guys who I think were collecting scrap, two older gentlemen in a, you know, a little blue pickup had been there and they've gone away. Luckily for them.

GROSS: So do you think it was a NATO plane that did the bombing?

Mr. CHIVERS: NATO has acknowledged that they put that bomb there. We haven't had a particularly expressive conversation with them because they've been unwilling to discuss any of the additional circumstances, whose aircraft it was, what type of munition was used, why they did it. I mean they sent a statement that said - I don't have it in front of me, but it's in my email. It says something to the extent of this mission in question complied with our mandate to protect civilians.

You try to engage NATO in a conversation about it and they don't give you enough information to really understand what was the origins of the mistake. How did they come to the conclusion that that bomb needed to go right there, right then when we happened to be wandering around on it? I mean we'd been told sort of informally that it's what they call a dynamic targeting mission, which means the pilot had some latitude that day. It wasn't a planned run. You know, they didn't fly off from the air base in Europe and say I'm going to hit this air defense system. There was a pilot with, you know, some responsibilities for the, looking for targets on an area over the ground below and he happened to decide that that was the target while we were there. I don't know much more than that.

And this is a really important area for inquiry, because one of the problems we have with, you know, trying to decide as publics whether a war should be supported or how a war is fairing, how it's being conducted is if you don't have access to the real information you can't do the kind of thoughtful analysis to so was this air campaign well-managed? Is it worth it? Are we getting the value for the bombs? Are we actually protecting people? What are the costs of that protection? You know, maybe on this sort of ugly abacus of war more people have survived in Libya because of NATO's there than otherwise would have had there been a Gadhafi crackdown that continued all the way to the Egyptian border as the momentum suggested it was going to in March when this all began.

GROSS: Well, my guest is C.J. Chivers. He has been covering the war in Libya for The New York Times. He just left Libya over the weekend. And he also is the author of the book "The Gun," which is the history of the Kalashnikov and that will be published in paperback in September.

Chris, let's take a short break here and then we'll talk more about your reporting from Libya.

This is FRESH AIR.

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GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is C.J. Chivers. He's a foreign correspondent for The New York Times. He's been covering the fighting in Libya. He just returned from Libya. He left over the weekend.

So you've interviewed dozens of rebel fighters in Libya and you say that they present a portrait of a guerrilla force that acts less like a coherent structure than a network pickup fighting clubs. What have you been told by fighters that have led you to that conclusion?

Mr. CHIVERS: Well, there's fighters and there's fighters in Libya, and let's talk about our types. I'm talking about the rank-and-file.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Mr. CHIVERS: The guys who are actually carrying the guns, or in some cases they're not carrying guns at all. There aren't enough firearms to go around. But they're up there on the frontlines hoping to get one and join in. Those guys fit sort of the popular, in the main; they fit the popular perception that a lot of people have. They're accidental combatants. They didn't see this coming. They're civilians. It's almost astonishing when you're, you know, trotting along the flank, going fight with these guys or you're riding with them in these convoys that barrel forward as they attack the cities, or when you sit with them afterwards and have a meal. They are petroleum engineers and biochemists and laborers and welders and schoolteachers and lawyers and, you know, even occasionally sometimes, not very often, we'll see a doctor at the front. There's a regular cross section of the Libyan population and so you can't expect them to be competent, well-organized, tactically sound and technically proficient fighters. They don't have any experience in this except the OJT of the last few months.

GROSS: But you've also...

Mr. CHIVERS: That's how they fight individually.

GROSS: Yeah. Mm-hmm.

Mr. CHIVERS: But as they fight collectively they come together in groups. And so they come together in groups that in many ways from what I can tell, align with their pre-existing social networks. They come from the same neighborhood or from the same town and they fight under leaders who for social reasons are leaders maybe more than for, you know, practical military reasons. You know, one cell we saw - I won't call it a cell, it was actually more like a platoon in Misrata - was led by a very popular former professional soccer player. And he had many of the characters of the leader, you know, he had a lot of presence and he was hard-working and he was trim and fit and determined and so people followed him. But did he know much about fighting? He was learning. But he didn't show up to this with any experience at all.

So you see these different groups in the West you see they fight along, oftentimes along town lines. Different towns have their own fighting groups. They share a road or a couple of roads that lead towards the frontlines. And individually the guys form into groups and the groups form into clusters, and the clusters go off and fight. But they don't really collaborate together except in the larger sense of sharing the goal for the given day. You know, we're going to Kawalish or we're going to take Kawalish back. Or we're going to go and fight in Burodanum(ph). But the organization doesn't get much better than that. That's about it. And so when you see them like we saw in the second battle for, Kawalish where the Gadhafi forces had taken the town back from the rebel force that had held it for about a week at that point.

Every fighting group in the different, you know, towns that we were close enough to influence that day just basically recalled their fighters from their homes, got in the pickup trucks and went screaming down the road towards the fight and they were all fighting together but in some ways they were fighting individually. And it's one of the reasons it doesn't work out very well because that's really not a way to take back a town.

GROSS: It sounds from your reporting in The New York Times that there's a lot of suspicion of others within the ranks of the rebel fighters. You write that many fighters say they suspect others of hording weapons and ammunition and withholding essential supplies. That they suspect some of their senior commanders of the intentionally remaining like far back, out of harm and out of sight while the fighters risk their lives. So is there a lot of suspicion within the rebels of each other?

Mr. CHIVERS: I would say the biggest suspicion they face or that they feel is that in their ranks are informants or people who are playing both sides. And so they're very worried that, you know, that there are Gadhafi supporters relaying information. That's probably their primary fear.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Mr. CHIVERS: And you hear that quite a bit. Didn't hear it as much in this trip but I heard that a lot in the East before. That was one of the reasons supposedly, that the frontlines were being shutdown for outside access because they were afraid, or they said they were, that people would be taken that information and providing it to the Gadhafi side.

There is, I would say, disappointment among the rank-and-file fighters that they're not being well provisioned for by their supervisors, weapons aren't making it out to the frontlines, ammunition isn't making it out to the frontlines. Some things are exceptionally well organized. You know, the medical care is very well organized. But that happens organically because Libya happened to have a bunch of doctors who and who have an international network of people who support them as well, who have sort of on their own organized battlefield evacuation and treatment and then evacuation out of Libya for treatment and Egypt and Tunisia and elsewhere. So some things are very well organized, but in the things they're new at, like fighting, there are a lot of suspicions.

GROSS: You've come across a lot of things that you've tried to explain. You've tried to figure out what happened, what does that mean while you've been reporting from Libya. And one example that really sticks in my mind is you came across five bodies, rotting bodies that were buried in a cement basin near a Kawalish. And you describe one corpse had his pants bunched around his ankles. Another appeared to have been beheaded. You took photos that you say were too gruesome to print. I guess that was purely for documentation. So what you do when you come across an atrocity like this? And what are the questions you try to answer?

Mr. CHIVERS: Well, you naturally you try to engage with local residents to try to find out what they know about what happened and then you then try to meet with the local authorities to try to get their sense of what happened and what they're doing about it. And what you find when you encounter something like that, and it's a really horrific scene. I mean this awful stench, these rotting corpses in, you know, maybe 10 or 12 inches of water, they'd been there a bit, at least several days, and you try to make, you know, journalistically as clean and clear a record as you can before the scene is disturbed. I mean photographing everything and photographing the blood stains and photographing the tire tracks and the spent cartridges and the bindings that apparently had been on some of these victim's legs or hands before they were shot.

And then you walk that back to other people who obviously have a stake in what happened, you find that...

GROSS: You show them the pictures?

Mr. CHIVERS: I do.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Mr. CHIVERS: Or you describe it. Or in some cases there were some of the fighters there with us looking down into the hole with us. They were in I say a hole; it was actually a metal hatch on a cement lid of a large cement basin as part of the water system. And what you find is that people impose on that scene what they want to. And so in the absences, evidence rushes convenient theories and there's this urge to decide what it is even though you don't actually know and to come to a decision about what it is that's not harmful to you.

And so what I found when I took that people is they said oh, Gadhafi did that. And you say well, it's of course, not implausible but it's not the only thing that would be on the list of how these five Gadhafi soldiers were killed. They said oh, Gadhafi did that. And we said how do we know? And they say well, because Gadhafi did that. And, you know, the notion that perhaps the people who are the stated enemies of these fighters that actually are fighting them in this area might've done it has kind of been dismissed outright - which is not to say I know what happened. I don't know what happened. I know what got left behind.

But you don't know what happened so you have here a question that you begin to explore and in a war questions like this are very, very difficult and people are very partisan and sort of methodical objective reporting is not necessarily locally welcomed so we ran into a lot of hostility, an awful lot of hostility. And we found after we started asking questions about that that our access was quite severely restricted.

GROSS: We'll hear more from New York Times foreign correspondent C.J. Chivers in the second half of the show.

Our interview was recorded yesterday. Breaking news today illustrates the point he was making about rebel distrust of Gadhafi defectors in their ranks. The rebel chief of staff, who had been one of Gadhafi's right-hand men, was arrested by the rebel government, accused of smuggling arms to Gadhafi loyalists.

I'm Terry Gross and this is FRESH AIR.

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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with C.J. Chivers. He just returned from Libya where he's been on the frontlines traveling with rebels who are fighting Gadhafi's forces. Chivers is a foreign correspondent for The New York Times and shared a Pulitzer Prize for his coverage of combat in Afghanistan. He's also the author of the book "The Gun," a history of the AK-47 and how it's spread around the world. "The Gun" will be published in paperback in September.

One of the things you are really expert in is analyzing weapons and trying to figure out where they're from. You know the subtleties of a lot of weapons. You know how they're best used. You know how they're foolishly used. So you've been trying to trace the weapons being used from both sides in Libya and trying to figure out what that says about the larger arms trade. So, you know, if anyone follows your blog they'll see things like a crate that was used for shipping weapons and you have the cover of the crate or the side of the crate with all like the numbers, the packaging numbers, like the factory symbols, and you're able to figure out where they came from.

So like on one crate 9M332MHEHCO5-83 outfitted, and you can make sense of what that means. So what did you trace this particular crate to?

Mr. CHIVERS: Well, that crate held what we would call an early version of a heat-seeking, shoulder-fired, anti-aircraft weapon. I mean everybody's heard of the Stinger. This was one of the precursors to the Stinger. It's made in Eastern Bloc in the Warsaw Pact in the Soviet Union in the 1980s. That number, the last one you read, it was ended with an 11. It was inside two circles stenciled on. That's a standard symbol for arms and munitions made in Bulgaria, both in the Warsaw Pact era and after.

So you look at that crate and what you see there is that held shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles that had been made in Bulgaria, if I remember it right, in 1983, but there's a bunch of those crates from different years. And then if you look a little bit lower on that crate you'll see two serial numbers. And if you open the crate up you'll see a packing list which shows you that the serial numbers aligned with two rockets, two battery units for the rockets - while I call them rockets, missiles actually - and some service logs. And we were looking for that type of crate quite intensely throughout Libya, because there's a lot of ammunition in Libya. There's a lot of weapons in Libya, an extraordinary amount. I mean this was, he was a bulk buyer with a, you know, no checks and balances inside his system and all the coffers that an oil state has to purchase whatever he wanted from pretty much whoever he wanted for many decades. And so, Libya amassed enormous stores of ammunition. Some of them are very dangerous if you happened to be near them. But they're not very dangerous in a larger sense, because they are components of systems that, you know, the typical run-of-the-mill fighter couldn't put together.

GROSS: So you've trace a lot of the weapons from Gadhafi's arsenal to the former Eastern Bloc. And you say it's as if there was a Cold War clearance sale. So are most of these arms that have come from Gadhafi arsenals, arms that were legally purchased?

Mr. CHIVERS: Well, it's tough to tell without looking at the records. You could see when in many cases, arms are manufactured. You don't know if they were sold to him during the embargo period.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Mr. CHIVERS: You know, the post-Lockerbie there was a long embargo and people were supposed to be selling him weapons then. Without the actual contracts that would, you know, be associated with the materials you're seeing, you can't know if this was a legal or illegal sale. Certainly though, much of the sale was perfectly legal. And it wasn't just Eastern Bloc. It was not just the former Warsaw Pact, or China or Russia, who've sold these. What you find on the ground there, a lot, it's a smaller quality, but you find a lot of munitions from the West too. From France, from the United States, from Great Britain, from Spain, from Belgium. Everyone was in on this game. He had a lot of money and people wanted that money, and most of the countries - I won't say most of the countries, but several of the countries now, in the coalition trying to overthrow him were big suppliers of the weapons that he's using now, in some cases, against the civilians that permission is needed to protect.

GROSS: My guest is C.J. Chivers who has been reporting from the frontlines in Libya for The New York Times where he's a foreign correspondent.

We'll talk more after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.

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GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is C.J. Chivers. He's a foreign correspondent for The New York Times, and he's been covering the fighting in Libya. And he just left Libya over the weekend.

You've written a very interesting example of wartime propaganda during the age of the Internet. And what I'm thinking of here is that in April you found cluster bombs that had been used in residential neighborhoods. And these are bombs that are banned by much of the world. Your investigation showed that they were from Gadhafi forces. And when you wrote that, what did you start hearing?

Mr. CHIVERS: Well, you hear a lot of things. But what you are referring to on the propaganda side was there began, sort of a counter narrative was invented on a Website and presented as the real story behind the cluster bombs. And in this real story, the cluster bombs had been purchased or obtained by the United States and fired by the Navy into the city of Misrata. Of course, there's no evidence for that except that Website saying so. And you can actually trace these particular weapons back to, you know, a shipment that Spain... Well, you can trace this particular class of weapons, exactly this class of weapons, and the dates line up on its manufacturing would be in right before the transfer, on the transfer from Spain from the manufacturer in Spain to Libya just before the international conventions on cluster munitions was signed by Spain.

GROSS: So this alleged truth that the cluster bombs really came from the U.S. Navy, was put out by a group that was named Human Rights Investigation, self-described as a watchdog for other human rights organizations. Is this a group that you think actually exists?

Mr. CHIVERS: I think group's probably too broad a term. It's a Website and there seems to be at least one person behind it. And it's got - the Website came to life after the stories were published and were sort of a one issue band for a while, talking about this. It's part of a larger phenomenon. We could focus a little bit on HRI, Human Rights Investigation, but both sides have presented a lot of things that, you know, don't bear much independent scrutiny during this war. And this is common, the way, you know, any two sides, two parties will sort of present their case in public during a conflict. And we've also seen a lot of falsehood come from the opposition side as well. A lot of overstatement, again and again, almost day in and day out, about the activities of what the Gadhafi forces are doing.

And then you see there's sort of a group of sites that objectively would appear to be completely pro-Gadhafi that are constantly making allegations against what the West is doing. And when you pull on these they often unravel. They often unravel pretty quickly.

GROSS: Information spreads on the Internet. But even that Human Rights Investigation organization, whether it actually existed or not, the information it put out is no longer on its site. Its site doesn't exist anymore. But other sites picked up on it so that this information still lives.

Mr. CHIVERS: Yeah, the site may still exist. I haven't looked at it in several weeks.

GROSS: Mm-hmm. Okay.

Mr. CHIVERS: But you're right. The claims were taken down but the claims continue to live on the other sites that sort of cut and pasted them and circulated them about. So, you know, it was sort of shouted into the echo chamber and it still, you know, it echoed for at least a few weeks. I don't think it's really echoing anymore, the air went out of that one. But there's others and, you know, we've seen almost every week...

I mean, I'll give you an example. I spent several parts of several days looking into a claim of a mutilation of one of the rebel fighters in the second battle for Kawalish. And if you follow this thing around in the conversation that people are having live online about the war, you saw these really horrific claims, but they were - everyone was different. You know, his heart had been cut out in some claims. No it was his liver. No his eyes has been gouged out. No he had been beheaded. No his hands were chopped off. And everyone is trafficking in this as if it's true.

And this is what comes to matter, you reach a point where the facts have been departed from. The emotional truth is there. The emotional truth then drives the fight and it influences how people behave and think about going to war each day. And as this war gets harder and harder and harder, there's more and more anger on the frontlines. And in some cases for stories that, you know, you really can't demonstrate to be true but people believe them.

GROSS: Do people get angry at you because you don't take these stories at face value? You're not going to believe it unless you're able to prove it, but they may believe it and they may need to believe it to reinforce their point of view that they're on the right side and the other guys are committing the atrocities.

Mr. CHIVERS: Well, there's people and there's people, so let's talk about these people. People get angry at me. Sure. Mostly online. Of the frontlines, no. they can sense the sincerity.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Mr. CHIVERS: You're there. You're trying to figure out what's happening. They're trying to figure out what's happening, too, and they appreciate your effort. I've never had any problems with the rank-and-file frontline fighters, the guys who actually take the risks and carry the weapons.

I get a lot of angry war supporters who, you know, writing nasty notes because I'm not on board. But it's not a question of whether I'm on board or not. The only question here are facts.

GROSS: When you say you're not on board do you mean that you oppose...

Mr. CHIVERS: I don't echo the claims.

GROSS: Right.

Mr. CHIVERS: They want you to echo the claim.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Mr. CHIVERS: You know, if you don't echo the claim it means you support Gadhafi. How dare you? You know, I'm not going to echo something that I can't demonstrate factually myself through independent work.

GROSS: Yeah. So when you say you're not on board you mean you're impartial.

Mr. CHIVERS: That's right.

GROSS: Yeah.

Mr. CHIVERS: And that's, you know, revolutions get a real fervor, and this attitude gets a real velocity and people start to act, in some cases, like a mob cheerleading for the war. And the mob, sometimes, is not interested in facts. We've seen it again and again. You know, the Misrata was struck with (unintelligible) rockets at the fuel depot earlier in the spring. And we went there, we talked to the firefighters, we saw the burning tanks, we saw the dud rockets all around, we saw (unintelligible) rockets and their remnants. It was a regular old (unintelligible) barrage had been aimed at this fuel depot. And yet people online wanted to turn this into no, this was a Gadhafi airstrike. Therefore, NATO is failing, we need more NATO support. And to this day still find people trafficking in false accounts of real events that I can give you dozens of examples and it's, you know, when revolution takes hold in the motion sort of group think starts to inform and a lot of times, you know, the facts get cast aside.

GROSS: You said some things that are critical about the rebels in terms of their leadership, in terms of propaganda. Compare that to the other side, to Gadhafi's forces.

Mr. CHIVERS: I think it's important to keep this in mind as a matter of scale. There have been a lot of things that we've been told by the opposition side that turned out later not to be true. There have been more things, in my experience, by the Gadhafi side. And the volume and the scale of some of the things that they have said and some of the things they have done are of a different order. That doesn't excuse. I mean one of the risks of the revolution is that because you think your right as a revolutionary, you think you have a license to do things that you wouldn't ordinarily do, to deceive, to kill, to lie.

The risk is that as the war goes on that this license gets out of hand, maybe it already has. But you should keep in mind that opposition force goes up against something really, really ugly and really lethal. And that these tools, the tools of propaganda that they're using, oh, I don't support them in any way and it made my job really difficult some days that it's there for irrational reasons. They're trying to get advantage in this fight.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is C.J. Chivers. He's a foreign correspondent for The New York Times. He's been covering the fighting in Libya and he also is the author or the book "The Gun," which is a history of the Kalashnikov, and that will be published in paperback in September.

Chris, let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk more about your reporting from Libya.

This is FRESH AIR.

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GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is C.J. Chivers. He's a foreign correspondent for The New York Times and has been covering the war in Libya. He just left Libya over the weekend.

It seems like each war has its unique set of problems in terms of traveling. And from your descriptions in Libya, it sounds like one of the problems being on the road is you have these desert roads that are in wide-open expanses. And there are some towers that Gadhafi forces can observe who is on the roads and fire on them from, and there's no place to take shelter. You're just an open target. Do I have that right?

Mr. CHIVERS: Well, it's not just the towers. I mean, it's rolling dunes. And, you know, what you find - I mean, we spoke about this earlier, about how, in many cases, this opposition popular movement that's come under arms in Libya doesn't know much about fighting, and so you find these battles - in some cases, when they go between towns that are separated by open ground - are a battle for a ribbon, just this ribbon of road. You know, it's typically a two-lane, asphalt road and it goes up over this dune and it turns out around that dune and it just kind of wanders its way to the next town. And on any given day, that can be really fluid. You don't know where on that road - or near that road, watching the road - there might be some Gadhafi units.

And rebels have gotten better at sort of holding up on the town where they hold and putting up - or putting in some defenses there and not just charging blindly down these roads, which we've seen them do a lot, and we were doing with them earlier in the war, where you drive down these roads and, you know, the next town may be an hour drive or half an hour drive or a 20 minute drive away, depending on which town we're talking about. And you know that the Gadhafi guys are in that town, and they'll be at what they call the gate, which is the outside positions of the town. You know they're going to be there. What you don't know is where they are between where you are and when you reach that point.

And what the rebels found pretty quickly, they learned, is that oftentimes, while they were running up and down the road driving the road in these dense convoys, the Gadhafi guys were oftentimes, you know, a kilometer off on the shoulder with machine guns, or with the guy with the radio, who would direct mortar fire on them. And so sometimes you would be out in the open desert with a group of rebels, and they suddenly would come under pretty accurate and intense mortar fire as the Gadhafi forces were patrolling and had put mortar positions out in front and had a forward observer.

One time we were with them, and we were on just this stretch of road in the middle of what you would objectively called nowhere, and the mortar rounds just started coming in, and the Gadhafi soldiers who were firing clearly had an observer. They were very accurate rounds. And as the rebels broke and, you know, did a series of screaming K turns on the road and went into this sort of panicked to retreat, machine guns started to land around us in the dirt or in the sand. And so somewhere - we couldn't figure out where was coming from. There's this endless set of dunes out there, lightly vegetated. And behind one of these sticks of vegetation, on one of these dunes was clearly a guy looking down the site with his machine gun on the tripod.

And, you know, everyone, we got away. But there's an awful lot of terrain like that, which is proven for the opposition forces to be really difficult to take, principally because of their inexperience. Now this is about the worst way to try to take a town, is to line up in a column and go charging down the road towards it.

GROSS: So if you know that that's the worst way of doing it and that they're really vulnerable, how do you feel about being with them as they're doing something that's very amateurish and leaves them very vulnerable?

Mr. CHIVERS: Well, you have to cover them, so you go.

GROSS: But you have no protection.

Mr. CHIVERS: I'm wearing a helmet. I have a flak jacket. And there's other forms of protection besides physical protection. I mean, you know, we, after watching the Gadhafi forces for a couple of days - the first few days I was moving - this was back in the spring. I was moving sort of slowly forward, trying to figure out how the artillery and rocket and mortar fire was being directed, because if it was haphazard, it's one thing. But if it was well-conceived, it would be another.

And what we found after a few days of watching was that whoever was directing the artillery fire and the mortar and the rocket fire was quite good at it. And that information can help you keep yourself alive, because as soon as I realized this fire is observed and that these gun lines are able to, you know, mass three or four tubes worth of ammunition in a small place very quickly and they're able to shift targets - we watched it during retreats, you know, the rounds get walked behind the retreat and staying very close to the road. This is not particularly easy to do. This takes some skill.

When I saw that, I realized, okay, so that lays out this map for me in a totally different way and all of the intersections I assume then would've been registered artillery or mortar targets, which would mean that the gun line had - had that - had previously fired on those positions and had the data on the guns and knew exactly how to site in on that without a lot of correcting fire. They could just get there quickly with high-explosive rounds.

So what I told Brian early on that was we're not going to hang around intersections in this fight. You know, we'll go up and down these roads, but we're not stopping at intersections - at least not very long. And there was one day where we had been - for a particular reason - at an intersection for a bit, and Brian and I were both kind of uneasy...

GROSS: This is your photographer, the photographer you work...

Mr. CHIVERS: Yeah. The photographer I work with. I wouldn't call them my photographer.

GROSS: Yeah. No. Right. Yeah.

Mr. CHIVERS: Maybe I worked for him.

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Mr. CHIVERS: We were both feeling a little uneasy. We said, you know, let's bug out of here, man. Let's back up four or 500 meters. And we, you know, the rebels are coming and going up and down the road. You can flag down a car and do the interviews out in the open desert rather than stand at an intersection. And he gave a nod and we said yeah, let's go. So we did. We backed up about a half a kilometer and stopped the car. No sooner had we done that then six artillery rounds landed right on the group we had been talking to and wounded about seven of them.

So there's ways to protect yourself as you start to conceive of how the battle's actually organized by the other side. But they're taking an enormous amount, have taken and continue to take an enormous amount of unnecessary casualties.

GROSS: Because they're so amateurish.

Mr. CHIVERS: Well, amateurish connotes sort of a pejorative. I mean, they're...

GROSS: They're inexperience...

Mr. CHIVERS: They're inexperienced...

GROSS: ...and they don't have the leadership.

Mr. CHIVERS: They're inexperienced. Now you've nailed it. They're not very well lead. That's the problem. These are - we talked about this earlier. You know, the rank-and-file are the spirited guys who come from Libya, and they really do share a goal, which is to have a different Libya without Gadhafi. And they're risking everything. And they're not sometimes getting - I won't say sometimes. I would say most of the time where I've seen them out on the open desert getting the leadership that they should get to, you know, make sure that they're not suffering to the extent that they are.

GROSS: Since a lot of the fighters in the anti-Gadhafi forces are new to fighting, they're inexperienced and their leadership isn't very good, you've witnessed so many battles in so many different countries over the years and you're a Marine. So do you ever feel like you should give them a little bit of advice about what they're doing isn't working for its risky or counterproductive?

Mr. CHIVERS: You know, I get asked this question all the time, sometimes several times a day, and I generally don't answer it. I don't think I've ever answered it in public, so let me just say it now really clearly. I'm a noncombatant, period. I used to be a combatant. I came out the other side of that. I'm a noncombatant, period. I do not give people lethal advice. I do not participate in fighting. I'm a journalist. That's it. So I see things that make me flinch and wince. I see things sometimes that frighten me.

I do sometimes offer advice that can protect someone's life. For example, if you come across someone and they're not - their first aid isn't being attended to well or, you know, you come across a guy in a sling and his arm's going septic, I'll say, you know, man, let's get you to a doctor. That's okay. That's humanitarian advice. Or it might tell someone, you know, that road's mined. I mean, I'm not completely disconnected from the things that are going around me - on around me.

But I do not offer combatants advice that can influence their fight. That's not my job. It would be deeply unethical to do it, and it's, you know, people have asked me this question for years, also, out on - you know, I've been on the American-led patrols in Iraq and Afghanistan that I didn't think were led especially well, and I thought some of the choices being made were not in the interest of the patrol. But I don't say anything. I'm there to report. I'm not there to guide the fighting anyway whatsoever.

GROSS: Two photojournalists were killed in Libya in April: Tim Hetherington -who's best known as the co-director with Sebastian Junger of the film "Restrepo" - and Chris Hondros. You were at their memorial service and wrote about that. What impact did it have on your ability to keep functioning in Libya to see what happened to them?

Mr. CHIVERS: I would say it sort of intensified the commitment. I think the last thing either of those guys would want would be for us to scale back or move back. And so, I mean, the chronology of that was that Brian and I, with some other journalists, had been in Misrata, the city they were killed in, which was under siege. It's a coastal city, and it was cut off, except for the port, by the Gadhafi forces.

We'd been there for several days before they arrived. They came in on a boat that we - I think we actually left on the boat, although we didn't see them. The boat came in, say, in the morning, and we left on the boat that night. And we'd covered this place and wanted to come back to it. I took the boat out. It was about a 20 or 24-hour voyage back to Benghazi, and we were working there a day or two, and we heard they'd been killed. And after they were killed, the population of journalists in Misrata plummeted. Many of them left. They were recalled for understandable reasons, rational reasons. Taking out of Misrata was extraordinarily dangerous right then.

We went back in. I thought that it wasn't just what they would thought that mattered, but I knew that they wouldn't want the coverage to stop, and I knew that if there were fewer journalists there, our services were more needed. So Brian and I packed back up and went back in for about a month. We were some of the only ones there for that month, and did some of our strongest work during that month. And I think that's how they would have wanted it. Most of these guys were incredibly committed journalists who took risks year in and year out to try to understand things that were almost unfathomable. And you can't stop reporting. I mean, that would be, I think, in some ways, a dishonor to them.

GROSS: Well, I want to thank you so much for talking with us. But more so, I want to thank you for the amazing reporting that you've been doing from Libya. Thank you very, very much. Be well. And I just want to say again how much I appreciate it.

Mr. CHIVERS: Thanks, Terry, for having me on again.

GROSS: C.J. Chivers is a foreign correspondent for The New York Times. He left Libya last weekend. Our interview was recorded yesterday.

You'll find links to his articles and blog posts about Libya on our website, freshair.npr.org, where you can also download podcasts of our show.

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