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Tina Brown is with us on this summer morning. She joins us from time to time with reading recommendations. We call the series Word of Mouth.
TINA BROWN: Good morning, Steve.
INSKEEP: And you have sent us articles, two articles and a book, that relate to the changing nature of war, beginning with a casualty of war. Marie Colvin, a war correspondent.
BROWN: Yes. This is a wonderful profile of the late Marie Colvin, by Marie Brenner in Vanity Fair this month. A really fascinating picture of an unusual hero who died from Syrian shells in the Syrian town of Homs just recently. And she was a war correspondent of the - completely, sort of, the old school. She was like the Martha Gellhorn of our time.
She wanted to be there on the ground, in the middle of danger, writing her dispatches. She was a crazy, danger-loving girl who really couldn't resist, in a sense, the adrenaline of the front. And really did have PTSD. I mean, that was really one of the great sort of untold stories of the time, that she just could not stop going back, even when it was quite clear that she'd had really enough shell-shock to get out of the game.
INSKEEP: What do you think drove that?
BROWN: Well, you know, sometimes I think that some of these danger-obsessed people, in a way, are almost sort of fleeing the sort of messy lives of their own. I mean, Colvin certainly had a strong humanitarian instinct. I mean, she wanted to tell the stories of the people that nobody wanted to write about or cared about.
But she also, I think, you know, she had several marriages. She was constantly in love with the wrong guys. She had a drinking problem. You know, she couldn't have kids. All of these things, I think, made her a pretty tumultuous and unhappy woman underneath. And going off to war means that you can simply put everything in a box, sweep it away, and that's really, in a sense, a way of evading reality also.
INSKEEP: You've also sent us, Tina Brown, an article called "Lost City," from Foreign Policy. And the title of that article, "Lost City," by Peter Chilson refers to the city of Timbuktu in West Africa.
BROWN: Yeah, I mean, I don't know about you, Steve, but I've always had a great romance about, you know, Timbuktu. I mean, it's the kind of place we all sort of think, well, wouldn't it be amazing just to sort of disappear and go to Timbuktu. Well, you know, he actually has been to Timbuktu.
And, of course, Timbuktu is right in the middle of one of these new hellish Islamist uprisings. And a rebel group have hijacked the Tuareg rebellion in northern Mali and taken its most important population centers, including Timbuktu, in a bid to impose Sharia law on all of Mali. And the fighters have begun methodically destroying all the ancient tombs and mosques in Timbuktu, and are smashing the great monuments, just as they did, of course, in Afghanistan.
INSKEEP: But one of the nice things about this article, though, is that you also get a picture of what Timbuktu is. It's always just been a name to me, but you get a picture of what it looks like, the incredible heat, the kind of earth-based architecture that actually is not all that impressive and the stark beauty of the desert around it.
BROWN: Yeah, it's a beautiful piece of writing, actually. He says, I found the city and desert beyond to be one of the most beautiful and haunting landscapes I've ever seen. At night, the desert sky was so bright and clear it seemed to rest right on the rooftops. During the day, the city and landscape blended into the blinding pale sky, as if Timbuktu itself were floating on a cloud.
There's a kind of dreamlike quality to this landscape. And he writes, also, about how Timbuktu has always had a genius for being able to absorb its invaders. Century after century, since the 14th century, it has been invaded and it has had these uprisings, but it returns.
INSKEEP: So the city has absorbed invaders in the past, but this time the invaders are actually defacing or destroying some of the historic architecture. They're ripping down the city in a sense.
BROWN: Yeah, he says, you know, no one and no force of nature, not even the Sahara, has been able to wipe Timbuktu off the map. But, you know, another of the people he interviews says the spirit of Islam goes back to the 10th century in this region. They're killing the soul of Islam. And, of course, they're doing that by wiping out its own history, its very notion of itself.
INSKEEP: And you have also sent us a book here that gets at the war against extremism. It's a look at President Obama and his advisors. It's called "Kill or Capture." And the author is Daniel Klaidman.
BROWN: Yeah, this is a fascinating book, because it really gets behind the headlines, in terms of each of these drone attacks that one sees. And, you know, you see the kill list, as it's called, the president's kill list, where, you know, the president himself approves the hits that the drones make each time. And it's a chilling idea.
Daniel Klaidman has really sort of brilliantly gone behind what it's like to be part of this kind of moral agony, in a way, because, you know, he lays bare the human dimension of the wrenching national-security decisions that have to be made.
INSKEEP: This book also revisits a quote by George W. Bush who spoke of wanting Osama bin Laden dead or alive. And, according to the officials quoted in this book, actually it just should've been dead. That's the only option - dead - for a terrorist in their view.
BROWN: Well, yes. I mean, Obama was elected in part on a promise to wind down the wars of 9/11, and yet, you know, as he comes into the presidency you see again and again with the presidency, how actually being in the office so changes the man who takes office, because America still faces these enormous threats from al-Qaida, as you see in places like Yemen and Somalia. And he's always looking for a way to confront these threats without sending boots into the ground.
And he keeps saying to his team: I want to stay al-Qaida-focused. He doesn't want mission creep. He doesn't want to find himself getting caught up in more, sort of, wars of distraction.
INSKEEP: When Klaidman describes people inside the White House or near the White House, anxious or anguished about what they're doing, is it in the end the president who pushes them forward?
BROWN: Well, it is a decision between him and his close team. But in the end, it is his decision whether it happens or not. So, in the end, he has the final say.
And in fact, you know, what's interesting is he talks - Klaidman - about very sort of dramatic figures where, you know, Obama is having dinner in a black-tie event. And you'll see his members of his team come in, take him out, he has to make a decision then and there, on the spot. There is no deflecting of it. It's yes or no, you know, live or die.
INSKEEP: I assume editing Newsweek is about the same way, right?
BROWN: I hope I'm as decisive.
INSKEEP: Word of mouth from Tina Brown, thanks very much.
BROWN: Thank you.
INSKEEP: She's the editor of Newsweek and The Daily Beast.
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