Other segments from the episode on May 20, 2009
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Iraqi Preparedness And U.S. Troop Withdraw
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. Iâm Terry Gross. Weâre going to catch up on whatâs
been happening in Iraq. My guest, Rod Nordland, is a Baghdad
correspondent for the New York Times. Heâs on a brief visit to the U.S.
and will soon return to Iraq. Heâs been covering Iraq since the
invasion, and before joining the Times served as Newsweekâs Baghdad
bureau chief and chief foreign correspondent. Iraq is one of many war
zones heâs covered.
This is a critical time for Iraq. American combat troops are scheduled
to pull out of Iraqi cities next month, yet Iraq seems to have receded
into the background of the news. Many news organizations no longer have
reporters there, either because of financial cutbacks or because the
reporters have moved on to other stories.
Nordland says itâs as if after the surge, when things seemed to get
better, everybody gave a sigh of relief and turned to other concerns.
Rod Nordland, welcome to FRESH AIR. Where are we now in terms of things
Mr.Â ROD NORDLAND (New York Times): Things are getting worse. I mean,
they got better for a while, and theyâre now starting to get worse.
There are a lot of troublesome signs. They are getting in some ways
still. Things still arenât back to the bad days in 2007, but they have
been deteriorating, and there are some very big questions about can they
put together a viable government and can they finally get the insurgency
under control. Can they give the Sunnis enough to keep them from going
back to the insurgency?
GROSS: The timetable for withdrawal is what? I mean, President Obama
says all troops will be out by the end of August, 2010, but weâre
withdrawing a lot of troops in June. Whatâs the June plan now?
Mr.Â NORDLAND: The June deadline is to withdraw all combat troops from
the cities, or actually the wording of the Status of Forces Agreement is
from cities, towns and localities, basically population areas, and move
them out to bases where they can perform a support role rather than a
combat role in the cities. They are still leaving trainers, of course,
and so on.
And then the next deadline next summer is a deadline to have all combat
troops stop, or all combat stop on the part of American troops, and then
the finally deadline, end of 2011, is to withdraw all U.S. troops,
except for a few trainers.
GROSS: So in June, troops wonât be coming home, theyâll just be moving
outside of populated areas?
Mr.Â NORDLAND: Thatâs right, yeah. I mean, there has been a draw-down
thatâs been going on for some time now. The original surge brigades have
gone back, but the numbers are still pretty high. Theyâre still pretty
close to 140,000. At the peak there were maybe 160,000. So thatâs still
a considerable number.
GROSS: I wonder if youâve been talking to Iraqi leaders and American
military leaders about whether they think the current timetable is
viable, whether Iraq can be stable if we stick to the timetable.
Mr.Â NORDLAND: You know, itâs an amazing thing about our military, and I
guess, you know, thank God for it, that no sooner was Obama elected,
even before he took office, than they were - all of a sudden they were
on his bandwagon, and yes, the Iraqis are ready, and we need to get out
and so on. And that change was so quick it was just head-spinning, and
thatâs the party line now, and you do not hear from them much criticism
about that, certainly not publicly.
A few of them, I think when you talk to them privately and you have
their confidence, thereâs a lot of concern there, a great deal of
concern, particularly about whether the Iraqi military and police are
going to be up to the job.
GROSS: You know, Iâm still reading a lot about car-bombings and suicide
attacks, and I think April was the worst month in a year. So it sounds
unfortunate that just as the Americans are withdrawing that things are
getting worse again. Is that intentional, do you think? Do you think
that the car-bombings are increasing because of the knowledge that
Americans are going to be withdrawing?
Mr.Â NORDLAND: I think in part. I mean, I think what theyâre trying to do
is provoke a sectarian backlash and get back to the days in â06, â07
when there was essentially a civil war going on between sects, and that
would put the U.S. in a very difficult position and either there would
be a lot of pressure on the administration to pull out more quickly,
which would serve their interests, or the U.S. would get more deeply
involved, which also in a perverse way would serve their interests as
GROSS: In what perverse way would that serve their interests?
Mr.Â NORDLAND: Because they want chaos, they want disorder, they want an
enemy. You know, having the Americans there is really convenient for the
Sunni insurgency. They wouldnât have much of a cause without the
Americans there. And then for a lot of Sunnis, they see them as
protectors. But the insurgents actually want to have them there so that
they can provoke more and more incidents, and thatâs their philosophy
anyway, that they can stir up people if they can just have the Americans
there to kick around.
GROSS: Whatâs left of the insurgency?
Mr.Â NORDLAND: Well, we keep declaring it dead, and - or nearly dead, or
moribund, but it keeps showing that it has capacity, like this recent
string of suicide bombings in April. They do seem to have an
inexhaustible supply of people willing to blow themselves up, and
theyâre not as sophisticated bombs as they were before. Theyâre not able
to get together huge truck bombs and so on because the security posture
is enough to prevent that. But they are able to infiltrate and to find
ways to infiltrate, and theyâre always thinking up kind of new ways to
get past the security cordons.
GROSS: One of the ways that the American military helped quiet the
insurgency was by basically winning insurgents over to our side with the
help of monthly stipends, like $300 a month, and the people who left the
insurgency to fight the insurgents instead of being insurgents joined
what was called Awakening Councils. And thereâs a lot of friction now
between the Iraqi government and the Awakening Councils. Whatâs the
source of that friction?
Mr.Â NORDLAND: Yeah, and thereâs also a lot of friction between the
American military and the American governmentâs representatives in Iraq
and the Iraqi government over what theyâve been doing with the Sons of
Iraq, as the U.S. calls them, or the Awakening members.
There have been a series of arrests of some quite high-profile members.
There have been some attacks on them and some killings, although those
arenât as big a factor, and theyâre probably not government-connected.
But most of the Sons of Iraq councils now are very much on the defensive
and feel that the government doesnât see them as part of the solution in
the future, although it keeps saying it does.
And the key thing is that they expected â the whole idea is that they
would eventually be given jobs in the security forces so they would
become part of the countryâs legitimate armed forces rather than a bunch
of armed militiamen.
No government wants armed militias operating somewhat independently of
its authority, and the Sons of Iraq, for the most part, agreed with that
and were willing to sign up and were willing to join the security
forces, and about something like five percent of them so far has been
integrated. And it looks like they wonât meet any of their goals this
year for bringing any large numbers of them into government jobs, let
alone the security forces.
GROSS: Is that because the Iraqi government and the Iraqi security
forces donât trust the Sons of Iraq or the Awakening Council members,
whichever way you prefer to call them?
Mr.Â NORDLAND: Yes, I think thatâs right. I mean, you know, the
governmentâs dominated by Shia, and these people were their enemies, and
a lot of them were actively fighting, and they know that. I mean, part
of the whole deal was to put all that behind them and agree that they
wouldnât prosecute any of these people for acts that took place during
the insurgency, but they made a caveat there - except for crimes like
murder and so forth.
So itâs kind of hard to â I mean, you can accuse somebody of murder if
they were just in a firefight with you and then go and arrest them, or
you can be a little more reasonable about it and say, okay, that was
behind us, and for the sake of reconciliation weâre just going to forget
Well, the government increasingly is going toward the direction of
finding excuses for arresting these guys, and everybody is quite worried
GROSS: So what kind of sentiment is that creating among the former
insurgents who joined our team and now feel like theyâre not being given
what they were promised, like jobs?
Mr.Â NORDLAND: You know, actually, thereâs not as much anger as you would
expect. Thereâs some of that, but more kind of a sad disappointment and
frustration and a feeling like â I mean, having given up the idea of
joining al-Qaida and the really extreme leaders of the insurgency,
joining forces with the government, having made that momentous move,
they donât feel like theyâve gotten any payback for it.
But on the other hand, itâs very hard for them to go back now. I mean in
many cases they turned over the al-Qaida people working in their
neighborhood and turned on the extremists, and it would be very hard for
them to go back that route, and a lot of them genuinely want to be part
of the future in Iraq.
GROSS: So are the former insurgents who joined the Awakening Councils
now kind of persona non grata from both sides, both from the Iraqi
government and the current insurgents?
Mr.Â NORDLAND: I would suppose thatâs true, but I think the more
important factor with them is that theyâve kind of got a taste of
cooperating with the government, and they did get something out of it.
Like you said, they got $300 a month a piece, and that was something,
and it was a lot for a lot of them. and they learned that they could get
along with the Iraqi police and army units that were in their
neighborhoods and with the Americans who were there too, and the
Americans of course helped grease that and helped moved that along.
So theyâve gone way past the idea of rejoining the insurgency, but then
theyâre not getting what they need, which is real jobs with the
government, real integration into the government, and in some cases
theyâre being asked to lay down their weapons, and in some cases theyâre
being arrested and charged for things that happened while they were
insurgents, and thatâs alarmed everybody, and so far there doesnât seem
to be â there hasnât been any evidence of Sons of Iraq going back to al-
Qaida or the other extremist factions in any numbers.
But on the other hand, those things would not be very apparent either.
They would be happening underground. It might be some time before we saw
GROSS: So what are some of the dangers of alienating the Sons of Iraq,
of the government alienating them?
Mr.Â NORDLAND: Well, I mean, a very simple example would be the Sunni
sympathizer for insurgence who facilitated a suicide bomber to get
inside the parliament building and then with a couple of accomplices
inside the building then, who had the explosives, it took like two or
three people to put it together, and then blew himself up in the
parliament and killed â I think it was eight people or 10 people.
You know, thatâs the sort of thing that can happen. That guy wasnât
particularly a Sons of Iraq, but he was â he was actually an employee of
one of the Sunni legislators and apparently very disenchanted with the
way their integration into Iraqi society was going.
We could have that playing out on neighborhood levels all over, and it
just takes one guy to help them breach the security. You know, Baghdad
and Iraq generally now is the most heavily guarded, heavily fortified,
heavily defended place anywhere in the world, and thatâs as much as
anything else is whatâs kept some of the worst violence down,
particularly acts of terrorism like suicide bombings, and that could all
GROSS: When we talk about the remaining insurgency, who are the
insurgents now? Are they al-Qaida in Mesopotamia, or is it a bunch of
different groups coming together? Who are they?
Mr.Â NORDLAND: Yeah, I mean, itâs al-Qaida in Mesopotamia, which includes
both Iraqis but has a lot of foreign jihadi leaders. They have a
relationship with al-Qaida generally, but they operate somewhat
independently. They also have a fair amount of resources and funding.
Then there are also former followers of Saddam. There are a number of
groups that have formed under various banners, which are probably just
the former Baath Party in a different guise. And there are some other
kind of â there are a variety of just fundamentalist jihadi groups of
various types, and many of these cooperate with each other and a lot of
them have their own agendas as well.
GROSS: If youâre just joining us, my guest is Rod Nordland, and heâs a
Baghdad correspondent for the New York Times, former Baghdad bureau
chief for Newsweek. Heâs been covering Iraq since the invasion. Letâs
take a short break here and then weâll talk some more about what youâve
been seeing in Iraq. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: My guest is Rod Nordland, and he is on a break from covering Iraq
for the New York Times. Heâs about to return to Iraq. Heâs been covering
Iraq since the invasion. Heâs been Newsweekâs Baghdad bureau chief, and
heâs currently a Baghdad correspondent for the New York Times.
Blackwater used to be the contractor that the Americans used to protect
American diplomats in Iraq.
Mr.Â NORDLAND: Right.
GROSS: But because of all the scandals surrounding Blackwater, they lost
the contract, and now thereâs one or more contractors that have replaced
them, but I think you reported that a lot of the employees are the same,
even though the contractor has changed. Soâ¦
Mr.Â NORDLAND: Thatâs right. It could be the same bunch of cowboys and
with the same potential for really catastrophic reaction. You know, I
think American diplomats, theyâve been using Blackwater these years, and
theyâve sort of succumbed to a kind of Stockholm Syndrome, you know,
where they just feel like they couldnât possibly survive without these
gunmen, and everyone else sees them as a bunch of borderline psychotics
who are extremely dangerous to everyone around them, and the State
Department just doesnât see it that way. So theyâll still have their
Blackwaters. Theyâll just be rebadged as something else.
GROSS: And is that because itâs the State Departmentâs call, or is it
because the new contractor has a limited number of people it can hire,
and it wants to hire people who are already experienced so itâs getting
the same people Blackwater did?
Mr.Â NORDLAND: Right. I think thatâs right to a large degree. I mean, it
would be hard to find people, and plus, the contractorâs going to have
to go to the State Department, to the RSO, the Regional Security Office
of the State Department, and every one of those guys that they assign to
guard diplomats is going to have to be vetted by them and approved by
them. And you know, the Blackwater guys they know they will approve, and
somebody is going to be â you know, itâs going to be less likely that
theyâll be satisfied with their level of training and expertise and so
GROSS: So are you saying in some ways nothing has changed in terms of
Mr.Â NORDLAND: Well, itâs changed somewhat. There are some laws in place
now. The Iraqi government has taken control of getting licenses for
contractors. Blackwater was denied one, so it pretty much had to fold up
its tent. One very useful thing theyâve done is theyâve forced all
security contractors to put an identifying number and sort of badge on
the side of their cars so anyone can find out who they were.
There have been a lot of cases where these guys would drive through in
their unmarked SUVs and shoot up the neighborhood, and no one would ever
know who it was or would be able to find out. So that wonât happen
again. So thereâs been some improvement on that score.
GROSS: Letâs talk a little bit about whatâs happening in the north of
Iraq, in Kurdistan, which has been a pretty autonomous and pretty
peaceful region, a kind of model, I think, in some ways, of what America
would have wanted the rest of Iraq to turn into, but there seems to be
trouble brewing there too.
Mr.Â NORDLAND: Yeah, I mean there are lots of problems there. One is they
donât want to submit to the authority of the central government. They
want to take the oil reserves they have there as their own. Thereâs an
ongoing dispute between them and the Iraqi central government.
Kurdistan is governed by a kind of voluntary autocracy made up of
members of two political parties who allow no other parties, really, to
function, who donât have much respect for freedoms or freedom of the
press, who have an entrenched system of corruption that often isnât very
apparent because it is rather more prosperous, and there is a fair
amount of foreign investment. But there are just a lot of long-term
problems that arenât going to be easy to solve.
GROSS: So there are a lot of disputes in Kurdistan over control of the
oil, between the Kurdish leaders and the Iraqi government?
Mr.Â NORDLAND: Yes. There are some Kurdish fields that the Kurds control,
and then thereâs the issue of Kirkuk, which - where the biggest fields
and which is split between the Kurds and the Sunni Arabs, as well as a
big Turkmen minority, all of them claiming to be the original
inhabitants of Kirkuk and claim that the others were brought in by
Saddam or by other parties to change the demographic balance.
I mean, itâs such a touchy area. Itâs actually surprising it hasnât
blown up. I mean, there have been lots of bombings and so on, but full-
scale conflict hasnât happened.
GROSS: How would you describe the Iraqi government that exists in Iraq
now in terms of its competency, the level of corruption?
Mr.Â NORDLAND: I mean, Transparency International says itâs the second-
most-corrupt place in the world. I think thatâs the right statistic,
certainly high up there. I think that itâs kind of a â itâs a hard
question to answer because the government has a lot of failings. I mean
the oil ministry recently just arrested the spokesman of the oil
ministry on corruption charges, and another spokesman for one of the
ministries was similarly arrested. But they do have an accountability
You know, they have an integrity in government commission that sometimes
is fairly aggressive and does pursue people. Maliki, whoâs a Shia from
the Dawa Party, was kind of a compromise choice because they couldnât
agree between Siri Indawa(ph), who would be the ideal prime minister,
and they saw Maliki as a weak figure that could be controlled and
everybody was satisfied to see him take that role.
Since then heâs become a lot stronger, and heâs kind of surprised people
with his ability to govern and to forge some consensus and in recent
local elections to get some following just around himself that isnât
just identified with ethnic or sectarian politics, and he hopes to
consolidate that and build on it in the coming elections.
I mean, heâs no angel, and the people around him are no angels either,
and he has depended for his support on factions like Muqtada al-Sadrâs
followers, the Mahdi Army, who were some of the worst killers during the
time of the sectarian warfare. And there are a lot of other issues with
Maliki too, but thereâs some reason to hope that heâll be able to pull
together, you know, a real government thatâs somewhat independent of
GROSS: So far, how do you think this experiment in democracy has worked
out in terms of the government resembling a democracy?
Mr.Â NORDLAND: Well, I mean, it has to be said that Iraq is more
democratic than most of our other allies in the region, certainly more
democratic than Jordan, where itâs been pretty well established that if
they had an election, al-Qaida would win, or certainly fundamentalist
factions would win; Saudi Arabia, which has no democracy at all and very
little human rights for many of its citizens, and so on around the
region. I mean, Iraq has a lot more openness and freedom than that. They
have 100 newspapers in Baghdad, and many of them very aggressive.
GROSS: Rod Nordland will be back in the second half of the show. Heâs
the Baghdad correspondent for the New York Times. Iâm Terry Gross and
this is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Iâm Terry Gross back with New York Times
Baghdad correspondent Rod Nordland. He's been covering Iraq since the
invasion. Before joining the Times, he was Newsweek's Baghdad bureau
chief and chief foreign correspondent. Nordland is on a brief trip to
the U.S. and is about to return to Iraq.
So what's the Green Zone like now? The Green Zone is the zone that the,
you know, American diplomats and contractors were in, some of the
military - and America left the Green Zone. What's it like there now?
Mr. NORDLAND: Well it hasn't quite left the Green Zone.
Mr. NORDLAND: What it's done is contracted into basically three big
compounds one of them a very huge compound, the American Embassy, but
also a military base called Camp Prosperity, and another military base
adjoining that. So a lot of what had been scattered around the Green
Zone is now kind of concentrated in those three places. Even a lot of
the contractors are being housed on those bases because they recognize
that they're not necessarily going to be safe anymore outside as the
Green Zone turns orange as theyâre saying now and eventually becomes
part of the Red Zone.
GROSS: Does it look different?
Mr. NORDLAND: Well they still don't pick up the trash.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. NORDLAND: So it looks the same in that sense. I mean there's a lot
of different checkpoints; the Iraqi's now are controlling a lot of the
checkpoints, although American troops are still in the background kind
of watching over them or in their over-watch capacity, as they call it.
But it still looks pretty much the same. I mean it's very much in
transition now. There's still an awful lot of foreigners there and the
whole area is still pretty well controlled.
One of our Iraqi translators said that he'll believe that Iraq is really
a sovereign country when there are no more Peruvians guarding public
buildings. A lot of the private security companies hire Peruvian ex-
soldiers because they're cheap and theyâre competent to guard a lot of
the buildings. And they still haven't given up those guards, which tells
you a lot about what they think about the competency and the
trustworthiness of their own security forces.
GROSS: Let's talk a little about what day-to-day life in Iraq is like
now. How much do you have to worry when you leave your home that youâre
going to be kidnapped or that you'll be caught in a suicide bombing or
some other kind of insurgent attack?
Mr. NORDLAND: Hmm. I think it's always in the background and something
that everyone worries about. But now people don't go out and expect
something bad to happen. And before they really went out with their
hearts in their throats and if they could avoid going out they did so.
But now it's once or twice a day maybe thereâs some serious incident and
it's a city of five million people over a huge area. So you know most
people donât notice that or feel that. And so â very little sense that
there's even a war going on unless you're near an American helipad and
see helicopters going - taking off and landing and so on. So life has
gotten pretty normal and itâs much more normal now than it had been. I
was talking to an Iraqi and he said you know before I always knew - like
every week I knew somebody that something happened to, whereas now,
things happen to people but I don't know any of them. You know itâs just
that much more rare.
GROSS: Now you've written about how gay people were starting to be more
openly gay without fear in Iraq, but now gay people are really being
targeted and there's been a series of murders of gay people in Iraq. Can
you talk a little bit about that?
Mr. NORDLAND: Yes. As things became safer and as people didn't have to
worry as much about going out and as they could stay out later and
everything else, I mean, life became - started going back to normal in
many ways. And one of those ways is that gay people felt that they could
come out and socialize. And they started hanging out in certain bars
that people knew about and they weren't parading down the street in a,
you know, gay pride parade or anything, but they were, you know, seeking
out their own and socializing with them. And pretty soon word of this
got around and some of the, particularly the Mahdi Army types, some of
Muqtada al-Sadrâs followers, began a campaign of - apparently with
cooperation from or at least tacit cooperation from the police - a
campaign of assassination. And there was something - at least 21 cases
of gay people who were killed, many of them with a sign in Arabic pinned
to them saying pervert and things of that sort.
GROSS: So have gay people kind of gone back into the closet because
theyâve gotten the message that it's really, that your life is at risk
if youâre openly gay in Iraq now?
Mr. NORDLAND: I think that's right. Yes, we had a very hard time, I mean
already - even before we did a story on it, we had a very hard time
finding them because that had already happened after this. Once this
wave of murders took place, you know, people just went underground. And
the saddest thing about that was that in a lot of the cases their
families even knew about it and just kind of condoned what was done to
GROSS: Condoned the murders.
Mr. NORDLAND: Condoned the murders, you know, as resolving, you know, as
honor crimes. It would, you know, restore the honor of their family.
GROSS: You wrote in one of your recent pieces that vice is making a
comeback in Iraq. What kinds of vice?
Mr. NORDLAND: The things that we would maybe think of as victimless
crimes like prostitution and gambling and drinking, which is not against
the law there, but there's a lot more of it going on. You actually see
drunks on the streets sometimes which you never would've seen before.
There are liquor stores all over the place. For a while they were being
shut down by the fundamentalist militia, particularly the Shia militias,
and now theyâre open and back in business - and people going out
partying. And there are nightclubs opened really late and in some of
those nightclubs ladies of the night ply their trade.
GROSS: And is there a crackdown on that? I mean like you wrote about how
gays and lesbians are being killed by religious extremists. How are
people who are doing things like gambling or prostitution, how are they
Mr. NORDLAND: Nobody's doing anything about it all. They donât mind.
It's considered okay. You know there's that kind of hypocrisy about it.
GROSS: Except that money is changing hands?
Mr. NORDLAND: Well, I mean first of all partly it's Iraqi's tradition.
Iraq was always the most open and freewheeling, particularly in Baghdad,
freewheeling place in the Arab world and in some ways itâs just going
back its roots. That's not true in large parts of the Shia community,
but certainly it is among the Sunnis. I think the attitude of police is
that it's not a crime. I even talked to one policeman who you know he
said he'd rather see more prostitutes and less imams. He thought it
would be better for society and you see a lot of that attitude in Iraq.
It's quite surprising.
On the other hand you know you'll be talking to somebody who seems
perfectly modern, well-educated, speaking English and who would declare
that, you know, if his daughter ever dishonored the family he would
personally murder her or his sister or his - and in fact, this one guy
was telling me a story about his brother who didnât want his daughter to
be the victim of an honor killing because she had shacked up with some
guy. So his brothers intervened and killed his daughter, you know,
against his wishes. So there's - that goes on at the same time in that
society and there's a lot of hypocrisy to it.
GROSS: If youâre just joining us my guest is Rod Nordland and he's a
Baghdad correspondent for the New York Times, former Baghdad bureau
chief for Newsweek. And he's on a break from reporting in Iraq. He's
about to return.
Let's take a short break here and then we'll talk some more about what
have been seeing in Iraq.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: If youâre just joining us, my guest is Rod Nordland. He's a
Baghdad correspondent for the New York Times and he's on a break from
reporting from Baghdad. He's about to go back.
Oil prices were supposed to help in the rebuilding of Iraq and help Iraq
carry on as a democracy. Oil prices have fallen a lot lately. How is the
drop in oil prices affecting the economy of Iraq and just the general
functioning of the society?
Mr. NORDLAND: Well a year ago you know they were very proud to be able
to boast that they didnât need anybody's help and they actually turned
down some aide and asked the U.S. to stop some of its programs. I mean
they're just rolling in money. Their biggest problem was figuring out
how to spend money fast enough. You know, they could budget, you know,
these vast sums but you need a bureaucracy that's trained and all to be
able to disperse that money without a lot of it just being wasted by
corruption. So that was their biggest problem was how to spend it and
there were a lot of American experts working on that problem to help
them set up structures that would do that. And then prices crashed and
they actually had to cut their budget in half this year which really
kind of created mayhem at a time when they were just starting to get it
GROSS: Has it changed to be an American in Iraq since the election of
Mr. NORDLAND: I don't think so actually. I think first of all there were
a lot people who weren't happy to see Obama elected. I mean the people
in the government, and supporters of the government in Iraq, were you
know were very much McCain supporters. So you donât get much from those
people. I think there's a big concern among many parts of the
population, particularly among Sunnis, who were, you know, our erstwhile
enemies for the most part. Sunnis are very concerned that the Americans
are going to cut and run and Obama is the leader who's introduced the
concept of cut and run as far as they see it. And they're worried about
how that's going to play out and there's a lot of suspicion of Obama,
but I think itâs kind of zero-sum game. I mean in some ways you know
it's helped in some ways itâs hurt too.
GROSS: What's left of the national press corps in Iraq? You've been
covering Iraq since the invasion and you covered the Gulf War in 1991 so
you're very familiar with the region. Whatâs left of the national press
corps? And do you see the impact of the cutbacks in the newspaper
industry when you look at what's left of the press corps in Iraq?
Mr. NORDLAND: What's left of the press corps in Iraq is the New York
Times and a few dribs and drabs. It's pretty, I mean I'm not just saying
that because I work for the New York Times, but you know we have as many
as seven correspondents there at a time, two photographers. Nobody else
has anywhere near that. Even the big American networks - you know, CNN
sometimes often doesn't have a correspondent there. ABC I think just
closed its bureau. Time magazine I heard is closing its bureau.
Everybody's cut way back.
And then like I say the newspapers have been hardest hit. I think the
only other newspapers that still have bureaus there, American
newspapers, are the Washington Post and the LA Times. And the LA Times
has amalgamated its foreign operation with the Chicago Tribune. So
they've closed their office and you know itâs a pretty grim picture. I
mean itâs not, but it's not just the problems that the news media are
going through. Itâs I think in large part a lack of interest in the
story and the fact that itâs extremely expensive to operate there
safely. Even now it's not a place where you can operate normally. You
need a lot of infrastructure and that involves a lot of expense.
GROSS: Give us a sense of what it takes. And you know, and therefore,
why itâs so expensive to keep a bureau open in Baghdad?
Mr. NORDLAND: Well, without going into a lot of detail in case it would
be a security breach, what I can say is the New York Times has more than
a hundred people working for it in Baghdad - Iraqis - to support its
operations. And none of those people are super new, right. They all work
and every foreigner needs to be protected and needs to be housed
somewhere in a safe place. It has to be guarded 24 hours a day. You know
when journalists go out they go out with various forms of escort and a
lot of preparation and so forth - even now. Nobody wants to see someone
killed. And it's, we're still targets there. Foreigners are very much
GROSS: You've been in Iraq off and on for years since the invasion.
You've covered a lot of other wars zones including Bosnia, the first
Gulf War, so your war zone experience dates back to at least 1991?
Mr. NORDLAND: No probably even back to like the late â70s in Cambodia.
Mr. NORDLAND: Yes. And if your question is how does Iraq compare, I
mean, it's by far the worst of all of those - with one big exception and
that is Chechnya, which was just at the height of things was even more
difficult I think than Iraq was.
GROSS: What makes Iraq the worst?
Mr. NORDLAND: The difficulty of reporting, the difficulty of getting
around, the fact that we are such targets. I mean, we're used to,
journalists are used to having a degree of immunity in most conflicts,
at least from one side or the other, and, you know, we don't have that
in Iraq. We're just targets anytime we go out and everybody knows it.
It's a difficult story, and a complex story. It's a hard place to work
and the climate is tough much of the year. I mean, it's just hard in
lots of ways. It's less hard now I have to say. I mean now it's much
easier to work in a kind of normal way.
GROSS: Youâre getting ready to go back to Iraq. What do you do to
mentally prepare yourself to return?
Mr. NORDLAND: I kind of don't even think about it, to tell you the
(Soundbite of laughter)
I mean I keep reading about it and follow the events and so on, but I'm
kind of used to going there now so. Plus, it's a lot less dangerous to
go there now. There was a time when, going in, you had your heart in you
throat and you know, that awful dangerous two-mile drive down the
airport highway was always kind of a knuckle clincher. And there were
times when you'd get on the flight in Oman â typically, we flew in from
Oman through most of the war. Youâd get on the flight in Oman and
something would happen like a sandstorm and the flight would be turned
around. And, of course, the plane is full of journalists and contractors
and other people working in Iraq. And you would never see a group of
passengers so happy to be turned back...
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. NORDLAND: ... oh and they got - when they got into the airport in
GROSS: Well Rod Nordland, thank you very much for talking with us. Have
a safe return to Iraq and thank you very much.
Mr. NORDLAND: Thanks. My pleasure.
GROSS: Rod Nordland is a Baghdad correspondent for the New York Times.
He spoke to us from New York. Coming up, we listen back to an interview
with gay rights and AIDS activist Rodger McFarlane. He died Friday at
the age of 54. This is FRESH AIR.
*** TRANSCRIPTION COMPANY BOUNDARY ***
Remembering AIDS Activist Rodger McFarlane
TERRY GROSS, host:
Weâre going to listen back to an interview with gay rights and AIDS
activist Rodger McFarlane. He died Friday at the age of 54. In 1982,
McFarlane co-founded the group the Gay Menâs Health Crisis and became
its executive director. The group continues to provide services for
people with HIV and AIDS in New York City. McFarlane later headed the
group Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS, and was president of Bailey
House which provides housing for homeless people with AIDS. He cared for
many friends who had AIDS and took care of his brother when he was dying
McFarlane drew on his experiences to co-write a 1998 book of advice for
people taking care of seriously ill loved ones. McFarlane took his life
Friday. His friends and family released a statement saying he left a
note explaining that he was unwilling to allow compounding heart and
back problems to result in total debilitation. Heâd been in pain since
breaking his back in 2002. I spoke with Rodger McFarlane in 1998, the
year his book, âThe Complete Bedside Companionâ was published.
Did you plan to be involved with health care professionally or did you
just kind of get dragged into this because of AIDS and circumstance?
Mr. RODGER MCFARLANE (Former Head, Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS;
Author, âThe Complete Bedside Companionâ): Well AIDS, it was principle
determinate. I had worked in the hospital and after I came out of the
service I worked at a hospital management firm here in the city but I
wasnât ambitious that way. What happened was I knew my way around the
hospitals and the medical centers in New York when â in the earliest
days of AIDS, so people started calling me. And there werenât many
people who would take those calls. And eventually, the hotline for the
whole nation became my home answering serviceâ¦
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. MCFARLANE: â¦and I literally in the summer of 82, I answered all of
those calls every night myself. And that was what gave birth to this
extraordinary array of community services, you know, virtually in every
major city now, these AIDS service organizations. But no, I stumbled
into it just like, you know, because I had to. Those were our friends
and our lovers who were not being cared for and we had to learn how to
get them what they needed.
GROSS: Because there was so much fear of contracting AIDS and so much
homophobia in the early days of the AIDS crisis, a lot of people didnât
get the treatment that they should have. And this remarkable support
network grew up around the epidemic, the whole buddy system. People just
taking care in remarkable ways of friends and of lovers. And it was an
article not too long ago in the New York Times that kind of said that a
lot of AIDS activists were now asking the question, now that this whole
kind of like support system was, you know, has been put in place around
AIDS and some of that is being kind of applied to breast cancer and
other terminal illness because people learned so much through the AIDS
epidemic, is it time to further kind of bring into the mainstream the
lessons learned from AIDS?
And should AIDS be treated any longer as this kind of like special thing
requiring a special kind of care? Or is it time to just kind of look at
the health care industry as a whole and figure out whatâs wrong with the
whole system as a whole? Iâm wondering if you read that article and what
you thought of it?
Mr. MCFARLANE: Yeah, I did. And - you know, this is an ongoing topic of
debate. Let me take this back to just a very personal example.
Mr. MCFARLANE: When we were taking care of my dad down in Alabama, the
friends, the neighbors, the people from the church, from the Kiwanis
club, would come up to my bother Dave(ph) and me and say, gosh, you
guys. Bob(ph) is so lucky to have you guys always seem to know exactly
what to do. And what I realized was, having taken care of hundreds and
hundreds and hundreds of people with AIDS, that taking care of my step-
mom with lung cancer or my dad with lymphoma or my aunt Margaret(ph)
with bowel cancer, uncle Billy(ph) with Alzheimerâs, it really didnât
matter what disease it was. It meant someone you loved was different and
that they were probably going to die and that they depended on you.
And it really didnât matter which disease it was, weâre not talking
state-of-the-art treatment here. Weâre talking about diarrhea and nausea
and pain and paying the bills and fighting with the doctor and getting
them what they needed. And once again I guess itâs almost trite to say,
but what we have in common interests me so much more than what separates
us. And AIDS was different because it was treated differently by the
hospitals, by the health authorities. On the other hand, the model we
built for AIDS should be also be the model for Alzheimerâs and cancer.
GROSS: You wrote in your book that, you know, the importance of like the
death bed reconciliation scene is usually exaggerated and often
romanticized. What about it - what about your experiences has led you to
Mr. MCFARLANE: Well, as I say ha, ha, ha. I have to laugh because we
form our impressions of dying and death from TV and the movies. And if
you saw âTerms of Endearmentâ or âPhiladelphia,â things like â or even
âCamille,â itâs like your skin gets rosier, the strings swell, the
camera focus softens and youâre surrounded by Joanne Woodward and
Antonio Banderas telling you they love you.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. MCFARLANE: That, in my experience, is not exactly what life in
intensive care and the emergency room, where four out of five of us die,
is like. Death bed, you know, epiphanies and - you know, are not met
with open arm absolution in most families. Iâll tell you a very personal
story. We were â we had a very tough childhood and my brothers and I
were physically and emotionally abused and I remember my father most
vividly walking away when those things would begin. There was no wayâ¦
GROSS: It was your mother who was the abuser?
Mr. MCFARLANE: Yes, and then some other relatives. Itâs a long tormented
story that many Americans share, Iâm sure. On the other hand, my father,
many years later, I was still very bitter of him failing to provide us
that protection as little children. And taking care of him was really a
very healing experience in my family because we did not, you know, you
donât return that stuff. But, all that to say, being able to care for my
father to provide the protection he could not provide for me. In the
end, I couldnât forgive him. He couldnât make up for that. But I got to
tell you what helps me survive his death in those years is knowing
before he died, he looked at me and my brothers and said, I donât know
what I would have done without you boys. And that was more important
than seeking revenge or some, you know, some phony rapprochement that
years of living had failed to deliver.
GROSS: When did he say that? How - was this like during the process of
caring for him or was this like moments before his death?
Mr. MCFARLANE: No, this was the last year of his life. Dad actually had
heart surgery before his cancer was diagnosed. So, I got to spend a
month with him down on the river post-op. And thatâs when a lot of this
was said. He did not have a good surgical recovery. He was very sick. We
knew something else was going on. He was all alone and I donât want say
frightened. My dad was a big, strong, brave guy who faced this
resolutely. On the other hand, he was this vulnerable old man who was
alone. And those are when these conversations were had. And thatâs when
I promised him, as did my brother that, you know, the past will not
stand between us here. We will be here for you no matter what happens.
We can handle the symptoms. We can handle the bills. You will be cared
for, you know â whatâs past is past and it was really important to move
forward, like I said, and not return that abuse or that lack of
protection. Disease and death - most families are not perfect and
certainly not mine. And disease and death takes place in the context of
loveless marriages and years of addiction and abuse and great regrets.
And thatâs the context, not some, you know, not some sentimental soap-
opera a screenwriter dreamed up.
GROSS: Have all your experiences with people who were dying made you
kind of - do these scenarios in your own mind of like, and when I die,
Iâm going to do this or Iâm not going to do that orâ¦
(Soundbite of laughter)
GROSS: â¦you know, Iâm going to be a role-model for how a dying a person
ought to live out those last few days.
Mr. MCFARLANE: My brother and I, to whom I dedicate this book and who
cared for my dad and the old people in my family with me, we have so
many schemes hatched for exactly how weâre going do thisâ¦
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. MCFARLANE: â¦and who is going to do what, when. And Iâm also sure
neither of our deaths will, you know, look anything like that. Itâs
interesting, my brother talks about this - we worked so hard and so long
to, you know, to try to protect the people we love when they were sick.
And weâve come around to like almost this Catholic understanding of it
that perhaps, you know, some of the suffering really is necessary.
Perhaps this - whatever this journey is with this pain and physical
indignity is part of the lesson on the way out the door. Who knows? May
be thatâs just because weâre getting - the older we getâ¦
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. MCFARLANE: â¦the older we get, the less - the more equivocal we get.
I used to - say things like, you know, you do not resuscitate me under
any circumstances, you know. Donât put me on a ventilator no matter what
happens. Then it becomes, unless itâs post-op and Iâm going to â and I
might get better.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. MCFARLANE: You know. So, there was actually a very good study done
recently where people at the end of their lives were surveyed and even
if it was just the difference of one day or even one week, even with the
suffering, indignity, the pain, the - you know, all of those things,
most of them still wanted one more day. Itâs a - you know, all these
things, all these declarations we make about the way we are going to die
are pretty silly. Itâs â youâll cross that bridge when you get there.
GROSS: Rodger McFarlane recorded in 1998. He took his life Friday after
leaving a note saying he was unwilling to become further debilitated by
heart and back problems. He broke his back in 2002. McFarlane was 54.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: You can download podcasts of our show on our Web site:
freshair.npr.org. Iâm Terry Gross.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.