PBS Frontline: 'Endgame'

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Michael Kirk
Producer
Wednesday, June 20, 2007; 11:00 AM

Frontline producer Michael Kirk was online Wednesday, June 20 at 11 a.m. ET to discuss his film "Endgame," in which U.S. military officers and government officials explain the political and military impetuses behind the White House's current "surge" strategy.

" Endgame" airs Tuesday, June 19, at 9 p.m. ET on PBS (check local listings).

The transcript follows.

Kirk has produced more than two hundred national television programs. A former Nieman Fellow in Journalism at Harvard University, Kirk was the senior producer of Frontline from the series' inception in 1983 until the fall of 1987. His most recent Frontline productions include "The Lost Year in Iraq," "Rumsfeld's War," "The Torture Question," and "The Dark Side," which give an in-depth assessment of the war on terror and the state of the nation's military establishment, and "The War Behind Closed Doors," an analysis of the political infighting that led to the war with Iraq.

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Michael Kirk: Good morning everyone. There are lots of questions waiting, I'll try to answer as many as possible. For those of you who missed the broadcast, or want to refresh you memory ... you can watch all of it or selected portions at the Web site.

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San Francisco: I am dumbfounded that our military and political leaders did not know that historically and religiously, the Sunnis and the Shiites never have gotten along. Did they just ignore this fact before invading Iraq? Why were there no plans to address this issue?

Michael Kirk: There was a lot of information available before the invasion. People we have talked to said a kind of orthodoxy of optimism prevailed among those at the highest levels. That optimism may have been one of the reasons the top brass did not confront the difficult potential problems being raised.

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New Haven, Conn.: Before the war, Gen. Shinseki argued that to successfully occupy Iraq we would need to commit 400,000 troops. To many, this prediction seems prescient. Does the current surge, which brings our troop levels up to less than 40 percent of what Shinseki called for, really have a chance of working? Does anyone believe it has a chance of working? Is it too cynical to claim, as some have, that the surge serves only to put off the day when we have to admit failure in Iraq?

Michael Kirk: People in our broadcast called the surge a "dribble." Others believe it is at least an effort ("finally," they would say) to secure some parts of the Iraqi population. Most people we talked with said it was probably too little too late.

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Portland, Ore.: Is the "surge" a political response or a military response to the situation in Iraq?

Michael Kirk: I think it is a military response with political implications and overtones.

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Fort Sill, Okla.: Any chance this surge is simply a feint to preclude a large-scale withdrawal shortly after September, or is this really an attempt to commit large numbers of troops in Iraq long-term?

Michael Kirk: Many military experts we talked with felt there were not enough available troops for this strategy to be a secret effort to commit large numbers of troops long-term.

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Rockville, Md.: I have never been more impressed with a television show that managed to cover so many topics in such a well-balanced manner. At the end, I stopped when the voice said "maybe too late." But then I thought "exactly right." Or it could not be too late. How fair! Are you getting any disagreement? If so, is it from the left or the right? I have seen some reviews, but mostly they say "I was right all the time -- just see Frontline." Not a question, just a very big "thank you!" This is the sort of program that can lead to a unified U.S. and a program that we all can support.

Michael Kirk: Thanks. We made an effort to make a program that was not "political." We did not interview Democrats -- we stuck to top Republicans who had "standing" in the story, military leaders, military thinkers and very experienced journalists. The insiders were damning enough about the mistakes made and the difficult road ahead...

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Harrisburg, Pa.: I am curious why you are calling this presentation "Endgame." Is this the White House's term, and might it imply acceptance that this term is current, as opposed to presenting a discussion on whether or not this indeed in an endgame, or only the next step in what could well be a long series of possible different strategies handling problems that it appears will be long-term in nature?

Michael Kirk: I think of the "Endgame" as having many meanings. Of course there's the chess term (you can look it up) ... then there's the military use of it ... and in that case there were many endgames -- quick exit, light footprint, staying the course, standing the Iraqi Army up so we could stand down, establishing a viable Iraqi government, clear-hold-build ... and of course, the "surge."

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Jackson, Mich.: Thank you Frontline, for giving voice to the opinion of millions of people like me who believe that the invasion was the right idea -- but was done in about the worst possible way. Thank you for breaking the bad news in a responsible way that we'll be there though the Presidential Election -- of 2012. Now that we've established that point, we can create better policy.

Michael Kirk: Thanks. That's what we're here to try to do.

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Mililani, Hawaii: Do you in any way attribute the removal of Gen. Abizaid as head of Central Command and Gen. Casey as Ground Component Commander to their questioning the viability of the "surge" strategy?

Michael Kirk: No. I believe both men served honorably under very difficult circumstances. They followed policies ("light footprint," standing up the Iraqi military, etc.) that they really believed in ... and I think they still believe those were the right policies. The civilians -- Secretary Gates and the president -- in the end felt differently, and turned another direction.

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West Orange, N.J.: Isn't the real "endgame" the completion of the mega-bases, which will be a poison pill impeding any U.S. exit from the region? A post-2008 U.S. president will have to keep at least 50,000 troops in Iraq just to defend the bases and their precarious supply lines. Complete withdrawal would require demolition of $100 billion in works and equipment to prevent them from ending up in unfriendly hands. Isn't the "surge" merely cover for the longer-term scheme?

Michael Kirk: The large bases that were built around Iraq during the "light footprint" strategy (2004/2005/2006) ccertainly an accommodate tens of thousands of Americans for many years to come. Many experts we talked with believe American troops will operate out of some of those bases for at least another decade.

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Burke, Va.: Your show is riveting, great work. I am curious: What are the ratings? About how many people watch Frontline on average?

Michael Kirk: The ratings for the broadcast are usually somewhere in the range of a 1.2 to 2. That is a substantial number of people -- millions -- and quite a bit larger than cable networks like CNN, Fox, MSNBC or Discovery.

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Los Angeles: Did you deliberately understate the role that Dick Cheney appears to have had in this story?

Michael Kirk: We previously have produced four other films specifically about the war in Iraq. One of those, "The Dark Side," concentrated on the role of the Vice President in this administration, his relationship with Donald Rumsfeld, and his ongoing battles with the CIA concerning WMD. You can watch that program at this Web site.

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New York: Clearly, Mr. Kirk, you reveal in a handful of officers, the famous "some" at the War College, and countless pundits who criticize the war, the plan after we took Baghdad quicker than anyone thought, and the current situation.

Why don't you ask the question of why the Iraqi's are so ill-equipped to embrace democracy and fight for their own stability the way the Germans, Japanese, Russians and Eastern Europeans did after being liberated?

Michael Kirk: I spent my time asking other questions -- equally important, I hope.

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Murphysboro, Ill.: What took the administration so long to increase troops and change the mission? This should have been done three years ago.

Michael Kirk: The way our sources tell it, there was a profound communication and strategic disconnect between the White House; the Secretary of Defense, the Washington generals and the people on the ground in Baghdad. Our film is at least partly an effort to demonstrate how that happened and what its effect was...

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Kansas City, Mo.: Why should Gen. George Casey take a hit in this when the civilian leadership has failed completely at every turn?

Michael Kirk: Did George Casey take a hit? He's Chairman of the U.S. Army.

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Hilton Head, N.C.: Does Frontline try to get current Bush administration officials on the show, or do you usually assume they will say no, and move on to people who have left and are eager to clear the record?

Michael Kirk: Most of the very top officials say "no." I wish some of them would talk to us -- after all these years and all these films (10 films on the War on Terror; five specifically on Iraq) I have some very good questions for them. Others, like Gen. Keane finally speak -- and when they do the American people are the better for it.

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New York: Any plans whatsoever to try and get Donald Rumsfeld for any shows? He hasn't talked since he left the Secretary of Defense job. We all know he likes to talk -- any thoughts on trying to talk with him?

Michael Kirk: I hope he still has my mobile number and my e-mail. If he would talk openly, I would greatly appreciate his answers to hundreds of questions about what has happened during the past six years.

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West Orange, N.J.: Your "Endgame" greatly flatters U.S. policies and intentions in Iraq. It nurtures the idea that U.S. leaders have a clue about Iraq and that, correcting a few mistakes, can or must prevail. It is entirely U.S.-centric and war cabal-centric. Iraqis and people outside the U.S. war establishment don't even count as "extras." The film relies exclusively on U.S. sources. The interviewees are either pro-war or the "loyal skeptics" who give rein to the war and its prolongation, even if they have doubts about the prospects. Why no interviews with qualified Iraqis, such as Ali Allawi, Arabic speaking journalists like A. Shadid, Iraq experts like W. Polk, or independent military thinkers who retired Gen. W. Odom, whose views dare to challenge the groupthink at its very roots. Why do you portray the protagonists as Shakespearian tragic heroes? None will suffer pain, poverty, dismemberment or disgrace, and none shows any remorse. All will go on to comfortable post-2008 retirement or lofty careers. Most could earn fabulous advance fees for self-flattering memoirs.

Michael Kirk: I disagree. In most cases the people we choose to interview have something important to say about the story we are doing. Gen. Keane was a central figure in the story we told -- he was actually there -- in the tank, in meeting rooms with Rumsfeld, in Baghdad with Sanchez and Petraeus, in the Oval Office with the president. He was not speaking from outside the story. The same can be said for Philip Zelikow, Gen. Casey's top aide Col. William Hix and others we interviewed. When we go looking for "experts" we try to find thinkers and writers who carry journalistic (fairness) credentials. Usually we are not interested in partisans. They get plenty of airtime on the cable networks.

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Atlanta: Thanks for taking questions. I thought the Frontline program was notable in view of the fact that, pretty much for the first time in my observation, there was criticism of the Iraq army commanders. It's never entirely been clear to me why the persons responsible for orchestrating the military aspect of the conflict should be exempt from responsibility for what is obviously a debacle. I'm not suggesting the generals exclusively shoulder the blame, as there's blame enough to share, but it is a war after all. Any comment?

Michael Kirk: The generals in this war found themselves (as generals often do) between politicians and ugly realities on the ground. They are almost always honorable and courageous people who believe it is their duty to execute the strategy articulated by the executive branch. Of course, they have significant input and eventually are responsible for shaping and altering plans to fit the conditions on the ground. The larger question of whether they have a responsibility to push back when they either are not given a plan (which was the case at times in Iraq) or are given a plan which does not work, is a different matter. Four-star generals don't resignoften.

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Pittsburgh: My husband has twenty years in the Army between the regular and reserve components. He was eager to serve in Iraq and did so in 2003. Although he would like to continue serving, he is getting out and is quite cynical about the direction the brass and the civilian leadership have taken the Army. What topics related to Iraq and Afghanistan do you think will be most studied by the War College?

Michael Kirk: Many people we talked with about this said counterinsurgency doctrine is back in vogue in a very big way. Remember that once (post-Vietnam) it was not even taught in the war colleges, etc. ... Well, now a new generation of officers believe it is the answer for the challenges being presented in Afghanistan and Iraq ... and the successful application of some of its methods in places like Tal Afar surely will be the basis for future study.

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Springfield: I wonder why Frontline has continued to use sensational sound techniques and visual imagery? Using footage of people being killed during voice-over interviews may evoke emotional responses in viewers, but undermines the credibility and objectivity Frontline once had.

Michael Kirk: I disagree. It is a war -- people are dying there is horrible and graphic ways. We have an obligation to show it.

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New York: What is the level of confidence is there among U.S. military advisors that a viable nonsectarian Iraqi military force can be realized? I look forward to watching your program at some point today.

Michael Kirk: Among the many people we have spoken to there is not a high level of confidence that such a force easily can be created.

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Glendora, Calif.: How much of a contributing factor to the Iraq debacle is the fact that the U.S., despite our experience in Vietnam, still does not "get" asymmetrical warfare?

Michael Kirk: As I mentioned earlier, there is now a very real move under way inside the military to study and put into practice counterinsurgency tactics.

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Washington: Frontline uses a ton of still photos. Where do you get them from?

Michael Kirk: Our photo research seeks images from the usual sources (AP, Corbis, etc.) but also from individuals who are in the program or photographers who would have captured moments they believe would be useful in telling these important stories.

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Wellesley, Mass.: Can you help me understand why the United States thinks it can send troops into a country and create/develop a democratic government, especially when virtually all attempts to do this by the U.S. and other countries in the 20th century are, by and large, failures? Many people in Washington continue to believe that this can be done -- that we just need to get the right strategy in place.

Michael Kirk: From talking to the people in our past five films, I believe many in Washington approach matters like this much more soberly than in the past.

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Franconia, Va.: Do you think your sources and potential sources have faced or will face pressure to not talk to you as a result of your previous productions?

Michael Kirk: On the contrary ... many come forward or are willing to talk to us because of our productions. They often tell me they agreed to talk because they know their arguments will be fully developed and given careful consideration. Further, we publish many of the interviews on our Web site -- in other words, our journalism is transparent. Lastly, I believe many are willing to talk to us because they want to add to the oral history we are creating about this war.

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Michael Kirk: Well ... it's time to head off to begin another film (airing in the fall). Thank you for your attention ... I hope I answered you questions. Please visit our Web site to learn more ... we're really proud of the deep content available there and feel it is a continuation of our journalism beyond the broadcast. I hope we can get together again next fall.

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