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Bob Levey
Bob Levey
(Barbara Tyroler)
Levey Live Archive
Column: Bob Levey
Metro Section
Talk: Metro message boards
Live Online Transcripts

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Q&A With Bob Levey
Washington Post Columnist
Tuesday, May 20, 2003; Noon ET

"Levey Live" appears Tuesdays at noon ET. Your host is Washington Post columnist Bob Levey. This hour is your chance to talk directly to key Washington Post reporters and editors, local officials and people in the news.

Today, Bob's guest is Rick Atkinson, Pulitzer Prize winning historian and recent war correspondent for The Post in Iraq.

Rick Atkinson
Rick Atkinson

Taking home his fourth Pulitzer, Atkinson won for history for his book "An Army at Dawn: The War in North Africa, 1942-1943." Atkinson, a veteran Post reporter and editor, returned to the paper for a brief time to report from Iraq. He traveled with the Army's 101st Airborne Division.

Atkinson has been on leave writing a trilogy about the U.S. Army in Europe during World War II.

The transcript follows.

Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.

Bob Levey: Good afternoon, Rick, and thanks for taking time to join us today.
Let's begin with "embedding."
Here to stay in future wars?
Or vulnerable to the political winds at that time?

Rick Atkinson: Hi, Bob. I suspect that embedding will be used again in a big way. It wasn't completely new in this war, but the extent to which it was employed was new and, in my view, quite successful.

Bob Levey: During a recent interview, Marvin Kalb said that embedding "has to be described as a brilliant way of manipulating, of managing, the news." Comments?

Rick Atkinson: Well, I know Kalb thought it was generally successful as a means to employ the American public. I didn't feel particularly manipulated and I'm not sure that you could get 600 embedded journalists to tell a story consistent with the administration line.

Long Beach, Calif.: Did you become interested in North Africa during WWII because Bogart's character in Casablanca was named "RICK"? (I said RICK with a nasal tone in order to come off like Peter Lorre)

Rick Atkinson: Purely a happy accident of history. I did watch CASABLANCA, however, since FDR showed it on New Year's Eve 1942/3 at the White House, a week before he left for Casablanca and the secret summit meeting w/ Churchill

Alexandria, Va.: I don't have a question, but wanted you to know how much I enjoyed your book, "The Long Gray Line." I was slightly acquainted with some of the people in the book, and it opened up a whole new dimension of the war in Vietnam. Thank you!

Rick Atkinson: Thanks very much.

Herndon, Va.: Mr. Atkinson: A question about the "paper bureaucracy" when a Post reporter goes to a war zone. Is there some kind of standard procedure, i.e., you have to sign something stating you understand the danger, complete a will, insurance papers, and etc?

Rick Atkinson: Oh, it's more ad hoc than that. I don't remember anyone asking whether I had a will. We did have to sign some papers for the Defense Department, acknowledging the risk. For the newspaper itself, they basically just shove you out the door with a helmet, a flak vest, a satellite phone and a laptop....

Bob Levey: You've written that you saw poorly trained American officers during your time in Iraq. Also some officers without leadership abilities. But surely this has been true of every Army in every war, hasn't it? Would you say today's Army is worse in both respects than the armies of yesteryear?

Rick Atkinson: I'm not sure I phrased it quite that starkly; and I would say that the Army today is generally much better than armies past, certainly much better trained, with more capable officers at the company and field-grade levels than the green army that showed up in North Africa in 1942, which I write about in AN ARMY AT DAWN.

Bob Levey: Were you armed during your time in Iraq?

Rick Atkinson: Not armed. That's not permitted, and as you know, most reporters with a weapon would be a much greater danger to themselves and those around them than to any enemy

College Park, Md.: Golly, why am I not surprised that a military fetishist was vetted by the Pentagon to be "in-bedded" with the troops? Given your fascination with all thing military, and your conflict-of-interest since you rely on access to the military to write your books, how can you function as a true journalist in that situation? Is this symptomatic of the "in-bed" process, and does that mean the U.S. media has become PravdaUSA?

Rick Atkinson: I take it you disapprove.

Bob Levey: Please give us your candid view of how women are doing in today's U.S. military -- especially in a combat theater such as Iraq. Are they pulling their weight? Are they being taken seriously by the men?

Rick Atkinson: Women are an integral part of the American military now. You can't go to war without them. They not only hold vital positions in intelligence, logistics, communications and other fields, you also see them commanding in the war zone, e.g., Lt. Col. Laura Richardson who commanded a Blackhawk battalion in the 101st. They're just as good as the men, in all respects.

Mt. Lebanon, Pa.: I polished off "An Army At Dawn" last month. What parallels do you see between the Allied generalship/leadership failures in the North African campaign and the present situation in Afghanistan and Iraq? The ultimate outcomes in both campaigns may have been in view but the road seems to wander through the passes of Blunder, Chaos, Confusion, and Doubt. By the way when reading the news from Iraq and Afghanistan, I find myself sometimes humming: "There'll be Stukas over the vale of Tebourba, tomorrow when I'm having tea ..." I enjoyed reading excerpts of your book at night to anyone who would listen. And some made their way into e-mails for spicy accompaniment to my communiques on current events. Thanks much.

Rick Atkinson: Thanks for your comments. I'm not sure I see too many parallels, frankly, although the campaign in Afghanistan, like the campaign in Iraq, is in fact a campaign in a larger global war. In that respect, it seems to me that we're fighting the second global war in our history--the first being World War II....

Long Beach, Calif.: I've read that the New Zealanders were the meanest and most feared of all allied troops, on a par with Airborne. Do they appear at all in your book?

Rick Atkinson: Yes, we do see the New Zealanders. They were considered very capable soldiers. One of the most interesting commanders in the British Eighth Army, Bernard Freyberg, makes a significant appearance in my book. He's a wonderfully interesting character, and I will follow him again in volume 2, because he plays a big role in Italy.

Bob Levey: Tell us what you carried during your embedded stint. A laptop, a phone, a flak jacket, a bunch of spare batteries--and what else?

Rick Atkinson: I actually had three satellite phones--a Nera, a Thuraya, and an Iridium--and two laptops, a ThinkPad and a ToughBook. The conditions were so awful, and the dust so bad that redundancy seemed vital. The other stuff I took was pretty basic: hiking boots, old clothes, notebooks, pens. Altogether the stuff weighed close to 100 pounds, particularly because of the electronics.

Potomac, Md.: Rick,
Enjoyed your book on North Africa campaign. What one book on the overall Korean Conflict would you recommend? And are there any comprehensive books on World War I? Looking forward to the second and third installments of your WW II trilogy.

Rick Atkinson: Thanks. THE FORGOTTEN WAR by Clay Blair is good, and so is THIS KIND OF WAR by Fehrenbach. John Keegan's book on World War I is very good.

Vienna, Va.: Brilliant. My father was in the 9th infantry's field artillery. He landed in Casa Blanca (if I remember what he told me correctly) in Sept of 1942 and fought across North Africa, then up to Cicily, and finally to France (1944).

He had some choice words for Patton (didn't like the man one bit) however there was a lot of admiration for Bradley.

Rick Atkinson: Thanks, and thanks to your father. He may have well been in the 9th Infantry Division artillery. The division landed in Morocco, but it would have been November 1942, not September, and the division went on to Sicily the following summer.

Bob Levey: You were embedded with the 101st Airborne, one of the most able and most famous units in American history. Your choice? Their choice? A combination?

Rick Atkinson: It was actually my choice, and I wanted to be in the division headquarters, where I was the only embedded reporter. At that level, you can look up--to corps and army operations--and look down, to brigade and battalion operations. They also are unique in their air mobility--with 260 helicopters they go into battle by helicopter these days, not parachute. It's an interesting unit with a very interesting commander, Maj. Gen. David Petraeus.

Bob Levey: The day your Pulitzer Prize was announced here in the newsroom at The Post, you told us by phone hookup that the award was nice and all that, but what you could really use was a shower. Just how long did you have to go without one?

Rick Atkinson: Longer than you want to know! I think over the course of five weeks in northern Kuwait and Iraq I had four showers, cold little trickles from a bucket. They were wonderful.

Chantilly, Va.: Hi Rick: "Army at Dawn" is in my at-home queue of books to read. I'm really looking forward to it as well as the next two.

One question: You may not be far enough along in your research to be able to answer this "sneak peek" question, but how does Mark Clark rate among Allied generals of WW2? He's really been forgotten, I think. Is that unfair, or does he deserve to be forgotten?

Rick Atkinson: He's not forgotten, although he's generally not held in especially high esteem, particularly by the British. Before I went to Iraq I spent some time at the Citadel in South Carolina, reading his papers and his letters to his wife. I find him a fascinating, somewhat tormented character, whose overweening ambition got him into some trouble. I'm looking forward to puzzing him out in volume 2....

Bob Levey: We seemed to have entered a new era of warfare in 1991, when we fought with two objectives in mind: Quick victory, and minimal casualties. In 2003, the objective also seemed to be: Be flexible in terms of strategy, if need be. Would you agree that the Iraqi Campaign will be remembered for a major shift in American strategy, right at the start of the war?

Rick Atkinson: I don't really think so. For one thing, it was really just another brushfire war on the fringe of the empire. Flexibility, both strategically and tactically, has always been important. You know the old saying, I believe from Moltke, that "no plan survives contact with the enemy." This was being quoted quite often during the last week of March.

Bob Levey: You and I have often talked about the way non-reporters view our profession. Let's just say we rank right up there with telemarketers and septic tank salesmen. Did you "sell" any skeptical soldiers on our values and our worth during your time in Iraq? Did they decide that maybe at least one guy named Atkinson didn't have horns?

Rick Atkinson: I think it many reporters came away with a new-found respect for the professionalism and commitment of soldiers, and I believe many soldiers came away impressed with the willingness of reporters to share their hardships and to convey the story of the military with some degree of sympathetic understanding. It always helps to be elbow-to-elbow to understand the other guy's point of view a bit better....

Washington, D.C.: Any advice for us children of WWII veterans who are trying to preserve their legacy while the WWII generation is still alive?

I have found historical Web site to be very valuable. My father and I put together a Web site honoring his division, the 89th Infantry and have been thrilled with the response we have gotten from all over the world. Many, many children veterans contact us each day, asking "What did my dad do in the war?" Any advice for those asking and answering those questions?

Rick Atkinson: That's a good question. The big memorial in Washington on the Mall will be dedicated a year from now, of course, and that will provide a national opportunity to remember them. I personally believe that preserving their papers, letters and other documents is vital; there are a number of archives that take good care of stuff like that, including many state university libraries and repositories like the U.S. Army's Military History Institute at Carlisle, PA.

Bob Levey: One objection to embedding--advanced both before and during the war--was that an embedded reporter couldn't roam, and get additional, wider perspectives. Did this hamper your work?

Rick Atkinson: That is a drawback to embedding, and it bothered some reporters considerably. The Washington Post had 20 reporters in the region, including nine who were embedded with military units, so we had the story covered pretty well. It's important to do that because the view of a single reporter in a single unit provides only a soda-straw vantage on the war. Having said that, I felt that it gave a more intimate view of the Army at work than I've ever had before, and I've been around the Army all my life.

Bob Levey: What was the biggest surprise for the troops of the 101st Airborne in Iraq?

Rick Atkinson: The willingness of the paramilitary Fedayeen to fight, sometimes suicidally, came as a surprise, and the utter wretchedness of the desert conditions, particularly the dust, which was like brown talc, west of the Euphrates Valley, was an unpleasant surprise.

Bob Levey: I know you're not a political prognosticator, but our forces have found no sign of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. What happened to them? And will this spell trouble for President Bush in 2004?

Rick Atkinson: I suspect it will not cause political problems for Bush, because my sense is that most Americans are simply not holding him accountable on this issue, even if it was the foremost reason for going to war. I don't know what happened to the weapons, and of course they may yet find some; but at this point I think you have to conclude that the Iraqis did in fact dismantle most of their WMD program.

Gaithersburg, Md.: Do you believe that the Iraqi forces were any match for the United States and was it a one sided affair? If so what realistic threat did Saddam Hussein pose to the United States?

Rick Atkinson: They clearly were no match for the Ameridan military; since the Gulf War in '91, the Americans have grown stronger and more proficient in many ways, and the Iraqis had grown weaker and less proficient. And it wasn't an even fight by any means 12 years ago. In terms of a conventional military threat, it would be hard to argue that Saddam Hussein posed a threat; the administration argument was that the threat was unconventional, particularly in terms of weapons of mass destruction.

San Diego, Calif.: What is your opinion concerning the 101st making the Sumerian city of UR off- limits because of their soldiers spray painting graffiti and stealing 3,000 year old bricks? Can graffiti be considered a form of cultural exchange? Is tractor pulling and NASCAR not far off the horizon?

Rick Atkinson: Well, I'm not aware that the 101st was near Ur; that's probably another unit. I can't really see that defacing an archaeological site does anyone proud, and the rules against taking artifacts--spelled out pretty specifically in General Order Number 1--were unambiguous. NASCAR on the other hand may be something the Iraqis could grow to like.

Bob Levey: Obviously, many, many American troops are going to be in Iraq for many, many months--acting as constables, essentially. Our troops are not trained for this, and I'm betting they're not very happy about this. Would we do better to bring a different kind of constable to the scene--police officers, perhaps?

Rick Atkinson: I suspect that many of them aren't very happy about it, although I left them in mid-April so don't know that first hand. The truth is that for a country the size of California, with 23 million people, the U.S. military is the only force now capable of imposing order on a place rife with disorder. And in fact, as a consequence of Bosnia, Haiti, Panama and other places over the past 15 years, the military has a lot of experience. But, in general, I agree that it would be good to have others come in and take over the burden as quickly as feasible.

Reston, Va.: Rick,

I thoroughly enjoyed reading "An Army at Dawn" -- I was impressed by the way you were able to demonstrate the importance of the character and personality of the military leaders involved in that War. I was also struck by the logistical problems caused by poor planning and bad decisions early on in the process -- especially as I watched the negative media coverage concerning supply lines during the latest Iraq conflict. Can you comment on any logistical issues you observed in your coverage of the Iraq war?

Regards ...

Rick Atkinson: Thanks for your comments. I'm not sure that the media coverage of the logistical problems was "negative"; I wrote about it myself and believe that I was simply reflecting the view of senior officers and the reality of trying to shove supplies 400 miles across a contest supply line in very harsh terrain. It took a while for this to sort itself out, partly because the leading edge of combat troops moved so fast, partly because there was a shortage of trucks, partly because the wretched weather precluded airlifting stuff, partly because of Iraqi attacks on the LOCS, the lines of communication, as the military calls supply routes. It was a critical issue. As Rommel once observed, the battle is decided by quartermasters before the first shot is fired.

Bowie, Md.: Polls before the Iraq invasion showed, I think, that 50 percent of Americans thought it had been shown that Saddam Hussein was behind the 9/11 attacks; and that people who thought invading Iraq was part of the war on terror were those most likely to support it.

Were the soldiers you met under a general impression that they were, in some way, fighting Osama bin Laden?

Rick Atkinson: Interesting question. No, I don't think they believed they were fighting Osama bin Laden, but there was a general belief that they were defending the country against a threat, that this was part and parcel of the attempt to forestall additional terrorist attacks against the homeland. It's hard to generalize about more than 100,000 soldiers, but I think most of them had the sense that they were battling a hazard to the American way of life.

Bob Levey: As you wrote in the April 13 Post, in late March American troops were encountering serious resistance, and some casualties. Gen. Wallace said, "We're dealing with a country in which everybody has a weapon." But 13 days later, Baghdad fell.
What suddenly went right?

Rick Atkinson: The Iraqi resistance turned out to be very brittle, for one thing. For another thing, the effects of the air campaign--somewhat invisible to Army commanders at the time, particularly during the foul weather of late March--took hold in a big way. The military figured out how to deal with its problems, partly by securing the supply lines, partly by pausing to regather its strength, partly by waiting for the weather to fair, and partly by clearing cities like Najaf, Karbala, and Hilla which they had originally intended to simply by-pass.

Bob Levey: The story you wrote in the March 19 Post was especially vivid. It takes us to the breakfast line at Camp New Jersey, where soldiers are ruminating about love--and home. Not to pick fights, but this is exactly the kind of piece that TV could have done very well--but chose not to try. Comments?

Rick Atkinson: Well, I didn't see much of the television coverage before or during the war. In that case, it helped to be an inconspicuous eavesdropper in the line outside the messhall. TV has trouble being inconspicuous. Hard to imagine that those young soldiers would have been that candid, and natural, with a camera in their faces. TV does other things well, obviously.

Vienna, Va.: Why do we keep hearing so many comments about WMD's "not being there" or being found? All this shows is how good the Iraqis were at hiding them, and, God forbid, slipping them out of the country into other even more dangerous hands. That was the REAL problem ... we simply waited too long to go in. That gave Saddam a chance to either hide them superbly or simply pass them on to other hands. We should have simply ignored the UN and gone in many months ago.

Rick Atkinson: Could be. I think time will tell on this. It's hard to imagine that we won't have a pretty good accounting sooner or later. For one thing, there are a lot of people now in custody who must know something about the WMD programs. Also, I'd say that shipping 20 tons of sarin out of the country would be a lot harder than it sounds....

New Orleans, La.: Did the 101 bump into any of the special ops troops roaming across Iraq while you were embedded? Do you feel unconventional forces are the future or do we still need heavy units like the 3rd Infantry to do the main warfighting?

Rick Atkinson: We ran into all flavors of Special Operations troops, as well as OGA -- Other Government Agency -- guys working for the CIA. It seems clear to me that a mixture of conventional forces, including heavy and mechanized units, with Special Ops is a prudent force mixture. The conventional units in the 3rd Infantry Division, the 101st, the 82nd, the Marines, and others, were vital in getting this thing over with expeditiously.

Bob Levey: The conflict in Iraq was threatened by the White House for more than a year. Strategy was debated on the front pages of The Washington Post and New York Times. Troops took weeks to get into position. Obviously, the element of surprise was totally lost. Did this have an effect?

Rick Atkinson: Strategic surprise was obviously not going to happen, but they did seem to effect tactical surprise, not only the timing of the attacks, but by starting with the decapitation strike followed by a ground offensive that did not wait for the sort of long strategic air campaign that preceded the '91 war. The truth is that they took down a country the size of California in three weeks, so it's hard to imagine that surprise played a terribly significant role.

Laurel, Md.: While the fighting was going on, one media market-research company found that viewers were turned off by coverage of anti-war demonstrations and one radio network's affiliates actually sponsored pro-war rallies.

Do you think the journalists who were embedded came back a more favorable view of military actions as patriotic acts than before?

Rick Atkinson: I'm not sure that journalists were much affected by what viewers thought about anti-war demonstrations. It all seemed pretty distant to me, as it did to most soldiers I was with. Again, it's hard to generalize about 600+ journalists, but I don't believe most would think of war as a patriotic act; I suspect most believe that dissent can be an act of patriotism. I do believe most came back with an appreciation for the sacrifice, professionalism and dedication of most military folks. That's very different from feeling the war was right or wrong, or seeing military action as a legitimate or illegitimate means of national policy

Bob Levey: Many thanks to Rick Atkinson. Be sure to join us next week when our guest on "Levey Live" will be the governor of Virginia, Mark Warner. Our visit with Gov. Warner will begin at noon Eastern time on May 27.

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