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In Iraq, Tactical Theory Put Into Practice


On this Memorial Day, we want to honor those who have died in war, and pay tribute to those who have risked their lives and are coping with the aftermath of war. In a couple of minutes, we're going to hear from Brian Turner, who fought in Iraq and wrote a book of poems about facing the constant possibility of death. The book's called "Here, Bullet."

But first, we're going to excerpt the interview that led us to Turner - an interview with retired Lt. Col. John Nagl, who was the operations officer of a tank battalion task force that was deployed to Anbar Province - in Iraq's Sunni Triangle - in 2003 and '04. He lost 22 young men, and his task force earned over 100 Purple Hearts. Nagl was one of the first military leaders in Iraq to practice counterinsurgency tactics, and he wrote the introduction to the U.S. Army-Marine Corps' Counterinsurgency Field Manual.

When I was preparing my interview with Nagl in 2008, I read an eloquent review that he wrote of Turner's poetry collection, "Here, Bullet." I quoted some of that review when I spoke with Nagl.


GROSS: (Reading) It is Halloween as I read this, and I'm being visited by ghosts - some friendly, some not - whom I have kept away, locked inside me for years. But Brian Turner, Ghost 1-3 Alpha, that son of a bitch, he's calling them back. I've put them away, kept them inside, the ghosts of the lieutenants and the captain and the first sergeant, their bodies torn by shrapnel or a sniper's bullet or gone, just gone, into hundreds of shreds of flesh the size of my still-living hand. But Ghost 1-3 Alpha speaks to ghosts. He calls to his ghosts, and they bring mine along for company, and now they will not go away.

And you go on to describe, you know, some of what you experienced in war. And let me just read a little bit more. (Reading) If you have been to war, if you have held a microphone in your hand, begging for medevac with the blood of your friends on your hands, pouring out your soul over the airwaves to keep your friends from becoming ghosts, from joining the shades in an unholy company of men who have given limbs and eyes and hearts; if you have held that bloody hand mic, then Ghost 1-3 Alpha will take you back to that day, that day when time stopped and life stopped and never really started again, no matter how hard you try to make the ghosts go away.

That's really beautifully written. Do you write a lot?

LT. COL. JOHN NAGL: I wrote poetry - I still write poetry. I'm working on a novel, actually, about Iraq. So someone - I think it was Alfred Lord Tennyson - said that poetry is powerful emotions recollected in tranquility; and I was asked to write a review of Brian's wonderful book, "Here, Bullet," and it was Halloween, and (pauses) got to deal with some ghosts. And that was a good thing. And it is an enormous privilege to have worked with and fought with the men I fought with, and I will never forget them.

GROSS: Are the emotions that you expressed in that review that I read, things that you can't really keep on the surface when you're actually fighting the war?

NAGL: In the particular battle scene that I was remembering when I wrote - when I talked about that "with the hand mic in my hands, calling for medevac," someone told me afterwards that when I came on that scene - and it was my job as the operations officer to report to places where things were happening; so I saw the worst of what happened, and also the best - someone said that, one of the soldiers told me that I came in smiling and calm and collected. And I was shocked. I - that wasn't at all what I was feeling, at the time. And I'm pleased that I was able to maintain a positive attitude because it's important in that kind of environment to keep the soldiers focused and professional, and try to ensure that they maintain their professionalism. And if you show anger or rage, that can create an unhealthy dynamic. And so I tried very hard, in those circumstances, to be as professional as I could. And apparently - in that one case, at least - I succeeded, although the turmoil inside was very real, and still is.

GROSS: Well, I want to thank you very much for talking with us, and I hope we talk again. Thank you.

NAGL: Thank you, Terry.

GROSS: Retired Lt. Col. John Nagl, recorded in 2008. In July, he'll become the new headmaster at the Haverford School in Haverford, Pa. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.