Michael Slenske is a New York-based writer who recently wrote about war lit for the L.A. Times Magazine.
“When the new Madden Football came out we had the whole platoon in a tournament. But the problem was that everything ran out of generator power, so you get week 16 playoffs, two guys would be duking it out, and a mortar would come in, and the guys would be more pissed that the generator went out then they would about getting mortared.”
At war, 1st Lt. Paul Rieckhoff led 38 men with the Third Infantry Division in the Adhamiyah section of Baghdad running combat patrols along the East Bank of the Tigris River for 10 months. At home, the former poli-sci major put his political savvy to use, founding one of the nation’s largest veteran’s organization, IAVA (Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, formerly Operation Truth). Whether he’s responding to the President’s Veteran’s Day address or facing off with armchair quarterbacks on Hardball with Chris Matthews, Rieckhoff has helped to focus the dialogue about Iraq —through his Web site, college tours, and his new book, Chasing Ghosts (Penguin). Above all, his mission is to get the troops everything—from armor on the front lines to VA funding back home—needed to win the war on both fronts. Perhaps the most vocal veteran since John Kerry, the 30-year-old Rieckhoff is a patriotic provocateur who knows a thing or two about staging a Madden tournament in a war zone.
Read an excerpt from Paul Rieckhoff’s Chasing Ghosts.
SMITH: You were doing investments on Wall Street. What made you want to go to war?
RIECKHOFF: I went to work at JP Morgan on Wall Street and I made a deal. I told them I needed a year to go do some military stuff and then wanted to come back. And that was pre 9/11, so they looked at me like I had three heads. But my grandfather had been drafted during World War II, spent a few years in the South Pacific, then my father was drafted in Vietnam. So I always had a sense of service, and I felt I had a tremendous amount of opportunities given to me from this country and I wanted to give something back: just because I didn’t have to go, didn’t mean I shouldn’t go.
And then there was another part of it: I wanted the ultimate challenge. When I came out of Amherst College—the place where everyone tells you the sun shines out of your ass—I wanted to go to a place where no one would be looking for that sunlight. It came down to the Peace Corps and the Army. And in the Army you get to jump out of planes and blow shit up.
SMITH: What did you learn about yourself before, during, and after the war?
RIECKHOFF: During the war I think I learned that leadership is a complicated equation, it’s not just being a tough guy and running out in front under fire that determines who a good leader is. Who will guys follow? Sometimes it’s the guy who will kneel down and cry with a guy after his wife leaves him, or it’s the guy who sits with somebody who can’t balance their checkbook. There are just so many variables in the leadership equation that they don’t teach you about that emerge, especially in Iraq.
Nobody taught me at OCS [Officer Candidate School] what to do when a guy’s fiancée sends him his ring back in Baghdad, or what to do when a guy’s wife gets locked up on drugs and he’s losing his kids, what you do when a guy gets wounded badly. I was driven to try and change and fix what I saw in Iraq. And I found out I wasn’t alone, there were other guys who felt the same way. That was the genesis of IAVA.
SMITH: How did you find those guys?
RIECKHOFF: Mostly online. Some of them were people I knew from the military and we just stayed in touch online, and others were random. And then I did the Democratic response to the President’s weekly radio address on May 1, 2004. I had contacted both political campaigns, and said, “Hey, you know I’ve got a lot of issues. I want to talk policy. I want to talk about the military.” And nobody called me back. Finally, a guy who was a Vietnam Vet who was with the Kerry campaign called me back and said, “Hey, do you want to meet John Kerry?” And I said, “Yeah, I’m not a tremendous fan, but if he’s willing to listen, I’ll talk.” Basically at that point neither political candidate was appealing to me, but Bush had pissed me off enough that I felt that a change was needed.
I met Kerry and we talked at an airport for like 15 minutes and then a couple weeks later they called me up and asked me if I wanted to do the Democratic response. I was in Vegas actually, playing blackjack with my dad and brother, drinking beers, and I was totally unprepared. I said, “Doesn’t a Congressman or Senator usually do this?” And they said, “Yeah, but we want you to do it.” I had emailed them a speech I gave at Amherst when I first came back. And I said, “Here’s some of the policy things I’m talking about, here are some of the ideas that I have.” And they wrote back to me, and said, “We read your speech and we’d like you to do some radio.” I thought they meant like go on some local radio show. But I had to come up with a speech that met the timeline, and I wrote it in the Palms Hotel in Vegas while my brother was downstairs getting shit-faced and dancing—it was kind of surreal. My dad was down by the pool looking at the girls, and he’s like, “Get down here, you just got back from Iraq.” I had to tell him, “Hey I’ve got to write this thing.” He’s like, “Yeah, you can do that later.” And I said, “Well, it’s kind of important.”
My family is not political, they didn’t really get it. But long story short, that thing blew up that weekend in May and I was doing a ton of media—Stephanopoulos, Paula Zahn, and all this other stuff—and I had a very basic, flat Web page called PaulRieckhoff.com and these guys started emailing me saying, “Hey I’m frustrated too, how can I get involved?” And that’s really what started it. It was probably born out of frustration and a need to serve. Somebody told Sean Huze once, “Thanks for your service, now it’s time for you to really serve.” Once we get home we have a right, but also an obligation, especially during a controversial war, to explain to the American people what the hell is going on over there, and how we can push this country back in the right direction.
SMITH: So what are the misconceptions the public has about the war?
RIECKHOFF: Where do you want me to start? I think the complexity of it, the overwhelming, paralyzing complexity of it. You hear a lot about “They don’t know who their enemy is,” and “You don’t feel safe” but it’s so much more than that. The gravity of it all. When you’re walking down the street for a year, you never know if a little kid is going to blow up on you. You never know if somebody is going to throw a grenade at you, if a mortar round that drops from your guys lands in the right place or not, I mean there’s this tremendous gravity to everything you do. And people kind of believe it’s like Vietnam, and everybody goes back to Saigon, and there are hookers, and everyone gets drunk and shoots heroin. It’s not like that in Iraq—it’s a pressure cooker for a year and you don’t get any breaks. There’s no downtown bars for you to hangout at, and you can’t go chill with the boys at a dance club. During my time there were no freakin’ girls. And then there’s the demands on the families. I don’t think people realize what these guys are giving up.
SMITH: What does patriotism mean?
RIECKHOFF: Whooh. That’s a big one. Patriotism is doing what you think is best for the country, and it’s sacrificing of yourself, or the individual moment for the greater good of the country and your countrymen. It’s hard to pigeonhole. I hate to use this analogy, but it’s kind of like those guys who say, “ I don’t know what pornography is, but I know it when I see it.” That’s how I personally look at Patriotism. It comes in a lot of forms. I think what Murtha did is patriotism. There’s always the love and devotion to your country, that’s always the literal translation, and the willingness to sacrifice for it, but I think as far as what it looks like, I think what Murtha did was courageous and was patriotism. You know what the wives back home were doing, without their husbands, without a father in their family for a year, without sex for a year. There’s a whole lot of different ways that patriotism comes into play, I think the thing that is unusual now is that most folks aren’t experiencing patriotism in their lives, nobody is asking them to sacrifice.
SMITH: What’s the hardest thing that you had to deal without, or deal with, while you were on the ground?
RIECKHOFF: I think the fact that I had 38 guys’ lives in my hands, everyday. You’re their boss, you’re their father, you’re their psychiatrist, you’re their dietician, you’re everything to these guys, and at the end of the day, their life is on your conscience. It’s a tremendous responsibility and it’s a tremendous honor, but it’s also overwhelming. We always know that if you lose a guy you’re writing that letter home to his wife or his daughter. I was lucky, I think I was able to get through it pretty well, but sometimes it can really put people down and crush them.
SMITH: Did you write anything while you were over?
RIECKHOFF: Yeah, I wrote a lot of letters.
SMITH: How many of those letters were there?
RIECKHOFF: More than 100 pages. Then once we got email I was doing more stuff online. But that was kind of a key connection. The hardest thing for me was that you had no control of your life. That’s one thing I don’t think people in the civilian world get. You can’t go where you want, you can’t be alone because you always have to have somebody with you, you can’t just say, “Oh, fuck it, I’m going to go out back and listen to a CD, and go for a walk.” The little things, the privacy of it. You can’t do what you want for a whole year. You can’t just say, “Screw it, I’m not going to work today,” or “I don’t feel like dealing with my boss.” You have to do almost everything when you are there. And I think with this generation of people who are more individualistic, and more freethinking, it’s more difficult than in past generations. But that’s the fundamental sacrifice you make as a soldier that’s eternal.
SMITH: What was the most disturbing thing in civilian life and culture you saw when you came back?
RIECKHOFF: Well, in the first couple weeks I was home I was in a Starbucks, which is kind of surreal to begin with, and there was this woman who was screaming at the guy behind the counter, who was clearly on his third shift, and she’s screaming at him because the top of her latte wasn’t put on properly, and I’m thinking to this woman, “You know lady, you’re lucky you got a latte, your head could be blown off.” And that’s kind of the perspective and the frustration we get coming home. Like four weeks after I got home I was in L.A. with some buddies and we went to a party with Prince. That was surreal. I was in Baghdad four weeks before and now I’m at the Mondrian with Prince. At first they wouldn’t let us in, then one of my buddies was like, “Dude, this guy just got back from Baghdad.” And they were like, “And? Dennis Rodman’s here.” You don’t want the red carpet rolled out, but you just want people to appreciate the sacrifice that you make.
SMITH: Do you think that sacrifice is being appreciated?
RIECKHOFF: It is by some people. Some people go out of their way. We run a veteran’s organization so I’m always impressed by the people who will give money, time, or of themselves in a multitude of ways, but at the same time I know that they are a minority, and many people are just not involved. It’s not their priority. Nobody’s asked them, and it’s become acceptable to some extent to do nothing. And I think that’s to the detriment of this country. Past generations everybody was in it all the way, and I think it made us all better. But very few people have skin in the game, so its hard for them to be motivated, to be connected.
SMITH: I know you said you had little to no down time, but in your down time, what did you guys do?
RIECKHOFF: In Iraq I worked out a lot. We felt like we were in prison. We bought an old weight set off some Iraqi people. We traded them for like five crates of water for a bench and some dumbbells.
SMITH: Where was that?
RIECKHOFF: In Baghdad, in Adhamiyah. Did that a lot, and we played a ton of PlayStation. I remember when the new Madden Football came out we had the whole platoon in a tournament. But the problem was that everything ran out of generator power, so you get week 16 playoffs, two guys would be duking it out, and a mortar would come in, and the guys would be more pissed that the generator went out then they would about getting mortared. I also did a lot of reading.
SMITH: What were you reading over there?
RIECKHOFF: I read The Magus by John Fowles. I read Friedman’s book on the Middle East, From Beirut to Jerusalem. I read a whole stack of books while I was over there. I read a Noam Chomsky book. Music and reading and DVD movies are the things that can take you away. That’s what it’s about, escapism. Trying to get away from wherever it is you are at that place and time.
SMITH: Why do you think so many guys are writing about this war?
RIECKHOFF: It’s therapeutic, and at the same time I think there’s a need to make sure history is told from their perspective. I think there is an individualistic part of our society more than in past generations, but I think it’s also maybe deep-rooted in a sense that we know Vietnam was controversial, and even today there’s a lot of discrepancies and arguments about what Vietnam was, and I think soldiers, maybe subconsciously have a need to tell the stories they saw to make sure its taken into account.
SMITH: Do you think that having the site up has helped you with IAVA?
RIECKHOFF: Definitely. Guys come to us all the time with emails and videos and pictures saying, “I want people to see this because they’re not seeing it on TV.” And about 50 percent of them are there for a second time. They come home and they realize that the country is detached and kind of in the dark. And they want to help illuminate that.
SMITH: What’s the best way for citizens to get a better grasp on the situation?
RIECKHOFF: Read the blogs coming out of Iraq. Rather than sitting down and spending some time with a vet who’s been there, which is, I think, tougher, and there are more barriers to entry, spend some time reading the blogs from soldiers as well as Iraqi citizens in Iraq.
SMITH: Since milblogs are being registered with chain of command now, do you think those are getting watered down?
RIECKHOFF: They are now. I think the Army was slow in understanding and appreciating the power of the blogs, and the range of them, but they still keep popping up. And I think its like water, they will find a way around it, even if people have to send emails to their friends and their friends post it.
SMITH: What’s the biggest problem with training? James Fallows just wrote a big piece in The Atlantic on the failure to train the Iraqi Army. When you went over there, was the Army saying you’re going to train the Iraqis?
RIECKHOFF: Not when we first got there. When we first got there that wasn’t even on the table.
SMITH: When you first got there did you have any idea on how to train an army?
RIECKHOFF: We were always trained on how to train new soldiers or subordinate soldiers, that’s how the Army operates. Its kind of like a self-educating monster, so it’s not that unusual. The problem is, we’ve never started from scratch, and we’ve never started from scratch in a language we don’t understand, and in a country we don’t understand, with a group of people who didn’t get along until we came there. When it comes down to it, what they’ve asked us to do is beyond our capacity. And its an unrealistic level of expectations. And when people ask me, “Why isn’t the Iraqi army ready?” Well, because we haven’t done enough to get them ready, and it’s ridiculous to assume that we can have them ready two and a half years later.
SMITH: What was one of the bigger problems you faced on the ground in Iraq?
RIECKHOFF: I couldn’t get Sunnis and Shias to wait on a gas line together they were so divided—and that was for decades—so you can’t just go in with a magic wand and say, “Okay, you’re all going to get along.” It would be like if you came in after slavery in the United States and said all slaves and slave owners are now going to get along. And slaves and slave owners you’re going to be partners on the police force, and slave owners you’re now going to take orders from the slaves. It just wouldn’t work.
SMITH: What would you say to someone who compared you to John Kerry?
RIECKHOFF: Shit, I hope I end up better than that. I don’t know. I’d rather be…I guess it’s flattering, but it’s just the evolution of the veteran’s movement. It’s not just John Kerry. Kerry and John McCain are the ones everyone knows, but there’s also guys like Bobby Muller and Max Cleland who maybe aren’t as well recognized because they haven’t run for president in the last couple years.
SMITH: What’s the distinguishing feature about this new veteran’s movement, especially compared to that of Vietnam?
RIECKHOFF: There’s a calculated pragmatism about it. They’re not going to be marching on Washington. They’re going to run for office. They’re a little bit older, they’re not 19-year-olds. They have families and kids and to some extent they have more to lose, so I think they are going to be a little more pragmatic and work within the system more so than past generations.
SMITH: Why is that?
RIECKHOFF: Well, I think the entire political climate has changed and I think they’re also a much greater minority than they were in Vietnam. In Vietnam you had huge numbers relative to the general population. Now you’ve got less than one percent. So they’ve got to find a way to become what we’d call in the military “force multipliers.” We’ve got to use the Internet, we’ve got to use the media to amplify our small number of voices. If we brought all the Iraq vets down to Washington tomorrow there wouldn’t be that many, because half of them are in Iraq, half haven’t gotten out yet, and half the percentage who has don’t know what their legal rights are, so the fact that it’s a professional military that’s the core element. It changes the political and social dialogue of this war in a way that’s totally unprecedented.
SMITH: Do you think there will be a lot more guys like Paul Hackett coming to the forefront?
RIECKHOFF: Absolutely, I think Paul Hackett is the tip of the iceberg and I think that is a good thing. The Republicans got us into this mess, and the Democrats don’t have a plan to get us out, and these guys are the only ones with credibility to talk about Iraq. I don’t care if it’s Trent Lott or Nancy Pelosi, neither one of them have been there and they don’t know what’s going on in Iraq and these guys do and they understand how it affects us overseas and how its affects us back home. I hope that a number of them win in ‘06, and start to introduce legislation that can make this thing or at least fix it as much as possible or minimize the damage. Those are the guys who can introduce legislation on an exit strategy or fully funding the VA and those guys have the credibility that nobody else has right now.
SMITH: What advice would you give someone going in tomorrow?
RIECKHOFF: Into or Iraq or into politics? They’re both kind of nasty. Take one day at a time. They always say, “Yesterday was the hardest day.” My girlfriend told me before I left, “Try to find joy wherever you can.” Whether it’s just spending a minute with a kid or a puppy on the side of a road, or listening to a song at night before you go to bed, or having a cigarette, you kind of got to find opportunities to savor the moment of something that gives you joy or keeps you sane. And take care of your guys and they’ll take care of you. And then try to do as much as you can while you’re over there. You’re stuck in a very tough situation, without debate, and you’re going to be put in very tough circumstances, but you’re going to have power on a level that you’ll probably never have again in your life. And with power comes responsibility, and you have an opportunity, at least in a small way, if you take the time and make the commitment to help some people in that area. You can’t save the world over there, and you can’t fix all their problems, but you can make a difference.
SMITH: Is it easy to lose sight of what you’re there for?
RIECKHOFF: What you’re there for is in and of itself a loaded question. They’re there for a number of reasons. Some of them are there for the college money. Some of them wanted to learn how to shoot. Some of them didn’t want to go to jail. There’s a million reasons why we’re there.