'The Rachel Maddow Show' for Thursday, August 19th, 2010
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Guests: Richard Engel, Jon Soltz, Maj. Kevin Saatkamp, Maj. Jorge Cordiero
RACHEL MADDOW, HOST: Good evening and morning to you as well, Keith.
Thanks very much.
And thanks to you at home for staying with us for the next hour.
We are coming to you live from a U.S. military base inside the International Zone, aka, the Green Zone, here in Baghdad.
After nearly 7 ½ years of war here, the United States combat mission in Iraq, for all intents and purposes, is over. There will be a handover at the end of the month and about 2,500 more troops will leave here this month. But the last combat battalion of the last combat brigade is gone.
If you were with us last night here on MSNBC, you saw those breathtaking images of the final U.S. combat brigade crossing the Iraqi border into Kuwait.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
RICHARD ENGEL, NBC NEWS CHIEF FOREIGN CORRESPONDENT: Is this the end of the war?
COL. JOHN NORRIS, 4TH STRYKER BRIG. COMMANDER: It‘s the end of Operation Iraqi Freedom. And it is the end of war as we have come to know it as American soldiers and as America. Our brigade is the last combat brigade in Iraq. And this is a symbolic image of the brigade combat team‘s participation in Operation Iraqi Freedom and the end of seven years of war.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
MADDOW: That was U.S. Army Colonel John Norris, the commander of the 4th Stryker, the last combat brigade out.
We arrived in Iraq this past weekend. And since we‘ve been on the ground here, we have spent as much time as we can trying to understand the training and support mission that U.S. forces are now engaged in with Iraqi forces. The new mission is a training mission. It‘s not a combat mission.
But Iraq is still a dangerous place for Americans serving here and, of course, for Iraqis. Just within the last 24 hours, a roadside bomb exploded in eastern Baghdad injuring two people, three roadside bombs went off in the northern city of Mosul, injuring four Iraqi policeman. Another Iraqi policeman was gunned down in western Mosul. An armed gunman in the city of Kirkuk attacked the headquarters of the Kurdish intelligence services.
That‘s the situation, that‘s the 24-hour period, a typical 24-hour violent situation here that Iraqi forces have now inherited, along with the 50,000 U.S. troops who will stay to advise and assist them, even as tens of thousands of other members head home.
Last night, NBC‘s chief foreign correspondent, Richard Engel, was embedded with members of the 4th Stryker Brigade, the 2nd Infantry Division, the last brigade out of here -- 150 members of that same brigade who left earlier this month were welcome back home today in a ceremony at Joint Base Lewis-McCord in Washington State. Members of the 4/2 Raiders arrived home from a one-year deployment here.
And in a sign of just how long this war has stretched on and that now better understood effects of this war on our returning soldiers, I want you to listen to the earnest plea that those troops heard today from their commanding officer before they were dismissed.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
COL. BRIAN PUGMIRE, TASK FORCE STRYKER COMMANDER: There is a grateful nation for all that you do. I would also ask to the soldiers over the next few days, weeks and even months, that you look out for each other. The buddy plan is in effect.
If it doesn‘t look right, it doesn‘t sound right, it doesn‘t seem right, it‘s probably not right. So don‘t be afraid to talk it out with each other. Don‘t be afraid to bring something up to your chain of command if you think it needs it. Let‘s not lose anyone at this point.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
MADDOW: Let‘s not lose anyone at this point.
Today, the U.S. Army reported new suicide figures for troops: 27 U.S. troops are believed to have taken their own lives last month. That number was down from 32 the month before. It‘s still historically high.
The newest combat troops home from Iraq are America‘s newest veterans.
And they will remain combat veterans for the rest of their lives.
And we, as Americans, have a responsibility to pay them back for their service as veterans for the rest of their lives as well. It‘s a responsibility that we talk about a lot. Politicians in particular like to talk about it a lot. But it is a responsibility we‘ve had a hard time fulfilling over a decade in which two of the longest wars in American history have been fought at the same time by relatively small all-volunteer force.
Joining us is Iraq war veteran Jon Soltz. He‘s the cofounder and chairman of the group VoteVets.org.
Mr. Soltz, thanks very much for joining us tonight. It‘s nice to see you.
JON SOLTZ, IRAQ WAR VETERAN: Thank you, Rachel.
MADDOW: So, today, Jon, we heard that returning commander in Washington State pleading with his returning soldiers to look out for each other now that they‘re back home from here. How alarming is this suicide problem among returning veterans? When civilians think about a responsibility to veterans, how important is this an issue?
SOLTZ: It‘s a huge issue. In fact, what the commander was saying on the lead-in is basically what the chief of staff of the Army and the vice chief have been doing. And we‘ve had stand-downs, both on the National Guard and reserves side (INAUDIBLE).
At times we‘ve lost more troops to suicide when they return home than we‘ve even lost in clips during combat. But the problem is much deeper than just taking someone for help. There‘s no blood diagnosis test for PTSD, for posttraumatic stress. So, a lot of times, you‘ve seen where soldiers have gone for diagnosis and they‘re being told, hey, you have an adjustment disorder, or you have a pre-existing mental condition, they‘re denied benefits.
And that‘s we got suicide and homelessness. So, it‘s a lot more important to just diagnosis this—it‘s getting them into the system—or getting them help and getting them into the system so they get disability payments.
MADDOW: Jon, right now, we‘re seeing a particular increase in suicide among national guardsmen, national guardswomen and reservists. Why is that? Do you have any insight into why the guard and reserve might be having a particular problem with this issue?
SOLTZ: Absolutely. When guard and reservist go to Iraq, they go through what‘s called a mobilization center. A lot of them are from units all over the country. The war overextended us so much that you may have, you know, 30 percent from a unit from Wisconsin, 30 percent from a unit from Minnesota and 30 percent from a unit from Virginia, and you patch them together and you send them to war.
And then when they come home, it‘s 12 months, they go back to a mobilization center like at Fort Dix, New Jersey, or Camp Shelby, Alabama. And they‘re there and they tell the shrink they‘re OK and then they go home. And they don‘t really have to show up to a battle assembly for maybe six more months.
When they go back home, you know, a very small percentage of the population served in the war and there‘s not that support structure. The (INAUDIBLE) brigade commander you saw on the lead-in, he‘s going to see his soldiers next week and the week after and the week after.
So, the guard and reservist, they go. You know, there‘s a huge unemployment problem with Iraq and Afghanistan veterans, it‘s something like 22 percent nationally. So, they kind of get lost in the system. So, it‘s a much higher rate.
They don‘t fall under TRICARE as soon as they come out of the system. They‘re relying on the V.A. system, and there‘s obviously a transfer problem there. so, it‘s a huge issue in that community.
MADDOW: We have seen a big increase in funding for the Veterans Administration overall. We‘ve seen this president talk quite a bit about the need to care for people coming home from battle—people coming home from this long and multiple combat tours. We‘ve seen people talk about it and we‘ve seen the funding.
But is it manifesting as better care? Is the Obama administration, is the Pentagon doing enough to get their hands around this problem?
SOLTZ: Well, the DOD, from their side, the Department of Defense and the Pentagon, I mean, they basically had shut-downs. I mean, every military unit is so aware of the suicide issue and identifying soldiers that may hurt themselves. And from that standpoint, yes, the commands, like you heard the colonel saying, are very interested and if there‘s a soldier problem and getting to that.
But in regards to the getting people help, that‘s a much harder process. And, frankly honest, a month ago, the president of the United States, President Obama, actually addressed this issue in a national radio address on a Sunday afternoon where he said, hey, we want to get more people into the PTSD program. We want to diagnose more people with posttraumatic stress.
That‘s really the first major movement that we‘ve seen on this issue since the beginning of the war. So, I think that‘s obviously a great start from President Obama to address the situation.
MADDOW: Jon, one last question about the reason that I‘m Baghdad this week and the end of the combat mission here, the transition formally happening at the end of this month. Obviously, another 50,000 troops, up to 50,000 troops are going to be here for another 16 months.
How important do you feel like this transition moment is in terms of the overall politics around the war and the overall American responsibility to appreciate and serve our veterans?
SOLTZ: Well, yes, first, I appreciate the fact, Rachel, that you‘re there talking about these guys coming home. I mean, it was seven years ago when I was in Baghdad. So, I think that in itself is momentous.
But I would flag for everyone there‘s a huge concern here, that there‘s still a lot of troops left in combat. There still are combat troops in Iraq embedded with Iraqi units. One of every three U.S. troops dies by an improvised explosive device in the road.
And the American public, if they‘re not still bracing for war, because this war is still continuing, then they‘re going to be surprised.
In regards to the veterans coming home, only .5 of 1 percent is served. So, it‘s a very small percentage who‘s ever served. So, the most important veteran in the future of this war are actually the people that didn‘t fight. And we need everybody‘s help to make sure our veterans get what they need when they come home.
MADDOW: Iraq war veteran, Jon Soltz, cofounder and chairman of the group VoteVets.org, and my friend—thanks a lot for your time tonight, Jon.
SOLTZ: Thanks, Rachel.
MADDOW: It‘s really nice to see you.
SOLTZ: Appreciate it.
MADDOW: We are live from Baghdad. We have much more ahead. Please stay with us.
MADDOW: The images we have seen today of the last U.S. combat troops out of Iraq getting home to the U.S.—they are the kind of thing that makes a person like me want to shut up and hear from them. A couple of those last combat soldiers out—next.
MADDOW: The agreement that George W. Bush signed with the Iraqi government before he left office said that all U.S. troops had to be out of Iraqi cities by last June, by last summer. It said that all U.S. troops altogether have to be out of Iraq entirely by the end of next year, by the end of 2011.
But the actual end of the war, the end of the combat mission, the date by which combat troops are out of this country was set by the current president, Barack Obama. That deadline is the end of this month.
Last night, we were able to report that with the 4/2 Stryker Brigade driving across the Iraq-Kuwait border into Kuwait—that deadline in many ways has been met early. The drawdown to 50,000 will continue to the end of this month. There are about 52,500 troops still here.
The actual handover and change in command will happen at the ceremony at the end of the month. But the last combat brigade is gone—gone home.
The soldiers of the 4/2 that I spoke with here in Baghdad right before they left on this last mission were proud to have been chosen to end the war. I wouldn‘t call them pensive or reflective about the role they‘ve been given in the war‘s end, as they were still packing up and getting ready for that long drive out, they were still very mission-focused. But they‘re proud of being the rear guard at the end of this combat mission. They are happy to be going home.
MADDOW: So, here with the 4th Stryker Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division, the battalion executive officer, Maj. Kevin Saatkamp. Hi, sir.
And battalion operations officer, Maj. Jorge Cordiero.
Thanks to both of you.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Our pleasure.
MADDOW: The Stryker vehicle is very scary from the outside. I mean, it‘s an intimidating-looking vehicle. But in terms of the way that it functions for you guys, in terms of what you need to do, what your mission has been—this is a vehicle that you feel like meets your needs, something you‘re happy to work in?
MAJOR KEVIN SAATKAMP, BATTALION EXECUTIVE OFFICER: Oh, yes. This is my second deployment in the Stryker unit. I commanded a company up in Mosul in 2004-2005. And now, here, seeing the improvements we made from 2005 to now, it‘s significant.
MADDOW: What kind of improvements?
SAATKAMP: Well, we‘ve added a sniper net to it to conceal the soldiers that are in the air dry hatch (ph). We‘ve made numerous improvements to the undercarriage. The recovery system is better.
We‘ve increased the (INAUDIBLE), our communications platform - significantly more comfortable now. The range is even better. The fuel consumption has improved significantly.
And it‘s just the number of improvements over time from comments from the soldiers. It‘s real interesting to come back after having a break from the force to come back in and see the changes that have been made.
MADDOW: How many combat deployments have you had?
SAATKAMP: This is my second.
MADDOW: It‘s your second.
How about you?
MAJOR JORGE CORDIERO, BATTALIN OPERATIONS OFFICER: It‘s my second, last one was Afghanistan, where we‘re primarily dismounted. So, having the Stryker is an incredible advantage. Instead of walking everywhere, you can react to everything much quicker and much greater firepower. Of course, you‘re protected with the armor on the outside. So—
MADDOW: When was your first deployment? What year was it?
CORDEIRO: It was on 2003/2004.
MADDOW: So, for you guys to have seen such a stretch of time for the wars, both in Iraq and Afghanistan, I mean, one of the things that, as civilians, we‘re trying to appreciate is how much our military has changed because of these two long wars. And we‘ve seen all the vehicles change obviously.
But it seems like—it seems like the military has gone through incredible strain. Obviously, you know, thousands of people lost, but also the whole Army is so combat hardened and also learned so much about how to fight. Fighting has changed a lot over these years.
CORDIERO: And I think it‘s much better. The Army and military has made quite strides and given us much better equipment since when we first started. You know, initially, we had some things that could get—but they took all our suggestions, they improved the equipment, they got a lot of new things down to us to help us, you know, do our mission much better.
SAATKAMP: It‘s also the training piece, too. I mean, before, I mean, you were very, very lucky to have anyone who‘s happened to have a talent for languages and skills like that. And now, it‘s—now, it‘s routine. I mean, you‘re automatically supplied or slotted for deployment, you are going to learn some part of that language, you‘re going to learn some part of that culture. It‘s a mandatory requirement.
And we really give that opportunity to our junior soldiers as well. They have that tendency to have that talent for languages and they get trained on it. I think the realism as well, at the training centers has improved dramatically. They throw us many more curve balls in a short period of time. So, you can really experience a full year in about a month when you‘re down there. And there are so many things you have to react to.
So, it‘s really made it this deployment, I won‘t say easy, but at the same time, we‘re certainly more prepared for this. And it was a very good change from what I was expecting with my experiences from 2004 to 2005. Significant.
CORDIERO: It‘s like you say, Rachel, experience has a quality all its own.
CORDIERO: You know, when you come back to any deployment for a second or third time, you‘re coming back a more seasoned soldier who understands, you know, what your mission is, what you have to do here and you can better relate to the people. You understand the culture of the people much better.
MADDOW: Do you have a sense of—do you feel reflective at all about the fact that you guys were the last combat troops out?
SAATKAMP: I don‘t know about just yet. Certainly when we‘re back at the house, you know, having a beer or two, and think, wow, this is really important. It‘s certainly monumental from a historical point of view and we‘re truly honored to do it. But being the last battalion to cross the line, that‘s pretty cool.
CORDIERO: It‘s quite an honor. I mean, it‘s certainly like (INAUDIBLE) everybody, you know, takes a little bit of pride of being the last guy out of here. The rear guard.
CORDIERO: The rear guard, you know, you‘re an exceptional unit coming out of this place. So, we do take a lot of pride in that.
MADDOW: Is there a sense of real strong mission-focused right up until being out, though, obviously?
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Absolutely.
MADDOW: When American troops pulled out of the cities last summer, there was a real flurry of violence essentially around that pull-back. And so, that‘s got to be a worry this time, too.
SAATKAMP: Well, we‘ve been—we‘ve been out of sector now for about a week and haven‘t seen that just here in Abu Ghraib. And I can only speak to Abu Ghraib, but, you know, I was really, really surprise and very happy to work with the Iraqi security forces that we did, the police, as well as the army. I mean, they‘ve got it. And it‘s really—it‘s really something to work yourself out of a job.
CORDIERO: I was actually here last year when we pull out of (INAUDIBLE). But, I mean, the Iraqi security forces have done a great job. I mean, we‘re leaving here, but there‘s not any detriment to the security here. I mean, they‘re ready to step up. I think they‘re happy to step up and watch us leave. I think it‘s a good thing.
MADDOW: Major Cordiero and Major Saatkamp, thanks to you both. And good luck on these—these last days of your mission. Thank you.
SAATKAMP: Appreciate it.
MADDOW: I really appreciate it. Thank you. Good luck to you both.
Thanks for your service.
MADDOW: Those two majors part of the last U.S. combat brigade to leave Iraq. They rolled into Kuwait last night with the 4/2 Stryker Brigade and then they‘re on for a long trip back home to Fort Lewis, Washington.
Getting into this country to cover this war as a journalist has never been something that‘s easy to do or cheap to do. But at the very, very beginning of this war, even before the invasion started, when Saddam was still in power, it was almost impossible to get into this country to cover it unless you were really, really conniving.
A how-to guide to lying and cheating your way into a dictatorship at war—when we come back.
MADDOW: Since we broke the news last night, the last combat brigade leaving Iraq, the story of MSNBC and NBC breaking that news has been getting almost as much attention as the news that we broke itself. That‘s both weird, because it‘s really not about us, it‘s about the news, but I will admit it‘s also nice.
Because being here with these guys from NBC, the Iraqi and Arabic-speaking staffers here, the war zone engineers and cameramen and audio techs, these pros who know a lot more about what they‘re doing than I know about what I‘m doing—I feel like the work that it takes to pull this off, to get here, to get the story, to work with and sometimes work around the military, to put yourself in the middle of all this—it‘s also a part of a story of this war. It‘s a part of how America learned the story, but it‘s also part of the way that the war unfolded.
And in the case of NBC‘s chief foreign correspondent, my friend, Richard Engel, in Richard‘s case, this part of the war, his story that is part of the war story, is a pretty good story. Watch this.
ENGEL: Welcome to sunny Baghdad. How are you?
MADDOW: I‘m good. I think of this as Engel-stan.
ENGEL: You know, after all of these years, it is 00 it is kind of surreal to be back here for this moment.
MADDOW: Well, when you—I mean, you were here before the invasion.
You were here—
ENGEL: I‘m an honorary local councilman of Baghdad.
MADDOW: Are you really?
ENGEL: Yes, no kidding.
MADDOW: Who named you that?
ENGEL: I have a good friend who‘s on the—he was on the local council now. He‘s a member of the provincial council and he made me an honorary member. That‘s how I—
MADDOW: How did—how did you get into Iraq in the first place? Is it true that you snuck in?
ENGEL: Well, yes and no. I came in under dubious circumstances.
ENGEL: I was given a human shield visa which I had to buy under the corrupt regime of Saddam Hussein.
MADDOW: I remember this. That Americans and other people came from all over and said, well, as long as the Americans are going to be invading, let‘s bring in civilians to be shields.
ENGEL: Human shield. So, the idea was, I got this visa, I was supposed to come in and say, chain myself to a power plant and say, don‘t bomb, don‘t bomb. The Americans are here. You know, love and peace. And I said, that‘s exactly what I want to do. And you still had to pay—
ENGEL: -- to get this privilege.
MADDOW: How much did you have to pay?
ENGEL: A few hundred dollars.
ENGEL: And I had to buy, you know, a little bit of bribes here and there. You know, little gifts I should call them.
MADDOW: And you‘ve been living in Egypt?
ENGEL: I was living in Egypt. I was living in—I‘ve been living in the region already at the time. And this is in 2002 for about seven -- 7 ½ years.
ENGEL: So, the invasion was about to begin. I‘d been living in the region for quite some time. I spoke Arabic. This is the way I‘ve got to go. This is going to be the game-changing story.
So, I‘ve got this human shield visa. And then I didn‘t chain myself to a power plant or anything for the love of Saddam. I got into this country and then disappeared.
ENGEL: And this was a few months before the invasion. And I just stayed. I stayed in Baghdad. I was living in people‘s houses. People just kind of protected me and gave me shelter. And then I stayed in Iraq for the next 5 ½, six years.
MADDOW: Wow. And you started working as a freelancer?
ENGEL: I was working for everybody. I was working for BBC. I was working for ABC, and freelancing and then started working for NBC full time pretty much immediately following the fallback.
MADDOW: But you were here throughout for the first five, six years of the war?
ENGEL: Yes. I took little breaks but straight. I was here 10, 11 months a year.
MADDOW: So, when you—thinking now, in August of 2010, this is ending. I mean, Operation Iraqi Freedom ends now. Did you have any idea this is the way that it would end?
ENGEL: It‘s ending in a little bit of a whisper.
ENGEL: I mean, if you—if you remember back, the huge media coverage, there were cameras everywhere. There were hundreds of embeds. Well, look at the media circus now.
This is it. Nobody‘s here. I mean, we‘re on a big base. When the war began, there were cameras and cameras and embeds and hundreds of reporters fighting with each other to be part of this.
I‘m really glad you came and I‘m glad we‘re covering it. But there‘s nobody here.
ENGEL: So, it‘s ending so quietly. So, I didn‘t expect that it would end like that.
MADDOW: More ahead: including what just about everybody misunderstands about one of the most iconic journalist moments of this war. That‘s coming up as our live coverage from Baghdad continues right after this.
MADDOW: We‘re at the Palestine hotel with some jerk we picked up on the street.
ENGEL: I‘m still looking for my money.
MADDOW: He‘s calling me around asking for $20 since we‘ve been here so we decided to bring him along.
ENGEL: This is my second tour of the world with you.
MADDOW: It is. I love the Richard Engel tour of the hot spots of the world.
ENGEL: Who‘s your travel agent, by the way? You know, it‘s
Afghanistan, Baghdad -
MADDOW: Kabul and Baghdad - I wanted to get you to explain where we are right now. Palestine is also important to - it‘s important to Baghdad. It‘s important to the coverage of the war. It‘s important to NBC.
But what we can see from right here - you can see there‘s a hole in the blast wall there. Can you guys see that? There‘s a sort of - forgive me, artist, but sort of an ugly statue in the middle there and then the mosque behind it, which may be familiar. Because this is Firdos Square and what used to be where that ugly statue, right now - was the famous statue of Saddam.
ENGEL: Exactly. This is where Baghdad was toppled. This was the end of the Saddam regime, both symbolically, because of that picture which we captured from the Palestine.
That is the Palestine over there and we were standing on a balcony on that hotel catching those shots when the U.S. Marines came in and then helped Iraqis to tear down that statue.
MADDOW: And this is one of the things that‘s become part myth, part legend, part truth about how that statue came down. I remember that morning I was working in local radio in Western Massachusetts. And I‘m driving into work before dawn.
And the guys were on the even earlier morning show before me are talking about how anybody who was against the war now has to confess that the war was a great idea because the jubilant Iraqi people have pulled down the statue of Saddam in the middle of Baghdad. And clearly, they were celebrating. That‘s the way it was initially reported. What really happened?
ENGEL: Well, when you go up higher, you could see the square. It‘s not a big square. There were a few hundred people in the square.
ENGEL: So it wasn‘t that it was a mass demonstration of millions of people coming out and celebrating.
ENGEL: I was here at the time, and half of Baghdad had already fallen. So the other side of the river - we‘re now in East Baghdad - on Western Baghdad, on the opposite side of the Tigris, the U.S. Military pulled in, occupied Saddam‘s palace, which is now the green zone.
MADDOW: Right. OK -
ENGEL: So they all -
MADDOW: So crossing the Tigris was a big deal. Yes.
ENGEL: Oh, the city was - half the city had fallen.
ENGEL: So the Americans had taken over. We‘re talking about April 8th. They‘d taken over half of the city, the western half of the city, which is where the airport is. And that side was done.
ENGEL: This side was still under government control. And there were
snipers in some of the buildings. They were Fedayeen Saddam. There were
militants, Arab volunteers -
MADDOW: The resistance was still set.
ENGEL: The resistance was breaking apart now.
ENGEL: I remember, here, some guys who were militants tried to come and surrender to me. They were like, we want to surrender. I was like, I have nothing to do with anything.
MADDOW: Yes. Check your employee handbook. You‘ve got something -
ENGEL: Exactly. You know, that‘s great. But you know, there‘s nothing I can do for you.
ENGEL: I‘m just, you know, taking pictures. And so there was a lot of chaos, people literally running back and forth.
MADDOW: So, to be clear - so there is resistance, but it‘s breaking apart. It‘s hollowing out. OK.
ENGEL: It‘s falling. It‘s falling apart.
MADDOW: People know that this is part of - the eastern part of the city is going to fall.
ENGEL: There were tanks on the bridges separating the east from the west. And there were A-10s in the sky, the A-10 Wart Hogs.
MADDOW: Wart Hogs, yes.
ENGEL: I was standing pretty much right here watching an A-10 firing into the city and destroying vehicles right in front of him. And there were Apache helicopters also, tilted nose forward, firing down, clearing a path for the advancing American column of armor.
It was noisy. There were big bombs being dropped everywhere,
jets breaking the sound barrier, going very close -
MADDOW: And is all the fighting happening during the day or at night or 24 hours?
ENGEL: Twenty-four hours.
ENGEL: Day, night - I wasn‘t with the military. I had no kind of protection.
ENGEL: So I was out -
MADDOW: You‘re a guest of the Palestine Hotel?
ENGEL: Well, not only. I had a lot of rooms.
ENGEL: OK. Just in the Palestine, I had three rooms.
ENGEL: And then - I wanted to keep it vague.
ENGEL: It‘s the kind of thing you don‘t want to know with people. I had cars, getaway cars, ready - gassed up, ready to go. I had rooms all over town. I had hired some police. And I thought if things got really bad, they‘ll arrest me.
MADDOW: They‘ll put you in jail.
ENGEL: They‘ll put me in jail.
MADDOW: So you‘re in jail, yes.
ENGEL: Yes. They‘re just going to whisk me out. So I was worried that - you know, you have to make your own - take your own precautions.
ENGEL: So going back to the story, half the city had fallen. The Marines were coming up this way and I saw them coming up. And we were parked at a square called 40 Thieves Square.
MADDOW: Oh, we drove through that on the way here, OK.
ENGEL: And they were parked there and I was here. What are they, stopping?
MADDOW: It‘s 40 Thieves Square, which has this sort of Ali Baba and the 40 Thieves statue in the middle of it. And then, it‘s sort of the straight shot here.
ENGEL: Just within under a few hundred yards.
MADDOW: Yes. Easily walkable. But the Marines stopped before they got to the square.
ENGEL: They stopped. They stopped. And I was like, “What are they stopping for?”
MADDOW: Yes. Why were they -
ENGEL: And some Iraqis, clearly people who didn‘t want the regime, saw there were the Americans. They‘re like, “Come on. Come on. Just a little bit more. A little bit more.”
ENGEL: But evidently, they stopped because they knew they were coming into this very symbolic place where the only few cameras that were in Baghdad were positioned.
MADDOW: What was the symbolic importance of this place?
ENGEL: Because the cameras were here.
MADDOW: Ah -
ENGEL: It had no importance.
MADDOW: So they knew there were journalists in the (UNINTELLIGIBLE).
ENGEL: They had just fired a tank round the day before and killed some of the journalists in the (UNINTELLIGIBLE).
MADDOW: Why did they do that?
ENGEL: They say it was a mistake, that they thought they were sniper
probably coming from the hotel. There were no snipers in the hotel at that
ENGEL: As far as I could tell. I was at the Hotel at the time. I didn‘t hear anything.
MADDOW: You were in the hotel when the tank round hit?
MADDOW: What was that like?
ENGEL: It was terrible.
ENGEL: Pieces of concrete fell down and colleagues of mine were killed. We brought their bodies out. And yes, these are obviously (UNINTELLIGIBLE) because where do you take them?
ENGEL: The city is falling apart. There is no social services, still no social services.
ENGEL: But at the time, it was a real active war zone.
MADDOW: Who do you call for help? Yes, exactly.
ENGEL: So they stopped, and then they came in. I think that‘s when the discussion was had. You know what? This is going to be important, symbolic moment.
ENGEL: Let‘s gather our thoughts. They came in -
MADDOW: So Marines come in.
ENGEL: Marines come in. A group of Iraqis sort of look at them tentatively and then start to go up to the statue.
MADDOW: How did they? The statute‘s like that height, though, right?
ENGEL: There was a guy with a big sledgehammer -
MADDOW: At the base of it?
ENGEL: At the base of it, (UNINTELLIGIBLE) away.
ENGEL: And they started yanking on it and it wasn‘t going anywhere.
ENGEL: So then -
MADDOW: I thought if I wanted to take that statue down right now with 100 of my closest friends, I couldn‘t do it.
ENGEL: So they started yanking on it. And then, the Americans who were there said, “All right. We‘ll give you a hand. You want to do this?” Otherwise, this was going to take all day.
MADDOW: Yes. You know what would not have made local morning radio in Western Massachusetts. A bunch of Iraqis yanked on a statue and it didn‘t fall down.
MADDOW: So you want to help - you want to make a symbolic impact to help them there.
ENGEL: Well, the Americans were there and they‘re watching it as the Iraqis yank on the statue and it collapses on top of them and kills 10 people.
ENGEL: So the Americans helped them pull it down. There was that one very awkward moment where (UNINTELLIGIBLE) Americans putting the American flag on it.
MADDOW: That‘s right. I remember that.
ENGEL: And then, they -
MADDOW: Over the face of the statue, yes.
ENGEL: An American flag - it had been tied to 9/11, a flag that had
been in New York. And then, they quickly erected this statue, which is -
MADDOW: Which is -
ENGEL: Not great. And that was the damage from previous bombing from previous - from subsequent bombings. Should we go inside?
I‘ll show you the exact place we had our cameras where all of
MADDOW: From which we can see that shot?
ENGEL: Where we can that shot and where you can see where all of shot and where you can see where all of this transpired.
What‘s odd and the people who were in that square at the time - I was listening to them cheer. They weren‘t cheering the end of America, the end of Saddam. This is freedom, freedom. They were yelling (UNINTELLIGIBLE) Sadr.
ENGEL: They were cheering for Sadr. They were cheering for Muqtada al-Sadr.
MADDOW: Muqtada al-Sadr?
ENGEL: Exactly. So they were cheering for a -
MADDOW: They‘re giving Shiite sectarian chants.
ENGEL: As the statute is being pulled out. That‘s what they were yelling in the place.
MADDOW: Yes. See, that wouldn‘t have made local radio either.
ENGEL: I was reporting on it at that time. And I said, look, this is just the beginning of something huge. They were not cheering for America and democracy. They were cheering for a Shiite cleric.
MADDOW: But in America - I mean, we were so - as Americans, we were so eager to have reflected back to us the supposed glory of the war.
I mean, the fact that it was a flag tied to 9/11 was perfect given what the American people wanted to hear at that point. It bore no relation to reality. And just as - just as there was no connection.
ENGEL: It was literally put on the statue. There was a 9/11 flag strapped across his face to make that connection.
MADDOW: It was such a perfect metaphor for what was actually happening here, that the fall of Saddam here meant something so much different than what it meant in America and what we wanted it to mean in America.
We just invented and put it on there as if it was real. And we can keep being consistently surprised that things don‘t work out the way they (UNINTELLIGIBLE) worked out in our myth.
ENGEL: (UNINTELLIGIBLE) Sadr. That‘s what they were yelling. So they were happy that Saddam was gone.
ENGEL: But for completely different reasons.
MADDOW: They were happy because there are Shiites who were getting rid of the Sunni leader.
ENGEL: And this was empowered and the Shiite leader Sadr was killed by Saddam. So that was revenge.
MADDOW: So this was revenge. Seeing how far off we were in our initial understanding of what we unleashed - we unleashed in this country by invading it, it‘s like we thought we were seeing things here through a telescope.
Only now we realize we were looking through that telescope backwards. We‘re live in Baghdad. We will have more on the war and the coverage of the war and on Richard Engel‘s complaints about the quality of hotel room service during a military invasion, when we come back.
MADDOW: So the single-most random cultural moment in the whole time I‘ve been here is coming across some Iraqi guys vintage Desoto parked outside the Palestine Hotel, original engine.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
(on camera): What do you use it for?
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Showing.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
MADDOW: What do you use it for? Showing it. That‘s it, really. He has a Desoto for showing, but it runs. It‘s a Desoto in Baghdad - completely random. I don‘t know what it means. I just wanted you to know it‘s there. We‘ll be right back.
ENGEL: So this is the actual Palestine.
MADDOW: It‘s big, swanky.
ENGEL: Yes. It‘s not a great hotel, by the way. It was never great.
MADDOW: I don‘t know. It looks pretty good from here.
ENGEL: The room service was terrible, very slow. The food was -
MADDOW: This is the only place you get this on your tour. The room service at the Palestine Hotel in Baghdad was terrible in 2007. What was your typical order?
ENGEL: I kept talking to the chef. I can‘t - I was saying, look, there‘s war here. We could all be dead here tomorrow and you‘re making the same meal every night?
MADDOW: What was the same meal? What was it?
ENGEL: Spaghetti with tomato sauce.
ENGEL: And I said, you know, “Come on. This could be our last meal.”
ENGEL: Every day, spaghetti with tomato sauce? I was going to kill myself.
MADDOW: Did you have any options, though? It‘s not like you could
ENGEL: His heart wasn‘t really in it at the time.
ENGEL: I think he was distracted. Should we go in?
MADDOW: Yes, let‘s go. We are going up to the balcony, but there‘s been a power outage, so we‘re walking. So I‘m using a cell phone light which makes me look like Bela Lugosi.
ENGEL: This is the ghost story -
MADDOW: The ghost story. You‘ve got it. Everybody does. Here we go.
ENGEL: You saw the Palestine Hotel getting chopped by the Americans?
ENGEL: You see where it‘s damaged up there on the top corner? Right there, on the left side?
MADDOW: Right there.
ENGEL: That‘s the site. The reporters who were killed were in that room. They were on that balcony when their tank shell hit.
MADDOW: I mean, I don‘t want you to talk about this if you don‘t want to, but we were talking about telling ghost stories on the way up here. I mean, you were here through very - you were here at a time that it was very dangerous to be a journalist here, obviously. People were killed in that room that we can see here. But your life was also in danger when you were here.
ENGEL: No doubt.
MADDOW: Yes. I mean, you‘ve had close calls.
ENGEL: I had close calls. And there were - this phase was dangerous because there were bombs falling out of the sky. There was chaos in the streets. The Americans were shooting at things. We had no coordination with the Americans.
So that was dangerous. But it was almost like the kind of danger a storm chaser might face. It wasn‘t directed at me. It was just chaos.
ENGEL: I think you had to be unlucky for something to come and hit you.
ENGEL: Afterwards, it got worse.
MADDOW: After the initial invasion. After you left here.
ENGEL: Because society broke down. The country went into civil war.
I mean, journalists, because we had vehicles, we had money, we were hunted.
ENGEL: So that was worse because we felt like prey. And there were car-jackings. I almost got car-jacked. And we had to jump over the center divider and drive to an oncoming traffic.
MADDOW: Why were journalists targeted? Just because you had access to resources, or because - specifically because of your profession?
ENGEL: Well, I think it was both because we had access to resources and we were out. We were relative easy prey because we moved around.
ENGEL: If you‘re a contractor and the security situation was bad,
they just say, “The whole security situation is bad. You‘re not going to
your construction site.” We were out every day, moving on. So -
MADDOW: And going toward trouble, not away from it?
ENGEL: Going toward trouble. And so - why not? Trouble, yes.
MADDOW: But being at the Palestine Hotel now, as combat operations are ending, do you feel - I mean, do you feel nostalgic? Do you feel bad being here? How do you feel about it?
ENGEL: It is - so much has transpired for me, personally, for this country since I was first here. I mean, I almost feel like I‘m a different person. I have a theory that you go through four stages of stress that are almost like stages of being.
The first one is, when I first got here. I was hard charging - I thought this was going to a big deal. This is an important journalistic event. I‘m superman.
MADDOW: You‘re invincible.
ENGEL: I‘m invincible. Nothing could happen to me. Then, maybe after the first year, when you see other people getting hurt, getting killed, kidnapped, you start to realize, you know, something could happen to me here.
And you become more cautious, more wary and you feel vulnerable. Then, after a while, it adds up and you see lots of people getting hurt and lots of getting killed.
MADDOW: Lots of people doing the same kind of stuff you‘re doing.
MADDOW: Yes. People who you don‘t think are getting hurt because they‘re (UNINTELLIGIBLE).
ENGEL: Exactly. And you start to think, not “something could happen to me.” You think something probably is going to happen to me. Math is adding up against me.
And then in the worst fourth stage, you become maybe fatalistic.
You say, “Well, it‘s just a matter of time. I‘m going to die out here.”
And I‘m going through all four different stages. And then you go through them. So in the worst days, I thought, “All right, it‘s just a matter of time. Today‘s going to be it.”
And then you go back to “Maybe something -“ you know, “Probably is going to happen to me.” Or, “Something maybe could happen to me.” I‘m comfortable now. I‘m probably in stage two.
Just this year, just on my show, just the stuff we‘ve talked about. You‘ve been in Mogadishu. You‘ve been, obviously, in Afghanistan.
You‘re back here at a not particularly safe time. Does that - you go back
and forth between them in terms of whether -
MADDOW: How much danger you feel?
ENGEL: Yes. And it‘s not - it‘s not necessarily the places. It‘s what you do and it‘s who‘s looking for you. You can go into a dangerous place. You‘re here. You‘re going to be in and out. We‘re moving around. I‘m taking you hopefully to places that I know. That‘s OK. It‘s when you‘re there for a long time.
MADDOW: People start to get used to you and want to seek you out.
ENGEL: That‘s what gets you. You can get away with almost anything twice. But if you keep going back again and again, it‘s going to hurt you.
MADDOW: It‘s going to hurt you -
ENGEL: So this is it. This is where we were. These little bays
right here -
ENGEL: You can see these little cutouts. This is where the cameras were. And looking - actually, my exact - my exact camera was here and pointing right there.
MADDOW: And that was the Saddam statue.
ENGEL: That was the Saddam statue. So there were a few hundred people in the square. There are Americans rolling up to it. This is about to be a big moment. And it didn‘t take a lot to figure that out. But there were snipers still in this building and there were militants running up and down the streets.
MADDOW: So you‘re in an incredibly vulnerable spot if there are people shooting from there.
ENGEL: They‘re shooting from there.
MADDOW: You‘re basically targets in a shooting gallery.
ENGEL: Oh, yes. It was a very - and then you have the Americans that have shot from that way.
ENGEL: And (UNINTELLIGIBLE) shot right there. And then -
MADDOW: So you can see - you can see the damage to the hotel up there. That cement came this way onto this roof.
ENGEL: Exactly, because the shot was from that way.
ENGEL: And so there were snipers in this building. The Americans were moving up here. Half of the city had already fallen.
ENGEL: So it was a very chaotic time. But I still think the more dangerous period and the more psychologically taxing wasn‘t those very intense 21 days or so of the shock-and-awe period invasion. It was then the seven years of being hunted down and all the car bombings. We almost lost people, NBC, in this circle. The giant bomb.
MADDOW: I remember the giant cement truck bomb that went off right here.
ENGEL: Targeted this. Yes, right. You see where that palm tree is?
ENGEL: Right there. So yes. And what has gone on in this country has been a revolution.
ENGEL: You know, from dictatorship to -
MADDOW: They‘re not finished yet.
ENGEL: To this multi-party system to what will happen next.
MADDOW: That was NBC‘s Richard Engel back at the Palestine Hotel in downtown Baghdad from which he covered the initial invasion of this country, the toppling of the Saddam statue by a small group of revenge-minded Shiites and a very well-equipped group of U.S. Marines in the spring of 2003. We are live in Baghdad at the end of U.S. combat operations here. We‘ll be right back.
MADDOW: Up on the rooftop of the Palestine Hotel in downtown Baghdad, NBC‘s Richard Engel talked with a security officer from the hotel about the early days of the war there.
On April 8th, 2003, in the throes of the initial invasion, the U.S. Military open-fired on the Palestine Hotel, which was already, at the time, well-known for housing journalists.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
KEITH OLBERMANN, HOST, “COUNTDOWN WITH KEITH OLBERMANN”: ITV‘s Neil Connery was there for the tank attack on the de facto home of foreign journalists, the Palestine Hotel and for the U.S. Denials that the coalition was targeting reporters.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The American tank on the left is about to fire a round into the Palestine Hotel used by the world‘s media, where we are filming these pictures. This is the hotel lobby moments later.
Thirty-five-year-old Ukrainian cameraman, Taras Protsyuk, who worked for the Reuters News Agency, was killed. Two of his colleagues were injured. Spanish television cameraman Jose Couso was also killed.
They were all on the 15th floor when the tank round struck. This is what their hotel room looked like afterwards. From outside, you could see where the tank round had hit our hotel.
At a briefing, the U.S. Military said one of the Abrams tanks pier fired on the Palestine after taking incoming sniper and rocket fire from the hotel. But none of the journalists here reported hearing or seeing such attacks launched from the hotel before the tank round struck.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
MADDOW: NBC‘s Richard Engel was one of those journalists who was at the Palestine Hotel the night the tank round hit.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
ENGEL: They had just fired a tank round the day before and killed several journalists in the Palestine Hotel.
MADDOW: Why did they do that?
ENGEL: They say it was a mistake, that they thought there was sniper fire coming from the hotel. There were no snipers in the hotel as far as I could tell. I was in the hotel at the time. I didn‘t hear anything.
MADDOW: You were in the hotel when the tank round hit?
MADDOW: What was that like?
ENGEL: It was terrible. I mean, pieces of concrete fell down and colleagues of mine were killed. And we brought their bodies out.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
MADDOW: Taras Protsyuk‘s death was a very big deal. Hundreds of people attended his funeral in Kiev. The Ukrainian parliament observed a moment of silence in his honor. For years, people would picket the United States Embassy in Kiev on the anniversary of his death here in Baghdad.
And as the war dragged on into years two and three and four and five and six and seven, journalists continued to die here. According to the committee to protect journalists, more than 200 members of the media have been killed since the start of this war. Some of those deaths were accidents. Some of them were not.
The physical scars from the attack on the Palestine Hotel are still here. They‘re still visible. Richard pointed them out to us while we‘ve been here this week.
Back up on the roof of the Palestine Hotel seven years after the Ukrainian cameraman was killed by that American tank round, the hotel security manager told Richard that every year on the anniversary of his death, Taras Protsyuk‘s family comes back to Baghdad, to the Palestine Hotel, to the room where Taras died.
That does it for us tonight from Baghdad. We will see you again tomorrow night. Meanwhile, check out our blog at “MaddowBlog.MSNBC.com” if you‘d like to see the behind-the-scenes pictures of our time here.
“COUNTDOWN WITH KEITH OLBERMANN” starts right now. Good night.
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