Tina Brown's Must-Reads
12:04 am
Wed July 18, 2012

Tina Brown's Must Reads: Modern Warfare

Originally published on Tue September 11, 2012 5:42 pm

Tina Brown, editor of The Daily Beast and Newsweek, tells us what she's been reading in a feature that Morning Edition likes to call "Word of Mouth."

This month, Brown shares reading recommendations related to the changing nature of war, including a book on Obama's foreign policy and an article about the ongoing destruction of Timbuktu's ancient monuments.

A Reporter Who Wouldn't Quit

Brown's first pick is "Marie Colvin's Private War," by Marie Brenner; it's a profile of the late war correspondent, featured in this month's Vanity Fair.

Colvin died in February under Syrian shelling while on assignment in Homs, Syria. Brown compares her to Martha Gellhorn, the war reporter who famously covered the Spanish Civil War and World War II.

"She was a war correspondent completely of the old school," Brown tells NPR's Steve Inskeep. "She wanted to be there on the ground, in the middle of danger, writing her dispatches. She was a crazy, danger-loving girl who really couldn't resist, in a sense, the adrenaline of the front."

Brenner's profile goes deep into Colvin's character, including her difficulties with post-traumatic stress disorder.

"That was really one of the great untold stories of the time," Brown says. "[Colvin] just could not stop going back, even when it was quite clear that she had really enough shellshock to get out of the game."

"Colvin certainly had a strong humanitarian instinct," Brown adds. "She wanted to tell the stories of the people that no one wanted to write about or cared about.

"But she also had several marriages, she was constantly in love with the wrong guys, she had a drinking problem, she couldn't have kids; all of these things, I think, made her a pretty tumultuous and unhappy woman underneath. And going off to war means that you can simply put everything in a box — sweep it away — and that's really in a sense a way of evading reality also."

A Historic City Coming To Ruins

Next is "Lost City," an article by Peter Chilson in Foreign Policy magazine. Chilson documents how the Islamist rebels who recently took over the city of Timbuktu, in the West African nation of Mali, have begun systematically tearing down many of its ancient tombs, mosques and monuments, just as the Taliban did in Afghanistan. The structures, sacred to Sufi Muslims, are seen as idolatrous by the rebels.

Brown says Chilson's piece highlights the destruction while also providing a beautiful picture of the city itself.

"At night, the desert sky was so bright and clear it seemed to rest right on the rooftops," Chilson writes of when he first saw Timbuktu. "During the day, the city and landscape blended into the blinding pale sky, as if Timbuktu itself were floating on a cloud."

"There's a dreamlike quality to this landscape," Brown says. "And [Chilson] writes also about how Timbuktu has always had a genius for being able to absorb its invaders. Century after century, since the 14th century, it has been invaded and it has had these uprisings, but it returns."

Brown and Chilson both wonder, though, how Timbuktu will survive this time.

"[The rebels] are killing the soul of Islam," says one of the people interviewed in Chilson's piece. Brown adds: "They're doing that by wiping out [Islam's] own history — its very notion of itself."

A Behind-The-Scenes Look At Obama's Foreign Policy

Finally, Brown recommends Kill or Capture by Daniel Klaidman, a book that looks at the war against extremism as fought by President Obama.

"This is a fascinating book because it really gets behind the headlines in terms of each of these drone attacks that one sees," Brown says. "Daniel Klaidman has really brilliantly gone behind what it's like to be part of this moral agony. [The book] lays bare the human dimension of the wrenching national-security decisions that have to be made."

The book in part looks at the promises that Obama made before coming into office, and how much his decisions have in fact differed from those of the previous administration.

"You see again and again with the presidency how actually being in the office so changes the man who takes office," Brown says. Obama, the article suggests, has had to fight to maintain some principles.

"America still faces these enormous threats from al-Qaida, as you see in places like Yemen and Somalia, and [Obama is] always looking for a way to confront these threats without sending boots onto the ground.

"He keeps saying to this team, 'I want to stay al-Qaida focused.' He doesn't want mission creep; he doesn't want to find himself getting caught up in more wars of distraction."

In the book, Klaidman — a correspondent at Brown's Newsweek and The Daily Beast — tells of some particularly dramatic decisions that the commander in chief has been forced to make.

"Obama is having dinner at a black-tie event, and you'll see members of his team come in and take him out," Brown says. "He has to make a decision then and there, on the spot. There is no deflecting it; it's yes or no, live or die."

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Transcript

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

And I'm Steve Inskeep.

Tina Brown is with us on this summer morning. She joins us from time to time with reading recommendations. We call the series Word of Mouth.

Tina, hi.

TINA BROWN: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: And you have sent us articles, two articles and a book, that relate to the changing nature of war, beginning with a casualty of war. Marie Colvin, a war correspondent.

BROWN: Yes. This is a wonderful profile of the late Marie Colvin, by Marie Brenner in Vanity Fair this month. A really fascinating picture of an unusual hero who died from Syrian shells in the Syrian town of Homs just recently. And she was a war correspondent of the - completely, sort of, the old school. She was like the Martha Gellhorn of our time.

She wanted to be there on the ground, in the middle of danger, writing her dispatches. She was a crazy, danger-loving girl who really couldn't resist, in a sense, the adrenaline of the front. And really did have PTSD. I mean, that was really one of the great sort of untold stories of the time, that she just could not stop going back, even when it was quite clear that she'd had really enough shell-shock to get out of the game.

INSKEEP: What do you think drove that?

BROWN: Well, you know, sometimes I think that some of these danger-obsessed people, in a way, are almost sort of fleeing the sort of messy lives of their own. I mean, Colvin certainly had a strong humanitarian instinct. I mean, she wanted to tell the stories of the people that nobody wanted to write about or cared about.

But she also, I think, you know, she had several marriages. She was constantly in love with the wrong guys. She had a drinking problem. You know, she couldn't have kids. All of these things, I think, made her a pretty tumultuous and unhappy woman underneath. And going off to war means that you can simply put everything in a box, sweep it away, and that's really, in a sense, a way of evading reality also.

INSKEEP: You've also sent us, Tina Brown, an article called "Lost City," from Foreign Policy. And the title of that article, "Lost City," by Peter Chilson refers to the city of Timbuktu in West Africa.

BROWN: Yeah, I mean, I don't know about you, Steve, but I've always had a great romance about, you know, Timbuktu. I mean, it's the kind of place we all sort of think, well, wouldn't it be amazing just to sort of disappear and go to Timbuktu. Well, you know, he actually has been to Timbuktu.

And, of course, Timbuktu is right in the middle of one of these new hellish Islamist uprisings. And a rebel group have hijacked the Tuareg rebellion in northern Mali and taken its most important population centers, including Timbuktu, in a bid to impose Sharia law on all of Mali. And the fighters have begun methodically destroying all the ancient tombs and mosques in Timbuktu, and are smashing the great monuments, just as they did, of course, in Afghanistan.

INSKEEP: But one of the nice things about this article, though, is that you also get a picture of what Timbuktu is. It's always just been a name to me, but you get a picture of what it looks like, the incredible heat, the kind of earth-based architecture that actually is not all that impressive and the stark beauty of the desert around it.

BROWN: Yeah, it's a beautiful piece of writing, actually. He says, I found the city and desert beyond to be one of the most beautiful and haunting landscapes I've ever seen. At night, the desert sky was so bright and clear it seemed to rest right on the rooftops. During the day, the city and landscape blended into the blinding pale sky, as if Timbuktu itself were floating on a cloud.

There's a kind of dreamlike quality to this landscape. And he writes, also, about how Timbuktu has always had a genius for being able to absorb its invaders. Century after century, since the 14th century, it has been invaded and it has had these uprisings, but it returns.

INSKEEP: So the city has absorbed invaders in the past, but this time the invaders are actually defacing or destroying some of the historic architecture. They're ripping down the city in a sense.

BROWN: Yeah, he says, you know, no one and no force of nature, not even the Sahara, has been able to wipe Timbuktu off the map. But, you know, another of the people he interviews says the spirit of Islam goes back to the 10th century in this region. They're killing the soul of Islam. And, of course, they're doing that by wiping out its own history, its very notion of itself.

INSKEEP: And you have also sent us a book here that gets at the war against extremism. It's a look at President Obama and his advisors. It's called "Kill or Capture." And the author is Daniel Klaidman.

BROWN: Yeah, this is a fascinating book, because it really gets behind the headlines, in terms of each of these drone attacks that one sees. And, you know, you see the kill list, as it's called, the president's kill list, where, you know, the president himself approves the hits that the drones make each time. And it's a chilling idea.

Daniel Klaidman has really sort of brilliantly gone behind what it's like to be part of this kind of moral agony, in a way, because, you know, he lays bare the human dimension of the wrenching national-security decisions that have to be made.

INSKEEP: This book also revisits a quote by George W. Bush who spoke of wanting Osama bin Laden dead or alive. And, according to the officials quoted in this book, actually it just should've been dead. That's the only option - dead - for a terrorist in their view.

BROWN: Well, yes. I mean, Obama was elected in part on a promise to wind down the wars of 9/11, and yet, you know, as he comes into the presidency you see again and again with the presidency, how actually being in the office so changes the man who takes office, because America still faces these enormous threats from al-Qaida, as you see in places like Yemen and Somalia. And he's always looking for a way to confront these threats without sending boots into the ground.

And he keeps saying to his team: I want to stay al-Qaida-focused. He doesn't want mission creep. He doesn't want to find himself getting caught up in more, sort of, wars of distraction.

INSKEEP: When Klaidman describes people inside the White House or near the White House, anxious or anguished about what they're doing, is it in the end the president who pushes them forward?

BROWN: Well, it is a decision between him and his close team. But in the end, it is his decision whether it happens or not. So, in the end, he has the final say.

And in fact, you know, what's interesting is he talks - Klaidman - about very sort of dramatic figures where, you know, Obama is having dinner in a black-tie event. And you'll see his members of his team come in, take him out, he has to make a decision then and there, on the spot. There is no deflecting of it. It's yes or no, you know, live or die.

INSKEEP: I assume editing Newsweek is about the same way, right?

(LAUGHTER)

BROWN: I hope I'm as decisive.

INSKEEP: Word of mouth from Tina Brown, thanks very much.

(LAUGHTER)

BROWN: Thank you.

INSKEEP: She's the editor of Newsweek and The Daily Beast. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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