As the Iraq War got underway, Nicholas Kulish experienced it first-hand as an embedded reporter for The Wall Street Journal. But his novel, Last One In, takes a less journalistic approach and instead tells the story of a gossip columnist turned embedded war correspondent on the front lines in Iraq.
[MUSIC UP AND UNDER] BROOKE GLADSTONE: We'll end this show of books on a work of fiction. In recent years, we've seen many fine nonfiction accounts and analyses of the war in Iraq, and many reporters have put their experiences between hard covers to give us a personal sense of the process, the anecdotes and the accidents of fate that can save or change a life.
But, as I said, we'll end this hour on a novel about the war, called Last One In, written by Nick Kulish, who in 2003 was embedded with a Marine attack helicopter squadron for The Wall Street Journal. The plot revolves around gossip columnist Jimmy Stephens at the fictional New York Daily Herald who, through a series of unfortunate events, finds himself on the front line. Publishers Weekly says the book offers "a steady flow of Yossarian-flavored absurdity," and, in fact, I did catch a taste of Catch-22 in Last One In.
This week we found Nick Kulish in Berlin, where he is The New York Times bureau chief. He says the military clearances and all the red tape involved in getting an embed spot for a reporter in Iraq gave him the set-up for his story. NICHOLAS KULISH: When I was getting ready to go to Iraq, I remember my bureau chief asking me, are you sure, because there are no substitutions — once we put your name down, we can't send somebody else in your place. What would happen, you know, if our best correspondent were to break his leg tomorrow? We'd just lose our embed spot? And so, the great war correspondent - BROOKE GLADSTONE: [LAUGHS] NICHOLAS KULISH: - for The New York Daily Herald is James E. Stephens - serious personage, big, white bushy beard, if you can picture - BROOKE GLADSTONE: Veteran of Mogadishu. NICHOLAS KULISH: Exactly, veteran of the Mog [LAUGHS] and every other, you know, hot spot that you've ever had. And you meet these guys, it's just a lot of the inspiration for this. And Jimmy Stephens is the young, slick gossip columnist who knows a lot more about bribing doormen than he does about M-16s [BROOKE LAUGHS] and helicopters. BROOKE GLADSTONE: But what happens is the great James E. Stephens is hit by a delivery truck [LAUGHS] and so the editor decides to send Jimmy Stephens, the disgraced gossip columnist, in the war reporter's place. NICHOLAS KULISH: Exactly. He needs what you'd call a warm body on the front lines. And I think that that gets a little bit at some of the monomania that arises in these situations. We need someone with the Marines — I don't care who it is. Send the gossip boy. Send the sports guy. Just get us somebody in Basra. BROOKE GLADSTONE: But you also managed to choose as clueless a journalist as you could possibly find. Had you done much war reporting before you were embedded with that Marine attack helicopter unit? NICHOLAS KULISH: No, I had done none, and I think that that [LAUGHS] made it easier for me to [LAUGHS] relate to Jimmy Stephens' [LAUGHS] experience. He's sort of a grotesque, over-the-top version of a lot of people who were there, who were doing this war-for-beginners version of things. I come from a military family. My father was in the Army for, you know, a full 20 years, and I grew up going to the post exchange for our groceries and things like that. So I was not ignorant of the slang or of the weaponry or things like that. But at the same time, there is this feeling when you're embedded, you're with a group of people who have trained together and probably fought together and who have all these sort of bonds, and you're just kind of the odd man out looking in. BROOKE GLADSTONE: But you also had a kind of a wordsmith's disdain for useless obfuscation. Instead of calling somebody a prisoner of war, they were called an EPW - NICHOLAS KULISH: [LAUGHS] Right. BROOKE GLADSTONE: - an enemy prisoner of war. NICHOLAS KULISH: I could not get over that one. It was like those acronyms are meant to scare, confuse and keep us away. BROOKE GLADSTONE: [LAUGHS] NICHOLAS KULISH: And so if the culture at large picks one up, then they go back to the drawing board and try to make one that's even harder to figure out. BROOKE GLADSTONE: You know, the funniest moment in the book is in some ways [LAUGHS] also the saddest. It's when Jimmy tries to call his editor in New York to beg him to bring him home. But instead of being transferred to his editor, his phone call is put live on CNN. NICHOLAS KULISH: Yes. BROOKE GLADSTONE: And so he's just — he's basically wetting his pants on CNN. He says you have to bring me home. And the truly obnoxious host chuckles, I don't think we can bring you home, Jimmy, but we are bringing you into the homes of millions of Americans. [LAUGHS] NICHOLAS KULISH: [LAUGHS] You know, they give you these lists of phone numbers. And they're, like, this is NBC. You can call into them, or you could do BBC or CNN. But I started thinking about what could happen, because I was doing a call-in and I was standing sort of beside a sand dune, and suddenly my shadow started flexing with really impressive biceps that I've never had. BROOKE GLADSTONE: [LAUGHS] NICHOLAS KULISH: And suddenly the interview just sort of stopped cold because I was staring at my gesticulating shadow - BROOKE GLADSTONE: [LAUGHS] NICHOLAS KULISH: - until I realized that there was a Marine - just a young Marine, nobody I knew - just kind of fooling around, who could tell that I was having a serious conversation. And I suddenly realized that this was sort of open-ended, that it's not the correspondent sitting in a booth, like you're out there and things are happening while you're talking to the country. BROOKE GLADSTONE: You picked two topics about which there is so much national ambivalence - the war and the media. NICHOLAS KULISH: Mm-hmm. [AFFIRMATIVE] BROOKE GLADSTONE: And you put together people who generally are complicated. They're neither heroes nor villains. Was the point to bring it down to some sort of human level? NICHOLAS KULISH: I think it became that. I mean, on the one hand, this idea that Americans seem to know so much more about our celebrities than places where our brothers and kids are fighting, and so to take not just a reporter but a gossip columnist was something that really interested me. In a way it's like taking America's obsession and pushing it into America's area of responsibility. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Had you written fiction before? NICHOLAS KULISH: I had. I've written a lot of fiction. I have been trying to craft novels actually as far as back as eighth grade. BROOKE GLADSTONE: You did decide to translate this experience into fiction. Did you go there with the thought you might? NICHOLAS KULISH: You know, after the media boot camp, where they trained us all to be good observers for the military, depending on who that is, I started playing with the idea. There was just something about the fake, the fake war that they were putting the reporters through in big groups, doing the crawl on our bellies with fake green gas all around us — I just thought, this is sort of ridiculous, and everyone else seemed to be taking it so seriously. And I take it seriously as well, but the idea of sort of looking at, you know, what is grotesque about this, what is ironic or what is strange, as opposed to just kind of everybody trying to heroize themselves? BROOKE GLADSTONE: Nick, thanks very much. NICHOLAS KULISH: Thanks. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Nick Kulish is the author of Last One In and also The New York Times Berlin bureau chief. [MUSIC UP AND UNDER] BOB GARFIELD: That's it for this week's show. On the Media was produced by Megan Ryan, Jamie York, Mike Vuolo, Mark Phillips and Nazanin Rafsanjani, and edited - by Brooke. We had technical direction from Jennifer Munson. Paul Schneider is our engineer. We also had help from Jessica Magaldi and Ian Whitehead. Our webmaster is Amy Pearl. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Katya Rogers is our senior producer and John Keefe our executive producer. Bassist/composer Ben Allison wrote our theme. This is On the Media from WNYC. I'm Brooke Gladstone. BOB GARFIELD: And I'm Bob Garfield. (FUNDING CREDITS) *****