Michael Gordon is co-author of the new book Cobra II: The Inside Story of the Invasion and Occupation of Iraq. Gordon is the chief military correspondent for the New York Times, where he has worked since 1985. He and co-author Bernard Trainor also combined to write The Generals’ War about the planning of the first Gulf War, which was published in 1995. In addition to covering the Iraq war, Gordon has reported from Afghanistan, the Kosovo conflict, Chechnya and the American invasion of Panama.
Paul McLeary: In your new book you and retired lieutenant general Bernard Trainor explore, in minute detail, the run-up to the invasion of Iraq and the fighting that took place in March and April 2003. You rely heavily on military oral histories, interviews with military officials, classified reports and information gleaned from senior Iraq officials from the Saddam Hussein regime. Was it difficult gaining access to this material?
Michael Gordon: Well, general Trainor and I did this for three years, so this is something we worked on for a sustained period. I was in Iraq for four or five months and met a lot of people during that time, both in Kuwait and Iraq, since I began the embedding process before the war and essentially stayed in Iraq through the summer of ‘03. So I invested a lot of time in making contacts and meeting people in all different sorts of units.
PM: Was general Trainor in Iraq, as well?
MG: No — but we had done a Gulf War book together, The Generals’ War, so we had had a previous collaborative relationship and he was a retired Marine lieutenant general so he has his own contacts. Some of the documents obviously had to be obtained from sources and contacts, but a lot of the oral histories are actually available in military archives. The problem there is not getting access to them, but it’s digesting all the information. [The military] hasn’t transcribed any of this stuff, so you have to listen to it, or have your research assistants transcribe it, and I did a lot of that with my team, so I invested a lot in it.
PM: As you said, this is the second book you’ve written with Bernard Trainor, the first being The Generals’ War in 1995, which essentially did for the first Gulf War what Cobra II does for the 2003 invasion. How do you go about splitting the reporting and information collection duties for putting together such an intricately reported work?
MG: It’s important when you write a book that it has a single voice, so the way we worked that was that I was the voice, so I wrote everything, or I took everything general Trainor wrote and kind of put it though my Cuisinart. Sometimes when two authors work together, the book appears disjointed. We avoided that by having one scribe. But you know, in the age of email where you can pass things back and forth, which we did very often, he would write in his comments and thoughts, and he did his interviews and wrote sections and emailed it back to me — it’s not as hard to do as it once may have been.
PM: You mentioned that you were embedded. What was your impression of the embedding process, as compared to the restrictions placed on reporters during the first Gulf War? Do you think embedding is a good idea?
MG: I was embedded with the Land War Command. I was the only newspaper reporter there, so that gave me a very unique vantage point in terms of seeing how decisions were made and an understanding of the interaction with Washington. It was because I had written a book previously and had covered that first war that I chose the Land War Command as a place to be embedded, because I thought I’d get more a strategic overview as to how this was all done.
The embedding process, in my judgment, worked well, and is essential. If you cover the White House, you have to go to the White House and talk to officials, if you cover Congress you have to go to the Congress and interview the lawmakers, so if you cover the military, it’s important to be with the military and see how they perform their operations. I don’t really see any way around it. It worked much better than in the Gulf War, where they had a pool system that was essentially dysfunctional and did not work well.