A new season of War Stories begins Sunday, July 20th at 8pm ET. We sat down with Oliver North to talk about his recent experiences in Iraq and the new episodes of his popular series.
You've served in other military conflicts as a soldier. What was it like to be part of a war as a member of the media?
Oliver North: There are some things that never change: The dust, the long sleepless days and nights, the stark reality of war's horror. As a Marine officer in combat, I was responsible for the lives and safety of all the marines who served with me. This time I was responsible only for myself and my very brave producer Griff Jenkins.
In uniform I had to make judgments about the best course of action in combat when the only choices were "bad" or "worse." as a member of the media I only had to decide how to get the best "shot" — preferably without getting shot.
In the end, my prior military experience was a considerable advantage. I knew the "lingo," could "speak their language," and the soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines we covered all knew me, knew without question that I would give them a fair shake at letting them tell their story.
I don't pretend to be a trained journalist. I do write a weekly newspaper column and a book now and then. Over the past two years I've learned a good bit about television here at FOX News Channel, but I didn't study journalism at Annapolis. So I decided right from the start to simply let these youngsters tell their own story. I made it a practice to try and put one of them on each live or taped broadcast. I went out of my way to interview and put on the air the young troopers who were doing the fighting rather than the senior officers and generals who were running the war. I think that made a big difference. That's the way Ernie Pyle covered World War II, and I figured if it worked for him it would work for me. It did.
A lot of people have said nice things about my reports during the war, and I'm grateful. I think the real reason it "worked" is because what they saw wasn't about me — it was about the brave young Americans we have serving in harm's way.
I like to tell people that I have the best job in the media. All I do is hang around with heroes. I do that every week for my War Stories show, and when FOX wants, I go off and cover the young Americans we send to places like Afghanistan or Iraq. Sure beats covering car chases in Los Angeles.
It seemed like you were "serving" for a very long time! How did you manage the physical strain of the job?
North: I wasn't keeping score as to who was there the longest, but I'm pretty sure I was the oldest. While I try to keep myself in pretty good shape, I still lost 18 lbs. When I returned, one of my daughters, a nurse, told me, "If you were really in the kind of shape you said you were in dad, you wouldn't have lost so much weight.” The fact is even the young guys will lose a good bit of weight over there.
At one point I had my camera on while I ran to cover a minor firefight that had broken out about 150 yards from where I had been standing. All you can hear in the microphone is a few shots being fired and my heavy breathing! When I caught up to the staff sergeant who was leading the attack he turned to me and said, "Hey colonel, you all right?"
"Sure," I huffed in response, "why?"
"Cause you're sweating like a hog!" he replied with a smile. And I was. But then again, he was 25 and I'm pushing 60.
What's the most memorable moment of your tour as an embed?
North: The most surprising thing about this war was how fast it went. No military force in history has ever gone so far, so fast, with so few casualties. Except for one 3-day period when we were blanketed by a dust storm of biblical proportions, we moved almost non-stop, day and night, from the start of the war on the twentieth of March all the way to the end.
There were some very memorable events: the first casualties of the war occurred just a few yards from us as a [helicopter] went down in a terrible fireball, killing all aboard. There were the night attacks across the Euphrates and the Tigris; the capture of the Salman Pak terrorist training facility; the presidential palace in Baghdad (where the [helicopters] we were riding got shot at on every mission and hit more times than I care to count). I won't forget the day we got shot down in a UH1N north of Baghdad — or the guys who rescued us.
Most memorable of course are the people. The list is too long to name them, but I will never forget them. They are the smartest, fittest, best trained and best equipped young soldiers, sailors, airmen, guardsmen and Marines our country has ever had. We're blessed to have young Americans who are willing to go when our country calls them. I'm blessed to be able to have gone with them.
What do you think the American public needs to know about war with Iraq?
North: That it isn't over. We have a long way to go. There are three distinct groups shooting at our troops in Iraq:
1. The criminals Saddam released just before the war started — the only way to deal with them is to reconstitute an Iraqi police force, have Iraqi cops arrest these crooks and put 'em back in jail.
2. The Baathists who miss the perks of power — these thugs know Saddam isn't going to make a "comeback," but they think if they can drive us out, they can reclaim some of their prior status. They are now paying unemployed soldiers to shoot at our troops. An Iraqi national guard needs to be recruited and trained to deal with this problem ASAP. The unemployed soldiers who don't get recruited for the new National Guard need to be put to work cleaning up the mess Saddam made of their country.
3. The "Jihadists" — these are the radical Islamic terrorists mostly from outside of Iraq who are being fomented to blow themselves up trying to kill Americans. These are real terrorists, and they can only be dealt with one way — they have to be killed before they can kill themselves killing an American. We have the kind of units that are very good at doing just that. We need better intelligence. It may mean doing some very tough things in neighboring countries. But in the end, the best way to prevent terror attacks is to kill the terrorists. Sounds harsh. It is. But it beats being killed by a car bomb.
The good news is that these three groups are not coordinating their efforts against us. If we deal with them quickly as indicated above, a functioning democracy and a healthy economy will follow quickly.
Is there a theme to the shows for this season of War Stories?
North:The same as always: we let the heroes tell their own stories. That's what makes this whole series so great. We go out and get real footage and then put those who fought the battles in front of a TV camera and have them bring these events to life. It's the ultimate "reality TV!"
Each episode of "War Stories" is about a particular battle, place, event or person. Everyone involved tries hard to bring out facts that may not be known that well. Most importantly, we've been able to document these facts with those who were there. Some of who blessed us with their last recorded interviews before they died.
We don't just document history — we let those who made history document it for us.
What have you learned from the subjects you've profiled this season?
North: There is no lack of heroism for those who fight. While I am absolutely in awe of what our soldiers, sailors, airmen, guardsmen and Marines do in combat, Americans don't have a monopoly on courage. This season we'll bring our viewers allies who fought bravely in every theater. We've got the heroes of the U.S. Merchant Marine, who suffered greater losses in WW II than any of the armed forces. We have an exclusive interview with the last German spy sent to America in a U- boat during WW II. We have the FBI agents and OSS officers who fought the war in the shadows often with no recognition whatsoever. We have a profile on Douglas MacArthur, which will surprise a lot of people who think they know all about him.
Because we're losing so many of those who fought in World War II, we wanted to document as much of that war as possible before we lose our eyewitnesses. And even though i grew up in the home of a WW II vet, and have studied the war in detail, I learn something new in the interviews I conduct for every episode.
How long does it take to put together a new season of War Stories?
North: We started working on this season's 10 new episodes last November. We'll finish up in September. Of course we got a little behind in our work while I was off running around Iraq. Generally speaking it takes about a month per episode.
Do you have a favorite program this season?
North: This is our third season and that's really a tough call. The “Fighter Aces” show we're leading with has some heart-stopping moments in it and guys who really do have "the right stuff."
Our episode on how the Merchant Marine ran the gauntlet of German U- boats, raiders and Japanese attacks will make some people wonder how we managed to win WW II.
The MacArthur biography, thanks to the folks at West Point, the MacArthur Memorial Library and Archives and those who served with him, is a real eye opener.
Anyone who watches our “Untold Story of the Eastern Front” will give everyone a whole new perspective on how tough things can get in combat.
Thanks to some great research, production and eyewitness accounts, the harrowing battles for Guam, Saipan and Tinian in the Mariana Islands will seem like yesterday.
When you see "Agent 146: Spying for the Third Reich" you will understand why even the prosecutors who tried Erich Gimpel, a German spy, wanted to spare his life. He was sentenced to death. We found him alive.
Lots of people saw the "Black Sheep Squadron" TV show years ago, but almost nobody knows the true story of this legendary Marine fighting squadron. We've got it.
The U.S. army's "Big Red One" has a lineage that spans America's history. The way our "War Stories" team put this episode together will make everyone who knows a soldier proud.
Because this is the 50th anniversary of the end of the Korean War we wanted to get the heroic stand at the Pusan perimeter right. And we did.
If World War II had a "forgotten battle" it was in the Pacific at Peleliu. Yet, after you see the way we covered the bloody battle for this 8 square mile piece of coral jutting out of the South Pacific, you'll always remember.
It's quite a season — I can't pick a favorite. And I'm pretty sure that after our fans see these episodes they'll agree that these are all war stories that deserve to be told.