Q&A interview with John Burns, London Bureau Chief, The New York Times
BRIAN LAMB, CEO, C-SPAN: John Burns with the New York Times. The last time we chatted, I asked you about a book, whether you were going to write your memoirs, you said ”probably shouldn’t, people say I should.” OK and Have you thought about it.
JOHN BURNS, REPORTER, NEW YORK TIMES: I thought about it. There are a few agents in New York who could tell you that I am remiss. I’ve talked to them about doing a book. I came back from Iraq after quite a few years at the wars, Iraq and Afghanistan, to London a couple of years ago.
I really didn’t relish the idea of the solitude of writing a book. You know I would have told you when I was in Iraq and Afghanistan that I was relishing the assignment. I was. I loved every minute of it. I hated leaving.
What I hadn’t anticipated is the difficult readjustment. Partly it’s coming off of very big story, partly it’s the loss of the camaraderie, exhilaration, but partly I think too it has to do with the fact that you’ve been in a place which is beyond in some respects the consciousness of imaginings of people, notwithstanding television and everything else.
And I think probably, I’m talking now about the feelings as receded, and as receded as I have to come to exhilarated by this assignment here, which has turned out to be somewhat against the odds. One of the more important assignments the New York Times has.
We generate an enormous amount of news from London. I think it’s probably normal when you come back from an extraordinary experience like that to want a period of reflection and that’s what I had when I came back from that. And hardly a day goes by without an agent or publisher coming to me and saying write a book.
And I’m going to have to do it. I’m going to have to do it. One of our editors said to me once, one of the editors at the Times, you will never really be taken seriously as a writer unless you do a book. I mean a book of not of the kind I’ve contributed to and been coauthors of, but a book about your own experiences.
I think I do have a story to tell. And I think I have to tell it. I think if I want to be able to continue to belong to a good golf club in my retirement when it comes, I’m going to have to.
LAMB: Where would you start?
BURNS: Where would I start? Well, I think I already know the subtitle of the book which would be something that the Iraqi information list under Saddam.
Muhammad Saeed al-Sahhaf known in the United States as Baghdad Bob, known here in England as Comical Ali, separate him from chemical Ali. He was rather comical fellow with sort of coke bottle specs.
He said something to me which I think would be the title or subtitle of my book. When American troops arrived at the heart of Baghdad on as I recall the 7th of April of 2003, and we were we saw Baghdad Bob and Comical Ali at a news conference on the mezzanine roof of the Palestine Hotel, which gave us a view to Saddam’s palace, pretty much like the view we have here across to the palace of Westminster.
And he is standing with his back to the palace which was 800 or 1,000 yards behind him across the river. He told us that the American army had been defeated at the gates of Baghdad and was in retreat and tens of thousands of American soldiers had been killed.
At this very moment over his shoulder there were troops of the 3rd Infantry Division of the United States Army who were bootless, dangling their feet off a pier in what became known as the Green Zone, on the grounds of the Republican Palace, cooling their feet.
And I said to him, ”Mr. Minister, I think if you look over your shoulder, you would see that the United States Army is far from being defeated at the gates of Baghdad has actually captured the heart of Saddam Hussein’s power.”
And unblinking and certainly without any kind of glance over his shoulder, he looked at me and said, Mr. Fischer, they always use my middle name they had to in the Middle East Mr. Fischer, he said, ”I’m here to tell you, you are too far from reality.”
I think my book would be about living beyond, for a very long time, beyond the bounds of Western experience, the common Western experience. Trying to run the mile. Soviet Union (at the depths of the) cold war, North Korea, Afghanistan, Iraq. The extraordinary people that you meet, the extraordinary evil that you encounter but also the inspiriting goodness in the human soul which is rather the larger theme for me. I’m not particularly religious. I hope I’m not particularly self righteous. But that would be a very major theme for me how in the midst of darkness there is always light.
LAMB: Just so those have never heard us talk before, what years in China?
BURNS: The first years working for a Canadian newspaper, The Globe and Mail, from 1971 to 1975 which was more or less five years with Mao Zedong’s life and also the mid to late part of what was known as the Cultural Revolution, the Great Chaos which Mao occasioned by trying to turn the Chinese society in fact upside down.
Then I went back to China when they began to open to the world in the 1980s. An assignment which ended with my imprisonment for spying, which I hasten to say, which I was not guilty and which the Chinese ultimately themselves after a little bit of pru-fa-rar acknowledged two or three years later.
The Soviet Union between those two. I’m inclined to say during the time of Leonid Brezhnev. I felt that I had gotten kind of season tickets to funerals in those days when we had three Soviet leaders in my time there.
Apartheid of South Africa, also at the depths of apartheid. I was extraordinary lucky in my assignments. Almost as I didn’t set out having to be a foreign correspondent and I certainly didn’t set out to have these assignments.
I just felt like I had a kind of an angel on my shoulder that carried me to these places at times of particular interest. And there was somebody else who was prepared to pay me for it. You know you’ve often heard it said, for me it’s actually true, if I were a wealthy man, which I’m not, I would have done with my professional life exactly what I have done.
LAMB: When we were talking in 2007 you were between Iraq, you actually were going to go back for a few days and then you were going here to London to be the Bureau Chief for The New York Times.
Three years have passed. How does Iraq look to you from here?
BURNS: I have to say I’m apprehensive. I have a particular personal reason for apprehension which is my wife continues to work in Baghdad and now Kabul. I have of course a professional and wider personal interest in what becomes of Iraq but I’ve always felt and I think the recent indications strongly support this, that as the American military presence diminishes and its now at or below 50,000 and set to go to either zero or some negotiated number much lower than 50,000 within the next 13 months.
That we would see a resurgence of violence and possibly even a renaissance of civil war there because none of the fundamental problems have been solved. The problems that have occasioned all the troubles that have enveloped the United States and its allies in Iraq and the Iraqi people, since 2003, all those problems remain.
There has been no fundamental political reconciliation in Iraq and I’ve felt for a very long time, from the time when I was there and since, that the keeper of the peace to the extent that it has been peace and this certainly been a lot of more quiescent in the last two or three years than it was for most of my time there, has been the United States which for reasons that are not far to seek is coming home.
I think that’s irreversible. But I don’t think that what the United States will leave behind in Iraq is likely to prove stable. And I think we have to open our minds to the possibility that much of it will be washed away.
That there could be an onset of something like a civil war, perhaps not immediately. It might take a year or two or three. And that the if I had to put my money on a likely outcome, it would be that peace in Iraq and it might be a very harsh peace is likely ultimately to be imposed once again by autocracy. We just have to hope that if that does happen the new ruler the new dictator will be a lot more benign than was Saddam Hussein.
LAMB: Counted up this morning this time this airs it won’t be quite the same number but in 2000 in Iraq Americans lost 961 to death, in ’08 322, in ’09 150, and 57 in 2010, killed one way or the other either in action or in Afghanistan. In 2007 we lost 232, in ’08 295, in ’09 521, in 2010 649 just been a reversal but the United Kingdom which lost 179 in Iraq for the whole time we’ve been there has 1393 no I’m sorry 344 in Afghanistan and we’ve lost 1,393 for the whole time. So there the British it’s disproportional to what it was in Iraq and in Afghanistan.
BURNS: Yes, it’s not much noted that outside these precincts especially at the House of Commons on 10 Downing Street, which is just over my shoulder here it’s not a much noticed fact that the proportionally the proportion of the population, the proportional to the size of the armed forces, proportional to the size of the deployment 10,000 British troops in Iraq compared to now somewhere over 100,000 Americans. Britain has taken heavier casualties than has the United States this is not to diminish you just gave a figure which I must say I find surprising over 600 and 649 American killed.
LAMB: Six hundred and forty-nine so far in 2010.
BURNS: 2010 well we think about it that’s getting close to the number of Americans who dies in Iraq in the first year in Iraq. I mean this is a pretty discouraging trajectory; I need to say because much of my family lives in Canada and I did start my journalistic career in Canada. That every time I speak about or write about the high incidents of British casualties proportionately in Afghanistan I get quite a few e-mails from Canada from people saying why do you never mention Canada in this.
Canada has lost Canadian will forgive me but it’s between 150 and 200 soldiers killed in Afghanistan which proportional to their deployments, which I think I’m right in saying have never, exceeded 3,000 troops over the last several years. Make them I think by quite a distance proportionally than the nation that has paid the highest price and they have said they’re coming out. Their troops will end their combat mission at the end of 2011.
I think Canada deserves recognition for this because Canada had developed a reputation for certainly being a major contributor to United Nations peacekeeping efforts but had not had its troops in combat many I think I’m right in saying in any serious conflicts since Korea.
LAMB: Speaking of the military you once referenced or I saw it referenced that when your father was in the
BURNS: Royal Air Force.
LAMB: He was born in South Africa.
BURNS: He was yes.
LAMB: Did he once command 60,000?
BURNS: Well he used to say when he retired he was referring to the time the Royal Air Force in Germany he said I went from running an Air Force of 60,000 men to running a lawnmower. And he of course, retired as military people do in his mid 50s. And I better understand now that I am well past that age what a tremendous difficult transition it must be for people to make. I’ve been very fortunate in being able to carry on I mean I’ve past my 50th birthday when gosh, 10 years before I was assigned to the war in Iraq.
And I felt tremendously I must say lucky to have been able to carry on a career in our business well past a point at which many people in public service certainly retire. I noted with some satisfaction when I was in Iraq that the United States Congress increased the retirement age for American generals. I’ve forgotten what it is but senior general’s four stars something in the nature of 64 but it was a little bit of a jarring thing for me realize my time in Iraq that I was older than all of the successive American commanders there.
I think the oldest of them in my time there was General Casey who would have been the empathy of assignment forgive me General Casey but I think about 58 now the Chief Staff of the Army of course. General Petraeus is now I think about 57 or 58 and you know I’m sure you can well do without a lecture from me about an essay from me about this but it seems to me that you know if we set aside the kind of sort of things you commonly heard here say in the tabloid press you know today’s you know the 50s of 30 years ago 60s now who knows what the biologist or the medics would say about that.
But it seems to me that you know many people of my age would say you put the challenge to me and you see if I can perform as you want and I think that we see lots of evidence that people in their late 50s and 60s are perfectly capable of performing at just as high a level. They may not be as fleet of foot but you take like to think that you make up for that a little bit of what Poirot calls the little gray cells.
LAMB: The reason I mention your father is I wanted to know how many years did he spend in the service.
LAMB: What kind of impact did that have on you being in a military family as you began to be a reporter?
BURNS: Well I’m sure my harshest critics would say that of my as I see it attempt to see both the best and the worst of the Western particularly the American military performance in these wars that he would say that wouldn’t he because his father was a ultimate quite senior officer in the British armed forces.
LAMB: How high was his rank?
BURNS: Well he became a one star general at the height of the Cold War. It was that, that gave me my first encounter with Americans as it happens I was playing golf with them. One of the air bases he was responsible for in Germany had a golf course and on the fourteenth fairway and we passed this dome grassy dome surrounded by concentric rings of razor wire and defended attended by these to me curious looking characters in army camouflage and he said , ”you know who they are?”
And I didn’t know who they are and he says” Those are Americans” something for which he probably could have been court marshaled. He said to me that’s where we keep the nuclear weapons that we would carry to war in British aircraft if there was a war with the Soviet Union. Now at that time I’m not even sure that doesn’t still exists certainly does in Britain’s respective submarines, which carry trident ballistic missiles, which are American missiles with British warheads.
There was a so-called joint key-shared key operation where the weapons were American weapons released to Britain by the United States President at point of the eminence of war and the British Prime Minister then had his decision to make as well as deploy them. So that was my first sighting of Americans so I was 14 years old and for reasons I’ve pondered every since because my father’s been gone now for 20 years.
He said to me ”Those are the people that keep the peace in the world.” I’m thinking now from what I’ve learned about some of the conflicts in which he was engaged internal of conflicts that what he was the reason he said that was that in the aftermath of the Second World War and still vestigially at least to some extent there are a certain amount of unease in Britain and in the British military about what some people regarded as the usurpation of power in the world by the United States.
Britain went from being the imperial power of the late 19th early 20th century witnessed these grand buildings we can see around us here to being a power, which at the present Prime Minister David Cameron put it to me, he said ”we punch above our weight in the world Britain because our special relationship with the United States.”
So the relationship changed substantially and I think that the 1950’s were a period of some unease, it’s a little known fact that on D-Day Britain and it’s Commonwealth partners Australia and Canada principally in New Zealand landed as many. I think I’m right in saying troops on the beaches of Normandy as did United States, that’s was probably the last moment in which and the last moment in the Second World War at which there was that kind of equivalence.
Once George Patton and the Third Army got going we very quickly became a much smaller Britain became a much smaller component of it. So I’m thinking my father was referencing as a South African talking to native born Brit’s senior levels of the Armed Forces.
Recognized he felt a slight discomfort with the unease that some British officer’s had about American power. And to his dying day, he was terribly proud of an encounter that he had in Germany during military maneuvers with American forces.
It was apparently a bitter winter day on the plane in what was then East Germany, where many of America’s forces were concentrating near the folded gap. There were maneuvers, they lost their way he was in a jeep with an American driver, they came across some tanks out somewhere on this vast open plain.
The driver said ”I’ll see if they tell show us where the field headquarters is,” came running back to the vehicle and said to my father ”General sir, somebody would like to meet you.” So he got out of the jeep and walked over and this G.I. saluted him and said Sergeant or whatever he was Elvis Presley.
So he signed my father’s American military identification card, ”thank you general sir. Great,privilege to meet you or something.” And whenever my father had an opportunity to pull this out of his pocket in later years he would it was almost as if he was a fighter pilot on the Second World War he commanded.
An Air Force in Germany, the height of the Cold War but it was as if that one moment was more magical for him than anything else he had done. So I would confess out of all this that I came to America and I came to my encounters with the American military with a basically positive disposition.
I still do believe that what my father said that day on that golf course in Germany is correct. That in a turbulent world it is America more than any other power overwhelmingly that keeps the peace in the world.
LAMB: Born here. Moved when you were 18 to Canada?
BURNS: That’s correct.
LAMB: You mentioned earlier that your wife is still in Afghanistan and Iraq and when we talked in 2007 she was the manager of the bureau in Iraq and you were the bureau chief.
LAMB: How long is she going to be there?
BURNS: Well we’ll see, I mean I think she is in a position similar to me, she doesn’t go to war. She doesn’t embed but she is living in and working in very dangerous places and now that I have been back from those places for some time, I understand much better what it is for those hundreds of thousands of families American family, British families, who have their loved ones at war.
And you know you keep your fingers crossed; I think she’ll continue to do it because it’s very unusual. She was a as my wife accompanied me for 30 years or so to far flung assignments and she always had the job in effect not just the raising of our children.
But also helping to run the operations of the New York Times, it wasn’t called a job but it was that became formalized with these wars. She left for Pakistan later Afghanistan, within three weeks of 9/11, and she’s never really come back.
She comes back on leave and she too is now in her 60’s, and of course she’s she is to say she loves it how could anybody love war. She finds it exhilarating, like any woman of her age, she finds it very engaging to be needed, to be able to do something useful.
We’ve just had a very jarring experience in the New York Times that you may be aware of, we have deployed lots of people to these wars, we have been fortunate in one sense that we haven’t lost to this moment any of our expectriants , that’s to say our New York based reporters, photographers, or others.
We have lost an Afghan and we have lost two Iraqi’s, two or three weeks ago this changed for us when one of our photographers as it happens, one of our very best photographers, one of the great war photographers of our time, and additionally one of the nicest men you will ever meet.
A chap by the name of Joao Silva, stepped on a Taliban mine IED on an imbed with a United States military outside Kandahar, and he was grievously wounded, he is I’m glad to say he survived, he’s in Walter Reed Army hospital in Washington.
He has lost both of his legs, he is a remarkable character truly remarkable, and apparently the first conscious words he spoke at least to our photo editor were ”I’m good”, that’s Joao Silva for you.
Born in Portugal, raised in South Africa, we in experiencing this and tragic incident of this kind at very close hand. It’s interesting we’ve seen it a thousand times occurring to others, now it’s happened to us.
And it’s a very, very educative experience and I must say I think we’re all extremely happy that Joao has by the generosity of the United States military, been taken into Walter Reed where he will, is, and will be amongst many soldiers and others who have had similar experiences.
Almost without question I would think the greatest orthopedic rehabilitation center in the world, and he will have the comfort if one could call it that, of being with others who have been through the same thing.
And who fight their way as he certainly will back to health, I think we’re going to see Joao Silva fill that no braver man as I wrote in forward to one of his books. No braver man nor more popular ever carried a camera into battle.
And I’ll put my money on Joao Silva being back there carrying a camera into battle before anybody currently can imagine it.
LAMB: My memory was that you had about a 100 people involved in the Baghdad bureau in 2007, how big is it now?
BURNS: Well it hasn’t shrunk a great deal; I’m sure to the disappointment somewhat disappointment of the people who have to pay the bills because the war obviously for America is tapering down.
And I think that our ambition, our hope had been that we would be able to do the same thing, but there’s a kind of critical mass that you need if you’re going to operate effectively at all. Because you have to we have to provide our own security and recounts for 50 or 60 of those 100 people.
In addition to which and I think this is another kind of bravery on the part of the New York Times and the people who make the decisions, as you know foreign coverage by American newspapers and American television networks has shrunk considerably.
It was already shrinking before the recession, it has shrunk further, the New York Times has had financial battles to fight as have all newspapers in America. Because of the recession but also because of the rise of the Internet I think the we are going to prevail in this.
But it would have been an understandable if the people who make these decisions had decided that we could no longer afford to spend that kind of money in covering these wars, they didn’t.
They committed themselves to continuing to giving for the full spectrum coverage to these wars and we will America is not out of Iraq, this war as I mentioned earlier is I think, a long way from over.
Even if American troops are drawn down, there’s going to be a huge American interest there for sometime and attitudes have made it plain that we will continue to be there as long as there is an American interest there.
LAMB: Let’s go back over some of the places you work did you ever think when you were in China, back in the ’70’s and ’80’s that they would own a trillion dollars of the American debt?
BURNS: You know I hadn’t been back in China since the day that they put me into a paddy wagon from the Peking Central Prison in 1986. And you know drove me to the airport literally in shackles, deporting me for the alleged spying incident.
So I have watched with wonderment what has happened in China they’ve invited me back many times, it just hasn’t worked out. I’m not avoiding going back to China; I have some apprehension because it’s a bit glib for the people of China there’s no doubt that this extraordinary accretion of wealth and power over the last 30 years.
It’s not a surprise the Chinese people you would consider and Cultural Revolution have always have had an extraordinary natural capability and resilience. These were people who, given their chance, were always going to rebuild China to something like the greatness that it had when it went into decline in the late 1830, 19th Century.
But if there’s a sort of apprehension it’s because the first China -- the China I first saw 40 years ago was a China which, communism notwithstanding, it changed very, very little in the previous 150 years. I could get on a bicycle and cycle into traditional China in three minutes. That was an enchanting place, it was an enchanting kingdom; I loved it. I came to think during my second assignment in the 1980s when, as they say, the door was open to foreign investment.
The China that loved Mao Zedong was, for a foreigner living in China, a somewhat more agreeable place than a China that worshiped the Dallah. Of course there’s no argument, the Chinese people are vastly better off than they were witness the fact that they can now afford to buy $3 trillion of American debt. They’re changing the entire configuration of the world we live in and that’s very good for the people of China.
It’s, in many respects, good for us in some respect, I think, inhibiting when it’s going to present us with all manner of problems, our children’s generation certainly. But I’m speaking only about the experience as a visitor. You’ve probably been to China in those years, I haven’t been, but I think I’ll have a strong nostalgia for the China of my youth.
LAMB: What kind of a grade, now this kinda sounds silly, what grade would you give Mao Zedong as a leader?
BURNS: As a guerilla leader? Probably ten out of ten.
LAMB: Why did they adore him, if they did?
BURNS: Well, you know Mao Zedong wrote his own epitaph really. On the first of October, 1949 this was the moment when the communists took control of all of Mainland China from Chiang Kai-Shek nationalists and he ascended to the Gate of Heavenly Peace in Tiananmen Square and he said something like those words of Churchill spoken across from the river here in 1940 that will resonate forever in Chinese history.
He said after centuries of oppression and humiliation, I’m paraphrasing this part; the Chinese people have stood up. That had an enormously motivating power for the people of China and, of course, in their enthusiasm they, in effect, endowed or allowed to be invested in Mao Zedong absolute power and as always happens, that power was corrupted and corrupted terminally.
By some estimates 10 million people died during the Cultural Revolution. More than that died during the Great Leap Forward that occurred some ten years earlier than that. An awful lot of people in China died as a result of the dictatorship imposed by Mao Zedong. It will be history and history has measure, I would guess, probably a long time forward from now before a settled opinion could be reached about Mao Zedong and from all I see and from all I experienced in talking to Chinese people, now there’s now-a-days and I don’t just Chinese officials.
China is in a very conflicted stated in its views of Mao Zedong. They have looked pretty honestly and openly at the disasters that were brought upon the country by Mao but I think they’ve also recognized that 1949 marked a historic turning point of enormous importance. I find him fascinating enough figure that at my home, to this day, in my living room, I have a rather wonderful porcelain bust of Mao Zedong acquired doing Cultural Revolution underneath it on the little wooden stand, his little red book.
Remember how the millions of Chinese walked through the streets waving this little red book. The little red book is actually quite a valuable little document partly because it’s a kind of boiled down synopsized version of Chinese philosophy through the ages. Confucius, Sun Tzu the military strategist and some of the teachings in that little red book I have found very useful in getting out of or avoiding getting into trouble of various kinds.
One of them, his doctrine on guerilla warfare. I really actually -- I told my children about this when they were almost knee high to a grasshopper having to do with disputes at school. Doctrine number one, don’t engage the enemy unless victory is certain; number two; don’t engage the enemy unless victory is essential to your cause. Now if you apply those two provisos to many incidents in life where there’s a potential for conflict, it turns out that you can avoid about 80 percent of them.
First of all, because if you look realistically at it, in many such conflicts, potential conflicts with people who employ you, potential conflicts with difficult officials in faraway countries, it’s safe to assume that you’re not going to win. If you’re not going to win, don’t engage. Now some people would say that this is a formula for ducking problems. I think it’s a formula for at least a modest degree of success in life.
LAMB: You mentioned your kids. We talked about your son the last time. I figure he’s about 28 now?
LAMB: But you mentioned that he was born a pound?
BURNS: He was only 1.1 pound, yes.
LAMB: And Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston saved him?
BURNS: Yes, yes. Well, there are three of us in our family. He’s one, I’m another, my wife is a third, more than who are the beneficiaries of high technology American medicine. I don’t want to be melodramatic about it but I think all three of us would not be walking around now if it wasn’t for that.
LAMB: We talked about your lymphoma last time
and Sloan Kettering where you spend a year? Did you spend a year in the hospital?
BURNS: It took them a year to turn me around and push me back out on the street. The relevance of that now, if there’s any relevance at all, is that we’re talking here in a country which has the system is socialized medical care which is extremely expensive. The budget of the United Kingdom Government is about $700 billion pounds a year. That’s in the region of a trillion American dollars.
Of that $700 billion pounds, something like $105 billion is spent on the National Health Service and that figure has more or less tripled in the last 10 or 13 years. It’s become a huge financial burden. Mr. Cameron, who is in the process, the present Prime Minister, of radically reducing government expenditures ring fenced, as they say, the National Health Service budget.
LAMB: What’s that mean?
BURNS: It means that once he’s going to cut all other departments by an average of 20 percent, the health budget will not be cut.
LAMB: You call that grandfathering? Same thing?
BURNS: Grandfather; same thing.
LAMB: Ring fence, yeah.
BURNS: Why did he do that? He did that because in 1947,8, a labor government or a reformist labor government after the Second World War introduced a national health service in the face of fierce opposition from the conservative party and fierce opposition from the medical profession. It is now the jewel and the crown of this kingdom. No political party that came to be seen as likely to destroy or undermine the National Health Service could possibly survive.
That reflects the lived experiences of the National Health Service if you live in this country. There are many things wrong with it including long waiting lists, including occasional denial of lifesaving drugs, and so forth, on the basis of cost. But there are many things right with it. Principally what they call medical care free at the point of delivery. When you go to a clinic or a hospital here, nobody asks about your ability to pay.
You may get varying levels of treatment. Cancer hospital just over here, the Royal Marsden, one of the best in the world, excellent treatment. If you get cancer somewhere in this kingdom, in more remote places, your chances of survival are going to be proportionally reduced. That’s, of course, also true under the American system of medical care. So I’ve ended up, if you will, conflicted.
On the one hand, I and my son, born eight or was it 10 weeks premature, 12 weeks premature, and my wife have all been beneficiaries. The fact that we’re walking around today we owe to American high technology medicine. A medicine which, had we been in the UK, and I was at the start of my cancer experience I was here, we would have been unlikely to get. I said once to Joe Lelyveld who I’m sure know
LAMB: Former editor
BURNS: Former editor of the New York Times who was very helpful to my wife when I had cancer and helped us navigate through that difficult time in ways, which I shall be eternally grateful.
And I said to him at the end of the experience that I had sat at patient meetings at Sloan Kettering and seen a New York City police officer a guy as tough as you want, weeping at patient meetings over the bills that he was getting.
He mortgaged his house, second mortgaged his house, borrowed money from his brother-in-law he thought he was going to die, he did die and he was going to ruin his family in the process. Now I think that’s a rather dramatic version of what can happen I know now that there are many things in the American medical system and even before President Obama’s reforms that mitigate that I understand that.
But I said to Lelyveld I’m a little conflicted I come to America to this high technology system of medicine, which as saved my life and I see a New York City police officer weeping at patients meetings because of the cost and then in my native country, which couldn’t give me this kind of cancer care nobody is going to ruin his family as he descends to the end of life through cancer or any other chronic disease.
And Joe said and I’ve pondered every since this thought he said I don’t think you need to puzzle too hard over that he said the way I would see it is he said the United Kingdom has the kind of medical system I want from my country.
The United States has the kind of medical system I’d want for my family. And that’s more or less how I keep saying about this but coming back here after 40 years away, I’d have to say that if I were to list the things about this country that I find most admirable the National Health Service would be right at the top and the BBC would be not far behind it.
LAMB: As you know you’ve written about this, United States has 11 active aircraft carriers soon to have 12 this country has one, had two
BURNS: Has zero.
has two supposedly to be built explain all that because as America looks over here they see an eight percent cut in what is it four years that in the military
BURNS: Eight percent in four years now.
and that these aircraft carriers are going to go away.
BURNS: You know it really expresses very sharply the dilemma that Cameron government faced. They were by some measures the most indebted seriously indebted country in Europe.
There was a serious threat of a sovereign debt crisis in this country. They decided that something had to be done radically and fast about government expenditures and they decided to cut something in the nature of 80 billion pounds over four years from that 700 billion pound a year budget.
They ring fenced as you would say grandfathered the National Health Service United Kingdom Aid overseas interesting, which Mr. Cameron is a strong supporter of. But all the other departments have to take this hit including the defense department. Probably in some ways the most controversial of all of the cuts, they made not a 20 percent cut that the other departments have but an eight percent cut.
And in the course of that, they decided to scrap and scrap immediately Britain’s only aircraft carrier capable of carrying fast fix winged jets the Ark Royal, which has a name that resonates through history back to Henry the VIII there have been Ark Royal’s in the Royal Navy since then.
Twnety-five year old ship probably with another 25 years of life in it scrapped. All the aircraft that are flown from the decks of that carrier all Harrier Jump Jets scrapped immediately. Two aircraft carriers now a building in Scotland I believe, which costs about something in the nature of $8 billion $4 billion each. It’s much more than American aircraft carriers but still they looked scrapping these all together decided it would be more expensive to scrap them than to build them.
But then they went a step further, which I must say has people scratching their heads. They said we will build them but one of those two we will put into service for only three years before we will moth pull it and sell it. So they’re building an aircraft carrier $4 billion aircraft carrier right now knowing that it will only do three years service.
The other one will be put into operation Queen Elizabeth it will be called and it will get a new generation of Joint Strike Fighters a joint UK/US European/US project the most expensive combat aircraft every built.
They’ll get the naval version of the Joint Strike Fighter but they won’t get those aircraft they won’t be deployable for another 10 years so the net of it is that Britain will be 10 years without an aircraft carrier and without aircraft that can fly from a carrier.
A lot of people think that Britain is taking a big risk over for example the Falkland Islands where they needed an aircraft carrier to recover the Falkland Islands when Argentina invaded in 1982. Cameron government is saying we had to make some hard decisions they say we’ve now got much better air field in Port Stanley in the Falkland Islands that’s our aircraft carrier the Island itself is our aircraft carrier.
The same circumstances won’t arise again the Argentines would not again brave the fury of the United Nations by invading the Falkland Islands it’s a bit of a risk.
LAMB: Cynics would say that this is a gimmick that because they’re going to build these two aircraft carriers that if the economy comes back the money will come back and they’ll keep them deployed.
BURNS: Well that is true I mean obviously, a decision to build and then to deploy for only three years leaves open that possibility. Mr. Cameron is an optimist he made a speech two nights, three nights
LAMB: Foreign policy speech.
BURNS: Yes, foreign policy speech yes, which the prime minister makes every year, which was extraordinary optimistic in terms of Britain’s ability to climb out of this economic mess by means of austerity now but also in terms of Britain’s innate ability to get back on its feet and to punch above its weight in the world.
And I think that if you could sit with Mr. Cameron at his country residence in Chequers every weekend around a wood fire he probably would say well yes, we might be able to do that we might be able to keep the second carrier.
Admirals very prominent now retired admirals including two former heads of the Royal Navy wrote to the Times of London recently a letter a very declaratory letter on which they said that this, I think they said economically and militarily perverse.
So he’s taking a bit of a risk this is only one of thousands of really tough decisions that he has made and it’s a huge gamble. It could be who knows it could be that the British public won’t be able to stomach the kind of austerity medicine that Mr. Cameron is administering.
We’ve just within the last week or so had student demonstrations against rising college fees and Americans would probably smile quietly at this but British students have gone to state colleges, which is to say 99 percent of them have been paying fees that only recently haven’t gone up this high in a region of 3,000 pounds a year that’s about $4,500 a year.
The Cameron government has said that they will now rise to as high as 9,000 pounds, which is $14,000 a year with all kinds of offsets to scholarships and other ways of litigating this and low interest rates and deferred repayments and so on and so forth. That put into the streets 50,000 students who marched along the embankment through White Hall the government district over my should here to the Houses of Parliament, which we can see the flag fluttering.
And there was a so often happens a trouble making element within those students an anarchist group many of them from the town where I live, which is Cambridge many of them from Cambridge University who ascended until they smashed a building up they sent it to the roof somebody threw a fire extinguisher off the roof at police officers.
It was a jarring moment because many people who are old enough to remember saw this is exactly what happened in this country when Mrs. Thatcher was in power in the ’80s and imposed a much less severe regime of austerity and there was serious turbulence in the streets.
We don’t know if the Cameron government can avoid it. So far, opinion polls show that about 60 percent of the British public many more than voted for Mr. Cameron and his partners in government at the election only six months ago about 60 percent of the British public support him. That’s a good sign but then the medicine has not nearly been administered it’s been announced but it hasn’t been taken yet.
So we’ll have to see the government might fall over this or just as likely it will get through this people will look at what’s happening in Ireland, in Greece, in Spain and Portugal and Italy, and say was it not our good fortune that we got a government just in time to steer us away from a sovereign debt crisis, and the conservatives and their allies, the liberal democrats could march onto 10 or 15 years in power. But, at the moment, it’s very finely balanced.
LAMB: You went to school at McGill University in Canada, lived there for awhile.
BURNS: I did.
LAMB: Worked for the Toronto Globe and Mail, 35 million people. You were born here and now you’re back here in Great Britain, about 60 million people. Are your kids American?
BURNS: One of them born in the United States.
LAMB: Three hundred and ten million people.
LAMB: But, because of this, I want you to define the difference between a Canadian, a Brit, and an American.
BURNS: Well, probably the easiest way to address this is to say what it is that I admire most about the United States a tremendous optimism, a tremendous kind of get up and go something that we have seen in both of the two wars, fundamental importance a tremendous ability to learn lessons to say this isn’t working and to go back to first principles and start again. David Petraeus in his two years down on the plans in Fort Leavenworth, rewriting the American Counterinsurgency Doctrine and putting that into effect in Iraq with the effects that we’ve seen and now in Afghanistan.
Open doors, open minds. Britain a kind of rugged resilience. We’ve seen in this year, and of course with my father having been a fighter pilot meant a lot to me 70 now, and our anniversary of the Battle of Britain, and Winston Churchill standing in the House of Commons across the river and making his finest hour speech and then later that summer the speech about the Royal Air Force in the Battle of Britain. Never in the field of human conflict has so much been known to so few. There’s a tremendous resilience in this country, a tremendous base of common sense. And, I think a tremendous instinct for fairness, which I must say I find very engaging.
Canada a country that has had the uncomfortable business of having to live alongside and on top of a country vastly more powerful than themselves, and they have with remarkable success constructed, if you will, a kind of alternate society there. It’s a society, which has in some ways bridged the distance between Europe and America. They have, for example, a system of medical care, which is something of a hybrid between the American system and the British system.
They fought with extraordinary valor in the two wars, the first and the second World War and again in Afghanistan, and as anybody who crosses the 49th parallel knows, Canada is an extraordinarily pleasant place. So, I’ve been lucky. I didn’t choose it to be so that I am in some ways have experienced the best of all three of these countries.
LAMB: We have just a short time left, and I want to go back to how we started the book. We’re a network of books, so I want to make sure that we have something to talk about in the future. What has to be done in order to get you to remember your life?
BURNS: I guess what has to be done is I have to sit down and seriously consider my financial well-being in the long-term. I would like to josh with you, to have a little bit more money saved than I have. Like many of my colleagues, I invested in the future of the news business in America, and in my case the New York Times. We are going to through some very hard times. I’m an optimist about that thing about that. I think we’ll get through. I think (INAUDIBLE) doctrine. I think the New York Times could very well be within the next five, seven years have one of the most profitable periods in its history.
So, you know what do I have to do? I have to get serious. I’ll have to listen to the publishers and the agents. And, I’m just going to have to get used to getting up at half past six in the morning and just doing the work. I mean, who was it who said Abe Rosenthal first said it who employed me at the New York Times a controversial brilliant man. And, I was explaining to him in South Africa when I was the correspondent there, and he was visiting with our former publisher, Sulzberger, why I haven’t done a magazine article that I pledged to do. And, he kind of cut me off in midsentence.
And, he said, ”You know, John?” He said ”what I’ve discovered in 40/50 years in this business he said, ”when things don’t get done, they don’t get done because they don’t get done.” In other words, you can excuse anything. I can excuse why I have not written a book. The truth of the matter is that writing a book is an act of courage, and I simply have to summon up the courage to do it.
LAMB: Last question. Of all the assignments you’ve had, which one was the most exhilarating?
BURNS: Exhilarating? I think the wars. I think the wars because
these wars right now?
BURNS: These wars because they pose the essential questions essential questions of life in its darkest form because they bore so heavily on the interest of the United States and of my newspaper, an American newspaper. In terms of shear fun, exhilaration, I would say China during the Cultural Revolution.
But, you know something? I used to say to colleagues of mine who were foreign correspondents for the New York Times and were moving from very desirable assignments to ones that they thought were less desirable. And, some of them refused those assignments and never served in the foreign office again. There is no such thing as a bad foreign assignment for the New York Times. For all I know I’ve worked very little in the United States. You could say that of domestic assignments, too.
To be people will say, well, he would say that wouldn’t he? But, it’s actually, true. To be a correspondent of the New York Times to be a foreign correspondent is to have a front row seat and very glorious seat. I’ve had an enormous amount of fun in my life. I’ve had a ongoing paid education. And, honestly had I won the lottery when I was 25, I would have wished to do exactly what I’ve done. I can’t think of anything else I would’ve been well suited for.
My father said to me once. Actually, he persuaded me not to go into the Royal Air Force as a pilot, which had been my ambition.. Many, many years later again on a golf course. He said he said, ”When I persuaded you not to do that.” He said, ”I wasn’t really thinking so much of your welfare.” I said, ”Well, what were you thinking of?”
He said, ”I was thinking of the welfare of the Royal Air Force.” He said, ”I had come to the conclusion by the time that you were 13 or 14
” He said, ”You would have made the worst officer that the Royal Air Force ever had.” He said, ”I was saving myself from embarrassment.” So, you know that was a turn well taken. And, I kind of fell backwards into this business. And, I wouldn’t change a day of it.
LAMB: John Fisher Burns, New York Times here in London. Thank you very much.
BURNS: Thank you very much. It’s been a pleasure.