It has been almost two years since the distressing scenes of packed airports, people chasing after departing U.S. aircraft and the Taliban emerging on top were witnessed with the withdrawal of U.S. military forces from Afghanistan. Amidst the commotion and confusion, what was certain was the fear within one type of Afghan citizen, the interpreters of the American military. Without them, U.S. forces would have been an army of the deaf, engaging in pivotal and deadly operations in a country thousands of miles away.
Robert Ham, the director and writer of Interpreters Wanted, a film that centers around the life of two Afghan interpreters who helped U.S. forces during the 20-year war, joins Robert Scheer on this episode of Scheer Intelligence. Ham, an Afghanistan War veteran himself, offers a sobering account of an often overlooked aspect of warfare. The attitude of indifference and detachment from the wars in which the U.S. involves itself by ordinary citizens was one of the reasons Ham wanted to produce this film. “[T]here is a big distance between our civilian class in America and the military class. There’s a very different culture there. The military operates in these very micro cultures, and the media doesn’t really understand what’s going on over there. In America, [people] didn’t seem to be super interested in what was happening over there,” Ham said.
This apathy described by Ham not only applies to the Americans in Afghanistan but towards the Afghan people themselves. It is through the interpreters that Ham and the thousands of soldiers deployed to places like Iraq and Afghanistan were able to learn about the countries, their culture and their people, as well as keep the soldiers alive. “[The interpreters] were not only indispensable, it was impossible to do anything without them. We had to take interpreters on every single mission. No matter where we went, there was always an interpreter with us and it was impossible to do pretty much anything other than fight,” Ham said.
With the release of this film, Ham hopes to shift attention towards the ongoing humanitarian crisis Afghans face in the wake of the U.S. withdrawal. The takeover of the country by the Taliban has put thousands of lives in danger, beginning with the U.S.-hired interpreters and their families, and the least that the U.S. could do is provide refuge to those who wish to escape the hellscape brought upon by the two decade occupation. Ham thinks help for the Afghan people, “should be a priority because of what they did for us while we were trying to, quote unquote, fix their country and in many ways, we probably made it a lot worse and now we’ve left them over there, even though we used them.”
If you are around the Los Angeles area on May 2, catch the screening of Interpreters Wanted at the University of Southern California.
Support our Independent Journalism — Donate Today!
Robert Scheer: Hi, this is Robert Scheer with another edition of Scheer Intelligence, where the intelligence comes from my guest, in this case, Robert Ham, somebody I was introduced to by watching the Super Bowl, and Robert Ham was one of the vets that they honored. Pat Tillman, great heroic figure, ex-football, well, professional football player who joined up after 9/11 feeling that even famous, well-paid football players should protect their country, was sent to Iraq, didn’t really believe in the Iraq War, and was killed in what was described as friendly fire. And the government lied about it and said he was killed in battle with the enemy and then the lie was exposed nonetheless, Pat Tillman was a great hero. There’s the Pat Tillman Foundation that supports people like Robert Ham doing good work in relation largely to the media. And it was Pat Tillman’s mother, Mary Tillman, who told me, I have to watch this documentary that Robert Ham has made and the title, again, I keep foundering it, Interpreters…
Robert Ham: Interpreters Wanted.
Scheer: Oh, Interpreters Wanted and that goes to the reference to the movie where they tried to hire these people. I’m watching this movie, which I think is an incredibly important insight into the reality of war, but also what America does in its wars, and particularly the wars now that are more proxy wars, where we can almost watch them as a video game and not have a draft and not have our own stake in it necessarily. But what was so interesting about this movie is I never thought before about the absolutely critical role of interpreters. And I don’t want to, you know, give away the whole thing here but the fact is, we betrayed these people at my word, not yours. These were evidently great people, smart, you know, learned our language, obviously knew their own culture. And what you see from your movie is how indispensable they were to forming an opinion about why we were in Afghanistan and who we were dealing with without them, you were blind. I don’t know if you agree with that, maybe you think it’s going too far, but that’s what I came away from your movie knowing or feeling. And then we abandoned these people. And when President Biden decided he suddenly it was the right time to leave, they got screwed. So maybe that’s being too strong. I don’t want to reinterpret your movie. You tell me what the point of the movie is and what we should take from it.
Ham: Yeah, Well, thank you for that introduction. Appreciate your time and watching, having time to watch my film. I’m always excited when people can sit down and take an hour and a half of their time too, to watch something that I’ve worked really hard on. So I appreciate that and appreciate all your work and inspired me. So I’m glad to be here and, you know, I guess at the very low to the ground level, my film is about human relationships. It’s about the brotherhood that bonds us and war. And I had a very unique role in the war. I was a part of a platoon of infantrymen, so to speak. I was attached to an infantry brigade, about 3,500 soldiers, and I was part of a small public affairs shop. You know, we only had four people. We had my major, who was the boss and he was taking the commands from the commander and giving us the objectives of what kind of stories we should go out and tell. And then I had a partner who was a combat photographer, and I had a sergeant who would, you know, tell us what to do and help us craft our stories and he’d go out on missions as well. And I would just go out on random missions and hang out with soldiers on the front lines. But in our public affairs shop, there was an interpreter, and his name was Saifullah, he had a brother named Ismail who also helped us out. And it wasn’t until I had to work with them on a daily basis that I truly got to understand and see them as humans. And the way that we connect so often is by language. You know, I clearly did not speak any of their languages. I am from Los Angeles and I’m an American, and I speak one language. I barely speak Spanish very well. I don’t even think I knew, to answer your question, I don’t think I knew a soldier that spoke Dari or Pashto, which are the two major, you know, languages in Afghanistan. I maybe knew a soldier or two that spoke Arabic. But, you know, the only way to connect with them is if they spoke English and then they could translate for us. And so they were not only indispensable, it was impossible to do anything without them. We had to take interpreters on every single mission. No matter where we went, there was always an interpreter with us and it was impossible to do pretty much anything other than fight. And we’re good at fighting. But at a certain point, the war was not just about going out and fighting. We were similar to what our strategies were in Vietnam, which is this counterinsurgency strategy, which is like, you know, going out with the populace, winning, quote unquote, hearts and minds and trying to connect these small villages to the larger government in Kabul and trying to separate them from these, you know, the Taliban and the Al-Qaeda and the other groups, that was the goal. And there was no way to do that goal without a million interpreters, basically, well not literally a million, but thousands and thousands of interpreters that we employed that came to the bases that put their life on the line every day. And so aside from them just being tools, right, like they are the tools of translation, they became friends. They were, you know, we emotionally bonded, we were in attacks together. And, you know, and then we started to hear their stories of distress and their stories of how they struggle, how difficult it was for them just to A. Live in a third world country like Afghanistan, but also B. Being targeted by, you know, radical religious sects of Islam like the Taliban. And they put their lives very much on the line because they believed in freedom. They wanted their own version of freedom and, you know, America comes with our own objectives and realities. So, you know, hopefully a lot of that came through in the film. And that’s you know, I have many, many thoughts on, you know, what we could have done better and all of the other things. But at the heart of it, the film is about relationships between those that are crafted in war and thinking about the other. You know, I never met an Afghan I don’t think in my life before I went to Afghanistan. Pretty much I thought that they were the enemy, so to speak. I didn’t even wasn’t really even talk too much about how to interact with them or culturally, what was it about before we went.
Scheer: Well, how old were you when you went in 2007?
Ham: Yeah. So let’s see. I joined the military at 24 by the time I got out of all the training, I think I got to Afghanistan at 25, turned 26 while I was there.
Scheer: Yeah. And I mean, did you know where Afghanistan was, you knew where it was on the map, But I mean, had you had mind education about it? Did you know anything about the history of foreign intervention or what their connection was with Al Qaida or any of that? Did the military prepare you when you landed there? And as they say, you know, in your early twenties for where you were and what you were to do there?
Ham: Well, that’s yeah, that’s a good question. I mean, where I was raised I was very much in the ecosystem of the right. I believed in the Iraq war, I had voted for Bush at that time. I was a very Fox News watching Republican and I was waiting anxiously for the weapons of mass destruction to be found in Iraq. And I was just kind of, you know, I was trying to do my thing. I mostly wanted to be a filmmaker and my parents were artists. My dad was against the Vietnam War. He was a rock musician from, you know, from Dallas, Texas. And my mom was from Detroit. And they were activists against the Vietnam War and were very not into it. And, you know, but I believed in it. I thought the Iraq War was a good idea at that time because I just didn’t know what was going on. And I was, you know, again, what I said, I was waiting and so to see what was going on and I felt lost in my own career and I found out that the Army had combat videography. So I’m like, oh, this sounds like a good job that I could do. I was young and married at that time and, you know, ready to get to the front lines and do stuff. And I actually kind of wanted to go to Iraq because I thought that that’s where the battles were. I thought that’s what was, that’s where I was going to go see what was happening. I didn’t know anything about Afghanistan. I kind of probably felt just like the rest of America, like Afghanistan was not really the real war. What was going on there was kind of secondary to what was happening in Iraq. And so by the time I had joined and gone through all my training, Iraq was kind of towards the end of its surge and President Obama was getting elected. He was elected while I was at the training, the National Training Center, preparing for our deployment. And when I got to a station in Alaska with an airborne infantry brigade, by the time I got up there, they had just come back from Iraq and were told you’re going to Afghanistan. And, you know, we didn’t know anything about Afghanistan. I mean, yeah, we started to look at maps. They gave us a whole bunch of books to read about, like the Russian invasion during the eighties. But like, none of us are trying to read any of these things. I mean, the officers were supposed to read them, but honestly, when you’re coming back from an extended tour from Iraq, by the way, which the brigade had just done that I was with, they had lost like 54 guys. You know, they’re just trying to come back and, you know, get to know their kids again, you know, drink and party on the weekends, hang out with their wife, you know, but they’re getting ready to go back to Afghanistan. The long answer to your question is I knew nothing about Afghanistan. I knew where it was. And the common phrase that we all heard before we went is “graveyard of empires,” which is like, you kind of didn’t want to think too deeply about that because it’s just like, well, this is the mission. This is why we’re going and we’re going to win because that’s what we do. And you know, the rest is history. But that’s kind of what we thought going into it. At least I did it.
Scheer: And what were you asked to read?
Ham: So there was, I can’t even remember, I think it was like Over the Mountain…
Scheer: Because in Pat Tillman’s case, he read Chomsky and other people and already had a more critical view of why being sent to Iraq, because Iraq, of course, had nothing to do with 9/11. None of the people who hijacked the planes came from Iraq. 15 of them came from Saudi Arabia. Al-Qaeda was not only not welcomed in Iraq, but Saddam Hussein had repressed the movement and was threatened by it. And our ally in Saudi Arabia actually was more central to 9/11, but Afghanistan was where al-Qaeda was and so forth. So did that come up for these returning soldiers from Iraq, did any of them… Not only did we not find the weapons of mass destruction, but we never found any connection with 9/11.
Ham: Yeah, absolutely. And, you know, now looking back, you know, I’m very critical of that war for all the reasons that you listed. And I think when we were leading up to the war in Afghanistan, the new way that they wanted us to think about the war is that like this was the justifiable war for the reasons that you listed, that this is where, you know, Al-Qaeda trained and that’s where Osama bin Laden was and that’s what, you know.
Scheer: In Afghanistan.
Ham: This was the right war. Yes, correct, like Afghanistan was the correct war and Iraq was the misfortunate war. But, you know, a lot of these guys, at the end of the day, for the soldier, it doesn’t really matter where you send us. You know, we are just ready to go and fight and do the bidding of our country. I’ve since had a much more nuanced perspective on both of the wars. And again, I had actually read Chomsky leading up to that, but I hadn’t really investigated. I think I’m more of an experiential learner. I had to go there and see it myself and come back and go, okay, this is not what they told us. And whether it was what they told us or not, it definitely was not winnable and in the way that they were defining it as winnable.
Scheer: Well, those issues are raised in your movie. And again, I just blocked on the title, Interpreters Wanted.
Ham: Interpreters Wanted.
Scheer: Yeah, it’s a double entendre, actually. The Taliban wanted to kill him and the U.S. wanted to hire him, right?
Ham: Exactly, yeah.
Scheer: But what was compelling about your movie, first of all, the interpreters that are basically forgotten, ignored and abandoned, and their families who seem to be really admirable people. They’re thoughtful. They are concerned about their country and what unites them, among other things, is they want a secular society. They want girls to be able to go to school. They want the more extreme, primitive side of what is presented as a Sunni Muslim experience, that they’re rejecting, that they want more of what some people would say were the Western values and so forth. And the irony is in your movie, the question really gets begged, where did these religious fanatics in Afghanistan that you spent a long time, by the way, 2007-2014, that’s the most precious years of your life. Isn’t it your twenties into your early thirties and then you still stay in the reserves. You know, this is your basic doctorate in war, you know, And here you are in a country where you really can only learn about the country through these interpreters. I have to stress that, it’s a compelling reality that you expose us to in this film, that basically the Americans that are there and as you point out, you never even ran into one who learned the local language. You can just imagine and try to understand who are these people? What is this culture? What is it all about? What is its history? And you’re totally dependent upon these interpreters. Admirable as they are. They are also extremely alienated from the country. They’re rebelling against the religious extremism that has taken over. And one of the things that I found interesting in your movie, we don’t really discuss, they don’t discuss this desire for a secular life, but they say the Russians are introduced. This war was a chapter in the Cold War. The Russians go into Afghanistan. But what is left out is whatever the failings of the Russians or their imperial desires, they were definitely on the side of secular life, right? And they brought that to Kabul and Najibullah and the others, that they, I’m probably mispronouncing his name again, but who they brought, they attracted the ire of the al-Qaeda and others and ultimately of the Taliban on religious secular grounds. Right?
Scheer: Did the GI’s know that when they said, we’re here, you know, and the Russians were here, but now we’re going to… Did they realize that we had recruited the people that formed the Taliban and al-Qaeda, that our government had been actively involved in recruiting them and that, you know, the al-Qaeda people came from outside of Afghanistan.
Ham: Yeah. I mean, we as soldiers have a huge, very varied amount of background, whether it’s like, you know, education or where we grew up. And so we’re coming to this with a whole bunch of different experiences. I think most of us, though, probably got most of our understanding of the Middle East by whatever news station that we were watching during that time. And we had a very kind of like, well, I’ll speak for myself. I had a very black and white perspective of what was going on there. Very much global war on terror. It was a very similar mentality that we had in the sixties with the Vietnam War, that we were stopping this domino effect of communism. And like this, you say the communism word and that engulfs like this whole world of China and Vietnam and all this. And this is like the global war on terror. And that’s, you know, that we were doing that everywhere. We were doing that in Iraq and Afghanistan, in the Philippines and in Africa and Syria. And it kind of was all under one umbrella. And when you kind of look at it from that angle, it’s really hard to see the nuance of all the things that you’re identifying and where and where these were… You know, of course, we didn’t know how many, all the weapons… I mean, we did talk about how we supported the Mujahideen against the Russians and then but like we were still fighting against some of the same weapons that we had provided them in the eighties, in the nineties and…
Scheer: Stinger rockets and so forth.
Ham: Stinger rockets and stuff that, you know, that we actually had had given them. And, and then also further into the war, we didn’t really understand the role of Pakistan and the role of all these other nations surrounding Afghanistan. But we started to see it, you know, we started to see like when some of our missions were patrolling the Afghan-Pakistan border, which is there, you know, one time we were with a platoon and we just wandered. We had the GPS maps that we could follow and our commander was just like, let’s wander into Pakistan. Oh, now we’re in Pakistan. You couldn’t tell. There were just mountains of endless mountains. There’s no border and, you know, when you’re giving, you know, you give a few hundred soldiers the objective of guarding our whole border from keeping people coming in and out from Pakistan, you know, there is… It’s an impossible task without, you know, 100,000 or more soldiers. And we didn’t understand the role of Pakistan, we didn’t understand the role of Iran, we didn’t understand the role of China and Russia. And look, I think maybe some of the generals and some of the colonels that were leading all of these, they probably had a deeper understanding of that than the soldiers did. But we certainly didn’t, we were just trying to keep our asses from getting shot, you know?
Scheer: It’s interesting. Let me push that a little bit. The view of the grunt soldier, the lower level and the generals, because you came back to USC, where we’re recording this at the Annenberg School at USC. And you went to film school, the, probably, the most famous film school in the world, I think, isn’t it?
Ham: We think it’s the best film school in the world for sure.
Scheer: And the people at the film school certainly do. But leaving aside, the thing is, you came back here and I don’t think you overlapped General Petraeus, who became a professor on our campus, and that must have been later. I haven’t done it in years. I think he might still even be a professor. I don’t know. And he’s supposed to be a bright fellow, well-educated. But nonetheless, when you say that the higher levels may have known this, was there ever any pressure to explain to anybody how we had, why we had supported the al-Qaeda, recruited them to be there, and why we had supported the people who became the Taliban from the beginning and why we were… Because the whole theme that keeps coming up in your conversations with the interpreters in this movie, Interpreters Wanted is a very important movie, please watch it if you get the chance to watch it. One great accomplishment of your filming is we’re reminded that the people on the other end of our firepower are human beings and they’re complex and they have families and they care about life. That is, for my money, the great achievement of your film. We’re introduced to victims of war, they’re not just collateral damage. They are every bit as human as anybody else you’ve ever met, including your own family. And they seem to be marvelous people. You know that much better. You lived with these people for, what, more than seven years and you reunited with them in the making of the film. And yet, as I keep repeating, the great concern of these people was to have what we would consider a more normal life so your daughter can go to college and get a career and not be exploited, etc., etc. And it wasn’t that they were rejecting religion in total, but they were rejecting a particular idea of religion as very controlling and very, you know, so hostile to, certainly to females, and that we in fact had originally gone to Afghanistan, and we being the United States government, to support the religious fanatics side of it because they were opposed to the Russian supported government. That’s the irony of this, is it not?
Ham: Yeah. I mean. There are so many ironies in war. And I think that the nuances escaped most people that were supportive and are supportive of our entanglements in war overseas. We don’t, I think war is complicated and it is a great tragedy. And the consequences last and ripple for decades and decades and the consequences of our involvements in the proxies, you know, in the eighties, in the nineties had the ripple effects that impacted when I was even there in 2009 and 2010. And our impact in that region now since 2001 is going to have impacts for generations. And some of those are unknown, some of those are very clear. And that’s one of the important things about studying history. And I’ve spent actually quite a bit of time looking and studying and thinking about Vietnam and what happened there. And, you know, often people have compared the Iraq and Afghanistan wars to what we did in Vietnam. And oftentimes Americans, in my experience, don’t really want to look back. We don’t really want to see what happened in Vietnam, we have so many people that still are extremely confused about that war, why did we do what we did in that, did we lose? Did we win? And that’s kind of the way that we think in terms of war in America. Did we win or we lose? And in war, so often, we all lose. I mean, just because we quote unquote, won in World War II, you know, we skip out on some of the details like the Russians helping us, it was an impossible thing to win the war without their sacrifice in the east. And even more so, we lost, what, it was like 400,000 soldiers in that war. My two grandfathers who fought in those wars came back with not only physical wounds, but like mental wounds and addictions and things. They didn’t even talk about PTSD through that generation. And so, you know, we have a whole generation of veterans now coming back from these wars, struggling with post-traumatic stress. You know, we have the crisis of the veteran suicide issue. And aside from all the civilian deaths that were, you know, that happened in these wars as well and the ripple effects. But there’s two sides to every story, too, because, you know, I think some of our intentions and this is something that was humbling when I heard Saiful and Ismail talk about this is like despite like the catastrophes of what had ended in Afghanistan and throughout like Patrick Tillman getting killed and my friends getting killed and us losing over three thousand and 30,000 wounded and all the other things, that there are friendships made, that there are bonds made. And oftentimes America kind of has a sense of like our intentions, I think in many ways, were noble. War has a way of humiliating you no matter what your intentions are. I think we, you know, like what Stifler says in the film is that at one point, you know, women were going back to school and it became illegal for the Taliban to throw acid on women’s faces. And we were handing out tons of aid through, you know, our different government agencies. And we were also killing some really bad people. But, you know, it’s hard to look at those wins as, you know, when you have so many other things that are so much more impactful and so much more in a negative sense. And I think, you know, we’ve all seen now the great tragedy of what happened when we pulled out. But it was like the flip side to that is what if we stayed for another 40 years? That’s what would have happened. At a certain point, there was an inevitability because of a whole host of reasons. The strategy that we were doing there with respect to generals like Petraeus and General McChrystal’s and those generals who were also tools of policy, I don’t think that these were winnable strategies or if they were winnable strategies, they definitely didn’t have the resources to accomplish that. I mean, to stop the influx of weapons into Afghanistan would have taken more soldiers than we had in Vietnam. 150,000- 200,000, if that. We’re operating with very low numbers with, you know, not an ability to actually accomplish what they were wanting us to do. And, you know, and then there’s also a, what you said at the very beginning, there is a big distance between our civilian class in America and the military class. You know, there’s a very different culture there. The military operates in like these very micro cultures, and the media doesn’t really understand what’s going on over there. America didn’t seem to be super interested in what was happening over there. And that’s what I felt when I came back, how I was kind of shocked with how little interest Americans had when soldiers were getting killed, when, you know, when things were going the way that they were going. And it just felt like we were going to keep kicking the can down until we were going to have this major humanitarian crisis, which is what we now have.
Scheer: Well, you know, again, you’re describing a picture of irresponsibility on the highest level. I don’t blame anyone who is on the level that you went in in terms of education, background and what have you. And but the fact is, McChrystal, by the way, is, I think, complicit in the cover up of the deaths of Pat Tillman. And I think Mary Tillman and other members of her family have uncovered quite a bit about that. And Petraeus, as I keep bringing him up, our fellow, we’re all Trojans, right, USC. And I’m not saying that lightly. He’s a guy who comes on this campus and makes perfect sense, is logical, well-educated and so forth. Well, he knew the story of secularization and religious fanaticism. This battle between the two, was an old story in Afghanistan, as it is in almost every country in the world. But the fact is, even before the Russians, the king of Afghanistan was on the side of increased secularization and the rights of women, not just the rights of women, but the rights of everyone, but beginning with women. And then to get into war and ignore the history, it’s interesting you mentioned that your own parents and family were involved in Vietnam. And again, right now, we are in a situation where we may go to war with China and one of the reasons is it’s a communist country, even though it’s a very successful capitalist country. But when we’re criticizing China, we’re encouraging Apple, for example, to take its use of poorly paid labor from China and shift to Vietnam. Well, Vietnam is still a communist country, right? Still run by the same people that we were fighting when your family was involved in fighting. And yet we now think they’re the good guys and we want to help them win back some islands that the Chinese are claiming. We think they’re a better place to do manufacturing. So we’re playing with history and as somebody whose life was really caught up in this and as an artist, you’re trying to describe it. When I think of the interpreters, again, the movie is Interpreters Wanted. I think that’s a model for life, by the way. I think we need interpreters in every situation, whether understanding the pandemic or understanding war and peace or what have you. And what you’ve really done in this film is play and put the interpreter in a central role. These people have their own subjective orientation. One of them, their father was killed and, you know, they had suffered under the Taliban and everything. But nonetheless, you introduce us to the other side that they are full human beings of varied views and aspirations. That’s the great achievement. I want to praise this movie. I think it’s a great achievement is you oppose the whole stereotyping of non-Americans or our enemy. And you do a marvelous job of establishing the humanity of the Afghani people.
Ham: Well, thank you. You know, that obviously was a point that I wanted to hit home. And I’m glad that you walked away with that. You know, 9/11, I was 18 when 9/11 happened and I was still living at home with my parents. And I was just starting my undergraduate degree, getting, you know, I was trying to study film and undergrad and making my little movies or whatever I was doing. And it was a moment where the world hit me in a new way, just like it did so many Americans. And I think, you know, we always have issues with our parents. And, you know, I was bullied and I’d get in fights at school or fights or whatever. But I never really had a hatred boil up in me until that day. Until that day, you know, I’d walk to the grocery store that day and you could see the stunned look on everybody’s faces. And we all felt the same. We didn’t know what that feeling was yet. Part of it was anger. Part of it was sadness, grief. But, you know, in the film, I use a quote from, you know, President Bush’s statement where he says, our anger has turned to resolve or our grief has turned to anger, our anger has turned to resolve. And, you know, that’s a line that sticks with me now, because anger needs to be thought through before it’s acted on and to then spend the next 20 years in a war because we were angry is an unending venture. You know, the anger that we felt on 9/11 never got satisfied with the amount of bloodlust that, and the amount of bloodshed that came out of the two wars. Are we satisfied with what we did after 9/11? I mean, yeah, we got Osama bin Laden. Okay, I guess that’s an accomplishment considering he was involved in that kind of thing. But by the time we had killed him in 2012, while he was hiding in Pakistan, who was our quote unquote ally at that time, he was completely out of control. He was not in control of what was going on. It was all these terrorist networks and all these family organizations and all this stuff. And we are now entangled in a massive geographical proxy war. And so, you know, I think this to me, this is my whole generation. This is like the last two decades of war we’ve been in. And it does have an impact. It has an impact on our society of being a country in perpetual war. I think hopefully now we’re starting to get some war fatigue. But what my fear is, is that if we don’t listen to the veterans who went over there and who have thoughts about what’s going on, because maybe they’re broken or they’re too obnoxious or loud or whatever it is, the reason that we want to dismiss veterans from their experiences, we are going to get into another situation. And, you know, this begs the question, was it justified? Was it an unjustified war? But it really should be the last option. It’s not cool. It’s not a video game. I’ve been very frustrated with the lack of deep thought on what’s been going on over there, the lack of films, the lack of, I mean, that’s why I’m a filmmaker. I’m very frustrated with the lack of thoughtful films about the global war on terror and what’s been going on and documentaries. And for us, it’s like on to the next thing, on to the next thing. And sure, we do have lots of problems in this country that we need to talk about and debate about. Oftentimes, it seems like we are not focusing on the ones that we need to be focusing on. But whether our country goes to war or not is a big one. And I think we’ve been able to minimize wars like Iraq and Afghanistan because we’ve been able to keep the numbers of bodies, body counts down. I think that was one of the things that we learned from the Vietnam War. You could keep a war going if you’re not bringing home a lot of, you know, coffins with flags over them. However, we’ve just shifted that that to maybe they’re not coming over in caskets, but we’re now having major issues with veteran suicide, met with with all the other things that have been coming back with the wars. So I’ve now, you know, I lost another guy that I had served with, had committed suicide about a month and a half ago. And we have now lost more guys from my brigade to suicide than we have to, that were killed in action. And so, you know, and I’m very involved in veteran advocacy, working with the VA and and working with nonprofits to try to heal these wounds, because I truly believe that when we have veterans who are healed from this war or I think it’s a constant healing, it doesn’t just like, you’re not just better one day, but we can then use some of these wounds to educate and hopefully become more empathic and have compassion, because we are a great country and we have potential to do great things and some of that greatness is our diversity. You know, I say this a lot, E pluribus unum, from many, one. Like we’re all immigrants to this country unless we’re natives. And, you know, that’s what diversity of thought, diversity of background is, what really can make, you know… and diversity of thought is what’s going to keep us from using, going back to what I was saying before, anger to be the motivation to start an endless war that will never end. Because, you know, as you kind of articulately said towards the beginning, there was a lot of fault to go around on 9/11, like, what have we done about Saudi Arabia? How do we think about our entanglement in the Middle East, our interactions with the Middle East? How do we think about our oil consumption? How do we think about how we play these games around the world? And if our involvement is necessary and if it is necessary, what is that involvement? Diplomacy, you know, talking through issues, what interpreters are supposed to do. I mean, that was the whole point of the interpreter, put the gun down, let’s talk it out. Put the guns down, let’s deal with what’s going on here. Let’s communicate. Let’s diffuse the anger and the bitterness. And, you know, we’ve all lost people here. Let’s talk it out. And you know that I guess that’s what democracy is. So anyway, I’ll get off my soapbox, but that’s not how I think about it.
Scheer: Well, I think we need that soap box. You know, I think we have to be thoughtful. I mean look, yes, we don’t have a draft and so the war is a career. We’re spending an awful lot. We just passed a budget which, you know, we spend as much as almost the rest of the world combined on the military. We’re encouraging military budgets throughout the world. We want to talk about maybe Korea having nuclear, or at least some of our, nuclear presence in the Philippines. We want everybody to have more weapons. War is a drug. I know, I always promise to keep these things shorter, but it’s fascinating to talk to you. And so let me just… Do you have the time to push it on for a few more minutes or…?
Ham: Yeah, I do. I mean, this is a joy.
Scheer: Thank you. I do want to end by talking about what happens to these interpreters. So don’t let me forget that, because that’s the power of this film. By the way, if you happen to live in the Los Angeles area and you’re listening to this on KCRW, the great FM station, NPR station that I do it for, the film is screening. Is it open to the public Tuesday night you said?
Ham: It is, I would love people to come.
Scheer: At USC, at the Ray Stark Theater. Okay. So it’s the Ray Stark Theater at USC, and it’s Tuesday night and…
Ham: Tuesday night at 6 p.m.
Scheer: 6 p.m. is it free to the public?
Ham: It’s free. Yes, I would love to fill the room. So come on down.
Scheer: Okay. Let me just say also, for some people who are kind of a little bit squeamish. They don’t want to get depressed and so forth. That’s always, that was the whole argument of Hollywood glorifying war, because movies like Born on the Fourth of July, which was so exceptional, or All Quiet on the Western Front many decades earlier, would depress audiences, even when you have Tom Cruise playing Ron Kovic as the, you know, the seriously wounded Marine, your movie is not depressing because there’s a great life force in these interpreters. And when we see you socially, you know what you do in this film, let me just put it out there. You have no gap between yourself and the other. That is fantastic because most reporters fall into the trap of, well, they come from America or they come from France. They know better or they have a skill. You know, you have to be a pretty serious anthropologist or something to challenge that very notion. Your film challenged it by its construction, by its design. You put these interpreters front and center and yes, they’re complex too, and they are on the side of the Americans. In fact, the Americans would be, I can’t even imagine without these interpreters, you have an army, which as you mentioned before, you didn’t run into one single person that knew the local language. And certainly English literacy is not very widespread in Afghanistan. So we’re talking about an army of the deaf. That’s what it really is. And these interpreters who you, as we meet them through you, these full human beings with their families and their love and their complexity and their deep thought, you know, their knowledge, their knowledge of us, by the way, these interpreters have a far more profound knowledge of the United States than the people in the United States have of Afghanistan. They’ve seen us at our worst and the best. And so let me wrap this up by asking you, you know, because, yes, we do a lot of good things. We’re always looking for the hearts and minds as we are now with the Ukraine and as we did with, after all, in Vietnam, we put Ngo Dinh Diem up as the George Washington of his country and backed him. But we also ended up killing them in the sewers of Saigon, or at least who was our CIA’s knowledge when he was running for his life, and we decided to get rid of him. So, yes, you know, we try to feed people and we do things and so forth to win hearts and minds. But as I say, it’s always deaf, tone deaf. And so let me ask you, we meet these marvelous interpreters. Interpreters wanted, we wanted them, we advertised for them. And they all risked their security, profoundly risked the security of their families and, of course, themselves by signing up with the Americans. How did we reward that trust, that commitment, that openness to Americans when President Biden. You know, you might want to let him off the hook here. He didn’t start the war and he didn’t, you know, intensify it and didn’t have a surge, I’ll have to give President Biden that out, but the fact is, there was an abrupt end. And the people who took it in their neck really were the people that had been on our side. No? That’s the interpreters.
Ham: Yeah. I think, you know, there is definitely room to go around in the blame game for, for sure. Which is why I make the film, go all the way back to even Jimmy Carter with our involvement in Afghanistan. But however, you know, obviously the way that Trump set us up to be pulled out and the way that Biden pulled us out, it was a catastrophe. And they’re probably I mean, look, I’m not in policy. I’m not ever planning on running for any office. I’m just a filmmaker. I’m just a guy that points a camera and has opinions and thoughts and emotions about stuff. But there seemed to be a probably a much better way of doing that. And one of the ways is by, and the original reason I made this film, I started, this was supposed to be my thesis film at USC when I was graduating there, and it was actually supposed to be a short narrative like scripted film. I had written a short film and it was 15 minutes long and I raised money on Kickstarter, and that was supposed to be my thesis film because we were trying to do advocacy for getting interpreters their special immigrant visas to get to America. During that time when I was at USC, and this was all said in the film, my interpreter Saifullah reached out to me on Facebook and he’s just like, I need to get out of here. They’re closing down the bases that we were at, the ones that I was at. I don’t have a job anymore. The Taliban are hunting me because I helped you guys and I’m well known and what the hell else am I supposed to do? Because, you know, it’s a giveaway that he even speaks English that well, you know, he’s standing out in this culture now as having helped us for ten years. And now he’s in hiding and reaches out to, you know, a former veteran guy who’s, you know, just got up to staff sergeant and is now going to film school, living with my in-laws, trying to make you know, and I’m like, what the hell am I supposed to do? I can’t do anything. And I had to start figuring it out and I started to realize that there is a whole community of veterans trying to get their interpreters out because this is a widespread problem. And it really burdened me. It was really depressing. It kept me up at night. I was worried about him and my filming was not going well. Everywhere I pitched the film, nobody really cared about it. Yeah, we have a film that’s coming out right now with Jake Gyllenhaal about how heroic interpreters were, but nobody cared about that back then. We couldn’t even get interpreters, I think Congress passed a bill that allowed like several thousand visas available and we couldn’t even get through a few because the bureaucracy was so much. We had so little resources going towards helping interpreters out of the country that nobody was going to get there. And they kept saying, don’t worry, you know, it just takes time. It just takes time. But it’s like, you know, that time turned into years and that those years turned into deaths for interpreters. And so eventually, you know, I worked the system to get Saifullah and Ismail, you know, I’m giving away a little bit on the film, but that’s okay. You know, Saifullah and Ismail ended up getting to America but so many of their siblings and their family members and so many others were left behind. And then now, once we pull out, there’s no infrastructure anymore for these interpreters that were left there to get out. They are flooding Ismail and Saifullah’s, you know, accounts. Now, I still get messages from interpreters saying, Hey, help us get out, help us get out. You know, and there does need to be a process by which we need to make sure that we’re letting in the right people. There’s a process that has been in order. It just takes so long because we don’t have enough resources being put towards it. I’ve never even met any of these people that are doing these interviews and processing these papers, but there’s not many. We have, you know, in my film, I say we have upwards of 70,000 open visas still for Afghans that are in Afghanistan. I think some estimates say that that’s really conservative, that there’s a lot more. And, you know, we’re still trying to write letters to get the rest of their family to America. And, you know, look, I think that there is, I say this in the film, too, there’s a temperament in America that we don’t really want people like them over here. You know, I’m not. I don’t want to speak for all Americans or a segment of Americans or whatever. But whether we don’t like the other or whatever it is, it’s not a priority. And it should be a priority because of what they did for us while we were trying to, quote unquote, fix their country and in many ways, we probably made it a lot worse and now we’ve left them over there, even though we used them. There’s also security ramifications for this, by the way, it’s not just humanitarian. If I need to appeal to people who, you know, need more of a logical security reason, you know, when we break the trust, when we give a promise to somebody militarily, governmentally, this is a promise that we’re making. We will pay, we will owe you this if you give us this. That’s what the agreement was. And what kind of reputation do we have when we go, you know, hopefully not when but if we go into another country and we need to use locals, what kind of reputation are we going to have? That we couldn’t keep our promises, that we broke our promises to these people. Additionally, the Afghan people are amazing people. They have a deep, rich history. They have a wonderful culture. They’re wonderfully hardworking. They’re very warm. They’re dedicated. Many of them have already come to this country and are making this country better. They are our Uber drivers, they have great restaurants, and they are working in the automotive industry. They’re driving our trucks, they’re contributing taxpayers. They’re not getting into trouble. They’re family oriented people. They just want to do their religion, raise their family in safety and move on. And they are also distressed by some of the things that they’re saying. They’re just as worried about their kids getting shot up by these random shootings. They’re just as worried about all the different problems that we’re worried about because they’re human. They’re good people. Many of them want to be educated and come to this country for our education system. And then many of them eventually do want to go home. They want to go back to Afghanistan and right now, that’s an impossibility because of the radicals that have taken and hijacked their country. So, you know, it is a distressing situation. I’m glad that the film isn’t depressing. I’m glad that it has an optimistic point of view. I have to maintain that we have to stay vigilant and optimistic. Otherwise, the tsunami of horror that can happen in this world can crush us. But, you know, it is a distressing situation and it’s a very serious situation. And I you know, there’s an Afghan Adjustment Act right now that Congress people are looking at. And it’s you know, there’s a lot of fear that it won’t get passed. And, you know, our politicians need to do what we want them to do. And I think across the board, if you talk to veterans, they say this is something we care about. We had the same situation in Iraq, too. Despite all of the politics and the failures and all the things and emotions about the Iraq War, we did the same thing in Iraq. And we had to use Iraqis as interpreters and as partners in that war as well. So there you go.
Scheer: So there you go. You just made, I think, a compelling statement. And I wonder, first of all, how do people watch this movie if they’re not near USC next Tuesday night?
Ham: Well, the truth is we’re looking for distribution. So if anybody out there works for Netflix or Hulu or Amazon and wants to buy my film, that’d be appreciated. I’ve been playing this Hollywood game for a long time and I’ve been pitching my movies. I have another movie about the search for Bowe Bergdahl because he was in my unit while I was there. And I have a whole movie about him. And we can’t get this stuff made. You know, I’ve pitched these movies to people for a long time and nobody wants… So, I listened to one of your previous interviews talking about the Internet and how that democratized like different voices and everything. And that was really profound and it’s hard to get found if you don’t have a huge social media following. You know, I have done a lot of work. So, right now we’re searching for it, and we’re starting to submit it to film festivals. I’m going to have it available for my Kickstarter supporters who helped me way back in the day. And we’re starting to get more and more audiences like you to watch it. Come out to that private screening at USC and let me know what you think about it and you know, and hopefully we could get it out there so that a lot of people can see it. I mean, that’s what I want, you know, so.
Scheer: You know, there’s an irony about mass media. Most of the time it’s suffocating and dumbs us down and gets us to go along with endless wars that make no sense. On the other hand, there are cracks in the system. The only reason that Oliver Stone got to make what really are the most significant considerations of war, I’m not going to say anti-war, they certainly make you concerned about war. But Oliver Stone is somebody who, in fact, enlisted to go fight in Vietnam, first went as a merchant Marine and then was wounded. And then he was willing to make a movie, made his own movie Platoon, and won Academy Awards for screenwriting and for that and then was able and really took his whole career in hand and made Born on the Fourth of July, story of Ron Kovic and could get Tom Cruise to play in it so it had more box office appeal and so forth. And one of the contradictions about your film is that I only got to watch it because you were honored at the Super Bowl, right? I mean, should we talk about that for a minute? That must have been an incredible moment. And then, you know, somebody I have as much admiration as for any human being I’ve ever met. Mary Tillman, the mother of Pat Tillman, who actually wrote a book with my wife, Narda Zacchino, on the death of her son, Boots on the Ground, she urged me to watch your film and respected it. And so here we are, and hopefully we can get the word out. The reason I mention it not being depressing is not, sometimes we need to be depressed, and obviously what happened to not just the interpreters, but happened to all of the American soldiers who were wounded or died. And certainly the much larger number of Afghan people left their country in worse shape than when we first got involved. It seemed, well, maybe that’s an exaggeration, certainly in very bad shape where it is. You know, we want things to get better. But the thing that’s great about it, I have to stress this, because otherwise this is going to turn people off the movie hearing all this serious talk. But the fact is, you bring up the humanity of the other and that is a great achievement as an artist, I think. And you compel us to see this. This could happen to us or to people we care a great deal about. And what happened in your case, let’s just wrap this up. But I think you live with the interpreter. The interpreter is so important, particularly at a time when we’re considering artificial intelligence and everything, to have a human interpreter. So to see that the other, the people that are going to be bombed, the people you claim to be saving or liberating or whatever, that they are as fully human as anybody you’ve ever met, That’s what you do as an artist in this film. I just, I don’t know if I’ve celebrated that enough, but I want to put that out there. You cannot deny A. Humanity of these interpreters, but also their necessity. Otherwise, we are the army of the deaf, and I’m not putting down hearing deprived people, I happen to be losing my hearing myself. But the fact of the matter is, you know, this idea, Interpreters Wanted, that’s the title of this film. Remember it. Interpreters Wanted. They should be wanted by everybody, because that’s what it means to interpret, to understand, to get a deeper knowledge, to realize you don’t know everything. You have to learn more about their culture, their language, their religion, and so forth. Let me just conclude that that is the great achievement of this film by Robert Ham and I am very proud that we’re doing this from USC’s Annenberg School because our film school helped you in your career. And so let’s hear it for the Trojans. I want to thank the folks over at KCRW, the great NPR station in Santa Monica, Laura Kondourajian and Christopher Ho, who get these shows posted. Joshua Scheer, our executive producer, who insisted I do this show after hearing about it. Diego Ramos, who will write the intro, and Max Jones, who helped us get the video and the J.K.W. Foundation in memory of Jean Stein that supplies some funding for these shows. See you next week with another edition of Scheer Intelligence.