Brian Gruber, world traveler and author
Brian Gruber’s become a world traveler. An ex-Sacramentan formerly involved in local media, Gruber recently published WAR: The Afterparty, a Kickstarter-funded book chronicling his travels across countries—including Cambodia, Iraq and Guatemala—where the United States has used military force. Gruber is currently living in Thailand, but SN&R caught up with him over the phone during one of his visits back to the area to talk about the book, his travels and the importance of clean bathrooms.
How did the book come about?
Well, my birthday is August 4. And on my birthday in 2014 I noticed that was the 50th anniversary of the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, where President [Lyndon B.] Johnson went on American television live, that evening, in 1964, and told the American public that the USS Maddox was attacked by … patrol boats. That actually never happened. It was a blip on the radar. So, we escalated the war and 58,000 Americans, 2 million Vietnamese were dead with no positive outcome for anyone. At the same time, ISIS jihadis were marauding across Northern Iraq, after we went there supposedly to bring freedom and democracy and prosperity. So, I wondered, do we achieve or fulfill the mission of these military interventions? And what are the real human, international costs on both sides?
How did you go about investigating?
Years ago, I was a marketing director for Sacramento cable, and if we had a cable system somewhere that was never performing or meeting its goals we’d go out and do an audit and find out what was wrong and why they were not achieving their goals. And I thought it might be interesting to do a citizen audit and strap on a backpack and travel around the world.
What was it like actually seeing the results of the U.S. military interventions?
What I was after and what I got in the book was getting a fresh narrative. You know, when you live in the United States you just are surrounded by a certain parameter, certain range of view points, certain information. And when you go to these places, the people who were there and experienced it first hand, or saw the aftereffects, have a very different point of view, and a more personal, visceral point of view. … And also I saw that the range of death and destruction and destabilization is far greater than what we’re told.
Was it hard getting people to open up and talk to you?
Yeah, that was the big unknown; why would people talk to me? Would they talk to me, particularly in places like Afghanistan and Iraq. And what I experienced was, first of all, I was never seriously in harm’s way. No one ever sought to hurt me. And at first people are suspicious or curious, but after two minutes, if they come to believe that I really am who I say I am, that I am an independent American, who’s curious and wants to hear their story, then people open up and they do extraordinary things for you, particularly in those counties, countries like Iraq, Afghanistan, Vietnam, Guatemala.
What’s missing from American perspectives?
What happened here is we get very ginned up about bombing Iran or intervening in the Syrian civil war or overthrowing Gaddafi in Libya, and we don’t then look back and try to see what were the effects, and to try to get the real narratives of the people who were there to find out what their experience was, and what the effect on their economy and on their political stability and things like unexploded ordnance, which Americans mostly don’t know about. It will take 300 years to clear all the unexploded bombs from Southeast Asia, because at the time 30 percent of the B52 bomb payloads … 30 percent of those bombs never exploded. And so kids and farmers are killed by the thousands still, and maimed.
How has this experience shaped your own political ideas?
Yeah, I think especially during this election season, when Ted Cruz during the Republican debate says, “Let’s see if we can make the sand glow in the Middle East.” Well, we tried carpet bombing in Laos and Cambodia, we dropped more bombs on those countries, which we were not at war with, than on Japan during all of World War II. And in Cambodia, 50,000 people died and it became a major recruiting strategy for the Khmer Rouge, who then took over Cambodia and caused that terrible genocide there. … You start to realize that we’re dealing with other people’s lives.
What do you miss most from Sacramento?
Great bathrooms. You know, I’ve learned to, and actually enjoyed, a wide arrange of different kinds of lodging … but my bottom line is a decent, clean, functioning bathroom. And the things we absolutely take for granted, you go into a restaurant or someone’s house and there’s marble countertops or just little amenities or things in bathrooms that you would never see in those countries such that when you do come back you appreciate a great shower, a well-functioning toilet, toilet paper and a proper sink.