Spilling scary secrets
Seymour Hersh talks, rapidly, on the Iraq quagmire and Bush’s war on terror
| 14 October 2004
(Bart Nagel photo)
Hersh came to Berkeley at the invitation of the Graduate School of Journalism and the California First Amendment Coalition. His appearance in the packed ballroom of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Student Union was the fitting end to a week of high-profile events in honor of the 40th anniversary of the Free Speech Movement.
The past two years will “go down as one of the classic sort of failures” in history, said Hersh. While he blamed the White House and the Pentagon for the Iraq quagmire and America’s besmirched world image, he appeared stymied by how it all happened. “How could eight or nine neoconservatives come and take charge of this government?” he asked. “They overran the bureaucracy, they overran the Congress, they overran the press, and they overran the military! So you say to yourself, ‘How fragile is this democracy?’”
The author of eight books, Hersh first received worldwide recognition (and the Pulitzer) in 1969 for exposing the My Lai massacre and its cover-up during the Vietnam War. In 1982’s The Price of Power: Kissinger in the Nixon White House he painted the former secretary of state as a war criminal, and the book won Hersh the National Book Critics Circle Award and the Los Angeles Times book prize in biography.
Most recently, as a staff writer for The New Yorker, Hersh has relentlessly ferreted out the behind-the-scenes deals, trickery, and blunders associated with the U.S. invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. Back in May 2003, he was the first American reporter to state unequivocally that we would not find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. And in April of this year, he broke the story of how U.S. soldiers had digitally documented their torture and sexual humiliation of Iraqis at the notorious Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. The several articles he wrote for The New Yorker about Abu Ghraib have been updated and edited into his latest book, Chain of Command: The Road From 9/11 to Abu Ghraib.
‘Bush scares the hell out of me’
The Hersh event began only minutes after the second debate between President George W. Bush and Sen. John Kerry concluded. KQED “Forum” host Michael Krasny naturally asked Hersh what he thought of the match.
“It doesn’t matter that Bush scares the hell out of me,” Hersh answered. “What matters is that he scares the hell out of a lot of very important people in Washington who can’t speak out, in the military, in the intelligence community. They know, in ways that none of us know, the incredible gap between what is and what [Bush] thinks.”
With that, he was off and running. One could safely say that for the next hour, Hersh proceeded to scare the hell out of most of the audience by detailing the gaps between what they knew and what he hears is actually going on in Iraq.
While his writing is dense but digestible, in person Hersh speaks with the rambling urgency of a street-corner doomsayer, leaping from point to point and anecdote to anecdote, frequently failing to finish his clauses, let alone his sentences. This evening, it was a challenge for Krasny to slow him down long enough to get a word or question in edgewise. Here’s a slice of raw Hersh on the current situation in Iraq:
I’ve been doing an alternate history of the war, from inside, because people, right after 9/11, because people inside — and there are a lot of good people inside — are scared, as scared as anybody watching this tonight I think should be, because [Bush], if he’s re-elected, has only one thing to do, he’s going to bomb the hell out of that place. He’s been bombing the hell out of that place — and here’s what really irritates me again, about the press — since he set up this Potemkin Village government with Allawi on June 28 — the bombing, the daily bombing rates inside Iraq, have gone up exponentially. There’s no public accounting of how many missions are flown, how much ordnance is dropped, we have no accounting and no demand to know. The only sense you get is we’re basically in a full-scale air war against invisible people that we can’t find, that we have no intelligence about, so we bomb what we can see.
And yet — despite the more than 1,000 deaths of U.S. soldiers and the horrific number of Iraqi casualties — Bush continues to believe we are doing the right thing, according to Hersh. “He thinks he’s wearing the white hat,” he said, adding that is what makes this administration different from previous ones whose hypocrisy Hersh has exposed. Bush and the neoconservatives “are not hypocrites.”
Unpersuasive body bags
“I think it’s real simple to say [Bush] is a liar. But that would also suggest there was a reality that he understood,” explained Hersh. “It’s funny in a sick, black-humor sort of way, but the real serious problem is, he believes in what he’s doing.” As Hersh understands them, Bush, Dick Cheney, Paul Wolfowitz, and the other neoconservatives believe that the solution to global terrorism began with invading Baghdad and will end only with the transformation to democracy of the last unfriendly government in the Middle East.
“No amount of body bags is going to dissuade [Bush],” said Hersh, despite the fact that his sources say the war in Iraq is “not winnable. It’s over.” As for Kerry’s war plans, Hersh said he wished he could tell the Democratic candidate to stop talking as if his plan for Iraq could somehow still eke out a victory there. “This is a disaster that’s been going on. It’s a civil war, the insurgency. There is no ‘win’ anymore in this war,” Hersh argued.
Later, Hersh shared something he has yet to write about. Sources were suggesting that the many acts of domestic terrorism in Iraq that U.S. officials have been attributing to suspected Al Qaeda operative Abu Musab al-Zarqawi are in fact a smokescreen set up by the insurgents. “They decided to wage war against their own population,” he said. “It’s a huge step, with enormous consequences.…The insurgency has simply deflected what they’re doing onto this man. And we fell for it.”
What is worse, he said impatiently, is that because U.S. forces have “privatized” so many of Iraq’s institutions, the job market in the country has been decimated: “This is why Bush can talk about 100,000 people wanting to go work in the police or in the army. It’s because there’s nothing else for them to do. They’re willing to stand in line to get bombed because they want to take care of their family.”
The end of moral leadership
In addition to adding more details to the woeful chronology of the Abu Ghraib scandal, Hersh speculated on why the dehumanizing techniques that have become synonymous with the prison’s name had been used. He was sure that they were not, as some have claimed, the “stress outlet” or other spontaneous recreational ideas of young soldiers from West Virginia. Instead, he said, they were the outgrowth of a massive manhunt for information — any information — about, first, Al Qaeda and the Taliban, and then the Iraqi insurgency.
The original idea behind the sexually humiliating photos taken at Abu Ghraib, Hersh said he has heard, was to use them as blackmail so that the newly released prisoners — many of whom were ordinary Iraqi thieves or even civilian bystanders rounded up in dragnets — would act as informants. “We operate on guilt, [Muslims] operate on shame,” Hersh explained. “The idea of photographing an Arab man naked and having him simulate homosexual activity, and having an American GI woman in the photographs, is the end of society in their eyes.”
And the fact that Americans had perpetrated such acts — and refused to take responsibility for it — ended America’s role as any kind of moral leader in the eyes of not just the Middle East, but the world, Hersh railed.
‘They just shot them one by one’
There was more — rumors of atrocities around Iraq that to Hersh brought back memories of My Lai. In the evening’s most emotional moment, Hersh talked about a call he had gotten from a first lieutenant in charge of a unit stationed halfway between Baghdad and the Syrian border. His group was bivouacking outside of town in an agricultural area and had hired 30 or so Iraqis to guard a local granary. A few weeks passed, during which they got to know the men they hired, and to like them. Then orders came down from Baghdad that the village would be “cleared.” Another platoon from the soldier’s company came and executed the Iraqi granary guards. All of them.
“He said they just shot them one by one. And his people, and he, and the villagers of course, went nuts,” Hersh said quietly. “He was hysterical, totally hysterical. He went to the company captain, who said, ‘No, you don’t understand, that’s a kill. We got 36 insurgents. Don’t you read those stories when the Americans say we had a combat maneuver and 15 insurgents were killed?’”
It’s shades of Vietnam again, folks: body counts.You know what I told him? I said, ‘Fella, you blamed the captain, he knows that you think he committed murder, your troops know that their fellow soldiers committed murder. Shut up. Complete your tour. Just shut up! You’re going to get a bullet in the back.’ And that’s where we are in this war.
The story seemed to leave Hersh sincerely, deeply saddened. While his critics may call him a “muckraker” and unpatriotic, on Friday night it was obvious that Hersh takes the crumbling of America’s image very, very personally.
“My parents were immigrants,” Hersh said. “They came here because America meant something…the Statue of Liberty and all that stuff, because America always was this bastion of morality and integrity and a place for a fresh start. And it’s right in front of us, not hidden, that they’ve taken this away from us.”
To view a webcast of Seymour Hersh’s appearance, visit