BERKELEY – The Iraq war is not
winnable, a secret U.S. military unit has been "disappearing" people
since December 2001, and America has no idea how irreparably its torture
of Iraqis at Abu Ghraib prison has damaged its image in the Middle East.
These were just a few of the grim pronouncements made by Pulitzer Prize–winning
investigative reporter Seymour "Sy" Hersh to KQED host Michael
Krasny before a Berkeley audience on Friday night (Oct. 8).
The past two years will "go down as one of the classic sort of failures"
in history, said the man who has been called the "greatest muckraker
of all time" and (paradoxically) the "enfant terrible of journalism
for more than 30 years." While Hersh blamed the White House and the Pentagon
for the Iraq quagmire and America's besmirched world image, he was 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?"
From My Lai to Abu Ghraib
That fragility clearly unnerves him. Hersh summarizes his mission as
"to hold the people in public office to the highest possible standard
of decency and of honesty.to tolerate anything less, even in the name
of national security, is wrong." He tries his best. More than any other
U.S. journalist alive today, he embodies the statement that "a patriot
must always be ready to defend his country against his government," a
belief defined by the conservationist Edward Abbey.
Hersh was working the phone with sources up until
the minute the presidential debate began, which he watched with a crowd
in North Gate Hall.
His country has not always thanked him for it - neocon Pentagon adviser Richard
Perle has called Hersh "the closest thing we have to a terrorist,"
while his 1998 book on John F. Kennedy's administration, "The Dark Side
of Camelot," cost him many friends on the left. But Hersh's reputation
remains more bulletproof than most. The author of eight books, he first
received worldwide recognition (and the Pulitzer) in 1969 for exposing
the My Lai massacre and its cover-up during the Vietnam War. 1982's "The
Price of Power: Kissinger in the Nixon White House," painted Henry Kissinger
as a war criminal and 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. (A
mea culpa from a Slate journalist who doubted Hersh on WMDs also
inadvertently confirms his prescient track record.) 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"
Hersh came to Berkeley at the invitation of UC Berkeley's 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 Hersh event began only minutes after the second debate between
President George W. Bush and John Kerry concluded. Krasny naturally asked
Hersh — who had watched the debate at North Gate Hall stone-faced
in the middle of a rowdy crowd — 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 and frequently failing to finish his
clauses, let alone his sentences. His train of thought can be difficult
to catch a ride on. This evening, it was a challenge for Krasny to slow
him down long enough to get a word or question in edgewise. For example,
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 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 neocons "are not hypocrites."
Enter the utopians
"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. "I'm
serious. It is funny in sort of a sick, black humor sort of way, but
the real serious problem is, he believes what he's doing." In effect,
Bush, Dick Cheney, Paul Wolfowitz, and the other neocons are "idealists,
you can call them utopians." As Hersh understands them, they really believe
that the solution to global terrorism began with invading Baghdad and
will end only with the transformation of the last unfriendly government
in the Middle East into a democracy.
"No amount of body bags is going to dissuade [Bush]," said Hersh, despite
the fact that Hersh's 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 him
to stop talking as if the senator's 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,"
he argued. "As somebody said, 'We're playing chess, they're playing Go.'"
Later, Hersh shared something he had 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."
'We operate on guilt, [Muslims] operate on shame…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.'
What is worse, he said impatiently, was that because U.S. forces had
"privatized" so many of Iraq's institutions, it had decimated the job
market in the country."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," he said.
Hersh has been accused many times of sympathizing with "the enemy,"
and told that his publicizing of incidents like the My Lai massacre and
the Abu Ghraib torture only fan the flames of anti-American sentiment
around the world. He related that he's been asked if he feels guilty
about the beheadings of two Americans who were wearing uniforms like
those worn at Abu Ghraib. "As if the Iraqis needed me to tell them what's
going on in that prison!" he responded. He also repeated a question often
posed to him: "Was it immoral to go in . [T]he idea that Saddam was a
torturer and a killer, doesn't that lend a patina of morality to going
after him?" The answer to that one, he said unsmilingly, "is of course,
Saddam tortured and killed his people. And now we're doing it."
In addition to adding more details to the woeful chronology of the
Abu Ghraib scandal, in which the military stopped the abuse only after
Hersh's story brought it crashing down onto front pages around the world
— four months after it was first reported to the Department of
Defense - Hersh speculated on why those dehumanizing techniques 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 Qaida, the Taliban,
and then the Iraqi insurgency:
My government has a secret unit that since December
of 2001 has been disappearing people just like the Brazilians and the
Argentineans did. Rumsfeld decided after 9/11 that he could not wait.
The president signed a secret document.There's a team of people, they
fly in unmarked planes, they fly in Gulfstreams, they have their own
choppers, they don't carry American passports, and they just grab people.
And maybe in the beginning I can understand there was some rationale.
Right after 9/11 we were frightened, we didn't know what to do …
The original idea behind the sexually humiliating
photos taken at Abu Ghraib, Hersh said he had 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. He talked about an
Israeli, a longtime veteran of the troubles between his country and the
Palestinians, who had emailed him to say, in essence, "We've been killing
them for 40 or 50 years, and they've been killing us for 40 or 50 years,
but we know that somewhere down the line we're going to have to live
with those SOBs.If we had treated our Arabs the way you treated them
in Abu Ghraib, the sexual stuff, the photographs, we couldn't live with
do not begin to understand what you've done, where you have put yourself
in the Arab world."
"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. 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
"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," Hersh
continued. "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,
"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."