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?”
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.”
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.”
“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.’ -Seymour Hersh
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 them. You guys do not begin to understand what you’ve done, where you have put yourself in the Arab world.”
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 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,” 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, 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.”