Seymour Hersh on Abu Ghraib, My Lai, and Beyond

Sey­mour Hersh almost seems out of place in our era of soft ped­al jour­nal­ism. Look­ing at his track record, he knows one way to approach a sto­ry, and that is with inten­si­ty and no punch­es pulled. In 1969, he broke the sto­ry on My Lai, reveal­ing how US troops mas­sa­cred over 500 peo­ple — most of them women, chil­dren and old men — in a small Viet­namese town. It was an affair that the mil­i­tary had ini­tial­ly tried to cov­er up. Next, dur­ing the 1970s, as a New York Times reporter, Hersh report­ed first on the secret bomb­ings in Cam­bo­dia and the US-led coup in Chile. Then, fast for­ward anoth­er 25 years, and you find Hersh, now work­ing for The New York­er, writ­ing hard sto­ries on Iraq, most­ly dur­ing a moment when his fel­low jour­nal­ists were refus­ing to take a hard look at what we were doing there. These writ­ings have since formed the basis of his recent book, Chain of Com­mand: The Road from 9/11 to Abu Ghraib.

Through­out the war, Hersh was out ahead on many sto­ries. But, he’ll be remem­bered pri­mar­i­ly for break­ing the sto­ry on Abu Ghraib. In the spring of 2003, Hersh and CBS’s 60 Min­utes II both got ahold of the famous pho­tos reveal­ing the tor­ture and abuse of Iraqi pris­on­ers. But while CBS decid­ed to heed the Pen­tagon’s request not to pub­lish the pho­tos, Hersh and David Rem­nick, the edi­tor of The New York­er, imme­di­ate­ly decid­ed to take the sto­ry pub­lic. And, with that, the com­plex­ion of the war effort began to change. Look­ing back, it’s clear that this was the first of a series of rev­e­la­tions that caused the Amer­i­can pub­lic to lose con­fi­dence in the Bush admin­is­tra­tion, and the Repub­li­cans to lose this week’s nation­al elec­tion and Don­ald Rums­feld, his job. When the defin­i­tive his­to­ry of the Iraq War gets writ­ten, it’s almost a cer­tain­ty that the rev­e­la­tion of Abu Ghraib will be con­sid­ered an impor­tant turn­ing point.

These days, Hersh has been turn­ing his atten­tion to Iran and also hit­ting the lec­ture cir­cuit. Arriv­ing on the Stan­ford Uni­ver­si­ty cam­pus just a cou­ple weeks ago, Hersh gave the keynote speech for a con­fer­ence called Think­ing Human­i­ty after Abu Ghraib (which I will be writ­ing more about lat­er), and his speech has now been made dig­i­tal­ly avail­able. (If you have iTunes, you can access the audio here.) To be clear, it’s not your usu­al uni­ver­si­ty talk. It’s stream of con­scious­ness all the way, and it has a sur­pris­ing, but wel­come, kind of frank­ness to it. Things get par­tic­u­lar­ly inter­est­ing when (toward the end of his talk) Hersh gets to speak­ing in spe­cif­ic detail about how he cracked the Abu Ghraib sto­ry. Here you get an insid­er’s look at how an inves­tiga­tive jour­nal­ist dogged­ly fol­lows a chain of leads, which can take him to both banal and dan­ger­ous places, until he puts the full sto­ry togeth­er. It’s cap­ti­vat­ing … as is his brief sug­ges­tion that he’ll soon be writ­ing more about how senior Amer­i­can offi­cials knew much more about what was hap­pen­ing at Abu Ghraib and then cov­ered it up. The insin­u­a­tion is stay tuned for Abu Ghraib II.

To learn more about My Lai, check out this part of PBS’s site, The Viet­nam Expe­ri­ence.

Many of Her­sh’s post 9/11 and Iraq writ­ings can be found in the The New York­er Iraq Archive.”

The pho­tos doc­u­ment­ing the abus­es at Abu Ghraib can be found in this col­lec­tion.

Final­ly, if you want to watch Sey­mour Hersh speak, you’ll want to check out this UC Berke­ley video. Please note that Hersh starts speak­ing exact­ly at 40:00, so you may want to move the slid­ing time bar ahead to that time.

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