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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