Socialist Worker

Seymour M Hersh — from My Lai to Abu Ghraib

The US’s foremost investigative journalist, Seymour M Hersh, spoke to Andrew Burgin of the Stop the War Coalition and Matthew Cookson from Socialist Worker about George Bush, US foreign policy and the "war on terror"

Issue No. 1954

Seymour M Hersh

Seymour M Hersh

In 1968 you exposed the US massacre at My Lai in Vietnam. Last year you exposed the torture of Iraqi prisoners in Abu Ghraib. How can things like this happen when those prosecuting the war talk about bringing “freedom” and “democracy” to the world?

Unfortunately, this is what happens in warfare. We were censored during the Second World War — we never saw photographs of dead soldiers in the US. We never got a sense of how the war was.

For us, the war was about our boys fooling around with scarves, no helmets and sticking up their thumbs. The “nips” had their cockpits closed — they had these helmets. We had this amazing Hollywood version of war.

My Lai told us that the we don’t fight wars any better than the “nips” and the “krauts”. Nobody fights wars well — it’s always brutal and it always involves a lot of abuses. These things happen in war, and to think otherwise is madness.

So we in the US are always naive. We thought we could do it better. And what’s pernicious about Guantanamo, Iraq and Afghanistan is that, as bad as we think it is, the whole story isn’t out yet. It’s even worse.

The American people are gradually getting into this. But John Kerry, the Democratic presidential candidate, refused or wasn’t willing to deal with the war.

When people ask me what I think of Kerry not bringing up Abu Ghraib, I always have a pat answer, “You’ve got to admire his brilliance in not dealing with the war, because now he’s president, which shows he was right!” The only shot Kerry had was to make the war an issue — and he didn’t do it.

Tell us about US defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s decision to introduce a “special access programme” involving US forces snatching or assassinating suspected Al Qaida operatives.

That was an early decision, and it’s still going on. We still don’t understand the extent in the US of what we call “rendition”. This is the process of getting the name of someone, going in illegally, grabbing him illegally, taking him some place where the sun don’t shine, beating him up — and if he dies, so what?

It used to be called “disappearing” in Argentina and Brazil, where it caused an enormous outcry.

The real shock in the US is the weakness and the failure of congress. Yes, the president’s been awful, dubious and craven — but that’s a given.

Congress has been much worse. The Democrats have no power at all. The Republicans control everything. There has been no serious investigation into Abu Ghraib.

Insane legal papers that came out after the Abu Ghraib story said that the Geneva Conventions didn’t apply. It’s very troubling for me as an American, because it’s so profoundly against what the whole constitution says.

Although the prisoner abuse scandals in Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib have been big news, the British have had their own abuse scandals. Iraqi civilians have been kicked to death at Camp Breadbasket.

You’ve had the same problems here, although your press has been much better. The anti-war movement has been very intense here.

The marches that the novelist Ian McEwan was writing about, we don’t see them in the US. If anything, it’s backed down a little bit now after the election. People feel a little bit defeated.

I can’t decide whether our congress is supine or prone, but it doesn’t make much difference. In the US it’s the absolute failure of the constitution.

The Times in London published documents about when Bush made his decision to go to war on Iraq. We should be dealing with the issue that the president of the US might have made the decision up to one year before going into Iraq, and had been misleading us.

These are documents showing that the decision to go to war was taken in April 2002. In Britain we have families of servicemen killed in Iraq who are calling for a full public investigation into the decision to go to war.

I watched the British election and I saw Reg Keys, one of the fathers, make an amazing speech in Tony Blair’s home district. This got no attention in the US press.

But I think the worst times are ahead. The next few months are going to be very disturbing for all of us because Bush has got a real problem in Iraq, and he’s not aware of it.

I don’t see how you can avoid a civil war in Iraq. When that happens I don’t know what they’re going to do. I would guess the number of potential terrorists has gone up exponentially because of the war in Iraq.

It’s a question of time. We’ll start seeing more sophisticated people with better English, who will be able to penetrate visa and customs people in western Europe and the US. We could be in real trouble — we could see a spreading insurgency.

We don’t have any intelligence on the other side. We have no idea what’s going on in Iraq — we’re just in there diddling. At some point we might say we’ve had enough, declare peace and walk out — or be kicked out.

And we’re going to have a mess in Iraq. The Sunnis are going half mad worrying about the spread of Iranian democracy or theocracy into the south of Iraq. We’re seeing profound changes, and they’ve been triggered by the US without much forethought — and certainly no afterthought.

Your book, Chain of Command, shows quite clearly how a small group of neo-conservatives, such as Paul Wolfowitz and Richard Perle, took up important positions in the US under Bush. They set about convincing people that the US had to invade Iraq. How could they get their way?

Democracy must be a hell of a lot more fragile than we think. A small group, a cult, can take control of the US so easily. The congress, the press and the military have all been so weak.

The federal bureaucracy, where millions of workers don’t agree with the president, has been weak. It’s staggering, and it says this isn’t as powerful and strong a democracy as we think.

What’s going to be the future of our democracy? What would happen in the US if three crazies walked into a mall and blew themselves up at noon on a Saturday in three cities? What would we do? Would constitutional rights be further atrophied? Yes.

I think this is the most important issue since the Second World War. Bush’s decision to go to war on Iraq was certainly the worst decision a US president has ever made. The consequences of this have not all been seen yet.

The war is enormously expensive, with hundreds of billions of dollars being spent. And there are very serious problems in the army.

Totally — but Bush is going to survive. We have billions of dollars of debt that need to be floated. I was convinced a year ago that with the dollar’s dive against the euro, the economy was going to collapse and the world market would start buying oil in euros.

Instead what happens is that oil prices double — a boon for Bush. Now the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia have so much money, they’re throwing billions into our debt. Bush will get Undersecretary of state John Bolton as the US ambassador to the United Nations as well. We’ve got another year at least of this guy with full power.

What strategy do you think has led to the US being in such a mess in Iraq?

All the information was there. Everyone talks about General Shinseki, the US general who testified before the Iraqi war that it would take hundreds of thousands of troops. Wolfowitz immediately denounced and castigated him.

They weren’t mad at Shinseki because he used different numbers. They were mad at him because hadn’t he been to all those meetings in the Pentagon where the neo-cons assured him that you could win the war with 5,000 troops?

We’d go in and democracy would flow, Saddam would run away, Iran, Syria and what they call occupied Lebanon would fall, and there’d be a new Middle East. They believe all that stuff.

The problem with Shinseki was that he’d been deprogrammed. He had escaped from the clutches of the cult. That’s one way of looking at these guys.

If you agreed that in the months after 9/11 that the path to stopping international terrorism led to Baghdad, you were promoted.

But if you thought that it was the dumbest, most insane thing in the world to think that you were a traitor. You were cut off. You didn’t get the end of the year promotion, or face time with Condoleezza Rice.

That’s how they did what they did. They were ruthless. You were either on the team drinking the Kool Aid, like Jimmy Jones’s followers did in Guyana in 1978 to commit suicide, or you were out.

That’s what we have in my country. And a lot of the press also drank the Kool Aid in the first year.

The left has some impact, but they all just speak to each other. There’s no real anti-war movement like there is in Britain. There’s no ability to get over 100,000 people.

In every war there is a so called “tipping moment”, which decides whether it can be won or not. Do you think we’ve reached that point?

I don’t think this war has ever been winnable. What is “winning”? When the Shia leader Ayatollah Sistani sat out when we attacked Fallujah, the Sunnis knew there was going to be no peace with the Shia.

Sistani did nothing to stop the bombing of Fallujah. I don’t know why people put so much hope in him. What else can be done, besides recreating the Iraqi secret police?

So, you’re pretty pessimistic then?

Totally. The problem is that they’re not listening. In the US the Republicans have total control. I can’t think of a worse job than being a young Democrat in the houses. You can’t offer an amendment. You can’t have a hearing. All you can do is vote no.

It’s unbelievable what these guys have done. They’ve changed the basic structure.

It’s happened in front of us and everybody’s very passive about it. Abu Ghraib showed the way we treat prisoners and there’s been no investigation, nobody has lost their job. What’s to be optimistic about?

What about the strength of the anti-war movement and the fact that the Bush administration is in a very difficult position in Iraq?

They’re going to say that Iraq is better off because we came in and brought democracy. That’s the mantra, “Democracy needs to spread.” And their version of “democracy” means regime change.

I see nothing but expansion by my country. We’re doing operations in north Africa, there’s the whole “democracy” movement in the former central Soviet republics, which is very alarming. They’re getting rid of one guy for another guy.

A lot of people don’t accept the line that’s coming from the White House.

So what if they don’t accept it? These guys don’t change it. I’m not trying to say you should get out of the peace business. But I’m saying this is a more entrenched situation.

Vietnam was always tactical. No matter how big the numbers were, five years after it’s over, they want us to come over and play monopoly and build hotels and do tourism.

This is a war against Muslims. Five years after this war is over, people are still going to be dreaming about flying planes into our buildings.

This is different. It’s a strategic war in which we have very little concept of what we’re doing. We don’t have an endgame.

My country has declared war on people who are non-citizens. They are constantly diminishing the rights of non-citizens. They can be kicked out of the country for the most trivial of offences.

I’ve been in a black mood since September 2001, hanging over me like a penumbra. The press in the US got better over Abu Ghraib briefly, but it had no moral leadership.

But Bush and his people don’t react enough. Most of the time they just ignore me.

I read the transcripts of the Pentagon’s briefings. The first year of Rumsfeld was a real love-in. Someone would say, “Sy Hersh is at it again” and there would be laughter.

The war has become a given. There’s no weapons of mass destruction — well, it doesn’t matter because Saddam’s a bad guy. So they win. Nobody holds Bush to any standard of responsibility — the country’s in chaos, the economy is in chaos.

It troubles me that there’s not a bigger anti-war movement in the US. People in the US are just sleeping, for whatever reason. But I’m doing stuff. I’ve got more stuff to do.

The new paperback edition of Chain of Command: The road from 9/11 to Abu Ghraib by Seymour M Hersh is available from Bookmarks, the socialist bookshop. Phone 020 7637 1848 or go to

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Sat 4 Jun 2005, 00:00 BST
Issue No. 1954
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