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War stories
Legendary journalist Seymour Hersh talks about Abu Ghraib, the chaos in Iraq, and the price of the Bush administration’s war on terror

SINCE BREAKING the story of the My Lai massacre 35 years ago, investigative reporter Seymour Hersh has specialized in detailed, disturbing coverage of the darker elements of American intelligence and foreign policy. In his new book, Chain of Command: The Road from 9/11 to Abu Ghraib — which anthologizes and expands on his recent writings for the New Yorker — Hersh contends that the abuses at Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison weren’t simply the work of a few wayward individuals; instead, they stemmed from policies formulated at the highest levels of the US government after the September 11 terrorist attacks and are inextricable from the Bush administration’s war on terrorism. Earlier this week, Hersh spoke with the Phoenix about Abu Ghraib, the chaos in Iraq, the American aversion to history, and several other subjects. An edited transcript of the interview follows.

Q: It’s been 35 years since you broke the story of My Lai, and most Americans know about the abuses at Abu Ghraib. Why can conservatives get any mileage out of bashing Kerry for discussing American atrocities during his Vietnam War–era congressional testimony?

A: [Laughs] You really want me to trash all my fellow Americans? You saw the poll the other week — people that are voting for Bush overwhelmingly believe that Saddam Hussein had something to do with 9/11 and Al Qaeda. And there are a lot of people still fighting the Vietnam War. We’ve always had a very sanitized version of war in America. Of course, My Lai cut into that a lot. In this war, when the insurgency began last year, I’ve been told by people involved that when an American convoy would be blown up, they’d really seal off the area. They’d remove the bodies, they’d remove the blood, and they’d remove whatever was blown up, so by the time the reporters got there the site had been cleaned up. Part of the reason people don’t really understand this war and how awful it is, is that they’re not seeing it all.

Q: If Bush is re-elected, do you think we’re going to see new military ventures on the scale of the invasion and occupation of Iraq?

A: I don’t know, but I don’t think we have the forces. What you’re going to see immediately is a continued escalation of the war. Since the puppet regime of Iyad Allawi’s been installed — and you have to use the Cold War term for this guy; this guy brings nothing to the table except a loyalty to America — since Allawi’s been brought in, there’s no question the bombing has gone up exponentially. We don’t get any sortie figures; we don’t even ask. We don’t know how many bombs are dropped. All we know is that the bombing’s going up. And there’s been nothing said about the increase in American bombing of a country we’re occupying! I mean, how’s that compatible with getting the hearts and minds of Iraqis? Wholesale bombing. It’s madness. Bush is going to escalate the bombing. Look, Bush is convinced he’s doing the right thing. He’s got to bring democracy to Iraq. And if it means more body bags, and if it means a diminishing of his reputation, he will do it. These guys now talk — these neocons — they’re now talking about staying in Iraq for five to 10 years.

Q: Will we see the draft reinstituted?

A: Well, I speak a lot on college campuses, and students are as energized as I’ve seen them since Vietnam. And I think the underlying reason is the big D. They think it’s coming. Let’s put it this way: Bush’s credibility on no draft is as good as his credibility on WMDs with the students. The guys I know on the inside think they can muddle through, but with what forces?

What I love is, we have a world in which John Kerry in a debate says: I can win this war, I know how to win this war, I’m going to add more Special Forces. Are you kidding? The recent class of the Special Forces school at Fort Bragg, almost nobody in it was Special Forces. They were recruited from every other service to get a patina of Special Forces training before they were sent out into the field. The Special Forces are in really bad shape. They can’t go another year at this tempo.

Q: So you’re not impressed by Kerry’s plan?

A: To get the Germans and the French to change the nationality of the corpses? I can make you feel better by saying there’s no question the Europeans will respond to a request from Kerry for an international meeting. I think we can have an international meeting, and I think Kerry’ll be smart enough to bring the Iranians and the Syrians into it. Nobody there wants to see Iraq blow up, but it’s blown up. It’s a complete insurgency. I don’t know why we don’t admit it. The bottom line is, if he does bring in, let’s say, Moroccan or some other Muslim forces to buffer the peacekeepers, the insurgents are going to start killing them too.

Q: Given how messy things are in Iraq right now, do you have any sense that neocons like Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz and former Defense Policy Board chair Richard Perle and Under Secretary of Defense for Policy Douglas Feith have lost influence?

A: They should have. But there’s certainly talk about Wolfowitz getting a job in the second Bush administration. I think it’s true that Rummy probably won’t — he’ll probably want out. But he’s not going to be fired. But look — what the fuck difference does it matter what I think? I don’t know anything.

Q: Well, you’re more informed than I am and than our readers are, so —

A: But that doesn’t mean I know anything.

Q: Your reporting depends on the willingness of high-level sources to speak on background about very sensitive issues. But in the last four years, the Bush administration has gotten a reputation as incredibly secretive and internally disciplined. Has its approach to governing made it harder for you to do your job?

A: Bush says, after 9/11, you’re either with us or against us. Once he makes that decision, if you agree with George Bush — if you agree that the next thing to do is not to pursue bin Laden in Afghanistan but to go hieing off to Iraq — you’re a fucking genius. If you disagree — whether you’re a senior CIA analyst or a three-star general or a senior guy in the State Department — you’re not just some guy that disagrees, you’re a traitor to the cause. Guys underneath you that start agreeing get promoted and get to the meetings, and you get cut out. So Bush is creating the people that make me write the alternative history. These are people who spent their career giving presidents or national-security advisers honest advice, and sometimes getting it listened to, but never being punished for it. The reality is, more people than ever will deal with me.


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Issue Date: October 29 - November 4, 2004
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