Sunday, November 19, 2006

Digging through a stupid war

>> Investigative reporter Seymour Hersh discusses civilian casualties, American ignorance
and leading questions


Seymour Hersh has become famous as the American journalist who has exhaustively covered both the Vietnam War and the current Iraq War. In 1969, he won the Pulitzer for his Vietnam coverage, which included his exposing the My Lai massacre. As a regular New Yorker contributor, Hersh has managed to break numerous crucial stories, most notably uncovering treatment of prisoners in the Abu Ghraib scandal.

Hersh was also the first journalist to state unequivocally that weapons of mass destruction would never be found in Iraq. With his staunch criticism of those in power, Hersh has acquired his share of enemies. Pentagon adviser Richard Perle once called Hersh “the closest thing we have to a terrorist.”

Hersh will be speaking at McGill today, Thursday, Oct. 26. The Mirror spoke to him over the phone from New York.

Mirror: Have you been following the controversy surrounding CNN’s airing of the insurgency sniper footage, in which American soldiers get shot? The American military is accusing CNN of airing enemy propaganda.

Seymour Hersh: I’m at a bit of a disadvantage, because I haven’t been following that. But the discrepancy between what’s seen in the Arab world and what’s seen in the American world is just terrifying. We’ll have an incident in which we claim we’ve bombed a village in response to insurgent fire and 35 insurgents were killed, and that’s the end of the story. Al-Jazeera and the other Arab press will have footage of women and children streaming into hospitals, wounded. So you draw your own conclusions. That’s a chronic issue. If you go back to the days of Paul Fussell, who taught at Yale, years after WWII, he wrote a book about the ways in which censorship was just enormous. In the Japanese islands, where the marines suffered enormous casualties, there was no footage of wounded soldiers. We live in a cocoon, no doubt about it.

M: In terms of the reporting of civilian casualties in Iraq, it seems American journalists have been complicit—

SH: What do you mean by complicit?

M: That they partook in this business of not asking enough questions about civilian casualties.

SH: I don’t know, I think complicit is a strong word.

Casualty discrepancy

M: When Bush was asked about civilian casualties, he responded that he thought it was about 30,000. But he wasn’t asked by a journalist, he was asked by a citizen in a town hall meeting. Do you feel the media has been too reluctant to report on civilian casualties in Iraq?

SH: Oh I don’t know. I think there’s a general weariness. It’s really extremely difficult to speak so generally, without an empirical basis. I hate to sound like a talking head, but in general, what happens is…. Right now, it’s four dead every day. There’s much too little reporting on the wounded. That’s sort of a no-no. I think people just get worn down by, every day, more deaths. How many different ways can you write the same story? But I think the American people know the casualties are going up. I can fault the press for a lot of other things, particularly in the first couple of years of the war. But I think they’re doing all right on that one. In other words, I disagree with you.

M: But we hear about the military casualties, but rarely hear about the numbers of dead Iraqi civilians. I have found that alarming.

SH: Okay, that’s something to be alarmed by. I think you’ll discover in all wars, that’s one of the casualties. Inevitably in a war, that will happen, and it’s depressing. But I’ll save the alarm for something else. Not to be cynical about it, but Jesus Christ, what can I tell you? The discrepancy about casualties is pretty alarming, and if those numbers are true, then the average American is doing a lot more killing in this war than in any other war perhaps. But it’s very hard to get a figure on the casualties. It’s incredibly vague, which is one of the horrible things about stupid wars. Opinions are one thing, but I try to be quite empirical about these things. I have no idea, but I would think 300,000–400,000 is probably about right. But it’s hard for me to give a rational answer, because I don’t have one.

American blinkers

M: Why does so much of the American public often seem wilfully ignorant? Much of the populace seems intent on not knowing what is going on in terms of political and foreign affairs.

SH: This is the strangest interview I’ve ever had.

M: Why?

SH: Because you’re so fucking opinionated. I don’t disagree with you, but we’re just rolling through your thoughts on things. It is sort of silly. No, it’s not silly, but we’re just rolling from whatever obsession you have to the next. You’re pretty obsessional.

M: Isn’t that a fair question?

SH: The ignorance may not be wilful. The problem with this is, in order to answer your questions, I have to buy into what it is you’re saying. I have no fucking way of knowing whether they’re ignorant. I mean, Americans are pretty fucking ignorant. What we don’t know is pretty huge. You could never accuse Americans of learning from history or learning from past mistakes. You’re talking about a country that went to war in Vietnam with the theory that we had to bomb North Vietnam in order to keep the hordes of Red China from coming, right? Not knowing that Vietnam and China had fought wars for 2,000 years and would fight one four years after the war was over, in ’79. What we don’t know is just breathtaking in my country. To call this ignorance wilful as opposed to general ignorance, I don’t know. On any issue, Americans can display an incredible lack of information. I doubt if there’s a society which has paid less attention to the facts than any else.

Quagmire redux

M: There have been many comparisons made between the Vietnam War and the current Iraq War. Though there was resistance to this, Bush recently acknowledged some parallels in an interview. As someone who has covered both conflicts extensively, were you surprised that so many of the same mistakes appeared to be made in Iraq so soon after Vietnam?

SH: Are you suggesting that a) we learn from our mistakes? Or b) that wilful ignorance goes from one generation to the other? (laughs) I’m just answering your questions. You are pretty tendentious. It’s okay, it’s better than dumb questions. It’s not dumb, but just don’t be a lawyer, because the judge will just say, “Rephrase. You’re leading the client.” But that’s okay, you’re entitled to an opinion. I have the same view you do, the problem is that I do believe in being vaguely empirical.

M: Now the debate over the war has come down to how best to pull out of Iraq. What do you think the way out of Iraq is?

SH: There are two options. One is everybody out by midnight tonight, and the second option is everybody out by midnight tomorrow. I don’t think it’s cutting and running, I think it’s getting out. Two years ago, I was pretty sure that the 200-octane fuel that was driving the “insurgency” was us, and the faster we get out, the better. The country was not terribly sectarian before we got on the premises. The Sunnis and the Shi’ites intermarried, many tribes are 50-50. We’ve fostered a great deal of sectarian work. Even the awful, evil Saddam, by the mid-1990s, began to put all kind of Shia into the senior officer corps, in an effort to make it less dominated by the Sunnis. I’m no longer sure who the insurgency is. It’s all so screwed up. If I lived in a country and a bunch of people came in and started raiding my house, and capturing people and killing willy-nilly, I think I would take up arms against those people. Am I an insurgent then? Are the insurgents insurgents or are the Americans insurgents? I think the whole nomenclature is bizarre. We’re the insurgents. It’s their country. It’s a disaster. It’s been a civil war for a year.

Seymour Hersh will deliver his lecture, “Report from Washington,” tonight, Thursday, Oct. 26, at 6 p.m. at McGill’s Mount Royal Centre (2200 Mansfield). Admission free