We’ve Been Taken Over By a Cult
Editors’ Note: This is a transcript of remarks by SEYMOUR HERSH at the Stephen Wise Free Synagogue in New York.
About what’s going on in terms of the President is that as virtuous as I feel, you know, at The New Yorker, writing an alternative history more or less of what’s been going on in the last three years, George Bush feels just as virtuous in what he is doing. He is absolutely committed — I don’t know whether he thinks he’s doing God’s will or what his father didn’t do, or whether it’s some mandate from — you know, I just don’t know, but George Bush thinks this is the right thing. He is going to continue doing what he has been doing in Iraq. He’s going to expand it, I think, if he can. I think that the number of body bags that come back will make no difference to him. The body bags are rolling in. It makes no difference to him, because he will see it as a price he has to pay to put America where he thinks it should be. So, he’s inured in a very strange way to people like me, to the politicians, most of them who are too cowardly anyway to do much. So, the day-to-day anxiety that all of us have, and believe me, though he got 58 million votes, many of people who voted for him weren’t voting for continued warfare, but I think that’s what we’re going to have.
It’s hard to predict the future. And it’s sort of silly to, but the question is: How do you go to him? How do you get at him? What can you do to maybe move him off the course that he sees as virtuous and he sees as absolutely appropriate? All of us — you have to — I can’t begin to exaggerate how frightening the position is — we’re in right now, because most of you don’t understand, because the press has not done a very good job. The Senate Intelligence Committee, the new bill that was just passed, provoked by the 9/11 committee actually, is a little bit of a kabuki dance, I guess is what I want to say, in that what it really does is it consolidates an awful lot of power in the Pentagon — by statute now. It gives Rumsfeld the right to do an awful lot of things he has been wanting to do, and that is basically manhunting and killing them before they kill us, as Peter said. "They did it to us. We’ve got to do it to them." That is the attitude that — at the very top of our government exists. And so, I’ll just tell you a couple of things that drive me nuts. We can — you know, there’s not much more to go on with.
I think there’s a way out of it, maybe. I can tell you one thing. Let’s all forget this word "insurgency". It’s one of the most misleading words of all. Insurgency assumes that we had gone to Iraq and won the war and a group of disgruntled people began to operate against us and we then had to do counter-action against them. That would be an insurgency. We are fighting the people we started the war against. We are fighting the Ba’athists plus nationalists. We are fighting the very people that started — they only choose to fight in different time spans than we want them to, in different places. We took Baghdad easily. It wasn’t because be won. We took Baghdad because they pulled back and let us take it and decided to fight a war that had been pre-planned that they’re very actively fighting. The frightening thing about it is, we have no intelligence. Maybe it’s — it’s — it is frightening, we have no intelligence about what they’re doing. A year-and-a-half ago, we’re up against two and three-man teams. We estimated the cells operating against us were two and three people, that we could not penetrate. As of now, we still don’t know what’s coming next. There are 10, 15-man groups. They have terrific communications. Somebody told me, it’s — somebody in the system, an officer — and by the way, the good part of it is, more and more people are available to somebody like me.
There’s a lot of anxiety inside the — you know, our professional military and our intelligence people. Many of them respect the Constitution and the Bill of Rights as much as anybody here, and individual freedom. So, they do — there’s a tremendous sense of fear. These are punitive people. One of the ways — one of the things that you could say is, the amazing thing is we are been taken over basically by a cult, eight or nine neo-conservatives have somehow grabbed the government. Just how and why and how they did it so efficiently, will have to wait for much later historians and better documentation than we have now, but they managed to overcome the bureaucracy and the Congress, and the press, with the greatest of ease. It does say something about how fragile our Democracy is. You do have to wonder what a Democracy is when it comes down to a few men in the Pentagon and a few men in the White House having their way. What they have done is neutralize the C.I.A. because there were people there inside — the real goal of what Goss has done was not attack the operational people, but the intelligence people. There were people — serious senior analysts who disagree with the White House, with Cheney, basically, that’s what I mean by White House, and Rumsfeld on a lot of issues, as somebody said, the goal in the last month has been to separate the apostates from the true believers. That’s what’s happening. The real target has been "diminish the agency." I’m writing about all of this soon, so I don’t want to overdo it, but there’s been a tremendous sea change in the government. A concentration of power.
On the other hand, the facts — there are some facts. We can’t win this war. We can do what he’s doing. We can bomb them into the stone ages. Here’s the other horrifying, sort of spectacular fact that we don’t really appreciate. Since we installed our puppet government, this man, Allawi, who was a member of the Mukabarat, the secret police of Saddam, long before he became a critic, and is basically Saddam-lite. Before we installed him, since we have installed him on June 28, July, August, September, October, November, every month, one thing happened: the number of sorties, bombing raids by one plane, and the number of tonnage dropped has grown exponentially each month. We are systematically bombing that country. There are no embedded journalists at Doha, the Air Force base I think we’re operating out of. No embedded journalists at the aircraft carrier, Harry Truman. That’s the aircraft carrier that I think is doing many of the operational fights. There’s no air defense, It’s simply a turkey shoot. They come and hit what they want. We know nothing. We don’t ask. We’re not told. We know nothing about the extent of bombing. So if they’re going to carry out an election and if they’re going to succeed, bombing is going to be key to it, which means that what happened in Fallujah, essentially Iraq — some of you remember Vietnam — Iraq is being turn into a "free-fire zone" right in front of us. Hit everything, kill everything. I have a friend in the Air Force, a Colonel, who had the awful task of being an urban bombing planner, planning urban bombing, to make urban bombing be as unobtrusive as possible. I think it was three weeks ago today, three weeks ago Sunday after Fallujah I called him at home. I’m one of the people — I don’t call people at work. I call them at home, and he has one of those caller I.D.’s, and he picked up the phone and he said, "Welcome to Stalingrad." We know what we’re doing. This is deliberate. It’s being done. They’re not telling us. They’re not talking about it.
We have a President that — and a Secretary of State that, when a trooper — when a reporter or journalist asked — actually a trooper, a soldier, asked about lack of equipment, stumbled through an answer and the President then gets up and says, "Yes, they should all have good equipment and we’re going to do it," as if somehow he wasn’t involved in the process. Words mean nothing — nothing to George Bush. They are just utterances. They have no meaning. Bush can say again and again, "well, we don’t do torture." We know what happened. We know about Abu Ghraib. We know, we see anecdotally. We all understand in some profound way because so much has come out in the last few weeks, the I.C.R.C. The ACLU put out more papers, this is not an isolated incident what’s happened with the seven kids and the horrible photographs, Lynndie England. That’s into the not the issue is. They’re fall guys. Of course, they did wrong. But you know, when we send kids to fight, one of the things that we do when we send our children to war is the officers become in loco parentis. That means their job in the military is to protect these kids, not only from getting bullets and being blown up, but also there is nothing as stupid as a 20 or 22-year-old kid with a weapon in a war zone. Protect them from themselves. The spectacle of these people doing those antics night after night, for three and a half months only stopped when one of their own soldiers turned them in tells you all you need to know, how many officers knew. I can just give you a timeline that will tell you all you need to know. Abu Ghraib was reported in January of 2004 this year. In May, I and CBS earlier also wrote an awful lot about what was going on there. At that point, between January and May, our government did nothing. Although Rumsfeld later acknowledged that he was briefed by the middle of January on it and told the President. In those three-and-a-half months before it became public, was there any systematic effort to do anything other than to prosecute seven "bad seeds", enlisted kids, reservists from West Virginia and the unit they were in, by the way, Military Police. The answer is, Ha! They were basically a bunch of kids who were taught on traffic control, sent to Iraq, put in charge of a prison. They knew nothing. It doesn’t excuse them from doing dumb things. But there is another framework. We’re not seeing it. They’ve gotten away with it.
So here’s the upside of the horrible story, if there is an upside. I can tell you the upside in a funny way, in an indirect way. It comes from a Washington Post piece this week. A young boy, a Marine, 25-year-old from somewhere in Maryland died. There was a funeral in the Post, a funeral in Washington, and the Post did a little story about it. They quoted — his name was Hodak. His father was quoted. He had written to a letter in the local newspaper in Southern Virginia. He had said about his son, he wrote a letter just describing what it was like after his son died. He said, "Today everything seems strange. Laundry is getting done. I walked my dog. I ate breakfast. Somehow I’m still breathing and my heart is still beating. My son lies in a casket half a world away."
There’s going to be — you know, when I did My Lai — I tell this story a lot. When I did the My Lai story, more than a generation ago, it was 35 years ago, so almost two. When I did My Lai, one of the things that I discovered was that they had — for some of you, most of you remember, but basically a group of American soldiers — the analogy is so much like today. Then as now, our soldiers don’t see enemies in a battlefield, they just walk on mines or they get shot by snipers, because it’s always hidden. There’s inevitable anger and rage and you dehumanize the people. We have done that with enormous success in Iraq. They’re "rag-heads". They’re less than human. The casualty count — as in Sudan, equally as bad. Staggering numbers that we’re killing. In any case, you know, it’s — in this case, these — a group of soldiers in 1968 went into a village. They had been in Vietnam for three months and lost about 10% of their people, maybe 10 or 15 to accidents, killings and bombings, and they ended up — they thought they would meet the enemy and there were 550 women, children and old men and they executed them all. It took a day. They stopped in the middle and they had lunch. One of the kids who had done a lot of shooting. The Black and Hispanic soldiers, about 40 of them, there were about 90 men in the unit — the Blacks and Hispanics shot in the air. They wouldn’t shoot into the ditch. They collected people in three ditches and just began to shoot them. The Blacks and Hispanics shot up in the air, but the mostly White, lower middle class, the kids who join the Army Reserve today and National Guard looking for extra dollars, those kind of kids did the killing. One of them was a man named Paul Medlow, who did an awful lot of shooting. The next day, there was a moment — one of the things that everybody remembered, the kids who were there, one of the mothers at the bottom of a ditch had taken a child, a boy, about two, and got him under her stomach in such a way that he wasn’t killed. When they were sitting having the K rations — that’s what they called them — MRE’s now — the kid somehow crawled up through the [inaudible] screaming louder and he began — and Calley, the famous Lieutenant Calley, the Lynndie England of that tragedy, told Medlow: Kill him, "Plug him," he said. And Medlow somehow, who had done an awful lot as I say, 200 bullets, couldn’t do it so Calley ran up as everybody watched, with his carbine. Officers had a smaller weapon, a rifle, and shot him in the back of the head. The next morning, Medlow stepped on a mine and he had his foot blown off. He was being medevac’d out. As he was being medevac’d out, he cursed and everybody remembered, one of the chilling lines, he said, "God has punished me, and he’s going to punish you, too."
So a year-and-a-half later, I’m doing this story. And I hear about Medlow. I called his mother up. He lived in New Goshen, Indiana. I said, "I’m coming to see you. I don’t remember where I was, I think it was Washington State. I flew over there and to get there, you had to go to – I think Indianapolis and then to Terre Haute, rent a car and drive down into the Southern Indiana, this little farm. It was a scene out of Norman Rockwell’s. Some of you remember the Norman Rockwell paintings. It’s a chicken farm. The mother is 50, but she looks 80. Gristled, old. Way old – hard scrabble life, no man around. I said I’m here to see your son, and she said, okay. He’s in there. He knows you’re coming. Then she said, one of these great — she said to me, "I gave them a good boy. And they sent me back a murderer." So you go on 35 years. I’m doing in The New Yorker, the Abu Ghraib stories. I think I did three in three weeks. If some of you know about The New Yorker, that’s unbelievable. But in the middle of all of this, I get a call from a mother in the East coast, Northeast, working class, lower middle class, very religious, Catholic family. She said, I have to talk to you. I go see her. I drive somewhere, fly somewhere, and her story is simply this. She had a daughter that was in the military police unit that was at Abu Ghraib. And the whole unit had come back in March, of — The sequence is: they get there in the fall of 2003. Their reported after doing their games in the January of 2004. In March she is sent home. Nothing is public yet. The daughter is sent home. The whole unit is sent home. She comes home a different person. She had been married. She was young. She went into the Reserves, I think it was the Army Reserves to get money, not for college or for — you know, these — some of these people worked as night clerks in pizza shops in West Virginia. This not — this is not very sophisticated. She came back and she left her husband. She just had been married before. She left her husband, moved out of the house, moved out of the city, moved out to another home, another apartment in another city and began working a different job. And moved away from everybody. Then over — as the spring went on, she would go every weekend, this daughter, and every weekend she would go to a tattoo shop and get large black tattoos put on her, over increasingly — over her body, the back, the arms, the legs, and her mother was frantic. What’s going on? Comes Abu Ghraib, and she reads the stories, and she sees it. And she says to her daughter, "Were you there?" She goes to the apartment. The daughter slams the door. The mother then goes — the daughter had come home — before she had gone to Iraq, the mother had given her a portable computer. One of the computers that had a DVD in it, with the idea being that when she was there, she could watch movies, you know, while she was overseas, sort of a — I hadn’t thought about it, a great idea. Turns out a lot of people do it. She had given her a portable computer, and when the kid came back she had returned it, one of the things, and the mother then said I went and looked at the computer. She knows — she doesn’t know about depression. She doesn’t know about Freud. She just said, I was just — I was just going to clean it up, she said. I had decided to use it again. She wouldn’t say anything more why she went to look at it after Abu Ghraib. She opened it up, and sure enough there was a file marked "Iraq". She hit the button. Out came 100 photographs. They were photographs that became — one of them was published. We published one, just one in The New Yorker. It was about an Arab. This is something no mother should see and daughter should see too. It was the Arab man leaning against bars, the prisoner naked, two dogs, two shepherds, remember, on each side of him. The New Yorker published it, a pretty large photograph. What we didn’t publish was the sequence showed the dogs did bite the man — pretty hard. A lot of blood. So she saw that and she called me, and away we go. There’s another story.
For me, it’s just another story, but out of this comes a core of — you know, we all deal in "macro" in Washington. On the macro, we’re hopeless. We’re nowhere. The press is nowhere. The congress is nowhere. The military is nowhere. Every four-star General I know is saying, "Who is going to tell them we have no clothes?" Nobody is going to do it. Everybody is afraid to tell Rumsfeld anything. That’s just the way it is. It’s a system built on fear. It’s not lack of integrity, it’s more profound than that. Because there is individual integrity. It’s a system that’s completely been taken over — by cultists. Anyway, what’s going to happen, I think, as the casualties mount and these stories get around, and the mothers see the cost and the fathers see the cost, as the kids come home. And the wounded ones come back, and there’s wards that you will never hear about. That’s wards — you know about the terrible catastrophic injuries, but you don’t know about the vegetables. There’s ward after ward of vegetables because the brain injuries are so enormous. As you maybe read last week, there was a new study in one of the medical journals that the number of survivors are greater with catastrophic injuries because of their better medical treatment and the better armor they have. So you get more extreme injuries to extremities. We’re going to learn more and I think you’re going to see, it’s going to — it’s — I’m trying to be optimistic. We’re going to see a bottom swelling from inside the ranks. You’re beginning to see it. What happened with the soldiers asking those questions, you may see more of that. I’m not suggesting we’re going to have mutinies, but I’m going to suggest you’re going to see more dissatisfaction being expressed. Maybe that will do it. Another salvation may be the economy. It’s going to go very bad, folks. You know, if you have not sold your stocks and bought property in Italy, you better do it quick. And the third thing is Europe — Europe is not going to tolerate us much longer. The rage there is enormous. I’m talking about our old-fashioned allies. We could see something there, collective action against us. Certainly, nobody — it’s going to be an awful lot of dancing on our graves as the dollar goes bad and everybody stops buying our bonds, our credit — our — we’re spending $2 billion a day to float the debt, and one of these days, the Japanese and the Russians, everybody is going to start buying oil in Euros instead of dollars. We’re going to see enormous panic here. But he could get through that. That will be another year, and the damage he’s going to do between then and now is enormous. We’re going to have some very bad months ahead.
SEYMOUR HERSH’s latest book is Chain of Command: The Road to Abu Ghraib.