Journalist shares his stark view on war

December 06, 2005|By MICHAEL OLESKER

Seymour M. Hersh, the famous investigative reporter, brought the fighting in Iraq into the halls of the Park School the other day. Nobody there got wounded, unless they imagined themselves a few years into the future. Hersh, the man who delivered some of the worst news out of Vietnam three decades ago and some of the worst news out of today's Middle East, painted a pretty bleak picture.

"You guys," he said, gesturing to an auditorium packed with about 250 upper-school students, "are going to be the generation that has to clean up our mess. We're leaving you with a real bad time."

The big room was silent. No shifting in seats, no whispered conversations. Hersh, in a dark suit with his necktie askew and his gray hair slightly disheveled, spoke rapidly, like a man in a big hurry. Which bad news should he deliver first? The war? The political conniving and cowardice in Washington? Sometimes he seemed to free-associate among disasters.

He talked about thousands of soldiers coming home with "catastrophic wounds." He described a president, George W. Bush, as "somebody who's not moved by information" but sees himself as God's special emissary to bring democracy to the Middle East.

"The good news," Hersh said, "is that there are only 1,143 more days of the Bush administration. And, tomorrow morning, when we wake up, there'll be one less day." Going into Baghdad, said Hersh, "was the single worst mistake any U.S. president ever made."

But Hersh wasn't blaming Bush alone. The Democrats, he said, "haven't come up with any platform ... Murtha gives a speech saying we've got to get out of Iraq, and every liberal Democrat runs for the door ... The four-star generals are so afraid that it's scandalous ... The lack of political courage in America is pretty amazing."

Murtha is Rep. John Murtha of Pennsylvania, the senior Democrat on the House Defense Appropriations Subcommittee. In his famous Nov. 17 speech, Murtha reported that the number of attacks in Iraq has increased from 150 a week to more than 700 a week in the past year. He said that an estimated 50,000 American soldiers will suffer from "what I call battle fatigue."

Murtha, said Hersh, "is totally pro-military. The four-star generals go to him. For him to go public is a death knell for this war. It tells you what the generals really think."

Hersh appeared as part of Park School's resident journalist program, now in its eighth year, in which prominent national journalists are brought in through a foundation established by Robert L. Weinberg, the father of a former Park School student.

His speech echoed a story in last week's New Yorker magazine, in which Hersh wrote: "Current and former military and intelligence officials have told me that the President remains convinced that it is his personal mission to bring democracy to Iraq, and that he is impervious to political pressure, even from fellow Republicans. They also say that he disparages any information that conflicts with his view of how the war is proceeding."

He quotes Michael O'Hanlon, a specialist on military issues at the Brookings Institution, saying, "The people in the institutional Army feel they don't have the luxury of deciding troop levels, or even participating in the debate. They're planning on staying the course until 2009." That would mean "some troops would be compelled to serve fourth and fifth tours of combat by 2007 and 2008, which could have serious consequences for morale and competency levels," Hersh wrote.

Most of these Park School students will have graduated by then. There is no military draft - not yet, anyway. But American troops are spread so thin, Hersh said, that "they're cooked. The Army can't get people to go in."

It was Hersh, in the midst of Vietnam, who first brought America a new and disturbing image of its combat troops. They weren't handing out candy bars to the vanquished, they were massacring innocents at the village of My Lai. And it was Hersh who brought us some of the most disturbing images of this generation's soldiers, turning the torture of prisoners at Abu Ghraib prison into a party atmosphere, complete with photos that blackened America's image across the globe.

"That's going to ruin us in the Arab world," Hersh said. "We're fighting for their hearts and minds, and this happens ... What we've done in those prisons is assure a lifetime of resistance and insurgence ... and Bush knew about this torture. He didn't authorize it, but he found out back on Jan. 22, and he did nothing. He knew about systematic abuse. And he did nothing to stop it when he found out."

But Democrats are guilty of their own silence: They've offered no alternative to Bush's war plans. Hersh offered two alternatives: "Everybody get out by midnight tonight. Or, everybody get out by midnight tomorrow. Because we're not going to win the war. And these people who say the Islamic terrorists will then run over us? Please. America is always going to be powerful. But we can't win, we're not winning, and we've got to get out."

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