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Celebrated journalist Seymour M. Hersh first earned his investigative stripes in 1969, when he uncovered the My Lai massacre and refused to let the story die. His account of the U.S. military atrocity in Vietnam was rejected by major news outlets, so Hersh and a friend created their own syndicate overnight, distributing the article to newspapers around the country until, several days later, the New York Times finally bought the piece. Hersh’s work won him a Pulitzer, and he’s continued digging into military and political cesspools, including the CIA’s bombing of Cambodia and its actions against Chile’s Salvador Allende.
Hersh has published seven books on subjects ranging from Henry Kissinger, to the downed Korean Air jet, to the Israeli nuclear-bomb program, each of which has attracted its share of controversy. His last book, The Dark Side of Camelot, an exposé of Robert and John F. Kennedy’s sexual and political escapades, was dismissed by many longtime Hersh admirers as sensationalistic and irrelevant.
With his most recent work, a 25,000-word story entitled “Overwhelming Force,” in the May 22 issue of The New Yorker, Hersh appears to be back on track. “Overwhelming Force” chronicles the extreme actions of much-decorated U.S. Army General Barry McCaffrey, who led his division in one of the biggest and most one-sided battles of the Gulf War. Hersh spent six months on the story, conducting more than 300 interviews. He pieced together a narrative that led him to conclude that “McCaffrey’s offensive was not so much a counterattack as a systematic destruction of Iraqis who were generally fulfilling the requirements of the retreat.” The Army’s own investigations found no wrongdoing, and McCaffrey has vehemently denied misconduct.
In the weeks since the article appeared, it has been hotly debated on television talk shows, in the pages of the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, and on the letters page of The New Yorker itself. Weekly staff writer Sara Catania spoke with Hersh by phone from his Washington, D.C., office.
WEEKLY: Barry McCaffrey is now the Clinton administration’s drug czar. Before you started working on this story about McCaffrey’s conduct in the Gulf War, you were pursuing a story about his work in Latin America. What initially drew you to McCaffrey?
HERSH: I was interested in writing about the drug war, and McCaffrey personifies that. A friend in the intelligence community who knows McCaffrey said to me, “Sy, if you liked Saigon in 1962 you’re gonna love Bogota 2000.” When you hear something like that, you go, “Whoa.” So I started looking into Colombia. I was meeting with an old friend and I mentioned McCaffrey, and this guy said to me, “The story you want to write about is what McCaffrey did in the Gulf War after the cease-fire. What happened with prisoners of war in his division.” So I started looking into it, and pretty soon I knew we were going to be eyeball-to-eyeball with the guy, with some serious stuff.
How would you characterize McCaffrey as a military man? Is he is an anomaly, or does he represent some larger problem?
McCaffrey’s power generated from the fact that he could make or break careers. I doubt if there are many officers as egocentric as McCaffrey. I’ve never met anybody like him. I’ve never known anybody who serves with such control. The way he abused the military structure is pretty extreme. McCaffrey, with his eloquence and his attractiveness and his heroism, he’s totally unafraid and he’s a great wartime leader. It made him terribly appealing to the younger officers. It was the other stuff you couldn’t see, that I write about, that was much more difficult. If McCaffrey’s division — the 24th was so well trained, so almost choreographed — had run into a real combat situation, I’m sure they would have done well, and McCaffrey would have been able to call himself the next Patton, as he liked to do. But they didn’t. They ran into nothing. And that’s when the problems began.
After the piece came out, McCaffrey cited specific facts that he said you got wrong. For example, your sources told you that the retreating Iraqis were leaving the battlefield and that their cannons were reversed and secured. McCaffrey said that wasn’t true.
On page 63 of the article in The New Yorker there’s a large color photograph, a fantastic photograph that came from one of McCaffrey’s staff aides. We did not draw a lot of attention to it, because The New Yorker’s got this wonderful sort of understated way. On the right is an armored vehicle that was being hauled when it was destroyed. It was off-road, on a carrier that was driving it out of the war zone, as it was supposed to have been doing under the cease-fire. Most of the force was on carriers just like that one. A small percentage was not. One of the real concerns the Iraqis had was that there was a lot of dissent inside the Iraqi military itself. They weren’t worried about the Americans as much as they were, possibly, about internecine warfare. To suggest, as McCaffrey has, that they were all in fighting mode is bizarre. Because they were in retreat. McCaffrey says some were firing. Yes, it is true that at the end of the four-hour assault some of the fighting guys, knowing they were going to be destroyed, got their tanks together and formed a circle and just started shooting in the air. McCaffrey isn’t totally wrong, but it’s a great distortion of what the reality was, and in his own photograph there he is, standing next to a burning vehicle being towed away.
In “Overwhelming Force,” you recount several instances of U.S. troops firing on unarmed or retreating Iraqis. In one case, Iraqis are led off a hospital bus, disarmed and lined up in rows in the desert. In another incident, civilians are walking toward a building carrying a white flag. You make it very clear that these Iraqis were killed, though no one you interview actually witnessed the prisoners being shot. Army investigations of both incidents found no deaths or injuries. You said recently that you didn’t go to Baghdad while working on the story because you didn’t want the Army to accuse you of consorting with the enemy. Would a trip now shed any more light on these accounts?
I’m toying with the idea. But it’s the same problem with any wartime information. One of the things I learned in doing My Lai . . . The My Lai massacre took place in the middle of March 1968. I reported about it 18 months later. But two weeks after it took place, the Paris peace talks began between the North Vietnamese and the South Vietnamese and the U.S., and on the second or third day of those talks, in 1968, [shortly] after the My Lai massacre, the North Vietnamese delegation put out a long, explicit statement about what happened and sent it out to the international press, the American press, and nobody wrote a thing. I didn’t know about it until after I did my My Lai work. The problem is, anything that’s put out by a government with which we’re at war we tend to discount, so that’s an issue for me. If I were to go to Iraq and meet some of the people who maybe were at that scene, I don’t know if that would be helpful or not. If you remember, in the article I wrote about a tape. Well, that tape’s been enhanced enormously, and ABC’s been working on it for weeks. I hope they go public with it soon. On the enhanced tape the people that did the shooting are heard speaking, talking about what they did.
What are they saying?
Well, we have a group of scout soldiers that collected around 400 prisoners who came off an Iraqi hospital bus. They took the weapons away and they were ordered to leave their prisoners. As they were pulling away, one of McCaffrey’s battalions came on line — 13 or 14 tanks — saw the prisoners and started shooting. On the tape we hear the scout platoon, as they are leaving, screaming because they were being shot at. At one point, they actually have radio contact — which is only brought out by enhancement — with various members of the shooting unit.
So what the enhancement brings to light is the actual people who were doing the shooting?
The now-enhanced tape definitely shows the follow-on company was talking about the shooting of people.
You’ve spent the last three decades digging into the murkiest depths of American politics and government. How do the incidents you describe in “Overwhelming Force” fit into that continuum?
They’re all my babies. This one bothers me the most . . . It doesn’t bother me more than My Lai. My Lai was devastating. In the end, I spent a long time talking to the kids that did the killing. And they ended up figuring out that the kids who did the killing — most of them uneducated, lower-middle-class, many not with high school degrees — were as much victims as the people they murdered. I could come to terms with it that way. In this case, what bothers me about the Gulf War is that in the 24th Division there was no war. And there was no press there, and so I just wonder what happened elsewhere. Was there much war elsewhere? I’m not sure. What was this victory? What was the war about? Those are some of the questions I don’t have answers to.
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