Point Austin: Journalism and Memory

Seymour Hersh and the duty to remember

Seymour Hersh
Seymour Hersh (Photo by Jana Birchum)

Hearing Seymour Hersh (see "'There To Tell the Truth'") is simultaneously exhilarating and depressing. I attended two of the events during his week's stay in Austin and have excerpted in this issue and online as much of his wide-ranging conversation (he doesn't really lecture) as I could manage. Hersh has been reporting and writing skeptically about U.S. politics, policy, and actions since the Sixties, and in addition to his numerous irreplaceable books and other publications, he is a walking historical resource. To hear him essentially talking through his own reporting-in-action is a rare treat; yet, a central thread in that river of talk is that so little crucial American history is part of the shared public memory – at least memory sufficient to provide any effect on U.S. government policy.

As he put it, counting the contemporary failures of memory: "One of the things that always amazes me is this total sense of tabula rasa in America. Here we go, we slogged through Vietnam, not understanding the culture, not beginning to understand why we're there – thinking perhaps we're there to stop the spread of communism in Southeast Asia. ...

"We do it again in Iraq. We come in to a culture – we don't know a thing about the culture. We think we're there to stop Sad­dam Hussein from having nuclear weapons that he does not have.

"And now, here we are again in Afghanistan, fighting a war against ... the Taliban, who, the last thing on their agenda is to come to New York and knock down a building. There is no national security threat from the Taliban; we all know that. ... It's been a no-go from the very beginning."

And as he went on to say, we've spent the last decade fighting major wars on two fronts in the Middle East, and yet even while we refuse to entirely extract our forces from Iraq and remain uncertain – largely for reasons of domestic politics – about how quickly we can extract ourselves from Afghanistan, we're seriously contemplating, in league with the Israeli government, a "preemptive" attack on Iran.

As a people, do we never learn anything?

Defy the Drums

It's not blinded memory alone that enables these endless wars. It's also the too often reflexively violent nature of our political culture. We can see it currently on the presidential campaign trail, as both candidates and media carefully police any sign of "weakness" on the part of the Obama administration – by which they mean the slightest hesitation to resort to military force to impose U.S. will. With the lonely and hapless exception of Ron Paul (and that of his former left-wing counterpart, Den­nis Kucinich), no presidential candidate is willing even to question the absolute right of the U.S. government to unilaterally resort to military force in international disputes, although even the threat of such force has been universally considered a crime since World War II.

Our default position has been: Yes, it's a crime – when other countries do it.

It's worth noting that the U.S. population is generally not as bellicose as our governors. We poll steadily against foreign wars, and it usually takes six months to a year of drum-beating by officials and media to get the populace riled up enough to support another invasion. Alas, once engaged for flag and country, it seems to take us years to come to our collective senses.

The next groundwork has already been laid on Iran, with its alleged nuclear weapons program, although as Hersh points out, there is no serious evidence from either U.S. or Israeli sources that Iran is in fact pursuing nuclear weapons. Other than Hersh, will any of us remember the laughable history of Iraq's "weapons of mass destruction"?

Laugh and Remember

Hersh is quick to declare he has no idea what will happen in Iran, especially since a covert war against the country has been under way for some time, and since U.S. action has been historically and politically deferential on such matters to Israeli government priorities. "But now, it's just, we have a lot of gunboats," he said. "I can't make you feel better about what's going to happen. I don't know. I worry that Bibi [Israeli Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu] will do something desperate. They'll do it before the election because they don't like – for those of you who know Hebrew – the kushi, which is a very nasty word for African-Americans, as nasty as any words we make, that's in Hebrew. They don't like Obama, and they're scared to death of what's going to happen if he's reelected, in terms of support [for Israel].

"It's just one of a series of things that should keep you all awake for the rest of your life."

Hersh made the last statement with an air of comic resignation, and it's indeed impossible to endure contemporary history without an extremely capacious sense of humor. But when U.S. politicians, in the White House and elsewhere, resume saber-rattling about Iran – with the generous support of their court transcribers in the national press corps – it's important to keep at hand the skepticism of Hersh and the relative handful of reporters like him. They stand between us and the loss of our memories.

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'There To Tell the Truth'
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Iran war, Seymour Hersh, journalism, Iraq War, Israel

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