Journalist Seymour Hersh Speaks At UCI
By Audrey Kemp
Photograph by Hestia Liu
Guests who attended UCI’s 26th Annual Margolis Lecture had the opportunity to ask renowned investigative reporter Seymour Hersh questions after his lecture on foreign policy Thursday evening, Jan. 17.
Hersh, a longtime contributor for “The New Yorker” and the “New York Times,” flew in from Washington D.C. to speak at the annual event sponsored by the Center for Global Peace and Conflict Studies. Each year, the center invites distinguished political figures to discuss international affairs on campus.
The director of the Center for Global Peace and Conflict Studies, Professor Stergios Skaperdas introduced Hersh to the stage as the “greatest investigative reporter of his generation and probably of the generations since then.”
Hersh, also known as Sy Hersh, gained prominence in the early 1970s with his Pulitzer Prize-winning exposé on the Mai Lai massacre cover-up during the Vietnam War. He is also acclaimed for his coverage of Watergate, the clandestine bombing in Cambodia, and the CIA’s spying on domestic dissidents for the “New York Times.” His work has earned various awards, including the George Polk Award, the National Magazine Award and the George Orwell Award.
Elaborating on Hersh’s prowess, Skaperdas said “In an age of increasing media self-censorship and unreliable news, Seymour Hersh stands out as a unique voice personifying what the free press should look like.”
Hersh began by discussing his first experiences with media self-censorship and the obstacles he faced while working on his Mai Lai story. Hersh, who covered the Vietnam War for the Associated Press from the Pentagon, faced opposition from Robert McNamara, the Secretary of Defense under John F. Kennedy, for his reporting. “The AP was upset as well, because they wanted to go along with the war,” Hersh said of his experience. Hersh would leave the AP and the Pentagon, and reported on the Mai Lai story as a freelancer based on his own research.
Giving students in the audience his best piece of advice, Hersh said, “I hate to tell students this, but you really have to read before you write. I’m serious,” he said. “Writing comes easy if you know what you’re talking about.”
Before diving into current issues, Hersh briefly covered the chronology of United States foreign policy in the Middle East, which he believes greatly affects the present. “We’ve been in real problems before,” Hersh said. “The whole premise of what’s going on in the Middle East is completely nuts.”
Going back to the weeks following the 9/11 attacks, Hersh mentioned that the CIA had received a message from various senior Taliban leaders, claiming they had nothing to do with 9/11 and advising the U.S. not to wage war if they did not know the history of Afghanistan. To dismantle the al-Qaeda and Taliban, the White House proceeded despite the warning, which turned into a conflict that “history books are probably going to judge as one of the worst mistakes we’ve ever made,” according to Hersh.
Hersh qualified his statement by stating “We’re now in year 17 and a half, and how’s it going in Afghanistan? Trump has thrown it to Pence. Now Pence is in control. Pence has a great history as a military tactician,” he said while the audience laughed.
“He’s talked about removing some troops, but it hasn’t happened. We’re dying left, right and center. We still have boys getting killed. It’s the longest war in American history.” Acknowledging the present, the reporter said one of the biggest current issues is that the neocons, who he alleged put us into the into the Gulf War back in 1991, are back in power. “It’s like cockroaches. You just can’t stop them, the [Robert] Kagans and the [John] Boltons” he added.
Hersh, who famously reported on the torture of Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib in 2004, also revealed why he believes Bush and the neocons shifted their sights to Iraq — because they thought they had a bomb: “Never mind that [they] did not, never mind that there had been studies galore,” he said, also attributing the “them-versus-us” and Sunni-versus-Shia situations in the Middle East, as well as Iran being targeted by the Gulf States and Saudis to United States foreign policy. “Stupidity seems to just come with the presidency,” he added.
Hersh expressed various opinions on what might happen in Syria and the surrounding countries, but contends his thoughts are conjecture for the time being. “There are collateral deaths all over the place in this war, as there always is in war,” he told the crowd. “I don’t know why we are so casual about war. You always kill civilians. We see that in the West Bank and we see that everywhere.”
The event concluded with a signing of Hersh’s latest book, “Reporter: A Memoir,” which chronicles his turbulent relations with editors and publications throughout his career, including at the “New York Times.”