Seymour Hersh: A Man Still on Fire

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In the fall of 1969, as men walked on the moon and Ted Kennedy's car slipped off a bridge, Sy Hersh, a 32-year-old hard-nosed reporter, was chasing down the biggest tip of his life. The Army was detaining a soldier, somewhere, for allegedly killing a large number of Vietnamese civilians. He understood that such a massacre spoke directly to what the war in Southeast Asia had become: American boys killing old men and women and children.

Seymour Myron Hersh needed little convincing that the war was bad -- and little training in how to track it down. In his cub reporting days at the City News Bureau in Chicago he had learned to do whatever he had to get information in the rough-and-tumble of the Windy City. Then, at the Associated Press for four years, he learned to cuddle up to all sorts of sources, from a triumphant Martin Luther King Jr. to reluctant generals who confirmed illegal bombings in Vietnam.

And, more importantly, Hersh had learned to hate the growing conflict in Vietnam. "If it's a just war and it makes sense, it's going to be reflected in the coverage," he said. "There was something wrong with that war." But the AP, a neutral journalistic arm, muffled him more than he could tolerate. When in 1968 he wrote a long exposé about America's growing use and production of chemical and biological weapons, the AP neutered the story.

Hersh quit, an angry young man indignant that the U.S. was ignoring what the rest of the world had agreed to -- international protocols that banned these weapons. He wrote a seminal book on the topic, but it bombed at book stores. And now, a freelancer, with a growing family, he was looking for stories. And that is when a source called Hersh because he heard he was tough, angry, persistent -- and hated injustices. When Hersh got the tip he became a bulldog, duping the attorney for the accused soldier, William Calley, into revealing that his client was charged with killing 111 "Oriental human beings." The number would grow to more than 500.

Hersh then flew to Fort Benning, Georgia, a huge military base, and spent a day traipsing in and out of offices, kicking on doors, posing as a lawyer, talking to more people than could be imagined in a day's work. Finally, bleary-eyed, a bit tipsy from drinking with soldiers to get them to talk, he ran into -- by chance -- Rusty Calley. And they went off to drink scotch and eat steaks. Calley told Hersh the story of that awful day, March 16, 1968, when his platoon threw grenades in huts and rounded up civilians, and then just shot them in cold blood.

When a young child crawled out from a pile of bodies, Calley shot him. Hersh had uncovered the My Lai massacre, the bloodiest shooting spree in a long and dreadful war. Hersh had to beg a string of newspapers just to print the story, but when they did, the story shot round the world.

But Hersh was not done. He criss-crossed the country to find soldiers who participated -- in small Midwest towns, in the Rocky Mountains, at the Jersey shore. And each story was worse than the other. "I gave them a good boy, and they sent me back a murderer," bemoaned a mother in New Goshen, Indiana. We became "wild animals," a soldier told him.

Hersh flew back to Washington after his interviews to file yet another story. "I cried when I thought about those boys," he said. "I was more than shocked at the details I was getting. I mean -- I'd cry thinking about it. They were talking about shooting kids and executing people... It was horrifying." A tough reporter was weeping, and furious.

Meanwhile, The White House and Pentagon were scrambling to respond. It was too late to keep the genie bottled. Now it was a matter of trying to make Hersh seem an unpatriotic dupe of the communists for writing a story in a war where, after all, who knows who is a bad guy. The backlash against Hersh began.

But he was unbowed. Even when, in the middle of the night, soldiers would call his home and tell him what they would do to his private parts, Hersh did not back off. He wrote five stories, a book that detailed the day of the massacres, then another book that showed how the Army tried to cover up the killings -- and bump the blame to low-level soldiers.

Hersh did not let them get away with it. His exposé was another nail in the coffin of public support for the war. His My Lai work won him the Pulitzer Prize for international reporting in 1969 and is still one of the best documentaries on the atrocity. And why did he pursue a story that surely others must have known about but ignored?

Partly it was Hersh's personality. When he bites, he does not let go. Moreover, he goes to places where other journalists will not tread. Massacres by American troops were a no-fly zone -- until Hersh wrote it and the media pack descended with a fury. "Terrible things always happen in war, [but] the responsibility of the press is ... to find, verify, and publish the truth," he says. But most importantly, Hersh -- like his hero I.F. Stone -- is eternally indignant at injustice. At 76 years old, he is now chasing a book on the plunder of Dick Cheney. He says it is simple: go for the great story.

But it is more complex. The fire in his belly makes him see those great stories -- from illegal bombing in Cambodia, to the overthrow of Chile's Allende, to Israel's hidden nuclear weapons, to the prison abuse at Abu Ghraib. All his stories.

What has angered him most over 40 years in journalism, as he has leapt from one scandal to another, is the lack of morality in decision-making. Yes, he likes money; he can bully sources, and he uses way too many anonymous sources. And, yes, he loves the spotlight. But anger at injustice and wrongs are what fuel Hersh. He is, as one author suggests, "a man on fire." "The word morality or immorality is never part of the debate," he complains. Too often, "It's not even on the pages... " Not for Sy Hersh.

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