Seymour Hersh - Investigative Journalist HARDtalk


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Seymour Hersh - Investigative Journalist

Stephen Sackur talks to investigative journalist Seymour Hersh. Fifty years on from My Lai, are journalists still able to tell the truth to power?


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Now on BBC News, HARDtalk.

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Welcome to HARDtalk,

I'm Stephen Sackur.

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50 years ago US soldiers committed a

war crime that came to haunt the

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doomed mission to rollback communism

in Vietnam.

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More than 500 men, women

and children were systematically

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slaughtered in the

village of My Lai.

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The terrible truth was exposed

thanks to the work of investigative

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journalist Seymour Hersh.

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He can look back on a lifetime

of reporting that has been

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punctuated by scoops,

prizes and plentiful confrontations

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with the powers that be.

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50 years on from My Lai,

are journalists still able to tell

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the truth to power?

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Seymour Hersh, welcome to HARDtalk.

Hello. White you will have always

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said that key to your journalism was

this idea you had of being the

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outsider.

Where did that mindset

come from?

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I can't psychoanalyse myself, I

don't understand it, but I was an

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outsider. I grew up... My parents

were immigrants, neither one

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graduated from high school. The only

learning I did, the real pressure I

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had, was when I was 13 I was getting

the book of the month club, which is

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non-fiction every month, and reading

sometimes about the perils of

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communism but also reading about the

Hackford monarchy and the Chinese

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history, so I was always reading on

myself. As a journalist, I've

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learned two things that I think is

important, one you have to read

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before you write, and then when you

get the story you've got to get the

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hell out of the way of the story and

just know enough to tell it, let the

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words tell it. There's no such thing

as a fantastic story, there's a

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story that becomes fantastic in the

telling. Those are two things I kept

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in mind always.

I'm very aware you

came of age, you entered the world

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of work and entered journalism in

the 1960s, a time of deeply

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polarised opinion, a time when many

young Americans, particularly at

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university and right after it were

of an anti-war persuasion, was that

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you?

Know, I came in in 60, 19 60. I

went to the University of Chicago,

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was an OK student, I hated law

school, dropped out, sold beer, what

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kids do, got a job as a police

report, crime reporter for the

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agency called the... I learned there

that the city was yours as long as

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you... You could be tough on cops as

long as you didn't interfere between

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the cops and

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between the

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and fear because the Chicago Mafia

ran the city and as long as you

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respected that. I saw up close

tyranny in a way.

Let's remember

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we're recording this interview at

the very time of the 50th

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anniversary of one of the darkest

incidents in the history of the US

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military and US war fighting, that

is the massacre of more than 500

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civilians in My Lai. That was in

March of 1968. We might never know

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the extent of what happened, the

truth of what happened, if it hadn't

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been for your reporting. How did you

dig deep into that story? What

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brought it to you?

I ended up working for the

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associated press in Chicago and then

I ended up in Washington for them

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covering the Pentagon. I like

military people, and I like people

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in the intelligence community, as

critical as I can be, because

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there's a lot of very good ones. At

that time I was very aggressive and

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energetic and I wouldn't just take

briefings, I ran around and talk to

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people. I think one should. I don't

want a briefing, I want to know for

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myself what's going on. I began to

get into the cynicism of the officer

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corps about the war and I began to

meet officers. America... Like your

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country, we're a very open society,

and before long there telling me,

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it's a bloodbath. So I knew there

was trouble and so when I got a

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tip... Somebody called up one day

and said to me, Hersh, maybe you

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will chase it, there's a terrible

story, so I tried to run it down, it

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took a little while, then surely I

learned the name Kelly from and

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offers a.

That's important because

this gentleman, William Cowley, who

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was a lieutenant I think leading a

platoon, the company, Charlie

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company, this particular offensive

operation which ended up in the

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village off to, he was at the centre

of your story. -- of My Lai. You

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found him when he was back in the

United States in 1969 after this

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terrible event. How did you find

him?

You know, I wasn't told his

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name, I was told something bad had

happened and I'd gone nowhere,

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looked and looked. The military... I

was in the Army, I understood in the

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army you can't hide anybody. It's a

big combine, big machine, one day

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I'm walking and I see a young

officer I hadn't seen before, he's a

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kernel, and he was limping. I'm just

chasing a story, it was a month of

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not finding anything, I was doing

other things, I had a book contract

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and I bumped into him and he just

came back and he was limping and I

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knew him well because he was a very

good guy when I was at the Pentagon,

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this was two years later, he said,

what the hell are you doing here? He

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said I just got shot in Vietnam. He

said, I just made general. I said,

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my God, you took a bullet to make

general? I said, what are you doing

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now? I said I'm working for the

chief of the army, a general Wes

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Morgan. I said wow. I said tell me

about this massacre. This very nice

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guy, I'm thinking just telling me

something incidental, then he

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started hitting his badly, this

general, he just shot everybody,

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there's no story there. It's the

perfect mesh, here's an officer

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being responsible and here's me

saying oh my God, he has just

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dropped a dime on me and of course

I'm playing cool, I don't want

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anybody to know. From their once I

had the name I found out there was a

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Calley that had been in the Army, I

found a lawyer, flew out to see the

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lawyer, he was a Mormon insult like

city, Calley's lawyer.

The point we

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need to get to is your confrontation

with Calley. You found him, he was

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still in Fort Benning, Georgia,

presumably still wearing his

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military uniform and you went down

their?

I didn't know where to go, I

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knew he had come into Fort Benning.

We don't have so much time so I want

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to cut to the chase if I may. I want

to know, when you finally locate

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him, you agree to meet him, he

agrees to see you, he knows you're a

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journalist, what was that moment

like when you met a guy who you knew

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by then was intimately involved in

the massacre of hundreds of

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Vietnamese women and children as

well as men?

Of course I wanted to

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hate him because I thought he

spoiled not only what he had done to

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the Vietnamese but also to America,

I thought he had done something

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heinous and he turned out to be this

very slight, nervous, frightened, he

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said to me quickly and casually,

your lawyers told me you were going

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to find me, I look for him for 15

hours. I went to where he was

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living, he gave me a beer, he had

translucent skin, you could see his

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veins, he talked about it as if it

had been a big battle. It was just a

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massacre and I knew that already but

at one point he went to the John

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Connor he said I had to go to the

John, the door was ajar and I could

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see he threw up bacterial blood,

which meant he had an ulcer. I knew

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this guy was dying. Eventually he

didn't want me to go away, he kept

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me there for half a night, I didn't

get to him until about 11pm and 6am

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I'm still there. We had dinner, he

picked up a nurse he knew, he tried

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to be normal and he ended up telling

so many different stories it was

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complicated as hell, he really

screwed himself with me.

Was he

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telling anything like the truth? We

now know the next to the eyewitness

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testimony of those few people who

survived the macro to massacre, we

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know 100 people were rounded up and

put in a drainage ditch and they

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were shot down, including impotence,

including women and their children.

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We know one child escape to the

training pitch, he hadn't been

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killed under one of the bodies, he

escaped and then as I understand it

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Calley ordered one of his men to get

that child, bring him back and then

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shoot him down. Did Calley

confessed?

He told different

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stories. Initially he said it was

just a battle and later he said, I

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had orders. The answer is he did not

confess, he did not say it was

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murder, he said there may have been

a lot of unfortunate deaths in

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between, there was a firefight and

people were there. He told a

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complicated story that didn't make

sense.

I want you to watch with me a

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piece of tape, a HARDtalk interview

from 2004, and extraordinary

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interview done with Hugh Johnson. He

was an Army pilot.

I know about him.

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He was in a helicopter, he came down

over My Lai, he put it in front of

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US troops trying to get to a

makeshift bunker where a dozen

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Vietnamese villagers were

sheltering, trying to escape from

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the violence, and he said to those

US troops, he said, if you try and

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attract these villagers I'm going to

get my gun is to fire at you. Now

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that was heroism. Let's just look at

his recollection of My Lai, because

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you've talked about it, let's see a

man on the grounds remember it.

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They were lined up, marched down to

a ditch, some of them, 170 of them,

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hands above ahead, and executed.

That's not war, that's not what a

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soldier from any country does.

That's murder. These were not

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soldiers. These were hoodlums. These

were terrorists. Disguised like

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soldiers. No soldier is taught to do

that. I knew the pain and suffering

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inflicted for no reason, no reason

whatsoever, there was no threat.

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It's amazing looking at that even

now, he says these men, the US

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soldiers, were not soldiers, they

were hoodlums and terrorists. Hugh

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Johnson, think it's fair to say, was

never really the same man again. He

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took to drink, he died early, and he

died in some ways a broken man. You

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were not in My Lai at the time but

you wrote about it and you thought

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about it and it's been a shadow in

your life ever since. Has it

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affected you?

Oh my god, I would

cry. There are things I didn't write

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about, digging live babies, throwing

them up and catching them with

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bayonets. The raping that went on. I

had a two-year-old child. I get

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teary now. You cry thinking about

it. I would call home. I don't know

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whether I was crying for myself, for

my country all those kids. I ended

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up writing a couple of books about

it and I ended up by saying those

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that did the killing were the

victims in a way as much as those

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they killed, there was a sense they

had no idea they had been allowed to

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become animals by the lack of

leadership. There was a complete

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breakdown in leadership

across-the-board. Thompson suffered

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immediately, by the way. He went

back that day, you have no idea how

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it strawberry it is to land a

chopper. It's a chopper with two

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machine-guns -- extraordinary. Larry

Coleman was there as well and I got

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to know him very well. The kids at

My Lai, I saw them a year later,

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they were all working night jobs

with no people around.

The US

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soldiers who came back were broken

men?

Those who killed and those who

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didn't kill, those who did kill

didn't tell because they were afraid

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of getting Ebola too -- didn't kill.

Thompson came back and by the

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afternoon every officer was on their

ask. Don't report this, we will give

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you a break, we won't court-martial

you for this. He was doing the right

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thing in the wrong place at the

wrong time I guessed. I don't think

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he did, I think he did the right

thing in the right place but they

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went nuts trying to stop him from

carrying on.

You are a reporter now

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in your 81st year, think I'm right

in saying, and you've seen a lot of

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warfare, you've seen a lot of

conflict, you've studied what

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happens to men in the most

stressful, the most violent

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situations and you, for example,

leaving aside Vietnam, are famed for

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your reporting of what the Americans

did in Iraq after the invasion,

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including the torture and abuses in

Abu Ghraib. What are your

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conclusions about what can happen to

soldiers in the most extreme

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circumstances, even American

soldiers, who are supposed to be

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upholding the values of freedom and

democracy and everything else, what

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happens when they are in these

situations?

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It depends on leadership. If you are

a young captain and you have 100

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boys under your command, you are a

local practice. When the system

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fails from the top on, that is what

happened. It was a option from the

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top down. There was a famous line of

the general at the time saying that

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the Vietnamese don't mind dying like

we do, it is not as much of a for

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them. The action is that in a famous

documentary. -- he actually said

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that. It is a little scary to think

about how awful it can be in the

0:14:410:14:48

military, not just American, you

guys had a problem too.

Do you

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believe in evil? That is partly what

I am thinking.

You know, I don't

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think it matters what I believe in

or what I think, it matters what I

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do in a sense. I think there is

evil. That is a terrible question, I

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don't want to answer it in a

terrible, funny way because I see

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how quickly you can get to evil and

I grok the world where we thought

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the Germans and Japanese, World War

Two, were the evil. To find out that

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we don't fight wars any was very

traumatic.

I am wondering if you

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feel, from your reporting from

Vietnam, including My Lai, and the

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Iraqi invasion and its aftermath, do

you believe your journalism has made

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a difference?

Sure. Absolutely. I am

not walking around as if I am out

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Olympus brushing so from my mental

because I am working hard, of course

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it did, I am aware of that. Also,

there are things it didn't do. It

0:15:520:15:58

didn't end Vietnam's war, it doesn't

end of the brutality in combat.

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Could argue lessons learned in

Vietnam's were quickly forgotten,

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one reason why the United dates

found itself invading Iraqi and the

0:16:050:16:09

2000th. You could argue that things

like the surveillance of the

0:16:090:16:16

intelligence agencies in the 1970s,

that didn't teach America very

0:16:160:16:20

month, much because what, look what

happened in the last decade with

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Edward Snowden. You could say that

actually, the work you have done

0:16:260:16:30

over 50 years hasn't really made any

difference at all.

You can certainly

0:16:300:16:35

say this, that the notion of

American general presidents learning

0:16:350:16:41

from history, come on, give me a

break. I don't understand why every

0:16:410:16:47

General that gets to be the chairman

of the joint chiefs doesn't remember

0:16:470:16:50

how bad war can be. You can say that

but I would punch you if you did and

0:16:500:16:58

meant it, of course it made a

difference and of course journalism

0:16:580:17:01

is very port and -- important.

It is

very important that journalists it

0:17:010:17:08

right and you think your credibility

was fundamentally undermined by the

0:17:080:17:12

time she got things wrong? I could

list a few of them. Believing in the

0:17:120:17:16

papers that reported to show that

Marilyn Monroe was blackmailing JFK,

0:17:160:17:20

it wasn't true but he believed those

papers were real. You accuse the US

0:17:200:17:24

ambassador in Chile without knowing

about a CIA plot to topple the

0:17:240:17:31

leader. That was untrue and you had

to apologise for it. Obama would say

0:17:310:17:35

that you completely misconstrued the

killing of some of them live in --

0:17:350:17:41

Osama bin Leyden, his White House

saying that you wrote a nonsense

0:17:410:17:44

about that. Your critical -- your

credibility is an issue too.

It is

0:17:440:17:50

funny you say that. I believed the

papers. I am held to a very high

0:17:500:17:56

standard.

And you have let yourself

down sometimes.

In that case I would

0:17:560:18:00

say to you that the job of a

investigative reporter is always to

0:18:000:18:06

be open-minded. I believed in them

and found out they were fake copy,,

0:18:060:18:12

Italy six or seven months but I

believe in them. I chased and worked

0:18:120:18:16

hard but they weren't good. They

never showed up anywhere.

You are

0:18:160:18:19

honest about that, why haven't you

been honest, for example, about this

0:18:190:18:23

story to put in the London review of

books about the assassination of

0:18:230:18:28

Osama bin Leyden. All sorts of evil

in the military said that Seymuor

0:18:280:18:34

Hersch got that plain wrong. -- Bin

Laden.

They are wrong. I am not

0:18:340:18:43

afraid to go one-on-one with the

President. Today we have a problem

0:18:430:18:46

because we have the study for our

new cycle where the White House can

0:18:460:18:50

dominate.

You think there is a

crisis in journalism today?

0:18:500:18:55

Absolutely. There is fake news

everywhere.

Fake news is a term

0:18:550:19:00

people used to disrespect news they

don't like.

Now you have the New

0:19:000:19:05

York Times and the Washington Post,

excellent newspapers, who had it

0:19:050:19:09

wrong on the election and both had

to write letters of apology just as

0:19:090:19:13

they did about the Iraqis on the

weapons of mass destruction to back.

0:19:130:19:17

They had to write an apology to its

readers and we led you to think she

0:19:170:19:22

was going to win the whole time and

we had a wrong. We also had

0:19:220:19:26

information that they suppressed

about the polling and didn't

0:19:260:19:28

acknowledge all of that.

In a way,

you are intriguing because you have

0:19:280:19:35

seen through much of your life to

conclude that all President like,

0:19:350:19:38

all deceived, and here we have a

president, Donald Trump, accused by

0:19:380:19:44

many in the so-called mainstream

media of telling more lies, more

0:19:440:19:48

consistently than any president we

have known in history and yet you

0:19:480:19:53

seen to be saying that Obama was a

wire, Clinton was a liar, Bush

0:19:530:19:59

senior was a liar. You see anything

different today and particular in

0:19:590:20:03

relation to this president and the

media?

I think there is, look on it

0:20:030:20:10

would have been better for an awful

lot of people in America if Trump

0:20:100:20:14

had not been elected.

What I am

getting at is that under the Trump

0:20:140:20:20

administration, with Donald Trump's

particulate take on the media, do

0:20:200:20:24

you think the relationship between

power, particularly in Washington,

0:20:240:20:29

and the media is more toxic now than

it has ever been?

Yes, of course. Is

0:20:290:20:34

not a question, it is a fact. Is

terribly toxic. I also think, in a

0:20:340:20:40

funny way, he is a circuit Reiko. He

is completely different. -- circuit

0:20:400:20:46

breaker. That does not mean he is a

junkyard dog and doesn't read or

0:20:460:20:50

know anything. He is a circuit

breaker and it is sort of

0:20:500:20:54

interesting. I didn't vote to him,

it doesn't matter who I voted for, I

0:20:540:20:58

wouldn't in a million years but now

that we have him as president and I

0:20:580:21:02

think the hostility towards him

verges on INSAT 30 -- insanity in

0:21:020:21:08

the major newspapers, they are

unable to look at anything in an

0:21:080:21:11

objective way. We have Fox News who

looks at the press putting it

0:21:110:21:18

mildly, and we have the New York

Times and Washington Post I think

0:21:180:21:21

going way over, there is nothing he

can do make anybody happy.

It seems

0:21:210:21:26

like various media outlets in the

United dates they take sides. It is

0:21:260:21:31

all partisan and is all opinion and

polemic rather than fact -based,

0:21:310:21:36

evidence -based. You still believe,

in truth, in an objective truth in

0:21:360:21:42

journalism? -- do you.

I had a job,

one of my editors and the Times

0:21:420:21:50

asked me to come right about Bingham

in eight 1972. -- Vietnam's. I sat,

0:21:500:21:57

writing the story and he would walk

into the newsroom behind me and give

0:21:570:22:01

me a rub, like the Bill Murray

Robert. And he would say how is my

0:22:010:22:07

little commie today and he would say

what you have in the? It was very

0:22:070:22:11

conservative. -- he was. Forget the

politics, I don't check my dentist

0:22:110:22:17

to check whether he is conservative

or not I want a good dentist. He

0:22:170:22:22

knew that even though I was an open

democrat I was not going to write a

0:22:220:22:27

story to the best of my ability that

wasn't true and he could always ask

0:22:270:22:31

me and I would always tell him the

sources. That is one of the things,

0:22:310:22:36

even at the London review, the same

checking went on at the New Yorker.

0:22:360:22:40

The editors know for whom I write

and so I say when the London review

0:22:400:22:45

is write a 10,000 word story going

against everything that has been set

0:22:450:22:48

from the White House about the

killing of Osama bin London. --

0:22:480:22:52

said. -- Bin Laden. They have

checked that as hard as any other

0:22:520:22:58

story in the world.

You still

believe in fact checking. Yes or no

0:22:580:23:01

because I want to finish. If you

were setting out today, given the

0:23:010:23:05

climate we have described in

journalism today, would you still

0:23:050:23:08

want to be a journalist in this 20

47 digital, fake news era that we

0:23:080:23:14

live in today? -- 40 47. -- 20 47.

0:23:140:23:20

-- 2/47.

0:23:200:23:23

I would want to be an editor. Some

people at the BBC are having a lot

0:23:230:23:29

of fun and are working hard. I would

want to push myself to be an editor

0:23:290:23:33

so I could change things as it is

all. It is not good. It is just not

0:23:330:23:39

good, it is toxic, as you say. I

hadn't thought of that word. It is

0:23:390:23:44

toxic. We have to let the guy, let

my president see the fellow wacko in

0:23:440:23:49

North Korea, who knows? You just

don't know. The hostility against

0:23:490:23:53

everything he says is all a little

over the top. I don't like him, I

0:23:530:23:59

don't want him as president, but so

what? I wish the press to get out a

0:23:590:24:04

little more.

We have to end it

there. Seymour Hersch, thank you for

0:24:040:24:08

being on HARDtalk.

Thank you.

0:24:080:24:12

On 16 March 1968, US soldiers committed a war crime during the Vietnam war. More than 500 men, women and children were systematically slaughtered in the village of My Lai. The terrible truth was exposed thanks to the work of investigative journalist Seymour Hersh. He can look back on a lifetime of reporting that has been punctuated by scoops, prizes and plentiful confrontations with the powers that be. Fifty years on from My Lai, are journalists still able to tell the truth to power?