Investigative journalist Seymour Hersh has broken some of the biggest stories of the past 50 years. He won a Pulitzer Prize for his reporting on the 1968 My Lai massacre during the Vietnam War. His book "Reporter: A Memoir" delves into his reporting on My Lai, as well as on the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq and the killing of Osama bin Laden.
In a wide-ranging discussion, Hersh and Truthdig Editor in Chief Robert Scheer ponder why other journalists were hesitant to report on the notorious My Lai case. Hersh tells how he was sensitized to incidents of "tyranny" he witnessed as a young police reporter in Chicago, adding that self-censorship is something he has fought against much of his career.
His reporting on My Lai stunned readers.
The U.S. soldiers of Company C "didn't just kill babies," Hersh notes. "They were throwing infants up and catching them on their bayonets."
But Hersh and Scheer dismiss the idea that the killers were a uniquely twisted band of monsters who just happened to coalesce at a certain point in time. In fact, Scheer notes the journalist's sympathy for the perpetrators of the massacre. "They had been radicalized by the fact that they were in a foreign country and didn't understand anything," Hersh explains. "In a way, they were victims, too."
Before covering the war, he says, he made a point of reading about the history of the conflict and quickly learned that "the war was a bloodbath."
As he reported the incident, which the military quickly attempted to cover up, Hersh recalls visiting Paul Meadlo, one of the soldiers involved. When he arrived for the interview, he spoke to Meadlo's mother, who said, "I gave them a good boy, and they sent me back a murderer."
"God knows what made them do what they did," Hersh says. But then he answers his own question. "They were trained to do that. In the Army, the first thing they did was take all social values away."
The two also discuss how opposition to President Trump may be responsible for a resurgence in investigative journalism among young people.
Listen to their conversation and read the transcript below. Find past episodes of "Scheer Intelligence" here.
RS: Hi, this is Robert Scheer with another edition of Scheer Intelligence, where I hasten to say the intelligence comes from my guests. Obviously no question, Sy Hersh, you know, one could argue you are the most significant journalist this country has produced in certainly the last half century. I'll say it. And I was warned, picking up your book you say right in the beginning, you can't stand people who go out and report a story without doing their homework, without reading, without reading the book. And I read the book, several times actually. And I want to highly commend it before I engage it. So let me just do that. And there's a trajectory in this book. It starts with you being a kid in Chicago. It turns out you're a young one, you're only about 81 now, right?
RS: Yeah, I'm 82, so I remember the old days. And so you're born in the middle of the Depression, and in Chicago, and your father and mother have gotten out of Eastern Europe before all the Jews were killed. And you have a sort of unvarnished memory of those years. There isn't much reflection on that, other than that this, you know, horrible Holocaust happened. And then you kind of spend the whole, your whole life pursuing the basic question raised by the Holocaust: how did this most advanced society, best educated, Germany -- you know, admired by many people even in the U.S. government at the time, and in U.S. industry for their engineering, their education, their music -- end up being the great barbarians of modern history? And you answer -- well, you don't really answer it, but your book, the power of this book is your reporting delves into barbarism in our homeland, and the things that we've done. What informed you from the very beginning? There's a passion, there's a feeling. I've read some of the reviews, and they really don't capture it. It's not about scoops, it's about giving a damn about people and what happens to them.