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My Lai, Abu Ghraib

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Earlier this month I traveled to Philadelphia for the annual convention of our trade group, the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies (AAN). It was my first visit to that city. As a lifelong political junkie, I was drawn like a magnet to Independence Hall. I stood in absolute awe of the room that served as the birthplace of both the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.

The keynote speaker of the AAN convention was Seymour Hersh, a legend in this field of journalism. He was the reporter, 40 years ago, who broke the story of the Vietnam War’s My Lai massacre. Hersh told us at the root of that single day-long event in 1968 — the slaughter of hundreds of old men, women and children by U.S. troops — was Defense Secretary Robert McNamara’s “Project 100,000.” That number was the quota of fresh new recruits needed to feed the beast of war. Government officials were able to achieve that quota by lowering the entrance standards of military service, targeting more poor blacks, Hispanics and rural whites, who were then supplied with amphetamines to keep them alert. I was familiar with much of the story, but not the part where Hersh went to the home of one of the leaders of that group of men, called Charlie Company. The man’s mother met Hersh outside her home and told him, “I gave them a good boy and they sent me back a killer.”

Fast forward to 2003 and, astoundingly, it was Hersh again who broke the story of Abu Ghraib. And he did it the old-fashioned way, from a tip. Someone knew a soldier who came home from the Iraq war a very changed woman — psychologically dysfunctional, withdrawing from everyone she knew. The soldier just happened to have a souvenir CD containing photos of prisoners and their captors, of attack dogs snarling, and prisoners with hoods and wires attached to their bodies. Hersh says the public hasn’t seen the worst of the photos even today, ones where the dogs tear at the genitals of a naked man and the panicked guards, who crudely try to sew him back together. The guards in Abu Ghraib were “hardscrabble kids” from the U.S., Hersh said. Their prisoners, however, were from a society whose culture prohibits males to even be seen nude in the presence of other men much less women. It’s also a culture of people with long, long memories and a penchant for revenge. We may not see the end of the Abu Ghraib story yet for decades.

Hersh drew some similarities between the two wars. There were government lies to justify the initial invasion, enemies the troops couldn’t see in the jungle or those who blended in with everyone else on the street, inadequately trained military personnel, and the growing frustration when comrades are killed beside you in battle.

After the history lesson, Hersh held forth on the current state of the country’s affairs. The news isn’t very good either: “We’ve never had a government this corrupt,” he said — one that has systematically dismantled oversight and debased our legal system. The president is not only inept, but cannot, will not be educated. There is no way out of Iraq and ultimately, Iran will be the winner. The Central Intelligence Agency shut down its station in Afghanistan because “we killed too much,” made the Taliban look good, and Afghans turned against us. He had harsh words for the cowardly Congress and the mainstream media for allowing the Bush administration to do all this damage.

Hersh left us with a little beam of hope — that if successful, Obama at least has the ability to think outside the box. And then he gave us a small pat on the head for providing “a venue for people with passion, people who care.”

I looked around the room that day at colleagues I’ve known now for more than 10 years. I am proud of this loose network of 150 newspapers across the nation. Because at a time when the mainstream media was still too traumatized by 9/11 to challenge Bush’s deceitful logic for the Iraq invasion, the alternative press was not.

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