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May 11, 2010

Seymour Hersh Describes "Battlefield Executions" by U.S. in Afghanistan

Here's more from Seymour Hersh speaking at the Global Investigative Journalism Conference in Geneva recently. Better looking highlights that don't include this can be found here.

HERSH: The purpose of my [Abu Ghraib] stories was to take it out of the field and into the White House. It's not that the President or the Secretary of Defense Mr. Rumsfeld, or Bush, or Cheney, it's not that they knew what happened in Abu Ghraib. It's that they had allowed this kind of activity to happen.

And I'll tell you right now, one of the great tragedies of my country is that Mr. Obama is looking the other way, because equally horrible things are happening to prisoners, to those we capture in Afghanistan. They're being executed on the battlefield. It's unbelievable stuff going on there that doesn't necessarily get reported. Things don't change.


What they've done in the field now is, they tell the troops, you have to make a determination within a day or two or so whether or not the prisoners you have, the detainees, are Taliban. You must extract whatever tactical intelligence you can get, as opposed to strategic, long-range intelligence, immediately. And if you cannot conclude they're Taliban, you must turn them free. What it means is, and I've been told this anecdotally by five or six different people, battlefield executions are taking place. Well, if they can't prove they're Taliban, bam. If we don't do it ourselves, we turn them over to the nearby Afghan troops and by the time we walk three feet the bullets are flying. And that's going on now.


—Jonathan Schwarz

Posted at May 11, 2010 01:32 PM

"If they run, they're Viet Cong. If they don't run, they're highly disciplined Viet Cong."---Full Metal Jacket.

Posted by: Mike Meyer at May 11, 2010 05:23 PM

So the way the military works, if they can't detain people without reason, they kill them. And if you tell them they can't do the former, you're responsible for the latter. That's a nice little piece of policy blackmail.

Posted by: N E at May 11, 2010 09:14 PM

I'm sorry, but if three SEALs can be prosecuted for allegedly just striking a detainee once, I have a hard time believing his 'anecdotal' evidence, which really means no actual evidence at all. While I don't question the credentials of Mr. Hersch, I do think he has either been misled, or looked for information to fill a narrative he has already made conclusions to. Is there abuse? People are human and all soldiers are people. I won't dispute there are probably some abuses in war, even the 'Greatest Generation' is rife with stories, documented stories, of things that would turn the stomachs of the gentle and civilized mind. But it's a great disservice to portray any of this as a systemic and sanctioned policy going on in Afghanistan.

Posted by: Frank at May 11, 2010 10:58 PM

Maybe the "rules of engagement" say its all good? Hersh may have an agenda, but after the last 8 years of wedding parties shot up, midnight murders, and the Taliban gaining ground, I'm thinking the "battle for hearts and minds" has turned into "If you aren't for us, you're dead"

Posted by: Mike Meyer at May 11, 2010 11:31 PM

Frank raises an interesting point. I hadn't been following the Norfolk trial of three SEALS, but I did get curious and look it up. Yep, the navy has prosecuted from SEALS who an Iraqi detainee claimed had beaten him when he was cuffed and hooded. (Note: The detainee claimed he got a thrashing, not hit just once.) Not surprisingly, in the dispute that followed over what actually happened, the military jury believed the SEALS, not the 'terrorist', which doesn't seem surprising.

But Hersh isn't the only one who is looking for facts to fit a pre-formed narrative, and at least he is looking for facts. The very idea that suggesting the existence of human rights violations by the military is a 'disservice' to the military reveals an important and very harmful bias. The military would benefit from more such 'disservices.' The more the military is criticized for savagery, the less savage it is going to be. And that should be the goal.

The hard-liners on the right know that, which is why they hate any emphasis on human rights and law. They believe in an iron fist, una mano dura, unchecked by legal or moral restraint. Their idea is that if we are the baddest of the bad, we'll get more respect and be more effective out their in Injun Country than if we read 'terrorists' their rights and get them lawyers, which will just make the terrorists laugh at us and gleefully kill more people.

From that perspective, some evildoing by the good guys is a good thing, and criticizing our military for their misconduct is almost treason. It's siding with the enemy in a no-rules fight to the death that we won't win any other way. That's really what the yahoos on the right think. Combine that with their easy presumption that Afghanis are Taliban when that maybe isn't clear and one can see why the new policy arose. Nobody should be surprised by 'anecdoctes' suggesting that prisoners are getting shot rather than released. Imagine the decision: Let's see, I can release the terrorist so he can try to kill me and my buddies tomorrow beacuse I don't have enough evidence against him, or I can just kill the SOB now. Hmmm. Tough call.

Stopping that isn't doing the military a disservice. Ignoring that it happens does everyone a disservice, even if you think Americans are just too civilized and nambypamby.

Posted by: N E at May 12, 2010 06:18 AM

"If they're dead, they're VC" is how I heard it, 40-some years ago...

Posted by: woody at May 12, 2010 08:22 AM

If I'm not mistaken, they are to be taken prisoner and held, and not abused in any way, under the Geneva Conventions. Those archaic, old-fashioned, nonserious Geneva Conventions.

Posted by: Jared H. at May 12, 2010 09:45 AM

Woody is right. It's deja vu all over again (it's Yogi Berra's birthday today).

Posted by: N E at May 12, 2010 09:59 AM

Stop being naive, Frank.

Posted by: brantl at May 12, 2010 11:04 AM

Frank isn't being naive, brantl. He has military connections -- or least wants to give the impression he does -- so he's deliberately passing along the propaganda line.

Frank, it's odd that I never hear the sorts of things you're saying when American forces are subjected to this kind of "abuse." Then it is proof of the fact that we are fighting barbarians who have no respect for human life, whose religion/ideology compels them to be brutal, and with whom there can be no negotiation or truce.

That said, you may well be right that there is no "systemic [sic] and sanctioned policy" for Americans to commit such atrocities in Afghanistan. That would be bad PR, and the military is as careful of its image as any poll-driven politician or antigay minister of the Gospel. So it is impossible to say, because even when there is clear and explicit policy to commit crimes against humanity, as with the US practice of torture, there will be apologists like you who will jump forward to insist that this is an aberration, the misdeed of a few bad apples. But one thing that is also certain is that military lies reflexively about such things (for example, the "lost" video of a massacre of Iraqi journalists and other civilians in 2007, or the more recent massacre of civilians including two pregnant women in Afghanistan, covered up as an "honor killing"), and should never be trusted. The military is an organization whose mission is slaughter and destruction, so it has no good name to defend.

And fussing over a few extra Afghan or Iraqi casualties is beside the point. There is a "systemic and sanctioned policy" behind the illegitimate US presence in both countries. Every Iraqi or Afghan casualty at the hands of the US is another crime, but rather than blame the soldiers involved, I blame their superiors, who've conspired with the government that sent them there and the blood-crazed American citizens who cheered on the aggression.

I happened, by the way, to hear a rebroadcast the other night of a 1945 V-E radio broadcast by Norman Corwin, which imagined an interview with a defeated German soldier, and cut him no slack for just following orders or remaining silent while his government and country worked itself up into a murderous, aggressive fury. But that, of course, doesn't apply to Americans, does it? We're the good guys.

Posted by: Duncan at May 12, 2010 11:33 AM

And, Frank? Seymour Hersch is nearly always right. Check his history.

Posted by: brantl at May 12, 2010 12:27 PM

I agree alot with Duncan. The blame truly lies with the American people. We are sheep and afraid of anything or anyone that does not agree with us or "looks" different than us i.e.-caucasion. we don't investigate for ourselves, we simply rely on corporate newsgivers to tell us how to believe
Until we truly understand that we need to change how we interact with the rest of the world, these military trajedies will continue, well into the future.

Posted by: El-RV at May 12, 2010 12:38 PM

That really sums up most of the Bush years on human rights in general - and too much of the same crap has continued under Obama.

As to Frank's point, I don't find it implausible at all. There are other military and intelligence personnel who have abused, tortured or killed prisoners with few if any consequences. The architects of the Bush prisoner and torture policies are still free and often richer for their work.

Posted by: Batocchio at May 12, 2010 01:24 PM

Frank has taken a lot of heat and deservedly so. The reason people like him take that view is the recognition of the fact that our "good" guys are just as brutal and merciless as the "bad" guys causes a pretty severe moral delimma. Of course, acknowledging we shouldn't even be in those places in the first place and the brutality just serves as a recruiting tool for revenge, a pretty popular concept in the part of Asia we currently occupy, just makes it worse.

Posted by: Blakenator at May 12, 2010 02:57 PM

Kind of interesting--Duncan and NE are pretty close on this issue. I tend to agree with them. I don't know what exactly is going on in Iraq and Afghanistan, but don't expect to have an honest picture for many decades, if that. Nick Turse pointed out a few years ago that the military had a lot more info on atrocities in Vietnam than they had admitted at the time. And by atrocities, I mean the face-to-face kind of atrocities that upset Americans more than when we simply blow up some village from the air.

Posted by: Donald Johnson at May 12, 2010 03:53 PM

Donald Johnson

I know, if I could I would give Duncan a big brotherly hug for being so wise today.

To me, what would really be surprising would be the absence of human rights abuses by soldiers in Afghanistan, because there hasn't been any softening in fundamental military attitudes that would suggest that would have happened. Obama can huff and puff and try to blow the Pentagon down, but only the military itself will be able to work a real change in attitude of the officer's corps. I think many of them care more what Rush and Beck think than what Obama orders.

(Not that it isn't all Obama's fault. . . :)

Posted by: N E at May 12, 2010 04:43 PM

Digby has an article titled "Consensus", on page at this time, discussing yet another "black prison" around Bagram.

Posted by: Mike Meyer at May 12, 2010 08:17 PM

Thanks Mike. Digby's article is worth reading, as are the articles linked from it. Note that the newly discovered black site is supposedly a JSOC facility, meaning it was formerly under McChrystal's command (now under McRaven). The development of combined Special Forces, headquartered at Fort Bragg, is another little prize we owe to the downfall of Carter and the Reagan Revolution (which was not run by the telegenic dolt from which it got its name).

Going back to the earlier discussion, whatever is actually going on is likely much, much worse than we know. I say that because that is what history shows about all our earlier wars. We consistently find out in dribs and drabs and through belated revelations and disclosures that our acts were much more murderous and much less morally defensible than most people thought. That's the main point of secrecy and denials. People don't have the real facts to upset them, and denials are accepted at face value even though they are always lies.)

Posted by: N E at May 13, 2010 10:30 AM

Huh. I also agree with NE's 10:30 post. Say something wacky, NE, so this unnatural situation can come to an end.

Posted by: Donald Johnson at May 13, 2010 02:13 PM

Kurtz reads 'The Hollow Men.'

Posted by: Oarwell at May 13, 2010 06:40 PM

Donald Johnson:

Woodrow Wilson was an idealist who really believed in the goal of self-determination for all peoples of the world; FDR would never have let Hiroshima and Nagasaki happen; JFK got his head blown off so Duncan could be born and spend his life being sarcastic and ungrateful; Richard Nixon got taken out by the hawks for turning his back on them and pushing detente and giving up on Vietnam; Jimmy Carter got effectively taken out by Langley, Big Oil, the hawks in the Pentagon, Wall Street, and the GOP (if that isn't too redundant); Ronald Reagan got shot because he thought he actually WAS the decider but was gullible and dumb; the first Gulf War was as much a set-up as the second but much better done; Osama bin Laden has been dead almost as long as he worked for CIA; and Barack Obama wasn't born on earth.

Take you pick. Good night.

Posted by: N E at May 13, 2010 11:53 PM

Just want to say what a great blog you got here!
I've been around for quite a lot of time, but finally decided to show my appreciation of your work!

Thumbs up, and keep it going!


Posted by: TusAntits at May 15, 2010 11:20 AM

Donald Johnson: while N E made some sense in his first reply to Frank, I don't particularly agree with his comment of May 13 at 10:30 a.m.

Going back to the earlier discussion, whatever is actually going on is likely much, much worse than we know. I say that because that is what history shows about all our earlier wars. We consistently find out in dribs and drabs and through belated revelations and disclosures that our acts were much more murderous and much less morally defensible than most people thought. That's the main point of secrecy and denials. People don't have the real facts to upset them, and denials are accepted at face value even though they are always lies.)

Things are probably worse than we know, but people who want to know could usually find out quite a lot during the wars in question. I. F. Stone, for example, shot down a lot of US propaganda during the US invasion of Vietnam -- the Gulf of Tonkin Incident, for example, and the 1965 (?) White Paper which purported to prove that North Vietnamese troops were swarming all over the South, armed to teeth with weapons from Red China. The horrific violence of the air war in Vietnam was exposed by journalists at the time, but many people liked the idea of dropping napalm on dinks. The illegitimacy of that war, like Bush's wars that followed Obama home until he kept them, was known to anyone who bothered to look at the historical record.

Even now, if we don't know the full scale of US terror, we know enough to condemn it. Government liars usually aren't very good at it, partly because they are poorly informed and partly because they assume the stupidity of their audiences (i.e., the corporate media), and there are always leaks, so it tends to be easy to expose them. The trouble is that most people don't want to know, and will defend the idealism of our Presidents to the last tinfoil hat. Others prefer to ignore the facts in favor of crackpot theories: fluoridation a Commie plot, LBJ a Soviet Jew, MLK an agent of the Kremlin.

For what it's worth (I know N E was trying to be funny, but I hope he doesn't give up his day job for comedy-writing), I was born in 1951, twelve years before Jackie Kennedy fired the fatal shot with the ladylike little derringer she kept in her purse, crawled back to hand it to her Secret-Service lover, and rode into the mists of history. (Credit for that scenario goes to Robert Patrick's great play T-Shirts.) But I think I'll title a blog post "Born to Snark" or maybe "JFK Died for My Snark." And I'm glad to see that N E has returned to his usual mode of, erm, argument, in his comments to later posts. Welcome back!

Posted by: Duncan at May 16, 2010 07:20 PM


You're right that some prescient folks are always ahead of the curve. I.F. Stone certainly had a good idea about Korea long before others, and Vietnam too, and he wasn't alone. But he was part of a small minority, and even then he didn't know how much worse it was than even he knew. An enormous amount been discovered since then, especially about the government lies.

Throughout my life (I'm apparently a full decade younger than you) I've been behind most of the curves, though not as far behind as most people. Even now I still assume I'm probably somewhat behind the curve, because as Lily Tomlin said, no matter how cynical you become, it's impossible to keep up. I'm much better informed now, but not many people are foolish enough to spend hours a day trying to find the truth buried underneath a mountain of lies, and it takes a long time to develop a base of knowledge. Plus, it's hard--especially at first--to know who to believe.

For example, you don't believe a number of things that I've said that I know are true, and you're not going to believe them just because (or especially because) I tell you what I know. To me, it's hard to see how that's different from other people not believing bad things about the military, or otherwise unpatriotic things, that you or someone else tells them. Sorry, but in their opinion you are probably just some anti-American know-it-all who doesn't really know shit but has an unduly high opinion of himself. (Don't feel too bad; they think the same of me.)

I agree with you that plenty of people wanted to inflict ghastly violence on the Vietnamese. Those people are around now too. See the link below.

Those people have always been around. Back in the day they got to go to lynchings, but now all they can do is vote for people who shoot prisoners 60 times, drape a sign on the corpses, and then run for Congress. (See link). Unfortunately, they get a lot of votes, like Ollie North did, even if they don't win.

Back in the 60s most people were deceived, and they didn't have a reliable way to find out that I.F. Stone and Bertrand Russell and Chomsky were right while all the people they had been led to believe they could trust were wrong. And that's true now too. I try to keep track of what's going on in Iraq and South Asia, but I don't know more than hits the internet on those sites I scan. That's certainly only a fraction of the story.

When the full facts come out in 40 or 50 years, I would bet that there will be plenty of facts that would shock even me as I type right now if I were to know them now. And I'm equally sure that you would be surprised by the facts that are known about the assassination of JFK were you to ever have the inclination, and perhaps also have the time, to examine the evidence. You could do it, but you won't. Not that you need to, mind you, except that you seem to have caught that infection that makes people confident about subjects (like assassinations and false flag terrorism) that they don't really know much of anything about.

What I find noteworthy and puzzling is that at the same time you seem to believe that other people who reject evidence about other topics like US war crimes abroad can be judged harshly because they don't know things that they could know were they to make an effort. I don't follow that, because you could know plenty that you don't if you didn't discount some possibilities as unpatriotic or somehow not respectable. You've made your choice about what not to consider worthy of serious consideration, just as they have made theirs.

Posted by: N E at May 16, 2010 08:12 PM