Seymour Hersh Comments Evoke Media Overreactions

On January 17, famed New Yorker Magazine investigative reporter Seymour Hersh made a speech in Doha, Qatar at a college operated by the Georgetown University School of Foreign Service. The first half of the transcript of the speech has been published here by Foreign Policy Magazine. The speech contains a great deal of background information and speculation–which, when it comes from a reporter of Hersh’s caliber, is often quite fascinating. I’d suggest reading the whole thing before taking the word of Hersh’s numerous media critics.

The bit of the speech that has drawn the media’s ire is a few remarks Hersh made about fundamentalist Christian influence in the U.S. Military and and offhand remark about Obama’s wimpy leadership. Foreign Policy’s Blake Hounshell mocked the speech in a blog post:

In a speech billed as a discussion of the Bush and Obama eras, New Yorker journalist Seymour Hersh delivered a rambling, conspiracy-laden diatribe here Monday expressing his disappointment with President Barack Obama and his dissatisfaction with the direction of U.S. foreign policy.

“Just when we needed an angry black man,” he began, his arm perched jauntily on the podium, “we didn’t get one.”

Hersh told the audience he is writing a book about how a small group of “neoconservative whackos” took over the U.S. government. Hounshell writes:

Hersh then brought up the widespread looting that took place in Baghdad after the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003. “In the Cheney shop, the attitude was, ‘What’s this? What are they all worried about, the politicians and the press, they’re all worried about some looting? … Don’t they get it? We’re gonna change mosques into cathedrals. And when we get all the oil, nobody’s gonna give a damn.'”

“That’s the attitude,” he continued. “We’re gonna change mosques into cathedrals. That’s an attitude that pervades, I’m here to say, a large percentage of the Joint Special Operations Command.”

He then alleged that Gen. Stanley McChrystal, who headed JSOC before briefly becoming the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, and his successor, Vice Adm. William McRaven, as well as many within JSOC, “are all members of, or at least supporters of, Knights of Malta.”


“Many of them are members of Opus Dei,” Hersh continued. “They do see what they’re doing — and this is not an atypical attitude among some military — it’s a crusade, literally. They see themselves as the protectors of the Christians. They’re protecting them from the Muslims [as in] the 13th century. And this is their function.”

Hounshell also devoted a follow-up blog post to picking apart some of Hersh’s claims.

The reaction of various media members to these comments seems to me to have been a bit of an overreaction. Paul Farhi at the Washington Post focused on the accusations about General Stanley McChrystal:

A spokesman for McChrystal said the general “is not and never has been” a member of the Knights of Malta, an ancient order that protected Christians from Muslim encroachment during the Middle Ages and has since evolved into a charitable organization. These days, the Knights, based in Rome, sponsor medical missions in dozens of countries. McChrystal’s spokesman, David Bolger, said Hersh’s statement linking McChrystal to the group was “completely false and without basis in fact.”

Interestingly, no one speaking for McChrystal said anything in response to the suggestion that he might be involved with Opus Dei. Since we have at least two members of the Supreme Court who are Opus Dei members, why would it be surprising to find their members in other high government offices?

If you read the transcript of Hersh’s speech, you’ll see that Hersh acknowledges that both the Knights of Malta and Opus Dei do good work, but that is ignored in the mocking media responses.

More from Farhi:

Hersh’s attempts to link the religious groups to the Pentagon, meanwhile, brought a denunciation from Catholic League President Bill Donohue, who said Hersh’s “long-running feud with every American administration – he now condemns President Obama for failing to be ‘an angry black man’ – has disoriented his perspective so badly that what he said about the Knights of Malta is not shocking to those familiar with his penchant for demagoguery.”

Bill Donohue? Seriously? I’m supposed to believe Bill Donohue over Seymour Hersh? Sorry, no can do.

Further, Pentagon sources say there is little evidence of a broad fundamentalist conspiracy within the military. Although there have been incidents in which officers have proselytized subordinates, the military discourages partisan religious advocacy.

But is that really true? I don’t have time to dig up all the possible evidence for Christian fundamentalist influence in the military, but I’ll provide one reliable source. Jeff Sharlet, who has now written two books on “The Family,” the secretive fundamentalist organization that courts politicians and other powerful people, wrote an article in Harpers’ Magazine in 2009 called “Jesus Killed Mohammed: The Crusade for a Christian Military.” Sharlet writes:

When Barack Obama moved into the Oval Office in January, he inherited a military not just drained by a two-front war overseas but fighting a third battle on the home front, a subtle civil war over its own soul. On one side are the majority of military personnel, professionals who regardless of their faith or lack thereof simply want to get their jobs done; on the other is a small but powerful movement of Christian soldiers concentrated in the officer corps. There’s Major General Johnny A. Weida, who as commandant at the Air Force Academy made its National Day of Prayer services exclusively Christian, and also created a code for evangelical cadets: whenever Weida said, “Airpower,” they were to respond “Rock Sir!”—a reference to Matthew 7:25. (The general told them that when non-evangelical cadets asked about the mysterious call-and-response, they should share the gospel.) There’s Major General Robert Caslen—commander of the 25th Infantry Division, a.k.a. “Tropic Lightning”—who in 2007 was found by a Pentagon inspector general’s report to have violated military ethics by appearing in uniform, along with six other senior Pentagon officers, in a video for the Christian Embassy, a fundamentalist ministry to Washington elites. There’s Lieutenant General Robert Van Antwerp, the Army chief of engineers, who has also lent his uniform to the Christian cause, both in a Trinity Broadcasting Network tribute to Christian soldiers called Red, White, and Blue Spectacular and at a 2003 Billy Graham rally—televised around the world on the Armed Forces Network—at which he declared the baptisms of 700 soldiers under his command evidence of the Lord’s plan to “raise up a godly army.”

What men such as these have fomented is a quiet coup within the armed forces: not of generals encroaching on civilian rule but of religious authority displacing the military’s once staunchly secular code. Not a conspiracy but a cultural transformation, achieved gradually through promotions and prayer meetings, with personal faith replacing protocol according to the best intentions of commanders who conflate God with country. They see themselves not as subversives but as spiritual warriors—“ambassadors for Christ in uniform,” according to Officers’ Christian Fellowship; “government paid missionaries,” according to Campus Crusade’s Military Ministry.

So are Hersh’s accusations really “loopy” as Charles Lane, also of the Washington Post, claims?

Well known Catholic writer and former priest James Carroll has also claimed there is a “fundamentalist surge in the U.S. military.”

Carroll, in a recent interview with Tom Engelhardt of The Nation Institute, talked about his experiences working on a documentary version of his book. Part of that project involved delving into allegations that an evangelical Christian subculture had taken root at the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs and, by larger extension, across the U.S. military.

Carroll was appalled by what he found.

“In the Pentagon today,” he says, “there is active proselytizing by Christian groups that is allowed by the chain of command. When your superior expects you to show up at his prayer breakfast, you may not feel free to say no. It’s not at all clear what will happen to your career. He writes your efficiency report. And the next thing you know, you have, in the culture of the Pentagon, more and more active religious outreach.”

Continues Carroll, “Imagine, then, a military motivated by an explicit Christian, missionizing impulse at the worst possible moment in our history, because we’re confronting an enemy–and yes, we do have an enemy: fringe, fascist, nihilist extremists coming out of the Islamic world–who define the conflict entirely in religious terms. They, too, want to see this as a new ‘crusade.’ That’s the language that Osama bin Laden uses. For the United States of America at this moment to allow its military to begin to wear the at this moment to allow its military to begin to wear the badges of a religious movement is a disaster!”

OK, so two highly respected reporters/writers agree with Hersh about a fundamentalist influence in the military. Are his claims really such hogwash?

Here’s an article from AFP news service in Feb. 2008: “US military accused of harboring fundamentalism.”
It’s about a soldier, Jeremy Hall, who claimed to have been bullied by fellow soldiers and officers during his deployment in Iraq because he didn’t want to participate in Christian religious activities.

These are just three articles that I dug up on this topic. Now let’s look at some of the other claims in Hersh’s speech that no one seems to want to talk about. Specifically, let’s look at a couple of samples of the more serious charges Hersh makes against Obama. Here’s one:

So, what is Obama doing? Obama has turned over, I think his first year, basically, he turned over the conduct of the war to the men who are prosecuting it: to Gates, to Mullen, who is the chairman of the Joint Chiefs. And in early March, as I recreate it — and nothing is written in stone, but I’m just telling you what I’ve found in my talking and my working on this over the years — we have a general running the war in Afghanistan named McKiernan. McKiernan, unlike McChrystal, his deputy at the time Rodriguez, unlike Petraeus, unlike Eikenberry… They were all together at West Point class of 74, 75, 76 — what they call, we always call the sort of West Point Protective Association. McKiernan was William and Mary, not West Point. And Gates went to see him in March of ‘09, sort of the first big exploration on behalf of the new Obama administration. What do you need to win the war? Well, the correct answer was, he said, “300,000” — of course, he knew he wouldn’t get it, he was just saying to win that’s what it’s going to take.

Here’s another:

In any case, Obama did abdicate, very quickly, any control, I think right away, to the people that are running the war, for what reason I don’t know. I can tell you, there is a scorecard I always keep and I always look at. Torture? Yep, still going on. It’s more complicated now the torture, and there’s not as much of it. But one of the things we did, ostensibly to improve the conditions of prisoners, we demanded that the American soldiers operating in Afghanistan could only hold a suspected Taliban for four days, 96 hours. If not… after four days they could not be sure that this person was not a Taliban, he must be freed. Instead of just holding them and making them Taliban, you have to actually do some, some work to make the determination in the field. Tactically, in the field. So what happens of course, is after three or four days, “bang, bang” — I’m just telling you — they turn them over to the Afghans and by the time they take three steps away the shots are fired. And that’s going on. It hasn’t stopped. It’s not just me that’s complaining about it. But the stuff that goes on in the field, is still going on in the field — the secret prisons, absolutely, oh you bet they’re still running secret prisons. Most of them are in North Africa, the guys running them are mostly out of Djibouto [sic]. We have stuff in Kenya (doesn’t mean they’re in Kenya, but they’re in that area).

Hersh had plenty of harsh words for Cheney too, but no one is talking about that either. All the media is discussing is Hersh’s supposedly “loopy” conspiracy theory about fundamentalists in the military–which really isn’t all that nutty of a theory, as far as I can tell.

28 Comments on “Seymour Hersh Comments Evoke Media Overreactions”

  1. bostonboomer says:

    The ability of the media to avoid discussing serious issues related to U.S. government actions never ceases to amaze me.

  2. janicen says:

    I didn’t see it, but my brother was telling me about the 60 Minutes show about the death of Pat Tillman. According to the show, he was killed by his fellow soldiers, shot in the back at a range of about 10 feet, because he was not a Christian. From what I understand, I don’t think Hersh is out of line with his assessment at all.

    • bostonboomer says:

      I don’t think so either. But the media conveniently ignored the serious critque Hersh was making of both the Bush/Cheney and Obama Administration policies.

      • juststoppingby says:

        IIRC, they just didn’t ignore him, they blackballed him. I recall seeing him speaking out on Canadian tv, ‘cuz we’d let him.

    • Woman Voter says:

      I hadn’t heard that Pat Tillman was killed because of some religious bigotry by his own. Do you have a link?

      This is the only thing I found:
      In July of 2006, ran a 3-part series about the death of Pat Tillman which revealed how military officials have attacked the Tillman family —not only for pursuing the truth about what happened, but because they are not Christians.

      Lt. Col. Ralph Kauzlarich, the Army Ranger officer who commanded Pat Tillman’s regiment in Afghanistan, conducted the second Army investigation into his death. He told ESPN, referring to the Tillman family, “I don’t know, these people have a hard time letting it (their son’s death) go. It may be because of their religious beliefs.”

      Read more:

      So, the assertion is that he was killed because he was an atheist? I don’t think his family should be given grief over whether they believe in God or not, after all, he was serving his country, not a religion.

  3. HT says:

    Women, be afraid and on your guard. I trust Hersh. The others never. If the fundamentalist attitude has been activily promulgated in the military then the Powers that be had better be afraid also. One wonders how in the world these PTB missed the history lesson on the results of indoctrination and how it can kick back against the fathers of the program.

  4. cwaltz says:

    It’s not a nutty theory at all. I remember Sundays at boot camp. If you wanted to be able to leave the barracks where all you had was your bluejacket manual and a boot shoe shine kit and barracks clean up for entertainment then you went to church. That was a sole option. While it wasn’t necessarily shoved down your throat there was almost an understanding that if you didn’t go that there’d be the expectation that you’d be the individual stuck cleaning or “on watch” if you chose not to attend a function sanctioned by the military.

    I don’t know why folks are calling this a nutty theory when early on one of the military (General Boykin) referred to Iraq as a “crusade.” I’m more inclined to support Hersh considering the guy kept his position and kept spouting his nonsense.

  5. mjames says:

    I lived in Colorado Springs for seven years, home of the Air Force Academy. Ted Haggard ruled back then. People spoke in tongues and writhed on the floors. And wrote and spoke about it. (I didn’t personally see it, but heard it from those who were quite proud of attending services there.) Mikey Weinstein, an Air Force Academy alumnus with two sons who are also alumni, has been and continues to be extremely vocal about the proselytizing in the Air Force. It was clear that Haggard’s tentacles reached far into the academy. Haggard’s was the place to be.

    The stifling religiosity and condemning of all who were not a part of it (like a NYC hippie public defender) drove me out. Off to Seattle, where they never heard of Colorado’s infamous Amendment Two, which prohibited any special protections for gays (like housing, yeah, right, that’s “special” protection) and was so unconstitutional as to be struck down by a rightest Supreme Court. But, of course, Haggard, the married druggie and closet gay who paid for sex with male escorts, was totally in support of Amendment Two. The hypocrisy, it burns.

    A waste of a beautiful part of the country.

    I dealt with many cadets, as well as non-military who worked at the academy. I noted quite a bond between “Christianity” and fighting for God. In Iraq. Or wherever. What Hersh is saying is essentially stating the obvious. Keep it up, Sy.

    • bostonboomer says:

      Thanks for the info, M James. I remember a few years ago, there was a blogger at dailykos who wrote a number of posts documenting fundamentalist influence in the military and the Pentagon. What I’d like to know is why it is so important for media types to deny it.

      • dakinikat says:

        You are so GREAT when you tackle these kinds of things!!! Really, you should be paid for it!!!

      • mjames says:

        Well, when you say media “types,” I guess you answer your own query. They’re not legitimate journalists. Period. I don’t care what their pedigree. Nothing must ever be written that might smack of disrespecting this great nation. I know full well how cynical I sound. But, as I see it, access is granted on the basis of swallowing and spouting the propaganda de jour.

        How dare anyone question the purity of our armed forces? Or our nation? God is our co-pilot. We are the chosen. And, of course, this country was founded on Christianity, right? (snark) So what’s the big deal anyway?

      • Seriously says:

        This is a fantastic post. I think it also has to do with the fact that everything out of Sy’s mouth has to be discredited, to paint him as a fringe kook and to make people forget/cast doubt on his past revelations, as mjames says, “nothing must be written that might smack of disrespecting this great nation.” The idea of WaPo not mining his work for story Ideas but trying to fact check him is reminiscent of CNN trying to police SNL. Oy!

    • dakinikat says:

      I was telling BB earlier that I had a cousin that taught math at the Air Force Academy. She’s a devout Catholic. She taught there for a long time and she basically quit because she couldn’t take the pressure on her to convert to a ‘true’ religion. Her stories at the time truly frightened me. It was nearly 20 years ago so I can only imagine what horrors lurk there now.

      • mjames says:

        Right. Absolutely. Some of my clients were part of the Haggard flock. As were opposing attorneys, if you can believe it. They’d writhe on Sunday and fight in court on Monday.

        Now there was a lefty subculture, a small one – that afforded a little respite, but, overall, the religious pressure was darn oppressive. Focus on the Family was real big back then. Giant network. Scads and scads of money.

    • Branjor says:

      People spoke in tongues and writhed on the floors.

      Ambulances should have been called.

  6. grayslady says:

    Fascinating post, BB. Back in 2005, NPR did a story on evangelicals in the military ( Apparently, while only 14% of the populace at large is evangelical, in the military, evangelicals make up 40% of individuals on active duty, and 60% (!!!) of the military chaplains. Sounds like some proselytizing going on to me.

    • bostonboomer says:

      Thanks for the link!

    • cwaltz says:

      Meh, the chaplains I met were usually the least pushy regarding religion.

      The ones who usually wielded religion like a club were people accessed in the chain of command. My husband’s last command had a Navy captain who used to require you to meet with him so he could preach(he told a single mother that she was a sinner during her first meeting with him- nevermind that the dunderhead never bothered to ascertain that she was a single parent because her spouse died.)

      The chaplain is kinda like a command master chief. He doesn’t really wield any power. Usually he has an open door policy and just helps counsel or shows up when something bad happens(I had one at my door within an hour of the news of my son’s death. HE was a good sport when I basically said “no I didn’t want them to come in.”(I still had to inform my spouse of the death while he was overseas. Now the dolt who was with him was another story.

  7. Silent Kate says:

    This reminds me of a post I did awhile back in response to my brother about our “Holy War”.
    You might find it interesting in regards to the holy war stuff.

  8. madamab says:

    Can you call it a conspiracy theory when it’s based on documented facts?

    I wonder if Bob Somerby will cover this.

  9. juststoppingby says:

    “media overreactions” are the norm, regardless of subject.

    Honestly, the misbehaviour of media is bordering on criminal.

    I used to think Italian TV was outrageous. Seems tame to me now.

  10. Linda C says:

    The “spiritual Fitness Test” given now to our military. As far as I can tell this test of the religious items were “just made” up and isn’t scientifically based on any known research that I know about.

    • cwaltz says:

      Because you know dropping bombs on folks is EXACTLY the kinda job that requires gobs of spirituality.

      I wonder if they have them take the tests after they recruit them at the paintball camps and tell them that war is kinda like the playing paintball or video games.

  11. TheRock says:

    Thanks for the great post, BB. Of course this is some of the scariest stuff that I have read since this presidency started. Good Catholic that I am, the founding fathers got it right separating the two institutions. Religion has no place in politics in a free society. And since we are seeing that the influence peddlers have more and more access to the decisions, not just the decision makers,

    We are so f*&(d…


    Hillary 2012

  12. Linda C says:

    It isn’t just in the military . The state of Ohio has multiple governor’s ” cabinet positions” for “faith based” initiatives including a Director position.