Book: Reporter, a memoir
Author: Seymour M. Hersh
Reviewed by Paul Varian, retired CNN and UPI editor/ writer/reporter
On Oct. 22, 1969, freelance Washington reporter Seymour Hersh got a vague tip that the U.S. Army was preparing to court-martial one of its soldiers at Fort Benning, Ga., for the mass killing of civilians in South Vietnam.
Though he had scant information to start with — not even the name of the accused serviceman, an officer as it turned out — Hersh decided to go after the story, driven by the magnitude of the alleged crime and, more importantly in his view, the Army’s plan to prosecute.
Three weeks later, after the virtually unknown Dispatch News Service managed to sell the story to 50 newspapers at $100 a crack, Hersh unleashed the first of his Pulitizer Prize-winning expose dispatches on what came to be known as the “My Lai Massacre.”
His all-important opening paragraph — in newspaper parlance, the lede:
“Lt. William Calley Jr., 26, is a mild-mannered boyish-looking Vietnam combat veteran with the nickname of Rusty. The Army says he deliberately murdered 109 Vietnam civilians during a search-and-destroy mission in March, 1968.”
Hersh, now 81, had a decade of reporting under his belt at the time, a native Chicagoan who broke in with the City News Service, hard-scrabble training ground for generations of journalists, followed by stints at both United Press International and the Associated Press.
In “Reporter,” his aptly titled memoir, Hersh provides a riveting blow-by-blow account of his dogged pursuit of the My Lai story, including his daylong hunt for Calley at Fort Benning where, to Hersh’s astonishment, he was living in the senior bachelor officers’ quarters. He writes of the encounter:
“I had wanted to hate him, to see him as a child-killing monster, but instead I found a rattled, frightened young man, short, slight and so pale that the bluish veins on his neck and shoulders were visible. His initial account was impossible to believe — full of heroic, one-on-one warfare with bullets, grenades and artillery shells being exchanged with the evil commies.”
Hersh’s follow-up reporting, based on interviews with others from Charlie Company who participated in or witnessed the slaughter that day, dispelled any notion of a firefight.
There were hundreds of victims, many of them unarmed women and children, including one large group lined up in a ditch and shot as ordered by platoon leader Calley. Others died by bayonet.
Though others from Charlie Company were charged with My Lai crimes, only Calley was convicted, found guilty of 22 killings. He served just three years of his sentence, mostly under house arrest, before being pardoned by President Nixon.
The story vaulted Hersh to fame — he also wrote a book about it — and a high-profile reporting career both as a freelancer and staff member of the New York Times and the New Yorker that his memoir documents in a seamless, engaging narrative.
The Vietnam war was his prime focus, including behind-the-scenes details about the secret bombing of Cambodia, until the Times’ legendary chief editor Abe Rosenthal switched him to Watergate in a belated bid to catch up to the rival Washington Post.
Though Woodard and Bernstein were the trailblazers, Hersh scored his share of exclusives on Watergate and a series of CIA scandals he unearthed at around the same time.
He became so obsessed with his new assignment that when he was approached at a cocktail party in New York by John Lennon and Yoko Ono, he didn’t even realize who they were. “How was I to know; neither had anything to do with Watergate,” he said.
“There will never be a period like that in our business again,” Hersh once told an interviewer. “Nobody can understand what it was like. Boy wake up. Boy hear story. Boy get story. Boy get story in paper. No trauma.”
In later years, mostly while writing for the New Yorker, the war on terror and upheaval in the Middle East became his beat, and he had exclusive details for the magazine on the Abu Ghraib prison atrocities in Iraq.
Hersh also has written extensively on chemical and biological warfare and the power politics employed during Henry Kissinger‘s reign as Nixon’s national security adviser and secretary of state, the subject of another book.
But “Reporter” does not get lost in the complex details of all the history he witnessed from his front row seat. What makes it a fascinating read is the transparently rich and detailed description of how he covered it all.
This is must-reading for his fellow journalists, but it could be even more enlightening for an increasingly cynical public that is finding it harder than ever to discern the real news from the fake.