CHAIN OF COMMAND The Road from 9/11 to Abu Ghraib

CHAIN OF COMMAND The Road from 9/11 to Abu Ghraib By Seymour M. Hersh HarperCollins, 2004 394 pages. 0060195916 Hb


Almost single handedly, Mr. Hersh has given muckraking a good name. A term which once meant journalism (and journalists) that would stop at nothing in order to unearth wrongdoing and sleaze to sell newspapers has taken on new luster. Since Mr. Hersh broke the story of the My Lai massacres in Vietnam, he has not stopped actively seeking out wrongdoing. But he is not a merchant of chimeras. Some may even argue that his stories are weighed down by excessive emphasis on multiple narrations and too many corroborating testimonies. If you are peddling fiction, the critique might be valid. But, in an era where journalism and intelligence reports are overly dependent upon “‘a high ranking official’ or ‘a government spokesperson’ that refused to be named,” such scrupulousness is a valued commodity. Whatever else one may have to say about Hersh, one cannot malign his journalistic integrity or deny him a place among the elder statesman of the fourth estate.

One could wish that Chain qf Command had appeared a bit earlier. Before the primaries preferably. His through line – a convenient trail linking the dark events of September nth to the prison abuse scandals in Iraq – provides us with an invaluable addition to a growing body of writings that will serve future readers as an indictment of a corrupt administration, and as an example not to be emulated unless an electorate wishes to find itself bogged down in a Roman maze of bloodshed and delusion. When pressed to find other books of this quality, one thinks of The Theory and Practice of Hell or The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich. Books whose sobriety and attention to detail might have made for a slow read, but which have provided later generations with an accurate x-ray of man’s will to power gone horribly astray. It is through the summing up of bureaucratic banality that one most often finds the germinating evil which later shocks and horrifies us.

The particular muck Mr. Hersh wades through in this book runs deep. From the misplanned and inept Operation Anaconda in the Afghan mountains to the depraved abuse of power at Abu Ghraib, from power lunches with Richard Perle on the Riviera to repeated failed Chalabi putsches in Kurdistan dating as far back as 95, the story that is set against a backdrop of dirty money propping up warlords in the new Afghanistan (where the heroin trade is back to an all-time high thanks to free market capitalism,) while a few military officials are being told to please shut up because Americans do not really want to know why Johnny came home in a bag; is an ugly one. One of the most surprising aspects is the number of people Hersh interviews who are clearly neither liberal nor dissenting but who, nonetheless, are conscience-bound to address what they see as ineptitude, moral blindness and fanaticism in NeoCon Valhalla.

And it’s still the first half of the book. And the book runs on…

Hersh is nothing if not thorough. And given his contacts in political and intelligence circles, you know when he breaks a story it’s so free of holes as to be damn near unsinkable. When he has a question for the likes of Richard Perle, he calls them up and asks them. When a hack reporter would settle for two sides of an argument in the interest of objectivity, Hersh drags in five or six sides. We may know Justice is blind but leave it to Seymour Hersh to notice the scales.

The present and dare I say recursive administration has provided plenty of fodder for wits and wordsmiths such as Gore Vidal and Lewis Lapham to vent their spleen on. Without a doubt much of the venting verges on inspirational in the sense that Thomas Paine is inspirational. But when history weighs our words and it will, the burden is one of proof and not of eloquence and for that we are lucky to have the likes of Hersh helping at the measuring and weighing in.

With Chain of Commandwe no longer have the excuse that “we didn’t know.” The only cop out left is that “we didn’t care”, which is one mean weight to live with.

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    A piece previously published in the print issue of Islamica Magazine between 2003-2009. The following has been an effort to digitize and archive as a free service. Author citations can be found at as we continue to work on improving the digital archives here.

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