New Yorker's Hersh sparks anger, puzzlement with remarks on military 'crusaders'

Journalist Seymour Hersh has broken dozens of major stories about the U.S. military, foreign policy and covert operations.
Journalist Seymour Hersh has broken dozens of major stories about the U.S. military, foreign policy and covert operations. (Associated Press)
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 21, 2011; 12:00 AM

Legendary journalist Seymour Hersh has uncovered some sinister conspiracies during his long career, but his latest revelation is drawing some puzzled reactions and angry denunciations.

In a speech this week in Doha, Qatar, Hersh advanced the notion that U.S. military forces are directed and dominated by Christian fundamentalist "crusaders" bent on changing "mosques into cathedrals."

According to an account of the speech in Foreign Policy magazine, Hersh alleged that Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the retired head of the Pentagon's Joint Special Operations Command and briefly the top commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, was among several senior officers who are members or supporters of exclusive Roman Catholic organizations such as Opus Dei and the Knights of Malta.

Neoconservative advisers to President George W. Bush took the attitude that " 'we're gonna change mosques into cathedrals,' " Hersh, a writer for the New Yorker magazine, said in the speech. "That's an attitude that pervades, I'm here to say, a large percentage of the Joint Special Operations Command." The command is the part of the military focused on targeted missions to kill enemy leaders, primarily in Afghanistan and Iraq. Its operations are almost always secret.

He added: "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."

As for President Obama, Hersh said he has been blind to the drift in America's foreign policy. "Just when we need an angry black man," he said, "we didn't get one."

There seem to be a few problems with Hersh's assertions.

One is his allegation involving 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."

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."

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.

Hersh said Thursday that he couldn't remember every detail of his speech because it was "a rumination" rather than a scripted talk. But, he said, "no one said the whole war was waged as a crusade. My point is that some leaders of the Special Forces have an affinity for that notion, the notion that they're in a crusade.

"I'm comfortable with the idea that there is a great deal of fundamentalism in JSOC. It's growing and it's empirical. . . . There is an incredible strain of Christian fundamentalism, not just Catholic, that's part of the military."

He called his "angry black man" comment about Obama a "figure of speech, a cliche" that his audience, consisting primarily of American expatriates, laughed at. The speech was sponsored by Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service, which has a campus in Qatar.

Over a long and distinguished career, Hersh, 73, has broken dozens of major stories about the U.S. military, foreign policy and covert operations. In 1969, he exposed an Army massacre of Vietnamese civilians at My Lai and subsequent coverup, for which he won the Pulitzer Prize. His account of the Abu Ghraib prison abuses in Iraq for the New Yorker in 2004 spurred reform and prosecutions and brought Hersh new acclaim.

Hersh declined to comment on some of the specific statements he made in the speech, such as the notion that American military officers pass "crusader" coins among themselves. "I said what I said," he responded. "I can't get into it because I'm writing a book" about the small group of neoconservatives who directed U.S. foreign policy in the Bush administration.

Hersh has sometimes made intemperate statements in his speeches, and his defenders point to his written work, which is typically more solid and well-sourced than his spoken comments.

Hersh's editor at the New Yorker, David Remnick, declined to comment on Hersh's speech. But Remnick said, "Sy is one of the greatest reporters the country has ever known, and that is all I need to know about him."

In a reply to Hersh's allegations about the U.S. military, journalist Tom Ricks, a former Washington Post defense reporter, wrote in Foreign Policy this week: "[I'm] looking forward to the New Yorker article that will lay this all out. Good luck to those celebrated fact-checkers."

Staff writer Greg Jaffe contributed to this report.

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