… of Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Seymour Hersh’s latest allegations about misbehavior by U.S. troops in Iraq.  From a speech at McGill University yesterday, in Montreal.

He described one video in which American soldiers massacre a group of people playing soccer.

“Three U.S. armed vehicles, eight soldiers in each, are driving through a village, passing candy out to kids,” he began. “Suddenly the first vehicle explodes, and there are soldiers screaming. Sixteen soldiers come out of the other vehicles, and they do what they’re told to do, which is look for running people.”

“Never mind that the bomb was detonated by remote control,” Hersh continued. “[The soldiers] open up fire; [the] cameras show it was a soccer game.”

“About ten minutes later, [the soldiers] begin dragging bodies together, and they drop weapons there. It was reported as 20 or 30 insurgents killed that day,” he said.

If Americans knew the full extent of U.S. criminal conduct, they would receive returning Iraqi veterans as they did Vietnam veterans, Hersh said.

“In Vietnam, our soldiers came back and they were reviled as baby killers, in shame and humiliation,” he said. “It isn’t happening now, but I will tell you – there has never been an [American] army as violent and murderous as our army has been in Iraq.”

Even harder is deciding whether or not to believe Hersh.

Hersh, of course, famously broke the My Lai story in 1969 — and has lived off that scoop ever since.  He had a hand in the Abu Ghraib story — but the photographs so far placed in the public domain have never lived up to the overheated rhetoric he has used.  He claims he has seen others that are worse, that The New Yorker has them — but they’ve never been published, and they’ve never been leaked.

So: Should Seymour Hersh be believed, or is he a has-been trying to reprise his One Great Moment?

Anyone famliar with his reporting knows he isn’t strong on sourcing his material, or, at least, he rarely identifies a source.  Remarks in the vein of “A contact deep in the DoD bureaucracy tells me … yada yada yada.”  I’m hardly the only person to notice this; even New York magazine, generally well Left of center, has complained about it.

Still, what’s emerged from Hersh’s numerous speaking engagements—dozens of speeches last year, he says, which have drawn as much as $15,000 per university lecture—is a vast, tantalizing trove of what might be termed Hersh apocrypha: unpublished tales of official screwups, ideological intrigue, cover-ups, and government lies that have an influential—and growing—public life of their own.

It doesn’t take much prompting for Hersh to supply an example of the sort of story he keeps out of The New Yorker’s pages but will discuss freely elsewhere. He tells me a long tale of the ghastly killing of some Iraqi civilians by U.S. soldiers. He frames his account as a hypothetical set piece: “You’re a soldier on a patrol . . . and you see people running, and you open fire, okay? . . . Maybe they were bad guys, but then they run into a soccer game.” He gradually modulates the story to its climax: “You’re a bunch of young kids. And so maybe you pull the bodies together and you drop RPGs [rocket-propelled grenades] and you take some photographs about it because you’re afraid you’re gonna be investigated. And maybe somebody there tells me about what happened.”

Moving back into straight, declarative talk, Hersh lays out how this no-longer-quite-so-hypothetical scenario shaped his on-the-job news judgments. Investigating the tip, he discovered that, even though the photographs he obtained of the incident could suggest a terrible lapse of responsibility in the field, there was nothing here to qualify it as a Hersh story. “It was stupid, it was wrong, it was terrible, but it wasn’t murder. Do I write that? No. I don’t write that. Because then six, eight, ten American kids who did nothing but panic, and did what anybody would, would get in trouble. Do I have some photographs that are interesting? Yes. Do I publish those? No.”

But does he talk about it? Sure. Did this event happen? Who knows? Hersh never subjects these sorts of stories to any kind of public truth test, but he bandies them in his lectures, as part of the ongoing effort to bring his speaking audiences closer to that other reality of the Iraq War. He does it so frequently, in fact, that it’s hard to accept that he’s only doling out information for its own sake.

But … did it happen?

Hersh’s stories always make me think of Ernest Hemingway.  Ernest Hemingway made a spectacular splash with his first couple of books, and then spent the rest of his life churning out trash and being … Ernest! Hemingway!  So, too, William Faulkner, and Pablo Picasso — geniuses who accomplished too much too early, and spent the rest of their lives being the public persona they had invented.

Hersh, too?  Beats me.  I do know it’s been a long time since he’s put any testable statement of fact on the table for public inspection.

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