In April 2010, ten young Somali pirates were caught trying to hijack the Taipan, a German cargo ship, some 500 miles off the coast of Somalia. They were returned to Germany for trial, which took place in Hamburg the following year. Michael Scott Moore, covering the trial for Der Spiegel at the time, noted the almost ‘farcical’ quality of the proceedings–no one had been tried in Germany before for piracy, raising new legal questions; the pirates came from a country with no working centralized government, so background information on the pirates couldn’t readily be obtained; and, the ages of the defendants were impossible to determine, leading to their being tried as juveniles. Their defense lawyer seemed to liken the pirates to joy-riding car thieves–wayward kids from a broken home–who needed a lift up, rather than internment in a “Guantanamo at sea,” such as they would have faced in an American trial. Germany, largely accommodating to immigrants, chose the more humane route.
Moore was piqued by the unanswered questions of the young pirates’ lives and soon thereafter decided to venture to the village of one of the defendants, to seek unknown truths and gain journalistic perspective. “The rise of modern pirates buzzing off Somalia,” he writes in his memoir, “was an example of entropy in my lifetime, and it seemed important to know why there were pirates at all.” As is often the case with any trek into ‘the unknown interior’ of a mystery, shit happens: Moore got kidnapped by Somalis in the early days of his investigative journey and stayed with his captors for 977 days. The Desert and the Sea is the memoir that describes that experience.
In Somalia, captive Moore is immersed in the every-man-for-himself desperation of ordinary people living in a failed state–a place of droughts, warring clans, and post-colonial insurgencies of power-grabbing Islamists battling Western forces (think: “Black Hawk Down”)–which informs the background mindscape of Moore’s ‘journalistic’ memoir. This wild west milieu has changed little in the years since his release. In a recent piece, Dr. Fikrejesus Amahazion, an Assistant Professor at the National College of Arts and Social Sciences in neighboring Eritrea, writes of the latest doings in Somalia, “Despite years of international efforts and billions of dollars spent, sustainable peace, security, and stability remain elusive in Somalia….Structural marginalization and exclusion, divisive politics, clan rivalries and disputes, displacement, persecution, endemic poverty, inequality, rampant corruption, a dire lack of transparency and accountability, the absence of basic economic infrastructure, a lack of social services, and unemployment, particularly among youth, are significant grievances that extremists [such as al-Shabab] are often able to tap into and exploit.”
While Moore manages to stay out of the hands of al-Shabab during his tenure with pirates (although there is speculation he will be sold to the Islamic terrorists), he and other wayward tourists, as well as kidnapped ships’ crews, come to intimately understand what it’s like to be property–a ‘normalized’ commodity in a human trafficking market. Writes Moore, “Piracy was just a brutal form of trade, and it flourished where jobs were scarce, in modern Somalia as well as the colonial United States.” (At one point, Moore, as others have, discusses the importance of American piracy in the movement toward democracy.) But, just as importantly, his long captivity at the hands of khat-chewing, Kalashnikov-wielding pirates forces him to come to terms with his own presumptuous humanity and suicidal ideation. Turns out, when you think about it, it’s a jungle in there.
Moore, the journalist, takes in and ‘objectively’ analyzes his environs and the ineluctable situation he’s in; there is an aspect of ‘dry reporting’ that frames the subjective experience he endures. A leitmotif of the memoir is Moore’s coming to terms with his deeply unhappy father’s suicide–his father’s motives fueled by alcoholism and self-abnegation, and his own propensity for self-destructive thinking; coming to Somalia seems to him, after a while, to be a good example. “My real mistake had been coming to Somalia at all,” he writes. “What did I think I would find around here? Pirates who trusted writers? Truth?” Instead, he moves toward an epipahny, repeating to himself, like a mantra, “You have made a mistake. Mistakes are human.”
To fill in the long days of having little to do but think, Moore settles in to long considerations of great thinkers–Epictetus, Nietzsche, Einstein–and mental exercises: “For me these afternoons were long and terrifying. The heat mounted; the flies lost their minds….My heart knocked against my sternum and I lay rigid, one arm over my face, just trying to keep the floor-grimed chains off my mattress, while in my head I recited the capitals of all fifty American states. When that was done, I tried to name all of Saul Bellow’s novels in order. Then Dylan albums. Then Faulkner.”
Naturally, religion, especially Islam, figures into his daily thinking, too. For instance, the title of the book, “The Desert and the Sea,” is a derived from a Ryszard Kapuscinski passage in Travels with Herodotus which refers to two kinds of Islam–one a “war-like, nomadic” desert-bound Islam, reflected, in say, the Sharia-driven authoritarianism of Sunni adherents; the other reflective of a more open, mercantile Islam, perhaps more reflective of Sh’ia followers. This is a crucial distinction for Moore, as his capture by, say, al-Shabab, would have been a much more brutal experience than it proved to be with his more open market-driven kidnappers, who saw him as a way of making a buck ($20 million ransom) and rarely directly threatened physical harm. Although, tension builds as the ransom demands are impossible to meet after about 900 days, and he is told he “would be sold like chattel to the jihadist beasts [al-Shabab].”
Crucial to his mental survival was the role of Moore’s mother, back in Los Angeles, who received the ransom demand and had to deal with rounding up the cash. In an interesting narrative contrast, as Moore is getting to become accustomed to the limited humanity of the pirates’ treatment of him and others, sharing meals, making sure he has writing supplies, listening to Somali folk music together, and watching pirated videos together (“Captain Phillips” was a pirate favorite) on their cell phones, he details the frequent visits by FBI agents to his mother. “Whenever the FBI paid a visit, she served coffee and bagels, and whenever a meeting or a phone call had been scheduled in advance, she ordered sandwiches. Later she baked banana bread and cookies. She’d started to think of the agents as surrogate family.” Together, they watch her son’s proof of life videos, commenting on the staged quality of the proceedings, and generally keeping hope afloat.
Eventually, the ransom is reduced to $1.5 million and Moore is released–physically, and emotionally from his world-weary Dad’s ghostlike presence in his mind: “Dad’s disillusion sounded like bare-knuckled realism, but it proved to be a stubborn chemical ignorance of a beauty that surrounded us every day.” This new attitude of release from his father seems to be the first and perhaps most important example of a new philosophy evolving from his captivity. In the end, he sides with the relativism of Albert Einstein: “…‘The true value of a human being is determined by the measure and the sense in which they have obtained liberation from the self,’ he wrote in a letter in 1934….” It seems a more productive take on his father’s fatal self-abnegation.
Despite his liberation, Moore’s transition back to the ‘real’ world proves troublesome. “I was in a fugue state,” he writes, “dissociated from my old life and self even while I returned to it. I had trouble believing they were real.” It was a dissociation no doubt amplified by a return to a world now-conditioned by Internet dependency, especially the addiction to the sometimes-surreal social media world–for instance, recently, on The Daily Show with Trevor Noah, Moore relates how he was later contacted on Facebook by one of his captors, who updates him on the doings of his kidnappers, almost like two pals getting together for a beer and catch-up. Moore rejects this notion, never forgetting the ordeal with its suffering and murders, but it’s clear he accepts the humanity of the dialogue–he has continued the correspondence, maybe mapping it through his journalistic filters, and it aligns with his original desire, during the Hamburg trial of Somalis, with his desire to understand what makes pirates tick.
A side note: I found the audiobook version of The Desert and the Seamore engaging than the text version. Corey Snow does an outstanding job narrating the audio version, opening up the spaces of captivity, the boring routines, the pithy observations; pirate characterizations come to life in a well-modulated textual performance, and the narrative voice seems just the right age for the author.
Looking back, it’s almost as if President Dwight D. Eisenhower were trying to warn the American public, in his Farewell speech of 1961, of mad doctors at work in the labs of our exceptional democracy — what we’ve come to call the Deep State. Said Ike: “We should take nothing for granted: Only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of huge industrial and military machinery of defense with our peaceful methods and goals, so that security and liberty may prosper together.”
Then, in the fall of 1963, came the Big Bang of Dallas, re-constellating the bright and shiny firmament of the American Dream. All we Americans who came of age in the Sixties know that the afterglow of the Baby Boomer years came to a shocking end the day John F. Kennedy was blasted onto Abraham Zapruder’s 8MM movie camera. Good night, Camelot. It was as if from that moment on, to paraphrase Bob Dylan, “the broken mirror of innocence” could be seen in each and every face.
American journalists spent the next generation trying to dig up a presumed government cover-up of the who, what, why, where and how of that dark Dallas day, leading to no definitive resolution decades later. The manifest destiny of American Exceptionalism has been weighed down with pathogenic cynicism and paranoia ever since. One measure of this is suggested by the exponential rise of guns owned in America, from approximately 80 million in 1960 to a whopping 400 million today, as well as a complementary rise in right-wing militias — estimated to be 500 groups. Underneath it all, Americans know something is happening, but they don’t know what it is.
One senses this growing cultural angst, while plodding through the first 100 slushy pages or so of Seymour (Sy) Hersh’s recently published memoir, Reporter. Given that he is a winner of the Pulitzer Prize, as well as a five-time winner of journalism’s most coveted award, the George Polk, I expected Hersh to jump right in medias res, with, say, a previously unknown anecdote about his My Lai massacre coverage, or, perhaps, an analysis of the state of journalism in these reactionary “fake news” days of the Trump era. But Reporter is a memoir, a story about a life, not just reporting. Re-performing those pages according to the rhythm Hersh intended reveals to this reader a deeper understanding of his ideological roots.
It’s important to know that Sy is a first generation son of immigrant Eastern European parents come to America to escape the persecution of the Nazi death-machine. It’s telling information to learn that he had relatives who perished in a concentration camp. You can see how he sees: the excesses of unrestrained power have devastating effects on the lives of ordinary people. One can imagine his exposure to people from all walks of life as he worked long hours in his father’s dry cleaning business. It’s instructive to trace his kindled desire to write for the public, from his copy boy days, to a stint in the Army as a journalist, to his luck-laden climb up the ranks of wire service work — re-writes mostly, but also the first signs of his investigative instinct coming to fruition. His first major publication, a piece on the US government mistreatment of the Oglala Sioux on their reservations, made it to the Chicago Tribune in 1963.
And so these many pages go, an account of a young man’s growing consciousness of the workings of the world that parallels the social and political awakening of the general population after the first Kennedy assassination. It’s a truism, but Hersh writes, “It’s the core lesson of being a journalist — read before you write.” Hersh did plenty of that: he has a law background; he’s history buff; and he knows the value of fiction for relating facts, as attested to by some his favorite reads – – Saul Bellow, William Styron, Norman Mailer, Philip Roth, Nelson Algren, James Farrell.
He continued down the Road to Erudition, moving from Chicago to Washington in the process, where he met legendary journalist and mentor I. F. Stone. The “kindred spirits” took long walks together. Hersh writes, “We talked incessantly about how to do better reporting, and I was in the hands of a master; it was to the shame of the mainstream media—and my pipe smoker colleagues in the Pentagon pressroom—that his bi-weekly reports and analyses, as publisher of I. F. Stone’s Weekly, were viewed as little more than a nuisance.” Hersh has met with similar disdain from the MSM, despite once having been part of it.
Taking after Stone’s exposure of the CIA false flag operation in the Gulf of Tonkin that precipitated a full scale military ‘retaliatory’ bombing of Hanoi (an operation Stone points out that was previously tried out in Yemen by the British), Hersh continued his muckraking work at the Pentagon, until it lead him to his own first major investigative journalism piece on the not-so-stars-and-stripey machinations of the military — specifically their handling and cover-up of chemical and biological weapons (CBW) stockpiles scattered throughout America. The piece, “Just a Drop Can Kill,” appeared in the May 1967 issue of The New Republic, and announced to the Journalism world that a new sheriff was in town and, like Stone, he had no intention of looking the other way.
As his reputation for integrity grew in Washington, especially amongst the more-honorable officers in the Pentagon, more and more information was leaked to him. One of his favorite targets was Robert McNamara, who was the embodiment of the MIC, being both the Secretary of Defense and the former president of Ford Motors. Who would know better than Bob about assembly line wars? Today, it’s America’s biggest export.
Just before his career as a top-notch investigative reporter took off, he met up with the somewhat taciturn Mr. Deeds-like character, Ralph Nader. The two got together regularly. Writes Hersh,
“My [office] neighbor a few doors down was a young Ralph Nader, also a loner, whose exposé of the safety failures in the American automobile industry had changed the industry. There was nothing in those days quite like a quick lunch at the downstairs coffee shop with Ralph. He would grab a spoonful of my tuna fish salad, flatten it out on a plate, and point out small pieces of paper and even tinier pieces of mouse shit in it. He was marvelous, if a bit hard to digest.”.
Together, they were like two Davids forming a tag-team tandem up against the Goliath forces of the public government mask of the Deep State, which is to say, the military-industrial complex that Ike had admonished the nation could only be restrained by “an alert and knowledgeable citizenry.” (Nader is still pointing out turds to this day.)
Reporter gathers pace as Hersh recounts the background details leading to the richest years of his investigative career. After leaving Pentagon officials aghast with the CBW revelations, he gets wind of a hushed-up massacre that took place in a Vietnam village in which a captain is accused of being responsible for the murder of 109 unarmed civilians, including women and children. The My Lai Massacre happened 50 years ago. Thanks to Hersh’s reporting of the event, the so-called Noble Cause in ‘Nam was seen differently by the appalled public, who reading Hersh’s freelance account and gazing at lurid Life magazine photos, realized they were supporting war criminality on a scale even Exceptionalist Americans found unacceptable. Hersh’s report flamed the already growing fiery anti-war protests. “I knew it would end the war and win prizes,” he writes. Hersh was right about the prize (1970 Pulitzer), but not about the war.
One of the best things about his memory of his My Lai investigation is his description of the nuts and bolts of how he went about uncovering facts. After Hersh tracks down a lawyer for Lt. William Calley, the officer scapegoated for the massacre, he humanizes with his source to ease the way to the information he seeks: “It was an extreme example of the Hersh rule: Never begin an interview by asking core questions. I wanted him to know I was smart and capable of some abstract thought. And I wanted him to like me and, perhaps, trust me.” After years of reporting, Seymour Hersh has many trusting sources.
Following his freelance work alerting citizens about My Lai, Hersh accepted an offer from the New York Times, where he went on to tackle Watergate issues, his work as important and groundbreaking as the more celebrated duo Woodward and Bernstein at the Washington Post. Hersh also revealed the secret bombing campaign in Cambodia, which led him to look into the power relationship between Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger. Hersh details how the two plotted to take down the democratically elected government of Chile.
Pertinent to our times, Hersh also reported on the Kissinger-ordered wiretapping of political foes and, more importantly, the secret surveillance and infiltration by the CIA of domestic groups, including anti-war protesters, a gross violation of their charter (not to mention illegal). Such activity seems quaint today, given the global surveillance of people everywhere by the NSA and 5 Eyes, as revealed by the courageous whistleblowing of Edward Snowden.
Hersh has even reported on the danger, in the closing days of the Nixon Watergate crisis, as he was getting set to be impeached, that Nixon might call in the military to surround the White House in order to stay in power — in short, a coup d’etat. What might Trump do, if his presidency were similarly pushed?
Such investigative work would be enough for one career, but Hersh went on from there to provide hidden details in a number of other cases. In Reporter he discusses his 9-11 reporting and its aftermath, including the failures of communication in the Bush administration leading up to terrorist attack, as well as the abuses at Abu Ghraib, and the failures of the Osama bin Laden story following his execution in Pakistan. He’s even reported on the shortcomings of the John F. Kennedy legacy in The Dark Side of Camelot. (Interestingly enough, Kennedy didn’t come up once in the first 100 pages.) Hersh’s career represents a mountain of momentous public service work.
But Reporter is not a retirement account; Hersh is still at work, digging, revealing and not only continuing to provide important information to keep the public ‘alert and knowledgeable’ about Deep State machinations, but, perhaps more importantly, acting as a crucial gadfly to the shortcomings of the mainstream media, which has largely abrogated its responsibility to be adversarial advocates for the greater democratic good. It turns out that not only the bastards in Congress and the White House need to be kept honest by good reporting, but also the Fourth Estate. Trump’s view of the MSM’s reportage as “fake news” is not as false as it should be. While Reporter makes one nostalgic for the good ol’ days of real ‘resistance’ to the bastards in power, one wonders whether there is enough wind left in the sails of the ship of state to move forward, or are we headed for the militias? Will be ‘allowed’ to keep an eye on the deep Surveillance State?