I have always enjoyed Seymour Hersh’s pieces on US foreign policy that have appeared over the years in journals such as The New Yorker. Hersh reminds me a bit of Noan Chomsky – a lot of what he says seems somewhere between paranoia and hyperbole, but he makes you wonder what goes on behind the scenes.
Recently Blake Hounshell, writing on the Foreign Policy website, quoted Hersh from a speech given this January in which he accuses senior leaders in the US military special forces community of being members of an organization, the Knights of Malta, with roots in the Crusades of the middle ages.
“That’s the attitude,” Hersh continued. “We’re gonna change mosques into cathedrals. That’s an attitude that pervades, I’m here to say, a large percentage of the Joint Special Operations Command.”
He then alleged that Gen. Stanley McChrystal, who headed JSOC before briefly becoming the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, and his successor, Vice Adm. William McRaven, as well as many within JSOC, “are all members of, or at least supporters of, Knights of Malta.”
Hersh may have been referring to the Sovereign Order of Malta, a Roman Catholic organization commited to “defence of the Faith and assistance to the poor and the suffering,” according to its website.
“Many of them are members of Opus Dei,” Hersh continued. “They do see what they’re doing — and 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.”
“They have little insignias, these coins they pass among each other, which are crusader coins,” he continued. “They have insignia that reflect the whole notion that this is a culture war. … Right now, there’s a tremendous, tremendous amount of anti-Muslim feeling in the military community.”
Apparently Hounshell’s comments generated some heat, so here is today on FP fleshing them out:
Since my write-up of Seymour Hersh’s talk is getting some coverage today, and many commenters have written in to dispute my post, I thought I should provide a little more context.
More than a few readers, including Salon’s Glenn Greenwald, complained that I hadn’t rebutted Hersh’s arguments. That wasn’t my intention — I was relaying what Hersh said. I did make two editorial comments: that his speech was a “rambling, conspiracy-laden diatribe” and that it “quickly went downhill” after its opening line. But I imagine that when most reasonable people read the transcript — I don’t have a video, unfortunately — they will see what I’m talking about. As far as I know, nobody, including Hersh, is disputing my quotes.
I thought it was self-evident that several points Hersh made were off-base and conspiratorial, but perhaps it’s worth spelling things out for everyone.
1. The idea that “we’re gonna change mosques into cathedrals” is “an attitude that pervades … a large percentage of the Joint Special Operations Command.” This is essentially unverifiable unless you do a survey of JSOC personnel. Good luck with that. For now, the weight of evidence suggests that JSOC is on the whole a highly competent and professional organization that has no intention of converting Muslims to Christianity around the world. If it were otherwise, I’m sure we’d be hearing about it from others besides Seymour Hersh.
2. Retired General Stanley McChrystal, who headed JSOC before briefly becoming the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, and his successor, Vice Adm. William McRaven, as well as many within JSOC, “are all members of, or at least supporters of, Knights of Malta.… Many of them are members of Opus Dei.” McChrystal has already denied being a member of Knights of Malta; McRaven and JSOC have thus far declined to comment. But so what if they were? Everything I’ve seen tells me that the Knights of Malta are a public service organization, not some kind of Catholic extremist group. And Opus Dei is hardly the secretive cabal of ruthless assassins depicted in The Da Vinci Code. It has a Facebook page.
3. “They do see what they’re doing — and 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.” I have no doubt that many in the U.S. military are religious, and yes, I’ve heard about Jerry Boykin, Erik Prince, and those rifle scopes. But the plural of anecdote is not data — and acknowledging there are devout Christians in the military and implying that top military leaders are embarking on a “crusade” against Muslims are two very different things. “Zealotry is viewed as being unprofessional [in the SF community],” former Special Forces officer Kalev Sepp told Stars and Stripes. “Anyone who professes religion in an open way like that is suspect to where their real loyalties lie.” (Do I really need to explain this?)
4. “They have little insignias, these coins they pass among each other, which are crusader coins.… They have insignia that reflect the whole notion that this is a culture war.” I believe Hersh is referring here to challenge coins, a common sight across the U.S. military. They seem pretty innocuous to me.
Actually, I have a Canadian Forces chaplaincy branch challenge coin that I keep in my mess kit. Last time I checked, I’m not a member of a secret crusading order. Bottom line, I tend to agree with Hounshell that “I’m going to go out on a limb here and just say it: Odds are good that JSOC is not being overrun by Catholic fanatics.”