Matthew Hoh, the State Department official who resigned in protest from his post in Afghanistan, was awarded The Ridenhour Prize for Truth-Telling on April 14 at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. Historian and activist Howard Zinn was posthumously awarded the Ridenhour Courage Prize. The Ridenhour Book Prize honored Joe Sacco for his illustrated book Footnotes in Gaza. Climate Science Watch attended the awards program and, as with each year’s event, found renewed inspiration.
Post by Rick Piltz
Matthew Hoh, the State Department official who resigned in protest from his post in Afghanistan, has been awarded The Ridenhour Prize for Truth-Telling. At a time when Afghanistan was still looked at as the “good war,” Hoh came forward, very publicly and at great personal risk, to question the war’s fundamental rationale. His passionate and informed letter of resignation lit a spark and was, for many, the first extended argument against further escalation in Afghanistan.
Historian and activist Howard Zinn has been posthumously awarded The Ridenhour Courage Prize for his determination to showcase the hidden heroes of social movements throughout history, his refusal to accept the history of only the powerful and victorious, his steadfast belief in the potential for a better world, his unflinching moral stance on fighting whatever he perceived was wrong in society and his fight to inspire students to believe that together, they could make democracy come alive. Zinn learned of this honor the week before his death.
The Ridenhour Book Prize honors Joe Sacco’s tenacious reporting and recognizes Footnotes in Gaza as a work of profound social significance, one that explores the complex continuum of history. At a time when peace in the Middle East has never seemed more elusive, Sacco’s illustrations bear witness to the lives of those who are trapped by the conflict. This marks the first time that the Ridenhour judges have awarded the prize to an illustrated book.
The awards are named for Ron Ridenhour, Vietnam veteran, whistleblower of the My lai massacre, and investigative journalist:
In 1969, Vietnam veteran Ron Ridenhour wrote a letter to Congress and the Pentagon describing the horrific events at My Lai – the infamous massacre of the Vietnam War – bringing the scandal to the attention of the American public and the world.
Ridenhour later became a respected investigative journalist, winning the George Polk Award for Investigative Journalism in 1987 for a year-long investigation of a New Orleans tax scandal. He died suddenly in 1998 at the age of 52. At the time of his death, he was working on a piece for the London Review of Books, had co-produced a story on militias for NBC’s Dateline and had just delivered a series of lectures commemorating the thirtieth anniversary of My Lai.
About Matthew Hoh, 2010 recipient of the Ridenhour Truth-Telling Prize
Matthew Hoh, the recipient of The Ridenhour Prize for Truth-Telling, always wanted to serve his country. He grew up hoping to be a firefighter like his father but ended up joining the Marines when no department seemed to be hiring. Hoh calls it the best job he ever had.
After two tours of duty in Iraq and a stint in the State Department in Washington, D.C., Hoh was appointed Senior Civilian Representative of the American government in Afghanistan as a political advisor. On September 10, 2009, five months into his yearlong contract, he resigned from what he calls the second-best job of his life. In doing so, he became the highest-ranking U.S. government official to publicly renounce his country’s foreign policy in Afghanistan.
Hoh’s job was to represent American interests at the village, district and provincial level in Afghanistan — first to the brigade commander in the eastern city of Jalalabad, where he spent two and a half months, and then to the Afghan provincial governor in the southeastern province of Zabul. But through his daily conversations with Afghans, the early doubts he had about the U.S. role in Afghanistan only grew stronger.
“Within a month, people I was meeting, local and foreign, officials and civilians, told me it was a civil war with very little benefit to the United States,” he said. “We are fighting people who don’t want to be occupied.”
But it was the story of Korengal Valley, in Konar Province, that was pivotal to Hoh’s change of heart. Approximately 20 kilometers long, the valley is home to roughly 10,000 Afghans who only speak Korengali and want nothing but to be left alone. Yet American soldiers have suffered so many casualties there that in a 2008 article, The New York Times named it “the valley of death.” Hoh learned that when American troops were first stationed there in 2004, there were hardly any skirmishes. But that changed over time as the Americans occupied a timber mill — in a region where the timber trade is vital to the economy. They also brought in the central Afghan government, a faraway power that had done nothing for them, which demanded a timber tax on Korengalis for the first time. From only two encounters in an eight-month period in 2004-05, violence has escalated so much that now there is almost daily combat in Korengal.
Military commanders told Hoh that there is no purpose to a continued presence in Korengal Valley; that their presence there had accomplished nothing useful. “If we leave, [the Korengalis] are not about to march on Kabul,” Hoh said. “And what boggles the mind is that for every valley that we’re in, there are 50 that we’re not.”
[On the morning of the awards event, the Washington Post ran a story about the U.S. troop pullout from the Korengal Valley in Afghanistan: “U.S. retreat from Afghan valley marks recognition of blunder”.]
After Jalalabad, Hoh was stationed in Zabul, where his experiences further convinced him that Afghanistan was embroiled in a civil war, not an insurgency. “The villagers say that they don’t like the Taliban and they don’t want to be occupied. They have been in a state of war for the past 30 years. They just want to be left alone,” Hoh said.
His decision to resign was fuelled by a combination of things: his belief that with al-Qaeda no longer present in Afghanistan, the U.S. government had no business in Afghanistan; his growing realization that despite numerous briefings to his superiors, nothing was done to pursue a political rather than a military solution; the fraudulent national election; and his perception that leaders ignored the truth when it didn’t fit their agendas. “I didn’t want to participate any longer in a government that was failing to comprehend the situation or do the right thing,” Hoh said simply.
His four-page resignation letter — published in The Washington Post in October 2009 along with a front-page story about Hoh’s courageous act — was insightful, articulate and hard-hitting: “The dead return only in bodily form to be received by families who must be reassured their dead have sacrificed for a purpose worthy of futures lost, love vanished, and promised dreams unkept. I have lost confidence such assurances can anymore be made. As such, I submit my resignation.”
Hoh’s public stand made waves in the foreign policy community. Hoh received offers of employment from both Ambassadors Eikenberry and Holbrooke. Flattered, he accepted the latter, going back to Washington, D.C. to a position on Holbrooke’s staff. But when he picked up on perceptions within U.S. government and military circles that there would likely be a troop increase in Afghanistan, Hoh realized that once again, political solutions were being sacrificed for military ones. “I felt a bit like I was selling out. If I believed in the mission, I could have just stayed in Zabul. That was where I could do the most to help. But more troops would equal more casualties; and so I reconsidered,” he said.
At a time when Afghanistan was still looked at as the “good war,” Hoh came forward, very publicly and at great risk, to question the war’s fundamental rationale. His passionate and informed letter of resignation lit a spark and was, for many, the first extended argument against further escalation in Afghanistan. He did this at great personal cost, severing his ties to the U.S. government and cutting off what was, by all accounts, going to be a very successful and promising career. His criticisms have proven remarkably prescient. Had he not come forward the way he did, the debate over Afghanistan would look very different. For all these reasons, we award Matthew Hoh the 2010 Ridenhour Prize for Truth-Telling.
From earlier CSW posts:
Remarks by Climate Science Watch director Rick Piltz on accepting the 2006 Ridenhour Prize for Truth-Telling
I am honored to have been associated with the name and legacy of Ron Ridenhour, with Matthew Hoh and the other awardees during the past seven years, and with the Ridenhour Award sponsoring organizations.
Bill Moyers speech on receiving the 2008 Ridenhour Courage prize (excerpt; read the full text):
The job of trying to tell the truth about people whose job it is to hide the truth is almost as complicated and difficult as trying to hide it in the first place. We journalists are of course obliged to cover the news, but our deeper mission is to uncover the news that powerful people would prefer to keep hidden. …
Temptation to co-option is the original sin of journalism, and we’re always finding fig leaves to cover it: economics, ideology, awe of authority, secrecy, the claims of empire. In the buildup to the invasion of Iraq we were reminded of what the late great reporter A.J. Liebling meant when he said the press is “the weak slat under the bed of democracy.” The slat broke after the invasion and some strange bedfellows fell to the floor: establishment journalists, neo-con polemicists, beltway pundits, right-wing warmongers flying the skull and bones of the “balanced and fair brigade,” administration flacks whose classified leaks were manufactured lies – all romping on the same mattress in the foreplay to disaster.
Five years, thousands of casualties, and hundreds of billion dollars later, most of the media co-conspirators caught in flagrante delicto are still prominent, still celebrated, and still holding forth with no more contrition than a weathercaster who made a wrong prediction as to the next day’s temperature. …
For that matter, you will learn more about who wins and who loses in the real business of politics, which is governance, from the public interest truth-tellers of Washington than you will from an established press tethered to official sources. The Government Accountability Project, POGO [Project on Government Oversight], the Sunlight Foundation, Citizens Against Government Waste, Taxpayers for Common Sense, the Center for Responsible Politics, the National Security Archive, CREW [Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington], the Center for Public Integrity, just to name a few—and from whistleblowers of all sorts who never went to journalism school, never flashed a press pass, and never attended a gridiron dinner. …
The 2010 Pulitzer Prize for International Reporting was awarded to Anthony Shadid of The Washington Post, “for his rich, beautifully written series on Iraq as the United States departs and the Iraqis struggle to deal with the legacy of war and to shape their nation’s future.” Shadid was the winner of the Ridenhour Book Prize in 2006 for Night Draws Near: Iraq’s People in the Shadow of America’s War.
Remembering Ron: The Whistleblower Paradox, by Randy Fertel (excerpt; read the entire essay):
We remember Ron Ridenhour’s heroic life as both a whistleblower and an investigative reporter, and we honor those who pursue truth in the relentless way that Ron did.
The paradox of whistleblowers is this: They are thought of as heroes and treated as villains. Speaking truth to power, whistleblowers are crucial to the health of a free society and inevitably troublesome to the powerful. In a democracy, whistleblowing is one of the unlegislated checks and balances. Or, if investigative journalism serves an open society as a fourth estate, watchdogging the activities of the other three, then whistleblowers are a kind of fifth estate. They help to make organizations accountable and individuals responsible for their actions. Corporations and public servants can do nefarious things behind closed doors, but they never know who in their ranks will feel ill at ease enough to come forward and make wrongdoing public. …
Government bureaucracies and corporations are hierarchical, not democratic. Your immediate superior and those above you often have limited tolerance for dissent. Bosses and owners often have more dedication to the longevity and profitability of their organizations than they do to the public welfare.
“Doublethink,” George Orwell’s term, here comes into play. The psychological phenomenon behind it is called doubling. Say you are a mid-level functionary in a bureaucracy or corporation and you possess some truth that you know does not conform to your institution’s or your boss’s agenda. Doubling, splitting yourself into two, means you can hold true to your personal morality while maintaining a separate public or institutional morality. At home, you would never think to lie or to withhold truths that could injure your family. On the job, telling the truth may hurt not only your boss but your institution and therefore your livelihood and the health and safety of your family.
In such situations it’s helpful to be able to hold contradictory positions, to separate out your different selves or different lives. You can be a good person even while you do things that aren’t so good.
Doubling allows you to follow orders or to go along with the herd while imagining yourself a moral individual. But whistleblowers can’t manage to double or split themselves….They often speak of it this way:
“I had to do it; I couldn’t live with myself if I didn’t speak up.”…