I’ve liked VICE for a bit of time now, so it was pretty cool to have been profiled by VICE UK while I was in London. Much appreciation for to Joe Sandler Clarke and Adam Barnett for their time and effort telling my story.
It’s five years since Matthew Hoh became the first US official to resign in protest over the government’s handling of the Afghanistan war, resulting in a PR disaster for the US government.
“After I resigned, I was in a bar and it just so happened that I was sitting next to an editor from the Washington Post. We got talking and he told me to call the foreign affairs desk the next day.” He did and a few hours later, Post journalist Karen DeYoung was on the phone. They spoke for six hours and within days, his resignation letter was on the front page.
In the letter, Hoh explained he had lost confidence in the tactics being used in the conflict, and that he had no idea why it was going on. He wrote, “My resignation is based not upon how we are pursuing this war, but why and to what end.”
Today, sitting in his hotel room in central London, wearing a War Resisters International badge and with leather elbow patches sown onto his jacket, he admits he is surprised by his journey from Marine Corps captain to peace activist. “I never planned any of this,” he says. “In a year I went from thinking I would have 35 years in the government before getting a PhD and teaching at a small college somewhere to saying, ‘Fuck you, I am not doing this anymore. It’s wrong.'”
The years since he resigned have been marked by the current administration embarking on what Glenn Greenwald has called “the most aggressive and vindictive assault on whistleblowers of any president in American history.” Of the 11 times the Espionage Act has been used to prosecute whistleblowers who have leaked information to journalists, seven have been under Obama. Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist James Risen is to this day facing possible prosecution for refusing to reveal the identity of his one of sources to the authorities.
Hoh now fears that if he had blown the whistle today as he had done in 2009, he would be facing prosecution. This explains his motivation for becoming an advisory board member at ExposeFacts, a new website led by veteran journalist and activist Norman Solomon. The project is designed as a place for people to leak information safely, while also offering better protection to whistleblowers and campaigning to shield reporters from state surveillance. It already has the backing of a host of Pulitzer Prize winners and Daniel Ellsberg, the man who leaked the Pentagon Papers to the New York Times.
The day before I meet him, Hoh was part of panel of former intelligence workers at the launch of ExposeFacts that told the world’s media that they were fighting back against the Obama administrations “war on journalism and whistleblowing.”
They aim to provide technology for secure, anonymous whistleblowing, and to push the actions of whistleblowers “to the forefront of the public consciousness.”
Having enlisted for the Marines in the heady days before 9/11, initially Hoh’s military career was “just like the brochure said it would be.” He was stationed in Okinawa, Japan, with his days spent training, traveling the world, and hanging out at the base’s private beach.
Hardworking and intelligent, with supreme self-confidence and an inherent curiosity about the world, Hoh enjoyed what he describes as a “Forrest Gump-like” rise through the ranks.
By the time US forces invaded Iraq, he was working for the Secretary of the Navy. By 2004, he was leading reconstruction projects in Iraq, handing out money to political leaders and making arrangements, ostensibly so the country’s devastated athletics facilities could be rebuilt. He would travel with his own security team, with a pistol tucked into his suit pocket and $25 million in cash.
“It was part Scarface, part Lawrence of Arabia,” he recalls. “But it was very instructive to me about the folly of war.”
Throughout the conflict, Hoh was skeptical about the reasons for going to war and the mission itself. “I certainly doubted why we were there and could see it wasn’t adding up. I was doing all I could to do it right,” he says. “But it doesn’t matter how much honor you possess if a war is morally fraught.”
He worked with a group of women in Baghdad and the memory of them haunts him still. They were modern and educated. They wore hijabs that matched their mascara and believed in the US mission.
“We gave them this hope and this promise and then we gave them a hell that you and I can’t even imagine,” he says. “I know one of them is still alive, but that is something that has haunted me ever since. I don’t know if they were blown up in a car bomb, or if they were raped, or if their families were killed. That’s where a lot of my moral injury comes from.”
After a period spent moving from one prestigious desk job to the next, Hoh was back in Iraq in 2007. He was with a small group of men when the helicopter they were traveling in crashed over the Persian Gulf. “It was kind of ironic because you go to the desert and almost die in the water,” he says. “Four guys died, including one who was a friend of mine and I could not save any of them. It crushed me. I had survivor’s guilt.”
On returning home he could barely function. While spending a day at the beach in Delaware, he had a flashback. “It came over me as soon as I went in the water. All the stereotypical PTSD symptoms you hear about not liking fireworks, or not being in crowds, they’re all a joke, compared to this moral injury. It’s just blackness,” he says.
“The alcohol became key. I was always a big drinker, but this was different. It was the only way I could get through the day. My days in this period consisted of getting up, going to work, leaving work as soon as possible, getting home, working out, drinking, blacking out by 10 PM and then doing it all again.”
Two years later, figuring that if he was going to die, it may as well be in Afghanistan, he went back to fight. He was the State Department’s senior representative in Zabul province, an area which had seen some of the fiercest fighting of the war. But five months into his year-long contract, he was done with the military.
“I didn’t believe any of what was being said. That we were there to protect ourselves from another 9/11 and all that stuff. It just wasn’t true,” he remembers.
That’s when he resigned and before long he was being chased by journalists who wanted to hear of his disaffection. “It was a huge deal,” recalls Hoh. “I had three TV news trucks outside my house and 75 media requests, the day after it broke.”
Despite US Envoy Richard Holbrooke telling him that he understood his misgivings about the war and that his letter was being “taken seriously,” after news of his resignation went public Hoh found himself cut off from the Washington establishment. A Wikipedia page about him that downplayed his role in the State Department and featured a clip of him being used in an al Qaeda propaganda video surfaced online. For more than two years, he couldn’t find work and had no money coming in. He found himself selling cars for a few months just to get by.
Being frozen out took its toll. By 2011, suicide had become a daily obsession. He would plan it meticulously, figuring out when and how he would do it, how he would tell his family. “The only thing I didn’t do was buy a gun,” he says.
Ultimately, it was through the support of family and an ex-girlfriend who forced him into therapy that he was able to dig himself out of that feeling. A sense of having a greater purpose helped too. Every time he saw a politician lie on TV, or when he read a newspaper article he knew to be untrue, he kept wanting to speak out. “I was out in public and doing media, so I felt like I couldn’t kill myself,” he says. “People would say, ‘You’re gonna listen to what that guy thinks about the war?! He shot himself in the head!’ I had this cause, this purpose and I could not discredit that by killing myself.”
Hoh is now 41. Having left Washington vowing never to return, he lives in Raleigh, North Carolina and earns $48,000 a year through his job the Center for International Policy. If he had stayed in the military, he says, he would be earning more than double that.
He’s turned his back on a career, a high salary, an institution, and a way of life—now he’s determined to help others who want to do the same. For all he’s lost by speaking out, he’s also gained a tremendous amount. “I’m very happy,” Hoh tells me later. “With the moral injury, the PTSD, the depression, the suicidality, I have my bad periods, but I’m getting through. I don’t own a gun, I don’t keep alcohol in my house, I see my psychologist every week, I take medication. I manage it like you would manage high blood pressure. I’m just happy that I can express my own thoughts and think my own way. That’s worth more than any amount of money.”