In her 1994 interview with the Italian philosopher Antonio Negri, the psychoanalyst Anne Dufourmantelle poses a question for each letter of the alphabet. For the letter “J” she chooses Jamais plus — never again. She proceeds. “When you think of the phrase “never again”, what is the first thing that comes to mind?”
“Never again war!” Negri replies.
* * *
In the eye of a country that continues — 46 years after King announced it at Riverside Church — to be the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today, three books have arrived. They grapple with what our nation’s war apparatus has wrought in our names. They attempt to figure how such acts have, with an air of permanence, seized our national imagination.
The first two, Kill Everything That Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam by Nick Turse, and Hardhats, Hippies and Hawks: The Vietnam Antiwar Movement in Myth and Memory, by Penny Lewis, are revisionary, attempting (and largely succeeding) to rub saltwater into an infected wound. And it is infected. The capitalist class in the United States has been successful at creating the narrative that 1) the Vietnam War was about “democracy” and that the main victims were military in nature, and 2) that the movement against it was entirely composed of the petit bourgeoisie.
Both of these narratives are crushingly dangerous. The first purposely elides the fact that what the United States military actually did in Vietnam was nothing short of some of the greatest crimes of the 20th century, easily deserving to be placed among Leopold’s colonial massacres in the Congo or Hitler’s insane Aryan crusade. The second narrative deliberately attempts to mark a breaking point in the Vietnam War movement by citing opponents of the war as economically privileged, conveniently erasing the vibrant history of antiwar activism among Black, Latin@, and American Indian sections of the working class, as well as the general antiwar sentiment of the white poor.
Both of these narratives, then, are false. But their falsity is not widely known: in fact, it is censored. This is why Lewis’ and Turse’s interventions are so vital — and why a sustained discussion of such interventions is needed.
The third book, Dirty Wars: The World is a Battlefield by Jeremy Scahill, is cosmopolitan. It has elicited significant coverage, deservedly, and is companioned with a widely praised documentary, which this critic has not seen. It does not attempt to revise a cragged, child-consuming history, rather, it reports on issues of definitive national importance that have heretofore been hidden from view by a powerful network of state and corporate power. His, like Turse’s, is a book thus far unreported, its facts shrouded in bureaucratic desk drawers and in the eyes of subalternity, subject only to the wiles of investigative journalists and associated Antigones.
* * *
Turse’s book is howling, roughed out onto the page.
While in the style of journalistic detachment, it is clear that Turse is giving an account. He refuses to quietly bury those whose deaths have been denied. Spending more than a decade poring over various Pentagon archives, Turse paints a picture of a vile war of colonial aggression against the people of Vietnam.
The total deaths in the US military? 58,000. A conservative estimate of total Vietnamese war dead, however, is 3.8 million. Total casualties likely far exceeded ten million. The landscape was destroyed, previous forms of social bonds were often literally raped out of existence. Rape, often of children, often in the most sadistic forms possible, was an institutional practice of war. Those US soldiers who followed orders seemed to undergo a psychotic break with any relationality to any moral code they had held prior. The top brass all escaped exculpation for their crimes. Many of those actively involved in the planning and execution of war crimes went on to acquire high office, among them former Secretary of State Colin Powell and former Senator Bob Kerrey.
Indeed, while the officer class was caught in the fog of war, for Vietnamese people it was less a fog and more a state of constant physical assault.
Such a state was deliberate. Turse points out that top commanders were evaluated on the amount of Vietcong they killed. But the definition of Vietcong was actively muddled. It quickly grew to encompass Vietnamese people generally. Commanders playing the numbers game — and all of them played the numbers game — applied enormous amount of pressure on their subordinates to produce the highest kill counts possible.
One revelatory moment: “Entire units were sometimes pitted against each other in body-count competitions with prizes at stake”.
The consequences of this predation for the Vietnamese countryside (where the guerilla resistance was for the most part waged) were cataclysmic. While the sociopolitical fabric of the United States was ripping apart at the seams in the ferment of the 60s and 70s, the generals sought and failed to web cohesion and obedience out of a cult of death.
Many, fleeing from the counterinsurgency, went to the cities where it was less likely that they would meet a fiery end. As the countryside was depopulated, the slums grew. Such a rapid urbanization was a disaster. In Saigon, population density swelled to the highest of any city in the world. Describing what is now Ho Chi Minh City, Turse tells us that:
“By 1966 Saigon’s infant mortality rate had reached a staggering 36.2 percent, higher than anywhere else in the country. In the following years, the situation only worsened. Thanks to a nearly thousandfold increase in motorized traffic, the capital became ever more congested, while piles of rotting garbage lay uncollected beneath a pall of smog. Not surprisingly, the urban areas saw a spike in the incidence of endemic diseases, such as cholera, dysentary, tuberculosis, typhoid, smallpox, and even bubonic plague.”
Life under occupation: bleak. The consequence of US government policy: base destruction. The press? Silent.
In particular, Turse details how our central organs allowed the Pentagon to get away with the fiction that the My Lai massacre — widely disseminated through an article written by Seymour Hersh — was anomalous, the result of a “few bad apples”. Despite no evidence that this was the case, the corporate media accepted the Nixon administration’s protestations and actively quashed or rewrote stories that revealed the systemic nature of atrocities in the war in Vietnam. As the war ended, Vietnam disappeared from the media’s imagination, only remembered in the official consciousness as an impetus against conflict abroad.
Five years after the war ended in 1975, the United States was actively complicit in the assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero. Seven years later, Marine boots stepped foot in Beirut. Eight years later, the United States was overthrowing the socialist government of Maurice Bishop in Grenada. Twenty-six and twenty-eight years later, the United States began other occupations: two countries rather than one. The impetus, apparently, did not hold for long.
* * *
Hardhats, Hippies, and Hawks is, like Turse’s book, an essential intervention into the politics of the Vietnam Era. I tend to be uncomfortable with disciplinary boundaries, but it might be fair to say while Turse’s approach is primarily one of historiage/reportage, Lewis’ work is firstly sociological.
While she focuses on the antiwar movement, Lewis’ analysis of the cultural historiography of Vietnam — played out significantly in cinema — demonstrates the need for both her and Turse’s contributions. As Lewis demonstrates, much of the mainstream films and commentary that constitute the historical imagination that is Vietnam — Forrest Gump, Platoon, The Deer Hunter, Hamburger Hill — both paper over the bitter realities of the war’s effect on Vietnamese people (conveniently excluded from the social field) while at the same time propagate a version of antiwar criticism that places the domain of agency exclusively in the hands of the managerial and owner classes.
Hamburger Hill, a 1988 film that glosses over both the history of working-class criticism of the war and the major racial divides among US troops, is a particularly good example for Lewis because of the historical facts it avoids. Based on the battalion that fought the actual Battle of Hamburger Hill, the film fairly consistently criticizes the antiwar movement as being the exclusive site of the privileged. In their opposition to the petit bourgeois radicals at home, soldiers in the film are able to form a lasting sense of camaraderie.
This is fiction at the level of deep structure, wholly enmeshed with broader processes of hegemonic construction. Lewis points us to the site of unraveling: in the actual Battle of Hamburger Hill, which saw hundreds die, the rank and file soldiers in the aftermath put a $10,000 price on the head of the officers who ordered the attack.
This interjection opens us up to the general issues with the mass historiography of the Vietnam war and the movements that led to its end. Officers in Vietnam were widely loathed, and the officers in question were certainly higher up both socially and economically than the vast majority of what constituted the antiwar movement.
In actuality, leadership in the antiwar movement was often assumed by veterans groups like Vietnam Veterans Against the War. When separated by income bracket in polls, each descending bracket had a higher level of opposition to the war, with the highest levels of support coming from the wealthiest.
Further, Lewis demonstrates that the signature moment that supposedly demonstrates working class support of the war — the 1970 attacks on antiwar protesters by construction workers in Manhattan — was highly complex. It certainly was essential. It began the “hardhat” vs. “hippie” trope, which for the most part persists to this day. But tropes that benefit the broader schematics of power are always to be questioned.
It was a carefully orchestrated series of events — it is impossible to know how carefully — but the basic facts are this: on May 8, 1970, popular rage was boiling over from the massacre of four students at Kent State four days before. Antiwar protestors gathered in downtown Manhattan. A group of people, many of them construction workers, attacked. Most were on the clock, being compensated by their employers for their violence. They were soon joined by many people who worked on Wall Street. More than 70 antiwar protesters and bystanders were injured. On May 20, Peter Brennan, the head of the Building Trades Council, called an “Honor the Flag, Honor America” rally, ostensibly against the antiwar movement.
Lewis, however, points out that much of these sentiments were conflicted. Much of the white working-class anger was directed at the then-Republican Mayor, John Lindsay, for attempting to introduce affirmative action policies. Brennan went on to serve as Nixon’s secretary of labor after supporting him in the 1972 election, making him one of a very tiny coterie of labor leaders appointed to federal office. Many of the workers actually interviewed at the protests in question were critical of the war.
Lewis’ demonstration of the subversive class character of the Vietnam antiwar movement begs the question. How now a working-class antiwar movement today? How now another desperately needed revival of working-class internationalism?
Lewis points to the fact that much of the reasons why the white working-class underwent a shift to the right and voted for the more bellicose of the two political parties in this country is largely a question of the “failure of many social movements, the Democrats, labor, and other possible social formations to represent at levels of actual practice and social discourse to engage broader working-class politics in effective and compelling ways.” It is worth adding that such failures are largely a result of the almost entirely petit bourgeois leadership of such movements.
The differences between the Vietnam era and today are manifold. The absence of the draft is a structuring principle. Yet once again, polls are indicating greater anti-war sentiment among the general populace. The recent revelation that a majority of Americans now prefer civil liberties over national security, for the first time since 2004, may perhaps be a hopeful data point in this regard.
But ending the war in Vietnam required widespread expressions of social discontent both at home and on the “battlefield”. Both Lewis and Turse point out that the collapse in military morale, the frequency of officer-cide, and simple refusal to fight on the part of many sections of the rank and file played a significant part in the ending of the war. Of course, the working class led the way on both fronts. This is not a time when wartime dissent has perished, but that light is still perilously low. Lewis is correct when she implies that the revival of said light is dependent upon the expressed discontent of the working class.
* * *
Dirty Wars is a groundbreaking work of investigative journalism. It is a revealing insight into the minds of policymakers violently acting out phallic rage as their empire collapses around them. It exposes in detail the lives of some of those who have bore the brunt of such rage, most notably Anwar Awlaki and his son Abdulrahman.
The book is often plodding. But Scahill is able to paint a picture, deliberately, of a community of people high off their own power and violently impulsive while using it. The ostensible head of the operation is particularly callous.
When Obama was briefed on Awlaki’s location in Jawf and was told that children were in the home, he was explicit that he did not want any options ruled out. (Italics added.)
The more cynical among us may say that this is yet another exercise in the banality of evil. The truly cynical might say that such explicit comments are justified.
Most of the world finds them horrifying. Most of the world thinks that a person who intends to (and does) kill children should be tried for war crimes.
There you have it, folks: the madness of the United States. A country built on genocide and slavery certainly is not going to be changed by a different face.
As a nation frets on the latest news of Amanda Bynes or holds a reasoned debate on whether another black child deserved to be murdered, our courageous drone operators terminate the little black and brown children of Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, Afghanistan, and Iraq. With the active sanction of our President.
From what information we have available, Anwar Awlaki never killed anybody. His writings never called for the murder of innocents, he counted many of the finest humanity has had to offer among his intellectual fathers: Malcolm X being one of them. The bulk of his writings are on the crimes of the government of the United States. Some of them are, philosophically, nearly indistinguishable from the later words of Martin Luther King.
It probably should be said again that it is highly likely — as likely as anyone you might pass by on the street — that he never killed anyone.
But because he was Muslim, because he was brown, and because he refused to elide intellectually serious questions of innocence, of justice, and of military aggression, some of the world’s most powerful people wanted to have him dead.
The largest military apparatus the world has ever seen is very good at killing people. They, extrajudicially, decided to murder Anwar Awlaki. They cheered themselves on. Willed on by the bloodlust of Hollywood, this violent expulsion of some body from the field of kinship was and is all too common. They also killed his sixteen-year old son, later.
From Scahill’s book, we are painted a picture of a country where targeted killings by drones have become the norm. The United States has never been shy about disciplining subordinate populations. But this latest form of techno-fascism is, in its contemporaneity, particularly disturbing. If the military-industrial complex’s goal is to have a clean, surgical war, the rest of the world realizes the propaganda inherent in such goals. For the vast majority of the world, their very existence makes “clean” wars dirty. Here’s to them.
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It might be interesting to end such a morbid essay with another bit of Negri. I certainly have trouble summing up such extreme violence, my apologies to the reader. Perhaps it is presumptuous of me to end on a note of uplift; of contingency. I smile anyways.
In Alexis de Tocqueville’s Recollections, we’re told of a day in June 1848. We’re in a lovely apartment on the left bank, seventh arrondissement, at dinner-time. The Tocqueville family is reunited. Nevertheless, in the calm of the evening, the cannonade fired by the bourgeoisie against the rebellion of rioting workers resounds suddenly–distant noises from the right bank. The diners shiver, their faces darken. But a smile escapes a young waitress who serves their table and has just arrived from the Faubourg Saint Antoine. She’s immediately fired. Isn’t the true specter of communism perhaps there in that smile? The one that frightened the Tsar, the pope … and the Lord of Tocqueville? Isn’t a glimmer of joy there, making for the specter of liberation?
(This is taken from Ghostly Demarcations: A Symposium on Derrida’s Specters of Marx).
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