Ivan's Place
In honor of the greatest moralist who never lived
Copyright © 2004 by Bill Becker

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Arundhati Roy, Meet General Westmoreland

Serendipitous connections are a major source of satisfaction to me, and they happen not infrequently. They are often, if not usually, in the format of a generalization that I came upon and considered true "in the main," followed by an example of the generalization that I came upon later. This page describes such a connection.

The first element, the generalization, is contained in one of the most eloquent — perhaps the most eloquent — articulations of the "why" of 9/11 I have yet read:

"Who is Osama bin Laden really? Let me rephrase that. What is Osama bin Laden? He's America's family secret. He is the American president's dark Doppelganger. The savage twin of all that purports to be beautiful and civilized. He has been sculpted from the spare rib of a world laid to waste by America's foreign policy: its gunboat diplomacy, its nuclear arsenal, its vulgarly stated policy of "full-spectrum dominance," its chilling disregard for non-American lives, its barbarous military interventions, its support for despotic and dictatorial regimes, its merciless economic agenda that has munched through the economies of poor countries like a cloud of locusts. . . . Now that the family secret has been spilled, the twins are blurring into one another and gradually becoming interchangeable." Arundhati Roy, The Guardian, September 27, 2001

I came upon this exquisitely crafted statement in the Prologue to Nemesis — The Last Days of The American Republic, by Chalmers Johnson. Here I'm interested in just a short fragment: its chilling disregard for non-American lives.

A few days ago, I watched George Butler's documentary Going Upriver: The Long War of John Kerry. The film documents Kerry's stint as Swift Boat commander in Vietnam and his anti-war activities after he mustered out. It is unabashedly pro-Kerry, and I have no problem with that, myself. The Vietnam footage is the highest quality I have yet seen; it is superb. I found Kerry's statements to the Fulbright committee and on the Dick Cavett show to be deeply moving.

The second element in this serendipitous connection — the example of the generalization — comes in the segment of the documentary titled Free-Fire Zones. My hearing is rather poor, and I was not able to parse all of the words, and there were no subtitles for the hearing impaired. But, the following is accurate enough. "Much of the [Mekong] Delta was designated as free-fire zones," says the voice-over of a former soldier who served with Kerry. Free-fire zones were by definition populated by the enemy — the Viet Cong (VC) — and U.S. soldiers were authorized to shoot anything that moved. And they often did, routinely killing non-combatants of all ages.

Former Navy Lt. Wade Sanders asks a superior officer (possibly the overall Swift Boat commander in Vietnam — I could not catch the name): "How do you tell in a free-fire zone if someone who is killed is VC?" The answer: "If they're dead, they're VC."

Next we hear from the older Neil Sheehan, who covered the war as a young AP reporter. "I asked him [General William C. Westmoreland, commander of U.S. forces in Vietnam] if he wasn't worried about this problem of the killing of civilians in free-fire zones, and he said 'Yes, there is a problem, but it does deprive the enemy of the population, doesn't it?'"

It doesn't get much more chilling than that, does it? Testimony like that would have gotten a German Westmoreland hung at the Nuremburg trials, but "Westy" maintained to the end of his life that had Washington been less timid, and allowed him to have his way in Vietnam, we would have won the war. Who knows what small fraction of the original population of Vietnam would have been left at the end of that dream-come-true if Westmoreland had been allowed to follow his instincts. (See Civilian Killings Went Unpunished: Declassified papers show U.S. atrocities went far beyond My Lai.)

Such was the pathology of anti-communism in that era, and things have not gotten any better over years since the Vietnam War ended. Today, veterans of the Iraq War suffer severe trauma as they remember the innocent Iraqis — of all ages — they killed in service of the "chilling disregard for non-American lives" that virtually defines the Bush administration. It all turned out to be more than they bargained for. Westmoreland died at the ripe old age of 91 on July 18, 2005.

As I wrote this, I recalled something I had saved years ago from my then local newspaper, the Los Angeles Daily News (3/28/93, Nation & World p. 1). It was a statement by the original World Trade Center bombers:

"The American people must know, that their civilians who got killed are not better than those who are getting killed by the American weapons and support. ... The American people are responsible for the actions of their government and they must question all of the crimes that their government is committing against other people, or they—Americans—will be the targets of our operations that could diminish them." (Reprinted by the Daily News from LETTER EXPLAINED MOTIVE IN BOMBING, OFFICIALS NOW SAY, by Alison Mitchell. New York Times, March 28, 1993.)

"What goes around, comes around." What more is there to say?

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