Mark Pavlick and Caroline Luft have just published an essential collection, published by Haymarket Books, entitled “The United States, Southeast Asia, and Historical Memory.” The book features a long, stellar cast of contributors which includes the immortal Noam Chomsky and the great investigative reporter Gareth Porter. The purpose of the book, Pavlick told me, “is to encourage questioning and discussion of issues concerning U.S. government interventions in Southeast Asia. All contributors donated their work to this end. Proceeds from the book will be given to nongovernmental organizations working in Southeast Asia.”
Read this interview, share it and but the book, preferable directly from Haymarket but if absolutely necessary from Amazon so Jeff Bezos can get a cut. (I discourage anyone from giving money to Jeff Bezos but you can find the link with a Google search if you like.)
1/ Your collection of stories opens with a quote from Justice Robert Jackson, chief of counsel before the Nuremberg Tribunal. Why did you opt to open with a reference to Nuremberg and why did you choose that quote?
Mark Pavlick (MP): All accounts of the Nuremberg trials emphasize the care the prosecutors took to avoid the charge that they were only implementing “victors’ justice.” Robert Jackson in particular strove to articulate and execute a set of universal moral and legal principles. Jackson’s assigning the highest importance to the charge of aggressive war as the supreme international crime became part of the foundation of international law generally in the postwar period.
Caroline Luft (CL): The use of the Jackson quote as the epigraph for the book also puts the Indochina war crimes firmly in the same category as the crimes against humanity that were committed in WWII — and were prosecuted as such, which has not happened with the Indochina war crimes.
2/ What is the true legacy of Vietnam and what are the lessons we should have learned from it?
MP: The postwar period began with the betrayal of the wish of the peoples of Indochina for freedom and independence, by U.S. leadership’s returning them, with massive U.S. support, to the exploitation of French colonialism. The failure of that French effort, climaxing with the defeat at Dien Bien Phu, was followed by years of direct U.S. violence and aggression. The Indochina interventions of the U.S. were among the worst international crimes of the postwar era. The continuing attempts to rewrite this history should disturb every person of good will.
CL: Fred Branfman’s assessment is correct: The United States lost its soul in Indochina. The scale of the violence and cover-up, and the lack of acknowledgment by successive administrations, laid bare the cynicism of US foreign policy. Never again could the US lay claim to being a force for good in the world.
3/ One chapter, by Nick Turse, is provocatively titled “‘So Many People Died’: The American System of Suffering, 1965-2014.” What does Turse mean by “The American System of Suffering”?
MP: Nick Turse refers to the deliberate creation of civilian suffering through murderous counterinsurgency campaigns, the use of chemical weapons, and the aerial bombardment of non-military targets. The deliberate creation of civilian suffering was a main feature of U.S. policy, not an extraneous detail. To the extent that this suffering has been studied quantitatively – an extent that is nowhere near what should be the case – it is documented in Nick Turse’s chapter, and in other chapters of our book.
4/ Another chapter by Ben Kiernan and Taylor Owen is titled “Iraq, Another Vietnam? Consider Cambodia.” Vietnam is still remembered (or misremembered anyway) but what the U.S. did to Cambodia has been almost entirely forgotten. What’s the main point the authors are trying to make in that chapter?
MP: Ben Kiernan and Taylor Owen document their important findings obtained through Freedom of Information Act requests, and also through direct interviews with Cambodian refugees. The U.S. bombing of Cambodia between 1969 and 1973 was in reality something like five times what has been previously reported, maybe half a million tons of bombs. By a conservative estimate over 150,00 civilians lost their lives in this period.
This aggression directed at a small agrarian society – in addition to its intrinsic moral significance – resulted in the creation of resentment and anger against the U.S., with catastrophic consequences for Cambodia. There are valid analogies to be made with the near-destruction of Iraq by the U.S. invasion contributing to the formation of ISIS, with its disastrous aftermath for peoples in the Middle East.
CL: I would add that Kiernan and Owen’s invoking of the callous and glib terminology in the Cambodia bombing campaigns (“menu” bombings – Breakfast, Lunch, and Dinner) has a parallel in Donald Rumsfeld’s erroneous and glib prediction that the Iraq invasion was going to be a “cakewalk.”
5/ For ages the political and media elite said the U.S. needed to get over “Vietnam Syndrome,” meaning the U.S. government shouldn’t be shy about exercising military power. We got over it. Does recent U.S. foreign and military policy show any more intelligence than our foreign policy from the Vietnam era? Do we make “mistakes” or are what the media routinely describes as “mistakes,” when things go wrong as in Iraq, actually preplanned war crimes with the aim of enriching or empowering the United States without any thought about the consequences for the citizens of the countries we invade and bomb? Am I being too cynical?
MP: My own opinion is that the lying about and falsification of the history of the U.S. interventions in Indochina contribute directly to continuing U.S. acts of aggression, like the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and elsewhere. Regarding Central America, there are current mainstream policy studies touting the positive results of Vietnam-style counterinsurgency efforts in El Salvador and Guatemala, even though those efforts led directly to the loss of hundreds of thousands of civilian lives in those countries.
CL: Agreed. I think the existence of the term “Vietnam syndrome” indicates that the US was not permitted to learn from the disasters (human as well as military) of Vietnam and the other Indochina wars. To characterize any perceived military hesitation as a “syndrome” is to advocate unchecked aggression. I don’t think you’re being too cynical. The “mistakes” may not necessarily be preplanned, at least not always, but each “mistake” is invariably maximized toward the enrichment and empowerment of the United States.
6/ Donald Trump has made a lot of idiotic comments and threatened the use of force on multiple occasions, yet other than for a few criminally worthless bombing raids he hasn’t actually used military force up to this moment. In fact, he recently stated that the Pentagon was ready to bomb Iran but he stopped action at the last minute because the estimated 150 casualties was disproportionate to Iran’s shooting down an unmanned drone. It was quite an extraordinary and unprecedented, to my knowledge, decision by a U.S. president to not use force when it surely would have been endorsed by the media and ratcheted up his popularity ratings? What do you make of Trump’s statement and do you think a Hillary Clinton administration would have been more or less bellicose than Trump’s?
Gareth Porter: Trump is certainly more opposed to the “forever war” than Hillary could possibly be, as shown by his posture in questioning the stationing of U.S. troops all over the world in 2017; his order to pull out troops out of Syria in 2018 on two occasions, even after the Israeli lobby and Pompeo had gone through an entire exercise of developing a policy that would keep U;S. troops there indefinitely; his readiness to sign a peace agreement with North Korea and his even to consider troop withdrawal from South Korea as part of a settlement; and his long resistance to continuing the war in Afghanistan, and finally, overriding his advisers on war against Iran.
But on the other hand, he has surrounded himself with war hawks who are just as bad if not worse than the neoconservatives of the Bush administration, and seems unwilling to get rid of them. And his ability to conceptualize a broader policy for these issues or even to carry a single on through to end an existing war or potential war is dangerously limited to nonexistent. Hopefully he will have more backbone in his second term. Still he might either have compiled a record that is much better or much worse than might have been expected from Clinton at the end of his presidency.