Bernie Sanders, and the Unexpected Socialist Revival

CULTURE
Bernie Sanders proved socialism isn’t dead—and some young people are even open to the banished ideas of Karl Marx.

Photo Credit: Gage Skidmore / Flickr

Since his grassroots presidential campaign took the world by storm last year, Sen. Bernie Sanders has been widely credited with bringing socialism back into the mainstream of American politics and introducing an entire generation to left-wing politics. As a major presidential candidate who unabashedly identified as a democratic socialist, Sanders essentially resurrected an idea that has been considered off limits in our political discourse for many decades: that there is an alternative to capitalism and the status quo.

This radical idea has become less taboo in recent years, and today an increasing number of millennials say they reject capitalism, while a majority of Americans support “socialistic” policies like universal health care (for the first time in a long time, single-payer is gaining mainstream momentum). Clearly, Sanders deserves the credit he has received for shifting the Overton window and reintroducing a form of left-wing class politics to America. It is safe to say that no single person has done more to revive the American left than the Vermont senator.

But Sanders’ political rise did not happen in a vacuum, and it’s unlikely he would have achieved much success had the social and economic conditions not been ripe. Though the 75-year old senator played an essential role in demystifying socialism to the public and instilling a radical spirit in the progressive movement, the current resurgence of class politics on the left has been in the works for many years, going back to the 2007-08 financial crisis.

It hasn’t been white-haired socialists who have provided the foundation for this resurgence, but young people who grew up in the era of neoliberalism. This was evident last week, when progressive millennials flocked to Chicago for the biannual Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) convention, where delegates came together to vote on various resolutions for the party. In the past year, the DSA has tripled its membership, and what is particularly telling about this growth is that the average age of DSA members has dropped by half virtually overnight, from 64 in 2015 to just 30 today.

This trend has led to a cottage industry of think pieces speculating about why millennials have embraced old school leftists like Sanders and British Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn, but it is hardly a great mystery. Millennials came of age during the worst capitalist crisis in 80 years and live in a time when income and wealth inequality have reached historic levels — as evidenced by the fact that the eight richest men in the world (seven of whom are white American men) own as much wealth as the bottom 3.6 billion people.

Millennials inhabit a planet that faces ecological collapse, and most grasp the threat of climate change on a visceral level. Young people are also crippled by record levels of debt and despite being better educated than their parents earn 20 percent less than baby boomers did at this point in their lives. Finally, millennials have grown up in a time when moneyed interests have completely infiltrated the political process, creating an oligarchic form of government that serves the economic elite rather than the majority.

In other words, millennials are increasingly ambivalent about capitalism because it is a system that has failed their generation. Not surprisingly, this has led to a significant number of young intellectuals who have also rediscovered the works of Karl Marx, the great diagnostician of capitalism’s ills. Around the same time that the Occupy Wall Street protests erupted around the country in 2011, Bhaskar Sunkara founded Jacobin, the left-wing quarterly that has grown rapidly over the past five years, publishing the work of many millennial Marxists.

Of course, it is one thing to call yourself a socialist (or a “democratic socialist”) in America, and another thing entirely to identify as a Marxist. For the past century Karl Marx has been the ultimate intellectual bogeyman in the United States. For the majority of Americans who have no first-hand familiarity with the 19th-century thinker and his work, the term “Marxism” is synonymous with Stalinism and totalitarianism.

As with the millennial embrace of an elderly democratic socialist, this Marxist revival has predictably confounded many liberal and conservative critics, who assume that youngsters simply don’t know their 20th-century history. “That Marxism is not viewed with a similar horror as Nazism is one of the greatest failings of contemporary education,” tweeted Claire Lehmann, editor of the libertarian-leaning publication Quillette magazine, last month.

One of the greatest failings of contemporary education, one might counter, is that critics of Marxism know next to nothing about Marx or Marxism, other than the fact that some unsavory historical figures identified themselves with the term. This is obviously not a new phenomenon, and more than 50 years ago the American sociologist C. Wright Mills attempted to provide an objective account of Marx’s ideas in his 1962 book, “The Marxists,” meant to counteract the propaganda efforts of Cold Warriors. Mills’ book is just as useful today when it comes to explaining why Marx remains relevant in the 21st century. (Some might argue he is even more relevant today than in the mid-20th century, as capitalism has conquered the globe). In order to uncover what makes Marx’s work so valuable, Mills makes an important analytical distinction between the philosopher’s methodology/model and his theories:

model is a more or less systematic inventory of the elements to which we must pay attention if we are to understand something. It is not true or false; it is useful and adequate to varying degrees. A theory, in contrast, is a statement which can be proved true or false, about the casual weight and the relations of the elements of a model. Only in terms of this distinction can we understand why Marx’s work is truly great.

Marx’s model, argues Mills, “is what is great; that is what is alive in marxism. [Marx] provides a classic machinery for thinking about man, society, and history. That is the reason there have been so many quite different revivals of marxism. Marx is often wrong, in part because he died in 1883, in part because he did not use his own machinery as carefully as we now can, and in part because some of the machinery itself needs to be refined and even redesigned. . . . Neither the truth nor the falsity of Marx’s theories confirm the adequacy of his model.”

Marx’s model looked at the structure of society as a whole, as well as that “structure in historical motion,” and the German philosopher and economist employed this model to examine and reveal the dynamics of capitalism. This largely explains why there has been a renewed interest in Marx’s work in recent years, especially among millennials who have lived their entire lives under a global capitalist order. Marx’s model of looking at the world, along with his exhaustive analysis of capitalism, helps us to understand our own contemporary reality and where we are headed.

While Marx’s model is essential to understanding modern society, another fundamental aspect of Marxism is, of course, the merging of theory and practice. As Marx famously declared, “Philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it.”

This remains the ultimate goal for millennial Marxists and socialists. Although capitalism has never been more globally dominant than it is today, this has also engendered social and economic conditions that are ripe for left-wing political movements. As the Marxist economist Richard Wolff recently said during an interview on Fox Business:

Socialism is in a way the shadow of capitalism. Nothing guarantees the future of socialism so much as capitalism, because socialism is capitalism’s self-criticism.

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Whose lives matter? The limitations of Bernie Sanders

150706_POL_Sanders

  • February 7, 2016

Our only hope for a radical internationalist movement lies in the self-organization of working-class people. It certainly will not come from Bernie Sanders.

As the next US presidential election creeps closer, a significant segment of the American left — including the Democratic Socialists of America, Socialist Alternative, and the socialist publication Jacobin — has thrown its support behind the presidential campaign of Bernie Sanders. While perhaps predictable, these stances are symptoms of an American left that is both devoid of a practical strategy for radical change and ethically bankrupt with regard to the principles of solidarity.

The principles at stake are not fringe concerns. If anything, they are basic litmus tests of any individual’s commitment to socialism and human dignity. The fact that Sanders fails these tests raises an important question: Why is a large swathe of the left promoting a candidate who is neither anti-imperialist, nor anti-border, nor even socialist?

REASONS TO REMAIN SKEPTICAL

In terms of his actual policy proposals, Bernie Sanders is a milquetoast social democrat at best. He is not an anti-capitalist; he believes in the private ownership of the means of production and production for profit. In a socialist system, the means of production are owned and controlled by the working class. Sanders more-or-less explicitly rejects this vision, arguing instead for a US version of Scandinavian social democracy: a single-payer healthcare system, free higher education, a decent minimum wage, and Keynesian economic stimulus to support employment.

These policy issues are the basic positive proposals put forth by the Sanders campaign, and they have earned him the support of many US socialists. There are good reasons to remain extremely skeptical of Sanders’ candidacy, however.

First, Sanders is an imperialist whose foreign policy is more akin to that of Barack Obama than any anti-interventionist leftist. In his platform-defining speech, Sanders calls for a new “organization like NATO to confront the security threats of the 21st century.” In Congress, Sanders has been a vocal supporter of the appallingly wasteful F-35 program, opting to designate even more funding for the US military despite an ostensible commitment to cut defense spending.

Sanders is also a long-time supporter of Israel, even going so far as to approve of Israel’s unprovoked 2014 assault on Gaza, which killed over 1,600 Palestinian civilians. In October, the Sanders campaign ejected a group of activists from a campaign event for holding up a vague pro-Palestinian sign. If this were not enough, Sanders clearly states that he approves of and would continue Obama’s drone targeted assassination program, which has killed over 3,300 people in Pakistan alone since 2004.

Even beyond the question of imperialism, Sanders demonstrates an almost complete lack of internationalist principle. Sanders described open borders as “a Koch brothers proposal …which says essentially there is no United States,” contending that open borders would flood the country with immigrants who would wreck the job market and take ‘American’ jobs. This sort of rhetoric should be familiar to any leftist — it is exactly the same as that used by right-wing nativists to justify violence and discrimination against migrants.

The fact that Sanders buys into such nativist fantasies is particularly appalling. In doing so, he lends credence to a narrative that displaces working class anger from capitalism, which is actually responsible for poverty and unemployment, onto working people from other countries. In effect, Sanders implies that he would be more than happy to continue the disastrous immigration policies of the Obama administration, which has broken previous records by deporting over two million people.

A WIDER POLITICAL SHIFT

More than anything, Sanders’ success is symptomatic of an ongoing political shift in the United States. Popular support for “Third Way” neoliberal politics, as exemplified by the Clintons, is crumbling. The Occupy and Black Lives Matter movements have begun to reintroduce radical thought into the American political consciousness. In particular, young people are starting to recognize that capitalism is a deeply flawed system, and they are looking for alternatives.

Now is the time to articulate a coherent vision for radical change and organize in working-class communities so that we stand a chance of actualizing that vision. Organizing for Sanders, however, is not a realistic way to build a radical movement in the United States.

The arguments in support of the Sanders campaign remain remarkably unconvincing. In a recent Jacobin article, Nivedita Majumdar argues that the Sanders campaign can be used as a tool for organizing around the idea of socialism. She chides Bernie’s critics on the left for being “insular” and “apolitical,” seemingly more concerned with the social pressures of work within small activist groups than becoming politically relevant. However, as Lance Selfa points out, the strategy of organizing within the Democratic Party in hopes of building a larger movement has never been successful, despite repeated attempts by left reformists to that end.

Majumdar’s stance is based on an analysis of the American left that presumes an almost crippling weakness. She argues that revolutionary transformation is simply “not on the table,” which leads her to endorse Sanders despite his many flaws. The problem with this analysis is that it accepts defeat before the struggle has even begun. If the American left is so weak that we must be content with supporting any left-liberal candidate, how exactly do we plan to build support for the radical changes we actually need? We cannot build support for a socialist future by misleading the public about what socialism is. We cannot hope to win if we accept the premise that revolutionary change is impossible.

The American socialist left seems to be aware of many of Sanders’ limitations: his lack of genuine socialist politics, his imperialism, and his unjustifiable stances on immigration. The question, then, is why so many socialists choose to support his campaign anyway. If one’s stance on the means of production, NATO, the Israeli occupation, drone strikes and border controls are all negotiable, what positions are non-negotiable?

It is hard to believe that these shortcomings should be ignored simply because Sanders has social democratic convictions. By choosing to support Sanders, the reformist left suggests that it is acceptable to advocate for policies that seriously harm people of color, from undocumented migrants in the United States to innocent civilians in the Middle East.

A QUESTION OF LEFT STRATEGY

As much as it poses an ethical dilemma, the Sanders campaign presents the American left with a question of strategy. Reformist participation in electoral politics is appealing because the route to power appears to be a question of running a successful election campaign. If Sanders can succeed, the argument goes, why not a real socialist party in the near future?

The problem with this line of thought is that the United States is constitutionally undemocratic — its political system was explicitly designed to thwart radical change. Through the Senate, representatives of just 11 percent of the nation’s population — concentrated in some of the country’s most rural, conservative states — can veto any national legislation. Any meaningful reforms would face immediate constitutional challenges in the Supreme Court, which is made up of lifetime legacy appointees whose politics are liberal at best and reactionary at worst.

Participation in US electoral politics is therefore not a realistic strategy to bring about radical social change. It is easy to believe that we can gradually transition to socialism by winning a series of elections. It is much harder to realize that this route will never deliver the change we desire, because that realization requires us to pursue strategies beyond the ballot box.

Rather than channeling popular anger into institutionalized politics, we need to articulate a vision for the radical reconstruction of the political and economic structures of society. We have to devote ourselves to the hard work of organizing in working-class communities, building power in the streets and in workplaces rather than the halls of Congress. More than anything, we have to recognize that the radical left is at its strongest as a grassroots movement and at its weakest when it tries to bargain with institutional powers.

We cannot succumb to an opportunistic streak that is more than willing to sacrifice vital principles for legal expediency and electoral fantasies. It is painful to see this tendency in today’s left, despite the myriad lessons offered by Syriza’s recent failures. A left that values minor economic gains over humanity is not worthy of the name — it is a left that has defeated itself before even beginning to struggle.

What we need now is a movement that is both rigorously internationalist and capable of victory. Our only hope for such a movement lies in the collective self-organization of working-class people. It certainly will not come from Bernie Sanders.

 

Ben Reynolds is a writer and activist based in New York. His commentary has appeared in CounterPunch and other forums.

 

https://roarmag.org/essays/whose-lives-matter-bernie-sanders/

Noam Chomsky: The United States is totally isolated

The iconic philosopher on America’s broken education system and the lasting influence of the Monroe Doctrine

Noam Chomsky: The United States is totally isolated
Noam Chomsky (Credit: AP/Nader Daoud)
This article originally appeared on Jacobin.

JacobinWe’re pleased to publish another interview with Professor Noam Chomsky. In this recent conversation with Dan Falcone, a Washington DC–based high school history teacher, Chomsky builds on our last interview, discussing everything from Scott Walker to the Monroe Doctrine, from Citizens United to for-profit colleges. We hope you’ll share it widely.


I wanted to stay on the topic of education and ask you about language, terminology, and definitions in the social sciences. So for example, I’ve noticed in my curriculum that there’s a tendency to have terms with a real definition and then a code definition. Terms like foreign aid, independence movements, partition, and democracy.

Two terms that I know are of particular interest to you are anarchism and libertarianism. Could you discuss the varying definitions of those two terms, anarchism and libertarianism? Maybe the American definition versus the European, and why that’s important for education to sort out?
There’s hardly a term in social science, political discourse, academic professions, and the scholarly professions where there’s anything remotely like clear definitions. If you want a clear definition, you have to go to mathematics or parts of physics.

Definitions are basically parts of theoretical structures. A definition doesn’t mean anything unless it’s embedded in some theory of some explanatory scope. And in these areas, there really are no such theories. So the terms are in fact used very loosely. They have a strong ideological component.

Take, say, democracy. The United States, I’m sure in your school, they teach as the world’s leading democracy. It’s also a country in which about 70 percent of the population, the lower 70 percent on the income scale, are completely disenfranchised.

Their opinions have no detectable influence on the decisions of their own representatives. Which is a good reason to believe, a large reason, why a huge number of people don’t bother voting. They know that it’s a waste of time. So is that a democracy? No, not really.

And you could say the same about almost any other term. Sometimes it’s almost laughable. So for example, in 1947, the US government changed the name of the War Department. They changed it to the Defense Department — any person with a brain functioning knew that we’re not going to be involved in defense anymore. We’re going to be involved in aggression. They didn’t have to read Orwell to know that. And in fact, religiously, every time you read about the war budget, it’s called the defense budget. And defense now means war, very much as in Orwell. And pretty much across the board.

Anarchism is used for a very wide range of actions, tendencies, beliefs, and so on. There’s no settled definition of it. Those who use the term should be indicating clearly, as clearly as you can, what element in this range you’re talking about. I’ve tried to do that. Others do it. You know, anarcho-syndicalism, communitarian anarchism, anarchy in the sense of let’s get rid of everything, the old kind of primitive anarchism, many different types. And you’re not going to find a definition.

Libertarianism has a special meaning predominantly in the United States. In the United States, it means dedication to extreme forms of tyranny. They don’t call it that, but it’s basically corporate tyranny, meaning tyranny by unaccountable private concentrations of power, the worst kind of tyranny you can imagine.

It picks up from the libertarian tradition one element, namely opposition to state power. But it leaves open all other forms of — and in fact favors — other forms of coercion and domination. So it’s radically opposed to the libertarian tradition, which was opposed to the master servant relation.

Giving orders, taking orders — that’s a core of traditional anarchism, going back to classical liberalism. So it’s a special, pretty much uniquely American development and related to the unusual character of the United States in many respects.

America is to quite an unusual extent a business-run society. That’s why we have a very violent labor history. Much more so than comparable countries, and attacks on labor here were far more extreme. There are accurate libertarian elements in the United States, like protection of freedom of speech, which is probably of a standard higher than other countries. But libertarianism is designed in the United States to satisfy the needs of private power.

Actually, it’s an interesting case in connection with the media. The United States is one of the few countries that basically doesn’t have public media. I mean, theoretically, there’s NPR, but it’s a highly marginal thing and is corporate funded anyway. So there’s nothing like the BBC here. Most countries have something or other. And that was a battleground, especially when radio and television came along.

The Founding Fathers actually were in favor of different conceptions of freedom of speech. There’s a narrow conception which interprets it as being a negative right, meaning you should be free of external interference. There’s a broader conception which regards it as a positive right: you should have a right to impart and access information, hence the positive interpretation. The United Nations accepts the positive interpretation, and theoretically, the US does too.

If you look at the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, I think Article 19 says that every person must have the right to express themselves without constraint and to impart and receive information over the widest possible range. That’s the positive right.

That was a battleground in the 1930s and 1940s. Particularly right after the Second World War, there were high level commissions taking both sides. And the position that won out is what was called corporate libertarianism, meaning corporations have the right to do anything they want without any interference.

But people don’t have any rights. Like you and I don’t have the right to receive information. Technically, we can impart information if we can buy a newspaper, but the idea that you should be a public voice that people, to the extent that this society’s democratic and participatory, was eliminated in the United States. And that’s called libertarianism. Meaning mega-corporations can do what they like without interference.

IN THE EVER-GROWING FIELD OF REPUBLICAN PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATES IS WISCONSIN GOV. SCOTT WALKER. HE’S ADVOCATING LOCAL CONTROL OF SCHOOLS IN AN EFFORT TO UNDERMINE PUBLIC EDUCATION. WITH HIS ANNOUNCEMENT TO RUN FOR PRESIDENT, I’M REMINDED OF THE RECALL IN WISCONSIN A FEW YEARS AGO AND ITS RELATION TO THE CITIZENS UNITED CASE. CAN YOU DISCUSS THE RAMIFICATIONS OF THE CITIZENS UNITED CASE AND THE IMPACT ON TEACHERS AND EDUCATION, AND THE OVERALL MEANING OF THAT DECISION ON THE SOCIETY?

The Citizens United decision should be considered in the context of a series of decisions, starting with Buckley v. Valeo back in the ’70s, that determined that money is a form of speech. You and I can speak in the same roughly equal loudness, but you and Bill Gates can’t speak in the same loudness in regards to money. So that was a big deal, that there can’t be any interference with the use of money, for example — funding.

Now there were restrictions in the laws on campaign funding, but they’ve been slowly eroded. Citizens United pretty much dispensed with them. There’s still some limitations but not much. So exactly what its impact was is pretty hard to judge. But it’s part of a series of decisions which have led to a situation in which, if you want to run for president, you have to have several billion dollars. And there’s only certain sources for several billion dollars. If you want to run for Congress, pretty much the same. House of Representatives, you have to have a huge campaign funded.

Technically, you could decide, “I’m going to run for president.” That’s a meaningless freedom. It doesn’t mean anything. And the effect is pretty striking. The impact of money on politics goes way back — you know, Tom Ferguson’s Golden Rule? It’s the best work on this topic; he’s a very good political scientist, and has done work, very good work, on the impact of campaign funding on both electability, but also more significantly on political decisions. And he traces it back to the nineteenth century. And the impact is quite substantial — it goes right through the New Deal and on to the present.

But now it’s in the stratosphere. That’s why 70 percent of the public is totally disenfranchised. They don’t contribute to campaign funding, so they’re out. And if you sort of go up the income/wealth scale, you can detect greater levels of influence, but it’s not really significant until you get to the very top, maybe a fraction of 1 percent or something, where decisions are basically made.

It’s not 100 percent, so you find some deviation. There are times when public opinion is powerful enough so that it does matter, but these are overwhelming tendencies. The effect on education, of course, is obvious. It means that the concentrated power of the business classes will determine educational as well as other policies. That’s why you’re getting charter schools, cutting back of funding for state colleges, the corporatization of the universities. I mean, it’s across the board.

Universities, for example, are increasingly going to a business model in which what matters is not educational attainment, but the bottom line. So if you can get temporary, cheap, dispensable labor, like adjuncts and grad students, that’s preferable to tenured faculty. And of course by other measures, it’s not that preferable, but this is a business model.

At the college level, there’s a huge growth of these private colleges, most of which are total scams. They’re not private, they get maybe 80–90 percent of their funding from the federal government through Pell Grants and other things. And they’re very profitable. So during the recession, they stayed extremely profitable. All their corporate profits went down, but their stock stayed high.

They have a huge drop-out rate, enormous. Corinthian Colleges, one of the biggest for-profits, just had a big scandal. They made promises that they’d recruit deprived populations. So they’ll heavily recruit in, say, black areas, with all kind of inducements to what you can become if you take on a huge debt and go here. Kids end up with an enormous debt and very few of them even graduate. It’s just a major scam. And meanwhile, the community colleges, which can serve these communities, they’re being cut back.

And that’s very natural in a business-run society. After all, business is interested in profit and power; not a big surprise. And so therefore why have public education, when you can use it as a way to profit? It’s very much like the health care system. Why is the United States about the only country without any national health — without any meaningful national health care? Well, it’s the same thing. It’s extremely inefficient, very costly, and very bad for the patient, about twice the per capita costs of comparable countries, with some of the worst outcomes.

I don’t know if you’ve tried to get health insurance, but it’s an unbelievable process. My wife just did it, and we spent days trying to get on the computer networks, which don’t work, and then you call the office and then you wait for an hour and finally you get somebody that doesn’t know what you’re talking about and if you do it, it fails. And we finally had to end up after days of this, going to an office, a physical office out in the suburbs, a small office, where you can actually talk to a human being, and then figure it out in five minutes.

Alright, that saves money for the government and the insurance companies, but it costs money to the consumer. And in fact, that’s not counted, so economists, for ideological reasons, don’t count costs to users. Like if you think there’s an error on your bank statement, say, and you call the bank, you don’t get somebody to talk to. You get a menu, a recorded menu, and then comes a whole routine, and then maybe if you’re patient, minutes later, you get somebody to talk to. Saves the bank a lot of money, so it’s called very efficient, but that’s because they don’t count the cost to you, and the cost to you is multiplied over the number of consumers — so it’s enormous.

If you added those costs, the business would be extremely inefficient. But for ideological reasons you don’t count the cost to people, you just count the cost to business. And even with that, it’s highly inefficient. All of these — it’s not because people want it. People have favored national health care for decades. But it doesn’t matter. What the people want is essentially irrelevant.

Education is simply part of it. So sure, when Scott Walker talks about going down to the local level, it’s put in the framework of, “I’m for the common man.” What he means is that at the local level, businesses can have a lot more power than they can at the state level or at the federal level. They have plenty of power at the higher levels, but if it’s a local school board, the local real-estate people determine what happens. There’s as little resistance as you can possibly get down at the lower levels. It would be different if it was a democratic country where people were organized, but they’re not. You know, they’re atomized.

That’s why the right wing is in favor of what they call states’ rights. It’s a lot easier to take over a state than the federal government. Pretty easy to take over the federal government too, but a lot easier when you get to the state level.

And all of this is veiled in nice, appealing terminology about we’ve got to favor the little guy and send freedom back to the people and take it away from power, but it means exactly the opposite — just like libertarianism.

DO YOU SEE A LOT OF PROPAGANDA EFFORTS IN TERMS OF UNDERMINING TEACHERS, MAYBE IN REGARDS TO PENSIONS OR JOB SECURITY, TO HAVE “NEIGHBOR TURNING AGAINST NEIGHBOR”?

It’s unbelievable. In fact, what Walker did, or his advisers, was pretty clever. They unionized the teachers, firemen, policemen, and people in the public sector who had benefits. And what they concealed, and what you know, is the fact that the benefits are paid for by the recipients. So you pay for the benefits by lowering your wages. That’s part of the union contract. You defer payment and take a slightly lower wage and get a pension. But that’s suppressed.

So the propaganda which was directed at the workers in the private sector said, “Look at these guys. They’re getting all kinds of benefits and pensions, security, and you’re being thrown out of your job.” Which is true. They were being thrown out of their jobs. And of course the unions had already been beaten down to almost nothing in the private sector. And this propaganda was able to mobilize working people against people in the public sector. It was effective propaganda. I mean, a total scam, but effective.

It’s pretty interesting to see it work in detail. You get a lot of insight. So you remember in 2008, when the whole economy was crashing, we could have gone into a huge depression, mostly because of the banks and their corruption and so on. But there was one huge insurance company, AIG, the biggest international insurance company, which was collapsing. If they would have collapsed, they would have brought down with them Goldman Sachs and a whole bunch of big investment firms, so the government wouldn’t let them collapse.

So they were bailed out, a huge bailout. And it was really malfeasance, if not criminality, on their part that led to all of this, but they were bailed out, and Timothy Geithner had to keep the economy going. Right after that, right at that time, the executives of AIG got huge bonuses. That really didn’t look good, so there was some publicity about it, bad publicity. But Larry Summers, the former secretary of treasury, a big economist, said, you have to honor the contracts. And the contract said that these guys have to get a bonus.

Right at that same time, the state of Illinois was going bankrupt, it claimed. And so they had to stop paying pensions to teachers. Well, you didn’t have to honor that contract. So yeah, for the gangsters at AIG who practically brought the economy down, you got to honor that contract, because they got to get their multimillion dollar stock options. But for the teachers who already paid for the pensions, you don’t have to honor that one.

And that’s the way the country runs. That’s what a business-run society looks like in case after case. And it’s all consistent and perfectly sensible and understandable.

SHIFTING TO A FOREIGN POLICY QUESTION, I REMEMBER RECALLING BEING GIVEN THE TRADITIONAL ACCOUNT OF THE MONROE DOCTRINE AS A YOUNG STUDENT OF HISTORY, AND IN MY FORMATIVE YEARS, HEGEMONIC TERMS OR IMPERIALISTIC PHRASEOLOGY IN THE CLASSROOM WASN’T COMMON. IT WAS EXCLUDED FROM MY HISTORY INTRODUCTION ALL THE WAY THROUGH HIGH SCHOOL.

ANYWAY, A LITTLE WHILE BACK, SECRETARY OF STATE JOHN KERRY ANNOUNCED THAT “THE ERA OF THE MONROE DOCTRINE IS OVER.” IT MIGHT HAVE BEEN JUST RHETORIC, AND RECENTLY VICE PRESIDENT BIDEN ANNOUNCED THAT A $1 BILLION AID PACKAGE WOULD BE DELIVERED TO CENTRAL AMERICA.

THAT PROMPTED SEVERAL SCHOLARS LIKE ADRIENNE PINE, AN ACADEMIC FROM AMERICAN UNIVERSITY, TO EXPRESS CONCERNS — HER AREA OF EXPERTISE IS HONDURAS AND GUATEMALA, AND SHE WAS ARGUING THAT THIS “AID PACKAGING” WOULD GO TO CORRUPT GOVERNMENT OFFICIALS IN THOSE COUNTRIES AND IT WOULD DO LITTLE TO ENHANCE DEMOCRACY OR HELP PEOPLE.

Well, this whole story is quite interesting. The meaning of the Monroe Doctrine, we were taught, was to protect the country from European imperialism. And that’s perfectly defensive. But the actual meaning was stated very clearly by Secretary of State Lansing, Woodrow Wilson’s secretary of state. It’s a wonderful example of an accurate description — he presented a memorandum to President Wilson in which he said, here’s the real meaning of the Monroe Doctrine.

He said the Monroe Doctrine was established in our interest. The interests of other countries were an incident, not an end. So it’s entirely for our interest. But Wilson, a great exponent of self-determination, said he thought this argument was “unanswerable,” but it would be impolitic to make it public. That’s the meaning of the Monroe Doctrine. And it is. It’s exactly the way it’s been used.

This is supposed to be our hemisphere. Everybody else stay out. We didn’t have the power to implement it in 1823, but it was understood how it would work. John Quincy Adams, the great grand strategist and the intellectual author of Manifest Destiny, explained in the accredited — I think he probably wrote the Monroe Doctrine when he was secretary of state — he explained it was really directed at Cuba.

Cuba was the first foreign policy objective for the US. We wanted to take over Cuba. And the Monroe Doctrine was supposed to keep the British out. And it was discussed, and they understood that they couldn’t do it because Britain was too powerful.

But Adams explained that over time, Britain would become weaker, and the United States would become more powerful, and over time, he said, “Cuba will fall into our hands by the laws of political gravitation, the way an apple falls from the tree.” Which is exactly what happened through the nineteenth century when relations of power shifted, the United States became more powerful and was able to kick Britain out of one place after another.

In 1898, the United States invaded Cuba. The pretext was to liberate Cuba. In fact it was to conquer Cuba and prevent it from liberating itself from Spain, which it in fact was about to do. And then comes the Platt Amendment, and Guantanamo and all the rest of the story.

That’s the Monroe Doctrine. Why is it changing? It’s changing because Latin America has liberated itself. The United States is practically being kicked out of the hemisphere. That’s extremely important. For the last roughly fifteen years and for the first time in its history, the Latin American countries have begun to integrate slightly to free themselves from imperial control to face internal problems, and if you look at the hemispheric conferences, the United States is increasingly isolated.

At the Santiago conference in 2012, the OAS conference, it never reached any decisions because they have to be reached by consensus, and the US and Canada blocked every decision. The major ones were on Cuba. Everybody wanted it admitted, but the US and Canada refused. And the other was drugs. The other countries want to end this crazy US drug war which is destroying them, and the US and Canada refused.

Well, there was another conference coming up in Panama, just a couple months ago. And Obama recognized‚ or an adviser recognized, that unless he did something, the US would simply be kicked out of the hemisphere. So they moved towards normalization of relationswith Cuba. And here, it’s presented as a wonderful benign gesture, bringing Cuba out of its isolation.

Fact is, the United States is totally isolated. In the world, it’s completely isolated. The votes in the UN on the embargo are like 180–2, the United States and Israel. And in the hemisphere, it was on the verge of being tossed out. So they make the gestures that are silly — they have to say those sort of things, or end up being thrown out of the hemisphere.

And we can’t intervene at the previous levels — there’s plenty of intervention, but not at the level before. As for giving money toHonduras and Guatemala, it means giving money to murderers ruling governments that were installed by US power. The Honduras government was thrown out by military coup in 2009. This is Obama now. And they were a military government, ran a kind of a fake election, which almost nobody recognized except the United States, and it’s become a horror chamber.

If you take a look at the immigrants coming across the border, you’ll notice most of them are from Honduras. Why? Because Honduras, thanks to Obama, is a horror chamber. They’re giving money to Honduras, this military regime which has probably the worst human rights record in the hemisphere. Guatemala has been a horror story ever since 1954, when the US went in.

So that’s the history, but not the sanitized history.

 

Noam Chomsky is Institute Professor (retired) at MIT. He is the author of many books and articles on international affairs and social-political issues, and a long-time participant in activist movements.

 

http://www.salon.com/2015/07/29/noam_chomsky_the_united_states_is_totally_isolated_partner/?source=newsletter

We’re facing a new Cold War

Noam Chomsky: 

The linguist and philosopher on the warped coverage of Putin’s Russia and the ways we whitewash our war crimes

Noam Chomsky: We're facing a new Cold War
Noam Chomsky (Credit: AP/Nader Daoud)
This article originally appeared on Jacobin.

JacobinEarlier this month, Dan Falcone and Saul Isaacson, both high school educators, sat down with Noam Chomsky in his Cambridge, MA office. In a brief conversation, edited and condensed here for clarity, they covered a wide range of topics — the projection of US power abroad and the stories told to justify it; COINTELPRO and domestic repression; the failures of the mainstream media; the West’s posture toward Putin; and much more. As always, we’re happy to publish Professor Chomsky’s invaluable insights.

Dan Falcone

I was recently in correspondence with a good friend of yours, Richard Falk, and we were discussing Juan Cole’s idea of “essentialism” as it pertains to the Muslim world. And this led me to think about how essentialism is present in liberal education.

For instance, take a good and appropriate cause like education for Muslim girls and how they face Taliban oppression. This is important to fight, obviously, but often the struggle is taught without the mentioning of American foreign policy or our own international crimes isolated from the entirety of the phenomenon.  This type of lesson planning in secondary education gets laudatory reviews. Could you help me in contextualizing this?

Noam Chomsky

Well take, say, the Taliban education that comes out of madrassas in Pakistan, and is funded by our main ally, Saudi Arabia, and was supported by the Reagan administration — because it was part of the support of Pakistan, primarily as a war against the Russians.

Well, the United States tried to keep the Russians in Afghanistan, and the goal was very explicitly stated by the CIA station chief in Islamabad, which got around the insurgency. What he said was, we don’t care about the liberation of Afghanistan. We want to kill Russians. A large part of that was to also support the worst dictatorship in Pakistan, the General Zia-ul-Haq dictatorship, who was allowed to develop nuclear weapons.

The Reaganites pretended they didn’t know, but of course they did, so that they could keep pouring funds in. The other thing that they were doing was radically “Islamizing” Pakistani society. So, the Saudis are not only the most extreme radical fundamentalists in the Islamic world and our main allies, but also a kind of missionary, and they have plenty of money. They have other wealthy sectors too, but they pour money into building mosques, Quranic schools, and so on. That’s where a lot of the Taliban came from.

So yes, we had a big role in it — plus, it’s worse than that.  I mean if you take a look at the serious history after the Russians withdrew, they left behind the Najibullah government, which was pretty reasonable in many ways. In fact, for women, at least in Kabul and places like that, they’re way better off than they’ve been any time since the Russians.

And the Najibullah government, which was pretty popular, maintained itself until two events took place. 1) The Russians withdrew, pulled out, ended support, and 2) The US maintained support for the mujahideen, who are mostly religious extremists and fundamentalists — guys who throw acid at women if they aren’t wearing the right clothes and so on. And they devastated Kabul, they practically destroyed it. They took over. Their rule was so awful that when the Taliban came in, they were actually welcomed.

Well, that’s part of history too, you know? Plus a lot that’s happened since isn’t very pretty. So yeah, if you want to study the education of the Taliban, these are things to do. And it’s not that we can’t read things, like you can read the story of Malala Yousafzai, which is very evocative.

She talks about the warlord society and so on, which the US instituted. There are other things one could read. I mean, there’s a very good book by Anand Gopal which came out recently. Although he’s pretty sympathetic to the US position, so it’s mostly about what he calls “mistakes” — how the United States essentially reconstructed the Taliban by misunderstanding the society.

But what he describes is very persuasive. He goes through, and he knows the country very well. And he describes in great detail how the gangsters and warlords and criminals manipulated the US forces. Some group would say, you’ve got to attack these guys over there, they happen to be a personal enemy claiming that they’re Taliban supporters. So the US would send in Special Forces and bombers and beat the shit out of everyone — and upgraded Taliban supporters.

Gopal says the Taliban basically withdrew when the US invaded. But then we helped them come back by means like these; through reconstructing the insurgency, which the government now can’t control. 

DF

So, there’s a simultaneous support for the bandits . . .

NC

Part of it was purposeful by the Reagan administration. Part of it is maybe just kind of arrogant ignorance. Assuming we understand how to do things when you know actually nothing about the society and just hit it with a sledgehammer and you end up supporting, maybe inadvertently, the most criminal elements who then are using the sledgehammer for their own purposes. You know, to smash up their personal enemies.

DF

I remember some of your talks after September 11, 2001, you were mentioning how there was a lot of praise for works in the social sciences where authors were reviewing books that would say America’s really only flaw is not doing enough in reaction to other people’s crimes.

NC

It goes on right now. Take a look at the current issue of Middle East JournalIt is one of the more free, open, most critical of professional journals. It’s been pretty good in the past, but there’s a symposium. It’s a large part of the issue, and it includes ambassadors, generals, and all kinds of big shots. They’re discussing the problems in the Middle East, the total chaos and what can we do better than in the past to stabilize the Middle East?

I mean, where did the chaos come from in Iraq and Libya? We did it. But the only question you can ask is how can we perform better in stabilizing the Middle East? Then of course there are these destabilizing elements like Iran, a rogue state, and the greatest threat to world peace. How are they to be stabilized in the Middle East?

If you take a look after the nuclear agreement, immediately there’s a lot of commentary. The New York Times had a front page, a think piece, from one of their big thinkers, Peter Baker. It says basically in agreement, you can’t trust Iran. You know, they destabilize the Middle East, and then he gives a list of reasons — each of them very interesting. But the most interesting is that one of the main crimes of Iran is that they were supporting militias that killed American soldiers.

In other words when we invade and destroy another country, that’s stabilizing, and if someone defends themselves that is destabilizing. That shows up in popular culture like this horrible film American Sniper. Take a look at it. The memoir is worse than the film, but it comes out that the first kill, the one he’s really proud of, is a woman and a child who are holding a grenade when their town is being attacked by American marines.

And they are savages, monsters, we hate them, they have to be murdered, and everybody’s applauding. I mean, even the New York Times arts pages was talking about what a wonderful film it was. It’s just mind-boggling.

DF

Speaking of mind-boggling, and international terror, I wanted to ask about domestic terror. I wanted to ask you about COINTELPRO. It does not get a lot of mentioning in the social science or historical educational curriculum. Can you tell me about COINTELPRO and the importance of teaching and learning about it in the democratic society?

NC

It’s an understatement to say it receives little attention. COINTELPRO was a program by the national political police, the FBI, which is basically what they are. It ran through four administrations, and it was conscious. It began by going after the Communist Party in the 1950s. It then extended into the Puerto Rican independence movement and the American Indian movements, the women’s movement, and the whole New Left. But the main target was the black movement.

It was a major program of disruption and went all the way to direct political assassination. The worst case was Fred Hampton and Mark Clark, who were simply murdered in a gestapo-style attack set up by the FBI. They were very effective black organizers. The FBI didn’t care much about the criminals, but they wanted to go after the effective organizers. It happened to have been exposed in the courts at about the same time as Watergate. I mean, in comparison to this program, Watergate is a tea party, nothing.

I was asked by the New York Review to write a brief article and a symposium when Watergate was exposed. But I had just read about this. I said look, Watergate is showing how famous people receive bad names in private and that shakes the foundation of the republic? And at the very same time you get the exposure of this incredible program, which went all the way to political assassination so it’s far more significant.

DF

The following of the stories that are the petty crimes insulate the powerful from the major crimes.

NC

If you look at yesterday’s New York Times, there’s a very interesting comparison between two stories. One of them is a front-page story, big continuation page. It’s about the journalistic malfeasance found in the Rolling Stone article. It’s a huge statement about terrible reporting. You know, they said the crime was a lack of skepticism, a terrible journalistic crime.

They have another article on Laos, which is quite interesting. It’s about an important woman, a Lao-American woman who’s working on trying to do something about the unexploded bombs that are killing people over in Northern Laos. And it cites a source, the right source, Fred Branfman, and his book, Voices from the Plain of Jars. And that’s where they get their information from.

Then it says, for the United States, the target of the US bombing was the Ho Chi Minh Trail where North Vietnamese were coming to South Vietnam and the Lao collaborators with the North Vietnamese. What are the facts in Fred Branfman’s book? The US was attacking Northern Laos. In fact, it’s shown on the map they were attacking, and it had nothing to do with the Ho Chi Minh Trail, no North Vietnamese.

Why were they doing it? Fred documented it. He quotes Monteagle Stearns, who was asked in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, why are we bombing this remote area of Northern Laos and wiping it out? And he gives the answer. He says there was a bombing halt over North Vietnam. And we had all these planes around and we didn’t have anything to do with them. So we destroyed Northern Laos.

That’s transmuted in the New York Times into straight government propaganda. And that’s an absolutely colossal lie. Is that going to beinvestigated by the Columbia Journalism Review? We’re going to have front-page stories? No. It’s an amazing comparison, and it’s every day.

Saul Isaacson

Stephen Cohen has argued that we’re closer to war with Russia than we have been since the Cuban missile crisis. Do you think he’s overstating the crisis in Ukraine?

NC

I don’t think so. I mean the government of Ukraine that came in after the coup, the parliament, voted almost unanimously to pursue membership in NATO. As Cohen and many others have pointed out, that is something utterly intolerable to any Russian leader. It’s kind of as if the Warsaw Pact had taken over South America and was now going to include Mexico and Canada. So, yeah, that’s serious.

It’s interesting the way Putin is treated. I think it is maybe in the same Middle East Journal I read recently, talking about supporting the US position on the Ukraine, and some serious person saying this will be opposed by North Korea, the Islamic state, and Stephen Cohen. [To question the US position on Ukraine means you will receive threats from] Stalinist apologists and get a bitter pronunciation of dismissal and ridicule.

SI

He also suggests that we’re on the verge of a new Cold War.

NC

It’s serious. I mean, look, Gorbachev agreed to the unification of Germany — and even its incorporation with NATO, which is an amazing concession if you look at history. But there was a quid pro quo: that NATO would “not expand one inch to the east,” that was the phrase, meaning to East Germany.

Once NATO had expanded to East Germany, Gorbachev was infuriated. He was informed by the Bush 41 administration that it was only a verbal promise. It wasn’t on paper, and the implication is if you’re dumb enough to accept a gentleman’s agreement with us, that’s your problem. Then Clinton came in, expanded NATO to the borders of Russia. And now it’s gone further, even to Ukraine which is right at the heart of, apart from historical connections, of Russian geo-strategic concerns. That’s very serious.

SI

And it’s getting so little press, so little coverage in the US.

NC

Not only little coverage but what there is, is insane. I mean it’s all about what a lunatic Putin is. There’s an article in one of the psychology journals about how he must have Asperger’s or some other articles about how he has brain damage. I mean, you can like him or not, but his position is perfectly understandable. 

DF

Finally, can you comment on the Holocaust Memorial and how the museum connects itself to the doctrine of the “Responsibility to Protect?” (R2P) What is America’s interest with R2P or the “Responsibility to Protect?”

NC

The Holocaust Memorial Museum was established in the 1970s, part of a huge expansion of Holocaust studies, memorials, etc. The date is of some significance. The right time would have been decades earlier, but that was before US relations with Israel were established in their current form (after the 1967 war), and inconvenient questions might have been raised about the US’s attitudes towards the Holocaust and particularly towards survivors.

Also striking is the absence of any remotely comparable reaction to enormous US crimes, such as virtual elimination of the indigenous population and the vicious slave labor camps that had an enormous role in the prosperity of the country. The lesson seems to be clear: we can lament the hideous crimes of others, when it is convenient to do so, but only the crimes of others.

As for R2P, there are two versions of the doctrine. One was adopted by the UN General Assembly. Changes from earlier UN resolutions are slight, and crucially, it maintains the essential provisions of the UN Charter barring the use of force without Security Council authorization (or in response to armed attack, irrelevant here).

The second version, in a report by a commission headed by Gareth Evans, is almost the same, but with one crucial difference: it authorizes regional groups to intervene with force within what they take to be their domains without Security Council authorization. There is only one regional group that can act this way: NATO.

So the Evans version essentially allows NATO (meaning the US) to resort to force when it chooses to do so. That is the operative version. Appeal is made to the innocuous UN version to justify the resort to force.

The case that was in everyone’s mind was the NATO attack on Serbia in the Kosovo conflict, bitterly condemned by most of the world but applauded by the NATO countries as a wonderful tribute to their magnificence.

Noam Chomsky is Institute Professor (retired) at MIT. He is the author of many books and articles on international affairs and social-political issues, and a long-time participant in activist movements.

How Vietnam was exposed as a “dirty war”

The burden of atrocity:

Nick Turse’s exhaustive new book on America’s war crimes gives short shrift to those who helped uncover them

, Jacobin

The burden of atrocity: How Vietnam was exposed as a "dirty war"
This article originally appeared on Jacobin.

Jacobin Testifying in 1971 as part of the Winter Soldier Investigation, a war crimes hearing sponsored by the Vietnam Veterans Against the War, psychiatrist Robert Jay Lifton distinguished the American war in Vietnam from other conflicts:

There’s a quality of atrocity in this war that goes beyond that of other wars in that the war itself is fought as a series of atrocities. There is no distinction between an enemy whom one can justifiably fire at and people whom one murders in less than military situations.

Concluding this thought by reflecting on the experience of soldiers and veterans, Lifton observed, “Now if one carries this sense of atrocity with one, one carries the sense of descent into evil.”

Nick Turse’s book, Kill Anything That Moves: The Real American War In Vietnam,carries readers to the core of that evil. Forty years ago, Daniel Ellsberg explained to filmmaker Peter Davis, “We weren’t on the wrong side, we are the wrong side.” There would have been no war without the US arming, training, and fighting on the side of the various despotic governments of South Vietnam.

A conservative estimate of civilian deaths arising from the war is two million in South Vietnam alone, from a population of nineteen million. An analogous civilian casualty rate in the United States today would be nearly thirty-three million — in fact, looking at the dead and wounded in Vietnam as ratios of the general population puts the conflict on par with the horrendous bloodshed of World War II. As Kill Anything That Moves relives in graphic detail, the Vietnam War was horrendously brutal in its plans, execution and outcomes.

Like the author, I wasn’t old enough during the conflict itself to have any firsthand experience of the common sense of the era. But I grew up among veterans, in a liberal milieu, and heard dinner table conversation about Vietnam. Later, I came to learn about the war as an activist, and then as a student of the war and the movement that arose to confront it. My attitude has naturally always mirrored the majority of the war’s contemporaries, who continue to maintain that it was “fundamentally wrong and immoral.” Like many of them, and certainly like the millions who participated in the antiwar movement, I knew the broad outlines of Turse’s arguments and evidence before opening his book.



But my experience is unusual for Gen X’ers, and is even more so for the Millenials behind us who have had still less direct experience of war and its effects. Today’s thirty-year-olds were born in 1984. The Gulf War of 1991, which was to have finally laid the ghosts of Vietnam to rest, was their first experience of overt US warfare. That war was safely televised from a distance. Casualties were counted in the hundreds for the US and the low thousands for the Iraqis. Spin doctors got far ahead of stories of depleted uranium, sarin gas, and Gulf War Syndrome.

More recent wars, in Iraq and the ongoing war in Afghanistan, find little support in the polls from any age group. Yet the greatest active opposition to these conflicts occurred in their early years, before the particular kinds of atrocities created in these countries had barely gotten underway, or even occurred. There’s little urgency in the opposition to the “technowars” that continue to be waged, and little widespread knowledge of what warfare means to its victims and perpetrators.

Reading Kill Anything That Moves evokes a sense of visceral revulsion and sickened recoil, reactions toward war that are rarely experienced in the US today in our more sanitized, draft-free, drone-filled conflicts. It is like getting repeatedly punched and bracing oneself for more — an overwhelming experience, even for readers already familiar with detailed accounts of the varieties of savagery perpetrated in Vietnam, and knew already the pervasive, normal nature of the war’s brutality.

What makes Kill Anything That Moves different from other texts that cover the same material is the sheer compendium of evidence. Each of the not-quite-the-same stories — ranging from massacres to rapes to murder to torture to running people over and compensating deaths with a few dollars for the bereaved families — bears the imprint of a violent logic repeating itself again and again.

Like others writing about the war crimes committed by the United States in Vietnam, Turse sets up his own narrative pointing out that the massacre at My Lai in 1968 — in which over 500 civilians were brutalized and killed — was the “tip of the iceberg” of non-combatant murder. Turse began his own investigations when, while conducting related doctoral research, he “stumbled upon” papers from the War Crimes Working Group, a secret task force created at the Pentagon after My Lai that collected files for over 300 such criminal incidents that had been substantiated by military investigators — none individually at the scale of My Lai, but indicative of a pattern of brutality Turse traces with his book. Over the years this group regularly reported such incidents up the chains of command at the Pentagon as well as the White House — not for the purposes seeking justice, but as part of an operation of “image management . . . to be parried or buried as quickly as possible.”

Beyond these files, Turse found further official documentary evidence of war crimes in similar archives. He interviewed government officials and over 100 American veterans of the war. He visited Vietnam, speaking with the victims of US warfare. There, searching out a hamlet that had been the site of one of the many civilian massacres he was investigating, he began to see that, rather than finding the “needle in the haystack” of the small rural village in the Vietnamese countryside marked by this horror, he was instead discovering a “haystack of needles,” a whole social landscape overwhelmed by a history of criminal brutality and death.

The narrative frame of book, the analysis that links it all together, is the observation that such bloodiness, such wanton destruction, was in fact the plan. Vietnam was the technocratic set letting slip the dogs of war. From the very top, from the very beginning, the war in Vietnam was intended as a war of attrition that the US would win because it was able to bring down more lethal destruction than its enemy. General William Westmoreland, with the statistical support of Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara and his team, sought the elusive “crossover point” of carnage, “at which Vietcong and North Vietnamese casualties would be greater than they could sustain,” in McNamara’s description.

The logic of the war makers in the US was that the national liberation movement and their allies in the North would give up when they had too many of their fighters and supporters killed. Keeping track of the “body count” allowed trackers in Washington to measure with precision how close the US and their South Vietnamese allies were to this goal.

Turse makes much of the effect that this singular fixation on the body count had on the units and individual soldiers fighting the war. Working in tandem with the racist and dehumanizing “mere-gook rule,” the body count chase meant “if it’s dead and Vietnamese, it’s VC.”

As a medic told historian Christian Appy, the body count system created “a real incentivizing of death and it just fucked with our value system.” Like many other accounts of US soldiers in the Vietnam War, Turse shows how basic training to kill; the instilled obedience to authority; the absence of any meaningful war crimes education; the confounding and contradictory conditions of guerilla warfare; and the sleeplessness, fear, and everyday horrors of the front combined with the pursuit of high body created conditions ripe for individual and group brutality against civilians.

From the start, the dead Vietnamese counted towards Westmoreland’s crossover point included thousands of villagers swept up in the slaughter. Turse describes in great detail how the-only-good-Vietnamese-is-a-dead-Vietnamese logic informed the sadistic behavior of soldiers in all corners of the war throughout its tenure.

Given the scope of the murders committed, however, this individual brutality pales in the face of the “overkill” and “system of suffering” that structured the war as a whole. Which is to say, soldiers committed horrifying individual acts, but much more typically murderous was the systematic destruction embedded in the methods of the war as a whole.

Beyond the body count, “free fire zones” encouraged slaughtering first, asking questions never. Early in the war, the forced relocation of villagers to “strategic hamlets” controlled by the South Vietnamese caused widespread misery; such pacification efforts continued, generating hundreds of thousands of internal refugees fleeing villages destroyed by the US and its allies.

Most damning, and stomach churning, is the extent to which the US used every technological means at its disposal, short of its nuclear arsenal, to destroy the “VC” in the South Vietnamese countryside. Here is a point that readers unfamiliar with the war may not realize: The US devoted much of its energy to supporting the South Vietnamese government in its efforts to root out an internal challenge from liberation forces allied with the Communist North Vietnamese. So the US was “at war” with the North, allied with the South. Indeed, beginning with “Operation Rolling Thunder” in February 1965 continuing through 1968, an average of thirty-two tons of bombs were dropped each hour in the North.

But most of the war was fought in South Vietnam — the US was fighting an insurgency within its ally’s borders. South Vietnam received bore the bulk of the destruction, and the majority of the casualties were South Vietnamese. North Vietnam was the “enemy,” but the people of South Vietnam were the primary targets.

The numbers are staggering. Thirty billion pounds of munitions spent. Seventy million liters of herbicidal agents (like Agent Orange) sprayed. Twenty-one million bomb craters created in the South. Four hundred thousand tons of napalm dropped.

The evolution of napalm over the course of the war gives some sense of the terror that fell from the sky: a burn agent, it was “improved” with polystyrene, to help it stick better to skin, and phosphorus, to ensure that it would continue to work in water. Another anti-personnel weapon was the “pineapple,” a “bomblet” that released 250 steel pellets on detonation. “One B-52 could drop 1,000 pineapples across a 400-yard area. As they burst open, 250,000 lethal ball bearings would tear through everything in the blast radius.” Between these and the larger “guava” cluster bombs, over the course of the war the US bought 322 million: seven for each man, woman, and child in the whole of the Southeast Asian theater (Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam).

It seems sociopathic on the part of the war-planners like Robert McNamara to have imagined (if they ever did) that such destruction could be controlled, but it’s clear from Turse’s story that there wasn’t much effort to do so. Mass killing was encouraged, and when lines were crossed, as they often were, most of the military brass averted their eyes, engaged in cover-ups and denials, or took small, secret steps to redress some of the most egregious actions.

The story of My Lai again becomes typical of a larger pattern: only one lieutenant, William Calley, was successfully prosecuted for war crimes, leaving many of his superiors and others who oversaw or committed the systematic murders uncharged or acquitted of charges brought against them. Calley himself was later pardoned by President Nixon.

Kill Anything That Moves provides us with both the forest and the trees of the destruction meted out during the US war in Vietnam. It is groundbreaking and essential for those reasons. But it is not exactly revelatory. You don’t have to be a scholar or contemporary of the period to see that many of the sources cited data from the war period itself, or have been gathered and examined by previous scholars. Again, Robert Lifton, speaking at the VVAW’s Winter Soldier Investigation in 1971, observed there was an “overall sense, shared by the larger society (whatever its position about the war) and the vets themselves, that this is a dirty war.”

And why did the public hold such a view? My own sense is that the antiwar movement deserves the bulk of the credit: both for unveiling the horrors that Turse details in his book, as well as creating the understanding within the “larger society” of whom Lifton speaks that Vietnam was a “dirty war.”

So the scanty treatment that this movement receives in this otherwise strong book is both a bit mystifying and troubling.

Like the war itself, the antiwar movement was, in many respects, exceptional. No antiwar movement of the twentieth century compares to the international mobilization opposing the war in Southeast Asia, and it could be argued that no social movement of the twentieth century involved as many people in the United States as did the Vietnam antiwar movement. Historian Mel Small estimates that six million people in this country actively participated in the movement, with another twenty-five million closely sympathizing.

Opposition to the war was not limited college students, elites, or fractions of particular groups. As I demonstrate in my own work, opposition to the war came from all sectors of US society, with rates of antiwar sentiment among soldiers and veterans as high as those found on college campuses. Movement actors included housewives, unionists, clergy, veterans, civil rights and black power activists; cities across the country had their largest demonstrations to this day held against the war. In all of these instances, the movement spoke about the atrocities committed in Southeast Asia.

Turse is, of course, aware of the common knowledge of war crimes contemporaneous to the war. When Turse writes of such revelations, “for a brief moment in 1971, it looked as if the floodgates were about to burst,” front and center to my mind are the years and years of relentless antiwar critique and action that created the ground and audience for the muckraking journalists and whistleblowers that Turse goes on to cite, and which he uses throughout the book. Two years before, the Citizens Commission of Inquiry came out of the movement to document war crimes after My Lai — a kind of progressive doppelganger to the Pentagon’s War Crimes Working Group operating with opposite goals.

Most important to these efforts was the Vietnam Veterans Against the War, an antiwar organization of thousands of veterans that had exploded in growth from 1969-71. Among other campaigns, VVAW organized rap sessions and public platforms for returning soldiers, giving them the courage, support, and strength to tell their own stories of atrocity. These efforts culminated in the abovementioned Winter Soldier Investigation organized in Detroit in January 1971.

There, over 100 veterans from every part of the military testified to the war they’d witnessed and participated in — the same “real” war of Turse’s subtitle. Oregon Senator Mark Hatfield anticipates nearly all the chapters and themes of Kill Anything That Moves when he summarized the WSI investigations before placing them in the Congressional Record two months later:

The testimony and allegations raised by the experience of these veterans includes charges regarding: the torture and murder of suspects and prisoners of war captured by Americans and South Vietnamese forces; the wanton killing of innocent, unarmed civilians; the brutalization and rape of Vietnamese women in the villages; military policies which enabled indiscriminate bombing and the random firing of artillery into villages which resulted in the burning to death of women, children, and old people; the widespread defoliation of lands of forests; the use of various types of gases; the mutilation of enemy bodies; and others.

A recurrent theme running throughout the testimony is that of institutionalized racist attitudes of the military in their training of the men who are sent to Vietnam — training which has indoctrinated them to think of all Vietnamese as “gooks” and subhuman.

Further, the thrust of the allegations made in the three-day testimony is that such actions were the consequence of reasonable and known policy adopted by our military commanders and that the knowledge of incidents resulting from these policies was widely shared.

That same spring, Lieutenant John Kerry testified as a member of VVAW at the Fulbright hearings in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and Congressman Ron Dellums sponsored an ad hoc War Crimes hearing on Capitol Hill, both of which received coverage in the mainstream news.

But typically, after mentioning 1971’s bursting floodgates, Turse doesn’t get to VVAW for a few pages, and then delivers a perfunctory discussion of their role in this development. More mysteriously, neither the Fulbright hearings nor the Dellums hearings are mentioned, though the later International Commission of Enquiry into United States Crimes in Indochina, held in June in Oslo, gets a page.

It is not clear why the movement’s role in bringing these stories to light is not foregrounded in this book. In a strange passage in the introduction, Turse objects to the fact that these atrocities went from being hidden to being “yawn-worthy” when revealed during the war itself. But my own sense is the opposite: such revelations, taken as part of years of struggle against the war, were and remained decisive for the war’s contemporaries in shaping their reaction to that war. The news may have disappeared from the headlines, but the content of the news itself had become common sense for millions.

In his own review and discussions of Kill Anything That Moves, Michael Uhl, Vietnam veteran and author of Vietnam Awakening, makes a similar observation about these kinds of omissions in the book, and Uhl is bothered as well by what could read as claims of original research and analysis when the basic story is already well-known.

I’m less worried about the problem of implicit claims to originality in Turse’s meticulous review of the war. He generated extensive evidence, and synthesized others, to tell a decisive story, one from which it is difficult to avert ones eyes. It’s enough that this is new for a contemporary audience.

But as a comprehensive, no-holds-barred, definitive overview of our “descent into evil,” Kill Anything that Moves should be contributing to our own contemporary memory of the war. In so doing, however, I’m concerned that it’s not telling the right story of how these revelations are ever brought to light — how people come to know the atrocities that our governments inevitably commit when war is unleashed.

Turse is understandably awed by individual whistleblowers who risked lives, careers, family, mental, and physical health to share their knowledge of war crimes. Brave individuals reported up the chain of command, confessed to crimes and served as witnesses to others, and moral journalists took their stories. But they did so in the context of — and often while participating in — a movement that had created the space to attack the war and its means.

The common knowledge the movement, journalists, and whistleblowers helped create has, of course, been actively revised in the decades since. The memory of Vietnam has remained a central site of political contestation because of the truths it revealed — not just about the basic moral standing of the US in the world, but the truth about war itself. But the force of any knowledge, any set of truths, is only as strong as the people, institutions, and actions that uphold them.

With its focus on individual revelations (not to mention individual atrocities),Kill Anything That Moves risks obscuring the collective efforts it takes to both make and unmake these wars. I hope that this book becomes a canonical reference point for our understanding of the American war in Vietnam, but I suspect it only will if larger social forces — beyond muckraking journalists and brave whistleblowers — successfully challenge the presumptions and consequences of the wars we continue to wage.

Penny Lewis is the author of Hardhats, Hippies and Hawks: The Vietnam Antiwar Movement as Myth and Memory (Cornell University Press, 2013). She is an assistant professor of Labor Studies at the Joseph S. Murphy Institute for Worker Education and Labor Studies at the City University of New York.

http://www.salon.com/2014/05/02/the_burden_of_atrocity_how_vietnam_was_exposed_as_a_dirty_war/?source=newsletter