By Edward S. Herman
It is extremely easy to demonize by atrocities management. I became steeped in this subject during the Vietnam War era, and even published a small volume in 1970 entitled Atrocities in Vietnam: Myths and Realities. The marvel of that era was how easily and effectively the U.S. establishment and media focused on the cruel acts and killings of the indigeous National Liberation Front (NLF, "Vietcong") and made them into sinister killers ("terrorists"), when in fact the terror of the U.S. and its local and foreign proxies was worse by a very large factor. The violence of the Diem government in the late 1950s was extremely brutal, indiscriminate, and massive; and when the US entered the fray directly in the 1960s a new level of (wholesale terror) was reached with chemical warfare, napalm, fragmentation bombs, "free fire zones," and high level B-52 bombing raids on "suspected Vietcong bases" (i.e., villages). The NLF was always more selective in its killing, for strategic and political reasons--it had a mass base in the countryside that it did not want to harm or alienate. The Diem government, its successors, and the US, were less discriminating for the same reason--they had little or no peasant support, so that indiscriminate terror and mass killing was the understandable strategy of aggression.
But the U.S. media featured the relatively small and selective terrorist acts of the enemy, dramatized and personalized them with details, and gave correspondingly slight and more antiseptic attention to the horrendous behavior of our clients and ourselves, also presented as defensive and retaliatory. I recall being one- upped on a radio debate on the war when my opponent pulled out an article in Time magazine showing a picture of two Vietnamese, hands-tied, allegedly executed by the NLF. This may or may not have been an instance of NLF terror, but two things were clear: the political selectivity of Time here and in general completely distorted the overall truth regarding terror in Vietnam, and the selectivity and dramatization made for very effective propaganda. While the U.S. was destroying Vietnam in order to "save" it, the U.S. media found only the Vietnamese enemy evil; the U.S. failed there, but with the noblest intentions.
Another important result of the effective demonization of the NLF as terroristic was to paralyse many liberals and leftists, unwilling to be tagged as not only unpatriotic but siding with terrorists. Many lapsed into silence; others condemned both sides, calling weakly for restraint and compromise; and only "extremists" were willing to call the U.S. aggression and long struggle against Vietnamese self-determination by its right name. This paralysis and marginalization of a principled position weakened the oppositional movement to the war.
The U.S. also destroyed Cambodia in a "sideshow" to the Vietnam war (1969-75), and following the devastating four year rule of the Khmer Rouge, the US supported the ousted Pol Pot forces as the "enemy of my enemy" (Vietnam). The U.S. media focused intensively and indignantly on the Khmer Rouge genocide, but from 1969 to today have largely blacked out the atrocities of the "sideshow" years, the misdeeds of the Khmer Rouge during the period of U.S. support, and the fact of that support. Here again, the power of media propaganda has been such that calling attention to the U.S. role as the first phase genocidists and its badly compromised position as Pol Pot supporter after 1978 is virtually unheard of, and departures from an exclusive focus on KR crimes makes one an apologist for the KR. This process extends to the "left," with repeated illustrations in the Progressive and In These Times, and in an Institute for Policy Studies (IPS)- Interhemispheric Resource Center publication, Foreign Policy in Focus. In the latter case, a 1997 essay on Cambodia by Philip Robertson focused entirely on KR crimes, portrayed the US as a neutral party in that country and suitable adjudicator of policy, and supplied a list of policy recommendations for it to implement there, including U.S. support for war crimes trials for KR leaders.
Another sideshow of the Vietnam war was the mass killings in Indonesia in 1965-66, which destroyed the base of the Communist Party and brought Indonesia into the U.S. sphere of influence. This sideshow was greeted enthusiastically by the U.S. establishment. Given this approval, and 33 years of U.S. support for the Suharto dictatorship, atrocities management has required that the large- scale murders and rule by violence, and the mass killings in East Timor from 1975-1999, be kept under the rug. The U.S. media have done a great job here. There are no UN forensic groups over there looking at bodies, and there are no demands for ending Suharto's impunity.
Similarly, with the US "constructively engaged" with South Africa, Israel, and Turkey over the past several decades, the South African occupation of Namibia, assaults on the front line states, and support of Renamo and Savimbi, Israel's invasions and "iron fist" attacks on Lebanon, and Turkey's scorched earth policies and killings of Kurds, could proceed for many years killing hundreds of thousands unimpeded by any intense focus on atrocities or serious attention from the "international community." Turkey could even offer to lend armed support to the NATO effort in Kosovo, presumably diverting troops from killing Kurds, without eliciting the slightest sense of irony in the West.
Only when the Godfather needs atrocities--as with the NLF, PLO, or Serbs--do atrocities come on line, with intense focus and indignation. This is done with such assurance and self-righteous virtue that liberals and leftists jump on the bandwagon and welcome the Godfather's gracious willingness in this particular case to finally properly lead and bring justice to the targeted villain and area. The willingness of leftists to accept the U.S. (and NATO) as proper authorities to decide, judge and drop bombs is nothing short of astonishing. Some of them might the previous week have condemned the murderous U.S. sanctions that are killing more Iraqi children each month than the aggregate casualties in Kosovo, U.S. support of the Turkish war against the Kurds, the U.S. bombing of the Sudan, etc., but still their political vision is so limited, their response to atrocities so elemental, that they collapse intellectually and morally. One leftist is reported to have said that the Serbs are pulling people out of houses and killing them, implying that this justified the NATO bombing of Serbia. On this kind of reasoning, Israel would have been bombed after Sabra- Shatila and on many other occasions; and of course the governments of El Salvador and Guatemala would have been bombed incessantly in the 1980s, instead of being supplied and protected by the US.
With Milosevec and the Serbs effectively demonized, the left even puts forward spokespersons who openly favor the NATO bombing. Both IPS and Mother Jones offer as an expert and spokesperson Albert Cevallos of the International Crisis Group, who urges "the need of bombing to bring Serbia back into the peace process," to be followed by an international peacekeeping army in Kosovo. Mother Jones also provides Doug Hostetter of the Fellowship of Reconciliation, who proposes that as Milosevic is carrying out "genocidal acts" the U.S. should seek to bring him before the war crimes tribunal. Reminiscent of the Vietnam War paralysis, the IPS and Mother Jones leftists oppose the bombing (Cevallos excepted) mainly because it won't work in achieving purportedly humane goals, whose substantive primacy is taken for granted. Not one of these experts condemns the U.S. and NATO for tearing Yugoslavia apart, for violating international law in the bombing, and for their political selectivity and gross double standard in choice of innocents to be protected from crimes against humanity.
Atrocities management works, but it also requires a complementary gross misunderstanding of the issues at stake and context of the actions taken. The Serbs have committed terrible acts in Kosovo and deserve condemnation; and international efforts to end that crisis are eminently desirable. But past NATO policies have contributed to the ongoing violence and are part of the problem--their bombing strategy is the culmination of policies that have exacerbated the crisis. The bombing is not merely immoral and illegal, it is part of an ugly and destructive policy sequence rooted in self-serving geo-political strategies.
Published in Z Magazine
Edward S. Herman is Professor Emeritus at the Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania.
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