Saturday, December 04, 2010

Return Engagement

A week from today I leave Olympia for a month-long trip to Vietnam, my first visit to that country there since I participated in what I call the Seminar in Applied Foreign Policy* . For two of those weeks I will be a volunteer instructor in the English language program at Da Nang University. The remaining two weeks will be touring and exploring: Maggie and I will spend our first week south and east of Ho Chi Minh City and our last week in and around Hanoi.

My primary purpose is the volunteer work. The litter that my unit left in the jungles of Binh Thuy and Long Kanh provinces in 1971 led me even then to think that I should come back and pick up the trash, much like Arlo Guthrie’s restitution for the crime of littering as described in “Alice’s Restaurant”. American crimes in Vietnam were greater than littering but littering was one that I personally committed so the idea was always at the back of my mind although it was hardly more than an ironic comment on a tragic war. And, like my experience in that war, it was something that I could put aside as I returned to civilian life and its many mundane distractions.

My 2002 Appalachian Trail thru hike changed that. Walking, usually solo, for eight hours a day gave me a lot of time to think without the distractions of daily life that kept Vietnam more or less in the background. Carrying a pack through the woods every day brought that background front and center. On the trail in 2002 and again in 2005 I came to a fuller understanding of myself and my actions in that war.

Part of that understanding is the memory of wanting “pick up the trash”, to make some sort of restitution. I’m at a point in life where I very much need to do those things I’ve always thought about doing so I began casting about for volunteer opportunities in Vietnam earlier this year. The trash is long gone and I’m not qualified to remove unexploded ordnance (which is not) but I found the English language opportunity through veterans who have made their own return trips.

This trip is many things to me: restitution, healing, learning and adventure. It won’t change my previous experience but it will add new ones and add to my understanding of a nation where I lived for an entire year but experienced only as a foreign occupier. I came away from that experience with high regard for the Vietnamese, for the determination and nationalism of the North and the endurance and enterprise of the South. In 1971 I engaged the Vietnamese (all of them) as The Enemy but also learned to see them as people. This time around they and I will engage as people. That’s always the best part of any adventure.

My travel plans mean that after the coming week, this humble blog will likely be very quiet until maybe mid-January. I will not be traveling with a computer or wireless device. My access to the internet will be episodic. I will keep a journal of the trip and will photograph with a point-and-shoot digital camera for the record and my twin lens Yashica for art. I’ll have plenty to write about and show after the fact if not during.

* Also known as the Southeast Asia War Games. We placed second.

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Sunday, November 28, 2010

Chalmers Johnson (1931-2010)

Historian and analyst Chalmers Johnson died November 20. He was an astute and informed critic of American imperial power. Dr. Johnson came by his knowledge first hand, as an analyst for the CIA and supporter of the Vietnam War. Unlike many of his colleagues, he learned from his experience and turned his talents to understanding and exposing the impact of America's national security state. His 2000 book, Blowback: the Costs and Consequences of American Empire,widely ignored when published, became a best-seller in the wake of September 11, 2001. Johnson was one of the few who could explain the logic and inevitability of the attack.

Much of what I've read of Chalmers Johnson I've read at TomDispatch. TomDispatch published Roberts' last article in August of this year. He was as sharp and incisive three months prior to his death as he was in 2000:
So where are we this August of 2010, with guns blazing in one war in Afghanistan even as we try to extricate ourselves from another in Iraq? Where are we, as we impose sanctions on Iran and North Korea (and threaten worse), while sending our latest wonder weapons, pilotless drones armed with bombs and missiles, into Pakistan's tribal borderlands, Yemen, and who knows where else, tasked with endless "targeted killings" which, in blunter times, used to be called assassinations? Where exactly are we, as we continue to garrison much of the globe even as our country finds itself incapable of paying for basic services?


Let me begin by asking: What harm would befall the United States if we actually decided, against all odds, to close those hundreds and hundreds of bases, large and small, that we garrison around the world? What if we actually dismantled our empire, and came home? Would Genghis Khan-like hordes descend on us? Not likely. Neither a land nor a sea invasion of the U.S. is even conceivable.

Would 9/11-type attacks accelerate? It seems far likelier to me that, as our overseas profile shrank, the possibility of such attacks would shrink with it.


If, however, we were to dismantle our empire of military bases and redirect our economy toward productive, instead of destructive, industries; if we maintained our volunteer armed forces primarily to defend our own shores (and perhaps to be used at the behest of the United Nations); if we began to invest in our infrastructure, education, health care, and savings, then we might have a chance to reinvent ourselves as a productive, normal nation. Unfortunately, I don't see that happening. Peering into that foggy future, I simply can't imagine the U.S. dismantling its empire voluntarily, which doesn't mean that, like all sets of imperial garrisons, our bases won't go someday.


I fear T.S. Eliot had it right when he wrote: "This is the way the world ends, not with a bang but a whimper."

Roberts admits that he is losing interest continuing to analyze and dissect the prospects for the U.S. over the next few years. That task will be ours.

Godspeed, Dr. Johnson . Your legacy is an inspiration.

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The Dogs of War Still Bark

Also at Informed Comment is a report by David Swanson abount a recent event sponsored by Freedom Watch and the Foundation for Democracy in Iran, in which former CIA director James Woolsey, Congresswoman Michele Bachmann, and former UN ambassador Alan Keyes demanded war on Iran. It's a good takedown of all the lies behind the Neo-Conservative wars of the past decade. And the war they want next.

Swanson, author of War is a Lie, not only refutes every possible rationale for war with Iran, he also exposes the language and rhetorical tricks that sell their disastrous schemes to the public.
Just when you might have thought we’d scraped the bottom in Iran war advocacy, Alan Keyes took a turn at the karaoke stage. Keyes was quite upset about the “imperialistic essence of Islam since its inception.” Never mentioning the one nation with military bases on every continent, Keyes stood strong against “imperialistic ambition that rears its head throughout the world.” Who do we find resisting our aggressive wars all over the world, Keyes asked, using other language — why, Iran, of course. We’re being “beaten and pummeled” around the world every day by forces driven by Islam and Marxism. Who knew?

“I’m not going to say that those in power in our own country are as hostile to our nation’s security as our enemies are. I’m not going to say that,” said Keyes before saying it, hitting on a very common propaganda technique that equates war opposition with joining the other side of a war — even if there is no other side because there is no war yet.

Swanson reports that the event was largely unattended. I can only hope that the sponsors' plans go unheeded. Neither America nor the world needs another war.

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Obama's Wound

Courtesy of Juan Cole at Informed Comment:

Not unlike another president.

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