The 2016 US Presidential Election Will Not Take Place



From the beginning, we knew that this election would never happen. An election of representatives for any office involves the belief that they will represent the electorate. In the past, this system has been imperfect and undemocratic, but developing tools of mass persuasion have taken voting societies further and further away from democracy. In 2016 USA things have reached the logical conclusion wherein the public acts of voting are no longer related to a real act of election by an actual electorate.

I take my title and opening line from Jean Baudrillard who claimed the 1991 “Gulf War” was a literal “non-event”. The USA has now become the Disney version of 1984 and it seems right to draw on Baudrillard’s superposition of Disneyland fakery and the all-too-real atrocities that happened in Iraq and Kuwait. However, though Baudrillard leaves room for anger and anguish at the human suffering from the non-event, he indulges the avoidance of naming the real that hides behind the “hyperreal”. The non-event is an extension of the control of language in what Orwell described as “the defence of the indefensible”. Baudrillard was in some ways determined never to look behind the façade, and the non-event of this fake election of dead politics hides a real dynamic of empire which ordinary people would never countenance if it were shown to them as it truly is. I want to go beyond performing the autopsy of US politics, and find the events that do still take place, the ones that polite people don’t like to talk about.

The time also seems right to revisit some lines in a Yeats poem that was written in 1919: “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold…. The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.” It describes people yearning for a “Second Coming”, and ends prophetically, on the dawn of Fascism and Nazism, with the lines:

And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?”

We have entered a fact-free zone. Sometimes it seems that the truth has entered a state of quantum indeterminacy where two contradictory things are simultaneously true until the waveform is collapsed by observations by political pollsters. For example, when the Clinton camp attributed their candidate’s 9/11 collapse to overheating, differing journalists and commentators simultaneously reported a that it was an unusually hot day or an unusually cold day. Another instance can be seen in these headlines from editions of the Wall St. Journal:


Events wildly plot a drunken careering narrative and each potential voter is forced into more and more speculative interpretation of what those events actually signify. People want to vote for a candidate according to their interests and principles, but those who still believe with “passionate intensity” that they can do so by voting for Trump or Clinton are dangerously deluded. As everything else about the year 2016 becomes muddier and weirder with each passing day, the only thing that is becoming more clear at every moment is that the 2016 election will not take place.

The Stinking Corpse of Democracy

From January to March 1991 the post-modernist Jean Baudrillard published 3 articles: “The Gulf War will not take place”; “The Gulf War is not really taking place?” and “The Gulf War did not take place”. Baudrillard was describing the war as a hyperreal simulation of something that has no origin in reality. “Hyperreal” refers to a situation where a simulation of a possible reality is indistinguishable from reality and is thus a type of reality itself. What happened in Kuwait and Iraq in 1991 was not war, however it was made into a simulation of war and it was experienced as being war by those watching it on CNN.

This is why the Gulf War will not take place. It is neither reassuring nor comforting that it has become bogged in interminable suspense. In this sense, the gravity of the non-event in the Gulf is even greater than the event of war: it corresponds to the highly toxic period which affects a rotting corpse and which can cause nausea and powerless stupor.”

Baudrillard put the basic case most succinctly when he wrote: “Since this war was won in advance, we will never know what it would have been like had it existed. We will never know what an Iraqi taking part with a chance of fighting would have been like. We will never know what an American taking part with a chance of being beaten would have been like.”

The Baudrillard articles drew attention to something important (the fact that there was no war) but they also drew attention away from the fact that the “Gulf War” was an act of genocide; a very concrete, banal and definitely not at all “hyperreal” act of co-ordinated mass violence and destruction aimed at the nation and the people of Iraq. Baudrillard may have missed the mark on the Iraq War, but his remarks could be very fittingly adapted to 2016. To paraphrase: “…here comes the dead election and the necessity of dealing with this decomposing corpse which nobody from Washington DC has managed to revive. Trump and Clinton are fighting over the corpse of an election.”

Let me be clear, the people of the US have not lost democracy. They never had it. No modern countries are democracies. In countries with elections undemocratic power is given to numerous people, some of whom are elected. The theory is that by vesting the highest authority in officials who are elected, this will create an electoral process of candidates who seek and receive a mandate. Thus, by acting as a mandated elected official even though the power of the office may be undemocratic, this will bring about democratic governance. This is all jolly good, except that it doesn’t work. Martin Gilens and Benjamin Page made news a couple of years ago by releasing a study in 2014. While they acknowledge that having free speech is an important democratic institution, in policy terms: “Multivariate analysis indicates that economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on U.S. government policy, while average citizens and mass-based interest groups have little or no independent influence.”

One writer called the Page and Gillens paper “the ‘Duh’ report” because anyone paying attention should have already known the truth. It roughly confirms what C. Wright Mills had diagnosed nearly 60 years earlier in his book The Power Elite, which showed the oligarchic nature of US political governance. The US has long had issues of plutocratic corruption intervening in government but the 20th century saw a change from influencing government against the wishes of the electorate to consciously shaping the electorate in order to “engineer the consent” of the governed. Democracy had always been a unrealised promise in the US, shoehorned uncomfortably into the Constitution by anti-Federalists against the wishes of Federalists (like the puzzlingly celebrated Alexander Hamilton). The promise of democracy died with the advent of the Commission on Public Information in 1917 which began an era of “guided democracy” in the US. Oligarchs and bureaucrats turned their minds towards shaping and controlling public opinion while plutocrats still tried to ensure that governance was not overly influenced against the interests of capital by this already mediated public opinion.

We take it all for granted now, but suddenly many different entities wanted to adopt the purposes that had previously been those of politicians, impressarios and snake-oil salesmen. The FBI published heroic literature about “g-men”, and black propaganda smearing Black Power and left-wing movements. The CIA, still one of the biggest publishers in the world, promoted jazz, abstract art and the right sort of academic work. They established themselves in every major news media organ in the “free” world. Hollywood established a close working relationship with different parts of the US government, becoming a willing source of propaganda, and largely integrated into the military-industrial complex (through both ownership and the close working relationship with the Pentagon and CIA). Advertising agencies, over and above the immediate purpose of selling, were slavishly loyal promoters of “free enterprise”, the “American dream”, consumerism, and the values of gendered racialised class hierarchy. For evidence you need look no further than this extraordinary (and ballsy) meta-propaganda about advertising:

Throughout the 20th century, governance in the US also became ever more technocratic and removed from public sight at the same time as the more overt part of governance (elected administrations and legislators) became subject to ever more inescapable and sophisticated perception management. It is difficult to see past the projected self-image of the US as the sort of country that has a minimal government (even to the point of neglecting the vulnerable and allowing infrastructure to crumble) but the truth is that the US has a vast state sector. Combining all levels of government it spent $6.134 trillion in 2010. This is many times higher than China which seems to be a distant second in terms of state sector expenditure.

The machinery of government in the US is enormous and has a Byzantine bureaucratic complexity of overlapping jurisdictions. The documentary above gave an image of a society of free agents with a welfare oriented government. In reality under neoliberalism government, using the pretext of shrinking itself, reallocates resources to state coercion: military, intelligence, police and incarceration. What welfare remains becomes a tool of state control under an ideology that criminalises or pathologises neediness of any form. If you have no home, for example, the state feels it can dictate behavioural and moral codes that are the absolute antithesis of the proclaimed “liberty” that is considered the norm of society.

Meanwhile, the US government at various levels has control of the greatest machinery of state violence and oppression that has ever existed. Some people refer to these capabilities as a “turnkey tyranny” (the phrase existed long before Edward Snowden’s usage) but that creates the unfortunate sense that the entire apparatus is currently turned off (and that some people are conspiring to suddenly turn it on). In reality there is a continuum of state coercion. In the US case the capability for rounding people up and putting them in FEMA camps will probably never be more than a remote, but scary, potential. On the other hand, surveillance, intrusive policing and security, militarised policing, restrictions on liberties, and fear-mongering are already familiar parts of routine and banal oppression. These shape and control people in ways that don’t involve direct physical coercion, but are not merely brainwashing people into happy consumerist zombies either. There is a carrot laced with tranquillisers, but there is also a stick. Sheldon Wolin called the resulting system “inverted totalitarianism”.

The freedom enjoyed by Usanians is the contingent freedom enjoyed by the Eloi in H.G. Wells’ anti-capitalist allegory The Time Machine. They live lives of consumerist luxury right up until the point that some are abducted and eaten. The same is true of those who fall foul of the massive private or governmental bureaucracies that run the USA, and I think that it is good to set-aside our visions of a land with 48-flavours-of-ice-cream and look at the grim, grey inhuman machinery that coexists with consumerist pseudo-liberty.

We have found in all of the former “free world” that our sneers at communist bread queues were premature. We felt superior because capitalism seemed to be designed to meet our needs and desires efficiently, but now that it faces no ideological competition we find that it just wants to sell us barely functional goods and when we call for support or service, to place us on hold for hours. I guess it is better than being hungry waiting in the cold winter, but it is hard to deny that capitalist private bureaucracy is just as entitled and unhelpful as socialist government bureaucracy. In the US it can be deadly. For example, by denying insurance cover to people with life-threatening conditions pen-pushing penny-pinchers from Aetna and other such “providers” hand out death-sentences. The US has a corporatised health sector that is measurably more inefficient, more bureaucratic, more inhumane and much more expensive than actual “socialism”, and it forces people to buy private insurance or face a fine (or, as Forbes spins it, because of exemptions “only 4 million people” are expected to be subject to fines in 2016, and we all know that any law that only affects 4 million doesn’t really count). Employers can also simply garnish wages without permission to enrol workers in the employer’s chosen insurance plan.

Moreover, in this land of private/public dual tyranny, eminent domain laws in the US are often used to forcibly alienate property for the benefit of private capital (because individual states can determine what is “public use”) in the manner that does not happen in other countries.

Meanwhile those who fall into the gears of the “justice” system may find fates that seem akin to terrible stories of mediaeval cruelty, grim totalitarianism, or dystopian science-fiction nightmare. In a Milwaukee gaol, under the jurisdiction of Trump supporter David Clarke, an imprisoned suspect had his water shut off for 6 days. Witnesses heard him beg repeatedly for water as he slowly died of “profound dehydration”.

In many countries the rights of criminal suspects are minimal despite the supposed presumption of innocence, but in the US this can reach a soul-crushing extreme such as in the case of Kalief Browder. He refused to plead guilty to stealing a backpack and because the case against him was thin to non-existent, he spent 3 years, from age 16, enduring terrible conditions and violent abuse at Rykers Island prison. He killed himself 2 years after release. A different horror was endured by Roberta Blake. Not knowing that she had an arrest warrant for returning a rental car late, she was detained in California and spent two weeks in a cage in an overheated van being taken to Alabama to face “justice” for her heinous crime: “Lacking both privacy and sanitary napkins, she had to use a cup in front of the male guards and prisoners when she began menstruating. After another prisoner ripped off her shirt, she spent the rest of the trip in a sports bra.” In most developed countries it would be illegal to treat an animal that way.

Staying on the subject of the accused, I want to remind readers that a Pennsylvania judge received millions in kickbacks for sending thousands of children into institutions. Given the level of corruption victimising so many kids, some of them from white-collar households, is it any surprise that some claim similar corruption is part of the adult incarceration system?

I mention these things to show that “guided democracy” (which is not democratic) produces a tyranny with two faces. These things happen because the accused are unpeople and that itself is a product of an elite “guided democracy” culture in the US that is authoritarian, lacking in empathy, and phobic about poor people.

All I have detailed is just passive and reflexive brutality. It is incidental and can fall on any non-rich person unlucky enough to fall foul of a capricious state, but you will notice that I haven’t even mentioned racialised police violence, the school-to-prison pipeline, and mass incarceration. That is a more active aspect of tyranny that functions (like “anti-terrorism” or the “war” on any other internal or external threat) to normalise oppression and market it to a much wider demographic than that specifically targetted. I won’t waste anyone’s time by detailing the latest horrors of police violence in the US, nor the everyday obscenity of mass incarceration. Readers are probably familiar with the topic, and I just ask that they bear it in mind as being an important element of this story that I am consciously omitting.

The Stinking Corpse of Politics

When Sheldon Wolin wrote Democracy Inc. he was effectively writing the obituary of “guided democracy”. Guided democracy was beginning to give way to something new which Wolin likened to 20th century tyrannies, but characterised as “inverted”. A “new type of political system, seemingly one driven by abstract totalizing powers, not by personal rule, one that succeeds by encouraging political disengagement rather than mass mobilization, that relies more on “private” media than on public agencies to disseminate propaganda reinforcing the official version of events.”

Before continuing, I must clear up a problem I have with the terminology. I cannot endorse Wolin’s (or any) use of the term “totalitarianism” because it has no potential for judicious usage. It was coined to refer to Italian Fascism to refer to the totality of the purview of the state, but both that regime and the current US regime show that defining what is and is not the state is actually subjective. The very concept of “inverted totalitarianism” or “totalitarian democracy” along with new coinages like “globalitarian” show that the word itself is useless. In fact, totalitarianism has primarily been used to create a concept which suggests that Nazism and Communism are of the same essence, but Western liberalism existentially distinct (which, by the way, is why it was one of the academic notions promoted by the CIA). Both the Soviets and the Nazis did the same thing in their time, as Slavoj Žižek explains: “Thus Stalinism in the 1930s constructed the agency of Imperialist Monopoly Capital to prove that Fascists and Social Democrats (‘Social Fascists’) are ‘twin brothers’, the ‘left and right hand of monopoly capital’. Thus Nazism itself constructed the ‘plutocratic-Bolshevik plot’ as the common agent who threatens the welfare of the German nation.”

However, Wolin also referred to inverted totalitarianism as being “a kind of fascism”. “Fascism” is a much better term to use, as I have argued at great length (in two parts). Though “fascism” is clearly too common and low-rent a concept for some people (who maintain their status with claims to exclusive multisyllabic knowledge), it is perfect in conveying an apt historical comparison. Henceforth, therefore, I will use “fascism” because it may be subjective, but even people who disagree with the usage will know exactly what I am referring to and why.

Wolin’s annunciation of the conception of a new fascism should also have pointed to the immanence of a new “rough beast”. We have seen, in the last 14 years, that the “inverted” part of Wolin’s described fascism is unstable and contingent. Like the pluralism of Weimar Germany it could be replaced with leader worship and more conventionally oriented fascism in short order. Ann Coulter, (author of In Trump We Trust: E Pluribus Awesome) recently said: “I worship him like the North Koreans worship the ‘Dear Leaders’ — yes, I would die for him.” Coulter might seem to be a clown or a liar trying to flog a bad book, but we can no longer doubt that Trump does have a cult of personality and very dangerously deranged followers. For example there is this irrational rant from a Trump supporter:

Note that he is wrong in every aspect of what he accusers Shah of being: her candidate is running against Clinton; Shah is US born; and, as it happens, she is not Muslim. His passion for these lies, though, is about as real as anything gets in this time. The self-deception that is so widespread is part of this erosion of the “inverted” corporate and impersonal aspect of US fascism. Obama has very frequently evinced his Christian faith over the years, but millions think he is either Muslim or even the Antichrist. Trump, on the other hand, doesn’t make a big deal out of religion and yet he is still treated as the instrument of God. My argument would be that some feminists have exactly the same faith-based irrational and ironic view of Clinton that these “Christians” have of Trump. Both are equally unlikely avatars of the spirit of each faith and the blindness of the followers is very reminiscent of a fascist cult of personality.

The ever scary nationalist fervour in the US has also entered into the realms of mass hysteria. This year’s DNC and RNC showed plenty of evidence of violent irrationality. Only ten years ago neoconservatives were mocked by the “reality-based community” for saying things like: “That’s not the way the world really works anymore. We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors…and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.” Now, their view of history and of the US role in it has gone mainstream. There is no escaping the conclusion politics are dead and the US is taking an extended holiday (or vacation) away from reality.

We have entered what people are calling the “age of post-truth politics”. Here in Aotearoa it happened very suddenly. We went from being very hard on politicians when they were caught lying, to having a Prime Minister who lies constantly and freely and who gets away with it because the media adopted the self-fulfilling prophecy of saying that people are not bothered by his lying and therefore there is little point in drawing their attention to it by making a big deal of it. In short, the media created a new post-truth norm overnight.

In contrast, the US journey towards this post-truth moment has been a long and well sign-posted journey. The practice of “plausible denial” over covert action that began 70 years ago almost immediately became a practice that should more truly be known as “implausible denial” and was extended to overt military action. The system is simple: an official tells a blatant and obvious lie, then reporters report the statement as having been stated. No matter how thin the lie, it is treated as weighty. It is not analysed or fact-checked, because that is reserved for domestic policies that are contended between the two major parties. It may or may not be noted that others dispute the lie, but the real Orwellian and twisted part that occurs is that the media will forever after treat the lie as unquestionably having been believed by the officials in question.

Thus when the US destroyed a Sudanese pharmaceutical factory in 1998, newspapers outside of the US reported that Bill Clinton knew that beforehand that it was a civilian factory, but inside the US the cruise missile attack, even after it was found that the target was not a chemical weapons plant, reported that the strike was “an effort to curb the activities of the Saudi exile Osama bin Laden”.

Hillary Clinton and Trump are the logical outcome of a combination of mainstream media permissiveness when it comes to politicians lies, and the existence of partisan spheres or “reference groups”. These spheres have two levels. The inner level is the “partisan echo chamber” where you will never be informed that your chosen candidate lies. Apparently the inhabitants of this bubble are a minority, but the outer sphere is may be more important. In the outer sphere people aren’t like Coulter; they aren’t uncritically loyal and they don’t think of themselves as belonging to the Great Leader; they just know that the lies of the candidate they support are regrettable but not outrageous, unacceptable and dangerous like those of the rival candidate. Clinton supporters know that their candidate has a few imperfections, but Trump threatens all life as we know it and they don’t seem to find it at all remarkable that their opponents feel exactly the same way in reverse. They do not recognise their mirror images because years of something called the “culture wars” (which I won’t get into here) have made them blind to similarities outside of that culture war framework. In fact each stance can be rationally argued and we once again see a kind of political quantum superposition where these contradictory stances are simultaneously true. Both of them are the greatest threat currently facing humanity and they must both be stopped.

That is why I say that this election shows the death of politics, rather then merely democracy. There is no longer a machinery to control public opinion, but rather opinions themselves are rendered meaningless. Only the delusional are still taking the rhetoric of Clinton and Trump as being an indication of ideology and policy intent. People are trying to discern their character, but if they juxtapose each against the other trying to make a relative judgement they get into trouble. Which one is the crook? Which one is the liar? Which one is the warmonger? Which one is pro-corporate? If you think that the answers to that are easy, then you aren’t really paying attention.

Things have gotten so bad that in South Park they clearly struggled to decide which candidate should be represented as a Shit Sandwich and which candidate is really a Giant Douche. The creators are lucky that their storyline depicts their own fictional character opposing Clinton, because otherwise they would have to admit that both candidates this year are Shit Sandwich. Their 12 year-old allegory for no meaningful electoral choice is now too mild for the circumstances. We now choose between a Shit Sandwich made with puffy white bread that has a tendency to go soggy with shit juice, and one made with a stale multigrain that is pretty similar but may or may not be a little bit healthier over time.

The Desert of the Real…

was a book by Slavoj Žižek published in the same year (2002) as Wolin’s Democracy Inc. It has its faults. Like Baudrillard on Iraq, Žižek imposes an inappropriate, if not offensive, semiotician’s interpretation of the bombing of Afghanistan. Instead of being a brutal act of imperialist aggression that can and should be compared with historical imperialism, Žižek asks if it isn’t “the ultimate case of impotent acting out?” In fact Žižek’s judgement in this ironically similar to the limitations he describes in others who cannot accept answers that fall outside of presupposed truth. As the old wisdom tells us, when you gaze long into Keanu, Keanu gazes also into you – to which I will add that Keanu knows fuck-all about geopolitics.

Another complaint, of a sort, is that reading The Desert of the Real today is somewhat like reading Alvin Toffler’s Future Shock in that events have so overtaken and exceeded the prophetic work that I tend to react by thinking: “You call that future shock? That is not even mild astonishment compared to what we have to cope with nowadays.” Žižek refers to Alan Badiou’s notion that the 20th century was dominated by “the passion for the real” which “was fake passion whose ruthless pursuit of the Real behind appearances was the ultimate stratagem to avoid confronting the Real.” With the benefit of the last 14 years of reality television informing us we can say back to 2002 Žižek: “No shit, Einstein.”

But Žižek was quite perceptive in seeing the beginnings of the regime that we now live in. The world of 2002 was one of “politics without politics” and Žižek saw the potential for a resurgent and dangerous right-wing. One passage should particularly resonate with those who are following the 2016 US presidential race: “A decade ago, in the State of Louisiana’s governor elections, when the only alternative to the ex-KKK David Duke was a corrupt Democrat, many cars displayed a sticker: ‘Vote for a crook – it’s important!’”

The 20th century “pursuit of the Real” may have chased reality away, but clearly Žižek understood early that this would take us back to the dangerous yearning for the authenticity of a Second Coming that Yeats perceived in 1919.

The Desert of the Real ends by asking “What if the true aim of this ‘war [on terror]’ is ourselves, our own ideological mobilization against the threat of the Act?” In many ways the war on terror has made people in Western countries accept discipline, control and surveillance that they would never have accepted otherwise, but in other ways there has been resistance. In some ways the things that are most obvious are the least significant because they are resisted and ultimately rejected. After 9/11 the US rounded up and detained hundreds of Muslims and foreigners. That practice ended. What stayed was the Department of Homeland Security, the Transport Safety Authority, and a new officially promoted “if you see something say something”. The most profound changes have come in those spaces of knowledge where people assent and accept subliminally because they feel no friction of resistance and they are anaesthetised. Some changes are too subtle, but others are too big. People stop thinking about them almost immediately because they become everyday normality very quickly.

As I alluded to earlier, the path to the current US post-truth post-politics moment follows through the territory of imperialist wars justified by a skein of lies that creates a pseudo-history. It is possible to discuss and dispute aspects of the pseudo-history in that same way that people can discuss and dispute aspects of Game of Thrones. It is still fiction.

Žižek described a dearth and death of reality that, to my prosaic mind, was the culmination of post-WWII US hypocrisy and exceptionalism. What is happening in the 2016 election is due to the fact that on September 11 2001, the US stopped merely stringing together lies and launched a “global” war that is framed within one giant fairytale. For 15 years it has been as if every day the US has destroyed another Sudanese factory, but the lies have become to large and too numerous. They penetrate everywhere and inter-penetrate each other so that they cannot be refuted singly.

The real is abolished, and no one really wants it any more. Trump recently rewrote history by saying that a “stop-and-frisk” policing policy worked wonders for New York. Some challenge that, but not because it is untrue, but because they are not on Trump’s side. Yet there is little objection when John Kerry spoke to the UN General assembly:


The gall of the man is not merely from the inappropriate dismissiveness (compare this to attitude towards the attack on the USS Cole which killed 17 sailors), but also in brushing over the very obvious questions raised by claiming that this was an “accident”. It took me all of 5 minutes after putting in the search terms “syria deir ez-zor map forces” to find out that there is a prima facie case that the act must have been deliberate. I could easily just look at news reports from the past 6 months that make it hard to avoid the conclusion that the US-led attack must have been intended to aid the forces of the self-proclaimed “Islamic State”. Once you consider in addition that within minutes of the attack the self-proclaimed “IS” launched an attack that has halted or reversed 6 months of slow SAA progress towards lifting the siege of Deir ez-Zor, then the incident looks very much like air support for “IS” forces. I would defy anyone to give any other explanation as to why the US would suddenly decide to bomb in this area, where the only military forces are the Syrian Arab Army and the “IS”. At the very least every journalist should report that the circumstances suggest that until their actions are explained, US claims should not be seen as credible as they are not reconcilable with the facts as we currently understand them.

Down the Rabbit Hole

I am about to write something that may be the most controversial thing I have ever written. I realise that many people will hate me for this, and I fully expect to be hunted down and savaged by vicious sci-fi nerds. But there comes a time when destiny calls, and it is my destiny to say something heretical about The Matrix

Here is my testament: If someone called “Morpheus” (the Greek god of dreams) offers to take you “down the rabbit hole” (an allusion to entering “Wonderland”) and you then end up perceiving a new reality in which you are the messiah, but the most fundamental fact of human existence (that people are in a virtual world being used by a machine intelligence as a way of generating electricity) makes absolutely no sense whatsoever, then accepting Morpheus’ offer is choosing delusion over reality. That means that “taking the red pill” means indulging delusions, lies and fantasy.

To recap: 1) Morpheus = god of dreams; 2) “down the rabbit hole” = journey into fantasy; 3) world of people hooked up as batteries = self-evident nonsense; 4) messianic mission = attractive delusion satisfying to ego and superego (and id once you throw in the inevitable “love interest”).

Ironically people refer to “taking the red pill” as being a path to enlightenment. Even more ironically it is linked to “9/11 truth” activism. But the people who took the red pill on 9/11 were the people in the US government, the elected officials, the military personnel, the spooks, the cops, the administrators. They, along with much of the population of the Western world, entered a phantasmagorical parallel universe, the GWOT Wonderland, where the fundamental premise of the main fact shaping the world makes no sense.

The Matrix tricks its viewers in the same way that science fiction author Philip K. Dick would often trick his readers. But where Dick’s deception was either playful or served a serious purpose (or both), the Wachowskis were either more mean-spirited or simply underestimated the human capacity for self-deception. The desire for purpose and the need for meaningfulness in one’s life drives people to perceive Neo’s journey as a revelation of truth rather than a descent into madness despite the heavy-handed hints I mentioned. The messiah figure is enticing because it satisfies narcissism and altruism simultaneously in a way that real life does not offer. As it happens, Phil Dick also explored this desire with black humour in “We Can Remember it for You Wholesale” which formed the basis of the films Total Recall. The short story parallels the Total Recall film adaptations up to a point but has crucial further developments that we omitted from the films. When the protagonist’s belief that he is a secret agent becomes rationally unsustainable he “remembers” that he is actually an alien emissary sent to bring peace and enlightenment to humanity. When the alien emissary narrative is fatally challenged by its own irrational contradictions, then the protagonist “remembers” that even that was actually a cover identity for his real nature which is the actual messiah and saviour of all humankind.

There is a lot of power in the attractiveness of a sense of messianic purpose, but in The Matrix it is used to scam people. They overlook the obvious because that are deceived into doing so. I would even call it the “Neo con” (if I were cruel enough to inflict such a bad pun on readers) because it is a good model of the trickery that keeps people from seeing the obvious lies of the Global War on Terror.

The neocons themselves were and are a mix of scammers and scammed. Whether they believed the lies or not, they evinced a messianic purpose for the US. It is true that the fundamental benevolence of the enterprise did not bear much scrutiny, but then again the fundamental rationality did not bear scrutiny either. The point, like The Matrix, is not to conceal lies but to disincentivise the perception of unhidden lies. As the neocons’ direct influence seemed to fade, the fundamental parts of their worldview were left behind as mainstream political orthodoxy. The distinction between neocons and liberal interventionists (as I have repeatedly written) was never significant anyway and now we inhabit the world they created.

In The Matrix the whole purpose of the eponymous Matrix itself is explained as being a completely infeasible and physically impossible system of generating electricity. It is stated as quickly as possible, and the real trick is that those who do notice the impossibility will blame poor narrative construction and not suspect that it is key evidence of the real nature of what is happening. In the war on terror, Islamic terrorism is constantly highlighted but the connection with foreign policy is passed over very quickly, even though it is the central explanation for why the US needs to invade and bomb so widely. The US military still hands out medals for the GWOT so the basic premise is still that their far-flung interventions are a response to terrorism. The fall-back position is that even if it doesn’t make sense to attack other countries to stop terrorism, it is a real if mistaken belief on the part of officials.

Whether it is the Neocons or the Wachowskis, people never stop to consider whether it is reasonable to think that their unreasonableness is in earnest. Wolin, for example, keeps repeating that “inverted totalitarianism” came about without intention: “It has no Mein Kampf as an inspiration” he tells us in between quotes from various neocon equivalents. The ideology, the strategy, the intention and the foresight of consequences are all there to be seen, for those who will see them rather than asserting that they cannot be there. Once you figure out that the neocons and their allies must have deliberately crafted the terrorism lie, it puts quite a different spin on things.

15 years into this delusion we have seen military actions coalesce into a slow-motion World War. Without citing the threat of terrorism, the US could not have taken military action against Afghanistan or Iraq. Yet we shouldn’t forget that the threat of terrorism is still used to give people the impression that there is some natural and urgent reason for the US to be involved in Islamic countries. If we take the instances of Syria or Libya, they conflate concerns about the crimes of the dictatorial regime with concerns about terrorism. It makes no more sense than when the Nazis claimed that there was a single conspiracy of Communism and Western capitalism. Yet without being able to say the “IS” is a threat to the homeland, moves against regimes like Libya’s and Syria’s might be difficult to explain in light of, say, the ongoing support for Saudi Arabia or Egypt or any of the many brutal regimes that the US considers to be friendly and “moderate”. It makes no sense to attack regimes that oppose the alleged sources of terror, but that doesn’t really matter any more than it makes no sense to provide a massive life support and virtual reality infrastructure to billions of humans just so you can use them as energy cells. The senselessness is irrelevant.

We have gone down the rabbit hole, because even if we know that it is irrational to say that US interventions are against terror or because they oppose the oppression of dictators, we have no other coherent narrative. That is why I am constantly pushing for people to recognise that US interventions are genocides, attacks aimed at extending imperial power by committing violence and destruction against peoples and nations as such. It is that simple. It is also that banal. It is a grey world where even the most cruel of crimes are just another day at the office for some of the perpetrators. People prefer a dramatic fantasy narrative of anti-terror and humanitarian intervention to prevent the “next Rwanda”, yet most highly educated people would consider me a fantasist because suggesting a coherence in US foreign policy is a “conspiracy theory”.

Sauce for the Gander

In the end, if we have accepted irrationality and lies for so long; if we have for 15 years purged those who cannot live with cognitive dissonance from public and private areas of authority; should it surprise us that we have created the circumstances where truth is no longer relevant? Kerry, Clinton, Power and Obama are all capable at any day of the week of telling preposterous and monstrous lies. It is impossible to tell, for example, if Samantha Power is completely insane or not. Like Tony Blair she seems to be so deeply “in character” that the original human host, the once beloved daughter of Mr and Mrs Power, has been murdered by this bloodthirsty monster.

If you think Trump has gumption, think of the sheer chutzpah shown by Power when she turned the US massacre of Syrian personnel into an chance to attack Russia for daring to criticise the US: “even by Russia’s standards, tonight’s stunt – a stunt replete with moralism and grandstanding – is uniquely cynical and hypocritical.” As Gary Leupp writes, she is “condemning Russia for condemning a war crime”.

Our semiotician friends Baudrillard and Žižek like to condemn atrocious actions, but they avoid suggesting that there might be some premeditation and conscious shaping of the semantic. Žižek would probably consider me to be crude, primitive and jarring in my insistence on continually returning to a realist perspective. However Žižek has alienated many on the left with his comments on the European refugee crisis and I like to think that my more pointed view allows me to be honest about the refugee crisis without falling into disproportionate victim-blaming that amounts to xenophobia (regardless of whether it is literally true or not). On this subject Žižek is purely and smoothly in concord with the right. He is effectively like one of those second-degree racists who neatly substitute nurture for nature and justify fear and bigotry on the basis of “environment” instead of genetics. To my mind this is the logical outcome of never being brave enough to go out on a limb and say that there is a locus of power behind the events that shape our narrative perception. It may not be a literal Star Chamber of sinister conspirators, but power coalesces again and again in ways that form virtual Star Chambers and once you understand that mass transformations are often imposed from above then it makes little sense to fret about whether some refugees are rapists in the midst of a metastasising holocaust that has killed millions and threatens tens of millions.

Žižek wants to state a generality that is true and comforting (that the West is not responsible for every bad thing in the world) without testing whether it is actually applicable to the specific case he addresses. For example, Žižek says that the Rwanda genocide can’t be blamed on the West, because he is ignorant of the history. The US acted in co-ordination with Uganda and the Rwandan Patriotic Front to destabilise the country and provoke ethnic violence. Perhaps the resulting genocide was far beyond what they wished for, or perhaps not. It was not the end of US-backed ethnic violence in Rwanda and bordering areas of the DR Congo, so the provocateurs cannot have been too appalled at the violence. Nor does the US history of slaughter in Asia, Latin America and the Middle East allow us to take seriously the horror they evince at the Rwanda Genocide, nor the way they use the memory of it as a pretext for their own acts of genocide.

Likewise, Žižek says that the refugee crisis cannot be blamed entirely on the West because “ISIS” is an “active response”. The problem is that we either have to confront the fact that “IS” is a deliberate creation of the US empire, or we remain in Wonderland where magically, just when the US needs a new pretext to carry on the wars that it is already fighting, “IS” appears. Miraculously, because of “IS”, the US gets to continue the wars it was already fighting for other reasons even when the primary activity of this wars is to attack the enemies of “IS”.

We know that the US armed the “IS” forces, but we are meant to believe that they did it somehow by accident. A country suddenly appeared and found itself governing millions while simultaneously fighting a four-front war against established national armies and ethnic militias. Despite being land-locked and surrounded by putative enemies it has remained in play for 2 years. It is as if the Nazis had consolidated in Bavaria in 1945 and were still there in defiance of the Allies best effort in 1947. It simply makes no sense.

That is why a lying reality show personality and probable child rapist can make a credible run for the highest office in the US. It is because we have had 15 years of deluded and/or shameless US imperialists doubling down over and over and over again on their lies. We are trapped in Wonderland, because it hurts people to think of reality; because people want to believe Žižek’s announcement that not everything is the West’s fault; and they want to join in with his implied sneer at those who say otherwise.

The 2016 US election will not take place because reality is in abeyance. Young people might not even know what it is any more. They see all the shades of grey, but they can no longer conceptualise black or white, so it is hard to find meaning. The trivial and the profound are no longer distinguishable, not because of some general social evolution, but because managed democracy evolved as a system of political domination. This is the result of astroturfing, greenwashing, pinkwashing, native advertising, product placement, grey propaganda, and so forth. We did not just end up like this because we are spoilt and spend too much time on social media. This was done to us.

So there is Trump. He is a sick joke. His party, which he seems almost completely detached from, is like magician’s illusion: a giant edifice that seems to be levitating with no visible means of support. He has the endorsement of the patriarch of the “Duck Dynasty” Phil Robertson who offered to baptise him on camera to get “God on our side”. Apparently even God no longer believes in the Real until it is on reality television. But it takes two to tango; Hillary Clinton is no more real than Trump and the polls show that ordinary people know it.

The 2016 election will be a non-event. The way the votes are counted will shape the destiny of the world, but the voting itself will be an empty ritual. That is not a reason not to vote, it is actually a reason to reject the idea that your vote was wasted. The votes are not wasted, but even if they are counted they are stolen. Stolen by fictional candidates like Trump and Clinton and stolen by the death of politics. Vote your conscience and then live according to it. Let everyone know that your vote was stolen by a system that is fraudulent. Make sure that everyone remembers that it is a lie every time they tell you that you might not like what the President does but you have to accept it because that is the way democracy works.

One day they will push the lies too far and Wonderland will shatter, releasing us from this dark sphere back into the light.

The Empire Paradox: More Power is More Weakness



In response to my recent article on US imperial wars some people objected to my characterisation of the US empire. I wrote: “In global terms the US has never been more powerful” and some were quick to point out that the US empire is very weak. To those people I want to say that we are both right, but the weaknesses of the US empire do not generally affect its functioning. One day these weakness will become very, very important, but we cannot predict when that will be. In the meantime, critics of US empire undermine themselves by their focus on weakness, which often leads to millenarian predictions of immanent collapse.

To explain, I will begin by giving shape to the empire’s dynamic of power and weakness. There is nothing new in suggesting that empires can become victims of their own success. “Imperial overreach” is a common enough term and it is clearly worrying at least one imperialist (Zbigniew Brzezinski, whom I will discuss further at a later point). However, while the established language of “stretch”, “overextension” and “centrifugal forces” evoke 2 dimensions, I want to suggest that we visualise the empire in 3 dimensions.

2-dimensional metaphors of imperium are cartographic in origin. They reflect the logistical, strategic and tactical concerns of an empire of military, bureaucratic and economic control. The irony is that the imperial quest to conquer and tame geography is also a process of transcending geography with institutions and communications which erase differences and distances. Geography is still important in many respects, but I think we need to visualise the totality of empire in an abstract way, because in some important ways it has become a post-geographic empire wherein many important connections exist without physical proximity. This changes some facts of empire, even if others remain the same.

For example, the British had to worry about the “agency problem” in India which could be epitomised by, say, an East Indian company employee marrying a local woman and setting up in business with his new in-laws. This was very common, and the response from the Empire was to create a segregationist and anti-miscegenation racial discourse (and to ship young British women to India in bulk consignments). In contrast, the US can send agents to any country without such worry due to transnationalisation and global mobility. Though there is still a bias towards people of European descent, diplomats, spies, contractors, investors, missionaries, and garrisoning troops are ever more likely to be people of colour. Far from needing to keep its people separate, the US empire is benefiting from its ability to send agents who have ethnic origins and family ties to the neocolony in question. Meanwhile comprador oligarchs (especially in the Western hemisphere) are educated in the US and may have residences and business concerns in the US. The nationality on your birth certificate might limit your power at the highest levels (unless Trump and the “birthers” are correct), but there is still an international imperial elite including many non-US nationals who wield great power.

My proposal for an abstract 3-dimensional model of imperial power is a foam of conjoined bubbles. Each bubble represents a discrete institution of imperial power relations has the properties which we associate with metaphorical bubble such as a price bubble.

Imperial power relations are bubbles because the empire is a structure which puts power into the hands of the few. As Antonio Gramsci famously observed there must be “Consent” to domination, and as Gandhi noted: “We in India may in moment realize that one hundred thousand Englishmen need not frighten three hundred million human beings.” This sets up a dynamic that necessarily inclines towards an increasing but individually unsustainable concentration of power with the necessary increase of coercive power being a threat to the “hegemony” that maintains the consent of the governed.

Not every aspect of imperial power replicates the dynamics of an economic bubble, but I think that enough do to make the generalisation valid. In the resulting imperial spume each bubble; such as petrochemical hegemony, financial hegemony, or entertainment media hegemony, must individually expand or die, but the conjoined bubbles can artificially prevent a bubble burst, or may at other times simply fill the space so that the imperial mass continues with little diminishment. But as the bubbles continue a general trend of expansion there will be an increasing number of bubbles large enough that the bursting will set off a chain reaction. Theoretically there will come a point where the increasingly dominant and powerful empire will be susceptible to complete collapse from the tiniest pin-prick.

The problem is that the system is too complex for us to predict. We don’t know where we are at. The empire has responsive institutions, so vulnerabilities that are predictable are compensated for. This itself feeds the processes of inflation. To use another analogy, perhaps the future will bring a giant iceberg of imperial weakness which is foreseen, but cannot be avoided. It is possible, but the empire is constantly steering among icebergs. I think it is more likely that one day an unforeseen fault will cause a cascade failure, destroying the ability to steer. After that we can spend all the time we want arguing whether it was the unforeseen fault or the giant and obvious iceberg which is to blame (or praise) for the empire’s collapse.

Because of this unpredictability, the weaknesses of the US empire are significant potentialities, but they have little relevance in actuality. For those who oppose empire there is little to be gained fro focussing on imperial weakness.

I count myself among those who has a bias towards perceiving the inherent weakness, contradiction and self-defeat built into imperial expansion. We do not want to think of the empire as a “success” in any terms. We do not want to think that the mass-murderers of Washington DC might go to their graves believing that they have been on the side of the angels. We do not even really want to admit war and genocide can be used successfully to advance the interests of US empire. We want people to understand that nobody truly benefits from the cruel crimes of empire.

I do not want to believe that the US empire “wins” all the time, but I know that that is the real nature of empire. With very few exceptions it will always leverage from its superior power and will win every conflict eventually. Every time the US empire seems to be handed a defeat, it is only a matter of time before it becomes a US victory. In 1950 the US was worried about an independent Viet Nam becoming an industrialised socialist regional hegemon. Now Viet Nam is a poor neoliberal source of cheap labour that has signed the TPP and lets US warships use Cam Ranh bay and Haiphong harbour. The Phillippines evicted the US military in 1992, to much acclaim, but they were back a decade later and have been increasing their presence ever since (including announcing of 5 new bases in recent months).

They are also hard to stop when they decide to go to war. 3 years ago, after protest had prevented US bombing of Syria, I wrote “Though apparently thwarted in its efforts to justify action against Syria, the US is likely to continue looking for cracks in the wall of opposition and will exploit any opportunity to act, relying on its well established impunity.” Sure enough, in time the US began bombing Syria, having found a completely different rationale that coincidently meant they needed to bomb the country they had wanted to bomb for unrelated reasons just months before.

In Latin America, just a few years ago it seemed that the tide had turned decisively and enduringly against Usanian dominance, but now: Dilma Rouseff has been ousted; Venezuela is nearing collapse under the strain of US economic warfare and sabotage; Mauricio Macri plunged Argentina back into the deepest depths of neoliberalism; post-coup Honduras is rife with right-wing death squads; Rafael Correa will not be standing in the upcoming Ecuadoran election; and the historic peace-deal in Colombia has actually given a platform and relevance to mass-murderer Alvaro “I did it because it was a necessity” Uribe who is leading the right-wing campaign against peace (50 years of killing is apparently not enough).

In Europe, NATO has expanded to Russia’s borders in numerous places. India is now clearly in the US camp, a factor that should not be underestimated. Under AFRICOM (established 2002) the US military is now deeply entrenched and highly active throughout most of Africa. US military capabilities on the borders of rivals and enemies become ever more menacing with deployments such as the THAAD missiles in ROK, and ABM missiles in Romania and Poland.

The US remains the largest arms exporter and provider of military “aid”, but there has been a qualitative shift that increases the dependency of its clients. US weapons systems, and the insistence on “interoperability” amongst allies and clients, are now such that many military activities require US contractor or military personnel for maintenance. This gives the an unprecedented lever of control that supplements the military aid and training programmes that ensure that officers in the neocolonies are loyal to the empire. In direct terms the US can also, under circumstances decided by itself, take control of the massive and well armed forces of the Republic of Korea (ROK). Moreover, though its sidekick the UK has dropped from 2nd to 5th in military spending, it is now the second biggest arms dealer in the world.

The US has been proliferating missile defence systems which are designed to prevent retaliation from Russia after a massive US nuclear attack. This alone is causing dangerous instability, but the US is also trying to blur the lines between nuclear and conventional weapons to make them more “thinkable. Complementing this is a very expensive nuclear modernisation programme that includes many smaller “tactical” munitions.

In conventional terms the US also has excessive and peerless firepower. The US has 10 massive “supercarriers” currently in service. There total displacement is close enough to be called a megaton (1,000,000 tons). In contrast, adding all other countries aircraft carriers together you get under 200,000 tons of displacement (one fifth of the US strength). Total US naval size is 4 times that of its nearest rival (Russia): quote “the U.S. war fleet displaces nearly as much as all other warships in the world’s navies, combined.” Given that is also has the highest nuclear and conventional payloads, and the greatest technological sophistication, it is fair to say that the US Navy is considerably more powerful than all other navies combined.

In military terms the US is unquestionably a greater power now that it was in the past, and it is the greatest military power in world history.

The US has also gone from strength to strength in being able to impose economic control and in coercing and bribing governments into signing over economic sovereignty to the empire’s corporate arm. Once again it seems that the US empire never has to concede defeat, it merely bides its time and finds a new way forward when checked. The anti-globalisation movement in the late 1990s seemed spell the end of the march of neoliberalism. Indeed the Doha round of WTO negotiations, which started in 2002 and still continue, were hijacked by notions of development and welfare. Undeterred, the US has turned to bilateral and regional multilateral deals which further US hegemony and neoliberal governance. Now it gets to exploit the synergies that result from having its fingers in so many pies. The TPPA and TTIP, for example, also function to isolate China and Russia. We may still be holding a good fight against the TPPA, but the fact that the US could muscle in on someone else’s trade deal and then pervert in entirely to their own cause and then get the government’s concerned to sign the deal. Now many believe that TTIP is dead in the water. I would caution that there was a period when the TPPA also seemed dead (some say it is now), but stalled is not the same as dead.

The forces wanting these agreements are not going anywhere and no one is actually dismantling the process to this point. With the TPPA in particular, even if ratification becomes indefinitely delayed popular outrage, we don’t have a realistic way of getting the deal off the table altogether. This is a ratchet system, it can only go one way and it moves that way every time public pressure is relaxed or confounded.

Even if we defeat TPPA and TTIP, then there is already the Trade in Services Agreement (TiSA) which “imposes unprecedented restrictions on SOEs and will force majority owned SOEs to operate like private sector businesses.” As George Monbiot writes: “TTIP has been booed off the stage but another treaty, whose probable impacts are almost identical, is waiting in the wings. And this one is more advanced, wanting only final approval. If this happens before Britain leaves the EU, we are likely to be stuck with it for 20 years.”

We seem to have no means of reversing the progressive loss of economic sovereignty. Each individual country knows that they will be hammered if they take the first step. Thus in those periods where a country might be lucky enough to have a government that has a level of benevolent intent, they are constrained to trying to beautify our prison cells with some flowers and maybe (if we are really lucky) a comfortable vermin-free mattress. They provide insufficient and, above all, precarious well-being in a world where inequality has become a rampant cancer, as dangerous as it is obscene and surreal. Billionaires now own over $US7 trillion in wealth.

The empire can think up new ways of robbing and enslaving the people of the world because it owns our governments, it owns our bureaucrats, it owns our spooks, it owns our generals. As for multinational corporate interests (and their legions of lawyers and lobbyists and PR hacks), well the empire owns them and they own the empire (or is that the other way around?)

At the launch of a left-wing think tank author and academic Nick Srnicek said: “Neoliberalism is dead, and we have an opening to produce something new.” He is right, but wrong. His diagnosis is no different from what was said by people like him after the Asian Financial crisis 20 years ago. We must build intellectually robust counterarguments to neoliberalism, but we should realise it does not actually need to be intellectually valid to continue. You cannot kill that which does not live. Likewise, it is wrong to think that the rise of right-wing populism means an end to neoliberalism. It is a scam, and you don’t have to believe in the lies to perpetuate them or use them. Srnicek thinks that Trump is anti-neoliberal, which is what a lot of Argentinians thought about Mauricio Macri. Macri (who laid off 100,000 public sector workers in his first 3 months and deregulated labour laws for the benefit of employers) has just announced an end to energy subsidies which will cause a 400% rise in gas prices. Combined with Macri’s earlier move to raise wholesale electricity prices this will mean increases in power bills of up to 700%.

I think it is great, wonderful and necessary that we use the term “neoliberalism” as a catch-all term. It helps us draw links between the policies of our own governments and the international trends, and now people are grasping the fact that it has an authoritarian side. But I would caution against treating it as deriving its coherence from an ideology. As David Harvey pointed out in A Brief History of Neoliberalism neoliberals do not play by the rules they espouse.

Neoliberalism isn’t really particularly neo, it is just a new bottle for the old sour wine of market fundamentalism (as Fred Block explains in this interview). In practical terms, for example, Herbert Hoover was indistinguishable from a neoliberal except that he was less slick. In reality, the final nail in the intellectual coffin of market fundamentalism came before neoliberialism even existed. It was the work of economic historian Karl Polanyi whose unrefuted 1944 book The Great Transformation showed that market fundamentalism always was a bunch of crap going right back to its first policy applications in the 19th century. Polanyi also found exactly the same double standards in 19th century British laissez-faire that Harvey found in its modern incarnation, quoting a US Treasury Secretary who complained that the British Empire’s policy was “do as we say, don’t do as we do”.

Thus, neoliberalism always was an undead ideology of Zombie Economics. Personally I find it hard to believe that people take something like Friedrich Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom seriously but clearly, like Ayn Rand, he is tapping into the hidden desire for absolution that obviously afflicts the wealthy and the bourgeois. It must be something like that, because it is a really pathetic book. First Churchill and then Thatcher had tens of thousands of copies distributed free to the Conservative Party faithful like it was the Tory Bible, or Little Red Book.

The thing about zombies is that, however shambling, they are hard to stop. There have been few sour notes in the orchestrated global advance of neoliberal imperialism. There have been thorns in the sides of the US – nation-states that just won’t play ball – but the empire has the time and expanse to quarantine such naughty countries until such time as they can crushed. People call the US weak, but they are destroying Syria now at no real cost to themselves. Syria was on a list, as was Libya. People point to Libya and call the intervention a failure, but Libya is fucked and it hasn’t hurt the empire in any way. Mission accomplished, surely? And then there is Iraq. Iraq, which would be an incredibly rich nation without intervention, is barely holding together. It is so divided that any powerful outsider (not just the US) can destabilise it. This is a clear win for the US, and they used the Iraq invasion to give $US19 billion of Iraq’s money to US contractors like Halliburton. Iraq now spends billions in oil money each year to buy US weapons and is completely dependent on US support to keep its government in one piece.


Picture: power supply in Iraq embodying the “logic” of neoliberalism

After what the US has done to Iraq, no one should think that Iraqis want the US there, but people still call the 20-year genocide a “failure” and a “tragic error”. It is an evil master-stroke, not a mistake. The empire is only threatened by such action in that eventually it may over-reach, so each success carries the germ of potential disaster. As I mentioned at the beginning though increased power and increased fragility go hand in hand. Maybe a collapse of the empire will come, but until that time the empire’s power is an actuality, but its weakness is only a potential.

People who develop the habit of announcing the immanent demise, or even just the weakness of the US will eventually find themselves in the same position as those cultists who have to sheepishly keep pushing back the date of the apocalypse as each predicted end-time passes without the end actually happening. Historians Joyce and Gabriel Kolko spent decades emphasising US weakness in foreign policy, beginning during the US war in Indochina. At each point, over the decades of writing, it seemed valid to highlight this supposed weakness, but if you trace their work through time that aspect of the work becomes ridiculous, which in turn brings into question their very understanding of the empire. Sun Tzu advised: “When you are strong, appear weak”, and US officials love nothing more than whingeing about their vulnerability and impotence. The Kolkos let themselves be misdirected. They let their desire for a more just world lead them astray.

The empire’s weaknesses are its contradictions, which is another way of saying what I wrote in the title: more power is more weakness. But the potential weakness only affects the empire in the here-and-now inasmuch as it causes imperialists to become circumspect and modest. That is not happening. We know it is not because there is an exception to the rule, and that is Zbigniew Brzezinski. He wrote an article this year calling for caution and realignment. However, he is claiming that the US empire is already dead (which could be seen as disingenuous) and that a global realignment has to occur in which Russia and/or China are incorporated. He is basically advocating a global carve-up of the world and his can even be read as an appeal to take substantive control of China and Russia in order to dominate parts of the globe through them (in the same manner that occupied post-WWII Japan was used as a sub-hegemon in East Asia).

Brzezinski is clearly not being 100% honest either. He makes a transparently fake denunciation of “the current inclination of the Saudi government still to foster Wahhabi fanaticism”. Once the obvious lie is removed he is clearly saying that SA (which used to just buy US weapons and not use them) should continue in its new-found warmongering role.

Perhaps Brzezinski is genuinely worried about continued unipolar expansion, and that is what makes him an exception, but his answer is to a problem of empire is more imperialism: a controlled US dominated delegation of power to subordinates: “the United States must take the lead in realigning the global power architecture”. Nevertheless Mike Whitney seized on Brzezinski’s article with glee at the arch-imperialist giving up on empire, and I think he represents a broader tendency to want to see the empire as crumbling. But even if one imperialist did give up on empire, it isn’t much to get excited about it. Moreover, if “giving up on empire” comes in the form of saying that the US should create an new New-World-Order, then I would hate to see what expansionism looks like.

Besides all of that, none of this is new for Brzezinski, and a veteran like Mike Whitney should have remembered that this echoes Brzezinski’s stance from 2006, especially since Whitney quoted him in 2007: “American power may be greater in 2006 than in 1991, (but) the country’s capacity to mobilize, inspire, point in a shared direction and thus shape global realities has significantly declined. Fifteen years after its coronation as global leader, America is becoming a fearful and lonely democracy in a politically antagonistic world.” In fact Brzezinski had much the same stance in 2000 when he published The Geostrategic Triad advocating “The progressive inclusion of Russia in the expanding Transatlantic”. He wanted the US to rule in conjunction with partners dominated by it. The details in his latest article are different (China promoted, Europe demoted, Russia matured), but the essence is the same, a unilateral imperialism that calls itself multilateral and pretends to be pragmatic by being thoroughly overtly repugnant in the name of realism.Having seen many excited tweets about Brzezinski’s putative turn against empire, I think it is a good case study on which to end. It shows how we fool ourselves, seeking the easiest signs of hope and progress when the outlook is actually daunting and scary. We cannot see what lies ahead. We could be on the cusp of something great or something horrific or a long hard slow battle which we might not win. At the moment we have little control over such things. Any attempt to take a shortcut because of some will-o-the-wisp is counterproductive. We have been dealt a crappy hand, but that is what we have to live with because the masses are unreachable and will remain so until dissidents can offer a coherent comprehensive alternative to empire. That is why Srnicek was correct in his prescription, even if his diagnosis was a bit off.

To paraphrase Gramsci, what we need is accuracy of the intellect and sufficiency of the will, in that order.

UNSC Draft Resolution on Palestine: Aotearoa Dances the Whisky Tango Foxtrot



This is an unscripted commentary about the abysmal and cowardly draft resolution circulated by Aotearoa/New Zealand at the UNSC. The resolution purports to encourage and to bring closer a “two-state solution” to the occupation of Palestine.
This resolution is founded on delusions and lies that can no longer be excused.
Apologies for the uneven audio quality in the first 10 minutes

US Rule in Occupied Earth (or Everything You Need to Know About Genocide, but Never Knew to Ask) Part 4: You Are Next


Leunig - How to do it

direct link to mp3:

Lemkin defined genocide as being a form of warfare, but instead of it being military warfare “against sovereigns and armies” it was war against “subjects and civilians”. We do not need to distinguish between the sort of internal “war” declared against a minority within a state and the sort of “war” that is waged against a foreign people. So, for example, the Japanese “3 Alls Policy” of “Kill all. Burn all. Loot all,” was genocidal because it was aimed at the Chinese people and was not a truly military scorched earth policy.

Lemkin focussed originally on occupied Europe, but he saw the same processes in the conquest of the Americas and he spent much more time studying and writing about genocide in the Americas than about Germany’s genocides in Europe. He characterised Indian reservations as being a form of concentration camp and symptomatic of genocide. As you can imagine, this sort of thing did not go down well in 1950s USA. He was unable to find publishers for his later works. As John Docker has said: “We can only mourn that Lemkin’s manuscript writings were not published as he hoped, for in them the inherent and constitutive relationship between genocide and settler-colonialism is strongly argued, given subtle intricate methodological form, and brought descriptively to life.” Lemkin died poor and comparatively obscure 1959. Only 6 people attended his funeral. Had he lived longer he would have recognised that the strategic hamlet programme in Viet Nam was also symptomatic of genocide and I am sure he would have made the leap that links genocide to all forms of imperialism, not merely settler-colonialism.

Whether related to settler-colonialism or not, genocide reveals itself best in military occupations because they allow the full panoply of genocidal behaviour to manifest. Lemkin saw genocide as a combination of ancient and modern practices. On one occasion it might be the visceral slaughter of a massacre, on another the dispassionate exercise of issuing papers that reclassify people as no longer having the right to live in their homes. One might reduce the food intake available to a people who have been previously deprived of subsistence resources, or create a policy of retaliatory violence. One might order a carpet bombing raid or institute a military doctrine of “force protection” guaranteed to cause mass civilian death and widespread terror. In short, genocide can manifest as wanton violence and destruction or targeted violence and destruction. It can involve policies designed to control, to destroy, to immiserate, to alienate, or to provoke.

Perpetrators of genocides like to claim that their actions are military in intent. Sometimes they are deliberately deceiving and sometimes they are wilfully lying to themselves. The greatest lie they tell themselves and others is that attacking the civilian population and its infrastructure is a valid way of degrading military strength. This is the lie that was behind of the “strategic bombing” of civilian areas in World War II and was used to implement the genocidal sanctions against Iraq. These are very instructive examples of genocide undertaken in the guise of warfare, yet, instead of looking at those I want to focus on counterinsurgency.

Imagine a materially and/or numerically inferior people who occupy land that you covet. You start taking their land by force and/or start using your superiority to coerce their departure through inflicting some form of pain. Eventually resistance will ensue. The resistance may or may not have been part of the plan, but it now becomes the excuse for ever greater violence against the people as such. War against a people as such is, by definition, genocide. When you deconstruct counterinsurgency programmes throughout history you will find that this pattern of genocide is common to many.

I already mentioned the Japanese “3 Alls” campaign. The excuse for this genocidal behaviour was that it was a way of combating the People’s Liberation Army which drew sustenance from the people themselves. Mao said, “The guerrilla must move amongst the people as a fish swims in the sea.” But the point is that the people wouldn’t have supported the PLA if it did not in some way embody their collective will. The Japanese, by contrast, were inimical to the Chinese people. Their occupation was already genocidal, if they hadn’t been strategically inclined to inflict destruction of Chinese people as such, then they would have dealt with any insurgency by actions, policing or military, that were restricted to the PLA itself. In fact, the genocidal strategic imperative was greater for the Japanese than the military strategic imperative because such “counterinsurgency” is inherently counterproductive militarily.

To put it in simple terms you win a counterinsurgency by winning the “hearts and minds” of the people and thus isolating the guerillas from the material support of the people and delegitimising them so that violence against them does not cause the people to hate you. But, if your strategic designs are against the fundamental welfare of the people themselves you cannot win their hearts and minds and so it is inevitable that when armed resistance arises the response, if you do not alter your strategic aims, will be genocidal.

It is no great secret that the way to win against an insurgency is to win the acceptance of the people and then treat the guerillas as a separate military or policing operation. The reason this is not done is not that people don’t know it, but because they cannot accommodate the will of the people even to the degree that would get them to cease supporting the conflict of armed resistance. In short, for demostrategic reasons they are enemies of the people and they are at war with the people. It doesn’t matter of it is a tribe of 300, or a nation of millions, the same applies. Just as the genocidal acts of the Japanese drove people into the arms of the PLA, the same pattern has been enacted throughout Latin America, Southeast Asia, and in Eastern Europe during the Partisan War. In fact, Hitler said: This partisan war has its advantages as well. It gives us the opportunity to stamp out everything that stands against us.” It is well worth remembering at this point that Lemkin described Hitler’s genocides as being “a new technique of occupation aimed at winning the peace even though the war itself is lost.”

Since the First Indochina War, the US has shown unmistakeable signs that it welcomes and even fosters insurgent resistance as a way to channel its military might into genocidal violence and destruction. Few people realise how much of the US effort in Indochina went into systematically attacking civilians without even the pretext of a nominal insurgent presence. They did this on the basis that the people themselves were the sea in which the guerilla swam. The entire Phoenix Programme, for example, was aimed at civilians. “Free-fire zones” were, among other things, designed to re-designate non-combatants as legitimate targets for death. Under this logic missions of mass death could be carried out without any hint that an actual combatant might be present. US personnel were also trained to view the people of Viet Nam through a hostile racial lens. That and the way the GIs were deployed created a systematic situational predisposition for US personnel to view the the people of Viet Nam to be their enemy. If the US had wanted it to, a fraction of the money they spent on fighting in Indochina could have been spent in ways that won the “hearts and minds” of the local peoples. But that would have empowered the people. The Vietnamese, for example, would have been very thankful and then have firmly continued to move towards reunifying their country and exercising self-determination.

The US now exerts more hegemony over Viet Nam by having visited genocidal destruction and lost the military struggle than it could ever have done by making the concessions needed to allow it to achieve military victory. The state of Viet Nam was far less damaged by US destruction than the people of Viet Nam. The war had actually left the country as a military powerhouse and regional hegemon. On the other hand, bottom-up development was crushed. When industrialisation took hold it was not some form of strategic development that empowered the proleteriat and the nation, it was low-wage light manufacturing for the benefit of Western multinationals and Western consumers. That is a profound strategic victory for the US empire.

Viet Nam’s ongoing weakness means that it is subject to the governance of the “Washington Consensus” institutions which use debt and trade to prevent development in a for of structural violence, but at least there seems to be little prospect of hostile military action from the US. Iraq, on the other hand, seems to be slated for an eternal grinding and inhuman violence punctuated by periods of mass slaughter. Iraq has become like Prometheus to the US Zeus. Zeus ordered his servants Force and Violence to chain Prometheus to a rock where each night an eagle would tear out his liver. This was partly in revenge for Prometheus tricking Zeus out of what Zeus thought he deserved to be given as offerings by humans, and partly because Prometheus, a friend to humanity, had given fire to humans. In many respects the analogy is chillingly apt. For the US, even backing successful coups in Iraq didn’t produce regimes that were willing to make sure that Iraqi oil wealth was used to benefit US hegemony, thus Iraq cheated the US out of its due.

Due to a combination of petroleum, geography, demography, culture and history the Iraqi people, as such, are indelible enemies of US empire. Even under Saddam Hussein oil resources were nationalised and oil profits went into national development. Iraq is too large to be a rich rentier state with a small wealthy citizenry and it is too small for the oil profits to be inaccessible by the bulk of the population as in Nigeria. This is a big problem for an imperial polity, ie the US empire, that specifically uses control of petroleum as a method of strategic hegemony.

The result is that if you want to see an almost exhaustive exemplar of genocide then you should look to what the US has done in Iraq. It has been, to paraphrase Lemkin, “a coordinated plan of different actions aiming at the destruction of essential foundations of the life of [Iraqis], with the aim of annihilating [Iraq itself]. The objectives of [the] plan [are the] disintegration of the political and social institutions, of culture, language, national feelings, religion, and the economic existence of national groups, and the destruction of the personal security, liberty, health, dignity, and even the lives of the individuals belonging to such groups.” To outline the Iraq Genocide I can go through each one of Lemkin’s “techniques of genocide”. He enumerated these in Chapter 9 of Axis Rule in Occupied Europe, which, as you will recall, is where the term “genocide” originates. His descriptions of techniques of genocide can be very closely mapped to US actions in Iraq. And remember that this is the original defining document on what genocide actually is and you can go through it point by point and see how well it applies to US actions. The process is far too complex to detail fully here, but I will give a rough outline and hopefully you can use your own faculties and prior knowledge to fill in some gaps.

  1. Thee first technique of genocide was labelled Political – this would include the entire “De-Baathification” process; the period of rule by Paul Bremer; the suppression of mass demonstrations, of political dissent and of organised labour; the subversion of sovereignty; and the imposition of constitutional arrangements.

  2. Social – changing the legal structure; abolishing unionism; targeted killings of community leaders; fomenting sectarian division; disruption family social and economic life by targeting “military-age males” for disappearance or death. One of the biggest social impacts has come from the eliticidal killings of intellectuals and certain professionals such as doctors. This began with “Debaathification”, and then there were kidnappings, then the US instituted the “Salvador Option” and since that time intellectuals have often been targeted by death squads.

  3. Cultural – To paraphrase Lemkin by merely changing the word “regimentation” to “chaos” and the word “Poland” to “Iraq”: “Not only have national creative activities in the cultural and artistic field been rendered impossible by chaos, but the population has also been deprived inspiration from the existing cultural and artistic values. Thus, especially in Iraq, were national monuments destroyed and libraries, archives, museums, and galleries of art carried away.” Let me repeat: “…national monuments destroyed and libraries, archives, museums, and galleries of art carried away.”

  4. Economic – to quote Lemkin again: “The destruction of the foundations of the economic existence of a national group necessarily brings about a crippling of its development, even a retrogression. The lowering of the standards of living creates difficulties in fulfilling cultural-spiritual requirements. Furthermore, a daily fight literally for bread and for physical survival may handicap thinking in both general and national terms.” In 2013 Iraq passed the $100 billion US dollar mark for post invasion oil sales, and yet Iraqis still languish in poverty.

  5. Biological – in this category Lemkin discussed measures that the Germans used to lower birthrates particularly by geographically separating the men and women. The US has pursued policies which separate men from women en masse, but not to such an extent that it would affect the birthrate significantly. Bear in mind, however, that the physical and environmental aspects of genocide against Iraqis have also acted to reduce birthrates and may be even crueller than dividing families.

  6. Physical – Lemkin divided this into 3 subcategories: a) Discrimination in feeding – by 1998 it was calculated that 1 million had died because of sanctions imposed on Iraq. In infants particularly this was from a combination of disease and malnourishment. The perpetrators – the US and the UK – blamed the Iraqi government, but the rationing system in Iraq was as efficient and equitable as could reasonably be expected. In fact it cannot be denied that in this regard the Ba’ath government provided a far better and far less corrupt service than any large-scale service provided by the US government or any US contractor in Iraq. In reality, the deaths were the result of the deliberate withholding of essential nutrition and medications; b) Endangering of health – in addition to the sanctions preventing medications from reaching Iraq they also prevented medical equipment from being replaced. This was a slow torturous atrocity whose intentionality cannot be questioned. Then during the invasion and occupation US military forces systematically targeted medical personnel and medical facilities. This was something that Dahr Jamail was at pains to document at the time and compiled into an alarming report in 2005. Not content with merely bombing hospitals and systematically murdering health workers, the occupation authorities also used the same sort of destructive policies they used on economic assets – giving both US and Iraqi money to corrupt contractors who had been formally been made immune to both Iraqi and US law and were thus guaranteed impunity in advance. While facilities struggled to cope with mass violence and to rebuild that which was degraded during the sanctions period, Iraqi funds were misspent on lining the pockets of rich US contractors. c) Mass killing – the shocking results of the mortality survey in 2006, known as “Lancet2” or “L2”, have now been vindicated. As well as a very high rate of violent death L2 showed that up to 2006, where known, most people were killed by coalition forces and most people were killed by small arms. Total mortality in Iraq due to the invasion is above one million. If this is added to the fatalities caused throughout the previous 13 years the figure in considerably in excess of 2 million.

  7. Religious – Here I could cite the numerous attacks on and destructions of Mosques carried out by Coalition forces in the first few years of the occupation. But it is impossible to avoid mention of the sectarian and religious conflicts caused by the occupation. This is portrayed as something that is an endemic problem, but that is a complete lie. Westerners don’t seem to grasp how unusually blood-drenched Christianity is, and how sickeningly racist it is to project that peculiar tradition of violent intolerance onto others in order to avoid seeing Western culpability in fomenting bitter divisions. Just to be clear, it is not Christian theology that originated the violence of the religion, but rather the fact that it became the state religion of a thousand year-old empire that had the established habit of brutally killing those it considered to be ideologically heterodox. Indeed, Christians themselves had frequently been victims of this impulse. Once Christianity was bedded in to Roman politics it was inevitable that the Roman approach to heresy would reassert itself. Then the Church split, with Rome becoming the centre of a quasi-sovereign multinational “Papal monarchy”. This Western church found that its power was greatest when it was fighting heretics and infidels and it became addicted to bloody Crusades. These were not just to the Holy Land, but also included the brutal genocide of the Albigensian Crusade. After that was the Inquisition and then the Reformation set off the wars of religion which killed millions upon millions. That is not even to mention the indelibly Christian flavour of Western imperialist violence which continues to this day. Buddhism, Hinduism and Islam all have violence in their past and present, but none have a history that compares to this. For that reason I get very angry when people talk about the sectarian violence in Iraq as being the result of some ancient enmity. Very little of the violence in Islam’s history has a sectarian origin. Western historians talk about Shi’a political participation in the original Sunni ruled Caliphate as being “political quietism”, but even that is projecting a Western standard coloured by things like the massacre of Huguenots in Paris. I could go on, but I hope you get the point.

  8. Moral – Lemkin wrote: “In order to weaken the spiritual resistance of the national group, the occupant attempts to create an atmosphere of moral debasement within this group. According to this plan, the mental energy of the group should be concentrated upon base instincts and should be diverted from moral and national thinking. It is important for the realization of such a plan that the desire for cheap individual pleasure be substituted for the desire for collective feelings and ideals based upon a higher morality.” I think that this is a subjective area, but I think that the imperial pattern that the US tries to replicate everywhere, including at home, is one of atomised consumerism. In Iraq’s case this meshes with the social, cultural and economic destruction mentioned above.

  9. Environmental – Lemkin did not have this category, but it seems now a salient and highly important technique of genocide. Lemkin had no environmental awareness, as such, because of the times in which he lived, but some people now use the term ecocide to refer to systematic environmental destruction and I believe that ecodide is best understood as being one of these techniques of genocide. In Iraq the US has systematically caused environmental degradation by destroying infrastructure and contaminating areas with toxins, radioactive material and unexploded anti-personnel ordnance. Perhaps the most well known pollutant is depleted uranium, but recent studies in Fallujah show that it is only one part of a toxic cocktail that causes birth defects and cancer. Practices like using burn pits have also created deadly exposure to toxins for both Iraqis and US personnel. Like Agent Orange, these are slow motion chemical weapons attacks, and like a gas attacks there is always some “blowback” onto your own personnel (for a war leader, sacrificing pawns is necessary to win the game). Like Agent Orange, the pollution will kill for generations, causing health problems and heart-rending grief. Worse than even Agent Orange, however, some of these pollutants will stay for as long as we can foresee – a legacy of death and suffering that is practically eternal.

The Iraq occupation was a watershed moment, but it was not an aberration. It was part of an increasingly genocidal imperial policy that has blossomed into a series of ongoing neocolonial postmodern holocausts. The US sows conflict and instability and ensures that there is never any conclusion. Through direct or proxy interventions the US has created one eternal warzone after another. There is now a string of destabilised states, many of them so-called “failed states”, whose people are denied any path to peace. The situation is proliferating: Yemen, South Sudan, Libya, Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia, western Pakistan and eastern DR Congo. These are the acute cases, but there are many other countries have a lower level of chronic violence and instability.

These spreading zones of violence are a new form of genocide that slowly effectuates “the destruction of essential foundations of the life of national groups”. Can it be said that the goal is to “annihilate” these nations? Yes it can, because the goal is to annihilate them as such. It is imprinted in the logic of the genocide. Because the violence provokes resistance, the logic of the genocide will demand unending violence. The violence creates its own strategic imperative for continuation while at the same time the institutions created to carry out that violence gain substance and a life of their own.

History will record the current era as a time of neocolonial slaughter much like the spasm of imperialist violence at the end of the 19th century – an increasingly mechanised blood-letting that foreshadowed the slaughter of World War I. However, genocide is not a discrete and absolute phenomenon. It is never the case that “a genocide” is committed in isolation. The current genocides have long historical roots. US “counterinsurgency” in the “Indian Wars”, in Latin America and in Asia, is cross-pollinated with South Africa’s “Total War” against its neighbours, and Indonesia’s genocides, and Israel’s invasions of Lebanon. This has created a system of in institutional knowledge rife with various techniques of Balkanisation and destabilisation.

By playing Hawks off against Doves, US imperialists create room for themselves to inflict unending violence without ever allowing the perception of control that a military victory would give. Retired General Mike Flynn believed that the US needed to use more military force to defeat IS but has also said: What we have is this continued investment in conflict. The more weapons we give, the more bombs we drop, that just … fuels the conflict.” This is a complaint that has gone right back to 1950, becoming particularly prominent during the 2nd Indochina War. Military officials try to explain that they are hamstrung and prevented from achieving military victory, but rather than taking their claims seriously they are written off as being overzealous madmen. The fact is that apart from some insane proposals to use nuclear weapons, the military types do have a point. Military decisions are avoided for the same reason that counterinsurgencies become counter-productive, because the real enemy is the people and a military victory would only hinder the strategic goal of crushing the people themselves.

It would also be wrong and artificial to separate genocidal wars abroad from domestic governance. The institutions of genocide that Germany created when it committed genocide in East Africa are considered important antecedents of the later genocides in Europe. But the first people that the Germans put in concentration camps were German political dissidents. The first Nazi mass killings were of disabled Germans. Military war, genocide, and the quotidian oppression of domestic governance partake from each other. In the US there is a long interplay between the criminal justice system and the genocidal attacks on peoples of other countries. This is inseparable from the past genocides of colonisation. Ajamu Baraka, writing on the recent death in custody of anti-police brutality activist Sandra Bland wrote “The struggle in the U.S. must be placed in an anti-colonial context or we will find ourselves begging for the colonial state to violate the logic of its existence by pretending that it will end something called police brutality and state killings.”

Mass incarceration, domestic torture, police killings, and mass surveillance are all institutions that feed and feed from genocide abroad. In this sense you can see that it becomes an impediment to argue that a given phenomenon is “a genocide”, instead we need to acknowledge that a phenomenon such as US mass incarceration is genocidal and not “a genocide”.

A famous quote from Martin Niemöller begins: “First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out because I was not a Socialist.” It ends: “When they came for me, there was no one left to speak out.” That is the nature of genocide. If we do not find a way to end the genocidal interventions in the Third World our turn will come, and collectively it already has. An elite habituated to meeting obstacles with genocidal violence will enact it on their own people, and that has already begun. If an innocent Caucasian is brutalised by a US policing and mass incarceration system that is primarily aimed at people of colour, that does not make that person an aberration of collateral damage but rather an indication that those institutions will be used against whomever it serves. The divisions between some “Them” and some “Us” are lies. They mean nothing, but we are made to feel that the mass violence perpetrated by our governments on distant foreigners is no threat to us, and may even be to protect us. It is not true. Every death we allow to happen places us all at greater risk, places our loved ones at greater risk. And one day, when it happens where you live, those who might speak for you will be dead or silenced.

But speaking out now has to be an act of true revolt. Ours is an age in which there is no more crucial imperative than that of demolishing the lies of elite ideology. Western regimes are almost impervious to the opinion of the masses, so mass education is far less important than deprogramming the apparatchiks that populate our boardrooms, newsrooms, seminar rooms and lecture theatres. We do not need to educate the masses. What will they do when they are educated, be knowledgeably powerless? No, we need to enrage the masses and delegitimise the elites. Their intellectual and moral pretensions are hollow.

To do this more than anything we need two things. One is to rediscover the knowledge and analysis of imperial power, and the other is to understand that imperialist violence, including structural violence, is genocidal in nature. Elite Western ideology was struck a blow by the end of the Cold War. By the late 1990s analysis of “globalisation” had begun to merge with a new, and not exclusively Marxist or Marxian, interest in the US empire. By now this has been almost completely expunged. In its place we have the traditional dullard stance of those who, without ever having to trouble their brains for confirmation, take it as granted that the default approach of the US is to seek to create stability and spread democracy. Less Pollyanna-ish, but equally blind are those who view US foreign policy as a variety of “realism” in response to “national security threats” such as “Islamist terrorism”. Most infuriating of all are the opponents and critics of US foreign policy who are now dominated by beliefs that US foreign policy is controlled by the Israel Lobby and/or acts primarily in order to deliver profits to the military-industrial complex. These are not only tropes of repugnant apologism, they are fatuous ahistorical and anti-intellectual conceptual cul-de-sacs which make cogent analysis impossible. They clearly satisfy deep-seated psychological needs, but they mainly fulfil the role of concealing continuities and preventing people from seeing the true shape of US imperial interventions.

To illustrate the potency of the term genocide imagine how difficult it would have been for the US to justify its actions in Iraq, if academic and media interlocutors had seen the pattern of genocide in US actions. Currently continuity and intentionality are concealed by simply replacing and recycling varying excuses made to limitlessly amnesiac intelligentsia. No one steps back and asks whether the current excuse for genocidal violence actually makes sense in the larger picture. Saddam might invade his neighbours again? Bomb the water infrastructure! Saddam has WMDs? Starve the people! There is resistance to our occupation? Dismantle all of the economic infrastructure and destroy historic sites! Insurgency? Kill! ISIS? Bomb! Iraqis don’t love us? Bomb some, arm others, then arm the ones you bombed and bomb the ones you armed! If it wasn’t so horrifically serious, it would be a pathetic joke.

Understanding the genocidal nature of this violence is the only way to end the cycle of mutating rationalisations. If they can’t launch a bombing campaign with a lie about a gas attack, the next lie will come along shortly and eventually one will stick. Take Gaza, for example. Israel’s violence has been justified as being: “Because Hamas. Because rockets.” But already you can see the beginnings of a new trendier discourse being established, where it is the failure of Hamas to control Salafists that will justify future genocidal violence. “Because ISIS. Because rockets.” And when that wears out there will be another excuse. And if we don’t escape the parameters of discourse set by the idea that Israeli actions are related to security (whether you agree with them or not), then there will never be an end to potential excuses. While we debate the merits, they will kill more. And so it will continue.

To conclude, then, I hope that Anuradha Mittal learns what I have said here and I hope she decides that it is not a good idea to give a detailed hour-long account of a genocide and to baulk at using the word “genocide” itself. What she described was a people who were dispossessed, had their movement controlled, were cut of from the native soil that provided them economic and psychological health, had family lives shattered, were traumatised, were deprived of materials of culture and religion, had social networks destroyed or degraded, and finally had their history, their agency and ultimately their humanity expunged from the official state narrative of history. If that isn’t genocide then there can be no such thing.

I would also like Chris Hedges and Laila al-Arian to reflect on the fact that they published a book in 2008 that specifically claimed that US personnel were systematically murdering Iraqis in large numbers, but never used the word genocide. Perhaps they can now see that they effectively orphaned their work and made it irrelevant by not giving the systematic killing its rightful context as being genocidal mass killing. To put the murders they talk about in any real context that relates them to the bombing, sanctions, economic destruction, social disintegration and civil war absolutely requires that the word and the concept of genocide be used.

The word must be used because the genocide continues in Sri Lanka just as it does in Iraq. The situation in Iraq is well known, but what Mittal describes is also alarming because the Sri Lankan government seems to use weakness to deepen persecution. They seem to have exploited the military weakness of the Tamil Tigers at the end of the civil war to conduct mass murder and they have used their victory to rewrite history to further denigrate the Tamils. That forebodes further armed mass violence. By the appropriate use of the term genocide, however, public alarm and discontent can be wakened. Once people actually grasp the meaning of the word it will be much easier for groups such as Tamils to awaken people and much harder for perpetrators to convince them to stay asleep.

Perhaps most important of all is the potential to cause a “revolt of the guards”. This is something that Howard Zinn famously advocated at the end of a People’s History of the United States and it is also something that Chris Hedges refers to frequently. The fact is that when people come to understand that they are engaged in a necessarily atrocious and criminal enterprise they are liable to stop. The concept of genocide can open peoples’ eyes to the cruelty in which they have become enmeshed.

But the power of the word does not end there. Many of the war resisters within the US military who acted against the genocide in Indochina used the term genocide to justify their actions, or refusal to act. It is a very powerful position to take, to say: “This is genocide, and I will not partake in genocide”. If someone says “this war is immoral” the counter-argument is that it is not for them to decide what is moral. But if you say “this is genocide” then any disputant is inevitably going to have to argue that it is not genocide and that opens up the discourse to discussions of human suffering as opposed to notions of threats and security and combat that dominate the discourse of war.

The fact is that there are clearly people out there who will actually argue that it is sometimes right to commit genocide. In that sense perhaps spreading a greater understanding of the term does risk “debasing the coin”. These people will crawl out of the woodwork, and then there will be a discourse of genocide and genocide-lite. Various reasons will be put forward that some genocide is tolerable, maybe necessary, and even, perhaps, sometimes a moral good. But most people will never buy into that. Genocide necessarily means deliberately inflicting suffering on the innocent. In practice military warfare also means this, but proponents can always argue that such suffering an unfortunate side-effect of an otherwise perfectly moral enterprise of destruction killing and maiming. When something is appropriately labelled and understood as genocide, the perpetrators have no place to hide. That is what we need.

US Rule in Occupied Earth (or Everything You Need to Know About Genocide, but Never Knew to Ask) Part 3: Lemkin’s Logic




or direct link to mp3:


The misuse of words is a key way to ensure that the ideological hegemony of the powerful is not disrupted when they commit acts that ordinary people find abhorrent. In 1946 George Orwell wrote “In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defense of the indefensible. Things like the continuance of British rule in India, the Russian purges and deportations, the dropping of the atom bombs on Japan, can indeed be defended, but only by arguments which are too brutal for most people to face, and which do not square with the professed aims of the political parties.” A couple of years later he famously satirised this as “Newspeak” – a language of journalists and intelligentsia which systematically stripped the language of all meaningful terms, replacing them with good, bad, plus-good, plus-bad, double-plus-good, and double-plus-bad. A key aspect of using a concept of double-plus-bad or double-plus-good is that it cannot be argued against because it doesn’t have a concrete definition. We do this in a low-grade level as human beings because we are lazy and proud. We like to impress and to win arguments by using buzzwords in the place of thought. But at the higher levels of discourse (at the double-plus-bad and double-plus-good level) the use of language becomes systematically controlled in a way that shows clear purpose.

The higher one’s social ranking, the more constricted and controlled one’s vocabulary and hence thought. In part this is due to conscious propaganda manipulation coming from government and corporate interests which have long targeted “opinion leaders” with propaganda and left the messaging to “trickle down” (in the words of the US Government’s “Vietnam Information Group”). Orwell satirised this as being a “Party Line”, portraying it as a centrally coordinated effort, but what he was really suggesting is that the system functions the same whether there is a “Politburo” giving orders or not. The point is, that the ideology is internalised and the elites become their own and each other’s thought police. That was what Orwell analogised as being constant surveillance and inescapable broadcasting. The constant unstoppable nagging of the television and the inescapable omnipresent surveillance in 1984 were allegories for the internalised orthodox ideology.

The actual centralised dissemination of ideology is relatively crude, as the comparative failure of the Vietnam Information Group illustrates. The decentralised co-optation of elites is more subtle, more profound and more robust. It harnesses people’s imaginations, but more importantly it harnesses their ability to avoid imagination and thought. In real life what this may mean is that a word that does have a definition, has that definition suppressed and people use the word as if there was no actual definition at all. An obvious example is the word “terrorism”.

The word “terrorism” is used in a manner that has little to do with any actual stable definition. Originally terrorism referred to advocating the use of terror during the French Revolution. It was actually put forward as a way of minimising state violence because the emphasis on generating terror would maximise the disciplinary effects of violence. In other words, if you scare the shit out of people you don’t need to kill as many to make them all behave the way you want them to. It’s an old idea, of course, just named and given a post-enlightenment rationalisation. That form of terrorism is still very current everywhere that there is a military occupation. More broadly, though, terrorism came to denote a warfare technique where violence is used to terrorise the general population as a way of exerting pressure on a state power without having to inflict military defeats. As a technique of asymmetric warfare it has an obvious appeal, but it is usually counterproductive and a gift to your enemies. Indiscriminate attacks, like the terror-bombing campaign waged by Britain against Germany, tend to consolidate public support behind government and military leaders.

In real terrorism, the regime that rules the target population generally benefits. Moreover, ever since there has been the asymmetric use of terror, state regimes have labelled all asymmetric warfare as terrorism. In fact they have lumped in as many actions of their enemies under the category of terrorism as possible and, without exception, this is done as a way of garnering support for their own acts of terrorism, which they call “policing”, “security operations”, “counterinsurgency” or “counterterror”. The use of the term “counterterror” is quite interesting because it allows states to overtly signal to their personnel that they are to use terror tactics, but it has enough linguistic slippage to provide deniability.

In propaganda discourse terrorism is never something that stands alone, you tie it to other things like ethnicity and religion. The Germans of the Third Reich were not induced simply to hate distinct groups of people. Their propaganda system, just like ours, conflated various plus-bads and double-plus-bads to make them all seem like a great interlocked multifaceted double-plus-badness. Criminals were bad and perhaps deviants, sexual deviants who were decadent, devolved creatures, Jews or Jew-like, who are all lefties, socialists, Communists, and they want to destroy Germany. So the enemy was the criminal-queer-Jew-decadent-racial-deviant-Commie. If someone was shown to be one, they were tainted with all others. And if they were demonstrably not homosexual, for example, it didn’t matter because there was a more profound way in which they actually were – they embodied the real essence of the category rather than the mere outward form. And even though the Nazis related all of this to racial and cultural hygiene, the fact is that the most common immediate excuse for using violence against these Chimerical enemies was terrorism.

Germans used the concept of terrorism for exactly the same reasons as it is used now:

1) Because regimes like to pretend that terrorism threatens the stability of the entire society, notwithstanding that actual terrorism does not generally destabilise regimes, even if it disrupts society.

2) Because each individual will feel that they could be a victim. Terrorists are not going to stop to ask your political opinion before they kill you. This makes people feel as if they are on the side of the government because they share a common enemy.

3) Because calling people terrorists provides the all important sense of reciprocity that makes state violence against the “terrorists” seem justified. Britain, France, Israel and the US have all, just like Germany, used the label of “terrorism” to denominate entire populations as being terroristic in some essentialised way. This is used to make genocidal violence and terrorism against those populations seem justified.

In one of the most striking examples of late, Israel has just passed a law giving themselves permission to force feed hunger strikers in the manner practiced by the US and recognised elsewhere as torture. Telesur reports that security minister Gilad Erdan explained: “Prisoners are interested in turning a hunger strike into a new type of suicide terrorist attack through which they will threaten the state of Israel.”

Once upon a time, academics would have at least kept in the backs of their minds the notion that terrorism was a politically misused term. However, instead of that translating into publicly railing against the hypocritical misuse of the term by Western terrorist governments, their public contribution would tend to be along the lines of reminding people that “one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter”. Like most fatuous clichés, this has the advantage of seeming thought-provoking whilst, in fact, being thought-killing. That was the typical liberal educated view – not to actually attempt to put things into a robust linguistic framework that could facilitate real analysis, but to imply that it is all a matter of opinion anyway.

As bad as that sounds, it all changed for the worse after 2001. Suddenly there was a boost for academic “security” specialists. People who had perhaps been more marginal in terrorism studies and security studies found that their way of defining terrorism (by taking the people they wanted to call “terrorists” and working backwards) were suddenly more prominent. The response from more level-headed academics was, of course, to immediately concede the middle ground to them and allow them to set the agenda. This meant that state terrorism, which was never incorporated into “terrorism studies” anyway, was now unmentionable. The idea that no definition of terrorism should prejudicially exclude a certain type of perpetrator is apparently alien to respectable scholars. Dissenting academics turned to “critical security studies” and the new “critical terrorism studies”. But these are self-marginalising positions which by their very names tell us that practitioners do not study a thing, but rather study the way that thing is discussed. The existence of something like “critical terrorism studies” necessarily embeds an orthodox “terrorism studies”. In practice, this provides a dual academic track wherein those who question what they are told voluntarily concede the greatest authority to those who are more inclined to parrot what they are told.

To force those who use words like “democracy” and “terrorism” to only do so in accordance with robust fully contextualised definitional criteria would be to deprive potential aggressors of a potent tool against thought. This is just as true of the term “genocide”, but there is an additional significance to the term. A true understanding of genocide will do more prevent its misuse as a way of eliciting a desired uncritical emotional response. This is because genocide differs as a concept in that understanding genocide will also strip away ability for perpetrators, especially repeated perpetrators such as the United States of America, to conceal the immorality of their intents as well as their actions. The meaning and applicability of the term genocide not only belies the rhetoric of moral righteousness, wherein the US strikes for freedom and to protect the innocent from evil-doers, but also the equally repulsive rhetoric of blunders, of inadvertence, and of self-driven systemic dysfunction. Applying the concept of genocide to US foreign policy reveals a conscious systematic intentionality in a project that very few people would consider morally acceptable. But to apply the term genocide, we need to recover the original meaning, which is to say a stable meaning that does not contradict itself and can be reconciled with historical usage.

To understand what genocide means it is best to trace the thinking of Raphael Lemkin, who invented the term. Lemkin was a Polish Jew who was passionate about history. When he was a teenager the Armenian holocaust had a huge impact on him. This was understandably emotional but was also a profound intellectual impact. He saw in these horrible events something related to the history of the persecution of Jews and the violence of pogroms. He became a lawyer and in the 1933 he advocated that new international laws be passed banning acts which would be considered crimes against the law of nations. He proposed two new international crimes which were, in brief terms, killing people on the basis of their ethnic, religious or national identity (barbarity”) and the destruction of items of culture, places of worship and so forth (vandalism”). Amusingly, his collective term for the crimes of “barbarity” and “vandalism” was “terrorism”.

Lemkin’s genius was not, despite his intents, in naming a crime but rather in naming a strategic behaviour. It would be better if genocide had never been thought of as a crime. Genocide is something that the powerful do to the weak and, despite the mythology, legal remedies do not work between parties of highly disparate power. Whilst people like to claim that laws are an equaliser that provides the weak with a tool to fight the powerful, that is not the historical experience of criminal law nor of international law. Power includes the power to police and enforce law and the power to defy law, thus the law must always be obeisant to power. Admittedly, one can theorise a society wherein a social contract made all people equal before the law, such as posited by Jean-Jacques Rousseau, but in practice that would have to be a society with no significant hierarchical differentiation. The hegemonic group in any society has always used different forms of law, including criminal law, against lower classes and ethnic minorities or, when desirable, women, the LGBT community, religious groups, or people who hold undesirable political opinions. Law, in short, is inescapably predisposed to be a tool of the powerful against the weak. That is not to say that people cannot use the law for the benefit of the weak, but that is a function of individuals working against the general inclination of the system.

The limits of laws can be be demonstrated by a counter-factual thought experiment. Imagine that Lemkin had succeeded beyond his wildest dreams in 1933 and that the current UN Genocide Convention had been signed and ratified by all countries including Germany in 1933. Would that have impacted the passage of the Nuremberg Race Laws in 1935? Well it didn’t stop South Africa instituting draconian “Pass Laws” in 1952, so one would have to say no. In fact there is no way in which our historical experience of the UNCG seems to suggest it would have constrained Germany in any way at all. By the time people in Allied countries were reacting to German genocides with demands for action, their governments were already at war with Germany. Moreover, their excuse for not acting against the infrastructure of extermination was the over-riding need to win the war, and argument that would not have been altered by the existence of a genocide convention. On the other hand, in 1938 the existence of a genocide convention might have strengthened Germany’s claims that ethnic Germans were being persecuted in the Sudetenland and given more legitimacy to the Munich Agreement which gave Germany the Sudetenland and left Czechoslovakia nearly defenceless against future German aggression.

That is why it is actually a pity that Lemkin was a crusading lawyer, because his great insight was in inventing a theoretically rich term which was the crystallisation of considerable historical knowledge. The breakthrough he made was to realise that the violence he had called “barbarity” and the destruction he had called “vandalism” could be reconceptualised as a single practice called “genocide”. This is absolutely fundamental to understanding what genocide means.

Here is how Lemkin introduced the subject:

Generally speaking, genocide does not necessarily mean the immediate destruction of a nation, except when accomplished by mass killings of all members of a nation. It is intended rather to signify a coordinated plan of different actions aiming at the destruction of essential foundations of the life of national groups, with the aim of annihilating the groups themselves. The objectives of such a plan would be disintegration of the political and social institutions, of culture, language, national feelings, religion, and the economic existence of national groups, and the destruction of the personal security, liberty, health, dignity, and even the lives of the individuals belonging to such groups. Genocide is directed against the national group as an entity, and the actions involved are directed against individuals, not in their individual capacity, but as members of the national group.

“The following illustration will suffice. The confiscation of property of nationals of an occupied area on the ground that they have left the country may be considered simply as a deprivation of their individual property rights. However, if the confiscations are ordered against individuals solely because they are Poles, Jews, or Czechs, then the same confiscations tend in effect to weaken the national entities of which those persons are members.”

So Lemkin’s first example of an act of genocide is the confiscation of property from “Poles, Jews or Czechs….” This is a concept in which mass violence against people’s physical bodies is only one facet of a larger practice. In other words, when the Canadian government admitted recently to committing “cultural genocide” they were not truly apologising, but using slimy evasive apologetics. There is no such thing as “cultural genocide”, there is only genocide. Pamela Palmater introduced her reaction thus: “What happened in residential schools was not ‘cultural genocide’. It wasn’t ‘language genocide’. And it wasn’t ‘almost genocide’. What happened in residential schools was genocide. Canadian officials targeted Indians for assimilation and elimination purely for economic and political reasons.”

When Palmater wrote that she was merely introducing an extended argument, but she made a much more revealing comment about the nature of genocide when speaking on Democracy Now!:

“I know there was a focus on culture and that people were abused and beaten for speaking their language and culture, and they were clearly denied their identity. But for many of these children, upwards of 40 percent, they were denied their right to live. And that goes far beyond culture. Think about at the same time the forced sterilizations that were happening against indigenous women and little girls all across the country. Sterilization has nothing to do with one’s culture, but, in essence, the one’s right to continue on in their cultural group or nation-based group. The objective was to get rid of Indians in whatever way possible. Culture was one aspect of it, but also denying them the right to live or to procreate was an essential part of this.”

The key sentence is: “The objective was to get rid of Indians in whatever way possible”. Palmater knows that that does not mean the literal extermination of every single person that is even nominally Indian. What it means is erasing Indians from the places that they are not wanted at that historical moment. As Lemkin wrote, “Genocide has two phases: one, destruction of the national pattern of the oppressed group; the other, the imposition of the national pattern of the oppressor. This imposition, in turn, may be made upon the oppressed population which is allowed to remain or upon the territory alone, after removal of the population and the colonization by the oppressor’s own nationals.This can be achieved through killing, assimilation, immiseration or dispossession. This can be achieved through transmigration – the ancient Assyrians, the Atlantic slavers, and the Soviet Union all uprooted populations to weaken them by taking them from their native soil. Equally, mass settler migration to the US, to Aotearoa, to West Papua, to Tibet or to Palestine imposes a new “national pattern” on the land.

The connection to native soil has profound personal aspects that might be considered spiritual, cultural or psychological, but let us not ignore the more immediately physical and concrete factors. Uprooting people utterly destroys their economic independence and can seriously degrade social interconnections that help provide the essentials of life. Thus, the famous susceptibility that colonised people have to Old World diseases has often struck when they are forced away from the land on which they rely for sustenance. People use the excuse of a purely biological fact (namely, the lower efficacy of immune response in populations that have not had generations of exposure to certain pathogens) to conceal the degree to which those who die of disease are often outright murder victims. When those who survive are relocated it may be to camps, ghettos, or reservations that provide little for independent existence. In fact the genocide perpetrator will place them in a subordinate and precarious position, exerting as much control over them as possible whilst creating the greatest degree of appearance that the victim population are separate and autonomous. Once again we are referring to the position of included exclusion, but with the pretence that the situation is the inverse – that the victims are autonomous and choose their own situation. All of this makes victim blaming much easier and allows further genocidal depredations to take place should the perpetrators discover the need for further dispossession.

This is what is facing a number of Western Australian Aboriginal communities currently. These communities are dependent on government supplying services, as are we all, but the cost of supplying services to Aboriginal communities will no longer be subsidised by the federal government, and the WA state government is refusing to make up the shortfall. Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott said: “What we can’t do is endlessly subsidise lifestyle choices if those lifestyle choices are not conducive to the kind of full participation in Australian society that everyone should have.” That could be said about any rural community because they all cost more to provide services to. In fact, mathematically there must always be places that cost more to provides services to than the average, and this same Western Australian government has just announced that it will be spending $32 million to upgrade rural water facilities that happen to be in the electorate of the Minister for Water.

Abbott’s words are particularly incendiary, though, because even if these are the traditional lands of the people living in these communities, when you look at the whole picture of colonisation in Australia the most heavily populated and resource rich lands are now all full of the descendants of settlers. The places that Aboriginal people can most easily maintain cultural autonomy and cohesion are those that were economically marginal to the early settlers, and those places were generally more marginal and sparsely by the indigenous people for the same reasons. Moreover, there is the fact that continued occupation of traditional lands might lead to the granting of native title. (You might think that 40,000 years is long enough to justify any such claim, but in legal terms let us not forget that until 1967 Aboriginal people were counted as wildlife not humans.) Some of these communities might be economically underdeveloped, but they do happen to be adjacent to large amounts of mineral wealth. Many put this latest attack against Aboriginal communities in the context of the 7 year old “intervention” in rural Northern Territories communities. As John Pilger has documented in the film Utopia the intervention was based on lies and seems more to do with exerting control over lands that are a potential source of strategic mineral wealth.

If official Australia is trying to dispossess Aboriginal people as such from land over which they want to exert control it is genocide. However, I do not want to overemphasise the significance of “ethnic cleansing” in a way that replicates the over-emphasis on mass murder that is more common. As scholar John Docker puts it, Lemkin took great care to define genocide as composite and manifold”. Acts of genocide are interrelated and interlocking events that create a network though space and time. Genocide against Aboriginal peoples has at various times and in various places meant extermination, enslavement, imprisonment, theft, fraud and impoverishment. Famously the genocide of Aboriginal peoples also involved the “stolen generation” of abducted children taken from Aboriginal parents and raised by “white” Australians.

The UN Genocide Convention specifically references the “forcible transfer” of children. This came from Lemkin’s observations of the Germanisation of other Caucasians. Lemkin and all those who contributed to the wording of the Genocide Convention would have had this sort of “denationalisation” in mind. Even though the abduction of Aboriginal children was occurring at the time that the Convention was written, I don’t think the people of the time really thought that it would apply to different “racial” groups, or at least those with generally distinct appearance. Regardless of the rhetorical equivocations on the subject, nobody thought that Aboriginal children would become white because they were raised by white parents or in white institutions. It was not a transfer into the hegemonic group, it was a transfer out of connection with others of the victim group. In fact, taking children was and is a way of trying to create that which all wielders of political power are innately inclined to want. They want to create human husks, cyphers who act only according to the stimuli given to them. Taking children functions in the same way that transmigration or concentration functions. It strips agency and magnifies the power of the perpetrator over the bodily existence of the victims. It is intended to also provide control over the mental existence of the victims, usurping their decision-making and imposing the “rationality” of the perpetrator.

There is a lot to unpack here. Genocide is actually the expression of a desire for complete power, a fantasy which is not unique to genocide at all. People become pure objects to be moved and used at will. Their own independent existence and agency is nullified even to the point where if it is determined that they are to die it is achieved with the mere flick of a switch. This sort of power cannot be achieved without exerting destructive violence. For individuals torture might be used to produce “learned helplessness” in order to exert this sort of power over them. Genocide aims to exert this power over defined groups who are connected by familial relations. As with torture, the power relation that it creates and the violence in which it is expressed, become the ends as well as the means.

I will relate this all back to mass murder and systematic annihilation in Part 4, but first let me mention race. Race and racism are social constructs but the important thing to realise is that racial discourse does not generate genocide. It may provide fertile ground, but the seed itself is from elsewhere.

Genocide has a dynamic relationship with racism or other forms of group hatred. A significant part of that is the systematic inculcation of hatred in a perpetrator population. This is a very old part of warfare and genocide, generally signalled by leaders who promulgate atrocity propaganda. This propaganda might be a story about soldiers killing babies, or it could be about how the enemy leader’s great-great-grandfather murdered an honoured ancestor. The idea is that the intended perpetrators will view any of the intended victims as somehow linked to the crime in some essential way. The violence of warfare and/or genocide naturally fuels the sense that membership in a group makes one guilty of the crimes of any of that group. In the former Yugoslavia it has been found that ethnic animosities were generated by acts of genocide, not the other way around. This is true whether the animosity is towards perpetrators or victims. If you are part of a group that is perpetrating genocide you will have a driving need to hate the victims. This is because we are socialised in such a way that to see some from our group as the “bad guys” in relation to the Other is like an act of painful self-mutilation that hurts, maims, and causes social death.

The point is that genocide is not an expression of racial hatred as such and it does not conform to the logic of racial thinking. If you believe that some undesirable trait or stain is carried in the “blood” in accordance with racial theories, it makes no sense to transfer children from the victim population. Hitler appeared to be conscious of this at least in the case of Jews. In a letter to Martin Bormann he wrote: “We use the term Jewish race merely for reasons of linguistic convenience, for in the real sense of the word, and from a genetic point of view there is no Jewish race. Present circumstances force upon us this characterization of the group of common race and intellect, to which all the Jews of the world profess their loyalty, regardless of the nationality identified in the passport of each individual. This group of persons we designate as the Jewish race. … The Jewish race is above all a community of the spirit. … Spiritual race is of a more solid and more durable kind than natural race. Wherever he goes, the Jew remains a Jew.” This is the other face of the coin revealed by Palmater in the quote above: “The objective was to get rid of Jews in whatever way possible”, not because of some special singular property of Jews but because of the entire multiplicity of everything that created the group identity of Jews.

With Native Americans in Canada and with Jews in Germany the object was to efface a group as such in order to allow the expansion of the hegemonic national identity. For Hitler this was philosophically linked with group will, but the same conclusions can be reached by your average prosaic greedy white supremacist who wants to get their hands on mineral resources, votes, or an expanded tax base. But Hitler’s genocidal activities and intents did not stop at the borders of Germany or Greater Germany. He wasn’t just attacking an internal minority he was also attacking ethnic and national groups outside of Germany’s borders for the purposes of imperial expansion and he was doing so using the same process – the process of genocide.

We have so overemphasised the concept of genocide as being an attack on an internal minority that even genocide scholars write about Jewish victims of German genocide as if they were a German minority. For Lemkin’s memory this is doubly abusive because he was a Polish Jew, as were half of the Jews killed by Germany. Lemkin’s prime exemplar of genocide, when he coined the term, was Poland. He mentioned many victim groups, including Jews, but the most commonly cited group he used to demonstrate “techniques of genocide” were the Poles, as such. He understood that Jews were slated for annihilation, but genocide had to be shown as a much broader phenomenon.

In genocide what is attacked is the sum of all of those things that make the victim group a group. We don’t have a term for this thing. At the risk of creating confusion I am just going to label the entire collection of inherent connections that provide a group identity its “demotic” and I think the unique essence that is created can be referred to as the “demotic idiom”. I do this to ground the terms by reference to the complex, but concrete, phenomenon of language. I also wish to make reference to demos because genocide is a strategic response to demographic circumstances. Genocide can be thought of as a demostrategic phenomenon.

So the demotic of the group is what is attacked in genocide. It is aimed at the victim group – the genos – as such. Thus the demotic is all of those things that make the group the group as such, and those things contribute strength and richness to the demotic idiom, which is, of course, unique. This would be individual and collective property, folklore, places of worship, sports stars, social welfare programmes, poets, statuary, language and public transport infrastructure – to name just a few random things. For convenience I am going to ignore weaknesses and say that anything that contributes in any way to the group identity as such is part of the demotic and is therefore potentially a target of genocide. You can attack an entire group by killing a single poet, for example.

Lemkin didn’t really quite understand the implications of the breadth of genocide. Instead of what I refer to as the demotic, he referred to a “biological aspect” to what had previously been called “denationalisation”. He specifically referenced the fact that Hitler viewed biology in essentialist terms: “Hitler’s conception of genocide is based not upon cultural but biological patterns. He believes that ‘Germanization can only be carried out with the soil and never with men.’” Therefore there is a contradiction here between the public Hitler of Mein Kampf and the private Hitler, confessing to Bormann that he doesn’t actually believe the literal truth of those words.

In fact, there is no “biological aspect”. Genocide is in that sense a misnomer. What Lemkin had mistaken for biological was actually the familial aspect of the demotic. Racial ideology and differences in phenotype notwithstanding, a genos is actually a social construct. It is a socially constructed demographic entity and it is reproduced primarily through child-rearing. The family is where language, customs, and the simple fact of self-identification are passed to the individual by their parents and other relatives. Moreover, even beyond the fundamental inscribing of group character on the individual, without which the group would not even exist, the familial interconnection carries through in later life. Connections with family form the closest social bond. Almost always individuals share group membership in the genos with those relatives with which they share the most significant social bonds. Inevitably, then, the familial interconnections correspond with biological structure and genetics and are the most significant sustenance of the demotic idiom.

Genocide scholars emphasise the fact that it is the way that perpetrators define the group that is important, not the way victims self-identify. Here is where we run into what seems to be a problem, because perpetrators tend to define victims in biological racial terms. However, it may be that someone’s life is spared on the basis that they do not display the “racial” characteristics by which the perpetrator claims to identify the victim group, but then again it might not. Ultimately the racial hygiene pretensions of some genocide perpetrators must be treated as hollow because the biological pretensions of racial discourse are hollow and unstable. No genos can actually be defined by “race”. The nature of human diversity is such that even the originating defining character of a genos is unstable. In fact, the hard defining lines that may form around a genos tend to be in reaction to racism, persecution and genocide. It is these things that prevent pluralistic integration.

I feel that I am drifting away from the central points about genocide, even though the problematics of identity are very important. Getting back to the demostrategic logic of genocide, there are several prominent motives for committing genocide, but in reality they are not as distinct as we might think. A settler-colony that wishes to cleanse the land of the indigenous is ultimately trying to achieve the same thing as an imperial power that wishes to crush and insurgent people which is much the same as a nationalist state that wants to erase a discordant minority and exert greater control through uniformity. The point is that all of these are undertaken by visiting destruction on the demotic idiom in the form of violence against the people and the destruction and degradation of those aspects of existence which collectively provide substance to the group.

Continued in Part 4: “You Are Next”.

US Rule in Occupied Earth (or Everything You Need to Know About Genocide, but Never Knew to Ask), Part 1: State of Exception




or direct link to mp3:

[Below is a transcript which is about 95% complete and which contains links to some material that is cited in the commentary]

It would be a vast understatement to say that the word “genocide” is not well understood. In politics, in academia and in normal everyday communication the word is almost exclusively misused and abused.

You might believe that the normal everyday usage (or, sometimes the usage of those with the authority of knowledge) is definitive. What a word means is what meaning is given to it. In most cases I would agree. The usage by ordinary people of a word is where the word usually derives its meaning. Not, however, when that usage contradicts itself. Not when that usage can only misrepresent the actualities that it purports to describe. And not when it is completely divorced from its original meaning.

For example, a recent Buzzfeed article refers several times to the British “attempting” genocide against Aborigines. That makes no sense. Genocide isn’t a single act, like burglary. Genocide either happens, or it doesn’t. We don’t refer to the genocide of Jews in World War II as “attempted genocide”. We don’t even refer to an “attempted genocide” in Rwanda. People have a vague notion that genocide must somehow mean complete extermination, except that they are not consistent in that. Genocide is used in different ways according to political criteria,. This isn’t merely slippage, but it actually requires that people do not have an actual definition of the word. It is a word that has had its meaning suppressed because the concept that the word represents is a dangerous concept. It is a concept which cannot be held on an ideological leash. It will drag the holder into the brambles of radical unorthodoxy rather than let itself be led to the park to chase a frisbee.

Any limit to our vocabulary is a limit to our thinking. Our society, like all others, constrains our vocabularies so that some thoughts are unthinkable. We may live in a pluralistic multinational global culture that is in many ways organic and diverse, but the repression of thought to which I refer is systematic and purposive and it is in the service of power. All languages have words or phrases that others lack, but I am not suggesting that merely lacking the word for a concept is systematic repression. Instead, words like “genocide” or “terrorism” are stripped of stable rational meaning whilst being vested heavily with emotive affect. This is the process that creates an orthodox idiom – which is to say a systematically and coherently circumscribed mode of language and thought.

This meanings are, as I have said, suppressed rather than erased. It would be wrong to view these words simply as “empty signifiers” as if the arbitrary nature of language meant that one could exert one’s will over language with full control. That is a type of vulgar postmodernism – a megalomaniac fantasy such as Karl Rove was indulging when he said: “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out.”

Outside of Rove’s self-aggrandising fantasies, you cannot simply assign meanings to words at will. They must fit within a network of intelligibility that is grounded in a history of usage. Instead of simply redefining words what orthodox usage does is to load a word with emotion and political ideology whilst suppressing its basic and fundamental defining characteristics (which may be more or less broad, more or less faceted, and more or less mutable over time). This leads to an unstable and contradictory usage. That isn’t a problem to the orthodox ideologue but rather a great boon. It allows the word to be used differently according to need. Furthermore, because of the emotionality attached people will fight against any attempts to reinstate a stable and comparatively objective usage.

Genocide is exactly such a word. It first appeared in a work called Axis Rule in Occupied Europe, published in 1944. It’s original meaning cannot be erased because it is part of a network of inter-contextualised signifiers which exist in history. At the same time, though, that meaning is thoroughly obscured. People argue that something is genocide because it is really bad, while other people argue that you can’t call something genocide because it is not bad enough and to label it genocide would be an insult to victims of real genocide.

The meaning of “genocide” has not changed over time because the meaning was suppressed from the beginning. It was always a dangerous notion. People wrongly think that it was purely a response to the German atrocities that Winston Churchill referred to as “a crime without a name”. But Raphael Lemkin, who invented the term genocide, had long been thinking on this topic and what he described was a far broader and more historically significant phenomenon which didn’t merely describe acts of mass murder, but made sense of them. Unfortunately for Lemkin’s future career, once the logic of genocide is grasped it will reveal truths that are unpalatable and unacceptable. In the 1950s Lemkin devoted much of his attention to the genocides of indigenous people in the Americas, particularly North America. Lemkin established a clear intrinsic link between settler-colonialism and genocide and had he lived longer he would inevitably had to have recognised that the link between genocide and all forms of imperialism was nearly as inescapable.

Genocide is not, and never has been, something that you switch on and off. It is not a discrete act. It is not distinct from war and militarism, nor authoritarianism and political oppression. The institutions of genocide that a state creates will not end until they are eradicated. The German genocide in East Africa at the beginning of the 20th century created institutions which would later be instruments of genocide, but were also tools of repression used on political dissidents. Likewise, the institutions of genocide that are deployed in the Middle East and Africa are continuations of genocidal practices from Asia and Latin America, and are already imprinted in the nature of policing in the USA and in the authoritarian rhetoric and policies of David Cameron and the Conservative government in the UK.

Many contemporary thinkers from Sheldon Wolin and Giorgio Agamben to Jeff Halper and Chris Hedges are trying to grapple with the increasingly arbitrary nature of the state, its increasing hostility to humanity, and the increasing precarity of the people. (When I refer to the state here, I am referring to the nexus of governmental and “private” power which exercises effective sovereignty, not to the narrow concept of a governmental state power with formally recognised sovereignty). If we are to understand this situation in a way that will help to end its deadly progress, the greatest single step that we could take at this time is to reacquire the term “genocide”. Lemkin used it to describe the phenomenon that was the driving force behind German occupation policies in Europe. This inevitably also applied to Germany itself, though that was not Lemkin’s focus. For Lemkin the concentration camp was the defining institution of genocide. But Lemkin meant the term broadly. He considered Indian Reservations to be a form of concentration camp and would have most likely conceded that its is the power structure created by the barbed wire enclosures that is more important than the wire itself. For Giorgio Agamben the prevailing logic of the concentration camp is that of the “inclusive exclusion” and he has contended that that is the “biopolitical” paradigm of our age. The term “biopolitical” in its broader sense, refers to the way in which power exerts control over bodies, and I will argue that on a large scale the “biopolitical” becomes the “demostrategic”. At the large-scale demostrategic level, this paradigm of power may express itself in the very phenomenon of genocide that Lemkin first described.

In this series of articles I am going to draw threads together that show the need make appropriate usage of the term genocide as a way of revealing a pattern of destruction and mass violence that is interconnected. It is the millions of deaths in the Democratic Republic of the Congo; it is the permanent dysfunction and instability of Somalia and Libya; it is Plan Colombia; it is Iraq and Afghanistan; it is mass surveillance and it is the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement; it is Haiti and its is the political and drug related violence in Mexico; it is the “huge concentration camp” of Gaza and it is al-Sisi’s Egypt. This is the nature of US Rule on the Occupied Earth. It is all of a piece. It is all shaped by genocide. It is all becoming more genocidal.

Sadly, even the best intellectuals seem only to vaguely grasp that the term “genocide” has actual an definitional meaning. In contrast those who are more inclined to be opinionated or generally less inclined to to use cogent thinking are only too happy to forcefully tell people that their usage is not only wrong but offensive and dangerous. It is like the poem by Yeats, which, as it happens, foreshadowed the rise of Nazism,

“The best lack all conviction, while the worst

Are full of passionate intensity.”

Israel Shamir, for example, has let his anger at the misuse of the term genocide obliterate his mental faculties. He recently wrote that Lemkin coined the word genocide “in order to stress the difference between murdering Jews and killing lesser breeds. The word is quite meaningless otherwise.” He must know at some level that this is untrue, but he writes with thoughtless rage. The effect is to tell his readers not to even think about genocide – “It would be good to ban this word altogether.” That is not going to prevent the misuse of the word. In fact it plays into the hands of those who misuse the term in order the perpetrate aggression and genocide. The way to end the misuse is to treat the word genocide the way you would treat any other. When genocide is asserted we should expect that the usage is justified based on definitional criteria. As it is, telling a readership that already opposes imperialism and Zionism that the word “genocide” has no meaning only makes it easier to exploit the term for propaganda purposes.

“Genocide” is a word that itself exists in a state of exception. People will scream at you for suggesting that it can be weighed or compared in any way with anything else. Even some genocide scholars call it a “sui generis” phenomenon, meaning that they want to say that it cannot be defined, but they reserve the right to label some things as being genocide on the basis that they themselves know what it is when they see it. Moreover, there is a broad intellectual trend to treat genocide as a sacred word which only special experts may employ, because any improper usage would be hyperbole and damaging to one’s credibility.

Sadly this was the case on the radio programme Against the Grain, which is from broadcast Berkeley by KPFA (a storied non-profit radio station which also broadcasts the superb programme Flashpoints).

Against the Grain is aptly named. In a world of growing anti-intellectualism, interviewers and producers C. S. Soong and Sasha Lilley do their work with a depth that is hard to find elsewhere in political analysis. They interview intellectuals with the sole aim of facilitating the transmission of ideas and information. No words are wasted on flattery or extraneous personal detail. Above all, when Soong or Lilley conduct an interview they are very conversant with the material they are discussing. Most impressive to me, though, is that they never assume that the interviewee can’t explain something to the audience. They don’t try to avoid things on the grounds that they might bore or confuse us mere plebs, instead they chop them up with timely interjections so that they are digestible and so that the flow is maintained. In other words, they make it as easy for the audience as possible, but they don’t pander in any way.

Pandering is, of course, the one of the great intellectual plagues of our age. Ideas that came from the realms of marketing and mass entertainment have spread to infect all corners of society. The ideology of using a restricted vocabulary of words and ideas in order to never tax people’s brains by asking them to learn something new is an obvious recipe for disaster. You cannot learn if you are never presented with anything you do not already know. Pandering makes people stupider on the whole, but it also makes substantive change impossible. Pandering is not just about avoiding inflicting the pain of thought on people, it is also about not disturbing ideology. In political activism pandering is rife, and it is always represented as being “tactical” and “realistic”. That is why I appreciate a programme, like Against the Grain, that pulls no punches and tells it like it is.

However, if there is one thing on which people are guaranteed to pander in both intellectual and ideological terms it is the topic of genocide. People mystify it and misuse it. They sneer at the people who dare to suggest that the US or Israel or the UK is committing genocide, because they “know” that anyone making such an accusation is just engaging in political sloganeering. This is supposedly “debasing the coinage” in the words of the late Michael Mandel, showing that even the most admirable people can be very stupid when it comes to this topic.

Equally admirable people show that there is another face to this debased coin, using the term “genocide” to try to raise the alarm on the world’s horrors. A recent example of this was an interview with Professor David Isaacs on the plight of asylum seekers held on Nauru. What he reveals is an alarming and inhumanly cruel situation. It is a situation that cries out for action. But then he says that he is told “don’t use the g-word, the genocide word, … or people will think you are too extreme”. He is thinking exactly the same way that Mandel thinks, but from the other direction. In their construction “genocide” is a type of currency that is to expended when our subjective sense of alarm tells us that something is really really really bad.

For this reason, I was disappointed but not exactly surprised when the subject of the “g-word” was broached on Against the Grain and then treated as some special mystical term whose applicability could only be determined by the most authoritative authorities. This was towards the end of an otherwise excellent interview about the plight of Sri Lanka’s Tamils now, 6 years after the end of the 26 year-long civil war.

What was described by interviewee Anuradha Mittal is a textbook example of genocide. In genocide the killing of the victim population as such is not the end it is the means. When he first coined the term “genocide” Raphaël Lemkin wrote the following:

“Genocide has two phases: one, destruction of the national pattern of the oppressed group; the other, the imposition of the national pattern of the oppressor. This imposition, in turn, may be made upon the oppressed population which is allowed to remain or upon the territory alone, after removal of the population and the colonization by the oppressor’s own nationals.”

In other words, the Sinhalisation of both the Tamil peoples and the land to which they belong is a defining genocidal characteristic. The direct violence of genocide arises because resistance is inevitable. The deprivation of social, cultural, religious, economic, and linguistic capital is itself a form of violence which victims cannot help but resist.

Mittal’s interview reveals that it was persecution and communal violence that initially drove some Tamils into an armed separatist movement. Now in the aftermath of the long bloody civil war she gives details of conditions based on a recently released report that she authored. Once you understand the concept of genocide, what she is describing in every aspect is symptomatic of genocide. Everything she talks about is characteristically genocidal, from the way the hegemonic victor tries to enforce a certain historical narrative through memorials, to the way the land is imprinted with a state, military, religious or linguistic character to alienate it from Tamils. In fact, the most salient and striking genocidal features are not the mass violence, but the unusual things such as having military run tourist resorts in occupied territory. That sort of behaviour only makes sense in the context of genocide.

At one point Mittal quotes Dr Rajani Thiranagama: “Objectivity, the pursuit of truth and critical, honest positions, is crucial for the community, but is a view that could cost many of us our lives. It is undertaken to revitalize a community sinking into a state of oblivion.” In that spirit, it is absolutely essential that genocide be understood for what it is. Without full and frank comprehension it will never end, even if the intensity of direct violence waxes and wanes.

Consider the persecution of Jews under the Reconquista, when Spain and Portugal were conquered by Christians 500 years ago. The persecution arose from a confluence of interests of state-building political elites, religious authorities seeking to increase power, and individuals looking to acquire land and other property sowed seeds of violence that would continue through the ages. The state sought to integrate Jews as “Conversos”, but the state also sought to repudiate that conversion in order to enforce uniformity, exercise religious authority and sieze property. In other words, the Converso’s became the “included exclusion” – the very circumstance to which concentration camp inmates are subjected. From that came the concept of “Crypto-Jews”, leading to the ideological linking of Judaism with occult conspiracy. Additionally the concept of ineradicable and heritable “blood guilt” was used. This not only fuelled future pogroms, but arguably formed a key ideological foundation of all modern racism. In the same manner, until the genocide of the Sri Lankan state is comprehended, exposed and repudiated by consensus, the ideological tools for future genocidal violence will remain intact. Tamil resistance, whether violent or not, will be delegitimised as “terrorism” and this will in turn be used to legitimate violent and deadly repression.

That is why my heart sank so low when the conversation on Against the Grain turned to genocide. There was a general tone shared by Soong and Mittal that was suggestive of the “ultimate crime” which the exchange portrayed as being beyond mere “war crimes”. Then Mittal said that the question of whether genocide had occurred should not be prejudged but should be decided by the “international community”. This makes me want to ask, what does that mean? Is it somehow above your pay grade to weigh the evidence? Is genocide something so controversial that only the high and mighty can pontificate on it? This is anti-intellectualism. Mittal is tacitly stating that we should not think about such things and that the thinking should be left to authorities. And what authorities are these? The term “international community” effectively means the US State Dept. or what Noam Chomsky has labelled as “IntCom”. This is true regardless of the intent of the speaker because if you promote the “international community” then those who control the usage of that term in political discourse get to decide what it entails and your original intent is meaningless.

Things took a turn for the worse when Mittal brought the ICC into the conversation. I don’t know what mania is gripping people at the moment, but every advocate for victims of persecution seems to think that the solution will be found by putting people in the dock at the Hague. I think that this is some sort of woefully misplaced yearning for a corrective patriarchal authority figure, and it poisons our discourse on genocide and on war crimes. People think that wrongs must be righted by the exercise of power in order to grant some psychologically satisfying sense of balance. This is quite divorced from practical realities including that of actually ending today’s atrocities, rather than fixating on a tiny percentage of those that occurred a generation ago. Does anyone actually look at the record of the ICC? There are some informed apologists for the ICC out there, but even they don’t defend it actions thus far as much as they claim that it will do better things in the future. Critics like David Hoile cannot be countered except with speculation about how wonderful the ICC will be at some future point. Hoile is an old Tory who may or may not be in the pay of Sudanese war criminals, but when he (a right-wing white man who was once photographed with a “Hang Nelson Mandela” sticker on his tie) debated the ICC in the pages of New Internationalist, he was far more convincing in suggesting that the ICC was institutionally racist than Angela Mudukuti, who argued that “attempting to undermine its legitimacy with allegations of racism will take the global international criminal justice project no further.” It is well worth looking up that debate for the sheer surrealism of the fact that the young bleeding-heart African woman effectively tells the old hairy white male Tory that he needs to be more trusting of the authorities or he will harm their efforts to run the world in an orderly manner. Whatever one thinks of Hoile, though, he has published a 600 page volume on the ICC which is full of substantive criticisms that stand regardless of his history or motives.

The fact is that if you don’t accept in advance that the ICC is both benevolent and a repository of expertise and authority, it is pretty difficult to see anything good in its patchy record of expensive and unacceptably lengthy proceedings all of which are against Africans. As an instrument of justice it is inefficient, dysfunctional and pathetic beyond belief; as an instrument of neocolonial domination it is very expensive, but probably considered worth the price by the European powers which bankroll its activities; as a propaganda instrument capable of making slaves scream out for more chains and whips, it is clearly priceless beyond measure.

The fact is that many national courts and international bodies can chose to exercise so-called “universal jurisdiction” over cases of genocide anywhere in the world. The ICC is a very silly place into which to channel one’s energies, but are prosecutions in general any better? There are two problems here. … Labelling genocide as a crime has become a very harmful distraction. It is this, more than anything, that has turned the term into one that is so misused for political ends. Genocide is represented as “an act” and the “crime of crimes” that exists in the world of black-and-white morality where its ultimate evil justifies acts of great violence, and makes people feel the glow of self-righteous anger.

People like to call for prosecutions because it is an instant source of gratification. The judicial system becomes a proxy instrument of violence either as combat or retribution. This is appealing to those who are in one way or another impotent. Prosecutors are symbolically taking the role of their antecedents, champions of weak who fought in trials by combat. Sometimes the most fervent advocates of this form of state violence are “pacifists”. The problem seems particularly acute in the US where the punitive impulse runs very deeply. It seems that US citizens are induced to feel acutely threatened and constrained by the domestic or foreign Other and are thus prone to support police, judicial or military state violence.

You might think that it is good that state violence be used against those found guilty of genocide and, to the extent necessary, those merely accused of the crime. That is fine if you call it what it is – retribution. If you consider that to be justice, then your concept of justice is retributive. I know that some would also argue that victims gain a sense satisfaction and closure, but since the vast majority of the victims of mass violence will never have access to this “satisfaction” it is a rather hollow and bitter virtue.

People talk about prosecutions as if they will have practical beneficial ramifications in ending violence. This flies in the face of the historical record. No one is ever prosecuted before they are in one manner or other defeated. In some cases they might be the sacrificial offering by a criminal grouping that consolidates itself by allowing one member to be culled, but more often it is simply a matter of victor’s justice. The accused is defeated by hard power means before they are ever detained. They might be very guilty of heinous crimes, but guilt is in fact incidental to a thoroughly political process.

Meanwhile, the ICC enthusiasts claim to be all about ending impunity. If you actually just step back for a second you will see that the application of international criminal justice in the ICC, ICTY, ICTR and in national courts does absolutely nothing to end impunity. Instead of viewing Charles Taylor and Slobadan Milosevic as villains who deserved punishment, imagine what message their prosecutions sent to the world. It is the same message sent by the deaths of Saddam Hussein and Muammer Ghaddafi, and that message is that the only hope for someone who is targeted by the US is to fight to the death. Making peace and going into exile is not an option. International criminal justice is only victor’s justice against the vanquished and a neocolonial weapon in fighting Third World nationalists.

The only other way that someone responsible for mass violence might be prosecuted is when the real war is won on their home turf. That real war is the intellectual and moral struggle – the fight to expose the means and ends of those who commit mass atrocities and, above all, the fight to vanquish apologetics. Jay Janson, who writes in Dissident Voice and Counter Currents, castigates people like me for not constantly calling for prosecutions of US officials and for not condemning every single citizen of each and every Western state to be a war criminal. He is right though, to point out that we must never stop referring to the crimes of the US “hyper-empire” as crimes. But history shows that the crimes do not end until the regime itself is recognised as criminal. It is not enough to recognise individual acts as crimes or actors as criminals. A majority of US citizens once recognised US interventions in Indochina as war crimes, but it changed nothing because it was constructed as a failing and a failure, not as a success.

Fatuous pundits and lying politicians like to claim that the US relies on “international legitimacy” and that this makes military interventions failures, but if you examine the history of US war crimes and crimes against humanity you can see that they follow the Maoist principle that all power comes from the barrel of a gun. They coerce other countries, including close allies, into treating them as legitimate. The real problems for the US regime that arose from the aggressions against Indochina were a dispersed and pluralistic domestic insurrection, that might have consolidated into a revolution, and a mutinous military. Once they had those problems solved they went back to serial aggression and serial genocide and many millions have died as a result. Therefore, it is necessary to create a consensus that the political establishment is criminal as a whole. Once that fight is won you can choose to try and move forward with prosecutions, as in Argentina, or with a truth and reconciliation process, as in South Africa.

Prosecutions are not a road to change. You can’t expect the corrupt institutions of a corrupt society to take any action that does not make the problem worse. The best that a campaign calling for prosecutions can be is an awareness raising campaign. If you really think that if you mobilise people and push hard enough some top-down bureaucratic judicial body will make a positive difference, then you need to find out what time it really is. We don’t need to lock Bush and Blair in prison, we need to de-legitimise them, disempower them, disempower those who support them, and end the criminal regimes of which they are merely transient components. It is true that if George W. Bush were in prison he wouldn’t be able to charge $100,000 to give a speech for a charity raising money for amputee veterans. But as grotesque and freakish as that is, the Bushes, the Clintons and Tony Blair only get so much money because a whole stratum of society worships power. In a situation that is equally reminiscent of pre-revolutionary France and Nazi Germany, our elites simply do not have any functioning morals. Without coercion they will never even acknowledge a moral component to the exercise of power, but will fawn all the more over those that commit war crimes because that is an exercise of great power.

Continued in Part 2: “Days of Revolt”.

Viet Nam Lost the American War (as did Laos and Cambodia)



Photograph by Philip Jones Griffiths © Philip Jones Griffiths / Magnum Photos

[G]enocide is a new technique of occupation aimed at winning the peace even though the war itself is lost” – Raphaël Lemkin, 1944.

In 2008 I wrote a post-graduate research paper about the “Vietnam War”. I believe I showed quite clearly that Viet Nam lost its war with the United States by any reasonable criteria apart from the most obvious surface events. We are now at the 40th anniversary of the time when North Vietnamese tanks rolled into Saigon. Christian Appy has just published a piece criticising a popular revisionism that misrepresents the events of 40 years ago as an uncontextualised brutal Communist takeover. But what if our misapprehensions go deeper than Appy implies? What if we insist the Viet Nam won the war for ideological reasons and ignore the very compelling evidence that they lost the war, despite their military victory in the field? Drawing heavily on that past work, but giving it a new angle, I will show that the US actually won the “war” because all along their true energies were devoted to visiting destruction on Vietnamese, Cambodians. And Laotians. The word for this behaviour is “genocide”.

Genocide is a concept with an explanatory power that has been ignored and surpressed. It has been misrepresented and it is now generally used simply to indicate extreme condemnation – even more so than the word “terrorism”. Yet it does have a specific meaning, one which provides great insight into the nature of historic events. The problem, if anything, is that it explains things too well, whilst the US is heavily reliant on confusion and obfuscation to escape the moral censure and determined anger it should face for the mass-killings and mass-destruction it has carried out.

US citizens in particular, but Westerners in general, seem to have a gut fear of any suggestion that US actions in Indochina had a coherent rationale. Key beliefs about the fundamental nature of the civilised West and the US in particular are destroyed when we are forced to face the fact that the savage violence that we all must admit was undertaken was in fact part of the project, not an unintended by-blow. Moreover, those who oppose US military violence have been indelibly imprinted with notions of military and political incompetence. As if instinctually, they seem to fear that any suggestion that the US achieved a strategic success would empower the triumphalism of the ‘Murican meatheads they seem to feel surrounded by.

40 years ago the Khmer Rouge occupied Phnom Penh and the Pathet Lao were beginning the last phase of taking control of Laos. On April 30, 1975 tanks from the People’s Army of Viet Nam (PAVN) entered Saigon. It was the end of the Second Indochina War – known in Indochina as the “American War” and known in the US as the “Vietnam War”. The Communists, and some other anti-imperialists who worked under their leadership, had won.

But what sort of victory was this? Throughout the course of fighting the US grew constantly in wealth and strength, while Viet Nam, Cambodia and Laos were weakened in ways they have never recovered from. In relations after the war the US clearly took on the role of victor imposing terms on the defeated. Despite an overblown, if not hysterical, public discourse of defeat and anguish in the US there was never any real question of substantive material damage to the US, nor any possibility that the US Government (USG) would have its actions dictated by Indochinese governments.

The Communist led movements and governments defeated the US militarily, but the shrieks of dismay uttered by US “patriots” and “liberals” alike about their defeat have little to do with reality. In every possible substantive material way the post-War history of Indochina is that of weakened defeated countries that would eventually submit to the hegemony of the US under the neoliberal “Washington Consensus”. What happened?

In this article I will show how much the war waged by the US hurt the countries of Indochina and how this in itself became the basis of a US victory. To understand how this happened we need to put aside some preconceptions and re-appropriate the term “genocide”. When Raphaël Lemkin first coined the term genocide he described it as a war not merely against states and their armies but against peoples.”[1]

Once I have clarified the distinction between military war and genocide, the nature of US actions will become clear. This is not about a secret conspiracy to commit genocide, US officials overtly rejected military contestation and opted for attacking the peoples of Indochina without feeling the need to conceal a genocidal intent. They openly embraced tactics which caused mass civilian deaths without any embarrassment.

Many contemporary observers commented on the genocidal nature of US mass violence in Indochina. Some used the term “genocide”, some didn’t, but they have all been effaced from the historiography of the Second Indochina War. Apart from a few easily dismissed Leninistic anti-imperial analyses, the orthodox criticism of US policy was created by Washington elites and amounts to little more than a skein of propaganda stitched together by insider gossip and coloured by a sickening lurid coat of racially informed chauvinism and mirror-blindness.

Pyrrhic Victory or Defeat?

On April 30, 1975 PAVN tanks rolled through the streets of Saigon. When Republic of Viet Nam (RVN) leader Duong Van Minh offered to officially relinquish power, tank commander Col. Bui Tin famously responded: “There is no question of your transferring power. Your power has crumbled. You cannot give up what you do not have.” In that respect this was a classic total military victory – the annihilation of the political power of the opponent.

The military theorist Carl von Clausewitz defined tactical victory as possession of the field of battle.[2] Possessing the entire contested territory at the end of hostilities would seem to signal victory in war. But Clausewitz didn’t believe that there was such a thing as strategic victory. He is best known for contending that war was “a continuation of policy by other means” and his wisdom is proven by the case of Indochina. His vision of war was of a limited and circumscribed aspect of violent contestation within a strategic dynamic relationship. Clausewitz knew the military action he theorised about could only ever be part of a greater picture.

It must also be noted that the RVN regime wasn’t the real enemy of the PAVN. It was an entity created, shaped, controlled and sustained by the US – as was Lon Nol’s regime in Cambodia and, to a large extent, the Lao regime under Souvanna Phouma. The Second Indochina War really was the “American War”. The US was the real enemy but the PAVN tanks never rolled into Washington DC; they never broke down the gates of the White House; and however much we might regret it, Bui Tin was never in a position to sneeringly depose Richard Nixon.

Moreover, the progress towards the victory in the field had been horrendously destructive. Each of the Indochinese states, and the people therein, have suffered immensely, whereas the US has no loss that is even remotely comparable. In deaths, for example, the US losses relative to population are less than 0.4 per cent of Cambodian losses (that is excluding the losses after 1975);[3] less than 0.5 per cent of Vietnamese losses;[4] and less than 0.3 per cent of Laotian losses.[5] If we estimate total Indochinese deaths as 4.5 million, of an estimated population of 42 million we get a figure of well over 10 per cent of the population killed, equivalent to 20 million US deaths.

Then there is the economic situation. The US GDP more than doubled in constant dollar terms between 1954 and 1975 and continued strongly afterwards, doubling again by 1997.[6] By contrast, Cambodia didn’t really have an economy by 1975. In fact it had been largely destroyed by the end of 1970, primarily this was caused by a massive influx of US “aid”.[7] By 1973, of less than 7 million Cambodians, an estimated 3,389,000 had been made refugees.[8] The bombing and civil war had reduced the capacity for growing food to such a level that the “sources close to the U.S. government” calculated that if the US government cut all food aid (which they did) 1 million deaths would result.[9] Whatever chances Laos had for development, they were surely crushed by a destructive and divisive war, and Laos remains one of the poorest places on the planet.[10] As for the Vietnamese, the war and subsequent US economic sanctions were devastating. By 1990 the per capita GDP was only $114.[11]

In 1990 Viet Nam began extending economic reforms known as doi moi (renovation). Under doi moi, Viet Nam has achieved much greater formal economic activity (GDP), but only by submitting to the “Washington Consensus”.[12] Among other things this means no price supports for staples such as rice, which in turn means that the real income of the poorest has dropped.

Former US military commander in Viet Nam, Gen. William Westmoreland, characterised doi moi as proof of US victory.[13] He also once said: “We’ll just go on bleeding them until Hanoi wakes up to the fact that they have bled their country to the point of national disaster for generations. They will have to reassess their position.”[14] The one major asset the Vietnamese gained from the war, massive scrap metal resources, was privatised causing government steel mills to stand idle (banned by law from importing scrap) while Viet Nam’s scrap steel was exported at “substantially below world-market values”.[15]

Some perspective on these decades of poverty is given by economists Adam Fforde and Suzanne Paine. Their analysis is that the DRVs “neo-Stalinist” economic approach was highly suitable for a united Viet Nam in the 1950s, but not so for North Viet Nam alone and not, after the destruction of the war and two decades of separate development, suitable for a reunified Viet Nam.[16] In other words the “American War” and the sanctions that followed meant the difference between a relatively prosperous populous nation with a degree of industrialisation, and a dysfunctional underdeveloped economic backwater that was forced to join the international economic order as a provider of cheap labour for the light manufacturing requirements of tax-averse and wage-averse multinationals. The implications are sickening.

In the meantime, the US claimed that it was trying to prevent the rise of the Democratic Republic of Viet Nam (DRV) as a regional military hegemon. But its actions belied those words. I do not have the space and time to detail this but the key points are: 1) The US drove the very reluctant DRV to war; 2) The US was antagonistic to negotiated settlements throughout; 3) Equally the US was extremely antagonistic to neutralism in Laos, RVN and Cambodia; 4) The US was antagonistic to political pluralism in RVN. These factors all far outweigh any efforts by the US to attrit PAVN military strength. The famous bombing campaign “Rolling Thunder”, for example, had the effect of strengthening civilian support for war against the US while increasing DRV dependence on Soviet aid.[17]

In essence the US manufactured the military victory of the North under a monolithic Communist regime – like a self-fulfilling prophecy. I am not saying that Hanoi’s Communist leaders did not themselves work to consolidate power, nor that they would not have eventually seized power after the war. But that is speculation.

Effectively, the US role was to transform the political hegemony enjoyed by the Communists during the First Indochina War, into a military hegemony. This makes perfect sense as a deliberate strategic move. Indeed, throughout the Cold War the US was clearly quite comfortable with poor repressive Communist dictatorships which were dependent on the Soviet Union. In contrast, it hated and crushed regimes that had pluralistic governance that were Communist or Socialist led, or were independently nationalistic and inclusive of left-wing political factions. Of course the US claimed that it was acting against an impending totalitarian takeover, but its actions declare otherwise.

You might still think that this all mean that the Communists won, but that it was a Pyrrhic victory. On paper, Viet Nam won the right to $3.3 billion in reparations payments (diplomatically referred to as reconstruction “aid”) from the US. But the post-War years revealed who was really the victor.

Viet Nam wanted to normalise relations, but they also wanted to get that money. They tried using the issue of cooperation over POW, MIA, and KIA remains repatriation as a negotiating lever, but of course this was just a propaganda gift to the US. They tried to tie normalisation to the payment of the promised “aid”, but the US trade embargo on Viet Nam was hurting them far more than it was hurting the US. Far from paying them money, the US forced Viet Nam to spend huge amounts of its meagre finances on finding remains of US servicemen – an estimated $US1.7 million in per body in 1994 currency. The US lifted its trade sanctions in 1994, once Viet Nam was firmly part of a US dominated system of globalised economic and trade governance.

Impoverished Laos was never placed under sanctions, but Cambodia’s nightmare is also that of a defeated power, not a victor. In April 1975 years ago, with food production devastated and roughly half of the population crowded into Phnom Penh, units of Khmer Rouge began a brutal cleansing, emptying the overcrowded city completely. The forces that occupied the capital were predominantly very young, impressionable, and traumatised. Many were teens who had lived through five years of brutal warfare and who were commanded by an extremist political leadership who were already halfway to the crescendo of paranoid lunacy they would reach by 1978. The country was an unbelievable mess, and the “victors” were deranged ideologues dealing with circumstances which were themselves completely insane.[18]

Even without knowing what atrocities the Khmer Rouge would later commit, does it really seem that they were victorious over the US in 1975? And what about the people of Cambodia? It is important to distinguish between the people and their rulers because the US began secretly supporting the Khmer Rouge at the height of their violence[19] and continued to support them when they fought a guerrilla war against the Viet Nam backed government that had replaced them. Cambodia, like Viet Nam, was thence subject to US sanctions. I think that it is fair to say that although the Khmer Rouge defeated the US on the battlefield, the US soon began supporting them because they were demonstrable enemies of the Cambodian people.

It was the US that destroyed Cambodian neutralism. They claimed to be fighting communism, but their action were to spread communism whilst destroying Cambodia and killing its people to no discernible military end. A Finnish Inquiry Commission designated the years 1969 to 1975 in Cambodia as Phase 1 of the ‘Decade of Genocide’.[20]

Destroying Cambodia

In some respects US actions in Cambodia were the clearest and most successful expression of the model of genocide used in Laos and the RVN. US officials never made any cogent case for their actions in military terms. In a normal politico-military sense, US actions were very predictably counterproductive.

Before US intervention there seemed to be little threat of a communist takeover of Cambodia. The Cambodian Khmer Issarak (insurgents who had strong ties with, but formal independence from the Vietminh) had been unrepresented at the 1954 Geneva Conference and hence, unlike the Pathet Lao and the Vietminh, went unrecognised in the settlement.[21] Most of the Khmer Issarak (over 2000) left Cambodia with Vietnamese anti-colonial forces (Vietminh) who had been operating in Cambodia and based themselves in North Vietnam until their return after 1970.[22]

Although not immediately threatened by armed and trained leftists, Prince Norodom Sihanouk (the head of State from 1955 until 1970) adopted a neutralist position. He could not afford to be enemies with the Vietnamese. Nevertheless, under Sihanouk there was one serious leftist rebellion after his refusal to endorse candidates in the 1966 election closed the doors of electoral struggle to the left wing. The 1967-68 “Samlaut Rebellion” resulted in perhaps 10,000 deaths; greater than those incurred by Cambodians in the First Indochina War against French rule.[23] Although Sihanouk often viciously repressed the left of his own country, any concrete moves against the forces of the DRV or the NLF would have brought about his downfall. The US was, however, less than understanding of the delicate position – at least in its deeds. Although publicly supportive of neutralism, Washington worked hard to destabilise and cripple Cambodia, its actions driving Sihanouk into an ever closer relationship with Hanoi, Beijing and the NLF.[24]

The US “Studies and Operations Group” conducted attacks with US Special Forces personnel in Cambodia throughout the 1960s. In 1967 these were institutionalised as “Salem House” (later known as “Daniel Boone”). This programme was kept secret from the US congress and conducted a total of 1,835 missions. Their primary activity appears to have been the laying of “sanitized self-destruct antipersonnel” mines anywhere up to 30 kilometres beyond the border. Their supposed mission was intelligence gathering, but throughout the whole programme they only captured 24 prisoners.[25] The Special Forces troops usually disguised themselves as PLAF fighters and sometimes attacked civilians in “false-flag” operations.[26]

In 1970 Sihanouk was overthrown by General Lon Nol and Prince Sirik Matak with tacit support from Washington and probable assistance by the CIA. The US had developed ties with Lon Nol in the 1950s and by 1970, according to CIA officer Frank Snepp, he was one of two candidates being groomed by the CIA to take Sihanouk’s place.[27] Washington recognised the new regime within hours.[28] So fast was recognition of Lon Nol’s government that it must have precluded any possibility that the changes on the ground were being assessed, which strongly suggests that the US must have had detailed foreknowledge in order to have any confidence in its judgement.

Sihanouk’s overthrow made civil war unavoidable. Many, including US personnel, thought that part of the reason for overthrowing Sihanouk was the fact that he allowed arms to flow to the PLAF,[29] yet the supply of arms coming from Cambodia to the PLAF was often conducted by pro-US officers,[30] including Lon Nol, and it continued unabated once Sihanouk was overthrown.[31] As I detail below, the US had created a system in Indochina where its own clients were suppliers of arms to its enemies.

In 1969, before the above events, the US began bombing Cambodia in what was known as “Operation Menu”. From Saigon, US General Creighton Abrams insisted that he had “hard evidence” that the Central Office for South Vietnam headquarters (COSVN HQ) had been located in the “Fish Hook” salient of Cambodia.[32] The problem was that no such place ever existed, though for years the US had mounted operations to crush it when they claimed it was located in South Vietnam.[33]

Once under way, Operation Menu spread to other areas. Despite the carpet bombing of area supposed to contain COVSN HQ, in April 1970 Abrams claimed that the headquarters still existed as a fortified underground bunker with 5000 personnel.[34] In May US and RVN forces invaded Cambodia, the action justified in part as an attempt, yet again, to wipe out the COVSN HQ “which had become the Holy Grail of the American war”.[35] The US/RVN invasion simply, and predictably, drove communist forces deeper into Cambodia.[36]

The results of the bombing were those of generating an enemy by killing civilians, a recurrent practice of the US. Ben Kiernan repeatedly cites evidence in numerous consecutive instances that US/RVN aerial bombardment strengthened the Khmer Rouge insurgency, and, more specifically the anti-Vietnamese faction of the Khmer Rouge under Pol Pot.[37] In 1969, the Khmer Rouge consisted of perhaps 4000 – an ultimately unthreatening insurgency. By the end of 1972, they were able, with DRV logistical support, to “hold their own” against Lon Nol’s armed forces, which, at US instigation, had been enlarged to between 132,000 and 176,000 (not counting “ghost” soldiers, who existed only on the books of the corrupt officers who collected their pay) and had massive US/RVN air support.[38] In William Shawcross’s words, “the new war was creating enemies where none previously existed”[39] and by this stage, Lon Nol’s regime was already reduced to the control of shrinking and fragmenting enclaves.[40]

Within a year of Lon Nol’s coup the economy of Cambodia was virtually destroyed, not only by bombing, but also by US aid. Aid was channelled to the import of commodities and surplus US agricultural goods. It also underwrote the Cambodian government and armed forces: “By the end of 1970, the government was spending five times its revenue and earning nothing abroad.”[41] Most of the population became reliant on US aid to eat, and rice supplies were kept at the minimum level needed to prevent food riots. By 1975, malnutrition was widespread and many children starved to death before the Khmer Rouge victory.[42]

Less than two months after the coup that brought Lon Nol to power, the US invaded Cambodia, along with ARVN forces. They did not bother to forewarn Lon Nol who found out after Richard Nixon had announced the invasion publicly.[43] This invasion along US and RVN bombing and the civil war made refugees of nearly half of the Cambodian population.[44] Lon Nol was outraged by the invasion and when later briefed by Alexander Haig (then military assistant to Kissinger) about US intentions he wept with frustration. According to Shawcross, “He wished that the Americans had blocked the communists’ escape route before attacking, instead of spreading them across Cambodia. … The Cambodian leader told Haig that there was no way his small force could stop them. … [Haig] informed Lon Nol that President Nixon intended to limit the involvement of American forces…. They would be withdrawn at the end of June. The the President hoped to introduce a program of restricted military and economic aid. As the implications of Haig’s words for the future of Cambodia became clear to Lon Nol, he began to weep. Cambodia, he said, could never defend itself.”[45]

US actions, particularly in bombing, were directly responsible for creating the communist enemy which overthrew Lon Nol. The bombing between 1969 and 1973 took up to 150,000 lives.[46] If averaged out, over 33 tons of ordnance were used to kill each Khmer Rouge insurgent.[47] Despite the fact that Vietnamese pilots bombed any Cambodian they could, which aided only the Khmer Rouge, Lon Nol acceded to a US demand that he request an increase in VNAF bombing in 1971.[48] By May 1972, the Lon Nol regime had control of perhaps 10 per cent of the country and continued to lose territory which was thereafter fragmented into ever smaller enclaves.[49] The result was by that stage foregone, and yet the war dragged on for three years with the greater part of the 1 million casualties occurring after that point.

In 1970, when Henry Kissinger briefed Jonathan “Fred” Ladd, who was slated to conduct the war in Cambodia, he told him, “Don’t even think of victory; just keep it alive.”[50]

When the US Congress finally blocked aid to Cambodia and South Vietnam, it was with the belated realisation that such aid would not give any hope of victory or improve a bargaining position. Senator Mike Mansfield spoke out, “Ultimately Cambodia cannot survive…. Additional aid means more killing, more fighting. This has got to stop sometime.”[51]

Ooops, we destroyed your country. Our bad :-(

Because the violence in Cambodia was a “sideshow” with little official acknowledgement, US officials did not have complex explanations for their actions. Historians have largely concluded that the US was in the grips of irrationality, but their evidence of irrationality is, in a nutshell, that the US acted in a militarily counter-productive and genocidal manner. They automatically rule out the possibility that US actions were cogent acts of genocide. They build a framework of knowledge by applying that presumption to various historical events and thus generating the historical “evidence” of systemic irrationality and dysfunction among US decision-makers.

Moreover, people like Lyndon Johnson ensured that history recorded how reluctant they were to fight. The reluctance was more apparent than real. Johnson made a very vocal show of having his hand forced. He famously referred to the conflict as that “bitch of a war”.[52] In addition, he called it a “god-awful mess”, and himself as “hooked like a catfish”[53] and “trapped”.[54] He had a habit of thinking out loud with regard to the war, wondering “how he could maintain ‘his posture as a man of peace’” and making it clear that all the options available to him were unpalatable.[55] He would have frequent theatrical outbursts of indignation against hawkish advisers and, on one occasion, the constant changes of regime in the RVN which his own administration engineered.

According to Schulzinger, “The succession of military regimes drove Johnson nearly apoplectic. ‘I don’t want to hear any more of this coup shit,’ he exploded to aides”. Johnson was not the only one to have the audacity to condemn the US brokered coups; Maxwell Taylor, who as US Ambassador to Saigon had first forced a change of Government on the US installed Nguyen Khanh, then had partaken in the destabilisation of Khanh’s second government. When the utterly predictable coup resulted, Taylor is reported to have railed at the coup leaders ‘we Americans [are] tired of coups,’.[56].

The most bizarre Johnson outburst I have come across is an instance where a Major was, for no apparent reason, made to hold a map during a meeting between Johnson and the Joint Chiefs of Satff (JCS), becoming “an easel with ears”. Later he described the event to Christian Appy. First the JCS made some recommendations. “At that moment, Johnson exploded. I almost dropped the map. He just started screaming these obscenities. They were just filthy. It was something like: ‘You goddamn fucking assholes. You’re trying to get me to start World War III with your idiotic bullshit – your ‘military wisdom.’ He insulted each of them individually. ‘You dumb shit. Do you expect me to believe that kind of crap? I’ve got the weight of the Free World on my shoulders and you want me to start World War III?’ He called them shitheads and pompous assholes and used the f-word more freely than a marine in boot camp. He really degraded them and cursed at them. The he went back to a calm voice, as if he’d finished playing his little role….”[57]

Frederik Logevall describes Johnson’s behaviour as a “charade” undertaken because “Johnson wanted history to record that he agonised.”[58] But Johnson was not the only one. Not only was John Kennedy also in the habit of thinking out loud with regard to Indochina, but so was Eisenhower.[59] Kennedy would frequently profess peace whilst in the midst of making arrangements for escalation.[60] This conscious and consecutive manipulation of public and historical perception makes any expression of reluctance at any level of US government or military of extremely dubious evidential value.

Moreover, other US officials – notably Westmoreland, Nixon and Kissinger – were far more forthcoming about their genocidal intents. Noam Chomsky has said this: “On May 27, the New York Times published one of the most incredible sentences I’ve ever seen. They ran an article about the Nixon-Kissinger interchanges. Kissinger fought very hard through the courts to try to prevent it, but the courts permitted it. You read through it, and you see the following statement embedded in it. Nixon at one point informs Kissinger, his right-hand Eichmann, that he wanted bombing of Cambodia. “I want them to hit everything,” he said. And Kissinger loyally transmits the order to the Pentagon to carry out “a massive bombing campaign in Cambodia. Anything that flies on anything that moves.” That is the most explicit call for what we call genocide when other people do it that I’ve ever seen in the historical record.”

These sorts of statements, revealing an intent to target civilians or civilian infrastructure, are commonplace among officials at all sorts of levels. Westmoreland personally encouraged personnel to kill civilians.[61] He also approved the Phoenix programme which, by its inescapable nature, involved the murder of civilians (namely “non-combatants” as defined in international law).[62]

Historians might ignore or minimise statements of genocidal intent that they would never ignore had they come from, say, a Rwandan Hutu leader in 1994. In fact, a great deal of effort has gone into trying to find such statements, but the ICTR has found no clear expressions of genocidal intent until after the genocide was in progress. The way people discuss the 1994 genocide in Rwanda you would think that the inverse was true. But rhetorical pronouncements are actually less significant than orthodox historiography would have you think. What is clear from Indochina, and is also absent in the case of Rwanda, is that there was clearly articulated genocidal policy that was acted upon – as opposed to “stated policy” which is mere rhetoric. There were policies that either overtly evidenced genocidal intent or tacitly evidenced genocidal intent in a manner that was impossible to mistake.

In the next section I will show policies that either seemed designed to deliberately cause mass civilian deaths or made mass civilian deaths inevitable whilst promising little or no military benefit and ultimately being inherently counterproductive. Before I do, however, I want to showcase an overtly genocidal policy known as “graduated response”.

Graduated response” was not important as a military strategy so much as it was as a public relations strategy. Graduated response was an Orwellian construction – the rationale given was that by bombing North Vietnam the US would force the DRV to negotiate. This was based on three completely specious assertions – the first being that the insurgency in the South was a result of “communist aggression” and therefore controlled by Hanoi; the second is that the US would itself have negotiated in good faith; the third, and most breathtakingly baldfaced, is that the US began small and got bigger, initially only bombing the DRV to show the DRV that they would bomb the DRV.

In 1965 McGeorge Bundy explained graduated response in a memorandum, although “explained” might be too strong a word. Bundy states: “We cannot assert that a policy of sustained reprisal [graduated response] will succeed in changing the course of the contest in Vietnam…. At a minimum it will damp down the charge that we did not do all we could have done….” Bundy also talks of showing “U.S. willingness to employ this new norm in counter-insurgency….” It is worth remembering that this “new norm” in “counter-insurgency” is not interdiction bombing of supply routes, it is strategic bombing of the DRV, guaranteed to bring massive suffering to the civilian population.[63]

The military objected strenuously to graduated response, under the misapprehension or pretense that the given rationale was all true.[64] The military objections existed within a discourse of callous but pragmatic militarists and of concerned but naïve civilians who underestimate Hanoi’s legendary willingness to sacrifice its own people.[65] No doubt, many officials debated earnestly in these racially informed terms, but they were debating the merits of one fiction over the merits of another.

The air war in Indochina bore no resemblance in practice, to that which was espoused in theory. For a start, it could only be applied to the bombing of North Vietnam which was the recipient of less than one sixth of the bombs dropped by the US during the war.[66] Secondly, what actually occurred bore no resemblance to the increasing “slow squeeze” that is central to the story. Admittedly the tempo did increase between the initiation of the bombing campaign “Rolling Thunder” in April 1965 and the end of that year, but this was due to the US committing more and more resources to the air war. Bombing in Laos and South Vietnam increased at a far greater rate than in North Vietnam.[67]

Nor could the bombing campaign against North Vietnam be considered “limited” by any standards other than those of the bombing of Laos and South Vietnam. The campaign ran for 3 years and dropped an average of one 500 pound bomb every 30 seconds. By the end 860,000 tons had been dropped, three times as much as was dropped on Europe, Asia and Africa in World War II.[68] Whatever industrial capabilities that were not destroyed outright had to be decentralised at very high costs to efficiency. Agriculture was also affected and it is estimated that the campaign destroyed 10 to 15 years of economic growth. Three major cities and twelve of twenty-nine provincial capitals had been flattened. According to Robert McNamara’s estimate, at one point in 1967 1000 civilians were being killed each week.[69]

Nor can it truly be claimed that the US sought a negotiated settlement. Lyndon Johnson twice expressed a wish to negotiate, once offering “unconditional talks”, but these offers were not addressed to the DRV regime, but rather to US domestic audiences in speeches.[70] Not surprisingly, Hanoi took these offers with a grain of salt, when they heard of them, and released a list of its aims, presumably hoping that the US would respond by saying that none of the DRV’s desires were negotiable.[71] Instead the US government held up the list of points as proof that Hanoi did not want to negotiate, and when Hanoi tried to clarify that it was in fact willing to negotiate, it was ignored by the US government and media. In fact Hanoi had made several moves to try an institute negotiations which the State Department and even the hawkish Ray Cline (at the time, acting Director of Central Intelligence) agreed were probably real.[72]

Because the US was not actually willing to negotiate, “graduated response” is not really a strategy, and provides no actual rationale for US behaviour. By claiming to seek negotiations which the US would not itself allow, the US could continue bombing without any military strategic rationale, without having to give a reason. To maintain the illusion the Johnson administration would periodically cease bombing before any planned escalation. James William Gibson writes that the, “sense in which the [bombing] pause was for political appearances only can be discerned in most memoranda.”[73]

The really striking thing about “graduated response”, though, is that there was no real pretense that the bombing was designed to degrade military capabilities to improve military outcomes in the field. If the point was to drive the DRV to negotiate by “reprisal” then it is obvious that this is not a military exercise at all. The inevitable non-combatant casualties and damage to civilian infrastructure and property is no longer “collateral damage” in an attack on military targets, it is part of the intentional target. So even if the US had been trying to force the DRV to negotiate, there were using genocidal means to do so and they showed genocidal intent. It is a very clear breach of the United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (UNCG) which prohibits the intentional destruction “in whole or in part” of a “national, ethnical, racial or religious group”.

Mass Murder in Viet Nam

There is no denying that the US visited systematic destruction on Laos, Viet Nam, and Cambodia. Those who deny the genocides usually do so on the grounds that the US did not have a genocidal intent. As I showed, the policy of graduated response shows that genocidal intent existed. But even genocide scholars often seem to think that “genocidal intent” only exists when that genocidal intent is itself a motive. This is the equivalent of saying that if I kill you in order to steal your watch I am not guilty of murder because I am was just using deadly means incidentally, as a means of acquiring your watch.

Genocide scholars are by no means above splitting hairs over intentionality in order to keep Western atrocities free of the stain of being labelled genocide. They largely reject even-handed simplicity. A straight-forward approach would inevitably force them to take intellectual stances that are politically uncomfortable with regard to settler-colonial history, US foreign policy, globalisation and neoliberalism, and, last but not least, Israel. Instead of maintaining clarity, these scholars tie themselves in knots of obfuscation, and in doing so they add more and more elements of unnecessary subjectivity to increasingly unreal and ornate theoretical constructs. They do so whilst complaining that the subject itself is too taxing and slippery for even the greatest of minds.

Mark Levene, to pick one example, described Spanish acts towards indigenous people at Potosí as the wholesale destruction of their political structures and autonomous power so that, suitably subjugated, their populations could be put to enforced work, in effect enslaved, in order to enrich their new Castilian masters.”[74] According to Levene, this is merely “hyper-exploitation” because it lacks exterminatory intent. He writes, “this was not a policy or strategy geared towards killing the natives or their replacements outright but extracting as much labor out of them as possible….”[75] This statement is quite simply wrong. These people were intentionally worked to death just like millions Jews, Slavs and Roma were worked to death by the Germans. There is no recognition given by Levene that up to 8 million people in Hispaniola were completely exterminated by the same empire using the same institutions,[76] even though he acknowledges their extinction as a result of contact with Europeans. Instead he merely writes, “There are conditions in which extermination may also emerge out of hyper-exploitation, most obviously when native peoples revolt against their oppressors, leading to the latter’s retributive over-kill.”[77]

Levene is formulating a typical expression of Western exceptionalist doublethink. He acknowledges acts of near inconceivable savagery, but then creates an interpretation which suggests that this savagery is only the accidental by-product of a far more essential Western rationality. This is nothing but conventional self-replicating racism. Levene automatically seeks evidence of rational self-interest on the part of Western actors, which then over-rides any evidence of racial animus and appetitive savagery. Conversely, when dealing with non-Western actors he seeks evidence of animus which then effaces issues of rational self-interest.

The irony is that Levene does an excellent job elsewhere of analysing the Revolutionary French genocide against the people of the Vendée when there was a counter-revolutionary insurgency. Therein he balances the passionate brutality and the cold calculations of a bureaucratic machinery of mass-murder. I assume that for someone like Levene it is somewhat easier to see savagery as a symptomatic part of Western culture if it is a revolutionary savagery. The funny thing is that historians of the period who are not familiar with the concept of genocide accuse him of imputing a genocidal motive because they can’t distinguish between intent and motive. I would laugh, if I wasn’t so busy raging ineffectually from the margins.

I have shown that in one policy, the US demonstrated genocidal intent towards Viet Nam, or at least the northern part of it. But one of the things that made the concept of genocide so brilliant from the first was that Lemkin always understood that genocide would, by nature, be expressed in many different ways. John Docker describes Lemkin’s conception as being “composite and manifold… a coordinated plan of different actions aiming at the destruction of the essential foundations of life of a group.”[78]

The genocide in South Viet Nam was more intense than anywhere else in Indochina, but also more complex and confusing. Much was similar to the situation in Cambodia. People were driven from the countryside to be concentrated in urban slums, a process Samuel Huntington described as “refugee generation”.[79] The RVN was also made economically dysfunctional by US “aid”. The result was a partly surreal country of militarism, consumerism, grief, poverty and degraded anomie. This was the society documented by Philip Jones Griffiths in his book-length photo-essay Vietnam Inc. which showed maimed civilians, beggars, drugs, and child soldiers. It showed that the war permeated everything. It was a world populated by a lost people ripped out of normality and placed in a new landscape strewn with alien protrusions of war machinery, billboards, craters, corpses and girly bars. Griffiths explicitly contextualised it all as a twisted form of business enterprise.[80] He later told Christian Appy, “The closer you got to the war… the more you objected to what you saw. Eventually I believed that what America was doing in Vietnam was genocide.”[81]

photographer-philip-jones-griffiths-in-vietnam-Little TigerCalled “Little Tiger,” rumored to have killed two “Vietcong women cadre”—his mother and teacher. Vietnam, 1968. Photograph by Philip Jones Griffiths © Philip Jones Griffiths / Magnum Photos

Here are some quotes from Lemkin that are apposite:

  • The destruction of the foundations of the economic existence of a national group necessarily brings about a crippling of its development, even a retrogression. The lowering of the standards of living creates difficulties in fulfilling cultural-spiritual requirements. Furthermore, a daily fight literally for bread and for physical survival may handicap thinking in both general and national terms.”[82]
  • In order to weaken the spiritual resistance of the national group, the occupant attempts to create an atmosphere of moral debasement within this group. According to this plan, the mental energy of the group should be concentrated upon base instincts and should be diverted from moral and national thinking. It is important for the realization of such a plan that the desire for cheap individual pleasure be substituted for the desire for collective feelings and ideals based upon a higher morality. Therefore, the occupant made an effort in Poland to impose upon the Poles pornographic publications and movies. The consumption of alcohol was encouraged, for while food prices have soared, the Germans have kept down the price of alcohol, and the peasants are compelled by the authorities to take spirits in pay agricultural produce. The curfew law, enforced very strictly against Poles is relaxed if they can show the authorities a ticket to one of the gambling houses which the Germans have allowed to come into existence.”[83]
  • Their general plan was to win the peace though the war be lost, and that goal could have been achieved through successfully changing the political and demographic interrelationships in Europe in favor of Germany. The population not destroyed was to be integrated in the German cultural, political and economic pattern.”[84]

It might surprise people that Lemkin put so much emphasis on cultural, economic, political, social and moral destruction. He didn’t actually devote any more time to the physical destruction of group members than he did to the seven other “techniques of genocide”. When he first described genocide even his account physical destruction was not particularly focussed on killing. He was more detailed about the way in which differential access to food was being used to increase mortality rates. Nevertheless, our common understanding quite naturally leads us to link genocide with mass killings of civilians. Even today there is a degree of interest and attention paid to the intimate acts of murder and massacre that US personnel undertook. In 2003 Michael Sallah started reporting based on atrocities uncovered but kept quiet by the US Army Criminal Investigation Command (CIC). In 2006, with Mitch Weiss, he published Tiger Force, in which the eponymous elite military unit were revealed to have prolifically tortured, raped, murdered and mutilated.[85] In 2007 a German book was published by Bernd Greiner which drew heavily on the files of the Vietnam War Crimes Working Group (VWCWG) to document how US actions became “a war against civilians”. An English translation was published in 2010.[86] The VWCWG was formed in response to the My Lai massacre. It was intended to ensure that the US military was never again caught unprepared by revelations of atrocities. Like the CIC it uncovered many atrocities, documented them and buried them again. Since 2004 most of their files have effectively been blocked from public access.[87] In 2005 Nick Turse published a doctoral dissertation based on VWCWG documents.[88] This led to a series of articles in the LA Times with Deborah Nelson, which formed the basis of The War Behind Me in 2008.[89] Last, but by no means least, came Turse’s book Kill Anything that Moves in 2013.[90]

Collectively these works reveal a horrifying pattern of war crimes – brutal intimate crimes of personal savagery. They add immeasurably to the often derided testimonies of dissident GIs and veterans who tried to tell people what was happening. But this emphasis on massacre at close quarters threatens to overshadow the greater picture of civilian deaths. Most US personnel did not personally kill civilians and most civilians who were killed by US personnel died without their killers ever being close enough to see the terror and pain on their faces. These acts were part of a larger picture of killing.

Bernd Greiner deliberately chooses to isolate acts of violence in “close proximity” from violence at an “anonymous distance”.[91] Instead of placing the situationally generated personal violence within the context of other systematic acts of mass murder, he contextualises the violence by regurgitating the orthodox scholarship that contends that everything the US did was the result of miscalculating, maladaptation and dysfunction. He even repeats the irrational, but common, contention that “assymetrical warfare” makes material superiority “more of a curse” than a blessing.[92] Like Levene he is artificially separating the intimate brutal mass-murder from the calculated dispassioned policies of mass-murder in order to explain each and abberations in terms which, without the artificial cognitive distance, would readily be revealed to be contradictory.

The real story is only understood by seeing how the distant mass murder and the intimate mass murder both fit within the context of “composite and manifold” acts of destruction of which they are only a part.

At one point Turse and Nelson travelled to part of Quang Nam province to find the site of a massacre detailed in US investigation files. They had an uncertain location. In three days of looking for the site they were shown a total of 5 massacre sites where a total of 8 different massacres had occurred, 5 committed by US personnel. They were unable to find the site of the massacre:we thought we’d be looking for a needle in a haystack of hamlets, not a haystack of massacres.”[93] The factors which lead to such widespread mass murder were not cultural but rather systemic results of deliberate choices. US personnel were primed through indoctrination and then situated in such a manner as to generate a predisposition towards atrocities. US personnel were placed in what Robert Jay Lifton has referred to as “atrocity-producing-situations”. The problem is that even after 40 years of consistently creating these “atrocity producing situations” even Lifton himself will not entertain the notion that the atrocities are an intended result.

I will begin, then, by printing the testimony of S. Brian Willson. He was one of very few people who was forced to confront intimately the results of an airstrike on a village. The Vietnamese farmers had extraodinarily strong ties to their land and practiced a Confucian reverence for the shrines of ancestors. So, predictably, when a free-fire zone was declared many would remain behind, sleeping in bunkers and often living with the nightmare of nightly shelling. Those people faced the further risk of aerial bombardment. S. Brian Willson was assigned to guard Bin Tui, an airbase in South Vietnam, in which position he was given the duty of helping assess bombing missions, in April 1969, to ensure that pilots were not deliberately missing their targets. His description of the first such mission includes, “…a sea of bodies. Probably 100 to 120 corpses. A few of them were moving, most were still. This was 15 minutes after the bombing.” The village had been bombed in the middle of the day, when the healthy adults were at work in the fields, so the victims were all the children, the elderly, the infirm and childminders. The military situation was such that just two officers were able to arrive 15 minutes after the bombing without any endangerment to themselves. Willson’s companion, an VNAF Lieutenant replied to Willson’s protestations: “They’re communists, this is a victory,” and they left the wounded to die. Willson believed there was some mistake, but soon discovered that, because the entire province had been declared a free-fire zone, the villages were systematically being destroyed without reference to whether or not there was intelligence of enemy activity. Willson described this as “a deliberate systematic plan to wipe out the civilian population.”[94] In a written account of the same event, Willson adds, “At one dramatic moment I encountered at close range a young wounded woman lying on the ground clutching three young disfigured children. I stared, aghast, at the woman’s open eyes. Upon closer examination, I discovered that she, and what I presumed were her children, all were dead, but napalm had melted much of the woman’s facial skin, including her eyelids.”[95]

Free-fire zones unavoidably make a mockery of Greiner’s attempt to keep intimate and distant violent separate. In South Vietnam the number and extent of free-fire zones kept expanding. By the beginning of 1967, according to Neil Sheehan: “Free-fire zones proliferated so rapidly with new red lines on maps for laying waste that it was no longer possible to keep track of their number and the total area they encompassed.”[96]

The spread of free-fire zones was only made possible by the fact that US armed forces did not actually occupy or “pacify” rural South Vietnam, a circumstance which will be examined below. By 1969 they encompassed 75% of South Vietnam.[97] Though the Rules of Engagement (ROE) officially specified otherwise, examples abound of the military authorities encouraging troops to consider all persons in a free-fire zone to be a legitimate target. Weiss and Sallah detail multiple instances where it is clear that Tiger Force had been led to believe that “free-fire” meant that they had complete discretion and could legitimately kill whoever they wanted.[98] Eventually the Orwellian logic predominated to such an extent that Westmoreland, in 1969, was able to baldly claim that absolutely no civilians had ever been killed by the US in designated free-fire zones, because no-one in a free-fire zone was a civilian, by definition.[99]

This had been building for a long time. For many years the US had used militarily counterproductive tactics which systematically killed civilians and were a major impetus in fuelling the armed insurrection against the US-installed regime in Saigon. As early as 1962, with the war continually gaining momentum, US Colonel John Paul Vann observed an ARVN tactic of randomly shelling and bombing civilian structures which “kills many, many more civilians than it ever does VC and as a result makes new VC.”[100] When he and Colonel Daniel Boone Porter confronted Westmoreland’s predecessor, General Paul Harkins, with an appeal “to stop this self-defeating slaughter”, in Neil Sheehan’s words, “he turned out to be as dense in his own way as the Saigon commanders. Instead of using his influence to put a halt to the bombardments he was furthering them.”[101]

It should be noted here that with respect to major military policies, doctrines and significant recurrent tactics, the ARVN followed the dictates of the US military. The US exercised veto power over their allies actions because they were so essential a point of supply. As Roger Warner observed this gives the US complete power over the strategy of dependents like the Hmong forces in Laos.[102] In 1969 ARVN General Cao Van Vien said: “We Vietnamese have no military doctrine because the command of all operations in Vietnam is in the hands, is the responsibility, of the American side. We followed the American military doctrine.”[103] The fact is that the US simply dictated to the various RVN regimes what numbers and what kinds of forces it desired,[104] and when a regime was insufficiently compliant it was overthrown.

As it happened, despite further years of experience which confirmed Vann’s prognosis that randomly killing civilians would increase the numbers of the NLF, the US armed forces and those of their allies employed a virtually identical method of employing artillery, which they termed Harassment and Interdiction (H&I) fire. This was unobserved artillery fire, usually employed every night on places such as cross-roads in designated free-fire zones. It was not until the US had been doing this for 3 more years that General Creighton Abrams (who replaced William Westmoreland) urged his commanders to reduce the amount of H&I fire.[105]

In fact, the H&I tactic was only one way in which the US either directly or indirectly assured that civilians would be injured or killed by US ordnance. The most obvious being the free-fire zones. These were essentially identical, in terms of logic, to the way the Saigon commanders had justified their “butchery and sadism” to John Paul Vann in 1962, by the assertion that geographical location was proof of sympathies, and sympathy with the “Viet Cong” made for a legitimate target.[106] Before the term free-fire zone was invented, the phrase used was “solid VC areas” and by 1963 some US personnel had adopted the logic behind the characterisation: the USAF 362nd Squadron began shooting civilians for sport in these “de facto free-fire zones”.[107]

The way free-fire zones worked was through the way actions were allowed under the US armed forces ROE. US troops on the ground were still bound, in theory at least, to respect civilian life, but any person who ran, regardless of age, was a “VC”, and hence was to be killed. Philip Caputo, a USMC Lieutenant who was later to become a reporter and antiwar activist, asked the obvious question at the time: “Why should the act of running identify someone as a communist?”[108] Note that he is not questioning the rightness of killing someone unarmed because they had a particular political orientation. Turse finds the “purest expression” of the ROE logic on a death certificate which lists external cause of death as “Running from U.S. forces.”[109]

For those operating machine-guns in helicopters or boats, and for those able to strafe with aeroplanes, this rule became a license for mass-murder among those who wished to commit such an act. Gibson gives the example of testimony by a helicopter gunner:

“We had another rule, the use of evasive action. Anyone taking evasive action could be fired upon. Evasive action was never explained to me. It normally entailed someone running or trying to evade a helicopter or any fire.

“My unit, the gunships in my unit had installed MP sirens. Police sirens on the helicopter and we used these for psychological effect, to intimidate people.

“There is one incident I recall where we new over a large rice paddy, and there were some people working in the rice paddy, maybe a dozen or fifteen individuals, and we passed over their heads and they didn’t take any action, they were obviously nervous, but they didn’t try to hide or anything. So we then hovered a few feet off the ground among them with the two helicopters, turned on the police sirens and when they heard the Police sirens, they started to disperse and we opened up on them and just shot them all down.”

Gibson gives another such example before concluding: “United States forces thus consciously created conditions specified by rules of engagement to open fire and produce a body count.”[110] It would not take a lot of such behaviour before, predictably, the Vietnamese would run as soon as they saw a US helicopter or boat. Herman and Chomskly quote the “pro-Western” Japanese journalist Katsuichi Honda who described machine-gunners “firing away at random at farmhouses” and “using farmers for targets as if in a hunting mood”.[111]

In terms of the scale of suffering and death the actions of machine-gunners are nearly insignificant when compared with the consequences of aerial bombardment. For both air and ground artillery purposes anyone within a free-fire zone was a legitimate target. When a new free-fire zone was declared, leaflets were dropped on the villagers instructing them to assemble at certain points to be taken away by helicopter to a new life, generally in a camp or as a refugee. What followed the leaflet drop was known as the “mad minutes” because after as little as an hour had elapsed since the leaflets were dropped, the US would begin artillery bombardment.[112]

Another institution which promoted the killing of civilians was the body count. As Joanna Bourke said: “The ‘body count’ of the Vietnam War formalized psychological processes of dehumanisation….”[113] It should be said at the outset that “body counts” and “kill ratios” are not some logical outcome of an attrition policy. Attrition is about destroying an enemy’s forces and given the situation in South Vietnam[114] it would have made far more sense to emphasise achieving this by the capture or destruction of weapons and supplies. The body count in Vietnam was not just about facilitating violence against enemy combatants, it also created an incentive and inclination to kill civilians. Marilyn Young concluded thatlogic seemed to have no end short of the progressive elimination of the population of the South.”[115]

The practice of counting civilian dead as the enemy was known as the “mere gook rule”, and was the direct result of “pressure from on high for ever larger body counts”.[116] Jonathan Neale summarises the logic: “In effect, the American plan was to kill the Vietnamese until they gave up. The pressure for this was relentless. The Pentagon demanded statistics. In some rear unit’s the officers chalked the cumulative kills on a board. Officers knew their careers would depend on their numbers. And although the officers seldom said, ‘Kill all the civilians you can,’ they seldom criticized anybody for doing that, and often praised them.”[117] According to Gibson: “Producing a high body count was crucial for promotion in the officer corps. Many high-level officers established ‘production quotas’ for their units, and systems of ‘debit’ and ‘credit’ to calculate exactly how efficiently subordinate units and middle-management personnel performed.”[118] There were often rewards for kills as a former GI recalls: “There was a real incentivizing of death and it just fucked with our value system. In our unit guys who got confirmed kills would get a three-day in-country R and R.”[119] Perhaps more significantly, a failure to meet a “production quota” could sometimes mean being returned immediately to dangerous duty.[120]

A further institution which promoted the killing of civilians was the “search and destroy” mission. The search and destroy mission is mainly notable as an inherent part of of the ‘Fire-power/Attrition’ strategy, but such things are all inter-connected. The significance of search and destroy missions in terms of killing civilians is very well summed up by Michael Bernhardt, who was present at the My Lai massacre: “I think something like My Lai probably had happened many times before. It was just a matter of scale. Here’s the thing. The whole war effort was built on three pillars-the free-fire zone, the search-and-destroy mission, and the body count. The free-fire zone means shoot anybody that moves. The search-and-destroy mission is just another way to shoot anything that moves. I call it the portable free-fire zone – you tote it around anywhere you go. And the body count is the tool for measuring the success or failure of whatever you’re doing. When you’ve got those three things it doesn’t take a genius to figure out how it’s going to end up.”[121]

These circumstances, along with the abovementioned institutions, created a situational predisposition to kill civilians which might be strongly at odds with the actual values of the individual serviceman. Gibson insists that “atrocities against Vietnamese routinely resulted from the production logic in which the war was conceptualized and fought.”[122]

A very significant circumstance was the endemic racial animus amongst US troops, usually against East Asians as a whole. In training US military personnel were taught to hate their enemy in explicitly racial terms such as “gook”, “slope”, “dink”, “gooner” and “zipperhead”. These terms did not, of course, distinguish combatant status, nor political affiliation, nor even nationality and ethnicity. The result was that even Asian American’s were in danger of being shot because in the belief that they were Vietnamese (one was advised to dye his hair blond and whistle dixie when it got dark).[123] Many, if not most, combat troops came to see all Vietnamese as the enemy, but ironically there was considerable respect for their actual armed opponents, the PLAF and PAVN.[124] Contempt and hatred was particularly extended to their allies: “Many [US Troops] now regarded the ARVN, indeed all Vietnamese, with open contempt. At the same time they came to think of the VC/PAVN as a resourceful and able foe.”[125]

Adding to this was the sense of fear that derived from sense of being universally hated and the hysteria generated therefrom. eale, before detailing the common ways in which US troops would commit serious acts of violence against children for sport, writes: “The old soldiers told the new soldiers the truth [sic]: those children hate us. They know where the mines are. They want us to die.” Having established this “truth” Neale goes on to detail the common practice of throwing full cans of c-rations at childrens heads to split them open.[126] Other such “truths” about the local population would spread amonst the troops, including the belief that Vietnamese children sold poisoned Coke,[127] that the Vietnamese would rig their own babies with explosives to kill GIs, and that prostitutes would boobytrap their vaginas with broken glass.[128]

These rumours are symptomatic of a larger sense of panic and insecurity, and their infantile nature should not distract from the deadly seriousness of the mental condition of the US troops. Former medic George Evans describes the circumstances under which two young boys had died: “I found out they’d been hit by an American military truck and that there was this kind of game going on in which, supposedly, guys were driving through town gambling over who could hit a kid. They had some disgusting name for it, something like ‘gook hockey’.”[129]

Such behaviours are both a result and a cause of an alienation, a massive gulf between Vietnamese and US servicemen, but one of the greatest reasons for that separation lay in the US policy of 1 year tours of duty. As a former ARVN interpreter explains: “The GIs didn’t understand anything at all about Vietnam. They always talked about being here for just one year. Look at their calendars- XXX every day. Everywhere GIs lived they had their calendars, marking off every day, counting the days. By the time they had some understanding, it was time to leave.”[130] The whole culture of the US personnel was one in which Vietnam was not even real, while the US was the “World”.

Just as soldiers of other nations have been, US military personnel were desensitised to violence, fear, pain, and death as part of their formal training. A sample of boot camp experiences is given by Gibson:

“We were told that “the only good gook is a dead gook, and the more gooks you kill, the more slant-eyes you can kill in Vietnam, that is the less you will have to worry about them killing you at night.”

“Now in this training they referred to the Vietnamese as dinks or gooks. The impression was that they were something less than human. I had a drill sergeant in AIT [Advanced Infantry Training] reply to a question, ‘What is it like over there?’; and he told us, he said, ‘It is like hunting rabbits and squirrels.’

“…the main word was, ‘Kill. Kill. Kill.’ all the time, they then pushed it into your head twenty-four hours a day. Even before you sat down to eat your meals, you had to stand up and scream ‘Kill’ before you could sit down and eat.”[131]

Gibson also prints some of the chants used in drill, such as: “VC, VC, kill, kill, kill. Gotta kill, gotta kill, ’cause it’s fun, ’cause it’s fun.”[132] Obviously desensitisation not only facilitates the killing of the enemy, but it is a blunt instrument which also promotes killing per se. One of the most famous of all boot camp cadences from the Vietnam era had the refrain: “Napalm sticks to kids!” Perhaps this particular desensitising phrase was relevant to the conditions that the personnel were about to face, but it has nothing whatsoever to do with combat and the ability to perform the role of a soldier.

It is also a departure from normal military practice to induce unreasonable fear in the soldiers being trained. One former air hostess described the men en route to Vietnam: “These were boys destined for combat and they had been told in training what their expected mortality rate was. I remember an air force Blue Beret actually told me they were trained to die. He didn’t expect ever to go home.”[133] Actually, US casualties were extremely light in the Second Indochina War with less than 2% of those who served in or over Indochina being killed. Naturally the burden was not even and some faced a much higher risk. Nevertheless, in comparison with the odds faced, even by their own countrymen and women, in World War II, these were not in themselves figures which should have induced despondency.

Nevertheless, the sense of peril permeated everything. William Calley, who massacred civilians at My Lai, had this to say about his training: It was drummed into us, ‘Be sharp! On guard! As soon as you think these people won’t kill you, ZAP! In combat you haven’t friends! You have enemies!’ Over and over at OCS we heard this, and I told myself, I’ll act as if I’m never secure. As if everyone in Vietnam would do me in. As if everyone’s bad.”[134]

The fear felt by US troops was increased by the failure or outright refusal of their commanders to create securely policed occupied territory. Instead massive base camps were constructed which were like small cities, such as one Long Binh which “boasted movie theaters, slot machines, steam baths, restaurant complexes, lawns and flower beds….”[135] This was another factor which kept the US personnel segregated from the local population (except in I Corps where the Marines referred to their compatriots as ‘ice-cream soldiers’),[136] and created a situation where there were highly Americanised islands of safety in a sea of Vietanmese hostility and danger.

Another effect of US tactics at this time was that when on patrol or Search and Destroy missions, ground forces were essentially being used as bait. They would walk until making “contact” (which the US’s own figures indicate was almost always a case of coming under fire from the enemy) and then radio in air and ground artillery strikes.[137] Actually, this manner of emphasising fire-power may have been an effective way of minimising US casualties,[138] but it led to a strong sense of spatial insecurity. Spencer Tucker wrote: “The dominant idea was to locate its enemy using infantry as a reconnaissance force and then destroy him with artillery and air power. Notoriously wasteful of matériel resources, this indiscriminate method meant that innocent civilians often got caught in the crossfire. It also lead to ‘firebase psychosis’ whereby US commanders grew reluctant to commit troops beyond the range of firebase support.”[139] All of this, for the actual ground troops, must have created a complete sense of demoralising powerlessness.

There was also a sense of futility generated. The author Tim O’Brien told Christian Appy: “It was just a blur of going from village to village through paddies with no sense of destination, or mission, or purpose. You’d just wake up and go to a village, search it, and leave. Somebody might die or not, and you’d come back a month later to the same damn village and do it again. It was like going in circles and not really achieving anything. You weren’t winning hearts and minds and you weren’t winning ground. You didn’t know who to shoot unless they were shooting at you. The enemy seemed to be everywhere and nowhere.”[140] The result was that, in one former infantryman’s words, “…slowly as fear mounted frustration and rode down a crippled confidence, as callousness started taking over from condescension in our attitude to the Vietnamese, our vision blurred, clouded over, and refocused. Where before we had found it difficult to see the enemy anywhere, now we saw him everywhere. It was simple now; the Vietnamese were the Viet Cong, the Viet Cong were the Vietnamese. The killing became so much easier now.”[141]

Of course, atrocities committed by troops on the ground contibuted only a tiny part of the overall suffering in south Vietnam, let alone Indochina as a whole. But they must have played a very significant role in encouraging people to take up arms against the US. They also give insight into the US military effort as a whole. What is striking about accounts of atrocities is that frequently there is no trigger as such, merely a momentary failure of will against ongoing pressures which effectively made murder the path of least resistance. Tiger Force (an elite unit) were pressured into being “productive”, through the usual means, but as their habitual killing of civilians became known to superiors they were actually consciously used as a death squad (I can think of no other term) by battalion commanders. Sallah and Weiss give considerable detail about this process which is too complicated to summarise here, but on at least 8 occasions they highlight the centrality of orders coming from officers not in the field.[142]

Genocidal logic or Military Illogic?

I think it is safe to reduce my thesis here to the following: The US committed genocide in Indochina and because of that Viet Nam lost the “war” in far more substantive ways than it won by achieveing a military victory. In some ways you could say that both sides won in the terms on which they chose to fight. But the US, a global hegemon, had the luxury of playing the longer game and was also able to force the each of the Indochinese regimes (ally, enemy or neutral) into a internationalised high-tech industrial conflict that none of them would have chosen.

I should note here that though much of this article is copied from a post-graduate research paper I wrote in 2008, there is much of relevance in that dissertation that I have not relayed here. The most important is that the US forced its opponents to fight, despite considerable reluctance. It shouldn’t surprise anyone really, but no one wanted to go to war with them most powerful military on the planet.[143]

Another thing which is detailed throughout the paper is the way the militarily counterproductive actions of US forces helped maintain and sustain their enemies. I have alluded to the fact that killing civilians helps recruit enemies, and as it happens Ben Kiernan has just this week published, with co-author Taylor Owen, an article reitierating: “During the four years of United States B-52 bombardment of Cambodia from 1969 to 1973, the Khmer Rouge forces grew from possibly one thousand guerrillas to over 200,000 troops and militia.”

The US also acted in ways which ensured that their enemies were well armed. An indication of how crucial the US was in arming the PLAF can be gotten from the figure given by investigative reporter I. F. Stone, who revealed estimates that in 1965 97.5 per cent of PLAF weapons were of non-communist origin.[144] Some of these may have been captured weapons from the Korean War, transshipped via China, but this is nevertheless an eye-opening figure.

Insurgencies do tend to arm themselves by raiding, but the US military facilitated this inestimably. They maintained a series of easily over-run watchtowers which advisers such as John Paul Vann, believing them to be a result of ARVN stupidity, actually referred to as “VC supply points.”[145] These watchtowers were remnants of the First Indochina War and had been a disastrous burden on the French war effort, tying up 70% of French forces. By 1953 even the French knew that the towers were worse than useless. Bernard Fall described them as “downright ridiculous”.[146] And yet they remained in place right through to the Americanisation of the war. Philip Caputo was astounded to see them in 1965: “If this was a real war zone what were those anachronisms doing here? Their only conceivable us would be as registration points for VC mortar batteries.”[147]

Trading with the enemy also played a very large role in supplying insurgents. US aid was often known to go directly to the enemy. Gibson asks the question, “Why would the war-managers willingly acquiesce in the theft of so much American aid, especially when it sometimes ended in the grasp of the enemy?” The possible answers he provides are that it was either the price the US had to pay for GVN officials to co-operate or that the US could not intervene because to do so would belie the pretence of RVN sovereignty.[148] Neither of these explanations comes close to sufficing because, as Gibson’s own exposition reveals, the system was one created by the US from scratch. The US was also unconstrained by the pretence of sovereignty, and RVN sovereignty was only ever an excuse for not taking actions that were considered undesirable but which it behoved the US to evince support for. Finally it should be noted that GVN officials could have been bought off quite sufficiently without fostering an arms supply for the NLF. ARVN corruption was largely a result of pathetic pay rates – pay rates set by the US.[149]

US profligacy with fire-power also helped the PLAF – a Captain from the tunnel complex at Cu Chi said: “We hardly received any… weapons from the North. … We needed explosives and fortunately soon found them lying all around us on the ground.”[150] Tucker, writing of the earlier parts of the war, summarises the situation with these words, “new weapons that the US provided the ARVN merely meant that the VC would now capture newer, better American weapons….”[151]

Not content with arming and supplying their enemies, it can be argued that the US even contrived to provide them, rest, recreation and medical facilities which also provided sanctuary from the US military’s own offensive operations. I refer here to the Chieu Hoi (“Open Arms”) programme, putatively set up to facilitate defections from the PLAF. This programme was administered by the GVN, but designed, overseen and funded by the US. It consisted of centres spread around South Vietnam where defectors could safely go. It is generally considered to have been a great success because of the large numbers of defectors reported and because of its “cost-effectiveness”, reportedly only $125.12 per “returnee”.[152] But a social psychologist sent in 1966 to study US “psywar” efforts later wrote, “there was no way to know if the so-called ‘defectors’ were what they claimed to be. Anyone who showed up at one of these centers and claimed to be a ‘defector’ was given a bed. We do know that some genuine VC moved into these centers whenever U.S. Army divisions began military operations in their area. Thus the centers became ‘safe havens’ when the heat was on and even provided medical treatment to those wounded in action….”[153]

It is often said that the Vietnamese used their cunning oriental Sun Tzu-inspired military ways to turn US strength against itself. The US is generally represented as being almost stupidly and obtusely plain and open. Gabriel Kolko, for example, said that US officials didn’t really have a concept of historical trends.[154] The truth is almost the complete opposite. The US applied a great deal of abstruse and convoluted ideas which often employed deception. In fact the US had highly sophisticated intelligence and strategy formulation systems. They applied psychosocial and anthropological disciplines rigorously. The US produced large “Psychological Operations” reports on each of the three Indochinese nations in the late 1950s (note well that they produced one report for Vietnam) which the material, social, cultural and psychological milieu of each nation and how to exploit it. However parochial the viewpoint may have been, the US was therefore working with complex and highly informed rather than ignorant and simple-minded premises.[155] Incidentally, the US was also able to bring considerable anthropological acumen to bear when it came to working with the Hmong of Laos[156] and the Montagnards of Vietnam.[157]

In contrast, the PLAF and PAVN were almost completely confined to strictly military actions attacking the physical and moral military strength of their enemies. Their most important military leader, Vo Nguyen Giap, was a keen student of Clausewitz, of T. E. Lawrence, and of Mao Tse Tung who was also heavily influenced by Clausewitz.[158]

The most bitter irony is not the racism of those who assume that Vietnamese leaders would never employ strategic and tactical thinking from Western theorists, but rather that the relative weakness of the DRV regime meant that they could not afford anything but a fully committed outright military struggle. The French, whose war was paid for by the US, would make no concessions to the Viet Minh until they were clearly defeated. But what they won on the battlefield was stripped from them at the negotiating table. The DRV was in dire economic straits due to the ravages of war and colonialism, which, ultimately, was the reason that they even allowed Vietnam to be divided at the Geneva Conference despite having shown they were capable, if the war continued, of winning a complete politico-military victory.[159] The Viet Minh occupied most of Vietnam and Laos and had won a major victory at An Tuc near the 14th parallel. They wanted a temporary division at the 13th or 14th parallel and knew that by accepting a division at the 17th parallel they were facilitating a partition.[160] Douglas Pike, a US official as well as a scholar, puts it forthrightly: “Ironically the agreement in Geneva benefited all parties except the winners.”[161]

So ultimately, despite racial stereotyping, the enemies of the US could do nothing but fight a relatively straightforward military struggle, using the best tactics available to them, until the self-fulfilling prophecy of Communist tanks entering Saigon came to pass. It was the US that exploited Hanoi’s own strengths against it, making the 1973 peace agreement akin to the 1954 peace agreement. This time, however, when the US did not live up to the deal it was inevitable that the DRV would finish the military conquest, creating “visuals” that appeared as the conquest of an aggressor, not an act of liberation or reunification.

The US left to the military victor a deeply divided country which they had partitioned for 21 years. The economy was stretched thin in the North and fragmented, poisoned and half-immolated in the South. Kiernan and Owen write that the latest research suggests that “from 1961 to 1972, American aircraft dropped approximately one million tons of bombs on North Vietnam, and much more on rural areas of South Vietnam – approximately 4 million tons of bombs, 400,000 tons of napalm, and 19 million gallons of herbicides.”

The evidence that the US committed genocide in Indochina is overwhelming. There were statements of clear genocidal intent; there were policies that embodied genocidal intent; every other major policy, practice, or common tactic seemed to belong to a system which maximised the death and destruction visited on the peoples of Indochina. This system seemed equally to be hostile to military efforts, and US actions also blocked all avenues to peace apart from total conquest by Communist-led anti-US forces. This left 3 countries bearing enormous physical, psychological, cultural, social, political, ecological and biological wounds.

To clarify, I think it is safe to reduce the possibilities to two interpretations. A) The US was trying to fight a war, but was for various reasons unable to act in a logical politico-military manner and despite its material superiority was defeated by a weaker but more coherent enemy. B) The US was always engaged in the business of genocide. Recurrent decisions were made on the basis of the desirability of inflicting varying forms destruction on the peoples of Indochina as such. This destruction included, but was not limited to, mass physical violence on a scale which cannot be explained in military terms. The genocide gave the US an effective victory over Laos, Cambodia and Viet Nam despite the military defeat suffered by the US.

We can think of these as hypotheses A and B. Obviously these are not experimentally falsifiable in the way that the ideal scientific hypothesis is. We can’t re-run the entire war and see if it looks different if we ensure there is no genocide, but it is still illuminating to put these in the context of what is considered meritous for hypotheses in science. Most important among those meritous qualities are explanatory power, parsimony and predictive ability.

So how do they stack up?

Hypothesis A doesn’t actually explain events very well. It does explain why Khmer Rouge soldiers took over Phnom Penh 40 years ago, and why Bui Tin told Minh he had no power to surrender. However, it doesn’t really explain the events leading up to that conclusion. US militarists are fond of saying that the US was never defeated in the field in Vietnam. That is utter nonsense, of course, but they never lost anything to force of arms that they couldn’t get back (except morale). There is a very clear disjuncture between all of the years of military success and the finalé of defeat that doesn’t comport with hypothesis A.

Hypothesis B explains a surprising amount. It isn’t a complete explanation for everything, but almost everything the US did in Indochina fits within the framework of genocide. To name a few such things: cluster munitions; strategic hamlets; Operation Speedy Express; Operation Menu; one-year tours of duty; the Phoenix Programme; Agent Orange; child soldiers and ghost soldiers.[162]

Hypothesis A is very far from parsimonious. In fact in important respects, hypothesis A is not a hypothesis at all, but a presumption which has spawned innumerable ornate theories or theorycules about US politics, culture, decisionmaking, psychology, dysfunction, and so forth. For example, I have documented four different variants of quagmire thesis, all of which are distinct from concepts of stalemate, inadvertence, groupthink, and imperial presidency.[163]

According to common perception Hypothesis B might seem to lack parsimony. In the common imagination a project of genocide is something hatched by maniacal plotters behind closed doors and enacted by brutal fanatics. One could argue that this is a perfect description of what occurred in Indochina, but it is subjective. It presupposes that the observer will see the plotters and those who execute the plots as the “other”. It makes people think that they have to reconceptualise the way that US society works because they believe, by definition, that the ordinary functioning of US political power precludes a series of officials all systematically choosing to commit genocide over a period of time. They believe that it would involve special secrecy and Byzantine conspiracy. The reality is far more banal. The maniacal plotters are rational and ordinary men and women, just as the Nazi leaders were. The brutal fanatics are also just ordinary people – frighteningly so. There was a lot of secret conspiracy, that has been well established particularly with regard to the Nixon administrations, but much that was genocidal was simply done in the open.

In fact, hypothesis B requires only a partial corollary. The corollary is that even if the main thrust of US activity was defined by a project of genocide, many personnel, if not entire institutions, engaged earnestly in counter-insurgency, winning hearts and minds and trying to establish democarcy and prosperity. The reason that this is only a partial corollary is that any such substantive effort was systematically undermined or subverted. Every bright idea that was fed into the US came out twisted into another interation of genocide. Efforts at “pacification” for example, spawned genocidal operations like Speedy Express. “Inkblot” counterinsurgency became “strategic hamlets”, “enclave strategy” and “refugee generation”. For any scholars of the 2nd Indochina War who still harbour doubts over the genocide, ask yourself whether it is really possible that all of those well-meaning and often very clever sounding military, political and civil actions somehow all came to inflict damage on the people they were supposed to help or co-opt.

Finally, I will turn to the predictive power of the hypotheses. Obviously this is not 1975, and it is not scientifically valid to make “predictions” in retrospect. But I am not doing science here, I am using concepts that are applied to science in order to show that the commonly accepted orthodox view of the 2nd Indochina War is hopelessly pathetic. That said, let us imagine what hypothesis A would predict. It would predict the “Vietnam Syndrome” and the massive reorganisation of the US military that followed the war. It would be highly consonant with the advent of the Powell Doctrine. In other words, the US military itself behaved very much like it had been defeated in a war. But in other respects the US did not seem like it had lost a war. As mentioned, it was not in any way subject to the power of the victors. In terms of international hegemony the US continued to grow in strength with its financial hegemony actually improving after it dropped the gold standard. The “Third World” – meaning the non-aligned countries – became the “Third World” – meaning impoverished debt-vassals to Western capital. The US won the Cold War and the Laos, Viet Nam and Cambodia embraced the “Washington Consensus”.

More strikingly, though, is the fact that with some reluctance on the part of the US military, the US has started making exactly the same “mistakes” repeatedly and for very protracted periods. Since 2001, the US has been on a spree of war-fighting “mistakes”. In fact, even whilst the war was still happening in Indochina, they were making the same “mistakes” in Latin America and continued to make those “mistakes” for as long as they could.

To put this in perspective there is no country on Earth that comes close to the US in its experience of fighting against insurgencies and irregular warfare once you account for Indian Wars, Cuba, Philippines, every Marine campaign from the Halls of Montezuma to the shores of Tripoli, The Pacific War, Korea, Indochina, the entire Western hemisphere, “advisors”, “trainers”, schools, AFRICOM, CENTCOM and more besides. In fact, I dare say that all other countries in the history of humanity put together have not equalled the US in the sheer number of person hours devoted to counter-insurgency. So how then do we accept the constant diagnosis given by respected analysts who explain US “failures” in terms of their inability to fight insurgencies? Are we that stupid?

Now the counter-insurgency and conventional military “failures” are proliferating, and they all happen to experience the social, cultural, economic, ecological and political destruction, along with mass deaths, that signify genocide. Places like Libya, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Syria and Somalia resemble Lemkin’s description of the effects of German genocide very closely.

Hypothesis B might lead one to predict all of this. It could predict that genocidal events would occur in the Western hemisphere admixed with genuine counter-insurgency and politicidal violence by established comprador oligarchs. It would predict that client minorities in Apartheid South Africa and Israel would use the same tactics. It would predict that, as much as possible, the US would avoid the public and military morale problems that meant that it could not indefinitely continue violence against Indochina. In that vein, hypothesis B strongly resonates with actions such as declaring no-fly zones such as that imposed on Iraq during the sanctions period. It would predict that the US would often avoid “boots on the ground” of they were likely to cause exponentially mounting opposition. But where it had found them worthwile once, it would want to keep sending them back even after they had been withdrawn.

Hypothesis B would predict that once the hegemony of the US was threatened on a global scale its genocidal practices would spread. It would militarily intervene in ever more countries in order to weaken the nations and the peoples that threatened to break free of its control. It would exploit the weakness and instability it created in each intervention to perpetuate further destruction creating further weakness and instability which would allow further destruction. This would continue and proliferate until stopped by a fundamental change – either the complete collapse of US power altogether or a change in public perception which causes the genocidal acts to be clearly seen as genocidal and morally unacceptable. US military and economic power is immense and will not simply vanish overnight, so the first option is a guarantee of years of continued destuction, immiseration and death.

A or B?

[1] Raphael Lemkin, Axis Rule in Occupied Europe: Laws of Occupation – Analysis of Government – Proposals for Redress, Washington, D.C.: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 1944, pp 80-1.

[2] Carl Von Clausewitz, On War, 2.2.29. Ware: Wordsworth Editions, 1997, p 93.

[3] Estimates of Cambodian deaths resulting from the 1970-75 war range from Vickery’s 500,000 killed (Herman and Chomsky, Manufacturing Consent, p 263) to a credible 1 million excess deaths Sorpong Peou, Intervention & Change in Cambodia: Towards Democracy? Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, 2000, p 54. Given that the Cambodian population was an estimated 6 or 7 million in the period of the Second Indochina War, this gives us a figure of between 1 in 6 and 1 in 14 of all Cambodians killed. The US lost around 59,000 (Gibson, A Perfect War, p 9) out of a population around 200,000,000; or 1 in 3390. This gives a range of between 0.18 and 0.41 per cent.

[4] Between 1.8 and 3.2 million Vietnamese died (Neale, A People’s History, pp 75-6; S. Brian Willson, ‘Bob Kerrey’s Atrocity, the Crime of Vietnam and the Historic Pattern of US Imperialism’, in Adam Jones (ed.), Genocide, War Crimes and the West, p 169; Robert K. Brigham, ‘Why the South Won the American War in Vietnam’ in Marc Jason Gilbert (ed), Why the North Won the Vietnam War. New York: Palgrave, 2002, p 98) giving a range of between 1 in 9 and 1 in 16. This gives US percentages as being between 0.27 and 0.47 percent.

[5] Laos is extremely problematic in terms of counting the lives lost. The New York Times gives an estimated figure of 350,000 (Herman and Chomsky, Manufacturing Consent, p 260). That is around 1 in 9, but the figure may be too low when one considers that, in addition to civil war, the Laotians in this period were subjected to 500,000 bombing missions which dropped over 2 million tons of bombs (Willson, ‘Bob Kerrey’s Atrocity…,’ p 168).

[6] Bureau of Economic Assessment, “Current-Dollar and “Real” Gross Domestic Product” [Computer spreadsheet file]. Retrieved 25 January 2008 from

[7] William, Shawcross, Sideshow: Kissinger, Nixon and the Destruction of Cambodia. London: Fontana, 1980 (1979), pp 220-1.

[8] Ben Kiernan, The Pol Pot Regime: Race, Power, and Genocide in Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1996, p 19.

[9] Herman and Chomsky, Manufacturing Consent, p 264.

[10] It ranks 139th on the Human Development Index, which is two places below Cambodia (United Nations Development Programme, ‘Country Fact Sheet – Lao People’s Democratic Republic’. Retrieved 21 April 2015 from Also:

[11] Hy V. Luong, ‘Postwar Vietnamese Society: An Overview of Transformational Dynamic’ in Hy V. Luong (ed.), Postwar Vietnam: Dynamics of a Transforming Society. Oxford: Rowman and Littlefield, 2003, pp 12, 14.

[12] Nicholas Minot; Francesco Goletti, ‘Export Liberalization and Household Welfare: The Case of Rice in Vietnam’ in American Journal of Agricultural Economics, Vol. 80, No. 4. (Nov., 1998), p 743. Minot and Goletti actually (to their own evident surprise) projected a slight overall drop in poverty, but they do so on the basis of changes in real income which do not take into account that rural persons are better able to acquire food without income expenditure. They also slightly underestimate the level of urbanisation – they use the 1990 figure of 20 per cent, when by the time of their writing the figure was over 23 per cent (Michael DiGregorio, A. Terry Rambo, Masayuki Yanagisawa, ‘Clean, Green, and Beautiful: Environment and Development under the Renovation Economy’ in Hy V. Luong (ed.), Postwar Vietnam: Dynamics of a Transforming Society. Oxford: Rowman and Littlefield, 2003, p 189.) and do not account for future urbanisation. Michel Chossudovsky suggests that the Vietnamese did, in the actual event, become considerably poorer (Michel Chossudovsky, The Globalisation of Poverty and the New World Order. Shanty Bay, Ontario: Global Outlook, 2003, p 168).

[13] Gilbert, ‘Introduction’, p 26.

[14] Cawthorne, Vietnam: A War Lost and Won, pp 77-8.

[15] Some of the metal was actually sold back to Viet Nam by a Japanese conglomerate at market rates (Chossudovsky, The Globalisation of Poverty…, pp 172-3).

[16] Adam Fforde and Suzanne H. Paine, The Limits of National Liberation. Beckenham, Kent: Croom Helm, 1987, pp 127-8.

[17] Robert D. Schulzinger, A Time for War: The United States and Vietnam, 1941-1975. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997, pp 172-3.

[18] John Pilger, “Year Zero” in John Pilger (ed.), Tell Me No Lies: Investigative Journalism and Its Triumphs, London: Vintage, 2005, pp 120-157. See also Alexander Laban Hinton, Why Did They Kill? : Cambodia in the Shadow of Genocide, Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005;

[19] Peou, Intervention & Change in Cambodia, p 143; Spencer C. Tucker, Vietnam. Lexington, Kentucky: University Press of Kentucky, 1999, p 196.

[20] Herman and Chomsky, Manufacturing Consent, p 260.

[21] Wilfred Burchett, The China, Cambodia, Vietnam Triangle. Chicago and London: Vanguard Books and Zed Press, 1981, pp 41-2.

[22] Shawcross, Sideshow, p 238.

[23] Ben Kiernan ‘The Samlaut Rebellion, 1967-68’ in Kiernan, Ben, and Boua, Chanthou (eds). Peasants and Politics in Kampuchea, 1942-1981. London: Zed Press, 1982, pp 166-172.

[24] Shawcross, Sideshow, pp 52-3, 55-7

[25] Shawcross, Sideshow, pp 64-5.

[26] Kiernan, The Pol Pot Regime, p 18.

[27] Shawcross, Sideshow, pp 114-5.

[28] William Blum, Killing Hope: U.S. Military and C.I.A. Interventions Since World War II (2nd ed.), Monroe: Common Courage Press, 2004, pp 137-8; Peou, Intervention & Change in Cambodia, pp 125-6; Shawcross, Sideshow, pp 114-23;

[29] Partly because the MACV produced figures 5 times as high as the more likely CIA figure. The Central Intelligence Agency agreed there was a flow through Cambodia, but its National Intelligence Estimate in 1968 put the level at only two thousand tons. Pacific Command intelligence essentially accepted the CIA estimate. The State Department argued that “what reliable evidence is available does not suggest that the operation is of the magnitude MACV describes.”’ Even the Pentagon questioned MACV methodology. CIA analyst Paul Walsh conducted ‘quite a sophisticated’ study, arriving ‘at a figure of something like six thousand tons from 1967 to early 1970. By then MACV’s claims were up to about eighteen thousand.’ (Prados, The Hidden History of the Vietnam War, p 236.

[30] Shawcross, Sideshow, p 64.

[31] Shawcross, Sideshow, pp 202, 221, 251.

[32] Shawcross, Sideshow, p 19.

[33] Marilyn B. Young, The Vietnam Wars 1945-1990. New York: Harper Perennial, 1991 pp 72, 186; William S. Turley, The Second Indochina War. Boulder, Colorado: Westview, 1986, pp 79-80; Tucker, Vietnam, p 129.

[34] Shawcross, Sideshow, p 140.

[35] Young, The Vietnam Wars, p 245.

[36] Shawcross, 1979, p 151.

[37] Kiernan, The Pol Pot Regime, pp 19-23. Also see Peou, Intervention & Change in Cambodia, p 128.

[38] Shawcross, Sideshow, pp 73, 180, 194-5, 261.

[39] Shawcross, Sideshow, p 249.

[40] Shawcross, Sideshow, p 254

[41] Shawcross, Sideshow, p 220.

[42] Shawcross, Sideshow, pp 317-9.

[43] Shawcross, Sideshow, p 149.

[44] Peou, Intervention & Change in Cambodia , p 127.

[45] Shawcross, Sideshow, p 163.

[46] Kiernan, The Pol Pot Regime, p 24.

[47] Kiernan, The Pol Pot Regime, p 19.

[48] Shawcross, Sideshow, p 186.

[49] Shawcross, Sideshow, pp 254-5.

[50] Shawcross, Sideshow, p 169.

[51] Nigel Cawthorne, Vietnam: A War Lost and Won. London: Arcturus Publishing, 2003, p 213; William C. Westmoreland “A Look Back” (1988). Retrieved 25 April 2015 from

[52] Cawthorne, Vietnam: A War Lost and Won, p 64.

[53] Edward Cuddy, “Vietnam: Mr. Johnson’s War. Or Mr. Eisenhower’s?” The Review of Politics, 65:4, Autumn 2003, pp 360-1.

[54] Frederik Logevall, “Lyndon Johnson and Vietnam”, Presidential Studies Quarterly, 34:1, March 2004, p 100.

[55] Schulzinger, A Time for War, pp 146, 166.

[56] Schulzinger, A Time for War, pp 169-70.

[57] Christian Appy, Vietnam: The Definitive Oral History Told from all Sides. London: Ebury Press/Random House, 2006 (2003), pp 120-3.

[58] Logevall, ‘Lyndon Johnson and Vietnam’ p 101.

[59] Schulzinger, A Time for War, pp 99, 111; Fred I. Greenstein and Richard H. Immerman, ‘What Did Eisenhower Tell Kennedy about Indochina? The Politics of Misperception.’ The Journal of American History, Vol. 79, No. 2. (Sep., 1992), p 584. These authors, I should point out, take the vocalisations and equivocating as a symptom of reluctance: “The events that culminated in United States military intervention in Vietnam were marked by continuing disagreement and ambivalence on the part of American policy makers, who sought to arrive at outcomes falling between what Eisenhower at one point described as the ‘unattainable’ and the ‘unacceptable.’”

[60] Schulzinger, A Time for War, p 111.

[61] Michael Sallah and Mitch Weiss, Tiger Force. London: Hodder and Stoughton, 2006, pp 29-30

[62] Tucker, Vietnam, p 151; John Prados, ‘Impatience, Illusion and Assymetry’ in Marc Jason Gilbert (ed), Why the North Won the Vietnam War. New York: Palgrave, 2002, p 141.

[63] McGeorge Bundy, ‘Memorandum for the President, February 7, 1965,’ in Gareth Porter and Gloria Emerson (eds), Vietnam: A History in Documents (abridged). New York: New American Library, 1981 (1979), pp 295-9.

[64] Harry Summers, On Strategy: A critical analysis of the Vietnam War. New York: Presidio Press, 1995 (1982) pp 117-8.

[65] Many authors are happy to suggest that the US was mistaken because it thought that Hanoi would not be so complacent about the deaths of its own people. By this means the whole public relations paradigm of graduated response reverses victim and perpetrator in the same manner as a large bully using a smaller child’s hands to hit his face while saying, ‘stop hitting yourself.’ Jeffrey Record writes that the air campaign against the DRV failed because: ‘As a fiercely nationalistic totalitarian state prepared to sacrifice entire generations of its sons to achieve Vietnam’s reunification, North Vietnam was a very poor candidate for coercion through bombing,’ (Record, ‘How America’s Military Performance…’, in Gilbert (ed.), Why the North Won the Vietnam War, p 128). Cawthorne, referring to US use of fire-power more broadly reads into a Defense Department report that Hanoi calculatedly maintains a level of casualties just below its birth rate (Cawthorne, Vietnam: A War Lost and Won, p 114). This sort of ‘analysis’ relies on unexamined racial notions and also the unexamined presumption that the DRV leaders were presented with any choices in regard to either war on the ground or the air campaigns.

[66] Turley, The Second Indochina War, p 87.

[67] Gibson, A Perfect War, p 330.

[68] Cawthorne, Vietnam: A War Lost and Won, pp 96-7.

[69] Turley, The Second Indochina War, pp 92-5.

[70] Qiang Zhai, ‘Opposing Negotiations: China and the Vietnam Peace Talks, 1965-1968,’ The Pacific Historical Review, Vol. 68, No. 1. (Feb., 1999), p 25.

[71] ‘The four points were: recognition of the fundamental rights of the Vietnamese people to peace, independence, sovereignty, unity, and territorial integrity, accompanied by unilateral American withdrawal and the unconditional cessation of military operations in South and North Vietnam; American respect for the Geneva Agreement of 1954 settlement of South Vietnamese problems by the South Vietnamese people in accordance with the program of southern revolutionaries without outside interference; and no foreign interference in the peace process leading to the reunification of Vietnam,’ (Pierre Asselin, ‘Hanoi and Americanization of the War in Vietnam: New Evidence from Vietnam,Pacific Historical Review, Vol. 74, No. 3, p 433, n 21.

[72] Logevall, ‘Lyndon Johnson and Vietnam’ pp 106-7.

[73] Gibson, A Perfect War, pp 333-4.

[74] Mark Levene, Genocide in the Age of the Nation-State, Volume II: The Rise of the West and the Coming of Genocide, London, New York: I.B. Tauris, 2005, p 13.

[75] Levene, Genocide in the Age of the Nation-State: Volume II, p 13.

[76] Adam Jones, Genocide: A Comprehensive Introduction, London: Routledge, 2006, p 71.

[77] Levene, Genocide in the Age of the Nation-State: Volume II, pp 10, 13.

[78] John Docker, Raphael Lemkin’s History of Genocide and Colonialism, Paper for United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, Center for Advanced Holocaust Studies, Washington DC, 26 February 2004, p 5.

[79] Samuel P. Huntington, “The Bases of Accomodation” in Foreign Affairs, 46:4, July 1968, pp 648-9.

[80] Philip Jones Griffiths, Vietnam Inc., Sydney: Phaidon, 2001.

[81] Appy, Vietnam, p 242.

[82] Raphaël Lemkin, Axis Rule in Occupied Europe: Laws of Occupation – Analysis of Government – Proposals for Redress, Washington, D.C.: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 1944, p 89.

[83] Lemkin, Axis Rule, pp 89-90.

[84] Raphaël Lemkin, “Genocide”, American Scholar, 15:2 , April 1946, p 227.

[85] Michael Sallah and Mitch Weiss, Tiger Force. London: Hodder and Stoughton, 2006.

[86] Bernd Greiner, War Without Fronts: The USA in Vietnam, London: Vintage, 2010.

[87] Greiner, War Without Fronts, p 11.

[88] Nicholas Turse. Kill Anything That Moves: United States War Crimes and Atrocities in Vietnam, 1965–1973. Ph.D. thesis, Columbia University, 2005.

[89] Deborah Nelson, The War Behind Me: Vietnam Veterans Confront the Truth about U.S. War Crimes, New York: Basic Books, 2008.

[90] Nicholas Turse. Kill Anything That Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam, New York: Metropolitan Books, 2013.

[91] Greiner, War Without Fronts, pp 12-3.

[92] Greiner, War Without Fronts, p 31.

[93] Nelson, The War Behind Me, p 127.

[94] This description is from a speech given in Los Angeles at the United Methodist Church in North Hills on July 20, 2003 which was recorded by the L.A. Sound Posse. S. Brian Willson, ‘US Intervention in Korea’. Los Angeles: 20 July 2003. Retrieved 28 April 2015 from

[95] S. Brian Willson, “Biography”. Retrieved 28 April 2015 from

[96] Neil Sheehan’s A Bright Shining Lie: John Paul Vann and America in Vietnam, New York: Vintage 1989 (1988), p pp 617-8.

[97] Turley, The Second Indochina War, p 66.

[98] Sallah and Weiss, Tiger Force, pp 77, 164, 290-2.

[99] Gibson, A Perfect War, p 135.

[100] Sheehan, A Bright Shining Lie, pp 106-111.

[101] Sheehan, A Bright Shining Lie, p 111.

[102] Roger Warner, Shooting at the Moon: The Story of America’s Clandestine War in Laos, South Royalton, Vermont: Steerforth Press, 1996, p 82.

[103] Summers, On Strategy, p 168.

[104] Tucker, Vietnam, p 96; Shawcross, Sideshow, p 178.

[105] Tucker, Vietnam, p 150.

[106] Sheehan, A Bright Shining Lie, pp 109-110.

[107] Noam Chomsky, For Reasons of State, New YorK; New Press, 2003, p 21.

[108] Philip Caputo, A Rumor of War. London: Arrow, 1985 (1977), p 74.

[109] Gibson, A Perfect War, p 138.

[110] Herman and Chomsky, Manufacturing Consent, p 195.

[111] John Pilger, Heroes, London: Vintage, 2001, (1986) p 191.

[112] Helen Emmerich quoted in Gibson, A Perfect War, p 141.

[113] Joanna Bourke, An Intimate History of Killing: Face to Face Killing in 20th Century Warfare. London: Granta, 1999, p 220.

[114] Briefly put, the US was running a very expensive interdiction campaign in the air and supplies were very difficult to move South from the DRV. The southern forces needed very little in the way of supplies to continue an insurgency whose pace they determined themselves, but it was nevertheless true that supplies and weapons were of inestimable value.

[115] Young, The Vietnam Wars, p 187.

[116] Jeffrey Record, ‘How America’s Own Military Performance in Vietnam Abetted the “North’s” Victory’ in Marc Jason Gilbert (ed), Why the North Won the Vietnam War. New York: Palgrave, 2002, p 125.

[117] Neale, A People’s History of the Vietnam War, p 85.

[118] Gibson, A Perfect War, p 112.

[119] Appy, Vietnam, p 365.

[120] Gibson, A Perfect War, p 120.

[121] Appy, Vietnam, p 350.

[122] Gibson, A Perfect War, p viii.

[123] Appy, Vietnam, p 358.

[124] Neale, A People’s History of the Vietnam War, p 94.

[125] Tucker,Vietnam, p 152.

[126] Neale, A People’s History of the Vietnam War, p 96.

[127] Caputo, A Rumor of War, p 107.

[128] Cawthorne, Vietnam: A War Lost and Won, p 60.

[129] Appy, Vietnam, p 452.

[130] Appy, Vietnam, p 375.

[131] Gibson, A Perfect War, pp 181-2.

[132] Gibson, A Perfect War, pp 182.

[133] Appy, Vietnam, p 107.

[134] Gibson, A Perfect War, p 182.

[135] Record, ‘How America’s Military Performance…’, in Gilbert (ed.), Why the North Won the Vietnam War, p 127.

[136] Caputo, A Rumor of War, p 65.

[137] Neale, A People’s History of the Vietnam War, pp 87-8.

[138] Gibson, A Perfect War, pp 110-2.

[139] Tucker, Vietnam, p 131.

[140] Appy, Vietnam, p 543.

[141] Neale, A People’s History of the Vietnam War, pp 90-1.

[142] Sallah and Weiss, Tiger Force, pp 29-30, 240, 250, 261, 278, 279, 285, 292.

[143] See: Beyond Stalemate, pp 61-80.

[144] Chomsky, For Reasons of State, p 44.

[145] Sheehan, A Bright Shining Lie, p 101.

[146] Gibson, A Perfect War, pp 61-2.

[147] Caputo, A Rumor of War, p 54.

[148] Gibson, A Perfect War, pp 258-60.

[149] Schulzinger, A Time for War, p 191.

[150] Neale, A People’s History of the Vietnam War, p 100.

[151] Tucker, Vietnam, pp 92-3.

[152] Larry Cable, Unholy Grail: The US and the wars in Vietnam, 1965-8. London: Routledge, 1991, p 155.

[153] James O. Whittaker, ‘Psychological Warfare in Vietnam’ in Political Psychology, Vol. 18, No. 1. (Mar., 1997), p 168.

[154] Gabriel Kolko, Vietnam: Anatomy of War 1940-1975. London: Allen and Unwin 1986, p 48.

[155] Shawcross, Sideshow, pp 56-8.

[156] Warner, Shooting at the Moon, p 108

[157] John Prados, The Hidden History of the Vietnam War, Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 1995, p 74.

[158] Phillip Davidson, Vietnam At War: The History 1946-1975, Oxford: OUP, 1991, p 20.

[159] Kolko, Anatomy of War, p 64.

[160] Gibson, A Perfect War, p 67.

[161] Douglas Pike, Viet Cong: The Organisation and techniques of the National Liberation Front of South Vietnam. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, 1968 (1966), p 51.

[162] All of which can be found in Beyond Stalemate.

[163] All of which can also be found in Beyond Stalemate.