George Orwell coined the useful term “unperson” for creatures denied personhood because they don’t abide by state doctrine. We may add the term “unhistory” to refer to the fate of unpersons, expunged from history on similar grounds.
The unhistory of unpersons is illuminated by the fate of anniversaries. Important ones are usually commemorated, with due solemnity when appropriate: Pearl Harbor, for example. Some are not, and we can learn a lot about ourselves by extricating them from unhistory.
Right now we are failing to commemorate an event of great human significance: the 50th anniversary of President Kennedy’s decision to launch the direct invasion of South Vietnam, soon to become the most extreme crime of aggression since World War II.
Kennedy ordered the U.S. Air Force to bomb South Vietnam (by February 1962, hundreds of missions had flown); authorized chemical warfare to destroy food crops so as to starve the rebellious population into submission; and set in motion the programs that ultimately drove millions of villagers into urban slums and virtual concentration camps, or “Strategic Hamlets.” There the villagers would be “protected” from the indigenous guerrillas whom, as the administration knew, they were willingly supporting.
Official efforts at justifying the attacks were slim, and mostly fantasy. Typical was the president’s impassioned address to the American Newspaper Publishers Association on April 27, 1961, where he warned that “we are opposed around the world by a monolithic and ruthless conspiracy that relies primarily on covert means for expanding its sphere of influence.” At the United Nations on Sept. 25, 1961, Kennedy said that if this conspiracy achieved its ends in Laos and Vietnam, “the gates will be opened wide.”
The short-term effects were reported by the highly respected Indochina specialist and military historian Bernard Fall – no dove, but one of those who cared about the people of the tormented countries.
In early 1965 he estimated that about 66,000 South Vietnamese had been killed between 1957 and 1961; and another 89,000 between 1961 and April 1965, mostly victims of the U.S. client regime or “the crushing weight of American armor, napalm, jet bombers and finally vomiting gases.”
The decisions were kept in the shadows, as are the shocking consequences that persist. To mention just one illustration: “Scorched Earth,” by Fred Wilcox, the first serious study of the horrifying and continuing impact of chemical warfare on the Vietnamese, appeared a few months ago – and is likely to join other works of unhistory. The core of history is what happened. The core of unhistory is to “disappear” what happened.
By 1967, opposition to the crimes in South Vietnam had reached a substantial scale. Hundreds of thousands of U.S. troops were rampaging through South Vietnam, and heavily populated areas were subjected to intense bombing. The invasion had spread to the rest of Indochina.
The consequences had become so horrendous that Bernard Fall forecast that “Vietnam as a cultural and historic entity ... is threatened with extinction ... (as) ... the countryside literally dies under the blows of the largest military machine ever unleashed on an area of this size.”
When the war ended eight devastating years later, mainstream opinion was divided between those who called it a “noble cause” that could have been won with more dedication; and at the opposite extreme, the critics, to whom it was “a mistake” that proved too costly.
Still to come was the bombing of the remote peasant society of northern Laos, with such magnitude that victims lived in caves for years to try to survive; and shortly afterward the bombing of rural Cambodia, surpassing the level of all Allied bombing in the Pacific theater during World War II.
In 1970 U.S. National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger had ordered “a massive bombing campaign in Cambodia. Anything that flies on anything that moves” – a call for genocide of a kind rarely found in the archival record.
Laos and Cambodia were “secret wars,” in that reporting was scanty and the facts are still little-known to the general public or even educated elites, who nonetheless can recite by heart every real or alleged crime of official enemies.
Another chapter in the overflowing annals of unhistory.
In three years we may – or may not – commemorate another event of great contemporary relevance: the 900th anniversary of the Magna Carta.
This document is the foundation for what historian Margaret E. McGuiness, referring to the Nuremberg Trials, hailed as a “particularly American brand of legalism: punishment only for those who could be proved to be guilty through a fair trial with a panoply of procedural protections.”
The Great Charter declares that “no free man” shall be deprived of rights “except by the lawful judgment of his peers and by the law of the land.” The principles were later broadened to apply to men generally. They crossed the Atlantic and entered into the U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights, which declared that no “person” can be deprived of rights without due process and a speedy trial.
The founders of course did not intend the term “person” to apply to all persons. Native Americans were not persons. Neither were slaves. Women were scarcely persons. However, let us keep to the core notion of presumption of innocence, which has been cast into the oblivion of unhistory.
A further step in undermining the principles of the Magna Carta was taken when President Obama signed the National Defense Authorization Act, which codifies Bush-Obama practice of indefinite detention without trial under military custody.
Such treatment is now mandatory in the case of those accused of aiding enemy forces during the “war on terror,” or optional if those accused are American citizens.
The scope is illustrated by the first Guantanamo case to come to trial under President Obama: that of Omar Khadr, a former child soldier accused of the heinous crime of trying to defend his Afghan village when it was attacked by U.S. forces. Captured at age 15, Khadr was imprisoned for eight years in Bagram and Guantanamo, then brought to a military court in October 2010, where he was given the choice of pleading not guilty and staying in Guantanamo forever, or pleading guilty and serving only 8 more years. Khadr chose the latter.
Many other examples illuminate the concept of “terrorist.” One is Nelson Mandela, only removed from the terrorist list in 2008. Another was Saddam Hussein. In 1982 Iraq was removed from the list of terrorist-supporting states so that the Reagan administration could provide Hussein with aid after he invaded Iran.
Accusation is capricious, without review or recourse, and commonly reflecting policy goals – in Mandela’s case, to justify President Reagan’s support for the apartheid state’s crimes in defending itself against one of the world’s “more notorious terrorist groups”: Mandela’s African National Congress.
All better consigned to unhistory.
© 2011 Noam Chomsky
Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate.