Christopher Hitchens, longtime contributor to The Nation, wrote a wide-ranging, biweekly column for the magazine from 1982 to 2002. With trademark savage wit, Hitchens flattens hypocrisy inside the Beltway and around the world, laying bare the "permanent government" of entrenched powers and interests.
Born in 1949 in Portsmouth, England, Hitchens received a degree in philosophy, politics and economics from Balliol College, Oxford, in 1970.
His books include Callaghan: The Road to Number Ten (Cassell, 1976); Hostage to History: Cyprus From the Ottomans to Kissinger (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1989); Imperial Spoils: The Case of the Parthenon Marbles (Hill and Wang, 1989); Blood, Class and Nostalgia: Anglo-American Ironies (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1990); and The Missionary Position: Mother Teresa in Theory and Practice (Verso, 1995); as well as two collections including many Nation essays: Prepared for the Worst (Hill and Wang, 1989) and For the Sake of Argument: Essays & Minority Reports (Verso, 1993). His most recent book is No One Left to Lie To: The Values of the Worst Family (Verso, 2000).
Hitchens has been Washington editor of Harper's and book critic for Newsday, and regularly contributes to such publications as Granta, The London Review of Books, Vogue, New Left Review, Dissent and the Times Literary Supplement.
The two related questions before the house are these. Can the attacks
of September 11 be compared to an earlier outrage committed by
Americans? And should they be so compared?
It was in Peshawar, on the Pakistan-Afghanistan frontier, as the Red Army was falling apart and falling back. I badly needed a guide to get me to the Khyber Pass, and I decided that what I required was the most farouche-looking guy with the best command of English and the toughest modern automobile. Such a combination was obtainable, for a price. My new friend rather wolfishly offered me a tour of the nearby British military cemetery (a well-filled site from the Victorian era) before we began. Then he slammed a cassette into the dashboard. I braced myself for the ululations of some mullah but received instead a dose of "So Far Away." From under the turban and behind the beard came the gruff observation, "I thought you might like Dire Straits."
This was my induction into the now-familiar symbiosis of tribal piety and high-tech; a symbiosis consummated on September 11 with the conversion of the southern tip of the capital of the modern world into a charred and suppurating mass grave. Not that it necessarily has to be a symbol of modernism and innovation that is targeted for immolation. As recently as this year, the same ideology employed heavy artillery to destroy the Buddha statues at Bamiyan, and the co-thinkers of bin Laden in Egypt have been heard to express the view that the Pyramids and the Sphinx should be turned into shards as punishment for their profanely un-Islamic character.
Since my moment in Peshawar I have met this faction again. In one form or another, the people who leveled the World Trade Center are the same people who threw acid in the faces of unveiled women in Kabul and Karachi, who maimed and eviscerated two of the translators of The Satanic Verses and who machine-gunned architectural tourists at Luxor. Even as we worry what they may intend for our society, we can see very plainly what they have in mind for their own: a bleak and sterile theocracy enforced by advanced techniques. Just a few months ago Bosnia surrendered to the international court at The Hague the only accused war criminals detained on Muslim-Croat federation territory. The butchers had almost all been unwanted "volunteers" from the Chechen, Afghan and Kashmiri fronts; it is as an unapologetic defender of the Muslims of Bosnia (whose cause was generally unstained by the sort of atrocity committed by Catholic and Orthodox Christians) that one can and must say that bin Ladenism poisons everything that it touches.
I was apprehensive from the first moment about the sort of masochistic e-mail traffic that might start circulating from the Chomsky-Zinn-Finkelstein quarter, and I was not to be disappointed. With all due thanks to these worthy comrades, I know already that the people of Palestine and Iraq are victims of a depraved and callous Western statecraft. And I think I can claim to have been among the first to point out that Clinton's rocketing of Khartoum--supported by most liberals--was a gross war crime, which would certainly have entitled the Sudanese government to mount reprisals under international law. (Indeed, the sight of Clintonoids on TV, applauding the "bounce in the polls" achieved by their man that day, was even more repulsive than the sight of destitute refugee children making a wretched holiday over the nightmare on Chambers Street.) But there is no sense in which the events of September 11 can be held to constitute such a reprisal, either legally or morally.
It is worse than idle to propose the very trade-offs that may have been lodged somewhere in the closed-off minds of the mass murderers. The people of Gaza live under curfew and humiliation and expropriation. This is notorious. Very well: Does anyone suppose that an Israeli withdrawal from Gaza would have forestalled the slaughter in Manhattan? It would take a moral cretin to suggest anything of the sort; the cadres of the new jihad make it very apparent that their quarrel is with Judaism and secularism on principle, not with (or not just with) Zionism. They regard the Saudi regime not as the extreme authoritarian theocracy that it is, but as something too soft and lenient. The Taliban forces viciously persecute the Shiite minority in Afghanistan. The Muslim fanatics in Indonesia try to extirpate the infidel minorities there; civil society in Algeria is barely breathing after the fundamentalist assault.
Now is as good a time as ever to revisit the history of the Crusades, or the sorry history of partition in Kashmir, or the woes of the Chechens and Kosovars. But the bombers of Manhattan represent fascism with an Islamic face, and there's no point in any euphemism about it. What they abominate about "the West," to put it in a phrase, is not what Western liberals don't like and can't defend about their own system, but what they do like about it and must defend: its emancipated women, its scientific inquiry, its separation of religion from the state. Loose talk about chickens coming home to roost is the moral equivalent of the hateful garbage emitted by Falwell and Robertson, and exhibits about the same intellectual content. Indiscriminate murder is not a judgment, even obliquely, on the victims or their way of life, or ours. Any decent and concerned reader of this magazine could have been on one of those planes, or in one of those buildings--yes, even in the Pentagon.
The new talk is all of "human intelligence": the very faculty in which our ruling class is most deficient. A few months ago, the Bush Administration handed the Taliban a subsidy of $43 million in abject gratitude for the assistance of fundamentalism in the"war on drugs." Next up is the renewed "missile defense" fantasy recently endorsed by even more craven Democrats who seek to occupy the void "behind the President." There is sure to be further opportunity to emphasize the failings of our supposed leaders, whose costly mantra is "national security" and who could not protect us. And yes indeed, my guide in Peshawar was a shadow thrown by William Casey's CIA, which first connected the unstoppable Stinger missile to the infallible Koran. But that's only one way of stating the obvious, which is that this is an enemy for life, as well as an enemy of life.
Whether in his home district or in Washington, DC, Congressman Gary Condit is a discredit to his profession.
Not all readers liked my attack on the liberal/left tendency to "rationalize" the aggression of September 11, or my use of the term "fascism with an Islamic face," and I'll select a representat
Puerto Ricans of all stripes question the Navy's presence there.
In early June I sat on a panel, in front of a large and mainly Arab audience, with Thomas Friedman of the New York Times. Our hosts, the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, had asked for a discussion of contrasting images of the Israel-Palestine conflict. The general tempo of the meeting was encouragingly nontribal; there were many criticisms of Arab regimes and societies, and one of our co-panelists, Raghida Dergham, had recently been indicted in her absence by a Lebanese military prosecutor for the offense of sharing a panel discussion with an Israeli. However, it's safe to say that most of those attending were aching for a chance to question Friedman in person. He was accused directly at one point of writing in a lofty and condescending manner about the Palestinian people. To this he replied hotly and eloquently, saying that he had always believed that "the Jewish people will never be at home in Palestine until the Palestinian people are at home there."
That was well said, and I hadn't at the time read his then-most-recent column, so I didn't think to reply. But in that article he wrote that Chairman Arafat, by his endless double-dealing, had emptied the well of international sympathy for his cause. This is a very Times-ish rhetoric, of course. You have to think about it for a second. It suggests that rights, for Palestinians, are not something innate or inalienable. They are, instead, a reward for good behavior, or for getting a good press. It's hard to get more patronizing than that. During the first intifada, in the late 1980s, the Palestinians denied themselves the recourse to arms, mounted a civil resistance, produced voices like Hanan Ashrawi and greatly stirred world opinion. For this they were offered some noncontiguous enclaves within an Israeli-controlled and Israeli-settled condominium. Better than nothing, you might say. But it's the very deal the Israeli settlers reject in their own case, and they do not even live in Israel "proper." (They just have the support of the armed forces of Israel "proper.") So now things are not so nice and many Palestinians have turned violent and even--whatever next?--religious and fanatical. Naughty, naughty. No self-determination for you. And this from those who achieved statehood not by making nice but as a consequence of some very ruthless behavior indeed.
I am writing these lines in memoriam for my dear friend and comrade Dr. Israel Shahak, who died on July 2. His home on Bartenura Street in Jerusalem was a library of information about the human rights of the oppressed. The families of prisoners, the staff of closed and censored publications, the victims of eviction and confiscation--none were ever turned away. I have met influential "civil society" Palestinians alive today who were protected as students when Israel was a professor of chemistry at the Hebrew University; from him they learned never to generalize about Jews. And they respected him not just for his consistent stand against discrimination but also because--he never condescended to them. He detested nationalism and religion and made no secret of his contempt for the grasping Arafat entourage. But, as he once put it to me, "I will now only meet with Palestinian spokesmen when we are out of the country. I have some severe criticisms to present to them. But I cannot do this while they are living under occupation and I can 'visit' them as a privileged citizen." This apparently small point of ethical etiquette contains almost the whole dimension of what is missing from our present discourse: the element of elementary dignity and genuine mutual recognition.
Shahak's childhood was spent in Nazified Poland, the Warsaw Ghetto and Bergen-Belsen concentration camp; at the end of the war he was the only male left in his family. He reached Palestine before statehood, in 1945. In 1956 he heard David Ben-Gurion make a demagogic speech about the Anglo-French-Israeli attack on Egypt, referring to this dirty war as a campaign for "the kingdom of David and Solomon." That instilled in him the germinal feelings of opposition. By the end of his life, he had produced a scholarly body of work that showed the indissoluble connection between messianic delusions and racial and political ones. He had also, during his chairmanship of the Israeli League for Human and Civil Rights, set a personal example that would be very difficult to emulate.
He had no heroes and no dogmas and no party allegiances. If he admitted to any intellectual model, it would have been Spinoza. For Shahak, the liberation of the Jewish people was an aspect of the Enlightenment, and involved their own self-emancipation from ghetto life and from clerical control, no less than from ancient "Gentile" prejudice. It therefore naturally ensued that Jews should never traffic in superstitions or racial myths; they stood to lose the most from the toleration of such rubbish. And it went almost without saying that there could be no defensible Jewish excuse for denying the human rights of others. He was a brilliant and devoted student of the archeology of Jerusalem and Palestine: I would give anything for a videotape of the conducted tours of the city that he gave me, and of the confrontation in which he vanquished one of the propagandist guides on the heights of Masada. For him, the built and the written record made it plain that Palestine had never been the exclusive possession of any one people, let alone any one "faith."
Only the other day, I read some sanguinary proclamation from the rabbinical commander of the Shas party, Ovadia Yosef, himself much sought after by both Ehud Barak and Ariel Sharon. It was a vulgar demand for the holy extermination of non-Jews; the vilest effusions of Hamas and Islamic Jihad would have been hard-pressed to match it. The man wants a dictatorial theocracy for Jews and helotry or expulsion for the Palestinians, and he sees (as Shahak did in reverse) the connection. This is not a detail; Yosef's government receives an enormous US subsidy, and his intended victims live (and die, every day) under a Pax Americana. Men like Shahak, who force us to face these reponsibilities, are naturally rare. He was never interviewed by the New York Times, and its obituary pages have let pass the death of a great and serious man.
Arriving to record a television debate at the Hoover Institution here a few months ago, I found the personnel of the preceding show still standing around and chatting. Prominent was the rather chic figure of George Shultz, former Secretary of State, who has become almost dandyish and svelte since his second marriage, to a prominent local socialite. He was reminiscing about the first time that Ballistic Missile Defense, or "Star Wars," was being marketed to the American people. It was Ronald Reagan who set up the first Strategic Defense Initiative Organization, headed by Lieut. Gen. James Abrahamson. This officer duly arrived, accompanied by a uniformed associate, at Shultz's office on the fifth floor at Foggy Bottom. The Secretary bade him welcome and said he had a number of questions about the new scheme, some of which had to do with its feasibility. Whereat the general turned to his assistant and asked, in a rather show-stopping manner, "Is the Secretary cleared for this conversation?"
Of course, Shultz ought to have turned the man out of his office right then and there. (He had, after all, refused to have anything to do with the Oliver North operation, another military usurpation of civilian authority. And while at Treasury in a previous administration, he had rejected Nixon's demand for confidential tax information on political opponents.) As it was, he was recalling the moment as one of slightly sinister absurdity. But the core of the anecdote is the clue to the utter stupidity of the press coverage of the Bush "listening tour" of Europe. It is not true that the United States wants a missile defense, while "the Europeans" remain skeptical. The Turkish military, after all, has already signaled its sympathy for the scheme. So have the yes-man regimes that owe Washington a debt for the fantasy of NATO enlargement. I would expect Tony Blair to fall into line without very much demur. (It is, after all, what he's for.) It is the people of the United States who remain substantially unpersuaded, for excellent reasons, and who have never been given an opportunity to vote for or against this gargantuan, destabilizing boondoggle.
Reagan's original speech on the subject, which purported to make nuclear weapons "impotent and obsolete," was cleverly and explicitly designed to defuse the mass appeal of the nuclear freeze movement, which nineteen years ago this June drew a million people to Central Park. By suddenly discovering that mutual assured destruction was "immoral and unstable," it spoke to the years of effort, on the part of countless physicists and activists, to point out precisely that.
The Bush propaganda scheme is typically narrower and more parochial. It may call for an empire of science-fiction hardware on earth and in heaven, but its selling point is essentially isolationist: "We" can have our very own shield against "them." (Indeed, the earlier impetus given to the project under Clinton and Gore, who could and should have stopped the demented plan but didn't, derived from poll findings showing that millions of Americans believed that the United States already had a missile-proof roof arching above its fruited plains.)
Thus, as presented and packaged, the Star Wars proposal is the apotheosis of the Bush worldview. It appeals to the provincial and the inward-looking in American culture, while simultaneously gratifying and enriching the empire-building element in the military-industrial complex. If only it could be run on oil-based products alone, it would be the picture-perfect reward for the donor-based oligarchy that underpins the regime. And, by drawing on the imagery of shields and prophylactics, it neatly conceals its only conceivable utility, which--if it worked at all--would be the development of an impregnable first-strike capacity.
Just as the MX missile, advertised as a "silo-busting" weapon, was obviously not going to be fired at empty silos, so the "shield" would be a guarantee that an aggressive launch could take place; the aggressor possessing the ability to parry any retaliatory move. There is, quite literally and obviously, no other reason for wishing to possess such a system. Once in place, it would make its own decisions, and no elected politician would ever again be cleared for any discussion of it. The militarization of the state would be complete.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. once summarized the preparation for nuclear war as the willingness to commit genocide and suicide at the same time. It has never been put better. The delusion of "Star Wars" is the delusion that the "suicide" bit can be taken out of the equation. That's why we hear the absurd term "nuclear umbrella" being circulated--possibly the greatest concentration of stupidity ever packed into any two words in apposition--while the words "suicide bomber" are reserved for small-time Levantine desperadoes, of the kind who can evade any known laser or radar.
Given the Clinton/Gore sellout on this greatest of all issues, and the extent to which the commitment to "research" has already been made, the Democrats will have to move very fast to outpace the juggernaut. I'm not holding my breath. I suppose there exists one faint hope. On advice from his daddy, the President abandoned his customary unilateralism and, against the temper of his Congressional right wing, upheld the US commitment to the United Nations. A few weeks later, again after urgent paternal representations, he reversed himself on North Korea. (The conduit in this case was Donald Gregg, former ambassador to South Korea and once Bush Senior's fall guy for Iran/contra matters.) This isn't much more heartening, for those of us who would like to live in a democratic republic, than reading of Prince Charles getting a dressing-down from Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip. It's not all that encouraging to think of our first line of defense being old-style, pinstripe Republicans, from George Shultz to Donald Gregg, who survived the wreckage of previous administrations, but it may be all that we've got.
It was, take it for all in all, a near-faultless headline: HENRY KISSINGER RATTRAPÉ AU RITZ, À PARIS, PAR LES FANTÔMES DU PLAN CONDOR. I especially liked the accidental synonymy of the verb rattraper. What a rat. And such a trap. It was in this fashion that the front page of the Paris daily Le Monde informed its readers that on Memorial Day the gendarmes had gone round to the Ritz Hotel--flagship of Mohamed Al Fayed's fleet of properties--with a summons from Judge Roger Le Loire inviting the famous rodent to attend at the Palace of Justice the following day. In what must have been one of the most unpleasant moments of his career, noted Le Monde, the hotel manager had to translate the summons to his distinguished guest. Kissinger left the hotel, surrounded by bodyguards, and later announced that he had no desire to answer questions about Operation Condor. He then left town.
Operation Condor [see Peter Kornbluh, "Kissinger and Pinochet," March 29, 1999, and "Chile Declassified," August 9/16, 1999] was a coordinated effort in the 1970s by the secret police forces of seven South American dictatorships. The death squads of Chile, Argentina, Brazil, Uruguay, Paraguay, Ecuador and Bolivia agreed to pool resources and to hunt down, torture, murder and otherwise "disappear" one another's dissidents. They did this not just on their own soil but as far away as Rome and Washington, where assassins and car-bombs were deployed to maim Christian Democratic Senator Bernardo Leighton in 1975 and to murder the Socialist Orlando Letelier in 1976. The Pinochet regime was to the fore in this internationalization of state terror tactics, and its secret police chief, Col. Manuel Contreras, was especially inventive and energetic.
Thanks to the efforts of Representative Maurice Hinchey, who attached an amendment to the Intelligence Authorization Act last year, we now know that this seven-nation alliance had a senior partner. At all material times, those directing the work of US intelligence knew of Operation Condor and assisted its activities. And at all material times, the chairman of the supervising "Forty Committee," and the key member of the Interagency Committee on Chile, was Henry Kissinger. It was on his watch that the FBI helped Pinochet to identify and arrest Jorge Isaac Fuentes de Alarcón, a Chilean oppositionist who was first detained and tortured in Paraguay and then turned over to Contreras and "disappeared." Contreras himself was paid a CIA stipend. Other Condor leaders were promised US cooperation in the surveillance of inconvenient exiles living in the United States.
Judge Roger Le Loire has had documents to this effect on his desk for some time and is investigating the fate of five missing French citizens in Chile during the relevant period. He has already issued an arrest warrant for General Pinochet. But he understands that the inquiry can go no further until US government figures agree to answer questions. In refusing to do this, Kissinger received the shameful support of the US Embassy in Paris and the State Department, which coldly advised the French to go through bureaucratic channels in seeking information. Judge Le Loire replied that he had already written to Washington in 1999, during the Clinton years, but had received no response.
On the Friday immediately preceding Memorial Day, another magistrate in a democratic country made an identical request. In order to discover what happened to so many people during the years of Condor terror, said Argentine Judge Rodolfo Canicoba Corral, it would be necessary to secure a deposition from Kissinger. And on June 4 the Chilean judge Juan Guzmán Tapia asked US authorities to question Kissinger about the disappearance of the American citizen Charles Horman, murdered by Pinochet's agents in 1973 and subject of the Costa-Gavras movie Missing (as well as an occasional Nation correspondent). So that, in effect, we have a situation in which the Bush regime is sheltering a man who is wanted for questioning on two continents.
Partly because I have written a short book pointing this out, I have recently been interviewed by French, British and Spanish radio and TV. Indeed, if it wasn't for that, I might not have learned of Kissinger's local and international difficulties for some days. The Financial Times carried a solid story on the Paris episode, with some background, the day after Le Monde. But in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post--not a line. And where were Messrs. Koppel and Lehrer? They usually find the views of "Henry" to be worthy of respectful attention. I admit my own interest, but I still feel able to ask: By whose definition is Kissinger's moment at the Ritz not news?
It is, meanwhile, practically impossible to open the New York Times without reading a solemn admonition, either from the Administration or from the paper itself. Colin Powell lectures Robert Mugabe. George Bush takes a high moral tone with Serbia. All are agreed that wanted men should be given up to international law. All are agreed that however painful the task, other societies must face their own past and shoulder their own grave responsibilities. For a long time I have found it somewhat surreal to read this righteous material, but the experience of ingesting it now becomes more emetic every day.
The seven Condor countries, groping their way back to democracy after decades of trauma, are making brave and honest attempts to find the truth and to punish the guilty. Time and again, commissions of inquiry have been frustrated because the evidence they need is in archives in Washington. And it is in those archives for the unspeakable reason that the United States was the patron and armorer of dictatorship. There is a heavy debt here. Is there not a single Congressional committee, a single principled district attorney, a single leader in our overfed and complacent "human rights community," who will try to help cancel it? Or are we going to watch while the relatives of the murdered and tortured seek justice by lawful means, and are waved away by armed bodyguards if they even try to serve a scrap of paper on the man whose immunity befouls us all?
Over the past two years, it has become commonplace to read that the casualties among Kosovo Albanians were not sufficiently high to warrant the NATO intervention that put an end--at some remove--to the rule of Slobodan Milosevic. Without saying so explicitly, many liberal and "left" types, and many conservatives and isolationists, have implied that the Kosovars did not suffer quite enough to deserve their deliverance. The dispute revolves around two things; the alleged massacre at Racak (which may or may not have been a firefight provoked by the Kosovo Liberation Army) and the relative emptiness of certain identifiable "mass grave" sites.
As to Racak, it might be argued that Western policy-makers seized too fast on the evidence of a Bosnian-style bloodbath, but--in view of what had been overlooked or tolerated for so long in Bosnia--it would be tough to argue that a "wait and see" policy would have been morally or politically superior. Wait for what? Wait to see what? And, since most of those who cast doubt on Racak were opposed on principle in any case to any intervention, as they had been in Bosnia, the force of their objection does not really depend on the body count, or on the issue of who shot first. For those of us who supported the intervention, with whatever misgivings, it was plain enough that Milosevic wanted the territory of Kosovo without the native population, and that a plan of mass expulsion, preceded by some exemplary killings, was in train. The level of casualties would depend on the extent of resistance that the execution of the plan would encounter.
The bulk of the European and American right had announced in advance that the cleansing of Kosovo by Milosevic was not a big enough deal to justify military action; this seems to remain their view. It was also, according to former NATO commander Gen. Wesley Clark in his new memoir, the institutional view of the Pentagon. It would therefore have been the right's view, whatever happened or did not happen at Racak. It would presumably also have been their view even if the United Nations had passed a resolution authorizing the operation, over the entrenched objections of Boris Yeltsin and Jiang Zemin. (The Genocide Convention, which mandates action by signatory powers whenever the destruction of a people in whole or in part is being committed, takes precedence in the view of some.)
So we'll never know if another Rwanda was prevented or not, since another Rwanda did not in fact take place. However, on the issue of the mass graves there is now, as a result of the implosion of the Milosevic regime, more forensic evidence to go on.
At the time of the war itself I received a letter from a Serbian student of mine, a political foe of Milosevic but by no means a NATO fan. He told me that his family in Serbia had a friend, a long-distance truck driver whom they trusted. This man had told them of entering Kosovo with his refrigerated vehicle, picking up Albanian corpses under military orders and driving them across the "Yugoslav" border as far as the formerly autonomous province of Voivodina, where they were hastily unloaded. He'd made several such runs. At the time, I decided not to publish this letter because although it appeared to be offered in good faith it also seemed somewhat weird and fanciful, and because rumors of exactly this sort do tend to circulate in times of war and censorship.
In early May of this year, the Belgrade daily newspaper Blic, now freed from the constraints of censorship, published a report about a freezer truck, loaded with Albanian cadavers and bearing Kosovo license plates, that had been pulled from the river Danube in April 1999. The location was the town of Kladovo, about 150 miles east of Belgrade. Local gravediggers told of being hastily mobilized to load the bodies onto another truck, and to keep their mouths shut. The man who found the truck, Zivojin Djordjevic, was interviewed on Belgrade Radio B92. "It was a Mercedes lorry--the name of the meat-processing company from Pec was written in Albanian on the cabin. The license plates were from Pec.... When the lorry was pulled out and the doors of the freezer opened, corpses started sliding out. There were many bodies of women, children and old people. Some women had Turkish trousers, some children and old people were naked."
To this macabre tale, identifiable people have put their names. The director of the Humanitarian Law Center in Belgrade, Natasha Kandic, has been collecting information about comparable incidents in the period between late March and mid-June 1999, with piles of corpses removed from cemeteries or graves in Kosovo and either reburied secretly or incinerated. This is not improvised wartime atrocity propaganda; it is the careful finding of patient human rights investigators after the fact.
One cannot yet say the same about another story, which concerns the mass burning of bodies in the blast furnaces of the Trepca steel plant. The eyewitnesses here are, so far, only a driver named "Branko" and a Serbian "special forces" officer named "Dusko." They suggest that, in that terrible spring, as many as 1,500 murdered Albanian civilians were fed into the mills and furnaces of the steel complex. It would be premature to credit such unconfirmed and lurid reports, even though investigators from the Hague tribunal have already spoken about evidence being destroyed at the nearby Trepca mines. And at first, I didn't quite believe the freezer-truck tale either.
In the relatively new atmosphere of post-Milosevic Serbia, the armed forces have charged some 183 soldiers for crimes committed in Kosovo. This might be part of an "isolated incident" strategy, or it might be the beginning of a real investigation. If the reports now in circulation prove to be true, it would mean (given the complicity of border guards, steelworks managers, traffic cops and cemetery authorities) there was a state design both to the original murders and the secret interments. Such a discovery would help constitute the emancipation of Serbia as well as of Kosovo. But it would owe very little to those who described the belated Western intervention as an exercise in imperialism based upon false reporting. We shall see.
I scanned all the cheap effusions that followed the Bob Kerrey disclosures, looking for just one mention of just one name. Ron Ridenhour. Ron was the GI who got wind of the My Lai massacre, followed up on what he'd heard, complained to the higher-ups and, when that didn't work, blew the whistle to the press (which took about a year to print anything). He was a friend of mine and by any known test an American hero. Except that there is a strong tendency in all cultures and all societies to hate people like Ron. By his simple and principled action, he destroyed all the excuses of those who say that war is hell and "whaddayagonnado." He was from Texas whiteboy stock and an uneducated draftee; call him a grunt--he wouldn't have minded. His example demolishes both those who say that only combat-hardened men can judge other veterans, and those who shiftily maintain that those who weren't actually there have no business making judgments. Ron wasn't at My Lai, but he'd seen quite enough to know that the rumors of what had happened were probably true, and he felt obliged to check them out, and to risk his own skin to do so.
Things evidently happened rather fast in the village of Thanh Phong on February 24, 1969. Calley's platoon in March 1968 had taken much of a day in which to really work on the villagers of My Lai. Nonetheless, even given more leisure, Bob Kerrey would not I think have raped any of the women, cut off any ears, disemboweled any babies or tortured any of the prisoners. He never went around referring to the Vietnamese as "gooks" or "slopes" or "slants." Whenever the subject of war came up in Washington during his tenure as a senator, he was a sane and lucid voice. And I should add that I know him somewhat and that, since I'm a lowly adjunct prof at the New School, he is actually my president.
By the end of his week before the cameras, however, I began to wish that he wasn't. If you have had more than three decades to reflect, and some weeks of advance notice on top of that, you don't have to rise to the Ron Ridenhour standard. But you must not disgrace it. It is, I suppose, arguable that both Gerhard Klann (a man in possession of a somehow unfortunate name) and the Vietnamese witnesses are all under a misapprehension. But neither the New York Times Magazine nor 60 Minutes II gave them any chance to compare notes or concert their story. And then Kerrey, confronted by the contradictions of his own account, said the following: "The Vietnam government likes to routinely say how terrible Americans were. The Times and CBS are now collaborating in that effort." This was a sad improvisation of paltry lies, adding up to a lie on the Spiro Agnew scale. (As this was going to press, Kerrey told me that he's written to the Times to withdraw at least the "collaborating" part.)
Nobody troubled to report an even worse moment at Kerrey's press conference, which occurred when the invaluable Amy Goodman asked him about the command responsibility for war crimes borne by the Nixon-Kissinger architects of the aggression. (He was, after all, under orders in a "free-fire zone" to treat all civilians as potential cadavers and all cadavers as part of the enemy "body count"; he did accept a citation for carrying out this standing policy.) I can appreciate that Kerrey might not have wanted to seem to shift responsibility; the Ridenhour standard makes it plain that you can't be ordered to commit crimes against humanity. However, such a standard must not be twisted for the purposes of moral relativism. Kerrey answered Goodman's inescapable question by focusing entirely on his own need to "get well." He thus excused himself--and his political "superiors."
The date of the "firefight" is almost unbearable to contemplate. February 24, 1969, is about a month after Nixon took the oath of office. It's about two months after he asked Henry Kissinger to be his National Security Adviser. It's about three months after the South Vietnamese military junta withdrew precipitately from the Paris peace negotiations. And it's about four months after the Nixon campaign made a covert approach to that same junta in order to incite it to do so, and to take out an illegal and treasonous mortgage on another four years of war, as well as to subvert an American election. (For still more evidence of this historic crime, see most recently Robert Mann's A Grand Delusion: America's Descent Into Vietnam, published by Basic Books.) One must of course sympathize with Kerrey's pain. Only a few weeks after Thanh Phong, Kerrey lost a healthy limb to Nixon's sick design. But even the most tentative judgment requires that we give moral priority to the more than 20,000 US servicemen who died after the sabotage of the Paris talks, and to the uncountable number of Vietnamese, Cambodians and Laotians who were immolated as a result of the same despicable policy.
We should also abandon easy nonjudgmental relativism and give moral priority to men like Hugh Thompson, Lawrence Colburn and Glenn Andreotta. These three were flying over My Lai in their helicopter on March 16, 1968, and saw Charlie Company butchering the inhabitants with no "enemy" in sight. Thompson not only grounded his chopper between the remaining civilians and his fellow Americans, he drew his weapon and told the murderers to back off. This was no impulsive gesture; he took some civilians away with him and then returned. Andreotta (who was killed three weeks later) found a small child in one of the corpse-choked ditches and managed to save him. Exactly thirty years after the atrocity, Thompson, Colburn and--posthumously--Andreotta were awarded the Soldier's Medal in a ceremony at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. It's the highest award you can get for an action that doesn't involve engaging "the enemy." There was no mention of their awkward bravery in the recent coverage, either, though as far as was possible, these three men lived up to one of our current dopey mantras, which is to "leave no child behind."
If Kerrey wishes he could say the same, rather than have left a pile of children behind him, then he has missed several opportunities to do so. His official statement was entirely about himself. It did not in fact come clean about what happened. And it did not contain one word of contrition for the action, or of sympathy for the victims. It was also internally inconsistent in other ways. The war, he said, hadn't become unpopular until 1969. Whatever this was supposed to mean, it didn't explain his accepting a Medal of Honor from Richard Nixon on May 14, 1970, in a ceremony that he now claims he knew was a tawdry and stagy bid for public opinion, and in the immediate aftermath of the assault on Cambodia and the killings of lawful protesters at Kent State and Jackson State.
Talking of universities, I was ashamed and disgusted to read the statement put out by the authorities at the New School. Here it is in full: "The Board of Trustees of New School University gives its unqualified support to Bob Kerrey. It is hard for most of us to imagine the horrors of war. War is hell. Traumatic events take place and their terrible effects may last a lifetime. We should all recognize the agony that Bob has gone through and must continue to deal with. We should also recognize that Bob's heroism and integrity have been demonstrated on many occasions. The Board of Trustees stands solidly behind him."
I try to teach English to humorous and intelligent graduates at this place. I could and will use this pathetic text--signed by John Tishman and Philip Scaturro, respectively chairman of the board and chancellor--as a case study in subliterate euphemism. ("What about Bob?" Leave no cliché behind!) But it is worse than it looks. Notice the insistence that only Kerrey's feelings count. And notice the insinuation that wartime actions are above moral distinction or discrimination. The New School, founded by some antimilitarist defectors from the then-conformist Columbia University at the end of the First World War, became the host campus for dozens of anti-Nazi refugee scholars in the succeeding decades. It gave podiums to Erich Fromm and Hannah Arendt, in lecture rooms where the nature of political evil was thoroughly discussed. It still runs democracy programs from Kosovo to South Africa. Its student body is multinational and always has been. A word or two about the slaughtered Vietnamese might not have been out of place. But this graceless little handout didn't even refer to them. Unrepudiated, the statement is a direct insult to everybody at the school and a surreptitious invitation to a creepy kind of secondhand complicity in murder.
I've no wish to hurt Kerrey's feelings unduly, but it ill becomes him to act as if he's facing a firing squad while he's being made the object of apparently limitless empathy. The truth of the matter is that I can't guess what these "many occasions" of "heroism and integrity" have been. (I'm assuming, perhaps incorrectly, that the New School authorities aren't counting the Thanh Phong massacre.) He was a fairly decent senator, as I've already said. But he showed then, as he shows now, a pronounced tendency to have things both ways. Like the Moynihans and the Gores, he was fond of privately denouncing Clinton as a crook and a liar and a thug, and then casting the ultimate vote in his favor. He told me in the week of the impeachment trial that he was determined to vote to convict Clinton for obstruction of justice, adding rather irrelevantly that it "wouldn't do him any harm" in his home state of Nebraska. And then, maybe when he remembered that he'd steered the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee through one of the greatest fundraising bonanzas in history, he thought better of it. "They all do it," of course, but then they needn't expect moist tributes for their bravery.
And yet--they don't all do it. Think again of Ridenhour, Thompson, Colburn, Andreotta--names that are barely known, names of men who would have been ashamed to leave a ditchful of women and children behind them, or to watch such a ditch being filled and say and do nothing. And think of what a great wall we'd have to build if we intended to inscribe all the Indochinese names. There's no possible repair or apology that could measure up to such a vast crime. But this must not mean a culture of stupid lenience and self-pity, in which the only wounds to be healed are those of the perpetrators, or of their obedient servants. How wonderful that at last we are forgiving the people of Vietnam for what we did to them.
There are war crimes and there is the crime of war, and it's ethically null to say that only veterans can pronounce on either. (There could be no human rights tribunals or Truth and Justice Commissions if this were so.) Kerrey was not caught in an ambush or suddenly placed in a hopeless situation. He led a stealthy, deliberate incursion into other people's homes, and the first act of those under his command was to slit the throats of an elderly couple and three children to keep them from making a sound. Kerrey now says that he didn't enter that particular "hooch" before, during or after--something of an oversight for the team leader, whose job it was to ascertain the nature of the opposition. He says it was a moonless night; the US Naval Observatory says there was a 60 percent disk until an hour after the squad had finished up....
This horror occurred in the context of two others: the Phoenix program and Operation Speedy Express. The first has been acknowledged even by its architects as a death-squad campaign, and the second was exposed at the time, by Kevin Buckley of Newsweek, as a mass slaughter of the civilians of the Mekong Delta. In other words, it's a bit late for armchair supporters of the war, or armchair excuse-makers, to discover indecipherable subjective mysteries where none in fact exist. Kerrey's after-action report on Thanh Phong, for which he received a Bronze Star citation, reads, in a vile code compounded of cruelty and falsification: "21 VC KIA (BC)." That stands for twenty-one Vietcong, killed in action according to body count. Did he accept that medal as part of coming to terms with how haunting it all was?
The humanoid who came up with the shady term "Vietnam syndrome" was of course Henry Kissinger, who had every reason to try to change the subject from his own hideous responsibility. But even now, the president of a humanist academy takes up that same pseudo-neutral tone of therapy-babble and quasi-confessional healing, instead of demanding the Truth and Justice Commission that might establish what we owe to the people he killed, as well as what we could and should do about the still unpunished and still untroubled people who directed him to slay them in their sleep.