Attacking Our Memory

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How does
thought control work in societies that call themselves free? Why
are famous journalists so eager, almost as a reflex, to minimise
the culpability of political leaders such as Bush and Blair who
share responsibility for the unprovoked attack on a defenceless
people, for laying to waste their land and for killing at least
100,000 people, most of them civilians, having sought to justify
this epic crime with demonstrable lies? Why does a BBC reporter
describe the invasion of Iraq as “a vindication for Blair”? Why
have broadcasters never associated the British or American state
with terrorism? Why have such privileged communicators, with unlimited
access to the facts, lined up to describe an unobserved, unverified,
illegitimate, cynically manipulated election, held under a brutal
occupation, as “democratic” with the pristine aim of being “free
and fair”?

Do they not
read history? Or is the history they know, or choose to know,
subject to such amnesia and omission that it produces a worldview
as seen only through a one-way moral mirror? There is no suggestion
of conspiracy. This one-way mirror ensures that most of humanity
is regarded in terms of its usefulness to “us," its desirability
or expendability, its worthiness or unworthiness: for example,
the notion of “good” Kurds in Iraq and “bad” Kurds in Turkey.
The unerring assumption is that “we” in the dominant west have
moral standards superior to “them." One of “their” dictators
(often a former client of ours, like Saddam Hussein) kills thousands
of people and he is declared a monster, a second Hitler. When
one of our leaders does the same, he is viewed, at worst like
Blair, in Shakespearean terms. Those who kill people with car
bombs are “terrorists”; those who kill far more people with cluster
bombs are the noble occupants of a “quagmire."

amnesia can spread quickly. Only ten years after the Vietnam war,
which I reported, an opinion poll in the United States found that
a third of Americans could not remember which side their government
had supported. This demonstrated the insidious power of the dominant
propaganda, that the war was essentially a conflict of “good”
Vietnamese against “bad” Vietnamese, in which the Americans became
“involved," bringing democracy to the people of southern Vietnam
faced with a “communist threat." Such a false and dishonest assumption
permeated the media coverage, with honourable exceptions. The
truth is that the longest war of the 20th century was a war waged
against Vietnam, north and south, communist and non-communist,
by America. It was an unprovoked invasion of their homeland and
their lives, just like the invasion of Iraq. Amnesia ensures that,
while the relatively few deaths of the invaders are constantly
acknowledged, the deaths of up to five million Vietnamese are
consigned to oblivion.

What are
the roots of this? Certainly, “popular culture," especially Hollywood
movies, can decide what and how little we remember. Selective
education at a tender age performs the same task. I have been
sent a widely used revision guide for students of modern world
history, on Vietnam and the cold war. This is learned by 14 to
16-year-olds in British schools, sitting for the critical GCSE
exam. It informs their understanding of a pivotal historical period,
which must influence how they make sense of today’s news from
Iraq and elsewhere.

It is shocking.
It says that under the 1954 Geneva agreement: “Vietnam was partitioned
into communist north and democratic south.” In one sentence, truth
is dispatched. The final declaration of the Geneva conference
divided Vietnam “temporarily” until free national elections were
held on 26 July 1956. There was little doubt that Ho Chi Minh
would win and form Vietnam’s first democratically elected government.
Certainly, President Eisenhower was in no doubt of this. “I have
never talked with a person knowledgeable in Indochinese affairs,”
he wrote, “who did not agree that… 80 per cent of the population
would have voted for the communist Ho Chi Minh as their leader.”

Not only
did the United States refuse to allow the UN to administer the
agreed elections two years later, but the “democratic” regime
in the south was an invention. One of the inventors, the CIA official
Ralph McGehee, describes in his masterly book Deadly Deceits how
a brutal expatriate mandarin, Ngo Dinh Diem, was imported from
New Jersey to be “president” and a fake government was put in
place. “The CIA," he wrote, “was ordered to sustain that illusion
through propaganda [placed in the media].”

Phoney elections
were arranged, hailed in the west as “free and fair," with American
officials fabricating “an 83 per cent turnout despite Vietcong
terror." The guide alludes to none of this, nor that “the terrorists,"
whom the Americans called the Vietcong, were also southern Vietnamese
defending their homeland against the American invasion and whose
resistance was popular. For Vietnam, read Iraq.

The tone
of this tract is from the point of view of “us." There is
no sense that a national liberation movement existed in Vietnam,
merely “a communist threat," merely the propaganda that “the
USA was terrified that many other countries might become communist
and help the USSR — they didn’t want to be outnumbered,"
merely that President Johnson “was determined to keep South Vietnam
communist-free” (emphasis as in the original). This proceeds quickly
to the Tet Offensive in 1968, which “ended in the loss of thousands
of American lives — 14,000 in 1969 — most were young
men." There is no mention of the millions of Vietnamese lives
also lost in the offensive. And America merely began “a bombing
campaign”: there is no mention of the greatest tonnage of bombs
dropped in the history of warfare, of a military strategy that
was deliberately designed to force millions of people to abandon
their homes, and of chemicals used in a manner that profoundly
changed the environment and the genetic order, leaving a once-bountiful
land all but ruined.

This revision
guide reflects the bias and distortions of the official syllabuses,
such as the prestigious syllabus from Oxford and Cambridge, used
all over the world as a model. Its cold war section refers to
Soviet “expansionism” and the “spread” of communism; there is
not a word about the “spread” of rapacious America. One of its
“key questions” is: “How effectively did the USA contain the spread
of communism?” Good versus evil for untutored minds.

“Phew, loads
for you to learn here…” say the authors of the revision guide,
“so get it learned right now.” Phew, the British empire did not
happen; there is nothing about the atrocious colonial wars that
were models for the successor power, America, in Indonesia, Vietnam,
Chile, El Salvador, Nicaragua, to name but a few along modern
history’s imperial trail of blood, of which Iraq is the latest.

And now Iran?
The drumbeat has already begun. How many more innocent people
have to die before those who filter the past and the present wake
up to their moral responsibility to protect our memory and the
lives of human beings?

18, 2005

was born and educated in Sydney, Australia. He has been
a war correspondent, filmmaker and playwright. Based in London,
he has written from many countries and has twice won British journalism’s
highest award, that of "Journalist of the Year," for his
work in Vietnam and Cambodia. His new book, Tell
Me No Lies: Investigative Journalism and Its Triumphs
, is
published by Jonathan Cape next month. This article was first published
in the New Statesman.

John Pilger 2005

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