Columnists

Matthew Behrens
From Vietnam to ISIS: Canada needs to apologize

| April 22, 2015
Photo: Bomb shrapnel, Xieng Khwang province, Laos. Credit: GothPhil/flickr

Trigger alert: This article includes graphic language about war.

Over a four-hour period, they "methodically slaughtered more than five hundred unarmed victims, killing some in ones and twos, others in small groups, and collecting many more in a drainage ditch…They faced no opposition. They even took a quiet break to eat lunch in the midst of the carnage. Along the way, they also raped women and young girls, mutilated the dead, systematically burned homes, and fouled the area's drinking water."

It sounds like a terrorism story ripped from today's headlines about ISIS, the kind likely to inspire ritualized name-calling ("death cult … barbaric cultural practices … no value for human life") from Stephen Harper, Jason Kenney, and their locker-room gang of over-grown boys eagerly vying to be the first to post on Twitter about Canadian aerial attacks. But it actually describes the American military in a village called My Lai, Vietnam, in 1968, one of hundreds of similar such massacres that took place during the American invasion and occupation of that distant land.

It comes from a book on how U.S. war crimes were in fact standard operating procedure (i.e., the norm, not an aberration), Nick Turse's Kill Anything That Moves. The title references an order from war criminal Richard Nixon to war criminal Henry Kissinger, who in turn told his fellow criminal, Alexander Haig: "He [Nixon] wants a massive bombing campaign in Cambodia. He doesn't want to hear anything. It's an order, it's to be done. Anything that flies, on anything that moves. You got that?"

To most people, Vietnam conjures up images of the "first television war," a Kodachrome vision of jungle warfare that we experience as the backdrop to a rocking soundtrack of Rolling Stones and CCR. YouTube is full of clips featuring the carpetbombing of undefended peasant countryside with napalm, cluster bombs, and other incendiary weapons that explode in bright colours to a Jimi Hendrix tune. There is no respect here for the victims burnt to a crisp in the fields and forests below; they are unseen, their cries unheard beneath the thumping soundtrack of a generation. It would be hard to imagine the visual presentation of gruesome scenes from Auschwitz and Hiroshima with upbeat musical contributions from King of Swing Benny Goodman or Glenn Miller's Moonlight Serenade, but that is exactly what we have done to the people of Southeast Asia, whose humanity was long ago disappeared in our own collective racism.

The people of Vietnam (and also Cambodia and Laos) experienced what no doubt amounted to the worst crimes against humanity following the Second World War. It was a result of what they called The American War, in the spotlight again this month with the 40th anniversary of the "fall" of Saigon and the memorable pictures of helicopters struggling to take off from the U.S. embassy roof. While it was indeed an American war, it could not have happened without an enormous Canadian contribution in the form of thousands of mercenaries, billions in war materiel, and extensive political support from Lester Pearson and Pierre Trudeau (much of which is documented in Victor Levant's excellent book Quiet Complicity).

Creating the refugee flow

As Canadians pat themselves on the back for taking in Vietnamese refugees at the end of the 1970s, it is perhaps an appropriate time for Canada to apologize to the Vietnamese people for our collective role in creating the refugee flow in the first place.

Canada played a significant role in decimating their country (as well as Laos and Cambodia), aiding and abetting, for example, the permanent alteration of an entire people's gene pool through the production and supply of chemical and biological warfare agents for U.S. forces. The fallout was subsequent generations marked by grotesque physical deformities and severely retarded brain and motor function development. Indeed, Canada produced the chemical defoliant Agent Orange, a dioxin-laced carcinogen, 43 million litres of which were dumped by the U.S. Air Force (this on top of 30 million litres of related defoliants). U.S. soldiers who came home from Vietnam having been soaked in the stuff experienced similar horrors.

As Levant noted in Quiet Complicity, Canada's contribution to the genocidal massacres taking place in the South Asian countryside included ammunition, bomb bays, bulk explosives, weapons release computers, fiberglass bazooka barrels, shells, fuses and primers, jet engines, helicopter components, gun sights, napalm, land mines, anti-personnel grenades (useful only against human beings), rocket warheads, bomb-bursting agents, TNT, and hundreds of other electronic, plastic, and radar equipment pieces. Canadian diplomats ran interference for the U.S., assisting with bomb spotting, espionage, and, in the early years, the covert introduction of U.S. weapons and personnel.

Canadians may not have seen it up close, but what rolled out of our factories seared through the flesh of youngsters half a world away, beheading them with cluster bombs that dispersed 50,000 flying pieces of shrapnel over the size of a football field, burning them alive with the searing napalm raids, destroying their rudimentary hospitals and schools with explosives coming out of Toronto and Montreal, and poisoning their waters, ruining their forests, and destroying their crops with carcinogenic herbicides.

Millions killed

The human toll is almost incalculable, but a 2008 Harvard University study estimates 3.8 million war deaths (and even that may be low) and 5.3 million wounded out of a population of less than 20 million. Recall the devastation wrought by the 9/11 attacks on U.S. soil. Then, to even remotely begin realizing the impact, imagine that a 9/11 equivalent happened to the Vietnamese people 25 times a week for 10 years. Add to this the destruction of two neighbouring countries. Between 1965 and 1973, Laos, the poorest country in the world, saw 2.1 million tons of American bombs dropped on its people by the richest nation on earth (equivalent to all the bombs dropped on industrial countries Japan and Germany during all of the Second World War), while 2.7 million tons were dropped on Cambodia. In other words, these are the most heavily bombed countries in human history. The war that "officially" ended in 1975 continues today. Over 105,000 Vietnamese have been killed by landmines and unexploded ordnance since 1975 (40,000 deaths in Laos and Cambodia), with an average of four people killed weekly in Laos.

All this was done in the name of fighting "communism," the terrorism bogeyman of the day and a battle that, in the end, was just a red herring in the "great game" of world geopolitics. Indeed, when he was more recently asked what would have happened if the U.S. had not interfered with the democratic decisions of the Vietnamese people, war architect and promoter Henry Kissinger confided to Salon magazine, "Wouldn't have mattered very much. If the Vietnam domino had fallen then, no great loss."

Canadians who were paying attention during the American/Canadian war knew about such complicity. In 1967, the Financial Post noted that "most of the nickel used in U.S. planes, missiles or vehicles comes from Canada." In 1968, then NDP leader Tommy Douglas declared, "Canada will not come before the bar of historic judgment with clean hands, because there is blood on them -- blood money to the tune of more than $300 million a year." Paul Martin Senior, then External Affairs Secretary, whined that protesting against such war profiteering was unfair, for, "It's all very well to talk about Vietnam. But what about Canada? Canada has an economic life to live."

It's the same argument used today to support the good union jobs in London, Ontario, where every day, some $15 billion in military equipment rolls off the General Dynamics assembly line bound for the brutal, beheading dictatorship of Saudi Arabia, which uses the equipment to repress their own people and those of Bahrain and Yemen, all the while supporting the likes of ISIS.

Little has changed during the intervening years: the same colonial philosophy perseveres, while the frightening technical kill capacity increases exponentially. And so, even as Canada enters the next stage of its two front wars (Syria/Iraq and Ukraine), it would be good to pause and apologize for the unspeakable grief we have caused to the people of Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia.

But why stop there? Perhaps Canada could also apologize to ISIS. It might actually lead to a dialogue. "But wait," the naysayers cry, "with these terrorists? These moral monsters? This death cult? These scumbags?"

Yes. A dialogue is possible with those who are now called what we once called the Taliban during the illegal Afghanistan occupation (indeed, the U.S. did set up special offices to negotiate with them). Think of all the dictators who were once Canadian allies until they no longer served our purposes. They created favourable investment climates and obligingly acted as proxy torture chambers for those we found unsavoury.  

ISIS and the poverty draft

Yes. Because many of the foot soldiers who make up ISIS are poor Iraqis who, when offered $300 a month to join up, have found a way to feed their families that the dysfunctional Iraqi government has failed to do. This is not to say that those who have committed horrific crimes should not be held accountable. But a good number of recent recruits are victims of what in the U.S. is called the poverty draft: they have no other options, and foot soldiers rarely share the ideological zeal of those at the top.

Yes. Because maybe, just maybe, if we stopped invading, exploiting, and killing people overseas, the very small number of them who DO call for retaliation against Canada (and their numbers are very small) would think again. Indeed, Uruguay does not interfere in Middle Eastern countries, and while it sports some of the most progressive social traditions in Latin America (all of them anathema to the likes of ISIS), Uruguay never seems to make the ISIS target list.

But an apology? The cauldron from which ISIS emerged is an Iraq in which colonial invaders and occupiers have been messing about with mass murder for more than a century, from Winston Churchill's bombing of civilians and his famous terrorist statement about gassing the Iraqi people ("I am strongly in favour of using poisoned gas against uncivilised tribes … gasses can be used which cause great inconvenience and would spread a lively terror") to U.S. and Canadian support for Saddam Hussein as he gassed his own people, to Canadian bombings of the Iraqi people during the murderous 1991 campaign. The images from that war included Iraqi soldiers burned alive who, retreating, were fired upon anyhow, and buried alive under the sands by massive bulldozers with no respect for the Geneva Convention. Then came the determined effort to destroy the remnants of Iraqi civil society by encouraging conditions of water-borne disease and misery, suffocating a whole generation who continued for a decade to live under daily bombings and occasional cruise missile attacks, and sanctions that claimed over a million Iraqi lives, all enforced proudly at a cost of $1 billion by Canadian warships.

Some of the worst depredations following the 2003 invasion (heartily supported by Canada in the same profitable way the war against the Vietnamese was supported) included occupation soldiers firing on just about any Iraqi who blinked, all under the command of a Canadian General. Canadian bullets from Quebec's SNC-Lavalin supplied the occupation forces, while drones with Wescam cameras from Burlington, Ontario aided in extrajudicial executions.   

Many of the crimes and their victims are catalogued in a new report from Physicians for Social Responsibility, which estimates a total of 1.3 million direct deaths from the so-called war on terror. The death cult that's the Pentagon stateside and the War Department in Canada did not "do body counts," and while the tragic loss of Canadian lives in Afghanistan is lamentable, so are the countless unnamed and uncounted victims of the 10 million or so bullets fired there by Canadian hands, the endless rounds of mortar fire, the air strikes called in, the drone strikes whose Hellfire missiles have sliced through the tender brides and grooms of many a wedding, the schoolchildren massacred in an instant from the air, the farmers "mistaken" for "militants," all made possible with Canada's taxpayer-supported technology.

And so just as Pol Pot rose out of the destruction of Cambodia, so we see ISIS arising from the incredible criminality waged by countries like the U.S., Britain and Canada. But an apology is only the first step, for without action, it is meaningless.

Killing everything in sight: CANSEC15

In the odd event that Canada DID apologize for its role in Iraq, such words would be empty if the government did not immediately shut down the largest annual terrorism and torture trade show, CANSEC15, taking place May 27-29 in Ottawa.

On Wednesday, May 27, from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m., protesters will gather at the Ottawa site of CANSEC15 (the EY Centre, 4899 Uplands Dr.). Organized by Homes not Bombs, the nonviolent action will be a day-long witness against war and the human rights abuses that both contribute to and flow from militarism.

The day's events will feature song, poetry, readings of first-hand accounts of war survivors, testimonies of the disappeared and detained, construction of a graveyard with the names of the exhibitors' and guests' victims, and attempts to dialogue with CANSEC attendees. The "Ten Hours Against Terrorism" event is based on the understanding that war in any form is terrorism, and, indeed, under Canadian anti-terrorism law, anything that would normally constitute a terrorist act is exempted if it is committed by a member of the armed forces under the "laws" of war.

CANSEC hosted 31 international delegations last year in cooperation with the Canadian Commercial Corporation, with the beheading capital of the Middle East, Saudi Arabia, heading the list. Other regular violators of human rights who are officially touted as 2015 guests include Bahrain (according to Amnesty International, "Children are being routinely detained, ill-treated and tortured in Bahrain"), Kuwait (repression of women, torture), Israel (well documented by the Public Committee Against Torture in Israel, as well as war crimes documented by Amnesty International), Mexico (the use of torture has grown by 600 per cent in the last decade), Oman (Human Rights Watch reports "rights routinely trampled" and where "Torture has become the state's knee jerk response to political expression"), United Arab Emirates (where torture is commonplace with as many as 75 per cent of detainees experiencing abuse), United Kingdom (intensely complicit in the rendition to torture program) and United States (U.S. Senate report on "ruthless" brutality). Saudi Arabia is not yet officially listed as a guest in 2015 but as the largest purchaser of Canadian weapons, they are sure to be in attendance. As host country, Canada is also complicit in the torture of its own citizens (as established by two separate judicial inquiries as well as Supreme Court and Federal Court decisions) as well as deportation to torture.

who's who of the world's largest weapons manufacturers (what used to be more properly called "death merchants") will be selling their wares, as well as smaller companies who provide key components for weapons systems. What they are selling can properly be called tools of terrorism, for their use is intended to make political points, to create fear, and to coerce governments and societies. "I will kill everything in sight, every single time," remarked one enthusiastic CANSEC exhibitor boasting about his bomber last year.

Also on display will be the arsenals used by increasingly militarized police forces and the tools used to shut down border access to refugees desperate for safety.

Those unable to make it to Ottawa are being encouraged to picket their own local weapons manufacturer, federal building, or MP's office. Even the NDP needs to hear from weapons trade opponents, since the party that was led into Official Opposition by Jack Layton refused to cut the Harper war budget if elected and unanimously voted to bomb Libya (and no apologies from them on either score).

Canada's culture of militarization (nothing new under Harper, only more exposed) is discomfiting to many, who long for the mythical era of Canadian "peacekeeping." One way of countering militarization is to understand our true history, accept it for what it is, make apologies, and make amends that are rooted not in empty rhetoric or charitable deeds, but in the restructuring of our society so that we no longer profit from the suffering of others.

Matthew Behrens is a freelance writer and social justice advocate who co-ordinates the Homes not Bombs non-violent direct action network. He has worked closely with the targets of Canadian and U.S. 'national security' profiling for many years.

Photo: Bomb shrapnel, Xieng Khwang province, Laos. Credit: GothPhil/flickr

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