Vietnam, the Taleban, U.S.A and Human Rights


Americans as a people are not burdened by history, either their own (i.e. the dominant version of European immigrants and not that of the long decimated native people who lived for millennia before on this land) or of people around the world forcibly affected by them over the last century. In fact people accept the prevailing myth of the U.S. being a land where every immigrant can forget where he or she came from and become part of the “melting pot” that is devoted exclusively, and singularly, to the cause of the ” great American way of life” which is the “best in the world”.

Two recent news items illustrate the point. A successful ex-Senator from Nebraska, Bob Kerrey, was forced to divulge the horrifying information of the slaughter of innocent people in the village of Thanh Phong in 1969, women and children included, in a raid of a Navy Seals unit he led during the barbaric U.S. war against the Vietnamese people. Kerrey kept the dark secret for thirty years and only revealed his role in the atrocity because another member of his unit had decided to come clean. After the initial shock of the revelation of this war crime for which no one will ever be prosecuted in the U.S. or in any international court of law (like the hapless Serbs or Rwandan Hutus), the media have closed ranks around the Senator and exculpated him of his bloody acts for a variety of unspoken and weakly argued reasons accompanied by states of denial. An American (and white, at that) can never be as bad as Kerrey is accused of being. After all America is the most moral, ethical and humanitarian country in the world. Besides, it was a war and who does not know that awful deeds are committed in wars that seem awful and uncivilized in hindsight. U.S. troops in Vietnam served under “tremendous pressure” in “strange and hostile” surroundings; it was a tropical “jungle” out there with a people who were “different”. Soldiers can “snap” under such enormous pressure and commit deeds that are irrational, even inhumane. And did not Kerrey become a successful businessman, Governor of Nebraska and distinguished U.S. Senator who served his country illustriously (supported the Gulf War and sanctions against Iraq; expressed unqualified support for arms and aid to Israel) for two terms after exhibiting “heroism” in Vietnam (even getting a medal for killing the innocent civilians of Thanh Phong)? So after a few days of Kerrey, Americans, as poorly informed as they are in a country that is awash with information in all forms wanted to return to more salacious news related to the cavorting of their favorite movie, TV, music stars, or of sports and the stock market. Besides there is always work, more shopping and “fun” to have, and maybe just a dash of sex, crime and violence (both the real and TV versions) thrown in to fill their plates. Who wouldn’t be tired of revisiting Vietnam with Kerrey? Many in the older generation (excepting those who opposed the barbaric war) think there was nothing wrong with what he did – some of them were there (or had friends or relatives who served in Vietnam) and did (or would have done) just what Kerrey confesses to having done é follow “orders” and slaughter the “faceless, deadly, unscrupulous, enemy”, who even “used children and women as shields or decoys”. The younger generation does not know (once again) where Vietnam is. And why should it matter all that much in the context of the larger, more important order of things to them. Kerrey had the gall to write an article in the Washington Post last year in which he reflects on his experience in Vietnam and states, “Today, with the passage of time and the experience of seeing both the benefits of freedom won by our sacrifice and the human destruction done by dictatorships, I believe the cause (fighting against the Vietnamese people) was just and the sacrifice not in vain.” As Kenneth Saltman notes perceptively in his excellent book, “Collateral Damage”, on the corporatizing of public education in the U.S. and its threat to real democracy, “The mass media shapes public opinion, constructs identities and forms desires.” Democracy itself has been redefined as unbridled free-market capitalism. The corporate media unabashedly and gloriously celebrates the triumph of this enterprise, led by an elite oligarchy in the U.S. It is willy-nilly foisted on the rest of the world. To be sure, what is trumpeted is called “democracy”. It makes it more appealing. But to the extent people buy into this cruel scam they share the onus for crimes committed in its name.

Then, on May 1, 2001, almost at the same time that Kerrey was being shamed into admitting his role in committing one act of heinous atrocity in Thanh Phong (and, thankfully, nothing more), the U.S. State Department released its annual report on worldwide “terrorism” related to incidents in the year 2000. No one should hold his or her breath to see Iran top the list! It was classified as the “most active sponsor of terrorism worldwide for offering assistance to groups opposed to Israel and to peace between Israel and its Arab neighbors.” It does not matter that in most of the world, the incredible resistance of various Palestinian groups, whether supported by Iran or others, is regarded to be an heroic, just, anti-colonial resistance by a beleaguered and long-oppressed people fighting against incredible odds against the fourth-most powerful (thanks to the U.S) military force in the world, the Zionist state of Israel. The daily killing and maiming of Palestinians with American weapons, the assassination of their leaders in cold blood, the relentless destruction of their meager farms and homes, the arbitrary arrests and torture of Palestinian men and women, the blockades of their towns and villages laid siege by the Israeli military and the hate-filled, armed Jewish settlers in the occupied territories, the enforced starvation, denial of water and electricity, medicine, access to roads, ambulance services, health services and education, the daily humiliations at endless checkpoints – all of these are not to be regarded as terror. U.S. State Department spokesman, Edmund Hull, the top official in the counter-terrorism office, when asked how he could justify excluding Israel’s actions from the classification of “terrorism” said, without making any judgment of Israeli actions but with a straight face, “…other actions (hinting Israeli oppression of Palestinians) are considered human rights violations and, accordingly, are treated differently.” There was no need, therefore, to classify such actions under “terrorism”. In actuality, the State Department’s “terrorism” is the “just struggle for freedom with justice” as understood by the many of the world’s people. And the U.S. has not committed, and does not commit, acts of terrorism. Not in Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, or in Central America, Zaire, Somalia, Sudan, Iraq, Serbia, or wherever. The U.S. government and its leaders assert this at every opportunity and the State Department releases “damning” information on all the other “rogue” nations that practice “terrorism” so the people know where to look for “enemies” – these days they are most often “Islamic” as well, which fits perfectly with the U.S./Israeli agenda for the Middle East.

Consider the tragic situation that is unfolding in Afghanistan – war-ravaged and drought-stricken (three years in a row), this land-locked country has had the most stringent (one might call it hermetic) sanctions imposed on it by the United Nations (at the behest of the U.S.A and with the acceptance of the other permanent members of the Security Council)- all because the U.S. wants to flush out its most wanted man, Osama bin-Laden, from the sanctuary given him by Afghanistan’s conservative rulers (the Taleban). Half the country of 20 million people is facing starvation. Its economy is in utter ruins. Over four million people of this proud nation that has never been subjugated by various colonialist enterprises over several centuries have been made refugees, wandering desperately in search of food and shelter towards the Iranian (west) and Pakistani (east) borders. The U.N. High Commissioner for refugees, Ruud Lubbers, visited the refugee camps in Pakistan in early May and described scenes of utter hopelessness with emaciated Afghanis seeking refuge in overcrowded and unsanitary camps and aid from the outside world woefully short because of the sanctions and because of the hate engineered in the West towards the ruling Taleban (who claim to interpret Islam in its purest form and enforce very conservative rules for social interaction and culture, effectively treating women worse than second class citizens). The Taleban control over 90% of Afghanistan but are not recognized by the U.N. or most of the world. This is patently unfair by international rules that govern recognition of governments and has led to a significant lack of trust from its rulers for the U.N and the outside world. If the Taleban had been granted recognition, it is quite likely that the measures that have brought them opprobrium, censure and sanction would not have been implemented. They are still engaged in an internecine war with several mujahideen groups in the north of the country that has further depleted scarce resources within the country. For one man (bin Laden), the “civilized” West is willing to inflict suffering and death on an entire nation of twenty million people.

Most recently, the Taleban further alienated people around the world (including other Islamic countries) for their campaign to destroy the priceless Buddhist artifacts in the country, especially the spectacular towering statues of the Buddha in Bamiyan, 165 feet and 115 feet tall each, carved out of sheer sandstone cliffs by daring artisans eighteen centuries ago. They claimed the destruction was to prevent any resurgence of idolatry (anathema to Islam). Some analysts suspect the Taleban decided to destroy these ancient relics out of anger at the West (particularly at the U.S), which has enforced the increasing isolation of their country since they came to power in 1995. The indifference of the international community and the imposition of even harsher sanctions against Afghanistan run counter to the self-proclaimed mission of the United Nations. After 20 years of civil war and three years of drought, the comprehensive sanctions have broken the backs of these impoverished people. This deliberate misery imposed on human beings is nothing short of a crime against humanity. It is hypocritical of the world to protest the Taliban’s destruction of statues even as it stands watching silently as millions of Afghan lives are put at risk of death by starvation. The Taliban’s leader, Mullah Omar has asked, “Why is the West more concerned with inanimate statues than with the lives of our impoverished people?” Throughout history there are instances of the deliberate, politically motivated destruction of cultural artifacts of earlier civilizations or ones that threatened the ruling-class version of history. In 1992, Hindu fundamentalists destroyed the Babri Masjid, a Muslim shrine that dated back the 16th century and the first Mughal emperor of India, Babur. In Banja Luka, Serb fanatics destroyed every mosque during the internecine civil war in Bosnia in the 1990’s. During the great depression under the WPA relief project, the Rockefellers asked the famous Mexican muralist, Diego Rivera to paint a mural in their building (Rockefeller Center) lobby in New York City, only to have it systematically destroyed when some of his imagery (glorifying workers and socialist revolution) was not to their liking.

The U.N. and its many agencies were founded to assist in seeking peaceful resolutions to conflicts; to provide educational, medical, humanitarian, technical, agricultural assistance to poor countries so they could stand on their own feet; and to help in preserving the world’s heritage for everyone to appreciate. Instead they are used by the powerful countries to stymie efforts at bringing peace and progress to the underdeveloped countries of the world, because such efforts do not fit into their “national interests”. The biggest culprit in this deadly game is the U.S.A. It is the first hyper-power in history and uses its economic and military clout to bribe, coerce, blackmail or bludgeon countries of the U.N. to do its bidding. It is the worst “deadbeat” country in the organizations half a century of existence, owing millions of dollars in unpaid dues. And now (May 4) that the U.S. has been democratically, though ignominiously, voted off one of the most prestigious U.N. agencies – the United Nations Human Rights Commission, the Bush administration and Congress are pouting like a 225 year-old cry-baby knowing fully well that the U.S. behaves more like an irrational 600 pound gorilla. Several Congressmen have suggested that the U.S. withhold over $ 500 million it still owes the U.N. in back dues, to protest being booted out of the Human Rights Commission. They are outraged that the Human Rights Commission has members like the Sudan, Pakistan and Libya (“gross violators of human rights”) but not the U.S.A (a founding member of the commission since 1947). It does not matter that the U.S. was vying for one seat amongst three reserved for Western countries and it was beaten in the vote count by Austria, France and Sweden (the other contestants). It assumes that being the biggest bully on the block should guarantee it a place wherever it desires. If it claims to be the most humanitarian country in the world, it must be so – notwithstanding a long list of atrocities, war crimes and crimes against humanity it has perpetrated around the world and at home, both as acts of commission and omission, since the U.N. was created. A short list of documented, verifiable atrocities would include, civilian massacres in No Gun Ri in Korea and in My Lai and Thanh Phong in Vietnam; installing and supporting the vicious Shah of Iran; providing the weapons to Suharto that killed a million suspected Indonesian communists and 200,000 people fighting for independence in East Timor; killing Patrice Lumumba and propping-up the murderous thief who looted his own country, Mobuto of Zaire (Congo); aiding the right-wing UNITA movement that prolonged the bloody civil war in Angola that has taken the lives of a million people; bombing a pharmaceutical factory in Khartoum (Sudan) that produced tubercular vaccines; killing thousands of civilians and retreating Iraqi soldiers in the Gulf War; imposing sanctions against Iraq since 1991 that has taken a toll of 1.5 million Iraqi lives; bombing civilian targets in Yugoslavia in 1999 killing hundreds of civilian ethnic Albanians and Serbs (collateral damage); killing over 2,000 people in the fire-bombing of Panama to capture Noriega; training and arming the thugs of Israel, Central America, Chile, and now Colombia, and within the U.S. itself, the incarceration of the greatest number of people (2 million) of any country in the world (disproportionately, people of color); racial profiling; arbitrary arrest of non-white immigrants (Palestinians) using secret evidence; racially directed police brutality and killing, and a shameful record of putting people to death through its judicial process. Is it any surprise that the 54 voting members of the Economic and Social Council of the U.N (overseers of the Human Rights Commission) finally plucked this egregious and long-standing violator of human rights off the Commission like a bloated leech?

The Taleban rule of Afghanistan is certainly cruel from all one can determine, especially towards women. But the U.S. has been, and is, very closely allied with repugnant rulers, be they Marcos of the Philippines or Somoza of Nicaragua, or the governments of Saudi Arabia and Israel. But how did the Taleban come to power in Afghanistan? The answer may not raise many eyebrows. The CIA encouraged militant groups opposed to the Soviet supported regimes that came to power in the 80’s in Afghanistan, providing them arms and aid to the extent of $ 3 billion through neighboring Pakistan. One of fiercest groups with the most dedicated followers was the Taleban. They could not have flourished without U.S./Pakistani support. [Along with other mujahideen (holy warrior) groups, they are also encouraged to fight Indian troops in the disputed northern state of Kashmir.] Russia suspects the Taleban also support the rebels in Chechnya and the simmering unrest in other former Soviet republics of central Asia bordering Afghanistan that have majority Muslim populations (Turkmenistan Uzbekistan, Kyrgistan, Tadjikistan). The U.S. interest in these states is hardly benign. It is primarily because of the vast deposits of oil and natural gas that are thought to lie underground, waiting to be exploited by U.S. multinationals to feed the appetite created for the consumption of fuel in this country.

The Taleban story starts in 1993. Afghanistan was wracked by a civil war between various factions of the mujahideen following the defeat of invading Soviet troops in 1989 (the Communist party in Afghanistan had come to power with the support of the USSR following a military coup that overthrew King Zahir Shah in 1979). The Taleban was organized by neighboring Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency to become the dominant military and political force in Afghanistan following the Soviet withdrawal. The foot soldiers of this organization were a mix of Afghan refugees initiated in madrassahs (religious schools) of Pakistan and Afghan soldiers from other mujahideen factions. The Taleban was armed and trained by the ISI with the supplies and funds coming from the United States of America (under the Reagan and Bush Sr. regimes, funneled via the CIA so it would not be exposed to public scrutiny) and Saudi Arabia (Osama bin-Laden’s homeland). Over 2 million Afghanis died in the war against the Soviet Union and the subsequent civil war. There are 10 million landmines across this predominantly wheat-growing agricultural country that has led to 500,000 Afghanis killed or maimed by mines [The U.S. has refused to sign the international treaty that calls for a ban on landmines]. Afghanistan is also a significant source of opium poppies for heroin. This provides hard cash that fuels the civil war. The Taleban took root amongst the Afghan population because they promised (and delivered initially with brutal dispatch) to rid the country of corruption and war that had consumed the lives of the Afghani people for two decades. But through their incorrect interpretation of the Koran, the Taleban leaders have taken their people to the brink of disaster with the brunt of the horrific effects of their irrational policies borne by women. U.S. motives in opposing the Soviet influence in Afghanistan and in support of the mujahideen were not just opposition to communist influence or revenge for Soviet support of the Vietnamese in the Vietnam War. It had much to do with bringing Afghanistan into the U.S. sphere of influence because of the estimated vast deposits of oil and natural gas in the countries to the north. The plan included pipelines through landlocked Afghanistan to ports in Pakistan (on the Arabian Sea) that would transport the fuel to satiate the endless demand in the U.S. (and fill the coffers of big oil, of course). The transportation would avoid having to deal with the United States’ designated “rogue nation number one” (also “rogue nation” du jour), neighboring Iran.

The devastation of Afghanistan is as much due to cynical and self-serving interference from the U.S. as the cruelty and stupidity of its rulers. If there is any shred of humanity left in the world, there will be a constructive and compassionate response to the dire needs of the people of Afghanistan rather than the inhumane U.N. sanctions currently in place. Else the giant Buddhist statues will simply serve as a colossal memento to yet another crisis created by the powerful countries of the west, only to forget it after sowing the seeds of destruction of an entire nation.

Sen. Kerrey, his supporters and apologists for U.S. crimes, delude themselves and others, evade the truth, qualify morality and pontificate on the inherent goodness of America (and evil in the rest of the world) with a self-serving passion that is as pathetic as it is scary (for what it forebodes). Their hypocrisy and lack of shame bothers them not the least. Notwithstanding evidence to the contrary, the U.S. interminably flaunts its “democracy”, “humanity”, “morality”, and “adherence to law” with a zealotry that rivals Moliere’s pompous and sanctimonious priest Tartuffe. The truth of the matter, of course, is that like no other society, the U.S. was born of the genocide of the native people of North America and on the enslaved labor of millions of African-Americans. It is aiding and abetting its principal client and ally in the Middle East, Israel, to do likewise to the long-suffering people of Palestine. Since World War II, the U.S. has brought devastation and ruin to people around the world, directly or through its minions. U.S. meddling in civil wars around the globe, from Vietnam to Afghanistan, from Angola to El Salvador, has resulted in the death of, and injury (physical and psychological) to, thousands of innocent civilians. It stands supremely above any international law, conventions or protocols. It will not accept the jurisdiction of any international tribunal or court and will never permit its actions to come under scrutiny for violating human rights. Until the citizens of this deluded country come to grips with the reality of its policies (driven by the powerful military-industrial complex), confront the moral implications of these appalling facts, demand that a Truth and Reconciliation Commission like South Africa’s examine the sordid record of U.S. misdeeds and expiate for them, the Vietnam War will continue to fester in the American psyche and the past will continue to haunt the perpetrators of unspeakable crimes against humanity. And the world’s poor, exploited and oppressed will continue to face a very insecure and frightening future.

Dr. Sadanand Nanjundiah is a Physics Professor at Central Connecticut State University.

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