Sunday, July 24, 2005

The Ends Don't Always Justify The Means

Although Hoi An was mostly spared in the American War (as it is called here) the same cannot be said of a village, just 120km south of here, called Son My, or My Lai by the Americans. On the the morning of the 16th of March 1968 a platoon from Charlie Company arrived in the village on a "search and destroy" mission to root out VC guerrillas. But they found no guerrillas. Indeed they found very few men of fighting age. Nevertheless, when they left the village a few hours later, and without ever a shot being fired against them, 504 Vietnamese, mostly women and children, lay dead. It wasn't until a year later that news of the massacre reached the outside world, and the subsequent investigation was a whitewash. All in all only one person was ever found guilty of the massacre and he served less than 4 years before being released by a federal judge.

Unfortunately My Lai was not an isolated incident and was symptomatic of the way the war was waged by America. The statistics are chilling. During the course of the war the Americans dropped more bombs during the war (8 million tonnes) than had been dropped altogether in WW1, WW2 and Korea by all sides (particularly impressive as, apart from rice paddies, there were very few targets of any military importance). Add to that the 72 million litres of chemicals, such as Agent Orange, that were liberally sprayed throughout the country. Vietnamese casualties numbered roughly 1 million combatants and 3 million civilians. No wonder they didn't win the "hearts and minds" of the Vietnamese. The effects of Agent Orange still haunt the Vietnamese as it is a stable dioxin that causes a plethora of ailments to people who come into contact with it, including hugely increased incidences of birth defects. And although the American government recognises these effects at home and pays compensation to its own veterans accordingly, it (as far as I am aware) has so far paid out a grand total of $0 in compensation for its targeting of civilians and the countryside (in direct contravention of the Geneva Conventions) with this highly toxic chemical.

On my travels so far there has been a common thread in countries' histories over the past 50 years. In their ardour to fight against communism during the Cold War the Americans often employed, or sanctioned, methods and regimes that were on a par with the evil they professed to be combating. This is especially true in much of South America, as well as here in Southeast Asia (the American-backed Diem regime in South Vietnam was not especially liked by its people) where human rights abuses by right wing dictatorships were overlooked by the west. The saddest thing is that the Vietnam conflict was much less about the spread of communism but rather about the fight for Independence, and if the Americans had tried to understand the history and motivation of the Vietnamese then perhaps the whole sorry episode could have been avoided. Funnily enough I seem to angrier about this than the Vietnamese themselves, as I haven't heard a single comment about either the war or Americans in general. The people seem to have forgiven and are getting on with their lives.

Although I seem to be singling out America and its foreign policies for abuse the culpability lies with all the western powers. It's not that the regimes they were fighting were gentler or more humane, it's just that when you profess to be fighting for ideals such as justice, liberty and the rule of law then you need to abide by them yourself, and not disregard them whenever it is expedient. Such behaviour is incredibly hypocritical.

Now where am I trying to go with this? To tell the truth I'm not quite sure. Perhaps it's that we in the West should practice what we preach. Perhaps we ought not to go rushing into things without trying to understand the causes underlying the problems. Perhaps we ought to realise that our solution isn't the only one. Perhaps we should realise that we can't always have everything our own way and ought to be willing to give ground on matters of disagreement. Perhaps history should be made compulsory throughout school. Whatever the point I'm trying to make we in the West should pause a while and think before we view ourselves as being blameless and above reproach.

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