From Laos to the Middle East, a roundup of Times stories that piqued the interest of the esteemed scholar.
by Noam Chomsky
A front-page article is devoted to a flawed story about a campus rape in the journal Rolling Stone, exposed in the leading academic journal of media critique. So severe is this departure from journalistic integrity that it is also the subject of the lead story in the business section, with a full inside page devoted to the continuation of the two reports. The shocked reports refer to several past crimes of the press: a few cases of fabrication, quickly exposed, and cases of plagiarism (“too numerous to list”). The specific crime of Rolling Stone is “lack of skepticism,” which is “in many ways the most insidious” of the three categories.
It is refreshing to see the commitment of the Times to the integrity of journalism.
On page 7 of the same issue, there is an important story by Thomas Fuller headlined “One Woman’s Mission to free Laos from Unexploded Bombs.” It reports the “single-minded effort” of a Lao-American woman, Channapha Khamvongsa, “to rid her native land of millions of bombs still buried there, the legacy of a nine-year American air campaign that made Laos one of the most heavily bombed places on earth” – soon to be outstripped by rural Cambodia, following the orders of Henry Kissinger to the US air force: “A massive bombing campaign in Cambodia. Anything that flies on anything that moves.” A comparable call for virtual genocide would be very hard to find in the archival record. It was mentioned in the Times in an article on released tapes of President Nixon, and elicited little notice.
The Fuller story on Laos reports that as a result of Ms. Khamvongsa’s lobbying, the US increased its annual spending on removal of unexploded bombs by a munificent $12 million. The most lethal are cluster bombs, which are designed to “cause maximum casualties to troops” by spraying “hundreds of bomblets onto the ground.” About 30 percent remain unexploded, so that they kill and maim children who pick up the pieces, farmers who strike them while working, and other unfortunates. An accompanying map features Xieng Khouang province in northern Laos, better known as the Plain of Jars, the primary target of the intensive bombing, which reached its peak of fury in 1969.
Fuller reports that Ms. Khamvongsa “was spurred into action when she came across a collection of drawings of the bombings made by refugees and collected by Fred Branfman, an antiwar activist who helped expose the Secret War.” The drawings appear in the late Fred Branfman’s remarkable book Voices from the Plain of Jars, published in 1972, republished by the U. of Wisconsin press in 2013 with a new introduction. The drawings vividly display the torment of the victims, poor peasants in a remote area that had virtually nothing to do with the Vietnam war, as officially conceded. One typical report by a 26 year-old nurse captures the nature of the air war: “There wasn’t a night when we thought we’d live until morning, never a morning we thought we’d sur¬vive until night. Did our children cry? Oh, yes, and we did also. I just stayed in my cave. I didn’t see the sunlight for two years. What did I think about? Oh, I used to repeat, `please don’t let the planes come, please don’t let the planes come, please don’t let the planes come.'”
Branfman’s valiant efforts did indeed bring some awareness of this hideous atrocity. His assiduous researches also unearthed the reasons for the savage destruction of a helpless peasant society. He exposes the reasons once again in the introduction to the new edition of Voices. In his words:
“One of the most shattering revelations about the bombing was discovering why it had so vastly increased in 1969, as described by the refugees. I learned that after President Lyndon Johnson had declared a bombing halt over North Vietnam in November 1968, he had simply diverted the planes into northern Laos. There was no military reason for doing so. It was simply because, as U.S. Deputy Chief of Mission Monteagle Stearns testified to the U.S. Senate Committee on Foreign Relations in October 1969, `Well, we had all those planes sitting around and couldn’t just let them stay there with nothing to do’.”
Therefore the unused planes were unleashed on poor peasants, devastating the peaceful Plain of Jars, far from the ravages of Washington’s murderous wars of aggression in Indochina.
Let us now see how these revelations are transmuted into New York Times Newspeak: “The targets were North Vietnamese troops — especially along the Ho Chi Minh Trail, a large part of which passed through Laos — as well as North Vietnam’s Laotian Communist allies.”
Compare the words of the U.S. Deputy Chief of Mission, and the heart-rending drawings and testimony in Fred Branfman’s cited collection.
True, the reporter has a source: U.S. propaganda. That surely suffices to overwhelm mere fact about one of the major crimes of the post-World War II era, as detailed in the very source he cites: Fred Branfman’s crucial revelations.
We can be confident that this colossal lie in the service of the state will not merit lengthy exposure and denunciation of disgraceful misdeeds of the Free Press, such as plagiarism and lack of skepticism.
The same issue of the New York Times treats us to a report by the inimitable Thomas Friedman, earnestly relaying the words of President Obama presenting what Friedman labels “the Obama Doctrine” – every President has to have a Doctrine. The profound Doctrine is “’engagement,’ combined with meeting core strategic needs.”
The President illustrated with a crucial case: “You take a country like Cuba. For us to test the possibility that engagement leads to a better outcome for the Cuban people, there aren’t that many risks for us. It’s a tiny little country. It’s not one that threatens our core security interests, and so [there’s no reason not] to test the proposition. And if it turns out that it doesn’t lead to better outcomes, we can adjust our policies.”
Here the Nobel Peace laureate expands on his reasons for undertaking what the leading US left-liberal intellectual journal, the New York Review, hails as the “brave” and “truly historic step” of reestablishing diplomatic relations with Cuba. It is a move undertaken in order to “more effectively empower the Cuban people,” the hero explained, our earlier efforts to bring them freedom and democracy having failed to achieve our noble goals. The earlier efforts included a crushing embargo condemned by the entire world (Israel excepted) and a brutal terrorist war. The latter is as usual wiped out of history, apart from failed attempts to assassinate Castro, a very minor feature, acceptable because it can be dismissed with scorn as ridiculous CIA shenanigans. Turning to the declassified internal record, we learn that these crimes were undertaken because of Cuba’s “successful defiance” of US policy going back to the Monroe Doctrine, which declared Washington’s intent to rule the hemisphere. All unmentionable, along with too much else to recount here.
Searching further we find other gems, for example, the front-page think piece on the Iran deal by Peter Baker a few days earlier, warning about the Iranian crimes regularly listed by Washington’s propaganda system. All prove to be quite revealing on analysis, though none more so than the ultimate Iranian crime: “destabilizing” the region by supporting “Shiite militias that killed American soldiers in Iraq.” Here again is the standard picture. When the US invades Iraq, virtually destroying it and inciting sectarian conflicts that are tearing the country and now the whole region apart, that counts as “stabilization” in official and hence media rhetoric. When Iran supports militias resisting the aggression, that is “destabilization.” And there could hardly be a more heinous crime than killing American soldiers attacking one’s homes.
All of this, and far, far more, makes perfect sense if we show due obedience and uncritically accept approved doctrine: The US owns the world, and it does so by right, for reasons also explained lucidly in the New York Review, in a March 2015 article by Jessica Matthews, former president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace:
“American contributions to international security, global economic growth, freedom, and human well-being have been so self-evidently unique and have been so clearly directed to others’ benefit that Americans have long believed that the US amounts to a different kind of country. Where others push their national interests, the US tries to advance universal principles.”
Noam Chomsky is Professor Emeritus of linguistics and philosophy at MIT.