September 29, 2017

Lying for the National Security State

The particular subject that engages me here is the arrival, after what is reported to be the largest advertising and PR campaign in PBS's history, of the 18-hour, 10-episode, Ken Burns-Lynn Novick series, "The Vietnam War." I'm not watching it, even though it is available for free (for the moment) at After reading many articles about it, I have to conclude that watching the series would constitute an unusually painful and enraging experience. I don't choose to go through that, not right now. Life is too short; what remains of my life in particular is definitely too short for this kind of noxious, dangerous bullshit. What interests me is not an evaluation of the series per se (whether it is well-written and directed, how effective its presentation is in aesthetic terms, etc.), which would require a viewing, but rather the purpose of the series in our culture at this particular moment, which does not.

As we shall see, the numerous articles about the series (only several of which I will reference, but there are many, many more) present enough particulars to reach certain judgments without having seen "The Vietnam War." Indeed, my reading on this subject has made many issues so unmistakably obvious, and in an especially nauseating, dishonest and contemptible manner, that I was forcefully reminded of a line of Lily Tomlin's: "No matter how cynical you become, it's never enough to keep up."

A good starting place is this: the biggest single backer of the series is Bank of America. Some of you might be heard to mutter: "Jesus." That's because you remember that antiwar protesters burned down the Isla Vista branch of Bank of America ( near UC-Santa Barbara) in 1970. There should be no doubt that Bank of America would not bankroll a mammoth TV series on Vietnam unless it was certain that the series would not present any facts or viewpoints that would be at all disturbing to its corporate interests (which are roughly coextensive with those of the national security state).

That's not all: the Koch brothers are also backers of the series. I mention this for the benefit of those "libertarians" who view the Koch brothers as allies of some kind and support their efforts at "influencing events." I put "libertarian" in quotes now because of the unavoidable fact that no one has the slightest idea what the term means any longer. I caution the reader that the fact "libertarian" is used without any specific discernible meaning hardly means that "libertarians" themselves acknowledge or address the issue, which they do not. In many cases, people call themselves "libertarians" because they know their target audience would regard them as unsophisticated and ignorant if they self-identified as Republicans. I suspect many of such "libertarians" think that their chosen label transmutes their conventional, unremarkable views into a stance many will view as "cool" in some manner. Pity the poor, deluded idiots: "libertarian" is today's Republican, and deserving of as much respect, which is to say none.

When well-known, self-described "libertarians" include insanely militant, murderous interventionists, as well as people of widely varied, and not infrequently directly contradictory, political and social/cultural views, "libertarian" can signify anything -- which means that it signifies nothing. As for the Koch brothers: there should be no doubt that they would not support this particular series unless they were certain that it would not present any facts or viewpoints that would be at all disturbing to their business and corporate interests (which are roughly coextensive with those of the national security state; see also, Donald J. Trump).

I also note that many prominent "libertarians" fall into the same category: white, affluent, straight men. I don't know about you but, as a general rule, if I want to ascertain the truth of any issue, the first place I will turn, and even the tenth, is decidedly not a white, affluent, straight man. Yes, I mean that with regard to any issue at all.

In a valuable article on the Burns-Novick series, John Pilger notes that Bank of America is heavily promoted in the "lavish advertising campaign." He goes on:
Burns says he is grateful to “the entire Bank of America family” which “has long supported our country’s veterans”. Bank of America was a corporate prop to an invasion that killed perhaps as many as four million Vietnamese and ravaged and poisoned a once bountiful land. More than 58,000 American soldiers were killed, and around the same number are estimated to have taken their own lives.
About the series, Pilger writes:
I watched the first episode in New York. It leaves you in no doubt of its intentions right from the start. The narrator says the war “was begun in good faith by decent people out of fateful misunderstandings, American overconfidence and Cold War misunderstandings."

The dishonesty of this statement is not surprising. The cynical fabrication of “false flags” that led to the invasion of Vietnam is a matter of record – the Gulf of Tonkin “incident” in 1964, which Burns promotes as true, was just one. ...

There was no good faith. The faith was rotten and cancerous. For me – as it must be for many Americans — it is difficult to watch the film’s jumble of “red peril” maps, unexplained interviewees, ineptly cut archive and maudlin American battlefield sequences.

In the series’ press release in Britain — the BBC will show it — there is no mention of Vietnamese dead, only Americans. “We are all searching for some meaning in this terrible tragedy,” Novick is quoted as saying.

All this will be familiar to those who have observed how the American media and popular culture behemoth has revised and served up the great crime of the second half of the twentieth century: from The Green Berets and The Deer Hunter to Rambo and, in so doing, has legitimised subsequent wars of aggression. The revisionism never stops and the blood never dries. The invader is pitied and purged of guilt, while “searching for some meaning in this terrible tragedy."
As for the "meaning" so earnestly sought by Burns-Novick -- no doubt also "decent people," whose "good faith" and "good intentions" might elude you, poor shmuck that you are, but are deeply appreciated by the national security state -- Pilger says:
The “meaning” of the Vietnam war is no different from the meaning of the genocidal campaign against the Native Americans, the colonial massacres in the Philippines, the atomic bombings of Japan, the levelling of every city in North Korea. The aim was described by Colonel Edward Lansdale, the famous CIA man on whom Graham Greene based his central character in The Quiet American.

Quoting Robert Taber’s The War of the Flea, Lansdale said, “There is only one means of defeating an insurgent people who will not surrender, and that is extermination. There is only one way to control a territory that harbours resistance, and that is to turn it into a desert.”

Nothing has changed.
I mention above that many prominent "libertarians" are white. With regard to "The Vietnam War," this particular issue is of special significance (as it is in connection with any issue of importance). Frank Joyce observes, in an article which I highly commend to your attention:
In discussing the recent Kathryn Bigelow film, Detroit, I said, “Approach it as a case study of the intrinsic limits of the white gaze, combined with the manipulation of facts for political and Hollywood marketing purposes.”

Darned if the 18-hour Burns/Novick opus doesn’t come across as a case study of the intrinsic limits of the white gaze, combined with the manipulation of facts for political and marketing purposes for PBS and the underwriters of the series.

Even if Bigelow gets the benefit of some doubt as “just a Hollywood filmmaker,” Ken Burns is different. He is widely considered by his funders and admirers as “America’s historian.” He is explicitly tasked with shaping public opinion. A recent New Yorker profile of him was headlined, “Mr. America.”
"America's historian." "Mr. America." See? You're nauseous already -- and you're not even watching the goddamned series. (But if you are, I pray that the goddesses will safely see you through the dangerous journey on which you've voluntarily chosen to embark.)

On the subject of "the white gaze," Joyce later writes:
There is a central myth that the series apparently perpetuates. Here’s how a favorable review in a right-wing publication put it: “The entire series…offers a fairly balanced but often gruesome and graphic recounting of many long years of involvement in the Southeast Asian conflict.”

In other words, the U.S. wasn’t creating trouble, but rather trying, out of the goodness of our hearts, to be helpful in a “Southeast Asian conflict.” A specific variation on this theme is that the U.S. was helping the underdog in a “civil war” thousands of miles away. Never mind that the U.S. essentially created the alleged civil conflict in the first place.

This storyline reproduces a theme of U.S. history that goes back to beginning of settler colonialism and the investment in chattel slavery. At the core of the white way of seeing the world is that white people are the victims of barbarian savages who resent our “freedom” and our “civilization.” More recently, the “inferior savages” are communists, although the white communists are perceived and treated differently than those of color.
I'm reminded of a passage I wrote almost 12 years ago, in which I described the cornerstone of the West's self-glorifying mythology. Tragically, this mythology remains unaltered today, even at the edges. It appears to be indestructible and immovable; only a huge upheaval (nuclear war, other man-made and/or natural large-scale disasters, the collapse of financial systems) will dislodge it. Although this passage references the attacks on 9/11, I emphasize that this Western self-mythology long predated that day. One of the most tragic results of 9/11 is that the West's profoundly distorted view of itself, a view which mandates repeated acts of murder and destruction on a world-historical scale, as it simultaneously cleanses the West of all guilt and bestows it with nobility for the carnage it unleashes, was given new vitality. Whenever the ruling class worries that the mythological view might be weakening, they will scurry to find a new disaster to prop up this crucial element of their control. If a disaster does not offer itself in a timely manner, they will create one. The ruling class is in love with death. I wrote:
The West has the answer to successful human life. Since it does, and because certain elements in the rest of the world have now chosen to attack us on our own ground (and never mind that we have invaded and ruled over vast portions of the rest of the world since time immemorial), we must enlighten those benighted portions of the globe in our defense. Our chosen method of enlightenment is brute military force, to be deployed even against countries that did not threaten us. The lack of a genuine threat is no argument against spreading our version of "civilization," for our mission is grounded not only in self-defense: it is also a moral mission. Our success and our "peace" directly correlates to our virtue. Those countries and those civilizations that do not enjoy the same success and peace are without virtue. In the most extreme (and, one could argue, most consistent) version of this tale, non-Western parts of the world are less than human -- and they are subhuman by choice. They are immoral, and sometimes even evil. Since we represent the good and they represent the evil, we are surely entitled to improve them, by invasion and bombing if necessary. If they do not threaten us today, they might at some indeterminate time in the future. And while we might kill many innocent civilians in our campaign of civilization, those who survive will be infinitely better off than they would have been otherwise. Besides, how "innocent" can any of them be -- since they are members of inferior, less than fully human civilizations, and since they are so by choice?
In the context of "the white gaze" and the West's self-mythologizing, there is another passage in Joyce's article that I found especially striking.

(To be continued.)

P.S. Pilger references "the colonial massacres in the Philippines," about which you can read much more in "The Mythology of the 'Good Guy' American." He also refers to "the atomic bombings of Japan," about which you can read more in "The Loathsome Lies in the Service of the Horrors of War."