Noam Chomsky and the Arrogance of Power

Cross-posted with

The other day I pulled a tattered copy of The Chomsky Reader off a bookshelf of mine. Leafing through some of the Vietnam-era essays collected in that 1987 paperback brought to life a young Tom Engelhardt who, in the mid-to-late 1960s, was undergoing a startling transition: from dreaming of serving his government to opposing it. Noam Chomsky's writings played a role in that transformation. I stopped at his chilling 1970 essay "After Pinkville," which I remember reading when it came out. ("Pinkville," connoting communist influence, was the military slang for the village where the infamous My Lai massacre took place.) It was not the first Chomsky essay I had read. That honor may go to "The Responsibility of Intellectuals," which he wrote in 1966. ("It is the responsibility of intellectuals to speak the truth and to expose lies. This, at least, may seem enough of a truism to pass without comment. Not so, however. For the modern intellectual, it is not at all obvious.")

"After Pinkville" still remains vividly in my consciousness from that long-gone moment when a growing sense of horror about a distant American war that came to feel ever closer and more brutal swept me into antiwar activism. Its first sentences still cut to the heart of things: "It is important to understand that the massacre of the rural population of Vietnam and their forced evacuation is not an accidental by-product of the war. Rather it is of the very essence of American strategy." Before he was done, Chomsky would put the massacre of almost 500 Vietnamese men, women, and children into the grim context of the larger crimes of the time: "It is perhaps remarkable that none of this appears to occasion much concern [in the U.S.]. It is only the acts of a company of half-crazed GIs that are regarded as a scandal, a disgrace to America. It will, indeed, be a still greater national scandal -- if we assume that possible -- if they alone are subjected to criminal prosecution, but not those who have created and accepted the long-term atrocity to which they contributed one detail -- merely a few hundred more murdered Vietnamese."

So many decades later, something still seems painfully familiar in all of this. Thanks in part to the nature of our media moment, we remain riveted by acts of horror committed against Europeans and Americans. Yet "concern" over what the U.S. has done in our distant war zones -- from the killing of civilians at weddings, funerals, and memorial services to the evisceration of a hospital, to kidnappings, torture, and even the killing of prisoners, to drone strikes so "surgical" and "precise" that hundreds below died even though only a relatively few individuals were officially targeted -- seems largely missing in action. Unlike the Vietnam era, in the present moment, lacking the powerful antiwar movement of the Vietnam era, "none of this," to quote Chomsky, "appears to occasion much concern." Indeed.

There are, however, exceptions to this statement and let me mention one of them. A half-century later, Noam Chomsky is still writing with the same chilling eloquence about the updated war-on-terror version of this American nightmare. His "concern" has not lagged, something that can't be missed in his new book, Who Rules the World?, which focuses on, among other things, what in the Vietnam-era might have been called "the arrogance of power." At a moment when the Vietnam bomber of choice, the B-52, is being sent back into action in the war against the Islamic State, he, too, is back in action. Check out his latest piece, "American Power Under Challenge," from his new book.