Were They Killed Or Murdered?

Cross-posted from TomDispatch.com

I first “met” Noam Chomsky in 1969 by reading these words of his about the My Lai massacre:

“And now there is Song My ― ‘Pinkville.’  More than two decades of indoctrination and counterrevolutionary interventions have created the possibility of a name like ‘Pinkville’ ― and the acts that may be done in a place so named.  Orville and Jonathan Schell have pointed out what any literate person should realize, that this was no isolated atrocity but the logical consequence of a virtual war of extermination directed against helpless peasants: ‘enemies,’ ‘reds,’ ‘dinks.’” 

Discussing various of America’s criminal acts in the larger war in Vietnam, Chomsky then added of the My Lai massacre itself:

“It is perhaps remarkable that none of this appears to occasion much concern.  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 to be 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.”

Chomsky wrote “After Pinkville” ― areas like Song My were then colored pink on American military maps ― in 1969. Almost half a century later, the question is: Have things improved? After all, in Ken Burns’s new Vietnam extravaganza, his 18-hour documentary on that war, he seems to have captured the zeitgeist of the moment by carefully changing the word “murder” in the script for the My Lai episode to “killing.” “At lunch, Burns defended his change,” wrote the New Yorker’s Ian Parker,“on the ground that My Lai continues to have ‘a toxic, radioactive effect’ on opinion. ‘Killing’ was the better word, he said, ’even though My Lai is murder.’” To be thoroughly upbeat, perhaps by 2067 Americans will finally be able to take “murder” straight on television when it comes to My Lai.

Almost 50 years ago, Daniel Ellsberg was both celebrated by many and unsuccessfully prosecuted by the Nixon administration, in part under the Espionage Act, for releasing The Pentagon Papers, a massive secret trove of documents that revealed to the American people something of what the United States was actually doing in Vietnam.  In our era, Chelsea Manning did something similar.  She turned over a twenty-first-century trove of secret documents on the Afghan and Iraq wars ― on, that is, what she’s accurately termed “death, destruction, and mayhem” ― to WikiLeaks and for that she was celebrated by few and prosecuted and convicted by the U.S. military.  Pardoned by President Obama after seven years in military prison, she recently had her visiting fellowship to Harvard’s Institute of Politics at the Kennedy School of Government rescinded after CIA Director Mike Pompeo cancelled a talk there, complaining that Manning had “betrayed her country,” and former CIA Acting Director Michael Morell, a senior fellow at the same school, resigned in protest.  Or to put it another way, Harvard caved to men who represented an agency that had committed secret acts of horror betraying every imaginable American value.  (To give credit where it’s due, significant numbers of Harvard faculty members protested this craven act.)  The same institute felt no compunctions about offering a visiting fellowship to former Trump press secretary Sean Spicer and, despite alumni protest, not rescinding it.  Perhaps there’s an essay, “After Punkville,” to be written about all of this.

Under the circumstances, it’s our good fortune that, with civilians regularly being “killed” by U.S. firepower across the Greater Middle East, Noam Chomsky continues to remind us what our world really looks like if we don’t censor either our language or our thoughts.  It makes today’s TomDispatch post, “The Trump Presidency,” a recent interview from his upcoming book with David Barsamian, Global Discontents: Conversations on the Rising Threats to Democracy, particularly relevant to our moment.