Monday, February 07, 2005

Op-Ed, Today/
February 7, 2005

"The world is hearing the voice of freedom from the center of the Middle East," said US President George W. Bush soon after the Iraqi elections of January - a quote published widely without reflection by mainstream American media."[1]

Zoooom! roared the US time machine, a Nietzschian genie indulging "the eternal recurrence of the same."

"US encouraged by Vietnam vote: Officials cite 83% turnout despite Vietcong terror", headlined the New York Times on September 4, 1967. "[D]espite a Vietcong terrorist campaign to disrupt the voting," the paper reported, Americans were "surprised and heartened" by the huge turnout of voters. A successful election, wrote the Times, "has long been seen as the keystone in President Johnson's policy of encouraging the growth of constitutional processes in South Vietnam".[2] So uncanny.

Did not America use the word "fraud" not too long ago when it was busy denouncing elections staged by the Soviets after invading Afghanistan, Hungary and Czechoslovakia? And didn't America refer to the people elected by what it called phony exercises as "stooges" and "pawns?"[3]

Is it so hard to remember? Memory can be a well-guarded stronghold.

In the South Korean port city of Incheon, police guard a bronze statue of an American general called Douglas MacArthur. This is the general who, while commanding US forces during the Korean War, had wanted to drop 24 atomic bombs along the river dividing Korea and China.

Police have protected MacArthur's statue twenty four hours each day since it was targeted three years ago by protest groups angry with American policies. "It's funny," said 22-year-old Shin Song-jin, an officer on duty, "we guard the statue just like we guard the U.S. military bases [in South Korea]."[4] Ask yourself why, Officer Shin.

Time heals all wounds, but not all the time.

North Korea - the third member of America's Axis of Evil - is a land that has been on war-footing for decades. The very constitution of the Hermit Kingdom - ruled with an iron fist by a Stalinist monarchy - calls for "arming all the populace [and] turning the entire country into a fortress."

North Korea is a garrison state, says Bruce Cumings, author of the book North Korea, which provides a most cerebral, scholarly and reasoned study of "the country every American loves to hate."[5] It has close to 15,000 underground installations related to national security. "It has burrowed deep into the earth and the mountains to build hardened concrete shelters to survive nuclear attack, and the government spends 30 cents of every dollar in its budget to defend the country."

In a population of 23 million, one million are in the military, six million are in the reserves and almost all adults have had significant military experience. When North Korean men reach the age of 18, they go through eight years of compulsory military service, "and they are not allowed to go on home leave or see their families until six years have passed."

War is a stern teacher, said Thucydides.

A paradoxical question: who remembers the "forgotten war," which ravaged Korea from 1950 to 1953? Some do and some don't. And some don't want to.

"We are facing an army of barbarians," wrote the military editor of the New York Times, Hanson Baldwin, on July 14, 1950. "[T]hey are barbarians as trained, as relentless, as reckless of life, and as skilled in the tactics of the kind of war they fight as the hordes of Genghis Khan . . . They have taken a leaf from the Nazi book of blitzkrieg and are employing all the weapons of fear and terror." Not far behind might be "Mongolians, Soviet Asiatics and a variety of races" - some of the "most primitive of peoples," wrote Baldwin, a senior editor of the press icon of the free world.

Operation Rat-Killer: the official name of a US military campaign from 1951 to 1952 designed to wipe out North Korean guerillas. What better way to exterminate vermin than to burn them out?

Napalm was invented at the conclusion of World War II. The horrific effects of napalm gained notoriety during the Vietnam War after terrible photographs were published showing children running naked down the road, their skin peeling off. And yet, recounts Bruce Cumings, America's leading historian and analyst of contemporary Korea, the US dropped far more napalm on North Korea and "with much more devastating effect" since North Korea "had many more populous cities and urban industrial installations than did North Vietnam."

What else should we remember to forget in this "forgotten war?"

The American military loves exploding, flammable things. And America wears its heart on its sleeve. "They Don't Like Hell Bombs," blazed the lead of J. Townsend's article in the American Armed Forces Chemical Journal in January 1951. Another US Air Force "trade" journal, All Hands, had this for its title in its April 1951 issue: "Napalm Jelly Bombs Prove a Blazing Success in Korea." "Wonder Weapon: Napalm," boasted the US Army Combat Forces Journal edition of November 1952.

How horrible is napalm? Here's an account of an American whose unit in Korea was hit by a napalm bomb mistakenly dropped by a US bomber: "Men all around me were burned. They lay rolling in the snow. Men I knew, marched and fought with begged me to shoot them . . . Where the napalm had burned to a crisp, it would be peeled back from the face, arms, legs . . . like fried potato chips."

Early account of America's blistering love affair with incendiary bombs: July 31, 1950, 500 tons of ordinance dropped by US bombers on the city of Hungnam. August 12, 1950: the US Air Force drops 625 tons of bombs - "a tonnage that would have required a fleet of 250 B-17s in the Second World War." By late August, B-29 formations were dropping 800 tons a day on North Korea - much of it pure napalm. All this within the first few months of a war that would last over three years - a war still referred to by the American military as "a limited war."

On February 8, 1951 George Barrett of the New York Times wrote of "a macabre tribute to the totality of modern war" in a village hit by US jets: "The inhabitants throughout the village and in the fields were caught and killed and kept the exact postures they held when the napalm struck - a man about to get on his bicycle, fifty boys and girls playing in an orphanage, a housewife strangely unmarked, holding in her hand a page torn from a Sears-Roebuck catalogue crayoned at Mail Order No. 3,811,294 for a $2.98 'bewitching bed jacket - coral.'"

The oldest psychology on earth, wrote Friedrich Nietzsche, is that which must be "burned" in: "only that which never ceases to hurt stays in the memory."


[1] "Bush calls Iraqi election a success," Nedra Pickler, Associated Press, January 31, 2005.
[2] "The Vietnam turnout was good as well," Sami Ramadani, The Guardian-UK, February 1, 2005.
[3] "Real freedom still far off," Eric Margolis, Toronto Sun, January 30, 2005.
[4] "South Koreans doubt relevance of MacArthur," Jeremy Kirk, The Washington Times, January 18, 2005.
[5] Bruce Cumings, North Korea, The New Press, 2004. Apart from the quote from the Washington Times, all other references are based on the book of Cumings. In fact, due to usual reasons of space, I regretted constantly while writing the piece that I could only delve on a small fraction of Cumings' theses. To call Cumings' book "riveting," as The Financial Times did, or "instructive," as The New York Times described it, is to diminish the book's worth. It is tremendously well-written and moving, its scholarship is impeccable and the arguments presented formidable and provocative. Cumings provides forceful criticism of the sustained idiocies of the US government and mainstream media. More than this, however, Cumings puts forth compelling highly nuanced alternative approaches to "repairing the crisis of current US-North Korean relations" and achieving lasting peace in the region. Get a copy immediately if you come across one.

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