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Raffique Shah


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No apologies needed: it's the American way

April 09, 2004
By Raffique Shah

LAST week I indicated that I intended to conclude my discourse on Nelson Mandela's visit to this country in today's column. Unfortunately, as happens so often to columnists who monitor current affairs at the global level, events overtake the best of intentions. Suffice it to say (on the Mandela issue) that the icon himself confirmed one salient point I tried to make. It was that while Mandela remains the symbol of the struggle to dismantle apartheid, the battle on the ground was fought by tens of thousands or ordinary people. Murder at the hands of the White supremacists was routine, jail and torture no different to what the Americans are inflicting on Muslims today. Bear in mind Mandela was imprisoned for 27 years, during which much of the struggle against apartheid, with its attendant violence, took place.

In relation to their understanding of that struggle, from Prime Minister Patrick Manning to CONCACAF's Jack Warner, we witnessed a woeful lack of knowledge. Both men praised Mandela for the "peaceful transfer of power" and for not exacting revenge on the supremacists. In promoting this misconception, they denied recognition of the many who fell at the brutal hands of those Whites who were intent on holding on to that rich enclave at any cost. And not one of them recalled the part Cuba played in forcing Botha to the negotiating table. We also saw another, equally embarrassing side to our limited knowledge: students who gathered at the Oval to get a glimpse of the great man thought he was the one "who freed us from slavery"! Another thought he was "from America". I mean "South America'er, Africa."

Clearly, while Warner and Manning thought Mandela's visit was the best thing to have happened to Trinidad since slavery was abolished, their focus was on the glitz and glamour part of it, not on the facts, the history of the man, the principles for which he stood and was jailed, as well as the struggle waged by his ANC and PAC compatriots. Did teachers in our schools bother to enlighten the children on the man? Worse, do they themselves know his history and that of the decolonisation of Africa? A final note on the Mandela visit: did readers note how simply but elegantly he was dressed, in tropical shirts, while his hosts stewed in sweltering business suits?

Today (Friday, May 7th), marks two very important anniversaries. In 1945, Britain's Field Marshal Montgomery reported that all German forces on the western front in Europe had agreed to surrender to Monty's 21st Army Group. That effectively ended World War II in Europe. The other event of significance, and maybe of more relevant to us, was when, in 1954, silence fell on the hills of Dien Bien Phu in Vietnam. The designs of the French to hold on to that colony, for which they engaged Ho Chi Minh's army in a 56-day battle, had evaporated. Some 60,000 French troops died in France's bid to hold on to Vietnam-until Dien Bien Phu. It would later be recorded as the then President Vincent Auriol's "Waterloo". The French were booted out of Vietnam, and a few years later, its brutal colonial aspirations took another, this time fatal, blow in Algeria. It was after Dien Bien Phu that the mighty USA, then "in heat" over the Cold War, "bought the fight" by filling in where the French had left a vacuum. The USA's equally humiliating exit from Vietnam would come 21 years later, on May 1st, 1975. Those of us who were around looking at television clips celebrated as the last US troops backed into the last helicopter to leave Saigon. That proved to be the USA's "Waterloo", bringing an end to a military misadventure that had started under Dwight Eisenhower, the Allied Forces Supreme Commander in WWII, when he was President in 1954.

Point is the French seemed to have learnt their bitter lessons on repressing seemingly weak nation-states by the 1960s. The arrogant Americans never did. Which is how they became entangled in this Iraq mess that has them mired in the desert with no easy way out. In fact, there may be no way out for them at all. But there is also a parallel between the atrocities they committed in Vietnam and those that are being exposed now, especially the photos that emerged from the prison at Abu Ghraib. After the mess hit the fan (and who else but the media to expose it, Roy?), Bush went on television last week to apologise to increasingly angry Arabs, telling them "this was not the American way". Oh yeah?

It seems that Bush forgot (he dodged the draft anyway) the multiple atrocities US forces committed in Vietnam. Like kicking "Viet Congs" (a derisive term, along with "gooks" (they had labelled anyone fighting with North Vietnam) out of helicopters-in-flight. Like going"turkey shooting" as farmers tilled the soil, just to satisfy the "body count" their commanders demanded of them. Like unleashing "agent orange" a deadly, carcinogenic defoliant that led to the early deaths-by-cancer of thousands of Vietnamese, and even their own troops. Has Bush forgotten the "carpet bombing" of Vietnam that levelled entire cities and killed tens of thousands? Or the use of napalm against ordinary Vietnamese? One news photograph of a girl running away from a napalm attack, her skin aflame, captured the Pulitzer Prize. Another that showed a South Vietnamese general shooting a "Viet Cong" to the head, taken by the photographer upon bullet-impact, also won a Pulitzer. So what exactly is "the American way" of fighting war, of holding prisoners?

I'll tell you what it is. It's Bush being allowed to be a law unto himself (which is why Kerry is speaking of "returning the US to the world community of nations"), to degenerate into the most lawless president ever. From the moment he was allowed to set up a secret prison at Guantanamo, and the world refused to speak out against this violation of all the rules of war, he became a renegade. Ordinary Afghans, and even foreigners caught in the Kabul crossfire, were held, blindfolded, and taken to that enclave in Cuba to face unspeakable terror.

By the time the war against Iraq was launched in March last year, his troops had already fine-tuned the art of torture. So having female soldiers join their male counterparts in the total dehumanisation of Iraqi males, was nothing new. In fact, Bush should not have apologised. He should have told the world that "this the American way". For indeed it is, and always has been. America as a nation was forged from the blood of millions of indigenous "Indians".

- To be continued