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An interview with Noam Chomsky

Noam Chomsky, a professor of linguistics at MIT, is one of America's best-known intellectuals and a prominent critic of the Iraq war. His most recent book is "Hegemony or Survival." He spoke with Global Viewpoint editor Nathan Gardels on Thursday, Aug. 26.

NATHAN GARDELS: A debate is raging in the U.S. election campaign over both Democratic challenger John Kerry's war and anti-war record. President Bush's "Swift Boat Veteran" allies at first questioned whether Kerry earned his medals. Now they attack his 1971 testimony before the U.S. Congress in which he said U.S. forces had committed atrocities and war crimes -- a statement Kerry himself has seemed to back away from.

You were an active and prominent critic of the Indochina War. Indeed, isn't the historical record clear that widespread war crimes and atrocities were committed by U.S. forces?

NOAM CHOMSKY: The historical record is clear. The question is whether the United States decides to be honest about its own history or not. As a powerful state, the U.S. can deny what it has done and get away with it. This is one of the less admirable traits of a superpower.

By the time John Kerry was giving his undoubtedly accurate testimony in 1971, some 70 percent of the American public already regarded the Vietnam War as fundamentally wrong and immoral. According to Bernard Fall, the most respected historian of the Vietnam War, by 1965 more than 150,000 Vietnamese had been killed by what he called "the crushing weight of American armor" -- from napalm to vomiting gas.

By 1967, two years before Kerry arrived in Vietnam for his tour of duty, Fall warned that "Vietnam as a cultural and historical entity may not survive." The country was literally dying under the blows of the largest military machine ever unleashed on an area so small.

By the late 1960s, the U.S. had extended the war to all of Indochina. Fred Branfman, an international aid worker and journalist, exposed what was going on then in the Plain of Jars in Laos, where people were forced to set up and live in villages in underground caves to escape relentless carpet bombing by US B-52s over a two-year period.

Branfman personally interviewed more than 2,000 peasants who had escaped from U.S. bombing in Laos. Every single one said that their villages had been leveled by American bombing, and the evidence of this is still apparent for those who visit the Plain of Jars in northern Laos today.

Most of this bombing was directed at undefended villages, since Pathet Lao and North Vietnamese guerrillas moved easily through a forest so thick that their movements could not be detected from the air.

Then the war extended to Cambodia. Just recently, Henry Kissinger's words on the subject were revealed when some old Nixon-Kissinger tapes were released. According to Kissinger, Nixon ordered "a massive bombing" in Cambodia against "anything" that flies c "anything" that moves. ...

As Branfman has pointed out, the United States dropped 6,727,084 tons of bombs on Indochina, more than triple what was dropped on all of Europe and the entire Pacific Theater in World War II. We will never know how many innocent Indochinese peasants died from these illegal bombings, but former U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara has estimated that 3.4 million Indochinese died during the war. Since the vast majority of these perished from U.S. firepower, estimates of the innocents who died must begin in the hundreds of thousands.

GARDELS: Why is this kind of debate raging over the Indochina War now, instead of over the current war -- in Iraq?

CHOMSKY: Certainly on the part of Bush's political allies, it is an effort to suppress an ugly history. Powerful states need to subordinate populations by classifying information or suppressing history in order to pursue unpopular policies. If the people know, they will object.

Finally, the atrocities in Vietnam were brought to an end by public protest that resulted from the public becoming ever more knowledgeable about what was really going on. That war started in 1962, but it was not until 1972 that the public turned decisively against the war.

The interesting thing about the U.S. war in Iraq is that, for the first time, large public protests and an anti-war movement developed before the war was fought. The population is changing. It is more informed. And that frightens people in power. That is why they want to reconstruct the history of the past.

c 2004, Global Viewpoint. Distributed by Tribune Media Services
For immediate release. Distributed 8/26/04