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John Pilger on Vietnam's last battle: the fight for wellbeing

Vietnam was punished for its victory when US troops left. Its welfare dream has faded, but the people endure.

As the rain sheeted down, time washed away.

I looked down from the rooftop in Saigon where, more than a generation ago, in the wake of the longest war of modern times, I had watched silent, sullen streets awash. The foreigners were gone, at last. Through the mist, like little phantoms, four children ran into view, their arms outstretched. They circled and weaved and dived; and one of them fell down, feigning death. They were bombers.

This was not unusual, because there is no place like Vietnam. Within my lifetime, Ho Chi Minh's nationalist forces had fought and expelled the French, whose tree-lined boulevards, pink-washed villas and scaled-down replica of the Paris Opéra were façades for plunder and cruelty; then the Japanese, with whom the French colons collaborated; then the British, who sought to reinstal the French; then the Americans, with whom Ho had repeatedly tried to forge an alliance against China; then Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge, who attacked from the west; and finally the Chinese, who, with a vengeful nod from Washington, came down from the north. All of them were seen off at immeasurable cost.

I walked down into the rain and followed the children through a labyrinth to the Young Flower School, an orphanage. A teacher hurriedly assembled a small choir and I was greeted with a burst of singing. "What are the words of the song?" I asked Tran, whose father was a GI. He looked gravely at the floor, as nine-year-olds do, before reciting words that left my interpreter shaking her head. "Planes come no more," she repeated. "Do not weep for those just born . . . The human being is evergreen."

The year was 1978. Vietnam was being punished for seeing off the last US helicopter gunship, the war's creation; the last B-52 with its ladders of bombs silhouetted against the flash of their carnage; the last C-130s that had dumped, the US Senate was told, "a quantity of toxic chemical amounting to six pounds per head of population", causing a "foetal catastrophe"; the last of a psychosis that made village after village a murder scene.

On May Day 1975, when it was all over, Hollywood began its long celebration of the invaders as victims, the standard purgative, while revenge was policy. Vietnam was classified as "Category Z" in Washington, which imposed the draconian Trading With the Enemy Act from the First World War. This ensured that even Oxfam America was barred from sending humanitarian aid. Allies pitched in. One of Margaret Thatcher's first acts on coming to power in 1979 was to persuade the European Economic Community to halt its shipments of food and milk powder to Vietnamese children. According to the World Health Organisation, a third of all infants under five so deteriorated following the milk ban that most of them were stunted or likely to be. Almost none of this was news in the west.

Austerity, grief at the millions dead or missing and an incredulity that the war was no more became the rhythms of life in a forgotten country. The "democracy" the Americans had invented and life-supported in South Vietnam, which once accounted for half of Amnesty's worldwide toll of tortured political prisoners, had collapsed almost overnight. The roads out of Saigon became vistas of abandoned boots and uniforms. "When I heard that it was over," said Thieu Thi Tao Madeleine, "my heart flies."

Still wearing the black of the National Liberation Front (NLF), which the Americans called the Vietcong, she walked with a limp and winced as she smiled. The "Madeleine" was added by her French teachers at the lycée in Saigon that she and her sister Thieu Thi Tan Danielle had attended in the 1960s. Aged 16 and 13, "Mado" and "Dany" were recruited by the NLF to blow up the Saigon regime's national intelligence headquarters, where torture was conducted under tutelage of the CIA.

On the eve of their mission, they were betrayed and seized as they cycled home from school. When Mado refused to hand over NLF names, she was strung upside down and electrocuted, her head held in a bucket of water. They were then "disappeared" to Con Son Island, where they were shackled in "tiger cages" - cells so small they could not stand; quick lime and excreta were thrown on them from above. At the age of 16, Dany etched their defiance on the wall: "Notre bonjour à nos chers et chères camarades." The words are still there.

Last month, I returned to Vietnam, whose agony I reported for almost a decade. A poem was waiting in my room in the Caravelle Hotel in Saigon. Typed in English, it was a "heartfelt prayer" for "the stones [of life] getting soft", and ended with, "I'm still living, struggling . . . please phone." It was Mado, though I prefer her Vietnamese name, Tao. We had lost touch; I knew of her work at the Institute of Ecology, her marriage to another NLF soldier and the birth of a son against all the odds after the damage done to her in the tiger cages.

Through the throng of tourists and businessmen in the Caravelle lobby navigated diminutive Dany, now 57. Tao was waiting in a taxi outside. Five years ago, she suffered a stroke and lost the use of her voice and much of her body, but these have now returned and although she needs to take your arm, she is really no different from when she told me her heart "flies". We drove past the sentinels of the new Vietnam, the hotels and apartment blocks under construction, then turned into a lane where woodsmoke rose and children peered and frogs leapt in the beam of our headlights.

The walls of Tao's home are a proud montage of struggle and painful gain: she and Dany at the Lycée Marie Curie; the collected exhortations of Ho; the letters of comrades long gone. It all seemed, at first, like flowers preserved between the pages of a forgotten book. But no: here were the very icons of and inspirations for resistance that new generations must re-create all over again, for while battlegrounds change, the enemy does not. "Each time we are invaded," Tao said, "we fight them off. At the same time we fight to keep our soul. Isn't that the lesson of Vietnam and of history?"

I was once told a poignant story by a Frenchman who was in Hanoi during the Christmas 1972 bombing. "I took shelter in the Museum of History," he said, "and there, working by candlelight, with the B-52s overhead, were young men and women earnestly trying to copy as many bronzes and sculptures as they could. They told me, 'Even if the originals are destroyed, something will remain and our roots will be protected.'"

History, not ideology, is a living presence in Vietnam. Here, the experience of history forged a communal ingenuity and patience to the extreme human limits. In the South, the NLF leadership was an alliance of Catholics, liberals, Buddhists and communists, and most of those who fought in the northern army were peasant nationalists. With its structures and disciplines, communism was the means by which Vietnam's protracted wars of independence were fought and won. This is appreciated by Vietnamese today who idly refer to "the communist period" as if the party were no longer in power. What matters here is Vietnam. Visit the museums in Hanoi and it is clear that the word Ho Chi Minh never stopped using was "independence": "the right you never surrender". In retirement, President Dwight Eisenhower wrote that, had his administration not delayed (sabotaged) the national elections agreed at the United Nations conference in Geneva in 1954, "possibly 80 per cent of the population would have voted for Ho".

I thought about this on the journey back from Tao's. More than 20 years of war would not have happened. Three million people would have lived. No babies would have been deformed by Agent Orange. No feet would have been blown off by the cluster bombs that were tested here. On the overnight train to Danang, I could tell the bomb craters that joined together, leaving not even Pompeiis of war, except perhaps on a distant rise the gravestones of the anti-aircraft militia. They were often young women like Mado and Dany. In Hanoi, I took a taxi to Kham Thien Street, which I first saw in 1975, laid waste by B-52s that had struck every third house. A block of flats where 283 people died is now a monument of a mother and child. There are fresh flowers; the traffic thunders by.

Sitting in a café with these unnecessary ghosts, I read that Britain's military chief, General Sir David Richards, had called for Nato "to plan for a 30- or 40-year role" in Afghan­istan. Nato is said to spend $50m for every Taliban guerrilla it kills, and cluster bombs are still a favourite. The general expressed his care for the Afghan people. The French and Americans also said they cared for the "gooks" they killed in industrial quantities.
When I was last in Vietnam 15 years ago, making a film, my only brush with officialdom was the ministry of culture's concern that the footage I had shot at My Lai, where hundreds of people, mostly women and children, were slaughtered in 1968, might offend the Americans. In Saigon, the War Crimes Museum has been renamed the War Remnants Museum. Outside, tourists are offered pirated copies of the Lonely Planet guide, with its tendentious devotion to an American sense of "Nam".

Perhaps the Vietnamese can afford to be generous, but the reason, I think, runs deeper. Since Dai Thang, "the great victory", the policy has been to end a seemingly endless state of siege. Colour and energy have arrived like breaking waves; Hanoi, with its mist-covered lakes and boulevards once pocked with air-raid shelters, is now a gracious, confident, youthful city. There is the kind of freedom that ignores, navigates and circumvents the old Stalinist strictures. The papers take officials to task and damn corruption, but then, occasionally, there is the bleakest of headlines: "Alleged agitator to face trial". Cu Huy Ha Vu, 53, has been charged with "illegal actions against the state". Such is an ill-defined line you dare not cross.

Bill Clinton came to lunch at my hotel in Hanoi. He runs an Aids charity that does work in Vietnam. In 1995, he "normalised relations" between Washington and Hanoi. That meant Vietnam was allowed to join the World Trade Organisation and qualify for World Bank loans provided it embraced the "free market", destroyed its free public services and paid off the bad debts of the defunct Saigon regime: money that had helped bankroll the American war. The reparations agreed by President Richard Nixon in the 1973 Paris Peace Accords were ignored. Normalisation also meant that foreign investors were offered tax-free "economic processing zones" with "competitively priced" (cheap) labour.

The Vietnamese were finally being granted membership of the "international community", as long as they created a society based on inequity and exploited labour, and abandoned the health service that was the envy of the developing world, with its pioneering work in paediatrics and primary care, along with a free education system that produced one of the world's highest literacy rates. Today, ordinary people pay for health care and schools; the elite send their children to expensive schools in Hanoi's "international city" and poach scholarships at American universities.

Whereas farmers in difficulty could once depend on rural credit from the state (interest was unknown), they must now go to private lenders, the usurers who once plagued the peasantry. And the government welcomed back Monsanto with its genetically modified seeds. Monsanto was one of the manufacturers of Agent Orange, which gave Vietnam its own, chemical Hiroshima. Last year, the US Supreme Court rejected an appeal by lawyers acting for more than three million Vietnamese deformed by Agent Orange. One of the judges, Clarence Thomas, once worked as a corporate lawyer for Monsanto.

In his seminal study Anatomy of a War, the historian Gabriel Kolko argues that the party of Ho Chi Minh enjoyed "success as a social movement based largely on its response to peasant desires" and that its surrender to the "free market" is a betrayal. His disillusion is understandable, but the need to internationalise a war-ruined country was desperate, as was building a counterweight to China, the ancient foe. Unlike China, and despite the new Gucci emporiums in the centre of Hanoi and Saigon, the Vietnamese have not yet gone all the way with the brutalities of "tiger" or crony capitalism. Since 1985, the rate of malnutrition among children has almost halved. And tens of thousands of those who fled in boats have quietly returned without "a single case of victimisation", according to the EU official who led the assistance programme in 1995. In many parts of the country, forests are rising again and the sound of birds and the rustle of wildlife are heard again, thanks to a regreening programme initiated during the war by Professor Vo Quy of Vietnam National University in Hanoi.

For me, keeping at bay the forces that pour trillions into corrupt banks and wars while destroying the means of civilised life is Vietnam's last great battle. That the party elite respect, or fear, a people who, through the generations, have devoted themselves to throwing off oppressors is evident in the state's often ambivalent responses to unauthorised strikes against ruthless foreign employers. "Are we in a Gorbachev phase?" said a journalist. "Or maybe the party and the people are watching each other for now. Remember always, Vietnam is different."

On my last day in Saigon, I walked along Dong Hoi, no longer a street of hustlers and beggars, bar girls and shambling GIs looking for something in the cause of nothing. Back then, I would stroll past the Hotel Royale and look up at the corner balcony on the first floor and see a stocky Welshman, his camera resting on his arm. A greeting in Welsh might drift down, or his take-off of an insane colonel we both knew. Today, the balcony and the Royale are gone, and Philip Jones Griffiths died two years ago. He was perhaps the most gifted and humane photographer of any war. Single-handed, he tried to stop a "search and destroy" operation that killed a huddled group of women and children, eliciting from an American artillery officer the memorable response: "What civilians?" One of his finest photographs is a Goya-like picture of a captured NLF soldier, terribly wounded and surrounded by the large boots of his captors, yet undefeated in his humanity. Such is Vietnam.

“The War You Don't See", John Pilger's new film, opens in cinemas on 12 December and is broadcast on ITV1 on 14 December

John Pilger, renowned investigative journalist and documentary film-maker, is one of only two to have twice won British journalism's top award; his documentaries have won academy awards in both the UK and the US. In a New Statesman survey of the 50 heroes of our time, Pilger came fourth behind Aung San Suu Kyi and Nelson Mandela. "John Pilger," wrote Harold Pinter, "unearths, with steely attention facts, the filthy truth. I salute him."

This article first appeared in the 06 December 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Vietnam: the last battle

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Inside the minds of the Isis murderers

As pressure on the terror group who claimed responsiblity for the Manchester attack intensifies, the threat to Britain will only become more acute.

The police and security services had consistently warned that a significant terrorist attack in Britain was inevitable. Yet no warning could have prepared us for the horror of the suicide attack on the Manchester Arena on Monday night. Twenty-two people were killed and at least 60 were wounded as they were leaving a concert by Ariana Grande in what was the most deadly attack in Britain since the London bombings of 7 July 2005, in which 56 people died.

Like the London bombers, the Manchester suicide attacker, Salman Ramadan Abedi, was British. He was 22, lived in Manchester and studied business management at Salford University before dropping out. He worshipped at Didsbury Mosque. The son of Libyans, Abedi is said to have returned recently from a visit to the North African country, where Islamic State has a foothold.

Ariana Grande is a former children’s TV star who made her name on channels such as Nickelodeon. Her fan base is overwhelmingly young and female, and many of those killed or wounded were children, including Saffie Rose Roussos, an eight-year-old girl from Leyland, Lancashire.

Islamic State inevitably claimed responsibility for the massacre, dismissing the victims as “crusaders”, “polytheists” and “worshippers of the cross”. This is not the first time Islamist terrorists have targeted children.

A Chechen jihadist group calling itself ­Riyad-us Saliheen (meaning “Gardens of the Righteous”) took more than 1,100 hostages, including 777 children, in a school siege in Beslan, Russia, in September 2004. In the event, more than 330 were massacred, including 186 children. Gunmen from the Pakistani Taliban also stormed a school in 2014, killing 148.

For terrorist actors, these are neither whimsical nor irrational acts. Contemporary jihadist movements have curated a broad and expansive intellectual ecosystem that rationalises and directs their actions. What they want is to create an asymmetry of fear by employing indiscriminate barbarism to intimidate and subdue their opponents into submission.

We have grown accustomed to a wave of terrorist attacks being carried out in the name of the self-styled Islamic State ever since the group’s official spokesman Abu Muhammad al-Adnani began prioritising them in 2014. (He was killed in an American air strike on Aleppo province in Syria in August last year.)

The US-led coalition against Islamic State has weakened the terror group in its former strongholds of Mosul in Iraq and Raqqa in Syria. In response, IS has been forced to concentrate more on what it calls “external operations” – by which it means inspiring its sympathisers and operatives to carry out attacks on Western countries. Indeed, al-Adnani encouraged the group’s supporters not to migrate towards IS-held territory but rather to focus their efforts on attacks in their home countries.

“The tiniest action you do in the heart of their [Western] land is dearer to us than the biggest action by us,” he said in an audio statement released last year. “There are no innocents in the heart of the lands of the crusaders.”

Islamic State refers to its strategy as “just terror”. Its framing places culpability for attacks on Western states on these nations themselves by claiming that IS actions are a response to aggression or assault. That much has been outlined in the group’s literature. “When will the crusaders end their hostilities towards Islam and the Muslims? . . . When will they recognise that the solution to their pathetic turmoil is right before their blinded eyes?” the militants ask in the IS magazine Dabiq. “Until then, the just terror will continue to strike them to the core of their deadened hearts.”

IS offered a rationale of this sort as justification for its bombing of a Russian commercial aircraft – Metrojet Flight 9268, travelling from Sharm el-Sheikh in Egypt to St Petersburg. That attack in October 2015 killed 224. Similar reasoning was offered for the attacks in Paris the following month in which 137 people were killed, in a series of co-ordinated, commando-style gun and bomb outrages across the city.

“Revenge was exacted upon those who felt safe,” IS declared in Dabiq. “Let the world know that we are living today in a new era. Whoever was heedless must now be alert. Whoever was sleeping must now awaken . . . The [caliphate] will take revenge for any aggression against its religion and people, sooner rather than later. Let the ­arrogant know that the skies and the lands are Allah’s.”

***

Through my academic research at King’s College London, I have ­interviewed scores of Westerners who became foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq to quiz them about their motives. Last year, one man from High Wycombe who had joined IS told me that it wanted to attack British targets in response to the vote in the House of Commons to extend British air strikes against IS targets to include sites in Syria (the British had only been targeting the group in Iraq until that point). “Do they [the British government] expect us to sit back and do nothing? ­Idiots,” he said.

In this respect, IS frames its attacks as acts of “revenge” and predicates its response on the Islamic principle of qisas, which is comparable to lex talionis or the doctrine of “an eye for an eye”. Qisas was always intended to be a tool of private redress for an individual or his/her family to seek justice in matters relating to bodily harm. Typically, it relates to cases of murder and manslaughter, or acts involving physical mutilation (say, leading to loss of limbs). The principle creates a framework for retributive justice.

The contemporary Salafi-jihadi movement has adopted a particularly innovative approach to the concept of qisas in two ways. First, groups such as IS have taken the idea and construed it in a way that justifies indiscriminate terrorism, such as the attack in Manchester. They argue that qisas has a political dimension and that it can be applied to international affairs in a way that holds civilians responsible for the perceived crimes of their governments.

Second, qisas is normally applied only in cases where the aggressor is known. IS, by contrast, holds every citizen-stranger of an enemy state responsible for the actions of his or her government. Thus, when it released its statement claiming responsibility for the Manchester attack, it said that it had struck against a “gathering of the crusaders . . . in response to their transgressions against the lands of the Muslims”.

It is this militaristic construction of qisas that allows IS to rationalise the bombing of a venue where large numbers of young girls had gathered to watch a pop concert, dismissing them as “crusaders”.

This is not new. In 1997, Osama Bin Laden told CBS News that “all Americans are our enemies, not just the ones who fight us directly, but also the ones who pay their ­taxes”. His rationale was that all Americans, by virtue of citizenship alone, are vicariously liable for the actions of their government.

Just a few years later, Bin Laden used the same idea to justify the 11 September 2001 attacks and also invoked it in reference to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. “The blood pouring out of Palestine must be equally revenged,” he wrote. “You must know that the Palestinians do not cry alone; their women are not widowed alone; their sons are not orphaned alone.”

IS used the concept most dramatically in January 2015, when it burned alive a Royal Jordanian Air Force pilot, Muath al-Kasasbeh, whose plane had crashed in its territory. A video of the killing was circulated on the internet and social media. The group claimed his bombing raids had killed civilians and that it wanted to punish him with “equal retaliation”, in keeping with qisas.

What is well known about al-Kasasbeh’s murder is that he was burned alive inside a cage – but that is not the whole story. To understand how IS tethered this to the principle of qisas, it is the end of the gruesome video that is invested with most significance. After al-Kasasbeh has died, a truck emerges and dumps rubble over the cage. It was claimed this was debris from a site he had bombed, thus completing the “equal retaliation” of returning like for like. The idea was that IS had retaliated using the two principal forms in which a missile attack kills – by fire or debris.

***

The Manchester attack came on the fourth anniversary of the brutal murder of Fusilier Lee Rigby in Woolwich, south London. Rigby was killed by Michael Adebolajo and Michael Adebowale in the middle of the afternoon on a street outside a military barracks. That attack was in keeping with a pattern we have become increasingly accustomed to in Europe: an unsophisticated plot that employs ordinary, everyday items – a car, say, or a knife.

The consequences of such attacks have been seen across Europe, most notably in Nice on 14 July 2016, when 86 people were killed during Bastille Day celebrations after a jihadist drove a truck into crowds on the promenade. Similar attacks followed in Berlin, Westminster and Stockholm.

The security services find that these murderous attacks are extremely hard to disrupt because they typically involve lone actors who can mobilise quickly and with discretion. The Manchester attack was different. Explosives were used, which means the plot was inherently more sophisticated, requiring careful planning and preparation.

We know that two of the 7/7 bombers had previously trained in Pakistan’s lawless tribal regions, where they honed their skills. In other plots, such as the connected attacks in London and Glasgow Airport of 2007, the explosive devices failed mainly because the bomb-makers had found it difficult to travel abroad and develop their skills in safe environments. Whatever Abedi’s connections, the long war in Syria and Iraq has once again created a permissive environment for terrorist training and attack planning.

The devastating impact of this has already been felt across Europe. Since the Syrian uprising began in 2011, more than 800 Britons are believed to have travelled there to fight. From Europe as a whole, the figure is over 5,000, of which a significant number are believed to have joined IS. Of the British contingent, the security services estimate that about half have returned or become disengaged from the conflict. Of those who remained, a hundred are believed to be active, the rest having been killed.

It is improbable that Abedi acted alone in Manchester or that this plot had no international component. Indeed, he was already known to the authorities (and had returned recently from Libya). As pressure on IS intensifies across Syria and Iraq, the threat to Britain will only become more acute as the group’s sympathisers prepare for what they consider to be a fightback.

This speaks to the scale of the threat facing Britain, and Europe more generally. Our police and security services have been stretched and continuously tested in recent years. Just recently, in March, the Metropolitan Police assistant commissioner Mark Rowley told Radio 4’s Today programme that 13 plots had been thwarted since Lee Rigby’s murder in 2013. Put another way, the police have disrupted terrorist plots every four months for the past four years.

Naturally, Islamic State is not the only threat. On 13 May, one of Osama Bin Laden’s sons, Hamza, released a video, titled “Advice for martyrdom-seekers in the West”, on behalf of al-Qaeda. Hamza, 27, who was his father’s favoured successor to lead the group, called on its supporters to concentrate on attacks in the West rather than migrating to conflict zones in the Middle East and beyond. Scenes of previous ­terrorist attacks in Britain played throughout the video.

The central leadership of al-Qaeda is increasingly looking for opportunities to reassert itself after being eclipsed by Islamic State and losing control of its affiliates in Syria. It needs attacks and a cause in the West with which to revive itself. Hamza therefore cited the January 2015 Charlie Hebdo attack in Paris as a critical example, calling for the assassination of anyone deemed to have “insulted” Islam.

The Charlie Hebdo attack was especially important for al-Qaeda because it enabled the group to transcend the fratricidal conflicts that frequently define relations between the various jihadist groups. In Syria, for instance, al-Qaeda’s affiliates (when it had better control over them) and Islamic State have been in open war with each other.

Yet, the Charlie Hebdo attack brought warm praise from the group’s Islamist rivals because none of them wanted to appear ­unsupportive of an atrocity that had, as the terrorists proclaimed, “avenged” the Prophet Muhammad’s honour.

The British man from High Wycombe who joined IS told me the group had welcomed the attack for precisely those reasons. It was something that, in his view, had confirmed the “nobility” of the attackers, even if they had not been members of IS.

Is it too late for the West to save itself, I asked him. What if the West simply accepted all of Islamic State’s demands: would that provide respite?

The answer was as emphatic as it was stark: “We primarily fight wars due to ppl [sic] being disbelievers. Their drones against us are a secondary issue.”

He went on: “Their kufr [disbelief] against Allah is sufficient of a reason for us to invade and kill them. Only if they stop their kufr will they no longer be a target.”

In other words, we are all guilty, and we are all legitimate targets.

Shiraz Maher is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and a senior research fellow at King’s College London’s International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation.

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

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