Bob Gould, 2005

Mike Karadjis loses his cool on Vietnam

Source: Ozleft, April 10, 2005
Proofreading, editing, mark-up: Steve Painter

Green Left Weekly discussion list

Margaret A, the moderator of the GLW list, has an unenviable job and does well at regulating the list in sometimes difficult circumstances. She obviously has a mandate to defend the general interests of the DSP, which is not unreasonable since it’s their list, but she tries to be sensible within this framework, mainly by only intervening when absolutely necessary.

Having been dragged by some anonymous person on to Sydney Indymedia, I felt obliged to have a go at the people who run that list for their crazy toleration of incitements to violence.

I’m also deeply disturbed by Sydney Indymedia leaving up anti-Jewish material, and Margaret A is very sensible to draw a hard line against that kind of material on the Green Left site.

It’s also quite reasonable of Margaret A to tick off the cyber-entity Minh for his anti-Aboriginal statements.

I don’t quite know what she should do about this new person, Pace, who incites violence against Minh, or about Mike Karadjis, who now says by clear implication that the victorious NLF and North Vietnamese forces in 1975 should have wiped out all their opponents (as, in fact, the Khmer Rouge tried to do in Cambodia).

The protocol on any leftist list should be that direct incitements to violence of any sort should be excluded. The reasons for this are obvious: a) they’re a bad substitute for serious political argument and b) they’re a ticking time bomb in the current political climate, which is dripping with ostensible anti-terrorism laws imposed in recent times by the ruling class. Leftists need mindless appeals to violence of any sort like the proverbial hole in the head.

(While she’s at it, Margaret A might have a quiet word offlist with Nobby Tobby, and try to persuade him to drop the crazed, intemperate abusive language he throws around more or less at will. Tobby is a mature man in his thirties, who has been politically active overseas and in Australia and his abusive language is obviously a threatening political device and he ought to know better.)

That brings me to the question of Minh and Mike Karadjis. I have much the same attitude to Minh as I had to Michael Berrell when he first appeared. I’m not entirely sure if he’s a real person or a carefully constructed cyber-entity.

The problem with the web, which is such a useful vehicle for serious argument and propaganda, is that there’s little insurance against fantasists or provocateurs constructing elaborate cyber-entitites (or crude ones) as it suits them.

Nevertheless, whether Minh is a real person or some smartarse, he has constructed for his entity a set of views that reflect the overwhelming point of view among Vietnamese Australians, and other Indochinese Australians, who are now nudging 400,000 of our 20 million population.

In my bookshop, which has for many years been a very public place in which the leftist part of my stock is prominently displayed, I’ve had relatively civilised exchanges at the counter with literally hundreds of customers of Indochinese background.

These people aren’t mainly interested in the political material. They buy books on science, maths, business and general fiction, and they are caught up in the process of education as part of the rite of passage from the very bottom of Australian society into the middle layers.

I always defend, to them, my activities against the Vietnam War, and they often defend the point of view of the losing side in that war. Such exchanges usually end up reasonably amicably. Mostly they’ve become so acclimitised to Australia that they’ve realised that many older Australian have a similar outlook to myself, as opponents of the Vietnam War.

It’s quite clear from where they live and from conversations I’ve had with them, that the overwhelming majority of Australian Vietnamese vote Labor, obviously as a result of their position as industrial workers at the bottom of Australian society. This is pretty important in class terms, but it won’t of course impress the DSP leadership, with its artificial schema about two equivalent capitalist parties.

Sometimes I have similar exchanges with Australian veterans of the war. In talking to the Vietnamese, I always stress that at the end of the war, while I generally supported the other to them side in that conflict, I recognised that it was a genuine civil war, a large number of people supported the losing side and as Australia had unjustifiably stuck its nose into Vietnam’s affairs, along with the US, we had a moral obligation to assist those who wanted to leave.

The attitude of Whitlam and the Australian government of the time in opposing Vietnamese refugees coming to Australia was repellant, particularly to me as a member of the Labor Party.

My views on all these questions are very public: Multiculturalism and Australian national identity, Mass migration has been good for Australia and it should continue, Racism and the Australian Labor Party, Recollections of the struggle against the war in Vietnam. In addition to this I wrote a putative film script (see below), among 14 others I submitted to a Sunrise films pitching competition about four years ago.

The viewpoint of Vietnamese Australians on the current regime in Vietnam hasn’t been modified much by their recent experiences. These days, the direct flights back to Vietnam from Sydney are crammed with Vietnamese Australian citizens going back to take money to their families and to lobby for members of their families to get out under the family reunion program.

Even allowing for the fact that these are people who generally supported the old regime, their reports have to be given some weight, and they uniformly talk about corruption in the government and the gap between the Vietnamese elite and the rest of the population.

Another fact that Mike Karadjis also has to face is that the regime doesn’t tolerate serious dissent very much. It speaks volumes that pretty well all figures from the NLF side who have expressed criticism of the regime and called for greater democracy, have been put under house arrest.

Vietnam is still a one-party state. As an anti-Stalinist Marxist, I believe that one-party states went out with straw hats. I share Ernest Mandel’s view that the existence of multiple parties in a socialist system is necessary, as is a substantial relaxation of censorship, etc.

Also, the absence of institutions of mass democracy that allow real argument and conflict, in a situation where a more-or-less super-NEP has been adopted (I don’t object to NEP market mechanisms in themselves) must lead inevitably to a development like China.

To put it another way, a combination of a rigid Stalinist one-party state with a more-or-less unchecked NEP leads directly to a China-type social development.

As an aside, a big test for me of developments in Vietnam would be if the regime was capable of rehabilitating Ta Thu Thau and the other Vietnamese Trotskyists, even to the limited extent that the Trotskyists have been rehabilitated in China.

There’s no sign of that in Vietnam, unfortunately, and I’d be very interested if Mike Karadjis, who has been in Vietnamese for a few years now, could bring us up to date on some of those questions.

Mike Karadjis says on the GLW list:

“I’ll say this Minh: Since you have revealed yourself, I’m sorry the heroic liberation armies of Vo Nguyen Giap from the north and Tran Van Tra from the southern NLF didn’t deal with the whole bloody lot of you vile fascist scum in time-honoured fashion then and there in 1975.”

Mike Karadjis’s extraordinary outburst implying his bloodthirsty retrospective desire for some kind of Pol Pot-like settlement of accounts with the losing side in Vietnam undermines his credibility considerably as a reporter on these matters, which saddens me greatly, because up to this point I’ve regarded him as a bit of an authority.

His sweeping, blatant desire expressed quite clearly here for the repression, by implication, of the substantial majority of Vietnamese Australians because of their general political views has nothing to do with any model of socialist development, as I understand it. Happily, with all their warts and defects, the victorious North Vietnamese and NLF didn’t do anything like what Karadjis now advocates. The people who did that were the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia.

Film pitch. Vietnam Tet, 1968. (Written in 1999 for Sunrise Films pitch competition.)

Possibly Australian-Vietnamese co-production. True story.

1997. 10,000 in Sydney march against Pauline Hanson. Old Vietnam protesters, Vietnam veterans, Vietnamese migrants, left groups, many others, march together. Get on surprisingly well. Two Vietnamese pensioners, one formerly South Vietnamese colonel, other formerly leader of Vietcong “Sparrow” unit, go back to Marrickville Vietnamese Club, continue slightly acrimonious argument about Tet offensive.

Fade to Feb 1968. Saigon, whole South Vietnam in turmoil. NLF have thrown all reserves into military offensive and national uprising. Americans and South Vietnamese caught by surprise. Vietcong have occupied citadel in Hue, central Vietnam, many small towns all over country. Vietcong Sparrow unit is even inside American Embassy, Saigon. City is a mad-house.

Intense bunch of Australian journalists and photographers hire jeep. Try to find frontline. Discover it all around them. Get nervous, as gun fire suddenly surrounds them. Jeep goes around corner. They are face to face with nervous unit of young Vietcong irregulars, who start shooting. Aussies are yelling in English and bad Vietnamese, “Journalists. Journalists.” Young Vietcong mow them down anyway.

The Aussie at the back, with long legs, has the wits to jump out and run for life. They shoot but he escapes. All his mates are dead.

Camera follows Sparrow unit, which runs into regular unit of Americans a few minutes later.

Most of Viet Cong killed, including their leader. A few escape.

Aussie journalist is traumatised.

The Vietcong army has over-reached itself. Many of its forces are killed. It has called out even its most well-concealed irregulars. Americans and South Vietnamese reassert military control of the country, but Americans have to put in many more troops.

From the Victcong military point of view, it’s a disaster.

Nevertheless, the graphic illustration via TV satellite throughout the Western world, that the Vietcong have sufficient support to invade Saigon, main cities, the brutality used to suppress them, like awful TV image of the South Vietnamese colonel shooting young prisoner in the head, is enormous political defeat for Americans.

War drags on for another seven years until finally American nerve cracks, and Vietcong troops march into Saigon in 1975.

New regime is, as Stalinist regimes go, fairly civilised. It’s strongly nationalist, and brings peace, but it doesn’t allow freedom or civil rights and rather rigorously attempts to “re-educate” its old opponents. Many thousands of Vietnamese escape country, mostly former South Vietnamese sympathisers, but also some who’d supported the Vietcong, and most end up in US, Canada, Australia.

Traumatised reporter tries to cope with rage and anger. No therapy works. His personal relationships disintegrate. Eventually goes to Vietnam to track down the Vietcong unit. After months of wrong turnings, he finds a Vietcong survivor. They sit in cafe. He asks, “Why did you shoot journalists?”. The Vietcong says, “Journalists! To us, white men in jeeps were CIA.” Aussie finds explanation reasonably persuasive and terrible, painful reconciliation occurs. Aussie writes interesting, moving book.