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Ian Birchall

The horror they left behind

(March 1982)

From Socialist Review, No. 41, 20 March–19 April 1982: 3, p. 32.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Aftermath: The Struggle of Cambodia and Vietnam
John Pilger and Anthony Barnett
New Statesman Report 5: £3.50

For those who think Vietnam was just a campaign issue for the sixties generation, this collection of New Statesman articles by John Pilger, Anthony Barnett and others is a sharp reminder of the millions of people in Indochina who still have to live (or die) with the legacy of Western imperialism. This is a very valuable compilation, especially for those of us who will not have the New Statesman in the house (one would not wish a young child to pick up an article by Christopher Hitchens).

As reporters who have had the courage to travel in Indochina and the honesty to report what they saw, Pilger and Barnett have few parallels in contemporary journalism. Pilger describes the continuing effects on North Vietnamese life of the years of US bombings:

‘In some forests there are no longer birds and animals; and there are lorry drivers who will not respond to the hooting of a horn because they are deaf from the incessant sound of bombs.’

Barnett and Mike Goldwater tell of the lasting effects of spraying with Agent Orange; in one heavily affected area near Saigon still, in 1980, ‘one quarter of all births are miscarriages.’ (This, of course, was not enemy territory; these were the people the Americans were defending).

Barnett managed to rescue from Cambodia documents about the torture and mass executions under Pol Pot. One document (the ‘confession’ of Hu Nim) gives a fascinating account of one of the orginal members of the Pol Pot government, who subsequently became an oppositionist and who was framed as a CIA agent in terms reminiscent of the Moscow Trials.

Finally, Pilger reminds us that while those who organised the war, like Henry Kissinger, can make fortunes writing about it, those who did the dirty work on the ground are cast aside; in 1979 sixty per cent of all black combat veterans were unemployed.

In their search tor those responsible Pilger and Barnett spare no-one. Not Margaret Thatcher, whose intervention cut off supplies of milk to malnourished children in a Saigon hospital. Not the Russian and Chinese advisers in Vietnam, whom Pilger accuses of the same racist arrogance as their American predecessors. And not Francois Mitterrand, who switched the French vote in favour of seating the representatives of Pol Pot in the United Nations (Giscard had the decency to abstain).

Moreover, Pilger shows with devastating detail how Western aid organisations are being manipulated in order to further American plans to use Khmer Rouge forces still fighting in Cambodia to weaken the Vietnamese regime. He writes in 1980:

‘Certainly, my own journey across the border, to Phnom Chat, produced a spectacle of proof of how UNICEF (United Nations Children Fund) and the Red Cross have restored the Khmer Rouge and helped to mould them into an effective force now estimated at 30,000 troops or double their strength since the inception of “cross border feeding”.’

Next time someone asks you to buy a UNICEF Christmas card, remember you may be financing the gang who murdered hundreds of thousands of Cambodian children.

Pilger clams that he and Barnett write ‘with subservience to no ideology’. This is their strength ... and their weakness. For, in the last resort, they end up seeing things from the point of view of the options open to the present Vietnamese regime.

This is not the starry eyed fawning of 1930s Stalinists (Pilger, for example, comments acidly on the elimination of former NLF combatants from public life in South Vietnam). It is rather an inability to perceive any alternative.

To argue that, in the war-weary, blood-soaked territory of Indochina the only way forward is a new revolution may well seem intolerable. Yet in their gripping reports, Pilger and Barnett confirm that this is indeed the bitter truth.

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Last updated: 5 October 2019