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Engelhardt, Failed Empire?

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[Note for TomDispatch Readers: Let me bore you for 30 seconds, before you start reading my latest piece. Consider this my small (if never-ending) reminder that TomDispatch exists only because its readers have so wonderfully supported it these last almost 19 years! Unfortunately, such support is still truly needed simply to cover the costs of running this site (though I personally take none of your money). If you’re faintly in the mood, do look at the TD donation page and think about what you might give — and know that you make all the difference! Tom]

The Forbidden Word

Is This Country Heading for the Exit?

It was all so long ago, in a world seemingly without challengers. Do you even remember when we Americans lived on a planet with a recumbent Russia, a barely rising China, and no obvious foes except what later came to be known as an "axis of evil," three countries then incapable of endangering this one? Oh, and, as it turned out, a rich young Saudi former ally, Osama bin Laden, and 19 hijackers, mostly of them also Saudis, from a tiny group called al-Qaeda that briefly possessed an "air force" of four commercial jets. No wonder this country was then touted as the greatest force, the superest superpower ever, sporting a military that left all others in the dust.

And then, of course, came the launching of the Global War on Terror, which soon would be normalized as the plain-old, uncapitalized "war on terror." Yes, that very war -- even if nobody's called it that for years -- began on September 11, 2001. At a Pentagon partially in ruins, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, already aware that the destruction around him was probably Osama bin Laden's responsibility, ordered his aides to begin planning for a retaliatory strike against… Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. Rumsfeld's exact words (an aide wrote them down) were: “Go massive. Sweep it all up. Things related and not.”

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Best of TomDispatch

Jonathan Schell, Seeing the Reality of the Vietnam War, 50 Years Late

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[Note for TomDispatch Readers: A small reminder — after reading Jonathan Schell on Nick Turse’s Kill Anything That Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam in this “best of” TD post, you can get your own signed, personalized copy of that classic book with a $100 contribution to this site ($125 if you live outside the USA). Check out our donation page for the details. If you’ve already read Turse and you want something riveting about our strange moment (and beyond), then contribute for a signed, personalized copy of Songlands, the final volume of John Feffer’s Splinterlands trilogy of dystopian novels about our embattled planet and the future. It’s just been published by Dispatch Books and is also available on that same donation page. As all of you who read this website know, we really do rely on your contributions to keep us going in this ever-madder world of ours. Tom]

2021 Intro: Once upon a time, earlier in this century when I was still an editor at Metropolitan Books and Nick Turse was working to turn his doctoral dissertation into Kill Anything That Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam, I assured him more than once, “Nick, I don’t want you to be disappointed, but yours is a book about horrific American war crimes. Don’t expect it to sell many copies here.” I was, I fear, known in publishing for such “wisdom” and so — bingo!— when it came out in 2013, the book promptly made it onto the New York Times bestseller list and began winning awards.

As well it should have! It remains a genuine classic of horror from that nightmare of a lost war, as Jonathan Schell, who covered American crimes in Vietnam for the New Yorker in a memorable fashion, laid out so vividly at TomDispatch in January 2013. Given the grim history of this country’s losing wars of the twenty-first century and my own memories of being in the streets to protest the Vietnam War so many decades ago, I admit to a weakness for his review of the Turse book. So I’m once again reposting it as a “best of TomDispatch.” When you’re done with my 2013 intro and Schell’s remarkable piece, you should get your hands on Kill Anything That Moves. It remains a stunning classic. If only America’s leaders had read it before launching the ill-fated Global War on Terror.

Sadly, I can’t reach for my phone as I once used to do and call Jonathan to discuss our ever more bizarre American world. What indeed would he have made of Donald Trump and the Republicans of this moment? If only I could know, but no such luck. He died in 2014 and I still miss him. Tom

Original Introduction: Forty-six years ago, in January 1966, Jonathan Schell, a 23-year-old not-quite-journalist found himself at the farming village of Ben Suc, 30 miles from the South Vietnamese capital, Saigon.  It had long been supportive of the Vietcong. Now, in what was dubbed Operation Cedar Falls, the U.S. military (with Schell in tow) launched an operation to solve that problem.  The “solution” was typical of how Americans fought the Vietnam War. All the village’s 3,500 inhabitants were to be removed to a squalid refugee camp and Ben Suc itself simply obliterated — every trace of the place for all time.  Schell’s remarkable and remarkably blunt observations on this grim operation were, no less remarkably, published in the New Yorker magazine and then as a book, causing a stir in a country where anti-war sentiment was growing fast.

In 1967, Schell returned to Vietnam and spent weeks in the northern part of the country watching from the backseats of tiny U.S. forward air control planes as parts of two provinces were quite literally blown away, house by house, village by village, an experience he recalls in today’s TomDispatch post. From that came another New Yorker piece and then a book, The Military Half, which offered (and still offers) an unmatched journalistic vision of what the Vietnam War looked like.  It was a moment well captured in a mocking song one of the American pilots sang for him after an operation in which he had called in bombs on two Vietnamese churches, but somehow missed the white flag flying in front of them. The relevant stanza went:

“Strafe the town and kill the people,
Drop napalm in the square,
Get out early every Sunday
And catch them at their morning prayer.”

If Afghanistan is the war we somehow haven’t managed to notice most of the time, even while it’s going on, Vietnam was the war Americans couldn’t forget and have never been able to kick, possibly because we never managed to come to grips with just what it was and what we did there. Now, so many years later, in a monumental essay appearing in print in the Nation magazine and online here at TomDispatch, Schell returns (via Nick Turse’s new book, Kill Anything That Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam) to the haunted terrain he last visited so many decades ago. All of us, whether we know it or not, still live with the ghosts of that moment. Tom

How Did the Gates of Hell Open in Vietnam?

A New Book Transforms Our Understanding of What the Vietnam War Actually Was 

For half a century we have been arguing about “the Vietnam War.” Is it possible that we didn’t know what we were talking about? After all that has been written (some 30,000 books and counting), it scarcely seems possible, but such, it turns out, has literally been the case.

Now, in Kill Anything that Moves, Nick Turse has for the first time put together a comprehensive picture, written with mastery and dignity, of what American forces actually were doing in Vietnam. The findings disclose an almost unspeakable truth. Meticulously piecing together newly released classified information, court-martial records, Pentagon reports, and firsthand interviews in Vietnam and the United States, as well as contemporaneous press accounts and secondary literature, Turse discovers that episodes of devastation, murder, massacre, rape, and torture once considered isolated atrocities were in fact the norm, adding up to a continuous stream of atrocity, unfolding, year after year, throughout that country.

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John Feffer, Avoiding the Robot Apocalypse

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[Note for TomDispatch Readers: As many of you may remember, Dispatch Books has long been publishing John Feffer’s Splinterlands trilogy, his dystopian novels that foresaw so much that’s since engulfed us. His first volume, Splinterlands, was published in 2016, Frostlands in 2018, and the final must-read book, Songlands, is now out. Of it, Adam Hochschild has written: “An intriguing conclusion to a worthy trilogy. Feffer leaps far into the future in this book, but his view of it is enriched by a quirky, sensitive understanding of our world as it is — both its dangers and its possibilities.” Make sure, at the very least, to order yourself a copy. Any of you who might, however, like to support TomDispatch in return for your own signed, personalized Songlands, should go to our donation page and contribute at least $100 (or, if you live outside the U.S.A., $125) and it’ll be yours. Truly, you won’t regret it. In fact, given the ever-hotter world we find ourselves in, it couldn’t be a more appropriate book to read! Tom]

In my younger years, I had significant experience with futuristic worlds, sometimes of the grimmest sort. After all, I went to the moon with Jules Verne; saw London being destroyed with H.G. Wells; met my first robot with Isaac Asimov; faced the apocalyptic world of those aggressively poisonous plants, the Triffids, with John Wyndham; and met Big Brother with George Orwell. Yet, from pandemics to climate change, social media to the robotization of the planet that TomDispatch regular John Feffer describes today, nothing that I read once upon a time, no matter how futuristic, no matter how strange or apocalyptic, prepared me for the everyday world I now find myself in at age 77.

Back in the days of the pen and manual typewriter (remember, I’ve been an editor most of my life), if you had told me that, were I someday to mistakenly spell “life” as “kife,” the spell-check program on my computer (yes, an actual computer!) would promptly underline it in red to let me know that I had goofed, I would never have believed you. I, edited incessantly by a machine? Not on your life, or perhaps I should say: not until it became part of my seldom-thought-about everyday life. Nor, of course, could you have convinced me that someday I would be able to carry my total communications system in my pocket and more or less talk to anyone I know anywhere, anytime. Had you suggested that, then, I would undoubtedly have laughed you out of the room.

And yet here I am, living in an online world I barely grasp in a version of everyday life that’s left more youthful thoughts about the future in the dust. And now, Feffer has the nerve to fill me in on a future world to be in which, functionally, a robot may be carrying the equivalent of me around in its pocket or simply leave beings like me in a ditch somewhere along the way. Apocalypse then? I shudder to think. Read his piece and see if you don’t shudder, too. Tom

Artificial Intelligence Wants You (and Your Job)

We’d Better Control Machines Before They Control Us

My wife and I were recently driving in Virginia, amazed yet again that the GPS technology on our phones could guide us through a thicket of highways, around road accidents, and toward our precise destination. The artificial intelligence (AI) behind the soothing voice telling us where to turn has replaced passenger-seat navigators, maps, even traffic updates on the radio. How on earth did we survive before this technology arrived in our lives? We survived, of course, but were quite literally lost some of the time.

My reverie was interrupted by a toll booth. It was empty, as were all the other booths at this particular toll plaza. Most cars zipped through with E-Z passes, as one automated device seamlessly communicated with another. Unfortunately, our rental car didn’t have one.

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