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Salient. Victoria University Student Newspaper. Volume. 34, Number 14. July 21, 1971

ecocide in Indochina

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ecocide in Indochina

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Twenty-five years ago the dawn of the atomic era marked the beginning of man's ability to terminate all life on this planet. During the last five years the perfecting in Indochina of the techniques of ecocide marks another major step along the terminal path of aborting millions of years of evolution.

Genocide as developed by the Nazis involved the mass extermination of entire human groups. Ecocide as developed by the US military carries this a stage further for ecocide involves the destruction of the living environment which would sustain groups as yet unborn. It is defined more fully by Barry Weisberg as "the premeditated assault of a nation and its resources against the individuals, culture and biological fabric of another country and its environs" ("Ecocide in Indochina: The Ecology of War", San Francisco, 1970). The use of this technique of total war in Indochina has resulted in "the most extensive premeditated ecological catastrophe in the history of this planet" and it was his first-hand awareness of the scale of this catastrophe that prompted the Professor of Biology at Yale University, Arthur W. Galston, to propose early last year an international agreement outlawing this form of warfare. For parts of Indochina this is too late; the devastation wrought by saturation bombing and chemical poisoning is such as to make reconstruction in any meaningful sense impossible for decades.

Towards a "Final Solution"

The techniques of ecocide have been devised to meet the challenge of a people's war. Given that the relation of the guerilla to the society to which he belongs i as that of the fish to the sea a guerilla enemy cannot be defeated by conventional war. Under such conditions, and given the mounting frustration of the military and the impatience of the US electorate, it was inevitable that the thinking of those who make up the American "military-industrial-academic-scientific complex" should turn increasingly to a "Final Solution" by "drying up" the peasant "sea" on which the guerilla depends. This is being done by saturation bombing designed to either eliminate or terrorize the rural population and by massive use of chemical weapons which make the countryside uninhabitable. This "Final Solution", euphemistically termed "forced urbanisation", is associated with Samuel Huntington of Harvard University. The success of the policy to date may be measured by some 4 million Vietnamese casualties (one-quarter of the entire population), by the generation of 7 million displaced peasants, by the fact that today 60 per cent of South Vietnam's population dwells in the "urban" areas, as against 15 percent in 1955 (Saigon's population has increased tenfold to 3 million, in ten years so that it is now the most densely peopled city in the world with two and a half times the density of Tokyo). The psychic bond of the villager to his village is broken, the village itself razed, its trees killed by defoliation and its paddy fields and irrigation systems destroyed by bombing. The final human destruction is achieved by relocation in refugee camps, a relocation which ignores every tie of family and kinship and reduces the tightly knit peasant society to an anonymous mass of dazed and disoriented human beings. Says a Department of Defence consultant on these processes: "We have, of course, demolished the society of Vietnam..."

From the point of view of the Americans the new policy had two major advantages. First, it enabled the US to make maximum use of its technological superiority - and to do this with the minimum of world observation. Secondly, the reduction in the role of US ground combat troops as the policy of "search and destroy" gavy place to the simpler policy of "destroy" made it possible for the US government to blunt the domestic dissatisfaction by achieving a sharp fall in the number of US casualites and by withdrawing all save the specialised units needed to implement the new type of war. US ground troops can be replaced by Asian mercenaries which, from the American angle, have two advantages: they cost a fraction a G.I. costs and the dollars paid to their masters help to consolidate the economic position of such rickety regimes as that of South Korea.

Almost six million tons of bombs.

The technique of saturation bombing reached its peak in the bombing of Khe San early in 1968; here, into a circle some 5 miles in diameter, 100,000 tons of bombs were dropped in six weeks - 5,000 tons per square mile. On Indochina as a whole, according to Pentagon sources, a total of 5 and three quarter million tons of bombs were dropped from 1965 to March 1971; this was half the ordnance expended. The cessation of the bombing of the North in November 1968 meant no diminution in the destructive onslaught; it merely made it possible to switch the full force of US air power to South Vietnam and Laos and by March 1969 the level of bombardment had reached 130,000 tons a month. By mid-1970 the number of sorties per month over Laos alone had climbed from 20,000 to 27,000 and saturation bombing had been extended to parts of Cambodia. The troops may depart - yet the circle of death continued to widen... March 1971, the last month for which statistics are available, the tonnage dropped was 92,191 equivalent to 1.1 million tons a year.)

The immediate human consequences of this onslaught will be evident from the data given earlier; to these must be added the physical consequences - the destruction of the earth as a habitat for man. And in this context two things must be borne in mind: first, that Vietnamese traditional society was overwhelmingly a peasant society, an "earthbound" society; secondly, that it was also a "hydraulic" society, dependent on an intricate and sophisticated system of irrigation for the production of its staple crop, rice. Saturation bombing has created a lunar landscape over vast areas. In 1967-68 alone three and a half million 500 - to 750-pound bombs were dropped on Vietnam, each creating craters up to 45 feet across and 30 feet deep. This bombing, says Malcolm Somerville, "has amounted to perhaps the most massive excavation project in mankind's history. It dwarfs the Suez Canal and Panama Canal projects, both involving the excavation of about a quarter of a billion cubic yards of earth. The total cratered areain Indochina exceeds the area of the State of Connecticut, 5,000 square miles" (in "Ecocide in Indochina", p.70). Not only has the bombing destroyed the irrigation systems over wide areas, it has also contributed markedly to soil erosion (for the newly exposed soil is highly susceptible to gullying), to the formation of useless rock pavements (laterite) on the dried-out paddy fields, and to the destruction of fragile but potentially rich peat soils such as those of the Ca Mau peninsula. And the water-filled craters form ideal breeding grounds for the malarial mosquito.

Agents Orange, White and Blue.

The chemical onslaught launched by the American military against the Vietnamese peasantry may well have even more destructive long-term consequences than the saturation bombing since there is evidence that the substances used (the 2,4,5-T and 2,4-D advertised and used for weed control in countries such as New Zealand) are teratogenic (foetus-deforming) and have long term genetic effects (for a full discussion see Thomas Whiteside, "Defoliation", New York, 1970). The agents used are Agent Orange, a mixture of 2,4,5-T and 2,4-D, Agent White, a mixture of 2,4-D and Picloram, and Agent Blue, a form of arsenic. These are used to destroy food crops which might be used by the guerrilla (and to deny rice to 20,000 guerrillas the US destroy the rice supply of a million people) and to eliminate the forest cover which might shelter guerrilla groups. The area so far treated is given officially as some 5 million acres (12 percent of the area of South Vietnam) though NLF estimates put the total at 10.6 million acres and the Japan Science Council estimated in 1967 that "anti-crop attacks have ruined 3.8 million acres of arable land in South Vietnam" (this is about half the arable area).

The immediate destructive impact of this chemical war is evident in the dying forests and "sanitized" paddy fields; scant official attention has been given to the long-term ecological and human effects of drenching the landscape with chemicals. These have, however, been analysed by several American scientists. The destruction of the forest or crop cover in a tropical climate such as that of Vietnam leads to profound changes in soil structure, above all to the development of virtually useless lateritic soils. Destruction of mangrove forests in the Mekong Delta is leading to erosion or salinization of the rice fields they protected and to the elimination of the critically important fish resources of the Delta rivers.

"An ecological equivalent of thalidomide"

Finally, the vitally important question of the long-term impact of this chemical warfare on the genetic future of the Indochinese peoples has been ignored by the military men and their civilian advisers. Tests of defoliants by the American National Cancer Institute way back in 1966 "revealed that two of the herbicides examined has caused gross abnormalities and birth defects in mice. 2,4-D was termed 'potentially dangerous, but needing further study' while 2,4,5-T was labelled 'probably dangerous'". By 1969 South Vietnamese newspapers were carrying stories and pictures of deformed babies born in areas that had been subjected to spraying with 2,4,5-T (see Ngo Vinh Long, "Leaf Abscission?" in Bulletin for Concerned Asian Scholars, October 1969); by early 1970, however, steps were taken to restrict the use of 2,4,5-T in the USA. Meanwhile, the use of this chemical, "which may represent an ecological equivalent of thalidomide", continued in Indochina, the scale of the spraying programme being apparently limited only by the availability of the chemicals and of suitable aircraft. Commented two US newspapermen: "Not since the Romans salted the land after destroying Carthage has a nation taken pains to visit the war on future generations"(New York Post, 4 November 1969).

Global Overview.

As Schell and Weisberg point out, "the ecosystem of Southeast Asia is one organic fabric in which all living things are tied together by an infinite number of interdependent strands". American policy in Indochina today aims not simply at destroying the "enemy", his food crops or his culture, but the whole ecosystem of which the Indochinese people form part and within which their societies have for centuries found sustenance and meaning; as such, it goes beyond anything attempted by the Nazis.

But, just as the various elements of living Southeast Asia form parts of a tightly woven and intricate web, so does this region form one element in a greater global ecosystem. The destruction of Indochina cannot thus be considered in isolation; the diseases born of war recognise no boundaries, the chemicals poured on the devastated landscape find their way into the ocean, the oil bound for Vietnam spills into the offshore waters of the USA, the brutalization and the drug addiction bred by war in Indochina feeds back into the American internal situation.

And, indeed, the destruction of Indochina is different only in degree but not in essence from the world-wide social and ecological destruction being wrought by "a civilization out of control". Five thousand miles may separate the dying mangrove forests and murdered peasant communites of the Mekong delta from the menaced shores of Manapouri or the increasingly polluted New Zealand environment. But are not both the Indochinese and New Zealand situations to be located simply at different points along the same psychological continuum? James Baldwin long ago commented: "It is a terrible, an inexorable law that one cannot deny the humanity of another without diminishing one's own; in the face of one's victim one sees oneself." Do not the majority of the ecological and social problems which confront us in our own society have their roots in that denial of humanity which alone makes it possible for us to accept, or connive in, the processes of ecocide in Indochina?

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I spent most of my early years on the road. I started when I was 14. I sang Coney Island on a beer keg, and got a dollar. That's the first money I ever made.

Why did you stop singing?

I didn't. I sang later at the Protestant church on Madison Avenue, in the choir, until they found out what I was. That's an old vaudeville joke, but it was true. I did sing - I got a dollar every Sunday. I had no idea what I was singing. And I had less interest in it. That's about as far as I ever got in religion. In those days, I was as innocent as the average young girl today of 14. Sex was frowned on. We didn't know anything about sex and we didn't learn anything about it. My father came from France, my mother came from Germany, and my father was a very stupid, inept tailor. My mother was bright - a shrewd brightness like Noel Coward's mother. She had a great deal to do with his success. Many mothers had, in the early days of vaudeville. At any rate, I didn't know where babies came from until I was about 18. And by that time my folks had had five boys.

How did you find out?

I don't really know. It has never been a subject that was discussed in he house. Or any place else. Oh, there were dirty jokes. We lived near Central Park, and we had heard of fellows taking girls in the bushes. But I didn't know what they were doing, so help me. The first time was when I was playing in Montreal, in some dump theatre there. A hooker picked me up, and I didn't know what that was even. She took me down in the cellar. Eight days later I had gonorrhea. And I still have it. They say it's something you really never get cured of. The vestiges of that always remain in some part of your body. I think that's true. I think it's a very dangerous sickness, and it's increasing now because of the pills, and the diaphragms, and the various devices that the kids use now. They don't seem to car whether they get pregnant, or get gonorrhea or syphillis.

When did sex start getting boring for you?

My last marriage, I was 57 years old. I had ten wonderful years with her, but by then the magic had worn off, and we got divorced, I've been single ever since, and propose to stay that way for the rest of my life. It would be folly, at my age, to start getting married again. I've paid a lot of money in three alimonies. It's not worth it. The cheapest way is to have legalized whorehouses, so if a fellow is young, and wants to get laid, his folks should give him $20 or $50, or whatever it costs to get laid. And not get married just to lay a girl. This is the reason there are so many young girls today who have three or four-year-old children, were married when they were 16 or 17, and are now divorced. There are not many men who want to take on a girl with a child, especially if they've raised three as I have. I didn't come here to do a monologue - somebody else say something.

Before the movies, when you were on Broadway, what was it like?

Vaudeville. First we were in vaudeville, small-time vaudeville, where there were rats in the dressing rooms. Frequently, it was the manager.

What lured you away from Broadway and out to Hollywood?

Paramount offered us more money than we could afford to reject. We went there and we did five pictures.

Which film was your favourite?

Duck Soup, Night at the Opera and Day at the Races. Some of them were terrible. To us, not to the audience. The kids, today... I get more fan mail now than I did when I was at the height of my career.

You're a hero for a generation that's seen your films only in revival.

A couple of generations.

Why do you think kids love your movies so much? A lot of other old films, nobody wants to look at anymore.

They're not about anything, most of them. I thought ours were generally about something.

What were they about?

They were attacking the contemporary establishment of those days. We did a picture called Duck Soup which was about monarchy. We did a funny picture about a school, and we certainly satirized the opera in America. So I think our pictures were about something. Whereas in most cases - Harold Lloyd, Keaton and those fellows - they weren't about anything, they were just about trying to be funny. We were trying to be funny, but we didn't know that we were satirizing the current conditions. It came as a great surprise to us.

How do you feel about the establishment now?

I think it's hopeless. This whole gang in Washing, at least half of them are thieves - I don't think there's any question about that. Every day you read about it. Look at the tolerance that Johnson gave to Bobby Baker, who's now in gaol. This goes on all the time. The only honest senator I ever knew was a fellow named Williams, from Delaware.

John Bell Williams.

I just wrote him and told him how much I admired his integrity, and that there should be more people like him. He finally quit. Not from the correspondence - I think he had had it. But he was an honest man. Look at the Speaker of the House, McCormack... he stole everything before he left. And they gave him a bonus besides, because he didn't steal enough.

Do you think there's any hope for Nixon?

No, I think he only hope this country has is Nixon's assasination.

But then we've got to deal with Agnew.

Well, I mean it would be near the end of the term. Agnew won't run again. I don't think. But I think Muskie is a good man. The trouble is when you run for important office, you have to promise so much, and you have to obligate yourself so much. To everybody. In Illinois, in Chicago, in Maine, North Carolina, no matter where you are - if you just move in without any friends, you just can't get elected. You have to obligate yourself in some way to get to that office. I think the other guy, McGovern, is a joke. The mere fact that he's against the war is not enough. He says he's been against the war for three years. So what? I've been against the war since the first war with the Kaiser, but that doesn't qualify me in any way to run for the Presidency.

How involved were you in writing of the pictures?

I've always been a writer. I wrote five books. One is in the congressional Library in Washington; 'The Groucho Letters'.

Do you think there'll ever be a second volume of that?

I don't know. The cast I had in those days was pretty good: T.S. Eliot, Thurber, Fred Allen. I spoke at T.S. Eliot's funeral, you know. His wife asked me to. A very dull, blonde, middle-aged woman.

That seems to be true of a lot of very talented men - their wives seem to fade into the background.

Because, as a rule, a young fellow marries a girl to go to bed with her. This is the normal procedure. I did that three times, with very beautiful girls. When the beauty started fading, there wasn't any reason to stay married. The sex stimulant was gone.

What about companionship?

For that you need a different kind of girl - you don't necessarily need a girl with big tits. You need a girl that normally you wouldn't marry, or wouldn't try to lay. But if a fellow gets both, he's a very fortunate man. If he gets a woman that he enjoys sitting with and talking to, and she understands what he's saying, he's a lucky fellow. You see, I don't believe there's such a thing as love. I believe two people can like each other, and I think that's much more important than love. Love just means going to bed and fucking.

Did you ever fall in love, in your youth?

I always thought I did, yeah. So I paid three alimonies. And I look at those women and wonder, 'What did I see in them?'

I was curious how you see the films now, in retrospect.

A scene that I like is the scene in Animal Crackers where a painting had been stolen, and Chico and I pulled up a couple i of chairs and said, 'Let's see if we can figure this thing out, where the painting is.' He said, 'How are you gonna do that? We have no house.' I said, 'We'll build a house. This'll be your room here, and this'll be my room, and this'... be the maid's room.' And he said, 'You mean I'd have to go through the maid's room in order to get to your room?' It was kind of a Lewis Carroll scene. We had a fellow named Morrie Ryskind, who had a Lewis Carroll quality about him. He could take lunacy and build it up. (The waiter arrives with a large menu, hand-lettered on a large square of cardboard which he props up next to the table.)

(to the waiter) How long did it take you to paint that?