The publication of Chomsky’s latest book, ‘Power and Terror’, and a new edition of his first major political work on the Vietnam War, ‘American Power and the New Mandarins’, could not be more timely. They span his remarkable 36 years as the US’s foremost intellectual and anti-imperialist champion. During that time he has written extensively about all the major US imperialist adventures and has demonstrated an admirable level of consistency in his principled opposition to them.
Chomsky’s style is familiar. He provides a forensic analysis of US foreign policy through the speeches and texts of its own ideologues. He trawls through establishment sources like the ‘Wall Street Journal’, the ‘New York Times’ and the speeches of State Department apologists and condemns them out of their own mouths. This approach lends weight to his judgements. The day after the attack on the Twin Towers he pithily observed that if the US wanted to fight terror it should stop participating in it.
‘Power and Terror’ is an extended interview and his delivery is almost conversational and very matter of fact. There are no great rhetorical devices and no underpinning theoretical framework. Unlike much of his work on linguistics, which originally established his intellectual reputation, his political writing is accessible and proves that compiling a significant weight of empirical evidence doesn’t necessarily lead to dull prose.
Re-reading ‘American Power and the New Mandarins’ after 34 years was as refreshing for me as the first time when it inspired my involvement against the Vietnam War. Indeed there are some horrifying echoes today. When Bush and Blair say that they have to bomb the Iraqis in order to free them they are not saying anything new. They are repeating the apologia for the US military tactics in Vietnam–‘We had to destroy the village in order to save it.’
We are also re-introduced to some familiar names like Samuel Huntington and Zbigniew Brzezinski, who Chomsky cites as among the most prominent of those of the so called ‘liberal’ intelligentsia who provided ideological cover for the most barbaric of military actions. Brzezinski pronounced the death of liberal intellectual dissent arguing that they had been incorporated into the apparatus of the state, and Huntington argued that, ‘if our involvement was to succeed’, policy had to be supported by ‘scholarly objectivity’. Thus the barbarity of imperialist carnage was dressed in the clothes of philanthropy towards backward nations.
The search and destroy missions against the National Liberation Front and the ‘pacification’ of Vietnam were wrapped in the cloak of the benevolence of the US and the correctness of its vision of world order. Chomsky understood only too well that the state needs its high priests to provide justification for its military actions.
The Vietnam debacle left the US badly scarred and forced it to impose its will in subsequent years by proxy. In the second section of ‘Power and Terror’ Chomsky rehearses the barbarity of US complicity and sponsorship of terror in the Middle East, Latin America and apartheid South Africa. He highlights the double standards involved in the way this terror is labelled: ‘When our enemies use terror it’s “terror”; when we or our allies use it it’s “counter terror or a just war”.’ He has an excellent passage on the privatisation of terror, particularly in Colombia, where multinationals like DynCorp employ US military personnel free from any official political scrutiny.
Both these books are invaluable weapons in our armoury and Chomsky is rightly hailed as an inspiration in the swelling ranks of the anti-capitalist movement.
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