Monday, May 19, 2008

Forget About It

Remembering massacres can be a lively, after-dinner game, like charades used to be in pre-plasma HD screen days. The problem often is, how many massacres does the average American recall, or even know about in the first place?

That's always the tough part -- getting friends and family on the same, blood-soaked page, especially when the topic is US-backed or inflicted massacres. Usually you'll get a blank stare, an incredulous sneer, a shocked, offended dismissal. But if you're persistent enough, you can win a few bucks through bets while helping to educate those close to you. I've collected a modest amount of dough on Vietnam alone, the enormous body count of which still surprises a lot of people, primarily those who think Abe Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt teamed up to take on Attila Hitler, or whoever was running Vietnam in the 1920s.

Hyperbole? Hardly. Large numbers of Americans have no clue about their own history, and to the degree that faint concepts of yesteryear flash in their heads, names and events tend to blur into each other, creating fantastic scenarios that would be exciting if at all true. I encounter this quite often. One game I like to play with local college students who work as cashiers is quiz them about historical events based on the amount I owe. Only last week at Trader Joe's, my bill came to exactly $18.60. "Eighteen sixty," I said to the friendly young woman, "an election year. Do you know who won the presidency then?"

"Uhh, umm, 1860? You were alive, right? So you probably know."

"Well, I was alive in 1960, just barely. But I'm talking about a century before that."

She hemmed and hawed a bit more.

"Jimmy Carter?"

"Not quite. Here's a clue: he's on the five dollar bill."

"I don't see much cash. Everybody uses debit cards."

"Okay. He's also on the penny. Had a beard? Wore a stovepipe hat? Got shot in a theater?"

She smiled. "Oh, right! Him. You know, history's not my major."

Clearly. If my bill had been $20.00, maybe her response would've been more informed. Then again . . .

I say this not to be a prick, but to illustrate how randomly one can gauge the dearth of historical understanding in the general population. Even supposedly "educated" people lack basic facts about the American experience (many online liberals seem to think that imperialism and torture began with Bush), and I suspect that this ignorance is deepening, not ebbing. Good news for those who rule and tax us, and a boon to Obama's campaign, where history is a hazy line to a present dream filled with hope and promise. To paraphrase Umberto Eco, Obama stitches together a series of surfaces to create the impression of depth. And it's working beautifully so far.

I was nudged into these thoughts by a recent AP story about mass graves being unearthed in South Korea, showing that in 1950-51, the US-backed South regime slaughtered untold thousands of citizens, many of whom, women and children included, were killed execution-style, then dumped into trenches. It's the kind of human rights nightmare that, had it been attributed to Saddam or Milosevic, would be denounced as fascist terrorism. Yet so far I've seen no serious American commentary about what these mass graves mean, given that the US was in charge of the South Korean military that committed the massacres. Of course, defenders could point out that South Korea was at war with the North, and that grisly actions were bound to occur. But Saddam and Milosevic used the same reasoning to explain their killing fields, and I don't recall many stateside commentators who accepted that as a reasonable defense.

The standard imperial double standard aside, the following excerpt from the AP report shows that, for all of the new openness about Korean history, there still remains an -- inadvertent? -- playing down of the madness:

"The mass executions — intended to keep possible southern leftists from reinforcing the northerners — were carried out over mere weeks and were largely hidden from history for a half-century. They were 'the most tragic and brutal chapter of the Korean War,' said historian Kim Dong-choon, a member of a 2-year-old government commission investigating the killings."

Mass executions are indeed savage, but even in this awful case, these killings were hardly the "most tragic and brutal chapter of the Korean War." US air strikes went far beyond shooting someone in the back of the head. The US firebombed Korean villages and towns into smoldering graves, dropping hundreds of tons of napalm in the effort, killing millions. On top of all that, the Truman administration seriously debated using nuclear weapons in Korea (the insane Douglas MacArthur, who proposed that the US drop up to 30 nuclear bombs, was thankfully kept outside of the inner-policy debates). As I put it in "Savage Mules": "In the end, nuclear weapons were not used, and really weren’t necessary. Destruction of the Korean peninsula, North and South, was so vast, the death toll so high, that all nukes would have added was a radioactive exclamation point."

This aerial destruction built upon the firebombing of Japanese cities at the end of World War II, and set the stage for the murderous assaults on Vietnam. But then, that's old news. More importantly, how long do you think Ashlee Simpson will stay married?

ALSO: Chris Floyd, who you should be reading on a regular basis, gives his thoughts on a similar theme.