Books At War With Asia

313 pages, $1.95

NOAM CHOMSKY would like to talk about the current state of affairs in Southeast Asia. He'd like to remind the American public that there is still a vicious little war tucked away in that far-off corner of the world, a fact which most of us apparently have forgotten. There must be a streak of naivete in that man, for him not to realize that discussion of Vietnam has fallen a trifle out of vogue in familiar circles, that students and citizens and Congressmen have basically dropped the subject to move on to more novel and important concerns. We might as well listen anyway: for those of us who aren't satisfied that we can end the war with a little Saturday afternoon grandstanding on Boston Common, doing something meaningful about terminating the conflict is still in the talking stage.

To add to the awkwardness of it all, a much publicized event following the appearance of Chomsky's new book has threatened-or better, promised-to bring the end of whatever critical dissent remains about the war. That event, of course, is the announcement of President Nixon's newest so-called "peace" plan, which proposes to resolve the conflict according to how many of the South Vietnamese are "loyal" to "us," and how much territory "they"-the NLF, the North Vietnamese, or whoever-"control." An interesting principle, this, which suggests that the Paris negotiators ought to divvy up the Vietnamese nation according to where the military dice have fallen thus far. And the underpinning of that principle is the simple, tacit fact that American armed forces have been winning in Vietnam since mid 1968.

Most Americans, of course, are under the casual impression that their government has been deescalating the war, seeking to leave Vietnam, in fact, ever since the opening of the talks in Paris in March of that year. But the apparent de-escalation has amounted merely to a clever shift in emphasis, combined with an adept appraisal of how far the war could be extended and prolonged without a complete collapse of the political economy at home. The beginning of the near-worthless talks and an end to the fruitless, politically detrimental bombing of the North shattered a growing and powerful anti-war movement in America; but, since then, the bombers have merely moved south, defoliating the countryside, herding millions of Vietnamese into teeming, overcrowded urban centers, undermining the rural base of the NLF-in sum, creating a viable political position for the American government.

AS PROFESSOR Samuel P. Huntington so incisively put it in July 1968, the NLF is "a powerful force which cannot be dislodged from its constituency so long as the constituency continues to exist." He thus described a situation in Vietnam where "the Maoist-inspired rural revolution is undercut by the American-sponsored urban revolution." And the prognostication has come to be mostly true. In August 1968, the Americans controlled an area containing roughly half the population of South Vietnam. Now, due in large part to a forced migration whose extent is perhaps unparalleled in recent history, the Allies have gained firm control of as much as 90 per cent of the country.

And now the Nixon proposal. As in the 1950's, the American government is planning to negotiate from strength. What it hopes to bring about is a government in South Vietnam that will be amicable to their continued influence and their indefinite presence. What that means, of course, is an American base from which to launch further political and military sorties in the ongoing Indochina power struggle.

There is a sour bit of irony in all this. Prolonged American involvement in Southeast Asia would cause a fairly significant strain on most of the U. S. body politic. But whatever the war does to the American people cannot be compared to the incredible level of suffering which it imposes on the Vietnamese. And yet it is only to the American people, not to the Vietnamese, that the American government has to be responsible; the Americans, not the Vietnamese, are the only ones who have an influence powerful enough to force the U. S. government from its aggressive practices.

Most Americans are satisfied with Nixon's proposal because it resolves the conflict in a way that seems to put an end to the domestic problems generated by the war. After all, it is only "national security" and "national interest" that concerns them, so that one could expect nothing else. To Chomsky, this attitude is entirely unacceptable; his central point is that if the U. S. is ever to be made to leave Southeast Asia, the anti-war movement in America must "shift the terms of the debate to an entirely different issue. The proper question is not whether the United States can win at an acceptable cost, but whether it should be involved at all in the internal affairs of Indochina. Until this becomes the unique and overriding issue, the debate over Vietnam will scarcely have begun."

MOST of the book-a collection of revised essays which originally appeared in the New York Review of Books -is an incredibly telling documentation of American activities in Vietnam's neighboring countries during the past decade. The most astounding of these discussions concerns America's role in the Laotian guerrilla war. Those bombers which were pulled out of North Vietnam in 1968 and not used in the South were instead sent to Laos, where massive depopulation bombing had begun even before the fabricated Tonkin Gulf episode in August 1964. As Chomsky tells it, most of northern Laos is now a network of caves and underground tunnels where hundreds of thousands of farmers and peasants have been driven by American bombardment. The idea-as you might have guessed-is to make it as difficult as possible for the insurgent Pathet Lao to organize in the countryside. And the goal-as one must expect-is to support a crumbling, reactionary government of paramilitarists who are friendly to the West.

In a less direct way, the narrative also tells a great deal about the metamorphosis of Chomsky as a political analyst. In his earlier American Power and the New Mandarins. Chomsky's language was calm, restrained, almost antiseptically reasoned; he was, one feels, especially careful to obey the intellectual ground rules of a political world-view which was otherwise alien and unacceptable to him. In At War With Asia, he rejects that constraint, and his language is less careful, wilder, and in many ways far more moving:

If the United States does not gradually escalate to war with China, perhaps through an undisciplined, provocative act of the military or perhaps a desperate move by the civilian authorities, then the architects of this new disaster in Cambodia will not pay the costs of their blundering aggressiveness. Perhaps someday they will acknowledge their "honest errors" in their memoirs, speaking of the burdens of world leadership and the tragic irony of history. Their victims, the peasants of Indochina, will write no memoirs and will be forgotten. They will join the countless millions of victims of tyrants and oppressors.

Most of us have by now resigned ourselves to one passive position or another on the war in Southeast Asia. With the exception of the material on Laos-where the American military has not made the mistake it made in Vietnam, that is, to allow free movement to members of the press-you won't learn many new things from Chomsky if you've followed the commentaries of the more intelligent journals and done a lot of good guessing besides. If you are already hardened and numbed beyond shock at what the American government has done in Southeast Asia, it might be a waste of time for you to open this book. But if you're prepared to be reminded and moved and enraged all over again, you might be interested after all.