Bush's brutal war stirs memories of Vietnam

by omoboy and Hiroaki Sato

When the news came that Daniel Ellsberg led a rally in Concord, New Hampshire, to help impeach President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney, I happened to be looking at the entries for the year 1967 in an almanac.

That year, the United States kept expanding its forces in Vietnam amid mounting protests worldwide, and I was marveling how it was that it took so many more years before that lopsided, prolonged war America waged in a remote land ended.

In the increasingly helpless atmosphere the war engendered, which I remember only too well, the contentions over the Pentagon Papers that Ellsberg helped bring to light in 1971, cast a ray of light, if I may use a term reminiscent the phrase often used during the Vietnam War: “the light at the end of the tunnel.” I was looking at the year 1967 because, on Feb. 28, 1967, four Japanese writers issued an appeal condemning the Cultural Revolution, another upheaval that was unfolding.

Yukio Mishima was one of them. I am working on his life.

The three others were Yasunari Kawabata, Jun Ishikawa and Kobo Abe.

In their appeal, Mishima et al stated they were “transcending right-left ideological positions” — mindful, evidently, that Mishima was gaining notoriety for “turning perilously rightist” while Ishikawa and Abe were known for their left-leaning views.

In accusing the Chinese government of “suppressing academic and artistic freedom,” they also pointed to Japan’s recent past. They brought up the slogan “patriotism through literature” (bungaku hokoku) as an example of government deploying literature and arts “as an instrument of political power.” That was the notion imposed on poets and writers during the Pacific War two decades earlier.

Takao Tokuoka, one journalist who lived that era and reflected on it later, has written, in his book on Mishima, that the four writers were “courageous.” In those days, and for years afterward, Japanese intellectuals, including journalists and even conservative politicians, were mainly interested in gaining the approval of the Chinese, even when, need one add, their leadership was split in two and the side driving “the revolution” was doing horrible things.

So, in the summer of the previous year, during their “victory fests” in Beijing, the Red Guards had publicly beaten up Lao She, the prominent writer in his 60s (that led to his death), while the writer-historian-politician Guo Moruo publicly criticized himself, trashing his entire work till then as worthless.

Lao and Guo were, of course, just two of the great many people arbitrarily targeted and forced to self-criticism, silence, suicide when not murdered outright. Among the political leaders driven from power, I should add, were President of the People’s Republic of China Liu Shaoqi and General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party Deng Xiaoping.

No, not that I remember being particularly aware of those details and brooding over them during the year of 1967. But the sense of helplessness created by the chaos was there, and it was multiplied by America expanding its bombing and burning of a poor, struggling country in Asia.

A total disregard of objections and protests was at the core of that mindless ruthlessness. So, the almanac entries for 1967 show that even as Mishima joined the Japanese Ground Self-Defense Force for military training, huge anti-Vietnam War rallies were staged in New York and San Francisco, on April 15, with half a million participating.

In May, the International War Crimes Tribunal convened in Stockholm by Bertrand Russell and Jean Paul Sartre judged the U.S. guilty on all 11 counts. Antiwar demonstrations spread to other countries. But Gen. William Westmoreland, commander in chief of U.S. forces in Vietnam, kept asking for more troops and kept getting them, until, at the end of the year, he announced that the number of soldiers under his command reached 478,000.

In the growing split between leaders and people, Japan was no exception. Protests and demonstrations intensified, but politicians did not waver in their support of America’s conduct in Vietnam. On Oct. 8, when Prime Minister Eisaku Sato left to visit South Vietnam and other East Asian countries, as well as Oceania, one of the student demonstrators trying to stop his visit was killed in a clash with the riot police at Haneda airport. Sato went to South Vietnam anyway to show his support, and in Australia he stated that the U.S. should continue bombing North Vietnam.

On Oct. 30, when TBS broadcast Japan’s first news documentary made in North Vietnam, Sato’s Liberal Democratic Party demanded that the TV station oust the journalist who made the documentary. It got what it wanted. On Nov. 11, the day Sato left for the U.S., the 73-year-old patent attorney Chunoshin Yui poured kerosene over himself and lit it near the Prime Minister’s Official Residence; two days later he died. It was in protest against Sato’s support for North Vietnam bombing.

In doing what he did, Yui followed not just the examples of the Vietnamese monks who immolated themselves in protest, but also those of two Americans two years earlier: the Quaker Norman Morrison, who burned himself to death outside the Pentagon, and the young Catholic Robert Allen LaPorte, who did the same outside the U.N. building.

Regardless, Sato, in the subsequent U.S.-Japanese communique, reiterated his support for American savaging of Vietnam. As I pick these entries, I can’t help noting Tokuoka’s lament that almanac entries are so devoid of “flesh and blood” they exasperate someone like him who “lived the period, breathing its air, touching the pulse of history.”

I can hardly say I did that with the year 1967 but can say I did with the years that followed, until the Vietnam War ended. Now that I find myself living through another, prolonged brutalization America is perpetrating of yet another, remote country — again with Japan’s support — I feel some of the events of the past revived with flesh and blood.

Daniel Ellsberg’s role in making the Pentagon Papers public in the end led to President Richard Nixon’s downfall, though there was little direct linkage between the two events and, worse, there was a distance of four long years in between. This time Ellsberg tried to rally support for New Hampshire State Representative Betty Hall’s bill to petition Congress to start impeachment proceedings. The effort failed; the state legislature tabled the bill. Given the likelihood that the advisers of the two Democratic presidential candidates, New York Sen. Hillary Clinton and Illinois Sen. Barak Obama, are counseling against quick withdrawal of U.S. troops, I can feel only depressed: this war may continue for years after Bush and Cheney leave office, chuckling, sneering.

Hiroaki Sato is a New York-based essayist and translator.