Australia / Britain /America
excerpted from the book
by John Pilger
South End Press, 2001 (and 1986), paper
... most of foreign humanity, apart from the inhabitants of the
United States and Europe (minus the Balkans), are generally portrayed
in terms of their usefulness to Western power: thus, Kurds opposed
to the regime in Iraq are 'good' while Kurds opposed to the regime
in Turkey are 'bad'. Turkey is an ally of the United States and
a member of NATO.
Seen from the West, Vietnam was a war, not a country.
Robert Louis Stevenson
Beware of your sham impartialists, wolves in sheep's clothing,
simpering honestly as they suppress.
In everyday media and political discourse, political language
has been turned on its head. A positive, hopeful word like 'reform'
has lost its dictionary meaning. It now means regression, even
destruction. 'Wealth creation' actually means the taking of wealth
by a few. 'Restructuring' is the transfer of income from production
to speculation. And 'market economics' means capitalism for the
majority and socialism for the privileged few and the powerful,
an ingenious system under which the poor are persecuted and the
rich are given billions in public subsidies, such as tax cuts
and public properties at knock-down prices. As for that noble
concept 'democracy', in single ideology states like Britain and
the United States, this is now little more than a rhetorical device.
The historian Mark Curtis surveyed 500 articles in the British
press that dealt with Nicaragua during the early Reagan and Thatcher
years of 1981-3. He found an almost universal suppression of the
achievements of the Sandinista government in favour of the falsehood
of 'the threat of a communist takeover'. 'It would take considerable
intellectual acrobatics,' he wrote, 'to designate Sandinista successes
in alleviating poverty - remarkable by any standard - as unworthy
of much comment by objective indicators. This might particularly
be the case when compared to the appalling conditions elsewhere
in the region - surely well-known to any reporter who visited
the area . . . The absence of significant press comment on the
Sandinista achievements was even more remarkable in view of the
sheer number of articles that appeared on the subject of Nicaragua
in these years. One might reasonably conclude that the reporting
was conditioned by a different set of priorities, one that conformed
to . . . the stream of disinformation emanating from Washington
Thanks mostly to an invasion by murderous 'Contra' squads,
who specialised in slitting the throats of peasant farmers, midwives
and other anti-Americans and were paid, armed and directed by
the CIA, Nicaragua has been returned to its status under the Washington-sponsored
Somoza dictatorship: that of the poorest, most indebted country
in Latin America. Gone are the literacy programmes, the child
mortality figures, the 'barefoot doctors', the improving community
schools, the agricultural co-operatives.
The majority of the world's computers are in the United States,
yet even there, the division is vast. With 34 million Americans
living in poverty, almost half the population have no access to
Consider the ironies. As media technology becomes 'global' as
never before, the media itself is becoming more parochial. 'Dumbed
down' is the jargon term.
The American journalist Susan Faludi, a Pulitzer Prize winner,
reckons that 'no more than two dozen journalists' in the United
States have the freedom to work uncompromised by corporate pressure.
"Whenever I visit media schools,' she said, 'I find the majority
of students don't want to be reporters or investigative journalists
or even broadcasters. They want to be image consultants; they
want to get into PR; that's where the money is and where the jobs
are, and where our freedom has been lost.'
According to PR Week, the amount of 'PR generated material' in
the media is '50 per cent in a broadsheet newspaper in every section
apart from sport'. What often passes for news in the financial
pages is 'packaged' by PR consultants paid by investment firms.
The PR, says Max Clifford, the famous PR man, 'is filling the
role investigative reporters should fill but no longer can because
[ofl cost cutting.'
Journalists may insist they are never told what to do, that there
is never a 'line'- when of course it may not be necessary to tell
them: they know almost instinctively what is required of them:
what to publish and, most important, what to leave out.
'When the truth is replaced by silence, the silence is a lie.'
The link between a truly free media, keeping the record straight
and the powerful accountable, and freedom for all citizens, is
far too important and tenuous for journalists to look away.
Truths that were once understood fade into individual memories,
history is shaped into an instrument of power, and the ground
is laid for the enterprises [of the abuses of power] to come.
General Douglas MacArthur the new Australian viceroy, in Melbourne
Australia, April, 1942
"It is our race which causes us to have the same ideals and
the same dreams of destiny."
Australia in the 1960s
The 'English reserve' was all embracing. Prim houses with red
tiled roofs were built with as much sympathy for the Australian
climate as igloos, and their male occupants were bound by sartorial
conventions which included the wearing of double-breasted serge
suits during the long, hot and humid summers. A subtle feature
of this mien was the repression of feelings, no matter that your
own forebears might have been a volatile bunch or that Australia's
sun and light and absence of insurmountable class barriers elsewhere
produced a natural informality. In spite of this, a veneer of
formality was spread over the most informal of people; and in
upholding this fake propriety and avoiding embarrassment at all
costs, you did not speak much about religion, race, 'domestic
matters', sex or politics. But as this attitude was thoroughly
Victorian and hypocrisy was built into it, you spoke of all these
things on the sly.
The [British] 'consensus' existed prior to Margaret Thatcher's
time. This nod-and-wink arrangement between Conservative and Labour
governments and the 5 per cent of the population who owned more
than 40 per cent of the nation's personal wealth existed so that
life in Britain might never appear divisive or influenced by the
extremes of wealth and poverty.
This largely unspoken, ill-defined, squirearchical and, of
course, very British arrangement followed the Second World War.
For the ruling class, 'consensus' meant social tinkering which
it could tolerate and which would reinforce its power. The fruits
of this connivance were made clear when the Attlee Government
and successive Labour administrations, especially that of Harold
Wilson, willingly mortgaged their policies to Tory assent.
Indeed, for politicians, 'consensus' meant something distinctly
cosy, as the Labour MP turned media man, Brian Walden, later described
it. Walden wrote:
The two front benches [in Parliament] liked each other and
disliked their back benches. We were children of the famous consensus
. . . we were spoiled, of course, because the electorate, which
was even more irresponsible than we were, could be relied upon
to grow bored or disenchanted and turn the opposition into the
government. It made little difference, for we believed much the
For working people, the 'consensus' did not have quite the
same cosiness, but it did mean that, in exchange for their acceptance
of low wages and the acquiescence of their trade union leaders,
they were granted reasonably priced housing, clothing and food,
as well as basic services such as nationalised health care and
the hope of a 'new start' for at least one child.
Hope was the most important ingredient of the 'consensus'
arrangement, for without it working people might not work as they
had worked for almost a century. One of the profound effects of
the Second World War was that the pliancy of ordinary people was
no longer assured, and without a modicum of hope people might
strike and 'disturb the industrial peace' or, worse, disrupt society.
By the time the 1960s arrived, this hope, as exemplified by
'The Promised Land' in the Mirror headline, had converted to specific
expectations. These were centred upon the creation of a new consumer
world for the young in off-the-shelf, off-the-peg dreams. 'TEENAGERS
HAVE FUN ON £1000 MlLLION A YEAR!' read a 1962 headline
in the Daily Herald. Youth was the target; and selling things,
lots of things, almost anything, to the previously poor was what
Swinging Britain was about. The hope on which the 'consensus'
turned, and by which the old assumptions of the 'antique unwritten
charter' of power could be preserved, was escape from the drudgery
and greyness and imprisonment of class. It was this which was
held out so tantalisingly to the young, as long as they spent
and spent ...
When the Conservative Government of Margaret Thatcher took office
in May 1979, the term 'consensus' was replaced by a new jargon
word, 'reality'. This meant that by the mid-1980s more than a
quarter of school-leavers could not get work and that long-term
unemployment was higher than it was in 1932, the peak year of
the Great Depression. It also meant that 3,500,000 children or
a third of the youngsters of Great Britain were living in poverty.
There is an abundance of this 'reality' in the River Streets
area of Birkenhead, across the Mersey from Liverpool, where unemployment
reaches up to 60 per cent. Of course, to those who do not go to
places like the River Streets, which were built on a vast rubbish
dump in the 1940s, the image of poverty remains rooted in the
1930s and therefore 'real' poverty no longer exists in Britain
and comparisons with previous hard times are merely emotive. It
is true that many comparisons with the 1930s no longer apply and
this makes all the more remarkable those that do.
For example, the Thatcher Government's Social Security has
achieved what even the hated National Government of the 1930s
balked at doing: it has cut unemployment and sickness pay in real
Maggie Thatcher's New Britain
...what sort of person can pursue political dogma relentlessly
at the cost of so much human misery, despair, degradation and
even life itself.
Since 1979 spending on housing has been more than halved, and
fewer houses are being built in Britain now than at any time since
the Second World War. Put another way: in 1975 equal amounts of
tax money were spent on defence and housing; in 1984 five times
as much was spent on the military services and on war material.
Britain no longer has a national housing programme.
The Thatcher years have meant increasing the wealth of the rich
at the expense of the poor. In the ten years since her election,
the bottom half of the population has lost £4,800 million
in tax and benefits, which have gone to the top five per cent.;
Since the 'de-regulation' of much of industry, preventable deaths
at work have increased by 42 per cent. In 1987 total deaths rose
to 14,700. This is the Britain behind the Daily Telegraph front
page headline in August, 1989 announcing that 'Champagne may be
rationed as drink sales soar.'
Deceit and cynicism are significant factors. Government statisticians
are being required to distort in order to promote the illusion
of a prosperous, booming nation. 'The Central Statistical Office',
reported The Guardian, '. . . resisted attempts by the Chancellor
to revise the balance of payments figures to present the budget
deficit as less than it really is. Statistics on low pay and poverty,
unemployment and nuclear power are based increasingly on flawed
or inadequate information, or are truncated, concealed or omitted.
When a government minister called a press conference to announce
that there were no longer poor people in Britain, he was mocked
and his statistics disbelieved even by the Tory newspapers.
Of course educating people 'once more to know their place'
may face insurmountable difficulties. Civil disturbances in those
parts of Britain where Government policies of 'de-industrialisation'
together with institutional racism have left fewer than 10 per
cent of the young with any prospect of a practical purpose in
their lives have become commonplace. Following the riots of Handsworth,
Brixton and Tottenham in autumn 1985 the political 'consensus'
was briefly reinstated as Labour Party leaders joined with the
Government to focus the public's attention on the criminality
of what had happened, not on the causes. A gloating speech by
Enoch Powell, calling again for repatriation - sending the victims
of Government policies and of racism back to where most of them
had not come from - was described by the prime minister as 'very
interesting' and 'worth reading very carefully indeed'.
In the 1990s the hope of British politics lies in its volatility.
In the 1980s the miners were beaten, but their struggle spawned
a popular front which could transcend the capricious 'solidarity'
of the traditional labour rnovement and force a historic realignment
of opposition forces. Women, farmers, teachers, shopkeepers, civil
servants, pensioners, clergymen, Irish people, ethnic people and
peace movement people went to remarkable lengths to help the miners.
The depth of their improbable alliance was seldom reported and
remained a 'secret' of the strike. People for the first time,
wrote Hywel Francis, 'began to take control of their own lives'.
For example, when the South Wales Striking Miners' Choir entertained
an entirely black audience in Walsall one of the choristers paid
tribute to the 'ethnic minorities' who had been so outstanding
in their support during the strike. To which a black leader responded,
'The Welsh are the ethnic minority in Walsall!' And both audience
and choristers stood and cheered. 'The strike', wrote Hywel Francis
who recounted this story, 'has begun to teach all of us that none
of us are minorities.'
It was good to be in Britain then, to meet women who stood
with their men with a vitality and courage which humbled those
of us who visited their front line. The shadow over them, and
over all who might resist in the future, is that the centralised
state, now progressively shorn of countervailing power and of
many civil liberties, was far more powerful than they. And yet
people are never still.
On the morning the Murton miners went back to their pit, their
prize brass band emerged from the mist with the women marching
first. This had not happened before. Regardless of future events,
what their long and heroic action meant, at the very least, was
that ordinary men and women had stood and fought back. And that,
for me, is Britain at its best.
In his speeches, notably during his election campaigns, President
Reagan has described America as 'that God-given place between
two oceans . . . a shining house on the hill . . . a beacon to
all the world'. America is the only nation 'to have a government,
not the other way around' and 'the only place on earth where freedom
and dignity of the individual have been available and assured'.
In his inauguration speech of 1981, Reagan went further. 'We are
unique,' he said. 'This transition of power [from President Carter
to himself] is a miracle!'
This kind of rhetoric might well have come from B-movie Hollywood,
which spawned Ronald Reagan and that other celebrated symbol of
American idealism, the late John Wayne. Just as Reagan has exhorted
Americans to 'stand tall' against malevolent forces, so Wayne's
celluloid heroism inspired many of a generation's young men to
go willingly to a war they did not understand. His example on
the screen, always tough, vigilant and moral, provided a simplistic
model to which many aspired.
What Reagan and Wayne also had in common was that neither
man ever had to 'stand tall' in defence of his country. Both remained
in Hollywood during the Second World War. Indeed, Reagan was then
busy halting the premature decline in his acting career by informing
on 'communists' for the studio bosses Jack Warner and Louis B.
Mayer, and went to considerable lengths not to put on a uniform,
devoting himself instead to making wartime propaganda films.'
And that alone might help to explain the manufactured nature of
the idealism which, packaged and promoted for television, has
become the almost uninterrupted voice of America. Having lived
and worked in America, and admiring much about American life,
I find myself resentful of such a distortion. It is as if genuine,
popular response to idealism has been manipulated by a powerful
group whose belligerent sense of moral ( superiority, not to mention
paranoia, actually runs against the grain of ordinary, unwarlike
I travelled a great deal in America during the 1960s and 1970s,
a period of upheaval but also of hope. Black people in the old
southern confederacy had begun to demand their civil rights, the
ghettoes of Los Angeles, Detroit and Washington erupted, Martin
Luther King, Malcolm X and Robert Kennedy were assassinated, the
Vietnam war was executed to disaster and a visible and active
movement, whose roots were idealistic, held the imagination of
millions of Americans. Martha Gellhorn, the war correspondent,
described them as
... [a] life-saving minority of Americans ... judge their
government in moral terms. They are the people with a wakeful
conscience, the best of America's citizens . . . they can be counted
on, they are always there. Though the government tried viciously,
it could not silence them.
To many of them, the notion of conscience itself was not exotic,
as it sometimes seems today; and moral concerns had not become
so rare that they seemed eccentric. They understood the nature
of their country's longest war and they rejected 'manifest destiny':
their government's self-given right to coerce and assault small
nations. They believed that America ought to behave abroad according
to the democracy its leaders claimed for it at home. They resisted
what they saw as the one-dimensional, often venal politics of
those who possessed so much of their country's public life and
whose propaganda frequently claimed to express its patriotism.
At times their own political aims and energy seemed fatuous and
ephemeral, yet their movement was briefly powerful enough to influence,
marginally, the American media, political process and scholarship
and to reach beyond the limits of American liberalism, making
radical change seem possible.
The American public believes by a two to one margin that the veterans
of the Vietnam war 'were made suckers of, having to risk their
lives in the wrong war in the wrong place at the wrong time'.
Harris opinion poll, November 1979
On patrol, in the drumming rain, with each step requiring superhuman
effort to reclaim a boot from the sucking mud, a hand would reach
back to beckon or drag me forward, followed by a reassuring voice:
'C'mon man, let's go.' The voice would come from a street corner
in the Bronx, a rural town in the Confederacy, a steel mill in
Pennsylvania: little America.
The only drinking water would be brackish and polluted, which
meant that you got sick and slept in it. Leeches were ritually
pulled from each other's arms and backs in the dark: 'jungle rot'
it was called, and it served to relieve the hours of waiting for
seconds of terror.
Then, in a field suddenly ablaze, a stunned face lay with
someone trying to stem a crescendo of screams. Confusion; panic;
timidity; bravery; stoicism; and more waiting until the burst
of a flare and the swishing of rotors as a ruined nineteen-year-old
was delivered to the medevac helicopter.
Bob Muller endured all that. For him, the price was a shattered
spinal column and two useless legs.
I never met Bob Muller in Vietnam, which is not surprising
as 3,700,000 Americans served there. When I did meet him I realised
I had seen him at the Republican Party's convention at Miami Beach
in 1972, booing the candidate for President, Richard Nixon. He
and other protesting Vietnam veterans had been thrown out, in
Five years later I saw him again, out in the sun on
the steps of City Hall, New York. It was Memorial Day, the day
America remembers its 'foreign wars'. There were medals and salutes
and dignitaries, then former Lieutenant Robert O. Muller of the
United States marines, a much decorated American hero of the kind
John Wayne never was, took the microphone and from his wheelchair
brought even the construction site beyond the crowd to an attentive
silence. He said:
There are 280,000 veterans of Vietnam in New York alone and
a third of them can't find jobs. Throughout America sixty per
cent of all black veterans are unemployed. Almost half of all
Vietnam veterans have problems with alcohol and drugs, and just
as many are probably dying now from the effects of poisons we
dumped over there as died on the battlefield.
You people out there, who didn't go, ran a number on us, right?
Your guilt, your hang-ups made it socially unacceptable to mention
the fact that we fought in Vietnam. We wear artificial limbs so
you won't know we're disabled veterans.
Why do we feel like we just held up a bank when someone asks
about our wounds? Why do we feel that we must be guilty for letting
America down or, if we're critical of America, we can't explain
even to ourselves why we went over there and needlessly killed
Eight of my friends, with dead legs like these, killed themselves
when they got home; we've got the highest suicide rate in America
. . . that's all I want to say to you today.
The following year flags throughout America flew at half-mast
for the eight soldiers killed in the failed attempt to rescue
the American hostages in Iran. President Carter visited most of
the families of the fifty-two hostages and there was a patriotic
parade in their honour. Two years later the hostages themselves
were welcomed home in one of the greatest American parades of
all. They, of course, were officially approved heroes, who would
embarrass no one with accusations of collective guilt or confessions
of failure: 'victory' in their case having been bought conveniently
There was no great parade for America's greatest army, which
went to Vietnam; they were GIs who, unlike the 'doughboys' of
1919 and the 'johnnies' of 1945, never marched home. They returned
individually. 'We slunk home,' many of them told me. More marines
died in Vietnam than in all of the Second World War, yet it was
not until 1982 that a monument to the dead of the nation's longest
war was erected in Washington and it was not until 1985 that New
York, which traditionally honoured America's returning troops,
laid on a ticker-tape parade.
Contrary to myth and unlike the Second World War, 80 per cent
of America's soldiers in Vietnam were volunteers. They came mostly
from working-class America, and they had no student deferments
with which to evade the draft; anyway, their evangelical patriotism
put that out of the question.
I found Bob Muller in an almost bare office at the seedy end
of Fifth Avenue in New York. He is a slight, grey figure whose
appearance belies his booming eloquence and deep sense of irony.
He said that in 1976, when he formed Vietnam Veterans of America
in order to help, as he put it, 'my invisible comrades', he was
I was constantly being wheeled out for all kinds of establishment
groups. Carter had made a big deal of human rights and I was probably
the most convenient, most accessible human right around. I was
invited to a meeting with all the big names of Exxon, the Chase
Manhattan Bank and so on. They said, 'We're going to bring you
vets right back into the mainstream; we're going to put things
right for you.'
Just look at this letter I wrote to one of them, David Packard,
one of the ten richest men in the country, whose corporation made
a fortune out of the war. The day after Packard took his brotherly
arm off my shoulder I wrote a letter to him, requesting some help
for the vets: pretty modest stuff, like administration costs.
That was six months ago and I haven't had a reply. We can't even
pay our office phone bill. Of course we weren't completely friendless.
The editor of the Washington Post agreed to see me and said, 'I'm
gonna go to bat for you guys.' Well in the course of a year he
published a total of thirty-six editorials and columns about us
and at the end of the year, he said, 'I've never conducted an
editorial campaign as I have on behalf of you Vietnam veterans
and had such a silence in response. It's unprecedented and it's
stunning . . .'
Perhaps the most important reason for this stunning silence,
as well as for the studied neglect of America's 'invisible' army,
was that the Vietnam veterans held the secrets of the war: that
is, they understood the true nature of the war.
Mike Sulsona was a marine [Vietnam veteran] who 'loved all
the John Wayne movies as a kid'. He reminded me of those GIs I
knew who had deliberately fired over the heads of an enemy they
came to respect more than their own officers.
'We're not much worse in America than people anywhere,' he
said. 'But we're not much better either, and there's the problem
for us. We've got too many myths to live up to, as if our national
moral life is forever hanging in some kind of uneasy balance,
slanted toward violence but checked by decency.'
I met Mike in 1978, two years after President Carter had commissioned
a study which called for the creation of 100,000 jobs for Vietnam
veterans; during those two years 136 jobs had been found. Out
of 21,000 seriously disabled veterans, 500 had been offered work.
A mere £5 million had been set aside to help disturbed veterans:
the equivalent, as Bob Muller told Carter himself, 'of five days'
shelling of one lousy hillside in Vietnam long abandoned by the
The contrast with the treatment of Second World War and Korean
war veterans was striking. The earlier veterans had been rewarded
with a 'GI Bill' which gave them automatic rights of employment,
education and medical care for life. President Johnson re-introduced,
reluctantly, the GI Bill in 1966, but with a catch: it gave Vietnam
veterans some $3,000 less than their fathers had received a generation
earlier. In 1972 President Nixon vetoed the Veterans Medical Care
Expansion Act, another extension of the GI Bill, which it was
now clear had been drafted for different heroes coming home from
a different war.
Mike Sulsona received no compensation for a crippled hand
and for deafness caused when a land mine blew off both his legs.
He was nineteen then. Like most of the veterans I met, Mike would
not talk much about the war itself and expressed no self-pity.
'I gave my Bronze Star to the kid next door,' he said. 'He likes
to play soldiers with it.'
Mike lives in Brooklyn, New York, in a faded area which used
to be a Jewish ghetto. At the end of his street is Coney Island,
once the world's greatest funfair, where he played as a child,
and which is now shuttered and rusting.
'All the nine-to-five jobs I applied for needed someone who
could get about,' he said. 'I can't do that for long with artificial
legs and a cane. But I've got lucky! The Italian mob who run the
collision trucks heard about me and said, "No problem, we'll
fire somebody." They're like that, those Italian boys.'
A funny and bitter little story about Mike's struggle with
bureaucracy says much about an attitude which many Vietnam veterans
have had to face. Sitting in his small kitchen with Beryl, whom
he met and married on his return from the war, he said:
Right from the start I was determined never to go out in the
wheelchair. I didn't want people recognising me as a vet; I just
didn't want any arguments about the war. Either I'd wear the damn
tin legs, no matter how much they hurt, or I'd drive my car.
I figured that losing my legs in the service of my country
gave me at least one extra right: to drive my car and park where
best I could and not have to pay any parking fines. I didn't want
any parades or any of that bullshit; all I wanted was the freedom
to park my old Volkswagen!
Well, you guessed it: nine years later I had $7,000 worth
of parking tickets piled up, more than my car was worth. Again
and again I'd explained my case, but still the tickets kept coming.
Then when they took away my car registration that was it! Beryl
and I went down to the courthouse, walked right into the judge's
chambers and I took off my legs and put them on his desk. The
judge went red, his secretary went red and both of them just got
the hell out leaving me sitting there in my underpants.
Some official came in and tried to explain to me their situation.
I understood their situation, but they didn't understand mine.
They said, 'Pay us $5 and we'll give you your registration.' I
said, 'I'm not paying a penny of those fines.' So I just sat there
- underwear, legs on the desk and all - until they started to
Well, finally they agreed to reduce it from $7,000 to $75,
and I weakened and accepted it. As I was leaving I said to the
lady dealing with the matter, 'Don't you know I'm a Vietnam veteran?'
'Yeah,' she replied, 'unfortunately you were in a war that nobody
really cared about.' I said to her, 'Okay lady, but keep it to
yourself, will you?'
Mike is a sculptor. His major work is a seven-foot figure
of a veteran with one leg which took him two years to complete.
'The statue can't talk back,' he said. 'It doesn't have to feel
it's a scapegoat . . . It's my gift to the memory of friends who
didn't make it back.'
It was 1968 when Jay Thomas made it back and both the war
and the anti-war movement were at their height. To some of the
American 'new left', enlisted soldiers were, at worst, baby killers
and, at best, dupes now obsolete; and the latter represented an
attitude shared by many of the middle ground and the extreme right
Jay Thomas, a marine, was severely wounded in the arm and
neck and, like many veterans, had become addicted to heroin in
Vietnam. He described his first day back in America:
I was hitchhiking home from Philadelphia naval hospital and
I had my uniform on, and I was walking with a cane and my neck
and arm were in a brace. I was a sight, I can tell you.
This van went past me and stopped about twenty feet ahead
and signalled they would pick me up. Well, just as I reached it
I got ketchup and Coca-Cola and whatever all over my uniform and
face. Then they pulled away.
When Bob Muller first went to the White House, as founder
of the Vietnam Veterans of America, he overheard a presidential
aide telling a reporter, 'You have got to understand these guys
are a no-votes situation.' When he met President Carter he tried
to explain that a third of Vietnam veterans were suffering from
something called 'delayed stress syndrome', which was distinct
from 'shell shock' and 'combat fatigue' and needed the urgent
attention of the commander-in-chief himself, the president.
'What did the president say?' I asked. 'He told me he loved
When Bob Muller first met President Reagan it was at a Veterans'
Day ceremony at the White House. The President spoke about the
lessons of the American War of Independence, about the First and
Second World Wars and the Korean War; he said nothing about the
nation's longest war. As he was leaving, Reagan found his way
blocked by Bob Muller's wheelchair. Bob recounted the incident
I said to him, 'Mr President, when are you going to listen
to us, the veterans of Vietnam? Before you build up your defence
budget, when are you going to listen to us tell you what war is
really like these days, with all these new weapons . . .'
It was unbelievable. He missed the point completely and said,
'The trouble with Vietnam was that we never let you guys fight
the war the way you could have done and should have done and so
we denied you the victory all the other veterans in this country
have enjoyed . . . It won't happen like that again, Bob."
On August 18, 1980, during the presidential campaign, Ronald
Reagan attacked the Carter administration's 'stingy' approach
to the Vietnam veterans. 'It is time we recognised', he said,
'that ours was, in truth, a noble cause . . . and that we have
been shabby in our treatment of those who returned . . . They
deserve our gratitude, our respect and our continuing concern."
Seven months later Reagan, as president, asked Congress to
cut programmes designed specifically to help Vietnam veterans
find jobs, complete their education and be treated for drug addiction
and alcoholism, both scourges of the war. He also proposed closing
ninety-one counselling centres which, after a long resistance
by the veterans' bureaucracy in Washington, had been established
in the poorest parts of cities and towns, where most Vietnam veterans
live. These 'storefront' centres were considered by many casualties
of Vietnam as the 'last line' in their struggle to come to terms
with the aftermath of the war and with an America which apparently
did not want them. As a direct result of the president's intervention,
many of the centres closed and others continued only with meagre
The story of Roy Benavidez illustrates much of this cynicism.
In 1968 the former Army sergeant sustained a '90 per cent disability'
of his abdomen, back, thighs, head and arms when he was clubbed
from behind during a Vietcong ambush. Regardless of his wounds
he led the rescue of American troops trapped in downed helicopters
which were still under attack. He was later credited with having
saved the lives of eight comrades and was awarded America's highest
military decoration, the Medal of Honour. At an emotional ceremony
at the White House, President Reagan told Benavidez that he had
shown 'conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity'. Later, addressing
a hispanic audience in Austin, Texas, Reagan cited the award as
an example of his administration's recognition of hispanic citizens.
When soldiers like Roy Benavidez, declared the president, 'place
their lives on the line for us, we must make sure that they know
we're behind them and appreciate what they are doing.'
Two weeks later the Reagan administration cut Social Security
payments to disabled veterans and Roy Benavidez was one of the
first victims. The seriously incapacitated hero was deemed to
be 'capable of some kind of work'.
Bob Muller, the paraplegic ex-miner, went back to Vietnam
with a group of other veterans in 1981. The trip cam 1966 2 million
Vietnamese were old enemy capital of Hanoi, on which the Americans
had dropped a greater tonnage of bombs than the Germans had dropped
on Britain during the entire Second World War, they were astonished
to find not a metropolis reinforced by war industry but a small
Third World town of relentless poverty.
'For the first time,' said Bob Muller, 'I saw the Vietnamese
as people: people with tears in their eyes, like me. I found no
animosity, only generosity and interest. People stopped me and
asked where I had got my wounds, and when I told them, we would
end up by lifting our shirts and comparing the scars. I know they
have terrible post-war problems, but for them to be able to look
upon us not as the enemy any longer but as human beings and hopefully
as friends means the war's over for them. In this country we're
still fighting it and portraying the Vietnamese as the bad guys
and doing what we can to continue to frustrate their efforts of
recovery. Until we end the war and really effect the peace, we'll
never get that off our backs: our soul will be captive over there.'
58,022 Americans were killed in Vietnam. According to one
estimate, more than 50,000 Vietnam veterans have killed themselves
since their return from the war.
Eighty per cent of these people lived in slums. Few of their children
attended high school. The average income of a grape-picker was
about £450 a year for eighty-two days' work. They had no
rest periods, no time off with pay for sickness, no health insurance
and no pensions. Their leader, Caesar Chavez, had called them
the niggers of ten years ago. The United States government had
refused to recognise Chavez's United Farmworkers' Union, which
had organised the first strikes against the worst employers among
the winegrowers and a national boycott of their products. Chavez
had told a congressional inquiry that, of 774 grape-pickers who
were tested, only 121 showed no symptoms of pesticide poisoning.
New Mexico: October 1968. Sunrise had just begun on Route 66 and
the man and his wife sat as one in the dust beside the long, black
road, his broad-brimmed hat over his eyes, her shawl cocooning
them both against the cold. They did not move or speak. They waited.
Behind them, in an infinity of screaming colours, lay their
America, an America known only to them and not to those who drove
thunderingly by; a silent and beautiful land without cities or
shopping malls or billboards, just the Painted Earth and its mountains
and mesas, rivers and lakes and canyons and great red rocks, like
cathedrals; and trees, stillborn and black. And beyond that, the
This is the desert: the America of the First Americans, who
call themselves simply Dineh. The Spanish conquistadores knew
them as Apaches de Navajo and the settlers called them redskins;
and they have been waiting beside this long road for a century
or more, since Colonel Kit Carson came with his United States
Army, marching against them into the Canyon of Death, destroying,
as he went, their mud homes and their livestock and starving them
into surrender and into signing treaties, which granted them no
more than the worst of their own lands, renamed, with ignominy,
No other people have been more mythologised than they - what
precomputer age Western child had never heard of Sitting Bull
and Geronimo? - and yet no other people are more forgotten. And
nowhere does this irony echo louder than among themselves. Dressed
like cowboys, they have waited, wasted and watched their children
play that interminable game based on themselves, but with plastic
bows and arrows and the strongest among them always the triumphant
It was a national television programme that persuaded me to
go to the south-west of the United States, to Arizona and New
Mexico, where the Navajo, the largest tribe, live. It was a late
show broadcast from New York and one of the guests was a young
Indian girl, bedecked in feathers and beads and aching with shyness.
The compere said: 'Well, folks, we have a gen-u-ine Indian princess
for you tonight, just like Hiawatha. Let's hear it now for Miss
American Indian of 1968!'
He put on an Indian head-dress and danced a bizarre dance
in front of her and the audience laughed.
'Tell me, honey,' he said to her, 'why you come here to heap
big paleface pow-wow?'
There was a long silence before she said, 'I have been sent
to ask for jobs for my people and for food for our hungry children
and for freedom and honour.'
The compere was speechless; a commercial followed quickly.
The average income of an Indian family is less than half that
of even a black family, and in remote areas, in the 1960s, it
was not uncommon for five people to attempt to survive on the
equivalent of £250 a year, or less. Then, an Indian could
expect to be dead at forty-three, or twenty-seven years sooner
than a white American, and an Indian child was twice as likely
as a white child to die during infancy. Diseases under control
in white America are rampant still on the reservations. Tuberculosis,
which has all but extinguished a whole tribe in the State of Washington,
is ten times the national average.
There is little work of any kind on the reservations. And
because there is no work, one of the few ways they can make money
is to sell hand-made jewellery and pottery to white tourists,
the descendants of those who lured tribes off their land with
trinkets and trade. Nowadays, many Indians are uneducated, untrained,
illiterate; many live in less than slums, in dome-shaped structures
of mud and wood, called hogans, and in tarpaper shacks and shelters
made of leaves and tents. A high proportion of Indian families
are divided because there is no transport into the outposts and
the government boarding schools are far away and sometimes in
another state. A statistic frequently used by Robert Kennedy,
who was briefly and tenuously their champion, was that the suicide
rate among Indian teenagers was one hundred times that of the
rest of the country, and suicide occurred as early as eight years
I drove on to Navajo land at dawn when the desert is spectacular.
The old man and woman huddled by the road were glad of my offer
of a lift; they had been there all night, and they spoke no English,
and in haphazard Spanish they said they wanted to go to a trading
post to buy food.
The man was blind and had skin like baked liver and he wore
a shirt with a great oval hole in the front; for a moment it was
inconceivable that they were Americans, of perhaps a hundred generations,
and I was the foreigner. Ten miles on, they got out, bade me,
'Haa gone! - Godspeed - and they disappeared into the trading
post, over which hung a sign: 'War Bonnets 59 cents. Send One
At Window Rock, the administrative capital of the reservation,
I needed a 'clearance'. Window Rock was a forlorn settlement of
Nissen huts and trailers in which the Bureau of Indian Affairs,
the BIA, and the ONEO and the PHS and a dozen other acronyms of
offficialdom did their work. The BIA public relations man who
was to 'clear' me had previously been with NASA, the space agency.
'Can I tell you something?' he said. 'There's oil and gas
and all kind of wealth on this reservation and it belongs to the
Indians. They're rich! Some of them just don't know how lucky
they are! Well, let me whisper, maybe a few of them are kinda
indolent. Maybe that's their problem: they're rich and they're
Margaret Boyd was a beautiful old woman, like a slender oak
trunk. She was, in many ways, typical of her tribe. She lived
without a light in a wood and mud hogan, fourteen feet by five,
where she slept on a damp dirt floor, wrapped in a sack beside
an old pot-bellied stove which smoked. The sack, she said, had
once held fertiliser. She had no water; the nearest was a spring,
half a mile away on a ridge which she climbed in spite of her
bad heart. She was aged somewhere between fifty and seventy; she
would not say where. Her food was the Indian staple: corn and
bread fried in black grease, and occasionally mutton.
Margaret Boyd was unusual because she could speak English
and she did not object to her picture being taken. 'I come from
Colorado', she said, 'so I am civilised. Ha! I used to stand in
trading posts long hours and listen to Anglos talk because I know
if I talk like an Anglo I get served quick smart. Ha!'
Just across the Arizona border was a one-street oasis called
Tuba City. It was in Tuba City that I met the remarkable Mr Max
H. Hanley, Snr. Mr Hanley knew his people like an ant knows the
earth: for years he tape-recorded their songs and prayers and
memories, in order to resurrect some of the tribe's fading history.
He also raised money to send young people to 'college', a choice
available to very few Navajo.
Mr Hanley was able to do his work by going regularly to California
to dance, like a fool, before businessmen's luncheon clubs where
he was advertised as 'The Dancing Warrior' although he was at
least seventy years old. In return they gave him bundles of cast-off
clothing and some cash. 'Yes, I am truly the white man's clown,'
he said. 'But there is no other way. We are only beginning. We
do not have the Negroes' numbers.'
Mr Hanley's proudest achievement was that he had persuaded
the US Public Health Service to send a doctor, twice a month,
into the moonscape around Tuba City, where previously only medicine
men treated the sick. 'If ever a chunk of Heaven fell,' he said,
smiling wide, 'it was that doctor coming. Why, our Navejos used
to go a hundred miles to find one an' that's some walkin' in this
rough country, especially if you're pregnant or what-not. Why,
even in a spring wagon that's a lot of distance when you're sick.'
Seven thousand feet up on Red Mesa Mountain the derricks of
the El Paso Oil Company sucked the earth like great nodding crows
seeking ever elusive worms. As the public relations man had said,
'The land here is rich, rich, rich.' For every eight barrels of
oil the oil company drew, the tribe received just one. For every
ton of coal mined on the reservation, the tribe received the equivalent
of tenpence, and perhaps a promise of jobs for some, while the
majority waited for their welfare cheques, and for the tourists.
Outside Sam Chief's hogan I sat and talked with the old man
and his grandson. On about £35 a month Sam Chief helped
support his ten grandchildren, who lived with their mother, Mrs
Grace Moody, in a shelter made from bark and leaves and furnished
with two large burst mattresses, two home-made chairs and a picture
of John F. Kennedy, with the caption, 'A Leader of Men'. She said
she was embarrassed to have me inside because it was not her cleaning
As we sat in the sun a car pulled up in the distance and a
woman in checked Bermuda shorts and hairnet and tennis shoes walked
across to us, loading an instamatic camera.
'Well, hello there! My sister and I were just wondering .
. . do you folks actually live in that?'
Sam Chief and Grace Moody said nothing.
'Why, heaven to Betsy, you do! We thought it was a storehouse
or somethin'. You don't mind if I get a picture, do you? I mean
with you all in front?'
Sam Chief shook his head. 'Two dollars, one picture,' said
'You want me to pay? Oh, I couldn't do that, I mean it's the
principle . . .'
As I drove into the outpost of Shiprock, on the northern edge
of the reservation, a halo of peach light burned around the great
rock itself and, in the town, smoke curled up from ripe wood fires
and children squealed and old women nodded and dogs fought. A
banner of flapping calico announced, 'Navajo Fair Today. All Welcome.'
The fair was an annual event and people had come from all
around, in old trucks and on horseback, to show their prize corn
and fabrics and beads of silver and turquoise and to watch the
parade, which had just begun.
There were school bands, with drum majorettes, and a display
float of arts and crafts sponsored by the Distant Drums Launderette
of Fort Defiance and cars with the slogans of white people seeking
the Indian vote to make them county judges and tax collectors,
and a tableau entered by the Bureau of Indian Affairs depicting
'A Century of Navajo Progress', over which someone had scribbled
'Century of Programs'.
And, inexplicably, there were two white men carrying a banner
proclaiming arguably the most racist group in America, the John
Birch Society. 'For God and Country', it read, and in cruel procession
behind them came a wagon on which were wreaths and names of some
of the Red Americans who had died in the war in Vietnam . . .
Johnnie Bigwater, Private First Class, Jimmie Bearchild, Corpsman,
Thomas Dakota, Sergeant . . .
Wounded Knee, South Dakota, Red Cloud, Chief of the Sioux wrote
down a quotation which his grandfather had addressed to his people
in the 1890s:
You must begin anew and put away the wisdom of your fathers.
You must lay up food and forget the hungry. When your house is
built, your storeroom filled, then look around for a neighbour
you can take advantage of, then seize all he has. That is the
way of the white man, the victor.