This article originally appeared in Southern Exposure Vol. 1 No. 1, "The Military & the South." Find more from that issue here.
When Rap Brown said in 1967, “Violence is as American as cherry pie,” he shocked most Americans with a truth they had knowingly suppressed. His statement was meant in the same context-and was accepted as equally blasphemous as Malcolm X’s remark, “Chickens come home to roost,” following the assassination of JFK. The tradition of violence in America is rooted in its birth as a nation. The political act (the Declaration of Independence), if you will remember, followed the “first shot” by a year or so-a pattern in incident and style which became the precedent for expansion West. Steeped in a history punctuated by war every two decades or so, the nation as a whole, despite regional and cultural variants, uniformly developed a dedication to violence as a means to solve its problems. The use of violence to intimidate, conquer, and liquidate emerged directly as a tool of expansion when whites banded together with their superior weapons to kill the native Americans and steal their land, and as a tool of enslavement, to obtain the most profitable labor supply and guarantee its security through the use of terrorizing slave patrols. These were the early beginnings of volunteer militarism in America, and it is important to recognize that they were organized against non-white people.
Of course rationalizations discrediting the humanity of the victims developed to justify these acts of violence. Indians were defined as savage agents of the devil. Black people were viewed as subhuman chattel worthy only of enslavement. Similarly, Mexicans and, later, the Filipinos needed to be exposed to civilization. And so the arguments prevail. Thus, racism and militarism combined to help define and implement the economic exigencies of this developing capitalist nation.
It was in the South, however, in the culture of the gentleman soldier, the virginal southern belle and the black slave, where the violence of racism and militarism became particularly entrenched in daily life. Boasting of warmth and chivalry on the one hand while perpetrating brutality and violence on the other, the South developed a seige mentality in defense of its “peculiar institution” and its later forms. Vigilante action (voluntary militarism with lynching style) was key to maintaining the intimidation of the black populace and, hence, the status quo. But the penetration of violence went even deeper. It became the means to prove one's manhood, be it random or organized, sports or beatings. Of course, the victim was constant-the black man. Politicians built their careers condemning blacks-a successful tactic obscuring the twin issues of economic ills and class suppression. Furthermore, war stimulated the industrialization of the region. What better evidence of the efficacy of violence?
It is no wonder, then, that the South has become the training ground for the American fortress. The South today has more military bases and more soldiers per capita than any other region in the nation. It boasts the highest percentage of gun-owning households. In addition, of the twenty cities with the highest murder rates in the country eighteen are southern.
To be sure, in recent years violence in American life has become paramount in the American consciousness. While whites lambast urban crime (robbery, muggings, murders and rapes) and view it as a recent surge of violence in the society, blacks and other minorities witness the vigorous resurgence of an age-old trend of random and premeditated violence against us: police attacks (highlighted by the Algiers Motel incident and the murders of Fred Hampton and Mark Clark), conspiracy charges (against such folk as the Panthers, the RAM 17-a group of black school teachers, Rap Brown and Angela Davis), campus assaults (at Orangeburg, Southern University, Texas Southern and Jackson State), the maintenance of concentration camps, the disproportionate number of blacks incarcerated, the greater percentage of blacks drafted and killed in Vietnam, repressive legislation like the no-knock and preventative detention laws of the D.C. Crime Control Act, increased monies for “law and order” equipment and tactical police squads while social service funds are cut, the revelation of the federally financed genocidal Tuskegee Institute syphilis study, and the institutionalized violence that keeps the infant mortality rate of blacks twice that of whites. But, it is with the war in Vietnam that the American sense of the legitimacy of violence has reached its zenith.
With US policy in Vietnam, the American commitment to violence has become a commitment to genocide. In meeting the new requirements demanded by imperialism and neo-colonialism, the skills of intimidation have developed into skills of liquidation. The primary purpose of American involvement in the Vietnam war, other than the desire to secure a Pacific line of defense to encircle China, is its admonitory value: to defeat a People’s war in order to discourage similar struggles elsewhere where the US has direct, substantial interests. Because a People’s war is grounded in the support of the populace (which provides the guerrilla armies with food, shelter, invisibility and troops), to the opposition the people become the enemy. To defeat the guerrillas you must destroy their base-the people. Thus, genocide (as defined by the Geneva Convention of Dec. 9, 1948)* has emerged as the effective anti-guerrilla strategy. In other colonial situations the direct economic interests of the colonial power serve to temper the instinct toward extermination. This is not the case in Vietnam. In fact extermination of the Vietnamese could only provide the optimum example. For the United States is determined to quiet Che Guevara’s call, "We need more Vietnams.” The US is anxious to demonstrate to Latin America especially, and Africa and Asia that the Vietnamese example is useless: the Vietnamese might prove to be valiant, but they'd also be dead!
The bombings—a major plank of this policy—might be viewed as white-mail or conditional genocide (submit or we’ll bomb you to hell), but it is no less genocide. US bombs did, after all, aim at the systematic destruction of the economic base of the country, from the dikes to the factories, and of the morale, attacking mostly rural populations, hospitals, schools and places of worship. The escalation of the bombings to populated zones of Hanoi and Haiphong succeeded in its purpose of softening world opinion toward genocide. Thereafter, much of the public did come to view the bombings as a legitimate tactic to get the “enemy" to the bargaining table and to more readily accept massive extermination if negotiations did not ensue.
But the bombings of the North are not the only aspect of American policy that demonstrates genocidal act and intent. In the south, the defoliation of crops and vegetation, the burning of villages, the shooting of livestock, and the subjection of the populace to massive bombing, indiscriminate shooting, murder, rape and looting equally fit the bill in the strictest sense. Similarly, the so-called strategic or New Life hamlets (the concentration camps), which foster the destruction of the Vietnamese social structure by separating families, causing a decline in the birthrate, suppressing religious and cultural life, and even denying work which might permit people to maintain themselves, are condemned by the 1948 Convention as genocidal. Of course, the destruction of whole villages like My Lai are the more infamous and blatant examples. But contrary to common belief, these kinds of missions, according to a number of Viet vets, are more frequently the norm than the exception.
Racism on the battlefield facilitates the implementation of this top brass extermination policy. It helps transform the frustration and discomfort of the GI’s into the suspicion of every civilian Vietnamese, because they are the only visible targets. This is due partially to the GI's inability to grasp their enemy, physically and intellectually, and to their reception by the Vietnamese as suspicious occupation troops, rather than as the saviors they had been instructed they were. Racism dehumanizes the people to be slaughtered-the gooks-thereby easing the executioner’s job. Hence, the battlefront jargon, “The only good gook is a dead gook’’ and “A dead Vietnamese is a Viet Cong,” prevail. And so in My Lai old people, men, women and children were killed precisely because they were Vietnamese. As I write this remark, the very incident is verified by a line from the Daily Oklahoman in the morning paper, “CIA orders massacre of My Lai in effort to wipe out the civilian population of the village as an example.”
Our point is that this is America’s Vietnam policy in a nutshell. As a policy, however, it does represent a departure from the past. Certainly, the US has engaged in genocidal acts in the past: American complicity in wrenching 50,000,000 black people from the African continent (less than half of whom arrived as slaves) is legion. This was an incidence of genocide which was primarily a by-product of the quest for labor. White folks killed 11,000,000 Indians for land. But this act of extermination was accomplished not from a blueprint, but periodically and often randomly over many years as the “need” for expansion developed. (We cite the main offenses, but by no means the only.) However, the current anti-guerrilla strategy in Vietnam is a planned and premeditated policy of genocide, requiring military bases, budget appropriations, organization and the like. It is a policy of liquidation motivated not out of direct economic benefit, which is why the Vietnamese population is expendable. It is a policy of admonition designed to demonstrate that the rulers of 6% of humanity fully intend to control the other 94% of the world. In Vietnam the US wanted to prove that its wolf tickets are real, to establish that it is the wolf and to show that it will devour.
The recent withdrawal of the American presence from the Vietnamese conflict, unfortunately, does not signal US withdrawal from a commitment to genocide. Rather, the current policy towards negotiations and peace arose out of the contradictions and complexities of the war situation. First, Vietnamese intelligence and heroism did manage to limit the effects of the genocidal plan. Secondly, the war proved too costly to the American domestic scene. It ruptured the economy, causing inflation to soar and the dollar to weaken, produced social unrest and discontent at home, incited moral decay of the society at large and effected strife in the Service itself, which was manifested mostly in racial flare-ups and drug addiction. Even so, the wave of bombings that took place before the final announcement of the cease-fire, which excelled any historical precedent in intensity, was a demonstration of the commitment and will to exterminate.
What are the lessons? It should be clear that America has no conscience. It is committed to fight where its interests are threatened. It is of particular import, we think, for black people within the US to recognize America’s willingness to destroy those who challenge it and especially those who are superfluous to it. (Our labor is no longer needed.) But beyond this, the broker of imperialism is subjugating all people both to a nuclear threat and a genocidal threat. The world must understand the extent to which the US will go. Khrushchev understood and backed off. The Vietnamese understood and fought on for all of us. The prolongation of the war caused other contradictions to arise which made its efficacy dwindle. The key lesson is this: The price of liberation, of independence, of sovereignty is costly. But it is a cost we must bear. We have no alternative. Humanity has no alternative.
*The following first four articles of the Geneva Convention, December 9, 1948, codified the international definition of the crime of genocide.
The Contracting Parties confirm that genocide, whether committed in time of peace or war, is a crime under international law which they undertake to prevent or punish.
. . . Genocide means any of the following acts committed with the intent to destroy, in whoie or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group as such.
a. Killing members of the group.
b. Causing serious bodily or mental harm to
members of the group.
c. Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part.
d. Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group.
e. Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.
The following acts shall be punishable:
b. Conspiracy to commit genocide
c. Direct and public incitement to commit genocide
d. Attempt to commit genocide
e. Complicity in genocide
Persons committing genocidal acts outlined in Article III are punishable whether they are constitutionally responsible rulers, public officials or private individuals.
Julian Bond was a founder of the Institute for Southern Studies and served as its president for several years. He was the communications director of SNCC, served in the Georgia state legislature, and was a professor at the University of Virginia.
Leah Wise, Research Associate at the Institute for Southern Studies in Atlanta, traveled in China in December 1973-January 1974. An oral historian, she has been in the South gathering records and recollections of our peoples struggles for the past seven years. (1975)