Saturday, July 15, 2006


The banality of evil?

Destruction of locks and dams, however--if handled right--might (perhaps after the next Pause) offer promise. It should be studied. Such destruction does not kill or drown people. By shallow-flooding the rice, it leads after time to widespread starvation (more than a million?) unless food is provided--which we could offer to do "at the conference table."

That's from a memo written by John McNaughton in 1966, when he was US Assistant Secretary of Defense - Robert McNamara's right-hand man. In it, you'll have noticed, he contemplates (as to "be studied") a military-diplomatic tactic of placing "more than a million?" (North) Vietnamese civilians at risk of starvation.

Now, the "whizz-kid" bureaucrats and "Kennedy liberals" who prosecuted the American war in Vietnam from (say) 1963-69 certainly haven't "gone down in history" - if that phrase has any meaning - as heros. But nor have they been universally seen as evil men. But this document (which was first revealed, along with a shitload of other shit, in the Pentagon Papers) really does seem to show someone - not some outsider demagogue, whipped by a tidal wave of history from the margins of society onto its peak (à la Hitler and other Nazis) - who is so thoroughly and seamlessly integrated into his society's structures of power that he doesn't even realise the evil inherent in what he is doing.

Is this something like what Arendt meant?

(I came across this some months ago via this essay by Chomsky. I'm certainly not Chomsky's biggest fan - nor his biggest detractor - but it is, I think, an excellent piece of work, as are other pieces by Chomsky from the period. Christopher Hitchens has, once or twice, floated a theory that Chomsky once upon a time fought the good fight very well, but lost the head a bit, so to speak, at one stage or another. Without associating myself with Hitchens, I'd be interested to hear if anybody else thinks there's anything in this. Though of course cool-headed and reasonable discussion of Chomsky, critical without functioning as apology for power, can be very hard to find.)

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