Chomsky: At War With Asia

Written by: Stephen Hsu

Primary Source: Information Processing

In an earlier post I mentioned that my introduction to Chomsky came not via linguistics, but through his book At War With Asia, discovered by accident in the Page House library at Caltech. The book had a striking cover image, shown below.

My reaction to the book was similar to that of this blogger:

… no Chomsky book affected me as much as At War With Asia. To me, it was the purest, most incandescent experience of receiving facts imbued with moral clarity arising out of a submerged moral outrage. Perhaps I was affected because during the events being described I was dealing with a bureaucracy intent to induct me into the US Army, to be fed into the meat grinder of the Vietnam War, for 1968 to 1970.

I have never read a clearer description of colonial management (how the “white men” controlled “the natives”) than Chomsky gives in At War With Asia. From it one understood how the British had ruled India, and it opened my eyes as to how the “white men” in the U.S. today rule “the natives” (the ethnic minorities and the low economic classes, including the “white trash”), by stoking inter-group tensions (between ethnic groups in the colonies of prior centuries, and between groups based on economic class, ethnicity, gender, and sexuality in today’s “homeland”).

The greater part of At War With Asia deals with the massive and barbaric US aerial bombardment of northern Laos, in the Plain Of Jars. … Chomsky’s focus and passion were so intense in this book, and yet the language is kept so reasoned and calm, that the effect on me was as if I suddenly awoke to the fact that while I was walking through a quiet summer scene, beneath me a raging magma chamber was expanding to explode. Were the subject matter less dire, I would say this book was pure poetry. In fact it was a restrained expression of a passionate — magmatic — compassion.

Chomsky is obviously a genius, a person born with great talent, and he is also a person of supreme dedication. …

I also recommend the essay When Chomsky Wept, by Fred Branfman:

… we both had one of the most unique experiences of our lives — he on the back of my motorcycle, me driving him about the streets of Vientiane, as he sought to learn as much as he could about U.S. war-making in Laos, still at that point largely unknown to the world outside. It was only in the next month that Richard Nixon finally admitted for the first time that the U.S. had been bombing Laos for the previous six years, though he and Henry Kissinger continued to lie by claiming that the bombing was only striking military targets.

I have a number of particularly vivid memories of Noam from our week together. One was watching him read a newspaper. He would gaze at a page, seem to memorize it, and then a second later turn it and gaze at the next page. On one occasion I gave him a 500-page book to read on the war in Laos at about 10 at night, and met him the next morning at breakfast prior to our visit to political officer Jim Murphy at the U.S. Embassy. During the interview the issue of the number of North Vietnamese troops in Laos came up. The Embassy claimed that 50,000 had invaded Laos, when the evidence clearly showed there were no more than a few thousand. I almost fell off my chair when Noam quoted a footnote making that point, several hundred pages in, from the book I had given him the night before. I had heard the term “photographic memory” before. But I had never seen it so much in action, or put to such good use. (Interestingly enough, Jim showed Noam internal Embassy documents also confirming the lower number, which Noam later cited in his long chapter on Laos in “At War With Asia.”)

I was also struck by his self-deprecation. He had a near-aversion to talking about himself — contrary to most of the “Big Foot” journalists I had met. He had little interest in small talk, gossip or discussion of personalities, and was focused almost entirely on the issues at hand. He downplayed his linguistic work, saying it was unimportant compared to opposing the mass murder going on in Indochina. He had no interest whatsoever in checking out Vientiane’s notorious nightlife, tourist sites or relaxing by the pool. He was clearly driven, a man on a mission. He struck me as a genuine intellectual, a guy who lived in his head. And I could relate. I also lived in my head, and had a mission.

But what most struck me by far was what occurred when we traveled out to a camp that housed refugees from the Plain of Jars. I had taken dozens of journalists and other folks out to the camps at that point, and found that almost all were emotionally distanced from the refugees’ suffering. Whether CBS’s Bernard Kalb, NBC’s Welles Hangen, or the New York Times’ Sidney Schanberg, the journalists listened politely, asked questions, took notes and then went back to their hotels to file their stories. They showed little emotion or interest in what the villagers had been through other than what they needed to write their stories. Our talks in the car back to their hotels usually concerned either dinner that night or the next day’s events.

I was thus stunned when, as I was translating Noam’s questions and the refugees’ answers, I suddenly saw him break down and begin weeping. I was struck not only that most of the others I had taken out to the camps had been so defended against what was, after all, this most natural, human response. It was that Noam himself had seemed so intellectual to me, to so live in a world of ideas, words and concepts, had so rarely expressed any feelings about anything. I realized at that moment that I was seeing into his soul. And the visual image of him weeping in that camp has stayed with me ever since. When I think of Noam this is what I see.

One of the reasons his reaction so struck me was that he did not know those Laotians. It was relatively easy for me, having lived among them and loved people like Paw Thou so much, to commit to trying to stop the bombing. But I have stood in awe not only of Noam, but of the many thousands of Americans who spent so many years of their lives trying to stop the killing of Indochinese they did not know in a war they never saw.

As we drove back from the camp that day, he remained quiet, still shaken by what he had learned. He had written extensively of U.S. war-making in Indochina before this. But this was the first time he had met its victims face-to-face. And in the silence, an unspoken bond that we have never discussed was forged between us. …

Let me qualify this post by noting that some of Chomsky’s writing on other topics seems simply crazy to me. But on Vietnam and Laos he was right.

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Stephen Hsu
Stephen Hsu is vice president for Research and Graduate Studies at Michigan State University. He also serves as scientific adviser to BGI (formerly Beijing Genomics Institute) and as a member of its Cognitive Genomics Lab. Hsu’s primary work has been in applications of quantum field theory, particularly to problems in quantum chromodynamics, dark energy, black holes, entropy bounds, and particle physics beyond the standard model. He has also made contributions to genomics and bioinformatics, the theory of modern finance, and in encryption and information security. Founder of two Silicon Valley companies—SafeWeb, a pioneer in SSL VPN (Secure Sockets Layer Virtual Private Networks) appliances, which was acquired by Symantec in 2003, and Robot Genius Inc., which developed anti-malware technologies—Hsu has given invited research seminars and colloquia at leading research universities and laboratories around the world.