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 and London.'

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 a computer.

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.

Yuri Yevtushenko
'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.

Noam Chomsky
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 same things.

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 terms.

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 American decency.

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 their wheelchairs.

Five years later[1997] 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 civilians?

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 with money.

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 briefly fashionable:

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 enemy'.

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 lock up.

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 in America.

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 me.'

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 to me:

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 resources.

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 sun.

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, reservations.

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 white man.

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 old.

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 Home!'

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 indolent.'

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 day.

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 his grandson.

'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.


Index of Website

Home Page