Chronicle of Current Events

Apocalypse Then and Apocalypse Now: From My Lai in Vietnam to Bucha in the Ukraine

By Philalethes

In 1969, when I was a sophomore at the Bronx High School of Science in New York City, I began feeling pain when I put pressure on my foot. Mom took me to a dermatologist at the Allen Pavilion— the new medical building that had just opened on the west side of Fort Washington Avenue. It belonged to Columbia-Presbyterian Hospital, my birthplace, about a mile from our home. The doctor took one look, said he’d never seen so many plantar warts in one place, and began diligently cutting, without anesthetic. Blood was spurting everywhere, I was screaming, and Mom started to faint. He put down the scalpel and guided her to a sofa, then resumed. After he was finished he poured liquid nitrogen into the mess and told me to stay home from school the coming week, cut away the dead flesh with a razor blade, and put salicylic acid on the exposed bits. He also gave me a six-week furlough from gym class: “Study harder and get some A’s,” he suggested.

The procedure was successful and I didn’t have warts for years to come. When I did again, years later, I knew what to do and gave myself the treatment, though without liquid nitrogen, after gentler dermatologists failed. Nowadays I suppose he’d either opt for a milder and ineffective treatment or risk being disciplined by overpaid administrators with no medical degree for lack of sensitivity; and sued, by the traumatized teenager’s army of lawyers. 

But back to 1969. A week later, Mom and I went back to the butcher for a checkup and in the waiting room somebody had left a copy of that day’s newspaper, a tabloid headlining the My Lai massacre in Vietnam, the news of which had just broken. In those days it was de rigueur on the left to be antiwar. My paternal Grandpa, who was doing very well indeed in those days as a publisher of scholarly reprints, held sherry parties at his expensive Central Park West apartment before going down to the Sheep Meadow to wave the Viet Cong flag with the rest of the illuminati. In those days, for the bicoastal Eloi the USSR and its minions could do no wrong. Only working class Morlocks cared about POWs and MIAs. But My Lai was news for all. If you recall, the brass made Lt. Calley the fall guy. Then there was a ballad about him, that rednecks liked. America was polarized. Does it sound familiar?

Like the visible but painful pinpoints on the ball of my foot, My Lai was but the surface of the rot— or, if you prefer, the tip of the proverbial iceberg. American soldiers who were thrown as cannon fodder into our pointless, vicious, and unwinnable war were massacring thousands of other civilians in other villages, in Southeast Asian countries seven thousand miles away, and had been doing so for some time. The pictures of those days: a naked girl fleeing the American napalming of her village. The South Vietnamese soldier blowing a handcuffed prisoner’s brains out. The Viet Cong and NVA were committing just as many atrocities, maybe more, and were torturing American POWs a few miles from where Jane Fonda was making lefty speeches, but the liberal press couldn’t be bothered. Moral clarity had been established, in stone. 

In 1975 the USA performed coitus interruptus on the Vietnamese, and thousands became boat people, voting with their feet against “liberation” by North Vietnam. One recalls parenthetically that Biden performed the same indecency upon the Afghans last fall. When a reporter asked him about folks clinging to the wheels of US military aircraft taking off from Kabul, and falling to their deaths, our doddering, corrupt moron of a president responded with injured dignity, “That was five days ago, man!” My tribe sit shiva for seven days after somebody dies but what the hell, Afghans are just dune coons, aren’t they. After a couple of days, the American public are ready for fresh titillation on the news. 

By 1975, the year of the airlift from the roof of the US Embassy in Saigon and the ignominious end of the war, I was a student in Britain and Vietnam was receding into the uneasy but short memory of the media-drugged American public. Nobody in my Oxford dorm had a TV to entertain us with the now classic footage of people pushing and shoving on the embassy roof. Back around 1968 or ’69 I had already stopped watching television: one night I got tired of watching palm fronds thrash beneath the blades of helicopters raising body bags whilst a voice off screen intoned the US government’s official lie of the day about “body counts” and “kill ratios”. I didn’t believe Johnson, Nixon, or the peaceniks. As it seemed to me, both the Vietnamese and the Americans were locked in an unnecessary and barbaric war that was really a proxy war between the great powers in which nobody cared about the villagers of My Lai or the boat people a few years later on.

Years of a sort of miasmatic trauma followed the Vietnam debacle, but like the undead in a horror movie lurching jerkily to an imitation of life, America, we’re told, is back on the world stage and “the adults” (scil., zombies) are back in the room. The USA wants a unipolar world in which it can impose political correctness, critical race theory, identity politics, intersectionality, and its degenerate global culture (social media, hip hop noise, crystal meth, Big Tech, and one overpaid ghetto barbarian punching another at the Oscars) on everybody. Russia? An oversized filling station! The Ukraine? The 2014 Maidan coup wasn’t enough. The expansion of NATO after the demise of Communism was not enough. No, push the big bad Russian bear to the wall, taunt him, ignore the noises he makes, and then sit back and tell him and the Ukrainians, “Let’s you and him fight.” Proxy war! Break out the beer and pretzels, kick back, and watch it on your wide screen.

Now Russia has its own My Lais: Bucha, Berdyansk, Mariupol, and counting. The Ukrainians are torturing Russian POWs and shooting them in the legs, or tying their hands behind their backs and dispatching them with a bullet in the face, but those stories are getting buried within hours after the videos surface. Sure, the media-savvy Ukrainian authorities solemnly promise to “investigate”, sure, with all due dispatch over the next century or so. The Ukrainians and Russians both ban each other’s media and silence their own political dissidents. In Russia, calling the war just that, “war”, can land you fifteen years’ hard labor. Meanwhile what really matters is that munitions stocks are doing well, NATO and the EU are supposedly united as never before, and even though Biden occasionally tells the 82nd Airborne that they’re about to be airlifted into Kharkov or somewhere, the USA is safely away from its proxy war, sitting on its moral high horse as usual. Who in the corridors of government, academia, the media, in Washington or NYC or Boston or LA, really gives a fuck about a kid blown to pieces in Kiev or Odessa (sorry, Kyiv or Odesa)? 

Probably none of them can find those places on a map anyhow, though there’s a politically correct spelling. Would you like Chicken Kyiv, sir? Please spell it back to me before I take your order. Did you say you wanted Russian dressing on your salad? I’m afraid the management has to ask you to leave. Meanwhile concerts of Tchaikovsky and lectures on Tolstoy have been canceled. Back in 2019, before the pandemic and all this, I compiled a syllabus to teach Russian at Fresno State, and planned a summer trip to Russia in co-operation with the dean’s office and friends in St. Petersburg. The course proposal was nixed out of hand, as I found out only months later, after inquiring; and the trip was canceled after only one person, count ’em, one, signed up. Nobody needs to learn anything about Russia or the Ukraine. Not when they’ve got Oprah, the Oscars, and a steady supply of mass shootings. Panem et circenses. But the plebeians of the imperium need an Enemy, too. A scapegoat. The Russians. Communists, Orthodox Christians, who cares? Remember Orwell’s 1984 and the daily Two Minutes Hate? Might as well rename our media that. Two Minutes Hate. Although it overestimates the attention span of the average American. Recalibrate the sound bites to correspond to the number of characters permitted for one oracular tweet on Twitter. One Minute Hate. Forty-five Seconds Hate.   

Give boys cool uniforms and lots of guns, send them far from home, feed them some malarkey about the domino theory or Western imperialism or Charlie or the Ukrainians, scare them out of their wits, and guess what? They’re going to smoke weed or get drunk and fuck everything with two legs and a tail. They’re going to shoot pedestrians for fun, and burn the bodies. My Lai. Bucha. Apocalypse then. Apocalypse now.

And as invaders and natives commit atrocities, the media will feed them to consumers in the empire, far away. Is it new? No. Remember the Crimean “crisis” of 2014? Stretch your mind a bit farther back, gentle reader, and recall the Crimean War of the 1850s, during the Great Game between the British and Russian empires. (Rudyard Kipling’s Kim. Now there was a dutiful sand nigger.) Back then, London’s press establishment, Fleet Street, was busy whipping up anti-Russian hysteria and presenting, wait for it, poor little Ottoman Turkey (!) as the victim, the “democratic” West’s cause du jour.

But who cares about history when we’ve got Moral Clarity? If tomorrow the New York Times, CNN, MSNBC, Big Tech, and the rest of the mafia-media gaggle were to declare that white privilege suffuses vanilla ice cream and that one can do penance only by dusting hot pepper over it, the ranks of the well-heeled elect rising for the Ukrainian national anthem in Carnegie Hall and the Metropolitan Opera would be emptying the shelves at Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s of Tapatio sauce within an hour. Let’s try to step out of Facebook World, Plato’s Cave, and look at things as they are.

Both sides in the present war love to use Holocaust metaphors. Putin says that his murderous rampage against innocent, harmless, peaceful people has “denazification” as its purpose. Zelensky, a former television comic whose performances included, I gather, playing the piano with a tumescent member, has risen yet again to the occasion. Le mot juste— he berates anyone who isn’t all in, including the Israelis, as an appeaser of Hitler. It does not betoken knowledge of history, only the absence of a sense of shame. 

The Nazis decimated both sides of my family, first in haphazard massacres, then in streamlined killing factories, in places that were then Polish and Hungarian territory but became after the war part of the Ukrainisn SSR. Ukrainian nationalist groups that are active today took part in the killing. It was the Red Army, commanded from Moscow, that stopped the Holocaust. In this topsy-turvy world, roles change, but barbarity stays the same. Nothing justifies the murder of a single innocent man, woman, or child. Every decent human being understands that, and it doesn’t need to be said. In this war, which was provoked partly by the US establishment, and is being waged by a brutal dictator, the inevitable barbarities of war are being used as a cynical political tool, a selfish rhetorical weapon. And that is the real war crime.

A friend of mine, also a Jewish teacher, also canceled by the prevailing system of his day, once counseled a bunch of people who had gathered to hear him on a hill near a lake, Do not judge, lest you be judged. Don’t look at the speck in your brother’s eye. Look at the plank in your own.

In the hot summer of 1987 I was riding a horse named Luther through the countryside of the Galilee and saw a field of spiky, desiccated plants. “Look, Luther! A field of tares!” quoth I. “Yeah,” said Luther, shaking his head. There’s a pretty Italian monastery on the modest hill called the Mount of Beatitudes. It’s surrounded by a garden. But we headed straight for the water down below, where I took off Luther’s saddle and my clothes and walked us both into Lake Kinneret (the “Sea” of Galilee– the Land of Israel is a lot smaller than the grandiose Biblical names suggest). The happy horse enjoyed his cool bath. I floated next to him and heard the Beatitudes in my head. “Blessed are the peacemakers!” I said to Luther. “Yeah,” said Luther, noble and innocent creature of God, absorbed in his simple pleasure. 

For God’s sake, end this immoral war.

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