A matter of interpretation

In the half light between waking and sleep new ideas can swim up out of shadows. It seems as if that moment where your consciousness runs across the bump from unaware to aware can shake ideas loose, or connect things that were unconnected before.


We’ve been studying Iraq at school.  Specifically the period between 2003 and 2006 when the USA and others invaded Iraq, deposed Saddam Hussein, and ran the first elections in that country, and the terror campaign run by Zarqawi to derail that process. Zarqawi is the founding father of ISIS.  Of course, before you study all that you need to know what Iraq was like before 2003 when Saddam and his Ba’ath Party were in charge.

People my age might remember a couple of low points in his rule.  I can remember the invasion of Kuwait, and the gas attack against the Kurds in the north of Iraq.  The problem with teaching about Saddam’s Iraq is that it can end up sounding better than Iraq in 2003-2006.  In fact, it probably was if you were, you know, busy keeping your head down, and dealing with the regular grind of propaganda and shortages.  It’s hard to capture for students the quotidian draining that living under a dictator with total power must be like so I reached for some clear examples of his badness.

The chemical weapons attack on the Kurds of Halabja in 1988 killed about 5000 people, and debilitated 10,000.  On Wikipedia I read this:

The incident… remains the largest chemical weapons attack directed against a civilian-populated area in history.

I was suitably impressed by this fact and reported it to my class.  I played about as much of the footage from that attack as I could stomach and we moved on to other reasons it might not have been great to live in Saddam’s Iraq.


In 2014 I went on a school trip to Vietnam.  Cathy and I had been there in 2002 so it was my second time to Hanoi and Ha Long Bay, but my first trip down the country to Hue and Ho Chi Minh City.  It is a cliche of travel writing to say that the land you have travelled through is a “land of contrasts,” but cliches, like stereotypes, have something in them.

The first time we went to Vietnam in 2002 I was really affected by the poverty of some of the people when contrasted against my own great affluence and power.  I don’t mean that I have great political power – although I have more than people in many countries, including Vietnam – but I have the power to control many parts of my life.  During my second trip I had similar feelings.  In Ho Chi Minh city I stood in the square in front of Vietnam’s Notre Dame cathedral and watched the beggars milling about, many with disfigurements or injuries, amidst the traffic’s endless clamour and the sodden heat of the day.  The huge scale of the building devoted to a man of compassion, and the fact of the world’s indifference to suffering troubled me, as it always troubles me.  I gave one of the men begging what was to me a pittance.  I remember his withered hand, and the nod of his head as we exchanged looks.

Probably I was feeling this way because we had just come from the Vietnam War museum.  The most distressing part of that experience was visiting the galleries devoted to Agent Orange.  Before I went to that particular exhibition I didn’t really know what Agent Orange was although I had heard of it.  I knew that some New Zealand soldiers had been taking their case through the court system to get compensation for the impact of Agent Orange on their lives.

During the Vietnam War, between 1962 and 1971, the United States military sprayed nearly 75,700,000 litres of chemical herbicides and defoliants in Vietnam, eastern Laos, and parts of Cambodia as part of the aerial defoliation program known as Operation Ranch Hand.

The Americans borrowed this idea from the British who had used similar tactics in Malaysia.

The causal link between contact with Agent Orange and the impact on the health of individuals decades later is disputed.  It seems likely that a large part of this dispute stems from the fact that the litigant is poorer than the defense in the case of Vietnam v. USA.  The impact of Agent Orange on descendants of survivors is, however, accepted as a fact in Vietnam and impacts people’s lives.


The documentary Best of Enemies focuses on the relationship between Gore Vidal and William F. Buckley, and in particular on a series of “debates” they held during the Republican and Democratic conventions in 1968.  The penultimate debate ended with Vidal calling Buckley a crypto-Nazi and Buckley calling Vidal a queer and threatening to punch him.  Although I would be on the side of Vidal politically neither of the two protagonists covered themselves in glory, and Vidal’s tone and manner throughout the debates was extremely off putting.  Buckley, although repugnant to me in many ways, was more interesting than I had realised.  Anyone who is a whiz at the harpsichord is interesting, let’s be honest.

The first debate began with Vidal reminding Buckley of his proposal that the USA should drop the nuclear bomb on North Vietnam, an idea Buckley denied stating, but Vidal was specific enough about to be the more convincing.  Regardless of the truth or not of the claim about Buckley and nuclear bombs, the notion that such things  are conceivable, that whole populations of people can be legitimate targets of a tactic, fits neatly with the idea of spraying huge areas of a country, including crops and waterways, with pesticide.  It also seems to fit with the idea, turned into a terrible reality most recently by ISIS, that all those not with you are legitimate targets.


When I woke up on Monday it was a thought that seemed to come up out of nowhere: the largest chemical attack on a population must be the use of Agent Orange in Vietnam.  I know that there are all kinds of ways to work around this accusation, but looking at the intent, and the consequences, I think saying otherwise is semantics.  And yet, even though I have been to Vietnam twice and am wary of imperialism’s version of history, I could still swallow the bland lies of a sentence in a Wikipedia entry.

Such is the conditioning I have received in the West through all aspects of media and education.  Such is the way we make the victims victims all over again, and look for the good in the perpetrators.


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I wrote a book called Kaitiaki o te Pō