With apologies to Capt. Willard’s famous opening line from Apocalypse Now, I’m writing this column from Saigon and Hanoi, exactly 40 years since the end of the Vietnam War.
I’m reminded of the classes in political philosophy I took at Western University from Bob Sansom in the mid-1970s when he said: “If there’s anything you learn from me, it’s to distrust labels. Freedom, liberty, capitalism, socialism, communism, and democracy can mean anything.”
Standing on a street in Ho Chi Minh City underneath the Vietnamese and the Hammer and Sickle flags, (and close to paintings of Marx, Engels, and Ho Chi Minh), I’m reminded of labels.
How is this nation of shopkeepers, tailors, metal fabricators, motorcycle sales and repair persons, restaurateurs, farmers, hotel operators, and other small business persons by any stretch of the imagination, communist? It might be a one-party state and a totalitarian dictatorship, and it might call itself “communist,” but private enterprise and capitalism are alive and well here, where virtually everyone is smiling, happy, and driven by entrepreneurial energy.
My observations here cause me to reflect on the proposed monument to be constructed next to the Supreme Court of Canada in Ottawa called the “Memorial to the Victims of Communism — Canada a Land of Refuge.” Other than a flawed process and the location beside the SCC, I have the following issues:
The systematic murders under communist governments of Lenin, Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, and the Kims of North Korea (to name only a few) can only be described as monumental crimes against humanity. So I don’t want to trivialize the millions of deaths that occurred under communist regimes between 1917 and now. Much of it is set out on a web site associated with the monument.
But the “capitalist” nations of the West can’t claim an absolute monopoly on morality and virtue. There is no reason to break out the champagne and have a parade celebrating how righteous the West is (and has always been).
I’ve seen a prison operated by French and American forces where Vietnamese prisoners were brutally tortured.
I’ve toured a museum of war remnants in Saigon where, among the photographs of death, destruction, and dismemberment caused by bombs and napalm dropped by U.S. forces on civilians, is a display of the horrors of Agent Orange. The photo of a canister marked “purple people eater” (with a beaming American soldier on top) caught my eye, as did photographs of children deformed by Agent Orange.
Vietnam claims that 400,000 people were killed or maimed as a result of after-effects of Agent Orange, and that 500,000 children were born with birth defects. Was the use of Agent Orange the use of “chemical weapons” and therefore a war crime? If so, why has there been no trial? Were those affected by Agent Orange “victims of communism,” or victims of some other ideology?
What about the bombing of Hanoi, Laos, and Cambodia? Were the civilians who died as a result of American B-52 bomb runs “victims of communism?”
Were those villagers raped and murdered by U.S. soldiers in Mai Lai “victims of communism?”
Were North Vietnamese soldiers and Viet Cong “evil communists” out to enslave or slaughter the freedom loving South Vietnamese? Or were they seeking to force out colonial powers, just like the Americans did to the British in the 1770s, (but with more modern weaponry and tactics)?
So you see, the history of so-called “capitalist” governments over the past 150 years is not without its own victims. In the lifetime of my grandparents, the colonial regimes of the (non-communist) British, French, Portuguese, Spanish, Dutch, and Belgian empires had their share of atrocities in Asia, Indonesia, and Africa; atrocities that history has paid scant attention to (because history tends to be written by the winners).
For example, it’s estimated that up to 10 million Africans died under Belgian rule when (non-communist) King Leopold II exploited the Congo for rubber and other resources, (and had his colonial henchmen chop the hands off of African slaves if they didn’t meet their rubber quotas).
And just as Stalin created a famine in Ukraine, British wartime policy may well have exacerbated the Bengal famine of 1943, where between 1 and 3 million subjects of the British Empire died of starvation. Australian wheat was diverted away from starving brown-skinned British subjects in India in favour of well-fed, white-skinned British troops in southern Europe. British colonial authorities actually turned down offers of aid from Canada and the U.S.
More than 26,000 women and children died in concentration camps established by the British during the Second Boer War between 1900 and 1902. The British also established concentration camps in Kenya during the Mau-Mau uprising and even the attorney general of the British administration in Kenya complained to the British governor that the mistreatment of the detainees was “distressingly reminiscent of conditions in Nazi Germany or Communist Russia.”
More recently, between 10,000 and 25,000 persons “disappeared” in the 1970s during the various dirty wars in Argentina and Chile, where left-wing supporters were systematically murdered by right-wing (non-communist) governments and their operatives. Many were simply dropped out of airplanes so their remains were never found. The numbers are higher if you include other Latin American countries where right wing death squads operated.
Agreed, people aren’t taken from their homes in the middle of the night in Canada, the U.S., and Western Europe by the equivalent of the Stasi or the KGB, to be imprisoned or murdered. But if you’re an unarmed black American, you have a far better chance of being choked to death by the police, shot by the police (sometimes in the back), or wrongly imprisoned, than a white American.
So this “triumphalism” about the evils of communism tends to whitewash evils of the non-communist world, and I deliberately haven’t included Nazi Germany, slavery in the U.S., the decimation of the First Nations in North America, the Armenian genocide, the Rape of Nanking, and other examples from history.
A memorial to the victims of a murderous communist ideology that killed many millions is arguably justifiable in many quarters. But at some point, someone will want to build a memorial to victims of murderous non-communist ideologies. When you create a monument to the victims of one murderous “ism,” where’s the monument to the victims of the other murderous “ism”?
And why all this flag-waving “Tribute to Liberty,” as the charity behind it calls itself, stuff? Is there a parade and a marching band somewhere? I’m not sure we like naming statues and bells after “liberty.” We don’t have a “Lady Liberty.” “Give me liberty or give me death” holds no currency in Canada.
Words are loaded with meanings and nuances. To me, the word “liberty” has become more of a flag waving politicalized brand south of the border overused by Sarah Palin, Ted Cruz, the gun lobby, and Tea Party Republicans. Perhaps those with a background in semiotics can find a better term that represents our freedoms that’s (as Peter Gzowski would say) as “Canadian as possible . . . under the circumstances.” Maybe it’ll be in French.
Instead of a “victims of communism” monument, why not build one that celebrates all those who came to Canada to escape persecution from communist and non-communist regimes; all of them starting new and better lives in this country. It could celebrate those who fled to Canada from the Soviet Bloc, Maoist China, Vietnam, and other countries. It could also commemorate those who fled the (non-communist) governments of Chile, Argentina, and other right-wing Latin American dictatorships. It could commemorate all “victims of ideology.”
And it could celebrate other groups who were victims of ethnic and religious persecution in their own countries but who came to Canada for a better life and made Canada a better country: among them the Jews who fled the Nazis in Europe and the Ismailis and ethnic Indians who came to Canada to flee racial persecution in Kenya, Uganda, and other east African nations.
No flag waving. No parades. Just a monument to commemorate those who escaped ideology and persecution for a better life here. It just might be as Canadian as possible (under the circumstances).