Noam Chomsky: tears for refugees, the American “battle lab” at Guántanamo, and how the USA uses torture systems today

The quotes below are produced from an interview by Noam Chomsky, delivered in Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA, on 2015-01-23; the excerpt is taken from the brand-new book named “Global Discontents: Conversations on the Rising Threats to Democracy” where David Barsamian has interviewed Chomsky.

There are two things below that I think stand out from what is otherwise a radiant interview: first, the outstanding article on how Chomsky reacted at speaking with refugees from Plain of Jars. Second, the details of the Cheney-Rumsfeld-created “battle lab”, which is a military-lingo euphemism for “torture lab” at the Guántanamo Bay camp.

David Barsamian: The U.S. war on Cambodia was called a sideshow, the main event being Vietnam. The sideshow to the sideshow took place in landlocked, mostly rural Laos. In March 1970, on your way to Hanoi, you were delayed for a week in Vientiane, Laos. You wrote about that in the New York Review of Books. The essay was later published in At War with Asia.1 I was struck by your descriptive journalistic writing—clear, terse sentences. You had a very moving experience with Fred Branfman, who passed away in September 2014. He had been in Laos for many years, and spoke Laotian. You went with him to a refugee camp outside of Vientiane.

Noam Chomsky: I didn’t know him at the time, but we met soon after I arrived. He had been trying for some time to get some Western exposure for the atrocities in Laos. He was one of the very few people working in Laos—along with Walt Haney and a couple of others—who had discovered the crimes that were being committed, which were really shocking. The book he produced, Voices from the Plain of Jars, is the result of his work with victims of the horrific air war taking place.2 The bombing of Laos started in the mid-1960s, and intensified in 1968. The Plain of Jars was a remote area of peasant villages. Most of the villagers probably didn’t even know they were in Laos. They were subjected to years of extremely intensive bombing. People were living in caves, trying to survive. One should really read the testimonies in Fred’s book to get a picture of it.

I was in Laos for a week, thanks to the boredom of an Indian bureaucrat. Bureaucrats have nothing to do except make life difficult for people. This guy was in charge of U.N. flights from Vientiane to Hanoi. There was one flight a week, through a special protected corridor. When you flew, you saw jet planes all over the place on their way to bomb whoever. For some reason, the bureaucrat decided not to let us go the first week. It kind of amused him. So I stayed in Laos, which turned out to be a very good thing, because I learned a lot. I spent most of the week with Fred, not just in the refugee camp. I went to the village where he had lived, and met some of his many contacts.

David Barsamian: You don’t name Fred in your article. You said you were “in the company of a Lao-speaking American.”

Noam Chomsky: He did not want to be identified at that time.

David Barsamian: Fred wrote an article about his friendship with you.3 I don’t want to embarrass you, but he said that you broke down when you met those villagers and heard the stories of living through the U.S. bombing.

Noam Chomsky: Laos was the first time—there have been many since—when I saw firsthand the effect of massive atrocities on the victims. I had been in the U.S. South during the civil rights movement, which was bad enough, but I hadn’t had exposure overseas before Laos. And, yes, it was a shattering experience.

David Barsamian: In the foreword to the second edition of Voices from the Plain of Jars, historian Al McCoy writes that approximately twenty thousand civilians have been killed or maimed by unexploded cluster bombs since the bombing ended—and those numbers continue to rise.4

Noam Chomsky: That’s correct. I’ve written about it, too. These are tiny little bomblets, as people call them. Children pick them up, thinking they’re toys, and are blown up. They also explode and maim farmers who hit them with a hoe. They’re all over the place. A British demining team has been working to remove the bomblets, but the area is saturated with them. It’s a massive undertaking. And very limited resources have been devoted to the effort by the United States, which is responsible for the situation, of course. McCoy suggests that Laos was a test case for future U.S. wars, particularly the extensive use of airpower. Fred also talked about that.

We have other test cases, as well, which are pretty remarkable. Researchers at the Seton Hall law school, who published a detailed study of the Guantánamo torture system, point out something quite interesting. There was a part of the Cheney-Rumsfeld torture system in Guantánamo that the military called “the battle lab.”5 It was essentially a laboratory of torture. The lab was supervised by medics, and its purpose was to determine the most effective techniques of torture. Let’s figure out how much torture—psychological, physical, medical—can be applied.

In fact, if you take a look at the Senate report on the torture system, it asks one question: Did torture work? And it claims torture didn’t work, so therefore it was bad.6 The commentary has been pretty much the same: torture didn’t work, so we shouldn’t do it. When they say torture didn’t work, it means it didn’t stop terrorist acts. But was that the purpose of it? Probably not.

The initial purpose of the Cheney-Rumsfeld torture system seems to have been to try to extract some kind of claim—true or false, it doesn’t matter—that would justify the war in Iraq. They were trying to find some kind of evidence that there were connections between Saddam Hussein and Al Qaeda. When they didn’t find it, they called for more torture. Finally, because people under torture will say anything, they claimed they got some evidence. Apparently, that was the primary goal. And it was achieved.

  1. Noam Chomsky, At War with Asia (Oakland: AK Press, 2004).[back]
  2. Fred Branfman, ed., Voices from the Plain of Jars: Life Under an Air War, 2nd ed. (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2013). Introduction available online at: https://zinnedproject.org/materials/voices-from-the-plain-of-jars/[back]
  3. Fred Branfman, “When Chomsky Wept,” Salon.com, 17 June 2012, http://www.salon.com/2012/06/17/when_chomsky_wept/[back]
  4. Alfred W. McCoy, “Foreword: Reflections on History’s Largest Air War,” in Branfman, Voices from the Plain of Jars, xiii.[back]
  5. The “battle lab” terminology was used by major generals in Guantánamo and revealed by the commander of the army’s Criminal Investigative Task Force; see Mark P. Denbeaux, Jonathan Hafetz, Joshua Denbeaux, et al., “Guantanamo: America’s Battle Lab,” Center for Policy and Research, Seton Hall University School of Law, January 2015. Report available online at: https://law.shu.edu/policy-research/upload/guantanamo-americas-battle-lab-january-2015.pdf.[back]
  6. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, Committee Study of the Central Intelligence Agency’s Detention Interrogation Program, released on 3 April 2014. Available online at: http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2014/12/09/world/cia-torture-report-document.html.[back]
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