Wars and dangerous comparisons

Image: Mariana Montrazi


The manipulation of information is normal in the state of the art of a war

“Reason, already so insufficient to prevent our misfortunes, is even more so to console us for them.” (Choderlos de Laclos, Dangerous relationships).

In terms of wars, my journalistic baptism of fire came with the Vietnam War. Indeed, it was a baptism of fire without fire. It happened because in early 1970 I went to work at the Brazilian office of United Press International (UPI), in São Paulo, on the mezzanine of the old building of the Estadão, at Rua Major Quedinho, 28, on the corner of Rua Martins Fontes.

It was in the days of the telex and the typewriter, which made a lot of noise. Me and a dozen other journalists were translators into Portuguese of the news that arrived in English. Very occasionally there was news in Spanish, even more rarely in French. And also, every now and then, we would write an article on a Brazilian topic, which would be sent abroad by telex.

With the noise and the permanent sitting position, the work was considered unhealthy, and the daily shift lasted five hours, without a break. There were extenuating circumstances: the chairs were higher than usual, the tables lower. Our arms were a bit “dropped”, forcing the musculature less. I worked the afternoon shift, from 13 pm to 18 pm. Every fortnight we were on duty on weekends. The editor's name was Mário, and in addition to us translators, there was an external reporter and always one or more typists who worked on the transmitting telex, sending the translations to UPI's network of clients in Brazil, and also, from time to time another, our few articles, in English, for abroad. Mário received the materials printed by the telex machines and distributed them to us, the translators. Then he would review them and pass them on to the telex operator.

Detail: we were all men. There were no women. But in that year, 1970, that changed. At the end of the year, on my recommendation, Lucia joined the translators corps. At first, older journalists grumbled, as the number of profanity and jokes now considered sexist was reduced to zero. But then they got used to it: Lucia was nice.

The veteran journalists were two. They worked in a jacket and tie, unlike us, the youth, who stayed in shirt sleeves, because even in winter the room was boiling hot. One of the oldest still used expressions, in sports texts, such as “the round one went to kiss the bride's veil”, to refer to a goal. On the other hand, I had to adapt, because arriving in São Paulo a year ago, coming from Rio Grande do Sul, instead of “gol” I still used the word “golo”, as it is still written in Portugal.

Let's go back to the thread. In that early 1970s, in addition to the news of the war in Asia dominating most of the materials received, protests against it multiplied in North American universities and also, by extension, in Latin America and Europe. I had lived in the United States during the 1964/1965 school year, and had returned there in 1968. Thanks to that, Mário began to pass on the news regarding the protests to me, so that I could add “a local color” to them, if I could. By extension, he proceeded to give me much of the news about the conflict. And so I became, in the newsroom, a kind of “expert” on the Vietnam War.

A retroactive explanation, which will lead us to another perspective. My first contact with that War took place in that school period of 1964-1965, through two means: the news about the conflict, in newspapers, magazines, on the radio and on television, and the protests that already existed against the war, in the United States, where the "protest songs” by Bob Dylan, Pete Seeger, Peter, Paul and Mary, Harry Belafonte, Joan Baez, and others, many of whom I watched live and in color.

I remember seeing scenes, for example, of US soldiers, whose presence in the conflict was intensifying, interrogating Viet Cong prisoners, putting knives in their stomachs and similar things. But the bulk of the news was half neutral or in favor of intervention, “to save democracy” and similar arguments. At high School where I studied, in Burlington, Vermont, we even studied one of the books by the American diplomat George Kennan, a specialist in the Soviet Union, where he had been ambassador. He was one of the key formulators of US foreign policy during the Cold War: “containment of the Soviet Union”, seen as a hopelessly expansionist power. However, it must be said that Kennan had taken a stand against US involvement in Vietnam.

On March 16, 1968, another “victory” was recorded by US soldiers against the Viet Cong, in the village of My Lai. A strange victory: more than a hundred Viet Cong had been killed, and a few dozen civilians “unfortunately” killed in the midst of ground and air bombardments, and not one dead or wounded among the US squadrons.

Time passed and that strange combat was ruminating in the hearts and minds of many people. Until twenty months later, in November 1969, based mainly on an interview with Lieutenant William Calley Jr., freelance journalist Seymour Hersh began to pull the thread on the other side of that strange “victory”. In fact, there had been no combat, nor were there any dead Viet Cong: they were all civilians, the vast majority women, children and elderly people. For some reason that remains somewhat submerged to this day, the officers and soldiers who participated in the operation in a remote village in Vietnam decided to kill, according to another testimony, everything that “walked, crawled or crawled there”.

There had been no combat: there had been a massacre, a carnage. There was still an attempt by the US government to neutralize the news, but in vain. Soon other journalists, including television, began to explore the revelation, with new interviews conducted with others involved in the tragedy. The death toll grew alarmingly, and is now estimated at between 350 and 500.

The “My Lai Massacre”, as it became known, exposed, for the first time in full terms, a strange side of the accounting of the war, which we had to translate in the dispatches that arrived to us. Often that accounting recorded as “Viet Cong” the civilians killed in operations, whether land, naval or air, which resulted in exaggerated figures: for every American or South Vietnamese soldier killed, dozens and dozens of “guerrillas” died. enemies.

This information began to gain proscenium in the news, or at least in our internal comments, since we could not write it in the dispatches.

And in the United States, the tide of media coverage began to turn, due to yet another tragedy. On May 4, hundreds of students gathered in the courtyards of the University of Kent, Ohio, in protest against the decision, announced a week earlier by President Richard Nixon, to extend the war to the territory of Cambodia. A group of 300 of them approached the battalion of National Guard soldiers who had been ordered to disperse them and started throwing tear gas bombs at the demonstrators, in addition to threatening them with fixed bayonets. Some students responded by throwing rocks at the soldiers.

At one point the military started shooting with their guns loaded with live bullets. They killed four students in the act and injured nine others. It was the first time in all of US history that students had been murdered during a peace protest. The event sparked a massive wave of protests and strikes at numerous universities across the country, and public opinion about the war, along with media coverage, began to turn.

The extension of the war to the territory of hitherto neutral Cambodia gave me another precious lesson. The South Vietnamese and US armies began their invasion between April 29 and May 1, which was preceded by a series of preliminary operations. Its objective was to attack North Vietnamese army units bypassing the contiguous territory of South Vietnam, where operations were hampered by the presence of the Viet Cong.

I remember very well the first dispatch on the invasion, which Mário passed on to me, days before the tragedy in Kent. He began by saying that the South Vietnamese and US forces were having problems advancing, due to difficulties in the terrain and unexpected resistance they were encountering. He pointed out that the committed troops had advanced "only" "x" (the exact number I don't remember) miles from their starting point.

He had barely begun to translate the dispatch when a strident bell rang on one of the telexes, announcing the arrival of a matter considered urgent. It was a text that replaced the one I had received, and this first one should be “annulled”. The new text said that the invading armies were advancing quickly and were already “y” miles (which people had to convert into kilometers) from their objective. What was a difficult operation, slowed down by the enemy's resistance, was transformed into a swift and triumphant advance.

It was like this, through the death count and the mileage, that I learned live and in color, in addition to the flesh and bones of my fingers, contrary to assumptions, that the manipulation of information is normal in the state of the art of a war . Because there are always at least two wars in one: the battlefield war and the media war. It's not just about propaganda for one side. It is necessary to convince the affected people that they are in fact convinced. This statement may seem like a tautology, but it is not. Because it's not enough to present your side as just and right; it is necessary to demonize the other side, reduce it to grotesque and monstrous images.

Again I use the example of My Lai. During the survey of the first suspicions, information emerged that some US military tried and in some cases managed to protect the massacred civilians. Soon the information turned into a denunciation: they were labeled – including in the US Congress – as “traitors” who had helped the “enemy”. Years later, these soldiers were decorated with medals of honor. One of them “received” it posthumously, having died in combat a few days after the action at My Lai.

After that year of 1970, life went on, with its paths and ravines. I found myself involved in covering, albeit episodic, or simply following other wars. I reviewed or redid judgments about other previous wars that I had witnessed from a distance or closer, such as national liberation wars in Africa or those of Latin American guerrillas, as well as Soviet repression in Berlin, Hungary and Czechoslovakia. In this chronological back-and-forth, I learned that each war has its multiple specificities, and that one way to mystify them is to cover one with the rhetoric of another.

A dramatic example of this I found in the persecution and extermination of guerrilla groups in Brazil during the civil-military dictatorship from 1964 to 1985. Many times, the words used in the media that supported repression to characterize the persecuted seemed to come – amazed, reader or reader – from War of Canudos. The guerrilla leaders were presented as “crazy”, “insane” and other adjectives of the same ilk. I remember a report in which it was said that Captain Lamarca was “vesanic”, a term that was already archaic at the time, but which had been widely used to characterize Antonio Conselheiro as “crazy”, in the XNUMXth and early XNUMXth centuries, in addition to his followers.

With regard to the media mainstream of the West, something happened later in the course between the 1970s, when a good part of it started to denounce the Vietnam War and the crimes committed in it by the United States, and the 1990s. markets and economies promoted by the years of galloping neoliberalism in the times of Reagan-Thatcher with his longest-lived co-adjutants John Paul II and later Boris Yeltsin, or in the dramatic changes that the universe of information went through with the hegemonic growth of virtual spheres, or if both or yet others.

The fact is that this media was little by little “healing” of the “vances” of the 70s. of mass destruction”, justifying the military prowess, only to find years later that they simply did not exist. Well, indeed, they had: they were given to Saddam Hussein to use against America's new archenemy, Iran. But they were used, and gone.

Now we are dealing with another war, among the many disputed around the globe and for the moment somewhat buried, the one disputed in Ukraine, around which the most divergent versions and interpretations swarm. The dispute over which narrative will prevail is as fierce as, apparently, from what is known and presumed, the dispute on the battlefield.

There is a massive attempt by the media mainstream West to cover this war with a rhetoric and a scenography that descend from the Second World War. On the one hand are the qualities of virtuous “Resistance” and on the other the savagery, brutality, cruelty of the invader. The “Resistance” is supported by the “democratic allies and benefactors of humanity”, personified in the United States, the United Kingdom and NATO, who throw weapons and more weapons into the fire of war, naturally on their “just and correct” side.

And there is no lack of voices that stigmatize anyone who does not think exactly this way as foolish people who support the authoritarianism of the new amalgamation of Hitler, Stalin and Peter the Great: the inscrutable Vladimir Putin who, by the way, in fact does not lack qualities of an unenlightened despot. The demonization of the enemy migrates, by metonymy, to those who do not think exactly through the booklet that intends to hegemonize the narrative.

It is very difficult, for example, to know what is actually happening, first, on the other side of this new “iron curtain”, in fact, a “smoke screen” that clouds, rather than illuminates, the theater of war; second, what is actually going on in the theater of war itself, who is winning or losing where and when.

Nine-out, there are no consistent reasons to believe in whatever surrounds the conflict, neither in Moscow, nor in Kiev, much less in the Washington-London-Brussels axis (NATO headquarters). Much less in the acolytes on both sides, the little hawks from the Baltic countries or Poland, on the “here” side, or those who caress Putin, in Budapest or Minsk, on the “there” side. But I already see frowns that, reading these difficult-to-line sentences, will qualify them as courtesans of Moscow, or simply as someone lost in the dust, who does not know what he is saying.

I read in a Spanish newspaper the comment that it is “incomprehensible” that part of the Latin American left “supports” Putin, when, in the fringe of words, our lefts simply do not court NATO or the United States, as is happening in a large part from Europe, where belligerence and rearmament are winning points in the market for souls, to the detriment of pacifism.

It will be necessary to wait for the end of the armed conflict, which is not yet seen on the horizon, and for the moment unlikely independent investigations, to judge the rosary of doubts and uncertainties that surround this accursed war, whose damages on a world scale are only beginning to be computed .

To conclude, I quote a reminder that is both ironic and macabre. The My Lai Massacre ended up going to Court Martial in the United States. Several officers were put on trial, both for their part in the killing and for attempts to conceal it, although high-ranking members of the government and the Armed Forces also participated in this effort. Of all, only Lieutenant Calley was convicted. His sentence was life imprisonment and hard labor. But a few days after the trial, President Nixon commuted her to house arrest, which he served for three and a half years. She now lives in Florida.

The Vietnamese survivors of the massacre were taken to a refugee camp, which was destroyed by the South Vietnamese Army in 1972. At the time, the blame for the destruction was placed on the Viet Cong.

* Flavio Aguiar, journalist and writer, is a retired professor of Brazilian literature at USP. Author, among other books, of Chronicles of the World Upside Down (Boitempo).


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