Friday, 27 July 2007
'What's a B52?'
In Bangkok, I usually stay at the Atlanta on Sukhumvit soi 2, the old hotel with the prominent sign outside saying, ‘Sex tourists not welcome’. It’s an interesting and quirky place and I invariably meet some interesting and quirky people. That’s one of the main reasons I like staying there, though there was once an American I had to shout at.
He was an ex-marine and I had to sit on his right and shout because his hearing was so damaged. He told me he’d been on the ground in Vietnam within five miles of a B52 raid and it had shattered both his nerves and his hearing. It was as if it had ruined his life.
The words shock and awe do not begin to hint at this terror the ‘free world’ has unleashed in our names from thirty thousand feet just so many times. Usually we are far removed from it all, but to meet someone who had been so close a witness to the horror and had suffered, I found profoundly disturbing.
As a child I remember seeing the first B52s, monstrous apparitions high in the peaceful heavens above a rural Gloucestershire in South West England, no doubt on training flights from their base at Brize Norton. To me even at that age they looked evil and one cannot imagine how they must have been for Indochinese children playing in the dust who knew this was for real and that they could be targets.
In the words of Baker and Pongpaichit*,‘Thailand was host to 45,000 US army and navy personnel in 1969. Three-quarters of the bomb tonnage dropped on North Vietnam and Laos in 1965-68 was flown out of seven US bases in eastern Thailand.’ The Thais should thus know all about the Indochinese wars and their impact, yet selling ‘B52’ brand mosquito nets seems to raise no eyebrows here. Nobody appears to know what the brand name refers to, even though the bombing was so close to home.
When a ceasefire was declared in Vietnam the Americans bombed Laos instead. These were neutral countries so as Kissinger so nicely put it, this was not a war, merely a sideshow. Both by American and international law, the bombing was illegal, yet Kissinger was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.
I’ve read many different descriptions of the bombing of tiny, poverty stricken Laos… that it’s the most bombed country in history, that more bombs were dropped there than by all sides in the Second World War, that ten tons of bombs were dropped for each and every Lao, man, woman and child.
These statistics may be exaggerations, but all I know is that when, decades later, I was in a remote village far from the nearest road in the north of Laos, a veritable Shangri-La, the place was still littered with cluster bomb casings, just lying around and used as fencing and for herb gardens.
Whatever was the bombing all for? To make friends and influence people? This small village was a remote, rural paradise presenting no threat to anyone, but I suppose that as the B52s had nothing to do, they’d better bomb the shit out of Shangri-La too.
Thailand was deeply touched by the instability caused by the Indochinese Wars and, as a frontline domino, inevitably caught up in the Cold War, another ‘war’ against an ‘…ism’. The Thais played the opportunity for all they were worth, offering military bases for burgers and their prettiest daughters for ‘R and R’. In return they got massive aid and investment, a superpower for an ally, together with militant materialism and a consumer society. It affected their politics too. In the words of the same authors, ‘In Thailand, the US underwrote dictatorship… Thailand had become a US client-state under military rule.”
The CIA had a massive presence here, providing the police with, ‘tanks, armoured cars, aircraft, helicopters, speedboats and training by 200 CIA advisers’. Yet a rice farmer can wear a CIA cap and not know what the letters mean. Mosquito nets are sold under the ‘B52’ brand name, ‘100% best quality, modern from USA’, and nobody here bats an eyelid, despite their Lao compatriots across the border being bombed to hell and back by these planes.
Why ever did somebody choose this brand name? Selling ‘Bin Laden’ trash cans in Manhattan or ‘Pol Pot’ saucepans in Phnom Penh would be almost as marketable as ‘B52’ mosquito nets in Sangkha. But perhaps only the struggle to get by really counts around here and in a place where intelligent young people don’t know who Hitler was, world politics just passes them by.
Similarly when yesterday I picked up an excellent rubber squeegee in Macro in Surin, I would have though twice about buying it had I noticed its brand name. It was‘Black Man’ no less! (See their excellent English language website, www.mop-bm.com. ‘Think of Cleanliness, Think of Blackman.’)
It still surprises me that in a modern country such as this, it’s not appreciated how deeply offensive this sort of thing is. It’s as if Thailand is on a different planet to everyone else or still back in an earlier era, which is strange as their world so obviously collides with all others.
When I was last in Luang Prabang, the old cultural capital of Laos, I bought in the night market a village-made movement from a hand gun. It’s a fine piece of local metal work and it still cocks and fires with an angry snap. I admire its unknown maker very much and I reflect that when the planes were overhead, unseen and probably unheard, this was what the Lao peasants had to defend themselves with. All they could do was to hide, yet when the women and children hid in the caves, the fighters slaughtered them with carefully placed rockets. I saw the caves in that particular village where so many had died.
Harold Wilson, my Prime Minister refused to commit troops to the Vietnam War, though he couldn’t actually condemn the war for fear of breaching the ‘special relationship’ with the US. Years later, Tony Blair too could have drawn some lessons from the tragedy that Vietnam suffered and it could have been highly significant had the UK refused to support the Iraq escapade. Whatever was he thinking of? I’ll never begin to understand.
* Quotations are from Chris Baker and Pasuk Phongpaichit’s excellent ‘History of Thailand’, Cambridge University Press, 2005.