Acts of Violence in Grosvenor Square
- 1968: Marching in the Streets by Tariq Ali and Susan Watkins
Bloomsbury, 224 pp, £20.00, May 1998, ISBN 0 7475 3763 1
- The Beginning of the End: France, May 1968 by Angelo Quattrocchi and Tom Nairn
Verso, 175 pp, £10.00, May 1998, ISBN 1 85984 290 9
- The Love Germ by Jill Neville
Verso, 149 pp, £9.00, May 1998, ISBN 1 85984 285 2
I was just beginning to write about 1968 when I learned of the death in New Orleans of Ron Ridenhour, the GI who exposed the massacre at My Lai. He was only 52, which means that he was in his early twenties when, as a helicopter gunner in area, he learned of the murder of nearly 660 Vietnamese civilians. This was not some panicky ‘collateral damage’ fire-fight: the men of Charlie Company took a long time to dishonour and dismember the women, round up and despatch the children and make the rest of the villagers lie down in ditches while they walked up and down shooting them. Not one of the allegedly ‘searing’ films about the war – not Apocalypse Now, not Full Metal Jacket or Platoon – has dared to show anything remotely like the truth of this and many other similar episodes, more evocative of Poland or the Ukraine in 1941. And the thing of it was, as Ron pointed out, that it was ‘an act of policy, not an individual aberration. Above My Lai that day were helicopters filled with the entire command staff of the brigade, division and task force.’
A few weeks ago, at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington DC, the state finally got round to recognising the only physical hero of the story, a decent guy named Hugh Thompson who saw what was going on, landed his helicopter between Lieutenant Calley’s killing-squads and the remnant of the inhabitants, called for back-up and drew his sidearm. His citation had taken thirty years to come through. It was intended as part of the famous ‘healing process’ which never seems quite to achieve ‘closure’.
Ron wasn’t interested in any stupid healing process. He wanted justice to be done, and it never was. A single especially befouled culprit, the above-mentioned Calley, was eventually court-martialled and served a brief period of house-arrest before being exonerated by Nixon. The superiors, both immediate and remote, got clean away. A canny young military lawyer near the scene, Colin Powell by name, founded a lifelong reputation for promise and initiative by arranging to have the papers mixed up at the office of the Judge-Advocate General.
I once asked Ron Ridenhour what had led him to risk everything by compiling his own report on the extermination at My Lai and sending it to Congress. He told me that, poor white boy as he was (he left school at 14 and was drafted without protest), he had been in basic training when, in the hut one night, a group of good ol’ boys had decided to have some fun with the only black soldier in the detail. The scheme was to castrate him. Nobody was more astonished than Ron to hear his own voice coming across the darkened bunks. ‘“If you want to get to him, you’ve got to come through me.” I’d’ve been dead if I hadn’t been white and poor like them, but they gave up.’ Later, when his troopship called in at Hawaii en route for Saigon, he went ashore and bought a book about Vietnam by the late Bernard Fall. ‘Shit, this is what I’m getting into.’
A revolutionary moment requires both extraordinary times and extraordinary people, and Ron Ridenhour, despite his laconic attitude, was one of the latter. He wouldn’t have denied, however, that there was ‘something in the air’ in those days. It was getting to the point where you couldn’t shove black people around so easily, or invade any country that took your fancy. There were people who wouldn’t take it, and even people in the press and in the academy who were prepared to make an issue of that. (Though this can be overestimated: it took more than a year for the My Lai story to get into print – in the Cleveland Plain Dealer.) Nonetheless, the climacteric that was 1968 had been building for some time. What fused it into critical mass, and provided its most indelible slogans and imagery, was undoubtedly the correspondence between the Civil Rights and anti-war movements, both of them American and both of them therefore, in a time when ‘global village’ was a new cliché, universal in scope and appeal and reach.
Something has to be done to rescue that time from the obfuscations that have descended over it and to fend off the sneers and jeers that now attach so easily. Some people, of course, take a kind of pleasure in repudiating their own past. Some, whether they wish to or not, live long enough to become negations or caricatures. Or indeed partial confirmations: I am thinking of Lionel Jospin, now chief minister of France and in those days a member of an unusually dogmatic trotskiant group; a groupuscule, indeed, and perhaps an excellent school for the inflexible later canons of neo-liberalism. Robert Lowell once said that he was glad not to have been a revolutionary when young, because it prevented him from becoming a reactionary bore in his old age. I see the point: the fact remains that in midlife and in 1968 he acted eloquently and well, as a citizen of the republic of Emerson and Whitman should when the state is intoxicated with injustice and war. ‘Retrospectives’ which emphasise flowers, beads, dope and simplistic anarchism tend to leave him out, as they also omit the Ron Ridenhours.
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Vol. 20 No. 12 · 18 June 1998
I well remember Christopher Hitchens strutting into the Blackfriars blood-donating session (LRB, 4 June), and trumpeting to the overworked technicians and prone blood donors that he wasn’t British but internationalist and revolutionary, and that he refused to join the Oxford Vietnam Peace Movement because our political line was ‘US quit Vietnam’, not ‘Victory to the Vietcong’.
I also remember the vast crowds at the Grosvenor Square demonstration: the police beating up demonstrators and the demonstrators retaliating by drawing razor blades. The police couldn’t defend themselves because their arms were linked. The revolutionary situation died because Tariq Ali hadn’t decided what to do with us next. Perhaps it was meant to be anarchy. At any rate another opportunity was lost to celebrate the heroic people of Vietnam, who, in spite of our ineptitude, won their war against US aggression.
Vol. 20 No. 13 · 2 July 1998
Jenny Hinton (Letters, 18 June) fashionably decries the uselessness of British demonstrations against the Vietnam War. We didn’t end the war, of course, that was done by the Vietnamese people. But at least we made it impossible for successive British Governments to send British troops to kill and die in Vietnam. (Quite a few politicians and some public figures like Bernard Levin and Kingsley Amis were in favour of this.) I wish we had as strong a movement today in order to prevent Blair and Co from poodling along behind the US whenever they decide to order up Gulf War Two or whatever’s next on the menu.
Footnote: I never saw demonstrators pulling razor blades on the police in Grosvenor Square. How many did this and how many police were slashed? I only saw a few bits of turf flung before I was chased by a mounted cop with a baton and hid behind a pacifist tree.
What is Jenny Hinton on about? I was at Grosvenor Square, and saw no demonstrators ‘drawing razor blades’. Where were they carrying them? In portable razors? In secret blade-holders? Did they injure any police? If so, why didn’t the police make an issue out of it? And why haven’t we heard about it before?
Robert Lowell may have said that ‘he was glad not to have been a revolutionary when young, because it prevented him from becoming a reactionary bore in his old age’: but that doesn’t sound like Lowell the World War Two conscientious objector who later protested against the Vietnam War. Perhaps Christopher Hitchens (LRB, 4 June) was thinking of another Robert, who wrote:
I never dared be radical when young
For fear it would make me conservative when old.
Robert Frost, in 1936.
Vol. 20 No. 14 · 16 July 1998
Not being old enough to remember the events of 1968 I had to strain my imagination to reconcile Jenny Hinton’s assertion (Letters, 18 June) that the police beat up demonstrators, who just happened to turn up armed with razor blades, with the statement in her very next sentence that self-defence on the part of the police was impossible because their arms were linked.
The 1968 ‘revolutionary situation’ in Britain did not die ‘because Tariq Ali hadn’t decided what to do … next’, as Jenny Hinton claims, for the simple reason that there was no revolutionary situation in Britain in 1968. There most certainly was in Vietnam, France, Czechoslovakia, the USA and elsewhere, but over here radicals were basking in reflected glory from abroad. Why else are ex-radicals (and just about everyone else) in this country so nostalgic about the Sixties? Real revolutionary situations are grim and brutal and do not lend themselves readily to nostalgia. Americans have little affection for the decade – for them it means Vietnam and serious civil strife at home – they get their warm glow from harking back to the Fifties.
Our days of struggle came in the Seventies, when student radicalism (which did not die out in 1974, as many seem to think), along with punk anarchy and large-scale working-class militancy, had some tougher battles on its hands. In the Sixties students occupied university buildings: in the Seventies trade-union action brought down governments. In the Sixties, the establishment was ‘rattled’, as Christopher Hitchens says (LRB, 4 June): in the Seventies it was in the throes of paranoia – Special Branch infiltration and MI5 ‘burgling and bugging’, while plots involving private armies and political coups were hatched and organised fascism stomped the streets. In Northern Ireland there was civil war and counter-insurgent military action on a scale not seen in the British Isles for decades. The revolutionary situation ‘died’ when the Winter of Discontent of 1978-79 failed to convert working-class militant action into any kind of political programme (much as in 1926). It wasn’t all flared trousers and tank-tops in the Seventies, any more than the Sixties was all Carry On films and Engelbert Humperdinck.
Christopher Hitchens rants beautifully in his review of memoirs of the Sixties, but his opening claim that the My Lai massacre was an act of policy is not substantiated. On the one hand, to assert that American top brass were in the air above the scene does not prove that they gave their assent to the horror; on the other hand, to make such wild emotional claims captures the street spirit of the Sixties. Mr Hitchens is in tune with those times.
Vol. 20 No. 16 · 20 August 1998
It’s ludicrous to suggest as Christopher Hitchens does (LRB, 4 June) that British Communists in 1968 ‘yearned for a quiet life’. The Communist Party of Great Britain opposed the invasion of Czechoslovakia and supported the Prague Spring unequivocally (this is a matter of record). And there never was an ‘ingratiating’ attempt ‘to keep in with the Labour Left and the trade-union apparat’. What was launched, long before 1968, was an open public campaign to develop a ‘Broad Left’ movement based on, but not confined to, the Labour movement. Myself and hundreds of others, Communists and non-Communists, distributed tens of thousands of leaflets inside and outside factories and elsewhere. The movement paid dividends over the years: against incomes policy and wage restraint; in developing TUC campaigning; in the 1972-74 miners’ struggles; in the Upper Clyde Shipbuilders’ successful fight; against British involvement in Vietnam. Hardly a quiet life. Our experience was that Tariq Ali and the Vietnam Solidarity Campaign were a factor for disunity and not helpful in our attempt to build a broad movement: storming the US Embassy and punch-ups were a distraction.
Hitchens writes that the Communist Party ‘took the day off’ when London dockers marched to Westminster in support of Enoch Powell, but the Communists in Britain have a record second to none in the fight against racism. The CPGB must, however, accept justified criticism of its failure to speak out against Stalinism. It has to be admitted that the Trotskyists were correct in many of their characteris ations of the Soviet Union. Ideological differences should not preclude open political discussion in which innuendo and sneers have no place.