Sunday, October 7, 2018

Killing Fields: New Book Proposes that the Cold War Wasn't Really Cold, It Was Just Different

This past ten days I've been reading Paul Thomas Chamberlin's The Cold War's Killing Fields: Rethinking the Long Peace. Chamberlin attempts to connect the dots regarding what was happening in the world during the cold war for the purpose of seeing it as it actually was rather than as mediated to us through the media. The book has been meticulously researched and for myself has been exceedingly compelling.

One reason Chamberlin wrote the book is because most of us have received our history by means of mediators who put a spin on events that, in our case, favors an American perspective. For example, when the My Lai massacre came to light it was treated as a shocking anomaly in the Cold War. What Chamberlin points out is that from the end of World War Two till the end of the Cold War, the casualties to civilians who were not involved militarily would have been equivalent to a My Lai EVERY DAY from 1945 thru 1990, many of these directly by American aggression or American armaments.* In other words, though there was no official world war, it was never a time of peace.

The audiobook I've been listening to is read aloud by Grover Gardner. It's always a pleasure to begin an audiobook where I discover that Gardner is the reader. In this case, there was no mention on the cover, though I eventually learned that his name appears on each disc of this Harper Collins Audio.

The book itself is filled with so many fresh insights about this period of history that I've now ordered a copy in print so I can review sections of the narrative. Everything is documented, sadly.

KIRKUS REVIEW summarizes the book in this manner: The traditional historical narrative of the Cold War is that it was a bipolar conflict between the United States and the Soviet Union during which proxy conflicts occasionally flared, and in which tensions were at times almost unimaginably fraught, but where the two antagonists avoided a hot war. However, as Chamberlin (History/Columbia Univ.; The Global Offensive: The United States, the Palestine Liberation Organization, and the Making of the Post–Cold War Order, 2012) shows in this ambitious, important book, while the two nuclear powers never engaged in a shooting war, the era from 1945 to 1990 was hardly the “Long Peace” of legend. The author explores a vast swath of geographical territory and shows how, at the time, these “bloodlands” were engulfed in myriad devastating conflicts, sometimes as Cold War proxies but often as combatants in internecine struggles tied into Cold War politics but not always bound to the major powers. The result was some 14 million deaths, the majority of which were civilians; for them, the war was anything but cold.

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An read wrote this review:
The conventional wisdom has always held that the Cold War was an era of uneasy peace because the United States and Soviet Union had their nuclear weapons pointed at each other and the threat of mutually assured destruction largely prevented the two countries from engaging in combat.

Paul Thomas Chamberlin in The Cold War's Killing Fields: Rethinking the Long Peace throws the conventional wisdom on its head. The Cold War was actually a bloodbath, but only for peoples throughout the developing world who were involved in wars seeking independence and freedom from colonial control. And sadly for most people in the US and Soviet Union these conflicts had an out-of-sight out-of-mind feeling, with notable exceptions.

Chamberlin’s work takes the listener from Korea, Vietnam, Indonesia, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Iran among others to illustrate that the proxy warfare brought on by Cold War strategic calculations actually led to hundreds of thousands of deaths among native populations and gave rise to a new breed of Islamic conflict that the world is still fighting today. 

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I began writing this blog post after having read the first years after WW2 up through the Korean War. It's scary to think that even with such a marginal conflict there were discussions in Washington regarding the use of an atomic bomb. Instead of seeing conflicts within countries as internal struggles for power after the eviction of Colonialists, the American interpretation always escalated matters into a global good guys and bad guys struggle between us and them (meaning the Communists.)

When the American forces landed in Korea, they brought an American arrogance that led them to believe this was going to be a quick operation like mopping up a kitchen floor. When we pushed them back to the 38th Parallel, Chamberlin shows how this arrogance had a near devastating outcome. Chamberlin states that the North Koreans retreated purposely, making the American army believe North Korean forces were weak, thereby stirring up American arrogance another notch, which was already excessive, and turning our soldiers into sitting ducks spread out and far from where they were supposed to be.

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TODA\Y I'm two-thirds through the audiobook and awaiting my own print copy so I can cite some of the shocking statistics from this under-reported recent history. At this point Nixon and Kissinger are debating how to withdraw from Vietnam. Both know we lost, but Nixon wants to leave South Vietnam in a manner that looks like we have handed power over to the South Vietnamese so when Hanoi overruns the South, America didn't lose, but rather the South Vietnamese, whom we armed and trained, were the ones who blew it. Such stupidity and posturing is the whole game in Washington, and so transparent. And clueless leaders wonder why the general public has lost respect.

It's unbelievable how much suffering has been caused, in every corner of the world, by the weapons American arms-makers have produced. The massive quantities of bombs we've dropped (or that our "friends" have dropped) makes Guernica look like a raindrop. American bombs have produced more devastation in more places than most of us were really aware of. When we think of the wars we've been in, we only think about American casualties. Yes, we're losing fewer troops these days, but we're still blowing up multitudes of innocents.

I'm not suggesting that we are the only bad guys. Mao's "Great Leap Forward" was a costly tragedy. And the Pol Pot's Cambodian experiment, a greater stupidity still.

If you're my age consider this: These things have happened in our lifetimes. Why didn't we weep? Partly because we were left in the dark.

The book is important because, as the saying goes, if we don't know our history we're bound to repeat it. Paul Chamberlin's book makes an important contribution to our understanding.

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* Our Republic of Korea (South Korea) allies slaughtered innumerable quantities of peoples with "Communist" sentiments. After shooting hundreds of villagers on one occasion, the South Korean army said, "O.K. if you are not dead you can stand up and go home." Then they shot all these as well. The author cites another example of U.S. soldiers rounding up unarmed villagers and gathering them into a mass of 400 or so beneath a bridge, then taking turns firing machine guns into the crowd until there were none left alive. In all, Chamberlin states that there were more than 1200 instances of mass killings of civilians by U.S. and South Korea troops in the Korean War.

** NSC 68. United States Objectives and Programs for National Security, better known as NSC 68, was a 66-page top secret National Security Council (NSC) policy paper drafted by the Department of State and Department of Defense and presented to President Harry S. Truman on 7 April 1950. It was one of the most important American policy statements of the Cold War. In the words of scholar Ernest R. May, NSC 68 "provided the blueprint for the militarization of the Cold War from 1950 to the collapse of the Soviet Union at the beginning of the 1990s." NSC 68 and its subsequent amplifications advocated a large expansion in the military budget of the United States, the development of a hydrogen bomb, and increased military aid to allies of the United States. It made the rollback of global Communist expansion a high priority. NSC 68 rejected the alternative policies of friendly détente and containment of the Soviet Union.

While NSC 68 did not make any specific recommendations regarding the proposed increase in defense expenditures, the Truman Administration almost tripled defense spending as a percentage of the gross domestic product between 1950 and 1953 (from 5 to 14.2 percent).

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