On Reading “At War With Asia,” by Noam Chomsky

I found the article whose link I show, down at the bottom, through the “web site of the day” (19 June 2012) at Counter Punch, and I wanted to share it widely.


The article describes how a large part of Noam Chomsky’s second major political book was initiated. That book, At War With Asia, had been out of print for years when I found a second hand copy in 1999 or 2000.


I had read numerous Chomsky books before this, most having been published in the 1980s and later (e.g., Deterring Democracy; Year 501, The Conquest Continues), aside from The Chomsky Reader, which is a compilation (by James Peck) of mainly 1960s to 1970s articles by Chomsky (and I recommend it highly), and Chomsky’s first big political book The New Mandarins (or something close to that), which had been republished by The New Press.


But, no Chomsky book affected me as much as At War With Asia. To me, it was the purest, most incandescent experience of receiving facts imbued with moral clarity arising out of a submerged moral outrage. Perhaps I was affected because during the events being described I was dealing with a bureaucracy intent to induct me into the US Army, to be fed into the meat grinder of the Vietnam War, for 1968 to 1970.


I have never read a clearer description of colonial management (how the “white men” controlled “the natives”) than Chomsky gives in At War With Asia. From it one understood how the British had ruled India, and it opened my eyes as to how the “white men” in the U.S. today rule “the natives” (the ethnic minorities and the low economic classes, including the “white trash”), by stoking inter-group tensions (between ethnic groups in the colonies of prior centuries, and between groups based on economic class, ethnicity, gender, and sexuality in today’s “homeland”).


The greater part of At War With Asia deals with the massive and barbaric US aerial bombardment of northern Laos, in the Plain Of Jars. Branfman’s article will describe this. Chomsky’s focus and passion were so intense in this book, and yet the language is kept so reasoned and calm, that the effect on me was as if I suddenly awoke to the fact that while I was walking through a quiet summer scene, beneath me a raging magma chamber was expanding to explode. Were the subject matter less dire, I would say this book was pure poetry. In fact it was a restrained expression of a passionate — magmatic — compassion.


Chomsky is obviously a genius, a person born with great talent, and he is also a person of supreme dedication. In earlier millennia he would have been called a saint because of the clarity of his focus and the length of his endurance in the pursuit of his mission — his vision. It is so sad that as a nation the United States is so petty, so hypocritical, to openly recognize one of its greatest individuals of at least the last 100 years. Chomsky is something like America’s Gandhi, an individual whose combined personality, intellect and spirit produce a far wider effect than one would calculate on the basis of just the physical and intellectual products of his work, and on the basis of the usual parameters of personal wealth and political power, assumed to be the quantities of merit in American society.


Even though the war described in At War With Asia is now over (as a hot war), the truths Chomsky presents through his description of that war are still entirely relevant. Perhaps if you were to read this book you would not find it as significant as I did, for me it was pivotal, and so for a certain type of reader I would recommend it very highly, even beside Thucydides.


Branfman’s article is not so much about At War With Asia as it is about Chomsky as a person whom Branfman came to know and appreciate. It is a very touching article, and a credit to both its author and his subject.


When Chomsky Wept
by Fred Branfman
17 June 2012


Update 1 October 2014:
Jeremy Kuzmarov has written a very nice memorial to Fred Branfman, see below.

Celebrating the Life of Peace Hero Fred Branfman

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