It was the summer of 1981. I was working on an ambulance in Philadelphia, transporting a cancer patient to a hospital for radiation treatments. The man was in his sixties, and I felt he knew his days were numbered.
In my conversations with the man, it came up that I was a Vietnam veteran. He told me he was in the CIA in Saigon in the early 1970s.
"What did you do?" I asked.
"I delivered bags of money. That's pretty much all I did in the end. I was a bagman. I'd get an order to carry a bag of money to some character somewhere in Saigon. And that's what I did."
We both smiled grimly, as if to say, our war had turned out to be a moral debacle.
So it was a case of de'ja-vu when I read in The New York Times that the CIA has for some time been delivering "bags of money" to the office of Afghan President Hamid Karzai. You can be sure they were also delivering bags of money to a host of other nefarious actors in the corrupt mix of people loyal to our cause in Afghanistan. Afghan writer Qais Akbar Omar calls it "ghost money" and writes, "If ghost money were going to the people who needed it, Afghanistan would have a lot fewer ghosts."
My dying, ex-CIA friend, it seems, was one in a long tradition of bagmen in US imperial history. Now, of course, we must also have bagwomen to provide the strategic sugar to accompany the salt of our bombing campaigns.
When I returned from Vietnam I began reading a lot of history, from Bernard Fall's great books on the French Indochina War to Robert J. Lifton's early work on PTSD, Home From The War. I had been a 19-year-old radio direction finder in the mountains west of Pleiku locating Vietnamese radio operators so our forces could kill them and all the men and women in their units with artillery, aerial bombardments or infantry search & destroy missions. I have their blood on my hands, indirectly.
The legacy of European colonialism in the world
From my reading, I realized too late I was the "bad guy" in Vietnam and that the Vietnamese had never done anything to me or, more important, to my country. In fact, the Viet Minh were our ally and critical in helping us fight the Japanese toward the end of World War Two. After the war, like the Indians, the Indonesians and others colonized by European powers, they had had enough of colonialism and wanted to control their own destiny. Naively, they thought the US would help them in that goal. Looking back from 2013, it's clear if we had left them alone -- had not killed two to three million southeast Asians over ten years and devastated the nation -- the Vietnamese would have ended up exactly where they are now, like their regional enemy China, a hybrid socialist/capitalist state. All we did was slow them down.
In Vietnam, then decades later in Iraq and Afghanistan, we unleashed a blitzkrieg of lethal violence to intimidate a people into compliance with our wishes. We did it with a combination one-two punch, violence on one hand and bags of money on the other. In all three places, the endgame was/is a mess covered up with secrecy and propaganda. The fact is, the clarity of US domestic propaganda aside, serious history finds few legitimate justifications for the drawn-out brutality of our actions. In all these wars, in the end we fight on to save face, to remain top dog in the world, the role we gave ourselves following World War Two when the European colonial powers ended up bankrupt. It's a history most Americans are simply ignorant of. And that is no accident.
The White Man's Burden
For those who don't trust the left on colonial/imperial history, there's Ralph Peters, one of the most extreme right wing militarist voices in America. He's a retired Army lieutenant colonel who served ten years in Germany and in the US during the end of the Cold War. He has published 22 books, many of them fiction, and writes a regular column for The New York Post. He's a contributing editor at Armed Forces Journal. Here's Peters from his 2007 book Wars of Blood and Faith: Conflicts That Will Shape the Twenty-First Century:
"No matter how vociferously, even sincerely, we deny it, our wars will be fought over religion and ethnic identity. Those wars will be cruel and hard." Globalization and the internet, he says, will further polarize "the most privileged of the world's citizens" against the rest of humanity, who will disintegrate into "narrower tribal and religious affiliations."
Here's where he gets interesting: "The post-colonial era has barely begun. ... The notion that the post-colonial era was a mid-twentieth century phenomenon is utter nonsense. After European imperialism deformed the world for five hundred years, the damage could not be undone in a generation or two. We shall be lucky if the post-colonial era concludes in another two centuries."
Retired Lt. Colonel Ralph Peters and his 2007 book