When Chomsky wept

I first met Noam Chomsky in Laos, where I showed him the devastating effects of U.S. air raids

Published June 17, 2012 4:00PM (EDT)

Forty-two years ago I had an unusual experience. I became friendly with a guy named Noam Chomsky. I came to know him as a human being before becoming fully aware of his fame and the impact of his work. I have often thought of this experience since -- both because of the insights it gave me into him and, more important, the deep trouble in which our nation and world find themselves today. His foremost contribution for me has been his constant focus on how U.S. leaders treat so many of the world's population as "unpeople," either exploiting them economically or engaging in war-making, which has murdered, maimed or made homeless over 20 million people since the end of World War II (over 5 million in Iraq and 16 million in Indochina according to official U.S. government statistics).

Our friendship was forged over concern for some of these "unpeople" when he visited Laos in February 1970. I had been living in a Lao village outside the capital city of Vientiane for three years at that point and spoke Laotian. But five months earlier I had been shocked to my core when I interviewed the first Lao refugees brought down to Vientiane from the Plain of Jars in northern Laos, which had been controlled by the communist Pathet Lao since 1964. I had discovered to my horror that U.S. executive branch leaders had been clandestinely bombing these peaceful villagers for five-and-a-half years, driving tens of thousands underground and into caves, where they had been forced to live like animals.

I had learned of countless grandmothers burned alive by napalm, countless children buried alive by 500-pound bombs, parents shredded by anti-personnel bombs. I had felt pellets from these bombs still in the bodies of the refugees lucky enough to escape, interviewed people blinded by the bombing, seen napalm wounds on the bodies of infants. I had also learned that the U.S. bombing of the Plain of Jars had turned a 700-year-old civilization of some 200,000 people into a wasteland, and that its main victims were the old people, parents and children who had to remain near the villages -- not the communist soldiers who could move through the heavily carpeted forests, largely undetectable from the air. And I had soon also discovered that U.S. Eexecutive branch leaders had conducted this bombing unilaterally, without even informing, let alone obtaining the consent of, Congress or the American people. And I realized that these devastated Plain of Jars refugees were the lucky ones. They had survived. U.S. bombing of hundreds of thousands of other innocent Lao was not only continuing but escalating.

I had grown up believing in American values but this bombing of innocent civilians violated every one of them. Looking at U.S. executive branch leaders from the perspective of a Lao refugee camp, I had learned in a few weeks that they were the enemy of human decency, democracy, human rights and international law abroad, and that in this real world might made right and crime paid. However much one believed America was a "nation of laws not men" at home, it was clearly a nation of cruel, brutal and lawless men in Laos.

Without any conscious decision on my part, I immediately found myself committing to do whatever I could to try and stop this unimaginable horror. As a Jew steeped in the Holocaust, I felt as if I had discovered the truth of Auschwitz and Buchenwald while the killing was still going on. I soon found myself working as hard as I could to take everyone I could find -- including journalists like CBS's Bernard Kalb, ABC's Ted Koppel, the New York Times' Flora Lewis -- out to the camps in the hopes they would do stories about the bombing to expose it to the world.

One day I heard that three antiwar activists -- Doug Dowd, Richard Fernandez and Noam Chomsky -- were spending a few nights at the Hotel Lane Xang in Vientiane before catching the International Control Commission (ICC) aircraft for a week-long visit to Hanoi. (The only way to go to Hanoi at the time other than through Phnom Penh.) I called one of their rooms, introduced myself, we met, and Noam came out the next day to the village where I lived for dinner, planning to leave for Hanoi the day after.

I had spent most of the '60s in the Mideast, Tanzania and Laos, and knew relatively little about Doug, Dick or Noam, though I knew Noam was a famous linguist and had written a good deal about the Indochina war. My focus at that point was on trying to inform them about the seriousness of the bombing, in the hopes they might do something about it.

On a personal level I took an immediate liking to Noam. He was mild-mannered but intense – the latter quality was one we shared -- and obviously caring. One of the reasons I was so horrified by the bombing is that I had come to know the Lao as people by living in my village for the previous three years – particularly a 70-year-old man named Paw Thou Douang whom I had come to love as a kind of surrogate father. He was kind, wise and gentle, and I respected him as much as anyone I had ever met. I was particularly struck by how warmly Noam related to Paw Thou during our dinner with him and his family. He clearly felt an immediate affinity with them that I hadn't seen in the many other visitors I had taken to the village. He also displayed a focused curiosity about the details of what was happening in Laos, to which I was more than pleased to respond.

The next day the three visitors discovered disturbing news: the ICC flight to Hanoi had been canceled and the next flight would be a week hence. All three had busy schedules, and began making plans to return home for the week. I suggested to Noam, however, that he might want to stay. I said I could arrange for him to meet refugees from the bombing, U.S. Embassy and Lao Cabinet officials, Prime Minister Souvanna Phouma, the Pathet Lao representative and a former guerrilla soldier -- as I had been doing with the media. From his perspective it was a unique opportunity to learn about the U.S. secret war in Laos, from mine a part of my effort to make the bombing known to the world in the hope of ending it.

Noam agreed, and I guess we both had one of the most unique experiences of our lives -- he on the back of my motorcycle, me driving him about the streets of Vientiane, as he sought to learn as much as he could about U.S. war-making in Laos, still at that point largely unknown to the world outside. It was only in the next month that Richard Nixon finally admitted for the first time that the U.S. had been bombing Laos for the previous six years, though he and Henry Kissinger continued to lie by claiming that the bombing was only striking military targets.

I have a number of particularly vivid memories of Noam from our week together. One was watching him read a newspaper. He would gaze at a page, seem to memorize it, and then a second later turn it and gaze at the next page. On one occasion I gave him a 500-page book to read on the war in Laos at about 10 at night, and met him the next morning at breakfast prior to our visit to political officer Jim Murphy at the U.S. Embassy. During the interview the issue of the number of North Vietnamese troops in Laos came up. The Embassy claimed that 50,000 had invaded Laos, when the evidence clearly showed there were no more than a few thousand. I almost fell off my chair when Noam quoted a footnote making that point, several hundred pages in, from the book I had given him the night before. I had heard the term "photographic memory" before. But I had never seen it so much in action, or put to such good use. (Interestingly enough, Jim showed Noam internal Embassy documents also confirming the lower number, which Noam later cited in his long chapter on Laos in "At War With Asia.")

I was also struck by his self-deprecation. He had a near-aversion to talking about himself -- contrary to most of the "Big Foot" journalists I had met. He had little interest in small talk, gossip or discussion of personalities, and was focused almost entirely on the issues at hand. He downplayed his linguistic work, saying it was unimportant compared to opposing the mass murder going on in Indochina. He had no interest whatsoever in checking out Vientiane's notorious nightlife, tourist sites or relaxing by the pool. He was clearly driven, a man on a mission. He struck me as a genuine intellectual, a guy who lived in his head. And I could relate. I also lived in my head, and had a mission.

But what most struck me by far was what occurred when we traveled out to a camp that housed refugees from the Plain of Jars. I had taken dozens of journalists and other folks out to the camps at that point, and found that almost all were emotionally distanced from the refugees' suffering. Whether CBS's Bernard Kalb, NBC's Welles Hangen, or the New York Times' Sidney Schanberg, the journalists listened politely, asked questions, took notes and then went back to their hotels to file their stories. They showed little emotion or interest in what the villagers had been through other than what they needed to write their stories. Our talks in the car back to their hotels usually concerned either dinner that night or the next day's events.

I was thus stunned when, as I was translating Noam's questions and the refugees' answers, I suddenly saw him break down and begin weeping. I was struck not only that most of the others I had taken out to the camps had been so defended against what was, after all, this most natural, human response. It was that Noam himself had seemed so intellectual to me, to so live in a world of ideas, words and concepts, had so rarely expressed any feelings about anything. I realized at that moment that I was seeing into his soul. And the visual image of him weeping in that camp has stayed with me ever since. When I think of Noam this is what I see.

One of the reasons his reaction so struck me was that he did not know those Laotians. It was relatively easy for me, having lived among them and loved people like Paw Thou so much, to commit to trying to stop the bombing. But I have stood in awe not only of Noam, but of the many thousands of Americans who spent so many years of their lives trying to stop the killing of Indochinese they did not know in a war they never saw.

As we drove back from the camp that day, he remained quiet, still shaken by what he had learned. He had written extensively of U.S. war-making in Indochina before this. But this was the first time he had met its victims face-to-face. And in the silence, an unspoken bond that we have never discussed was forged between us.

As I look back on my life I feel I was a better person during this period than I have been before or since. And I realized that at that time we were both coming from the same place: Compared to the unconscionable Calvary of these innocent, gentle, kind people -- and so many others -- everything else seemed trivial. Once you knew that innocent people were dying, how could you justify to yourself doing anything other than trying to save their lives?

And I realized in the silence of that car ride that beneath Noam's public persona as the intellectual's intellectual, who relied on facts and reason to make his case, there lay a deeply feeling human being. For Noam these Lao peasants were human beings with names, faces, dreams and as much of a right to their lives as those who so carelessly laid waste to them. But for many of these visiting journalists, not to mention Americans back home, these Lao villagers were faceless "unpeople" whose lives had no meaning whatsoever.

When I returned to the U.S., Noam and I remained in regular contact for the duration of the war. I became more impressed with Noam as I began to read his work and realized that no one else wrote in such detail, with such logic, and with so much depth of understanding, about both the horrors of the war and the system that produced them. But what impressed me even more about him -- and his friend, Boston University's Howard Zinn -- was that they went beyond writing and speaking and actually put their bodies on the line to oppose it.

Noam and Howard were part of my "affinity group" during the May Day demonstrations that saw thousands arrested, and we were in adjoining jail cells during the Redress civil disobedience action in D.C. I also learned that Noam was a leader of Resist, a group that promoted draft and tax resistance to the war, and would have been indicted had not the Tet Offensive occurred. He had been speaking against the war since 1963, before most of us had even heard of it. And he had endured numerous death threats and a wide variety of other difficulties -- to the point where his wife, Carol, went back to school to develop a profession in case something happened to Noam that prevented him from supporting their three children.

When the war ended I made a fateful decision. Rather than continuing to oppose the next set of horrors U.S. leaders were producing, I decided to work domestically to try to replace them with a new generation of leaders who opposed war and promoted social justice. I then spent the next 15 years on domestic politics and policy -- with Tom Hayden and the grass-roots Campaign for Economic Democracy, as a Cabinet-level official with Gov. Jerry Brown, at Sen. Gary Hart's think tank and directing Rebuild America, advised by many of America's top economists and business leaders.

I only had sporadic contact with Noam during this period. Part of it was that our interests now diverged. He continued to pour out articles, books and speeches exposing and opposing murderous U.S. policy toward East Timor, Reagan's terrorist wars in Central America, Clinton's disastrous economic policies in Haiti and other third-world nations and his bombing of Kosovo, and the issue he seems to feel most passionately about: America's sponsorship of Israeli mistreatment of Palestinians. These concerns were far from my own focus on electoral politics and domestic issues such as solar energy and developing a national economic strategy.

As I look back on it now, however, I realize another largely unconscious factor was at work: I tended to avoid Noam because I assumed he would regard me as immoral for abandoning the work of trying to save lives and entering a compromised and corrupt political system. I often found myself suddenly engaging in defensive dialogues in my head with him, trying to justify what I was doing -- which became harder as the electoral efforts I was associated with failed, and I found myself far more ego-oriented than during the war.

After more than a decade, I was in Boston and called Noam. He warmly invited me over to his home and we chatted for a while. I finally asked him how he felt about my having gone into electoral politics. I also mentioned that I was then staying with a former progressive friend who was working for a major bank who had told me that morning that he did not want to meet Noam because he assumed Noam would put him down. Noam was genuinely shocked by the story. "Why, we're all compromised," he said. "Look at me. I work at MIT, which has received millions from the Defense Department." He seemed genuinely puzzled and hurt that either my friend or I would think that he would denigrate us for what we were doing.

In recent years I have been in regular contact with Noam, mainly by email, but also when staying in his house for 10 days prior to attending Howard Zinn's April 3, 2010, memorial service. It was a deeply emotional period for both of us, particularly Noam, who had deep ties to Howard, and the visit made a deep impression on me.

I found essentially the same Noam whom I had met 40 years earlier. No interest in small talk. Self-deprecation. Anger at the ongoing refusal of America's intellectuals and journalists to take a stand on U.S. leaders’ war crimes. Great moral issues of our time. A nice guy, offering to give me a ride back from a meeting in Cambridge, or to pick up some groceries at the supermarket for one of our meals.

I asked Noam how he felt about being routinely criticized for focusing on the crimes of U.S. leaders and not those of other nations. He said he felt this was appropriate since he was an American citizen, and U.S. leaders have by far committed more war crimes abroad than any others since the end of WWII. I agreed, also noting that there are so many prominent public intellectuals and journalists who criticize foreign leaders, so few who dare point out the war crimes committed by their own.

And, as 40 years earlier, I was above all struck by his unrelenting work. He spent almost all his time reading, writing, being interviewed in person or over the telephone, speaking and, in an act of generosity for which he is particularly known, continually answering an unending stream of emails -- often for as much as five or six hours a day.

And, I discovered, he continued to speak widely all over the country and world, to the point where his schedule is usually filled up years in advance. At age 82 he kept a schedule that would overwhelm someone 40 years younger.

I was also struck by his asceticism. When I telephoned him I realized he had the same phone number and lived in the same modest suburban home as he had 40 years ago. He wears jeans, and has virtually no interest in food or material possessions. He is periodically visited by friends and family, but engages in no other leisure-time activities.

I was particularly moved one night as I was sitting opposite him at dinner, struck as usual by the enormous distance between what Noam knows about U.S. leaders' slaughter of innocents around the world and what the public realizes. I suddenly thought of Winston Smith from Orwell's "1984," who sees little hope of changing society and focuses only on trying to remain sane and commit to paper the truth in the hope that future generations will remember it. I told Noam that to me, at that moment, he represented Winston Smith to me.

I will always remember his reaction.

He just looked at me.

And smiled sadly.

Noam can be tough on those who he feels support U.S. war-making, but he is even harder on himself. On one occasion I mentioned that I had asked a lifelong political activist with whom we were both friendly whether, looking back on his life, he had any regrets. Our friend had responded that he wished he had spent more time with his family, and pursuing a variety of his non-political interests. “Do you have any regrets?” I asked Noam. His answer shocked me. Muttering more to himself than to me he said, “I didn’t do nearly enough.”

On another occasion I asked Noam how much satisfaction he took from having written so many books, founding a new field of linguistics, being so influential around the world. “None,” he answered grimly, explaining that he felt he hadn’t really been able to convince enough people to understand the true depth of U.S. leaders’ savage and brutal treatment of the world’s non-people. He felt frustrated, for example, that more people did not understand how U.S. leaders’ killing hundreds of thousands of innocents and destroying the very base of South Vietnamese society had succeeded, how they had actually won in Indochina by destroying the possibility of an alternative economic and social model to that of the U.S. emerging.

One evening as I was climbing the stairs to my bedroom I looked into Noam's office. He spends his time at home these days sitting in a large office chair in front of his computer, and his posture resembled nothing so much to me as a Buddhist monk in meditation.

And then it hit me.

I suddenly realized, "Noam has been living, as I did relatively briefly during the war, for the past 40 years. He has been working around the clock, reading, writing, speaking, not wasting a minute, in a focused attempt to try and stop U.S. killing, to force the world to realize the plight of the `unpeople.'"

And, I am unembarrassed to say, I experienced a great love for him at that moment. And an insight. For as long as I can remember, ever since reading of "Mahatma" Gandhi, I had wondered what the term "Great Soul" really meant. And at that moment I finally understood. If part of being a "Great Soul" is to fully respond to the human suffering of the voiceless, and to pour one's entire mind, body and soul into trying to reduce it, I had finally met one. The Jewish tradition puts it a different way, in the legend of the 36 "Just Men" who -- without their knowing it -- at any one moment keep humanity alive. If Noam is not one of those 36, I asked myself, who is? I was also reminded of the many who have compared Noam to honored Old Testament prophets like Amos or Jeremiah, who also angrily criticized the corrupt rulers of their times whose names we do not even remember.

Although decent people can disagree over some of the stands Noam has taken in the past 40 years, I felt that at that moment, on his stairs, such controversies seemed irrelevant to appreciating who he is and what he represents. I realized that while I, like most people I know, have gone in and out of hearing the screams of the victims of U.S. war-making over the past decades, Noam has been unable to screen them out.

During my stay with Noam he was visited by the famed Indian writer Arundhati Roy who, like so many non-Americans around the world, clearly felt tremendous respect, admiration and love for him. I only understood what he meant to her, however, when I read these words from her chapter “The Loneliness of Noam Chomsky”: "Chomsky (reveals) the pitiless heart of the American war machine ... willing to annihilate millions of human beings, civilians, soldiers, women, children, villages, whole ecosystems - with scientifically honed methods of brutality ... When the sun sets on the American empire, as it will, as it must, Noam Chomsky's work will survive ... As a could've been gook, and who knows, perhaps a potential gook, hardly a day goes by when I don't find myself thinking -- for one reason or another -- 'Chomsky Zindabad.’ (‘Long live Chomsky’).“

And I found myself wondering why that is, why Noam is so affected by the suffering of U.S. leaders’ victims.

I have for the past decade immersed myself in the branch of psychology that holds that the key to much of our behavior is how we unconsciously play out early childhood traumas, particularly learning we will die, in our adult lives. And I found myself trying to figure Noam out from that point of view.

I have learned that our lives are largely driven by the unconscious defenses we develop early on against emotional pain. And it became clear to me that a key to understanding Noam is that, for whatever reason, he has fewer defenses than the rest of us against the pain of the world. He has no "skin." He is forever tormented, as I was in Laos, by the suffering of the "unpeople" -- and works around the clock to try and reduce it.

And, conversely, it is when he is with them that he feels most alive and the inner feeling most clearly bursts through his intellectual persona.

During my stay with him I asked Noam whom he most admired in the world. He responded by describing several recent visits to peasants in rural areas of Colombia who are fighting to protect their rain forests from exploitation. Noam spent several days listening to, and recording, their stories of great pain and great courage. On his most recent visit they climbed a hill and, led by their shamans, performed an elaborate ceremony dedicating a forest to Carol. I had not seen him so moved, alive and emotional since 40 years earlier in Laos.

I recently remembered Noam weeping in the Lao refugee camp, and again found myself wondering why he is that way. What in his childhood or life could account for that? It proved impossible to make much progress in this area, however. For Noam not only guards his privacy but is not particularly interested in psychological and spiritual explanations of human behavior. Although he acknowledges that therapy has been useful for people he knows, he regards attempts to explain human behavior as essentially "stories." He believes there are too many variables involved in understanding human beings for the human brain to ever really comprehend it -- not to mention the impossibility of conducting the kind of controlled experiments that might yield scientifically credible answers.

And, one suspects, he regards too much time devoted to such "stories" as misplaced when so many actual human beings are suffering and building mass movements is the only hope of saving them.

If enough of us had worked like Noam to try to force American leaders to stop killing and exploiting the innocent these past 40 years, after all, countless people would have been saved, and America and the world would not only be far richer, more peaceful and more just. It would not be presently heading toward the collapse of civilization as we know it from climate change. Noam believes the major responsibility for this lies with a short-term driven corporate system that regards climate change as an "externality," i.e., a problem for someone else to worry about. But it is also clear that the fact that not enough of the rest of us, certainly including myself, respond appropriately to civilization's looming death is a major part of the problem as well.

And, I thus finally realized, the important question was not why Noam responds the way he does to the suffering of the innocent around the planet.

It was why so many of the rest of us do not.

By Fred Branfman

Fred Branfman can be reached at Fredbranfman@aol.com. His Web site is www.trulyalive.org.

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