By Pubali Ray Chaudhuri
Welcome to Hell: An open letter to Mr. Clint Guidry of South Louisiana
Dear Mr. Guidry:
I read with deep distress “Hell has come to South Louisiana,” your lament for your beloved land, now devastated by the BP oil spill. All of us who are human must feel your loss and pain deeply -- and so do I. But I wish at the same time to put that Hell of which you speak, into some kind of context for you -- perhaps to place it within a context wherein you may not have heard it placed before. This letter, and its message, is not for you alone -- it might well be written to any ordinary citizen now feeling the first pangs of the hell that was inevitable with the march of the neoliberal juggernaut. It is a letter of pain, of fellow-feeling, and above all, as hinted above, of welcome. Welcome to the world of those who suffer.
This letter, Mr. Guidry, is not essentially a letter of criticism. If I had to describe its essence, its true message, I’d say this is a love-letter. And a letter of invitation to fellow feeling, to mutual knowledge and understanding. For at the heart of all true love lies fellow feeling. We can only love those whom we see as neighbors, never those whom we perceive as alien, as other.
This letter is sent as a wake-up call to all the Americans who are now feeling -- and rightfully so -- shafted by a system that has already cut large swaths of devastation in the world outside the U.S. (Yes, contrary to what many Americans think, there is a world outside the U.S.) Americans who are now losing their jobs, their healthcare, their futures -- and in the case of Louisiana, their entire environments and livelihoods, have one overwhelming reaction -- incredulity. We are surprised, for instance, that hell should have come to South Louisiana. We understand when other nations struggle with high unemployment, food riots, chronic poverty, appalling rates of child malnutrition. That’s them. Those poor, benighted, backward nations. (Underneath is the unspoken assumption: it’s their own damn fault for not managing their affairs better).
But us? This can’t be happening to us. Why, we’re good people. We are a nation that always strives for the greater good of others, are we not? So then how can such a fate, so easy to accept when it happens to others, befall us? We are immune; they are mortal.
So we thought, until the Götterdämmerung.
But there’s no real cause for surprise. For this system of rampant capitalism and its neoliberal avatar of globalization of profits are at the heart of the hell that has come to Louisiana.
What’s surprising, really, is that it took so long.
For Hell has taken its time getting to Louisiana, Mr. Guidry. Hell had an itinerary. It stopped off at a few places first: Iran. The Philippines. Haiti. Guatemala. Greece. East Timor. Indonesia. Ghana.
I could name many more -- and will eventually do so -- but let us for now be content with these few. These countries, Mr. Guidry, have not only had hell come to them -- they’ve been devoured whole by those infernal flames, burned and charred and roasted in the fires lit and relit by this very country -- the United States of America and its assorted allies both national and transnational. When these fires were raging, and their victims screaming for international attention, for help, for succor, how many people in the U.S. cared what their country was doing to poor people -- sometimes thousands of miles away, and at others in their very “backyard”?
How many in Louisiana cared?
Did you, Mr. Guidry?
Did anyone you know?
At this moment of crisis in your life and in the life of your community, when everything you lived for and lived with and lived by has been irrevocably scarred by the fires of this “hell” of which you speak so truthfully, so poignantly, with such a sense of personal loss and suffering, you could use above all the solidarity and understanding of other scarred peoples.
But just as you would expect them to show some awareness of your plight, so might they expect you to display some knowledge of, and empathy with, theirs.
Do you have that knowledge? Do you want it? Want it or no, you surely need it, for no struggle takes place in a vacuum; no resistance can effect real change without the knowledge of how it connects with other struggles.
It’s time to think globally. Only thus can you resist the global tentacles that now have their death-grip on your corner of coastal Louisiana; only thus can you extinguish the hell in which you now burn.
It’s time for your community to know that others -- not in the USA, but nonetheless as human as you, as prick-able and bleed-able, for all that they are mostly black and brown, have also suffered -- excruciatingly, silently, outside the USA, but because of the USA -- suffered in their hundreds, in their thousands, in their millions.
Louisiana is only the latest stop for this train with its cargo of hell, driven by the corporatocracy, the military-industrial complex; call it what you will. Here are some of the other places where this hell-train has made prolonged, brutal, even genocidal stops, where the fires it lit are still extant, now ablaze, now smoldering, now leaping up afresh -- all of which fires could not have enjoyed such, long, healthy lives, nor their victims such long, tortuous, exquisite agonies of torment -- had it not been for this very country, the United States, that has for decades exploited, oppressed, tortured, killed, by every foul means possible and with the unhesitating deployment of the vilest of instruments and compradors, the wretched of country after country -- in fact, any group or community that displayed that strange notion so unpalatable to empires everywhere, that a people are entitled to dictate the terms of their own destinies.
Now the Empire has returned to its roots, Mr. Guidry; that is all. The pattern of its abominations is unchanged; the places and identities of the victims change, but the hell that they face remains similar, for the perpetrator -- the neoliberal system, with its military and economic headquarters in the United States -- is the same.
Hell has indeed come to South Louisiana, Mr. Guidry.
Hell has come home.
Now for a few more names: Vietnam. Laos. Cambodia. Guatemala. Honduras. Nicaragua. Iraq. Afghanistan. Pakistan.
It is a merry old train, is it not? It sure gets around.
Let us take the name at the top of the list, first. It is likely to be the name most familiar to you, for you have identified yourself as a Vietnam Veteran, without a trace of shame or embarrassment, as though serving in a completely unjustified, criminal war of imperialist aggression against a people far poorer than your own is a virtue. As though that service differs in any material sense from a terrorist act against an unoffending and completely innocent target. As though, to draw an obvious parallel, BP Chief Tony Hayward should be proud of his actions in the Gulf -- for has he not served his company and fattened its bottom-line to the best of his ability? And is not Tony Hayward therefore an honourable man?
But wait, you say, with rising indignation. How dare you, you say, compare my honourable service to my country to the repulsive, inhuman actions of a Tony Hayward? Well, look at it this way, Mr. Guidry. The actions of U.S. military personnel in Vietnam were the actions of state terrorists against people who had no intention whatever of causing any harm to this country or to its people. Incredible as it may seem, little, powerless countries are as reluctant to challenge the big, armed-to-the-teeth, bloody-to-the-elbows superpower as the shivering, runty kid might be to take on the hulking schoolyard bully.
The Vietnam war was not a “mistake.” It was an act of international terrorism, perpetrated overwhelmingly against a civilian population. When you participated in it, you may have thought you were serving your country.
You were not.
What you were doing was acting as a tool for the largest and most lethal terrorist state in the modern world against a small nation whose dwellers were utterly helpless in the face of the hell -- that word again! -- unleashed upon them with unbridled savagery by the United States of America.
And the destruction was not limited to human life -- not limited to the 11 oil-rig workers you so rightly mourn. Millions of Vietnamese perished. Millions more were maimed, millions more were born deformed. The hopes, the lives, the prospects of millions, young children, old women, the sick, the infirm were utterly and irrevocably destroyed.
Just as is happening to you now -- with this difference. You have lost 11 people forever.
They, Mr. Guidry, lost nearly all they had.
And the destruction, as in Louisiana, was not limited to human life alone. The United States used, and reused, horrifying chemical weapons of mass destruction upon the hapless Indo-Chinese. Thanks to those weapons, hell still stalks the lands of Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos. As they likely will in the Gulf States, people there have continued to suffer for decades, right up until the present day, with birth deformities, cancers, and death or mutilation by unexploded “bomblets” -- cute word, is it not? -- like something cuddly and attractive, meant for children? Well, children are precisely whom they do attract. The kids, stumbling in their play across these curious little objects, mistake them for toys, and pick them up. Then -- the usual danse macabre -- shredded guts, flying limbs, sightless, burned-out eyes. Yearly hundreds, at lowest count, of children are killed or wounded by these little toys of death. The higher -- and probably more accurate -- estimates run into the tens of thousands. A year.
Why do I tell you all this? you will say. Indeed, what have you to do with all the U.S.-supported dictators crushing their captive subjects, the death squads spreading terror through farming villages populated by brown and black-skinned folk, the “free trade” agreements that make economic prisoners of entire nations, sending them begging for handouts from the IMF and the World Bank, with the millions displaced in Iraq and Afghanistan and Pakistan, with the hundreds incinerated by Hellfire missiles and unmanned drones, in countries where you’ve never been?
Well, that’s a perfectly legitimate question and -- as with my argument in its entirety -- has a rather straightforward answer.
Sir, the oppressed people of these countries -- the people that your leaders have kept in hell, in your name and by means of the silence or indifference of U.S citizens -- are your brothers and sisters.
The Muslim men rotting without trial in Guantánamo are your brothers. Yours and mine.
The “illegal” Latinos who, driven by poverty resulting from our “free-trade” agreements with them, make their way across the border to our country, to pick our fruit and mow our lawns and scour our toilets, are your brothers and sisters. Yours and mine.
The Ghanaian children who toil to make most of the chocolate that Americans consume, are your children. Yours and mine.
The Afghans whose wedding songs are turned into funeral dirges by unmanned U.S. drones, are your brothers and sisters. Yours and mine.
Our siblings in misery and humanity, and -- if we wish -- in struggle and resistance.
And the transnational corporate and military machine that grinds them relentlessly, is the same one, Mr. Guidry, that now laps viciously, uglily -- but inevitably, given the nature of the beast -- at the shores of your Louisiana home. These people, too, see their human rights decimated, the protections to which they are entitled removed, and their social safety nets unraveled, by the same relentless pursuit of profit that now deprives the Louisianans working for BP and those affected by the spill of their rights. For when profits trump safety measures, as, in a capitalist-driven system, they always will, this oil spill was just a matter of time.
If you have not heeded their cries before, for the sake of all that you love, heed them now. They are crushed under the same heel that now grinds you down. In the quest for control of their resources, in the deathly determination of the “free market” to have a captive consumer base, they and theirs have been sacrificed in the same way as your community is now being sacrificed.
Do you take pride in your service in Vietnam? Your pride is misplaced, and in as abysmal taste to any Vietnamese as a BP minion’s pride in having served his company faithfully by screwing over the people of Louisiana.
Do you, as many ordinary American citizens do, oppose the war(s) but “support the troops”? Such support is akin to supporting terrorists while at the same time opposing terror. If you would indeed show solidarity with the vast human family of suffering people whose ranks you have now unwillingly joined, please understand that going to war against people even poorer and more unfortunate than yourself is not to express solidarity with them. Tell this truth to all in your community; demand that the troops return, that they refuse to serve as killing machines for criminal wars. Acknowledge that the “hell” that has come to Louisiana is the latest -- merely the latest -- in a long series of infinitely more brutal hells that have consumed country after country, and encircled, many times over, the entire globe.
Think how strong will be your voice when it joins with millions of other voices -- black, brown, white, Muslim, Christian, Hindu -- all declaring with joy and determination that another world is possible. Extend but once the hand of friendship and apology to a Vietnamese, a Chilean, an Afghan who has suffered as you have suffered, and you will find that forgiveness and reconciliation will not be long withheld. Say but once: “Forgive me, sister, for my part in what my country has done to you,” and mean it - and you will see your cause immeasurably strengthened, your voice magnified, blending with the roar, pulsing with the rhythm of that strongest and most enduring of all voices: the voice of suffering and struggling humanity.
You are not alone. Stretch out that hand.
The world awaits you.