As We Grieve

By Renato Redentor Constantino The U.S. needs to quit touting its generosity and give more aid to tsunami victims.

By Renato Redentor Constantino

There is no space wider than that of grief, wrote the poet Pablo Neruda. “There is no universe like that which bleeds.” On the planet of sorrow, “there is no street, no one has a door. The sand opens up only to a tremor. And the whole sea opens the whole of silence.”

Poetry, said Italo Calvino, is the art of putting the ocean into a glass.

Imperial truth: pretending the glass of water is an ocean.

Imperial love: America’s first offer of aid to tsunami victims: $15 million. Cost of one F-22 Raptor jet: $225 million. Cost of Kerry and Bush campaigns: $400 million. Cost of America’s occupation of Iraq per day: $280 million.

Relief from empire arithmetic: subtract the U.S. from Iraq and then throw the entirety of the sum saved into the reconstruction needs of South Asia and the Middle East.

Imperial relief: tsunami = opportunity to buzz around scene of disaster, put on shock-and-awe screen-saver face, and save face.

“It turns out that the majority of those nations affected were Muslim nations,” said US Secretary of State Colin Powell after touring earthquake and tsunami-stricken Banda Aceh, Indonesia, from the air. “We’d be doing it regardless of religion,” said Mr. Powell, referring to the Bush administration’s niggling aid contribution. “But I think it does give the Muslim world and the rest of the world… an opportunity to see American generosity, American values in action.”

The world shamed the U.S. government into increasing its tsunami assistance from the initially pitiful $15 million offer, a measure of indifference, to the wholly inadequate $350 million. The White House insists no, no, there’s more to come. Whatever. Just give; it’s horribly needed. But please stop the preening.

“I cannot begin to imagine the horror that went through the families and all of the people who heard this noise coming and had their lives snuffed out by this wave,” sniffed Mr. Powell as he surveyed the devastation in Aceh. “The power of the wave to destroy bridges, to destroy factories, to destroy homes, to destroy crops, to destroy everything in its path is amazing.”

Very observant, Mr. Powell. But there are tides and tides — and some tides have yet to recede from the region.

“The damage done by the deluge far exceeded the hopes of everyone,” reported the U.S. Fifth Air Force gleefully in May 1953 after wave upon wave of American fighter-bombers had destroyed and emptied the 2,300-foot Toksan dam, an earth-and-stone reservoir in North Korea. Floodwaters from the dam surged and washed out bridges and roads and swept away railway lines. The massive flash-flood destroyed hundreds of buildings and devastated rice field after rice field.

“Go massive. Sweep it all up, things related or not” insisted Donald Rumsfeld on September 11, 2001 as he ordered his aides to come up with a plan to attack Iraq a mere five hours after American Airlines Flight 77 plowed into the Pentagon. Yes sir! Back to the future!

In 1953, an American commanding general in Korea described the annihilation of the Toksan dam as “perhaps the most spectacular [strike] of the war” and “immediately scheduled two more dams for destruction.” Five more dams lay in ruins when the work was done. Five dams which together “supplied water for the irrigation system of an area that produced three-quarters of North Korea’s rice.”

U.S. Air Force accounts joyously described the intended consequences of the campaign. “To the average Oriental,” wrote one report “. . . an empty rice bowl symbolizes starvation.”

The Oriental “could stand the loss of industry” stated another. He “could sustain great loss of human life, for life is plentiful and apparently cheap in the Orient.” But not rice. “The Westerner,” the report declared, “can little conceive the awesome meaning which the loss of this stable food commodity has for the Asian — starvation and slow death . . . Attacks on the precious water supply had struck where it hurts most.”

“The last time an act of this kind had been carried out, which was by the Nazis in Holland in 1944,” said Korea historians Jon Halliday and Bruce Cumings, “it had been deemed a war crime at Nuremberg.”

“I hope that as a result of our efforts, as a result of our helicopter pilots being seen . . . [America’s] value system will be reinforced,” Colin Powell said after stepping out of a helicopter.

No need for such reinforcement. It was never in doubt.

Soon after the ouster of the Khmer Rouge, which had inundated Cambodia with four years of slaughter, America the generous extended its generous hand and provided, among other forms of assistance, $85 million in direct support to a group headed by someone named . . . Pol Pot.

Renato Redentor Constantino worked for a number of years with Greenpeace in Southeast Asia and most recently with Greenpeace in China. Constantino still works with Greenpeace campaigns, including documenting the impact of global warming and dirty energy as well as securing beachheads for the massive uptake of renewable energy in Asia. Constantino writes a regular column for the Philippine national daily TODAY. He can be reached at

Copyright C2005 Renato Redentor Constantino

Read an introduction to this piece by Tom Engelhardt at Tomdispatch, where it first appeared.


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