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August 8, 2012

BENTRE, Feb. 7 (AP)―“It became necessary to destroy the town to save it,” a United States major said today

He was talking about the decision by allied commanders to bomb and shell the town regardless of civilian casualties, to rout the Vietcong.

The New York Times: “Major Describe Moves”, February 8, 1968, p. 14.

The New York Times, “Major Describe Moves”, February 8, 1968, p. 14

The authenticity of this quote is questioned: see the detailed explanation provided by Ralph Keyes below, along with complementary resources. The fact that this particular quote may not be authentic does not really compromise the relevance of the following comments. For one, the very same ideas were expressed by James Reston, a journalist from The New York Times, just the day before, on February 7, 1968 (see below for more details).

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In his book Bios ([2004]2008), Roberto Esposito directly addresses this kind of aporetical proposition which is far from being unique to the Vietnam War:

Two months after the terrorist attacks of September 11, a new kind of “humanitarian” war takes shape in the skies above Afghanistan. The adjective humanitarian no longer concerns the reactions behind the conflict―as had occurred in Bosnia and Kosovo, namely, to defend entire populations from the threat of ethnic genocide―but its privileged instrument, which is to say air bombardments. And so we find that both highly destructive bombs were released along with provisions and medicine on the same territory at the same time. We must not lose sight of the threshold that is crossed here. The problem doesn’t lie only in the dubious juridical legitimacy of wars fought in the name of universal rights on the basis of arbitrary or biased decisions on the part of those who had the force to impose and execute them, and not even in the lack of uniformity often established between proposed ends and the results that are obtained. The most acute oxymoron of humanitarian bombardment lies rather in the superimposition that is manifested in it between the declared intention to defend life and to produce actual death. (tr. Timothy Campbell, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, [2004]2008, p. 4)

In the second volume of his trilogy (Immunitas in 2002) Esposito associated this “acute oxymoron” to the immunitarian paradigm:

For life to remain as such, it must submit itself to an alien force that, if not entirely hostile, at least inhibits its development. It must incorporate a fragment of the nothingness that it seeks to prevent, simply by deferring it. This is where the structurally aporetic character of the immunitary process is to be located: unable to directly achieve its objective, it is forced to pursue it from the inside out. In so doing, it remains its objective in the horizon of meaning of its opposite: it can prolong life, but only by continuously giving it a taste of death. (Immunitas, tr. Zakiya Hanafi, Cambridge: Polity Press [2002]2001, pp. 8-9)

The relationship between community (our shared coexistence) and death is very old: it runs from mythological and biblical narratives through sacrificial rituals and parricides all the way to the undifferentiated character of area bombing during the Second World War and the mass murders of the 21st century.

Maurice Blanchot once suggested that death was the ultimate unthinkable (since the experience of death implies the destruction of the subject who experienced it, it cannot, could never be “his” or “her” death). And yet, or maybe precisely because of that, that’s what we share: if death cannot be proper, then it is and has always been common, among us and between us. This could explain, in part, the brutal uneasiness that stems from the oxymoronic quotation about the city of Ben Tre: its unthinkability which we didn’t want to share but was nonetheless –still is– among us.

Previously: On the threshold of knowledge, Living together, dying apart.

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The most detailed account of the various controversies surrounding the quote reported by Peter Arnett in The New York Times is given by Ralph Keyes in his book The Quote Verifier:

This is by far the most familiar quotation to emerge from the Vietnam War. These few words seemed to capture perfectly the absurd futility of America’s presence in Vietnam. They were originally reported by Peter Arnett of the Associated Press, who quoted an unidentified American officer on why the village of Ben Tre was leveled during the Tet Offensive in early 1968: “It became necessary to destroy the town in order to save it.” A two-paragraph version of the AP dispatch was buried on page 14 of The New York Times, with no byline. Other newspaper substituted the word “village” for “town.” Due to Peter Arnett’s solid reputation as a reporter, this quotation was not questioned at the time. Eventually, however, doubts were expressed about its authenticity. For one thing, Ben Tre was not a town but a provincial capital of fifty thousand. For another, although heavily damaged by fighting, Ben Tre was not leveled. Only a handful of American soldiers took part in combat there. Their senior officer, army major Phil Cannella, later recalled telling Arnett that it was unfortunate that some of Ben Tre was destroyed in the course of its defense. Cannella thought he might have said at most, “It was a shame the town was destroyed.” Cannella, who later turned against the war, believes Arnett may have embellished this comment by him. Arnett himself has steadfastly refused to identify the source of this famous quotation. He did tell writer Peter Braestrup it was one of four officers he’d interviewed on that day in 1968. As Braestrup pointed out in his book Big Story, the day before Arnett’s story ran, columnist James Reston wrote in his New York Times column, “How do we win by military force without destroying what we are trying to save?” Reston’s column concluded, “How will we save Vietnam if we destroy it in a battle?” Verdict: A quotation this seminal needs better confirmation. (The Quote Verifier by Ralph Keyes, New York: St. Martin’s Griffin, 2006, pp. 43-44)

For more, see the following links:

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