Passing of a Great and Visionary Warrior for Peace

Fred Branfman's final piece for AlterNet asks Israel's supporters: Where do you draw the line between 'defense' and atrocities?
Editor's Note: AlterNet is resurfacing this article published in August by Fred Branfman, who died this week in Budapest. Over the past five years, AtlerNet was proud to publish his articles focusing on war and empire and the rise of the national security state. Branfman has touched the lives of many prominent activists and intellectuals and public figures, from Noam Chomsky to CodePink founder Jodie Evans to California governor Jerry Brown. This passage from an essay by Branfmanshares the account of how he met and inspired Noam Chomsky in Laos to join the antiwar movement. 
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.

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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.

From Branfman's Wikipedia page: Fred Branfman "was an American anti-war activist and author of a number of books about the Indochina War who exposed the covert bombing of Laos by the US. ... Branfman worked as a policy advisor for former California governor Jerry Brown, Gary Hart and Tom Hayden. Branfman was working as an educational advisor for the U.S. government in Laos, when in September 1969 thousands of refugees fled into the Laotian capital of Vientiane. ... His articles have appeared in the New York Times, the Washington Post, Harper's, Playboy, Salon and The New Republic."

The following is the final article Branfman wrote. Visit his AlterNet archives for more.

Open Letter to Israel’s Supporters: Where Do You Draw the Line Between 'Defense' and Atrocities?

Dear U.S. supporters of Israel in Gaza:

If you believed the IDF could destroy Hamas by employing portable gas chambers or chemical weapons to publicly gas over 1,400 Gazan civilians, including 400 children, chosen at random, would you favor doing so? I guess not. Perhaps you even feel insulted at the suggestion that you might. But this raises a basic question: if you would not favor gassing Palestinan civilians, how do you justify your support for blowing them to bits?

The controversial issue is not Israel trying to destroy Hamas tunnels. Nor is it the attempt to destroy rockets, as if the Israelis can claim that they reasonably suspected the 46-48,000 U.N.-estimated buildings they either partially or totally destroyed contained rockets. Nor is it rightfully condemning Hamas for rocketing civilian targets as well. As even long-term apologists for Israeli violence like the New Republic’s Leon Wieseltier acknowledge, the issue is massive Israeli bombing and shelling of the civilian infrastructure in Gaza, which is wholly disproportionate to combatting tunnels and/or rockets.

This raises the basic question: as a human being, where do you draw the line? How do you justify your support for mass misery inflicted on hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians? The bombing and shelling campaign, whatever its stated intent, has not only murdered 1,400 civilians and maimed thousands more, but destroyed hospitals, schools, businesses, and Gaza’s only power station, plunging 1.8 million Gazans into darkness and depriving them even of drinking water, created over 400,000 refugees, and traumatized a U.N.-estimated 373,000 children. Your own integrity requires that you at least acknowledge the facts rather than, as so many of Israel’s supporters do, accept at face-value Israeli claims that it sought to avoid civilian destruction.

I answered such questions for myself 45 years ago, when I discovered that civilians were well over 90% of the victims of U.S. leaders’ mass bombing of northern Laos. I concluded then that there is never any moral or legal justification for mass bombing or shelling of civilians. Period. 

The World Can’t Wait website has just posted a PowerPoint presentation on the years-long bombing of northern Laos, perhaps the worst unknown crime of the 20th century. It combines an analysis of automated war, the writings of the rice farmers who suffered most and were heard from least, and my personal story in discovering  and trying to expose it to the world. A Lao mother summed up the nature of mass bombing of civilians for all time: “There was danger as the sound of airplanes led me to be terribly, terribly afraid of dying. When looking at the faces of my children who were losing the so very precious happiness of childhood I would grow in­creasingly miserable. In reality, whatever happens, it is the innocent who suffer.”

The question of protecting civilians in wartime far transcends the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: it is a basic measurement of the progress of human civilization. Not only Israel’s humanity, but yours is at stake in your support for Israel’s recent attacks on Gaza.

There are two basic questions regarding warfare: 1) whether a given war is considered legitimate, e.g. whether it is “aggressive war”; and 2) how civilians are treated once a war is launched. These are two distinct questions—even if you consider a given war legitimate there is no moral or legal justification for waging it in a way that mainly murders and maims civilians.

The evolution of international law on  this question,  beginning with the 1907 Hague Convention, has been slow and painful. But it is today unequivocal: waging war in a way that results primarily in civilian deaths and damage is a punishable war crime. Article 85 of the 1949 Geneva Conventions states categorically that “the following acts shall be regarded as grave breaches of this Protocol… launching an indiscriminate attack affecting the civilian population or civilian objects in the knowledge that such attack will cause excessive loss of life, injury to civilians or damage to civilian objects.”

That is a precise description of Israeli bombing and shelling in Gaza.

Israel claims it is justified in maiming and murdering civilians because Hamas is using them as “human shields.” But there is always a military and political rationale for bombing civilians. In Laos, Deputy CIA Director James Lilley explained that though North Vietnamese soldiers were not in the villages, they would hide there if the U.S. didn’t bomb civilians. Prime Minister Nethanyahu offers a similar rationale for mass civilian murder today.

Other rationales include hoping that mass murder of civilians will turn the population against their leaders, as when former Israeli General Amos Yadlin stated in the N.Y. Times that Israel must bomb partly so that “Gaza’s people (are) given the chance to elect new leaders." As the U.S. Senate Refugee Subcommittee concluded after visiting Laos, the bombing’s purpose was to hurt the enemy by destroying its "social and economic infrastructure.” This was also General Curtis Lemay’s basic rationale for burning alive over 100,000 Japanese civilians in the firebombing of Tokyo on March 9, 1945, an act for which Lemay acknowledged at the time, and his assistant Robert McNamara later also admitted, was a war crime. (See Note 1 below.)

It is precisely because there is always a rationale for bombing civilians that the progress of human civilization is largely measured by the extent to which civilians are protected in times of war from indiscriminate bombing and shelling, and that those who violate these rules are prosecuted for crimes of war. Protecting civilians against indiscriminate murder is not only a question of war. It is a measure of your own humanity.

Civilian Impact of Israel’s 2014 Attack on Gaza

CIVILIAN DEAD AND WOUNDED: A U.N.-estimated 1396 Palestinian civilians killed including  222 women and 418 children, thousands more wounded. (Source: Information Management Unit in the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, from “Month-long War in Gaza Has Left a Humanitarian and Environmental Crisis,” Washington Post. August 6, 2014)

CHILDREN: “Pernille Ironside, who runs the UNICEF field office in Gaza, said the agency estimates that roughly 373,000 Palestinian children have had some kind of direct traumatic experience as a result of the attack and will require immediate psycho-social support … (She) added that she's seen ‘children coming out of these shelters with scabies, lice, all kinds of communicable diseases.’” (Source: “Amid Gaza's Ruins, Impact on Children Most 'Severe': UN Official”, Common Dreams, August 6, 2014)

ECONOMIC INFRASTRUCTURE: “175 of Gaza’s most successful industrial plants had also taken devastating hits, plunging an already despairing economy into a deeper abyss” (Source: “Conflict Leaves Industry in Ashes and Gaza Reeling From Economic Toll”, NY Times, August 6, 2014)

MOSQUES, FARMING, INDUSTRY: “As many as 80 mosques have been damaged or destroyed. Many farming areas and industrial zones, filled with the small manufacturing plants and factories that anchored Gaza’s economy, are now wastelands.” (Source: “Month-long War in Gaza Has Left a Humanitarian and Environmental Crisis,” Washington Post. August 6, 2014)

WATER INFRASTRUCTURE: Oxfam said: “We’re working in an environment with a completely destroyed water infrastructure that prevents people in Gaza from cooking, flushing toilets or washing [their] hands.” (Source: “Gaza’s Survivors Now Face A Battle For Water, Shelter And Power,” The Independent, August 5, 2014)

400,000 REFUGEES, 46-48,000 HOMES: “Frode Mauring, the UN  Development Programme’s special representative said that with 16-18,000 homes totally destroyed and another 30,000 partially damaged, and 400,000 internally displaced people, ‘the current situation for Gaza is devastating.’” (Source: “Gaza’s Survivors Now Face A Battle For Water, Shelter And Power”, The Independent, August 5, 2014)

ELECTRICITY: “Mr Mauring said that the bombing of Gaza’s only power station and the collapse  at least six of the 10 power lines from Israel, had ‘huge development and humanitarian consequences’ (Source: “Gaza’s Survivors Now Face A Battle For Water, Shelter And Power,” The Independent, August 5, 2014)

SCHOOLS, REFUGEE CENTERS: “United Nations officials accused Israel of violating international law after artillery shells slammed into a school overflowing with evacuees Wednesday … The building was the sixth U.N. school in the Gaza Strip to be rocked by explosions during the conflict. (Source: “U.N. Says Israel Violated International Law, After Shells Hit School In Gaza”, Washington Post, July 30, 2014)

HOSPITALS: “Israeli forces fired a tank shell at a hospital in Gaza on Monday … It was the third hospital Israel's military has struck since launching a ground offensive in Gaza last week.” (Source: “Another Gaza Hospital Hit by Israeli Strike,” NBC News, July 21, 2014)

HOSPITALS, HEALTH WORKERS: “There has been mounting evidence that the Israel Defense Forces launched apparently deliberate attacks against hospitals and health professionals in Gaza … Philip Luther, Middle East and North Africa Director at Amnesty International (said) ‘the Israeli army has targeted health facilities or professionals. Such attacks are absolutely prohibited by international law and would amount to war crimes.’” (Source: “Mounting Evidence Of Deliberate Attacks On Gaza Health Workers By Israeli Army,” Amnesty International, August 7, 2014)


1. Robert McNamara, from the Errol Morris film Fog of War: "LeMay said, ‘If we'd lost the war, we'd all have been prosecuted as war criminals.’ And I think he's right. He, and I'd say I, were behaving as war criminals. LeMay recognized that what he was doing would be thought immoral if his side had lost. But what makes it immoral if you lose and not immoral if you win?"