In his 1967 essay titled Vietnam: Imperialism and Genocide, French philosopher Jean Paul Sartre, then serving as the President of the International War Crimes Tribunal, delivered a scathing indictment of US militarism in Vietnam, calling it a “policy of aggression . . . aiming at total genocide”, and a crime “not only against the Vietnamese but against humanity.” This statement was written just three months after US army general, William Westmoreland explained that he was engaged in this war of aggression in the humid fields of Indochina “to show that guerrilla warfare does not pay.”
This notion, that indigenous resistance to “colonial domination, alien occupation, or racist regimes” is illegitimate has been a dominant theme in the post-war US foreign policy and warrants serious examination especially at a time when we continue to pursue this policy of crass militarism from the drought ridden plains of Afghanistan to the “tribal” borderlands of Pakistan.
One rich source of insight into this historical norm can be found in the analytical and often impassioned writings of Argentine guerrilla fighter Ernesto “Che” Guevara. In this collection of his writings and speeches titled Che Guevara Speaks, much needed light is shed on the calculated brutality of imperial ambition.
The text begins with a short interview with two Chinese journalists in which Guevara lays down his plans in addressing the dysfunctional state of Cuban national finances, promoting egalitarian land rights, and dismantling the repressive socioeconomic structures of the newly deposed Batista dictatorship. It’s crucial to note that Guevara’s policy of agrarian reform struck right at the heart of the imperatives of power and privilege. To dissolve the latifundias (the large landed estates) is to place the ownership of Cuban territory in the hands of the Cuban population, an intolerable affront to the motives of empire.
This rejection of territorial rights remains with us today in the 108 year old US colony in Guantanamo Bay, a project that Guevara called for the US to abort at the 19th Session of the UN General Assembly in December of 1964. Calls of this kind for territorial integrity have not only remained poignant but are more poignant than ever as this naval base has become an illegal prison, not to mention the systematic rejection of Palestinian self-determination which, at this point, defies all boundaries of obscenity.
But the romanticized image of Guevara as a rifle toting, beret wearing, rebel to be printed on t- shirts and posters really obscures the deeply significant analytical insights that he had to offer to a world inching closer and closer to the precipice of social, economic, and even thermonuclear destruction. On September 17, 1960 he gave a speech upon Fidel Castro’s trip to New York saying “the government of the United States represents, as its army also does, the finances of the United States” and that “these finances do not represent the North American people; they represent owners of all the big enterprises . . . who also exploit North American people.”
How could any able-minded person ignore this fact when the wealth disparity between corporate CEOs and average workers is widening at a morally indefensible pace? Take for example the fact that the bottom four-fifths of households had less wealth in 2009 ($62,900) than in 1983 ($65,300) while the wealth of the top fifth was 50% larger in 2009 than in 1983.
This fact is accompanied by more disturbing trends like the fact that 20% of American children now live below the poverty line, while 10.6% of children had at least one unemployed parent. This is at the same time that President Obama is giving speeches about the “unnecessary burdens” placed on corporations. But what about the burdens placed on average workers who played no role in flipping the speculative capital that has paralyzed the economy, a paralysis that has created opportunities for morally bankrupt politicians like Rick Perry who shamelessly calls Social Security a “ponzi scheme.” These are all urgent challenges of our time and it doesn’t necessarily take the revolutionary fervor of a Che Guevara for us to do something about it.
Reading Che’s speeches one develops a more detailed perception of how the savage brutality of an F16 bomber plane is inextricably linked to the utilitarian calculations of an investment portfolio. In this respect, Westmoreland was right when he said “guerrilla warfare does not pay.” This privilege is reserved for the conventional warfare of nation states. Just ask Boeing, Raytheon, or General Dynamics and they’ll let you know that the terrors of war pays handsomely. But the writings of Guevara point to another end, one that elevates health over profits, and liberation over payments. To add a twist to the old Wilsonian slogan of “Peace without Victory”, Guevara sought victory without profits.
Studying this text one senses that curious mixture of love, intellectual rigor, and an “intransigent hate for the enemy” that drove a man to dedicate his life to defending the oppressed people of the world. One perceives a somber portrait of a man, not to be worshiped as some cult leader, but as someone who failed to achieve his goal of bringing about the silent death of imperialism, a man who said “I am not sorry that I leave my children and my wife with nothing material.” His works should be read in a manner that is critical and keenly aware of the startling congruities between his militant fight against global injustice and the diversity of resistance movements that are with us today.
Indeed, Mr. Guevara was one of those men who “risks his skin to prove his truths”, a student of life who understood that “struggle is the great teacher.” With that being said, I think the best we can do is enroll as pupils of this “great teacher” called struggle because I have good reason to suspect that the traditional power centers will continue to create new, thriving spaces for revolutionary scholarship.