When I first went to report the American war against Vietnam, in the 1960s, I visited the Saigon offices of the great American newspapers and TV companies, and the international news agencies.
I was struck by the similarity of displays on many of their office pinboards. "That's where we hang our conscience," said an agency photographer.
There were photographs of dismembered bodies, of soldiers holding up severed ears and testicles and of the actual moments of torture. There were men and women being beaten to death, and drowned, and humiliated in stomach-turning ways. On one photograph was a stick-on balloon above the torturer's head, which said: "That'll teach you to talk to the press."
The question came up whenever visitors caught sight of these pictures: why had they not been published? A standard response was that newspapers would not publish them, because their readers would not accept them. And to publish them, without an explanation of the wider circumstances of the war, was to "sensationalise".
At first, I accepted the apparent logic of this; atrocities and torture by "us" were surely aberrations by definition. My education thereafter was rapid; for this rationale did not explain the growing evidence of civilians killed, maimed, made homeless and sent mad by "anti-personnel" bombs dropped on villages, schools and hospitals.
Nor did it explain the children burned to a bubbling pulp by something called napalm, or farmers hunted in helicopter "turkey shoots", or a "suspect" tortured to death with a rope around his neck, dragged behind a jeep filled with doped and laughing American soldiers.
Nor did it explain why so many soldiers kept human parts in their wallets and special forces officers who kept human skulls in their huts, inscribed with the words: "One down, a million to go."
Philip Jones Griffiths, the great Welsh freelance photographer with whom I worked in Vietnam, tried to stop an American officer blowing to bits a huddled group of women and children.
"They're civilians," he yelled.
"What civilians?" came the reply.
Jones Griffiths and others tried to interest the news agencies in pictures that told the truth about that atrocious war. The response often was: "So what's new?"
THE difference today is that the truth of the equally atrocious Anglo-American invasion of Iraq is news. Moreover, leaked Pentagon documents make clear that torture is widespread in Iraq. Amnesty International says it is "systematic".
And yet, we have only begun to identify the unspeakable element that unites the invasion of Vietnam with the invasion of Iraq. This element draws together most colonial occupations, no matter where or when. It is the essence of imperialism, a word only now being restored to our dictionaries. It is racism.
In Kenya in the 1950s, the British slaughtered an estimated 10,000 Kenyans and ran concentration camps where the conditions were so harsh that 402 inmates died in just one month. Torture, flogging and abuse of women and children were commonplace. "The special prisons," wrote the imperial historian V.G. Kiernan, "were probably as bad as any similar Nazi or Japanese establishments."
None of this was news at the time. The "Mau Mau terror" was reported and perceived one way: as "demonic" black against white. The racist message was clear, but "our" racism was never mentioned.
In Kenya, as in the failed American attempt to colonise Vietnam, as in Iraq, racism fuelled the indiscriminate attacks on civilians, and the torture. When they arrived in Vietnam, the Americans regarded the Vietnamese as human lice. They called them "gooks" and "dinks" and "slopes" and they killed them in industrial quantities, just as they had slaughtered the Native Americans; indeed, Vietnam was known as "Indian country".
In Iraq, nothing has changed.