Tuesday, August 21, 2007

August 21

Today marks the 65th anniversary of the Battle of Stalingrad, which began with Luftwaffe
raids over the city on August 21, 1942. During the six months that followed, more than 1.5 million soldiers and civilians perished, as Stalingrad itself was reduced to rubble and ash. The battle became the turning point in the European war, as the German drive eastward was halted. While some 10,000 German troops hid in the sewers and wreckage -- waging a futile guerilla campaign that lasted another year -- nearly 100,000 more surrendered, of whom barely 6000 eventually survived the war. The rest were shipped to Soviet labor camps, where they were undone by disease, malnutrition and overwork.

Nearly two decades later, the pointless waste of human life continued in Southeast Asia. Throughout much of 1963, Buddhists openly defied the US-backed South Vietnamese regime of Ngo Dinh Diem. Diem, an autocratic and deeply paranoid Catholic, believed the Buddhists were in league with the Communists, against whom the Saigon government had been waging civil war for more than three years. Street demonstrations and self-immolations -- most famously that of Thich Quang Duc in June 1963 -- had persuaded Diem that his leadership was imperiled; discontent within the South Vietnamese Army did not help the matter, as Diem convinced himself that his forces might not be willing to repel an attack against him.

Shortly after midnight on August 21, South Vietnamese special forces executed raids against Buddhist temples in Saigon, Da Nang, Hkanhhoa and Hue, arresting and killing hundreds of monks and nuns in a crackdown that exposed both the fragility and the brutality of the Diem government. Bearing shotguns, carbines and submachine guns, combat police trashed the Xa Loi pagoda in Saigon and the Tu Dam and Dieu De pagodas in Hue. At Xa Loi, government forces absconded with the heart of Thich Quang Duc; at Tu Dam, soldiers stole $30,000 from the temple treasury while making off with the coffin of a priest who had also burnt himself to death in protest against Diem.

By morning, the country was in a state of uproar. Taking to the airwaves, President Diem declared martial law:
Under Article 44 of the constitution, I declare a state of siege throughout the national territory. I confer upon the army of the Republic of Viet Nam the responsibility to restore security and public order so that the state may be protected, Communism defeated, freedom secured, and democracy achieved.
Over the next few weeks, thousands of Buddhists were arrested and tortured. The anti-Buddhist crackdown was the beginning of the end for Diem, who was assassinated ten weeks later.

Within a year after the August 1963 raids, the United States had successfully fabricated a pretext for a more elaborate intervention in South Vietnam.