Thursday, February 07, 2008

February 7

On this date in 1968, an American Army major explained that “it became necessary to destroy the town in order to save it.”

The town to which the officer referred was Ben Tre, in Kien Hoa province, where American and South Vietnamese forces battled NLF fighters for several days as the Tet Offensive ground onward. At battle’s end, over 1000 people were dead and more than 10,000 rendered homeless, as US artillery and jet fighters reduced half the city to rubble. At one point during the battle for Ben Tre, fighting was halted temporarily as both sides dumped the bodies of the dead into the Mekong River.

One hundred and thirty six years before the destruction of Ben Tre was concluded, American warships leveled a Sumatran town -- not to save it, but rather to avenge an attack on the merchant vessel The Friendship by pirates the previous year. Most of the American crew were killed during that initial February 1831 assault, and their entire cargo of spices was removed from the ship. During his third annual massage to Congress, delivered in December 1831, President Andrew Jackson announced that “a daring outrage” had been committed by “piratical perpetrators belonging to tribes in such a state of society that the usual course of proceedings between civilized nations could not be pursued.” Having determined that negotiations were likely impossible with the savages, Jackson dispatched a naval frigate to Kuala Batu with orders to “inflict chastisement” upon the wretches who lived there.

On 7 February 1832 the Potomac, sailing under the command of John Downes, dispatched 300 men to battle the Malaysian pirates, who proved little match for the US forces. Nearly 200 pirates were killed, while the Potomac lost two men and suffered 11 wounded. Two days later, Downes ordered the shelling of the rest of the village, killing another 300 innocent men, women and children. Although some Americans were outraged by the collective punishment of the people of Kuala Batu, Andrew Jackson giddily declared that the “chastisement” had assured “increased respect for our flag and increased security for our commerce.”

The attack on Kuala Batu was the first military intervention in Asia by the United States.

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