Friday, March 9, 2018

Libya from the Air (With a Brief Look at Morocco)

Cyrenaica: A two-seat SVA in air-cooperation with a Squadriglia of Italian Royal Army's armored cars. 

The Italian Royal Army was the first armed force in the world to employ aircraft in combat, during the 1911-12 Italo-Turkish War for the control of the territory that became modern Libya. After the end of WWI the Italian airplanes were back in force on their Fourth Shore (as the Italians called Libya), and it was there, where airplanes had fought for the first time in history, that the European colonial forces grew their wings and learned to fly.

The following is a translation of an excerpt of an Italian "Storia dell'Aviazione," written by various authors and published in weekly installments in Italy by Fratelli Fabbri Editori S.p.A. beginning in 1973 (this comes from issue N. 42). After the Libyan chapter I added a page about what the Spanish airmen were facing in Morocco at about the same time.

I hope you will find it interesting, and your comments will be very appreciated.
Thank you, L. Pavese.

  Air Forces in the Colonies 

At the beginning of the war against the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the Kingdom of Italy had already been experiencing some troubles with taking control of the military situation in Libya.
During the two years from the completion of the initial occupation (1912) to the outbreak of hostilities in Europe (1914), the Italian troops had not been able to subjugate the rebel Libyan tribes or to gain complete control of the inland territories, let alone the oasis that was still in the hands of Ahmed Sharif as-Senussi, a religious chief hostile to Italy.
At the outbreak of WWI, the Italians had withdrawn all the aircraft from Libya, and they were not going to redeploy any other airplanes there until 1915. Therefore, for a period of about fifteen months, the Italians troops in Libya were deprived of the precious support of the air force, in the country where the airplane had received its baptism of fire.
Unwilling to tie down men and materials in the new colony, the Italian government gave the order to abandon all the inland garrisons, postponing the problem of the full pacification of Libya to after the end of the war in Europe. As a result, the occupation of the northern African country remained limited to a narrow band of land along the coast; but communications became precarious very soon, because coasting navigation was imperiled by enemy submarines and also because the Libyan rebels were supplied with weapons by the enemies of Italy.
As the Italian war effort increased on the European front, the disturbance actions grew in intensity on the part of the Libyans, who became more and more daring and also attacked – sometimes successfully – very important towns and garrisons.
For this reason, in the second half of 1915, the Italians were forced to rebuild an air force in Libya, not only for the purpose of maintaining communications between the garrisons but, above all, to perform a careful reconnaissance of the territory. But the requirements of the operations against the Austro-Hungarians did not permit the Italians to deploy to Libya the necessary number of aircraft, which caused the air operations to be very limited in scale; although practically every land operation was supported by aerial reconnaissance. In particular, the availability of several Caproni tri-motors, which with machine guns and light bombs easily controlled the caravans of camels crossing the desert, turned out to be very advantageous. But, above all, the availability of reconnaissance aircraft always kept the Italian military leaders well informed about the movement of the enemy and the concentrations of the guerrilla forces.

Tripolitania: a  tethered balloon extends the visual range of a mechanized unit. 

Flour from the air

In December 1918, right after the end of WWI, the Italian air force in Libya was vigorously reinforced. In mid 1919, it numbered 90 aircraft (20 of which were still being assembled) and 6 observation balloons.
The airplanes were immediately employed to extend surveillance and to maintain the mail connections among the presidios without interruptions. In several occasions, the military aircraft transported passengers, evacuated casualties and also performed demonstration flights for friendly Libyan chieftains.

Meanwhile the Italian military high command was elaborating a new strategy of movement, based precisely on the use of the air force. This new operational doctrine foresaw the almost complete elimination of burden animals, the replacement of heavy and automatic weapons with more modern ones and the assignment of several aircraft to each unit. This objective, that was eventually achieved, was to reach the high level of agility that was the only way to fight effectively the highly mobile camel-mounted rebels.
The fine-tuning of the new techniques, the training, the concentrations of troops and the completion of the necessary political steps took about three years. During that period, the contribution of the air force in Libya was significant; but the airplanes became essential in the six following years, from 1922 to 1927, when Libya was completely reconquered and totally pacified.
The Italians also employed the aircraft extensively for logistical tasks. Significant was the example of the garrison of Aziziya, cut off by the rebels who had also interrupted the railroad to Tripoli. Five Caproni tri-motors and a few reconnaissance SVA were charged with re-supplying Aziziya. In about two months, from mid February to mid April, five Caproni’s air-lifted more than forty metric tons of food and three tons of various material; they transported an entire company of Eritrean Askari (213 men) and evacuated 65 wounded and sick troops and 53 civilians.

1921: A tri-motor Caproni Ca.3 has just transported a group of Askaris to Aziziya. 

Another one has evacuated civilians.

Medevac with a Ca.3: Note the two stretchers secured to the fuselages.

And even the SVA’s carried food, by tying several bags of flour on the engine cowling with ropes. (That caused also an unusual accident, when one of the bags ripped in flight creating a flour-storm that reduced visibility to zero and forced the pilot of a SVA to crash land).

Libya 1914. Max Slevogt

The retaking of Libya.

At the beginning of 1922, the Italians started a series of wide ranging operations aimed at regaining total control of the country. Initially greater importance was given to Tripolitania, and it was clear from the beginning that the new tactics based on very mobile units supported by aircraft was bearing fruit.
In July of 1923, after one year of operations, the area of Misurata could be considered totally pacified. During that period the air force flew 2139 war missions, dropping more than 18 metric tons of bombs and fragmentation bombs. The airplanes transported more than kg 24000 of supplies, and the pilots landed many times on improvised airstrips to exchange information with the troops.

Italian bombs explode among the rebels

One of the tasks of the Italian air force was also to strafe and bomb the camps of the bands of raiders who, taking advantage of the situation, raided the peaceful Berber people.
During one of these missions, near the Egyptian border, a Caproni with a crew of four was forced to land for mechanical problems on the other side of the border. The aircraft was attacked by a band of raiders who killed the four airmen. The commanding officer was Major Ferruccio Capuzzo, the commander of the Italian air force in Cyrenaica. A fort was dedicated to his name, which was going to be the theatre of epic battles during the Second World War.
In December, when the Italian-British treaty for the definition of the Libyan - Egyptian border was signed, the oasis of Giarabub, the base of the Senussi Sect, remained in Italian territory. The immediate invasion of the oasis was decided. The occupation was completed in February of 1926 with a mechanized unit consisting of tanks, armored cars and trucks, supported by aircraft. Only a few hours after the entry of the Italian troops in the oasis the Caproni tri-motors were taking off with the mail and with the reports of the journalists  that followed the Army.
At the same time another Italian Army column headed for the oasis of Jalo.

Airfield of Slonta:  line-up of Ro.1 reconnaissance aircraft.

Just to give an idea of the conditions in which the Italian aviators were often forced to operate, these few lines excerpted from the report of Colonel Maletti, who led the unit, should suffice:
“A very violent wind was blowing...We heard the roar of an engine. That weather seemed to me absolutely forbidding for flying. The machine, that rocked in a terrifying way, flew over the field at such a low altitude that everybody thought it was looking for a place to land.
“I had the appropriate signals deployed, but the aircraft did not land.
“While it glided to launch a message, we saw it caught suddenly in a downdraft, just over the crest of of dune on which it dropped all at once at a height of not more than a meter or two.
“We thought it was doomed; but it managed to recover and it dropped a sack of bread among our tents, and in it a message in which the aviators said that the atmospheric conditions did not allow them to continue the reconnaissance and that they were forced to return to the base.
“We learned later that the aircraft (a two-seat SVA) had not returned to the base.I ordered the search to start right away...”
In fact the aircraft had been overwhelmed by the desert wind and it had been forced to do an emergency landing; but the officers, the pilot Milanti and the observer De Giuli managed to reach an Italian fort after a two days march.

Bases in the desert

In 1927 the conquest of Libya had been practically accomplished. But there remained several hotbeds of rebellion, and therefore it was necessary to intervene again in the Gebel (the Green Mountain) of Cyrenaica and proceed to the occupation of the Fezzàn and of the oasis of Kufra.
The participation of the Air force in these operations, which were completed in 1931, was actually far more demanding and risky than before. On one hand there was the all but infernal weather, the terrain that was not favorable to off-the-field landings, the interminable missions; and on the other hand the different tactics of the rebels, who had formed very small and extremely mobile units, and had given up carrying along their tents, their families, their burden animals with the baggage and basically all the impedimenta that would make them more detectable.

1927: The 37th Squadriglia SVA on the airfield of Tobruck.

The provisions for the Italian aircraft were carried by caravans of camels burdened with gasoline, oil and bombs. These caravans established forward bases near the combat zones, to allow the aviators to rearm and refuel quickly and return to the sky over the battlefield.
In the words of a pilot that participated in those operations:
“The base usually consisted of an airstrip with a rough or sandy surface (and when one had to take off at gross weight it made one’s hair stand up), a large depot full of barrels of gasoline and oil, a pile of crates of explosive and about twenty tents to house the aviators...
“The ground troops had themselves preceded, escorted and protected by the air force. The airplanes had established their base in Serdeles and they had been flying for a few days without interruption, from dawn to sunset, one pair of aircraft relieving another.
“They encountered unbelievable difficulties to orient and navigate in that fantastic ocean of sand , in which one dune resembles the other: when one thought he had fixed in one’s head the shape of a dune as a reference point, there were ten or one hundred dunes that looked just the same...
“It was not possible to land on the dunes. The wheels would sink causing the plane to overturn. The troops were too far to be able to rescue the crew, but the aviators did not think about that; they didn’t want to...”

1931: Lieutenant Colonel Lordi, chief of staff of the Italian Air Force in Cyrenaica, with Prince  Amedeo, Duke of Aosta, after a reconnaissance flight over Kufra. (Lordi would die in the March 24, 1944  massacre of Fosse Ardeatine .)    
In January of 1931, with the invasion and occupation of the oasis of Kufra ( in which Italian aircraft flew over areas never before overflown by anybody), the conquest of Libya was finally completed; although mopping up operations against isolated bands of rebels went on for some time after that.
Although in the language of the time most of the missions in Libya were called “Colonial police operations,” it is obvious that they were truly military operations. In particular the constant air support given to the land units expanded the operational horizon and demonstrated the possibility of a very close cooperation between ground and air forces.

A few years later, with more advanced techniques and aided by radio communications, the Germans first and later the Allies would demonstrate beyond doubt the validity of the concept of air-cooperation with ground forces.

Something else was going on in Eastern Africa; but that's another story.

Meanwhile, in Morocco...

The Rebellion of Abd el-Krim

While the Italian Air Force was seriously engaged in Africa, against the rebels and the raiders of inland Libya, the Spanish military aviators had their hands full with a large scale operation against the rebel tribes of the Riff.
The use of military aircraft, in this sector, had begun right after the Italians had employed the aircraft, for the first time in history, in the Libyan War of 1911-12.
As early as 1913, the Spanish Army’s air arm had recorded her first casualty: Lieutenant Pilot Rios Angueso, killed by a rifle shot from the Moroccan rebels, near Tetuàn.
At the beginning of the 1920’s, the operations in Morocco took an unexpected turn for the worse, due to the fighting spirit of a valiant and very combative Muslim leader, Mohammed ibn Abd el-Krim, the son of a great Moroccan ruler, who had previously been and ally of the Spaniards in the fight against the rebels, but had switched sides due to the harshness of Spanish General Silvestre.
Cuban born General Manuel Fernández Silvestre y Patinga, who was the territorial military commander, distinguished himself for his brutal treatment of both enemies and allies that ultimately caused widespread rebellion.

General Silvestre 

In June of 1921, at a place known as Anoual, near the Mediterranean coast, Abd el-Krim inflicted the Spanish forces a severe defeat. In the battle, the Spaniards suffered 11,000 casualties, and lost an immense quantity of rifles and ammunition. General Silvestre went to his tent and committed suicide.
Faced with such unfavorable turn of events, the Spanish Army decided to strengthen its aviation component, and created several escuadrillas equipped mainly with British aircraft, like the Bristol Fighter, to supplement the French Bréguet.

Spanish Breguét XIV's bombers over Morocco

The intervention of the aircraft was decisive. In several cases the Spanish presidios were able to resist the attacks of el-Krim’s men only thanks to the aerial carousels of the airplanes that made great use of light bombs and machine guns.
Very often the Spanish aircraft attacked from a very low altitude, and for that reason they suffered numerous casualties. The rifle fire was intense and efficacious, and the number of wounded pilots who were forced to land grew very rapidly. The Spanish aviation also launched artillery grenades loaded with Yprite gas; but the fact that the bombs were launched in small number, and dispersed, greatly reduced the lethality of the gas.

A Ghost Air Force.

The echo of the feats of the valiant Muslim leader in the whole of Morocco, had raised Abd el-Krim to a position of preeminence among the other rebel chieftains; and Abd el-Krim thought that he could take advantage of his high prestige to unite all the tribes in the fight against Spain.
In 1922, after very subtle diplomatic work, Abd el-Krim proclaimed the Republic of the Riff, which he meant to have internationally recognized. He even appointed a cabinet with four departments (Foreign Affairs, Home, Justice and Finances), and a fifth “ghost’ ministry. The latter, entrusted to the qaid Haddou, was the Department of the Air Force.
As one can imagine, this was sensational news among the Western powers. For the first time, peoples that were considered backwards and rebellious, in a colonial territory, were trying to avail themselves of the most advanced weapon available at the time, to face an imperialist power on a levelled field.
Indeed, Abd el-Krim was rightfully convinced that the air arm was the true strong point of the Spanish Army; and he hoped to be able to counteract with comparable weapons.
Today, it is still being discussed if the Moroccan leader had actually ever had any aircraft at his disposal.
According to some sources, Abd el-Krim did actually buy a few transport airplanes, from a French-capital commercial company that had tried to set up an air transport network in North Africa. The company had gone bankrupt, and the aircraft, supposedly, had been picked up by the government of the Republic of the Riff.
A very rudimentary hangar was actually sighted by Spanish reconnaissance aircraft, and a sizable strike force was launched to destroy it. The mission was accomplished in 1924; and nobody ever heard again of Abd el-Krim’s Air Force.

The Last Resistance.

Regardless of the apparent ease with which the Spaniards had maintained control of the air, the military operations in Morocco went on, for the remainder of 1924, in a much less than satisfactory way.
The entire territory was up in arms, and the garrisons, the presidios and the forts of the Spaniards were besieged by rebel groups that sometimes numbered thousands of militiamen.

A Spanish air arm unit on the the airfield of  Tauima (Melilla)

During this period, the air arm did all it could to resupply the besieged forces with food, ammunition, drugs and most of all ice, to preserve the victuals and to make it possible for the men to resist the infernal temperature of those lands.
The Spanish aviators perfected their air-resupply techniques, based on the use of a large number of airplanes. Part of these aircraft attacked the enemy, who was usually just a few dozen meters from the Spanish lines; while other airplanes flew at a height of a few feet, to drop the supplies safely. The technique was necessary because of the small perimeter of the forts and the redoubts; and by the fact that a miss of just a few feet would have delivered supplies to the rebels.
Nevertheless, the insurgent forces were led by smart leaders, who by that time had become experts at that sort of guerrilla and had set up units armed with rifles, with the sole task to fire at the supply airplanes, ignoring the other aircraft. This cost the Spaniard a skyrocketing increase in casualties, that reached levels never since touched by any colonial air corps. But regardless these successes, that put the Spanish forces on the defensive for the entire 1924, the star of Abd el-Krim was about to set.

The Moroccan leader on the cover of Time in 1925

 In 1925, Abd el-Krim launched his men against the French territory, aiming at the city of Fez. In this instance too, the French managed to contain the pressure of the rebel forces with the massive use of their colonial air force. The determining factor in the war though was that the French and the Spaniards had agreed to proceed jointly, and Abd el-Krim was caught in a crossfire.

French Potez XXV's, based in Biskra, Algeria, at the time.

In 1925, the Spaniards landed in force and launched a great number of airplanes against the rebels, which included the German Dornier Wal seaplanes, license-built in Italy. The insurgents were defeated, and under the pressure of the joint Franco-Spanish forces, especially the air forces, the army of the Republic fell apart.
Abd el-Krim obtained an honorable peace settlement, and was exiled with his family to the island of Réunion, in the Indian Ocean.



Sunday, January 7, 2018

When Buddhists engaged

      Although the recent opening of the first pontifical university in Vietnam is certainly a reason for hope, the Indochinese people's republic remains a country where Catholics are not free to practice their religion, and are subject to many restrictions imposed by the state. A new religious practices act, that hopefully won't be even more oppressive, is due in 2016; but since the reunification of the country under Communist rule in 1975, the law has required religious groups to obtain a government permission to gather, and forced Catholic priests to undergo state reeducation programs.
Of course, that hasn't always been the case. From the end of the 19th century to 1940, when the Japanese occupied the region, French Indochina, even though it was ruled by the enfants of the Revolution, had actually been a Catholic bastion in the continent; and after the war the short lived Republic of South Vietnam was home to a great number of devout Catholics. Many, and their descendants, are now in the United States.


      There is of course a mountain of literature about the various reasons that contributed to the fall of Vietnam into Communist hands. The hostility of the (supposedly Catholic) American president Kennedy towards Vietnamese president Ngo Dinh Diem is well known; but maybe the contribution of the Vietnamese Buddhists to the downfall of the devout Catholic president of Vietnam should be further explored.
In the 19th and 18th century, before the rule of the French, Catholic missionaries and Vietnamese faithfuls had been the victims of brutal repression, and many had undergone martyrdom. Buddhists were certainly aware of that, and in this chapter of his book Contro il Buddismo (Against Buddhism) Italian author Roberto Dal Bosco describes how the pressure of the Buddhist rebellion contributed to the toppling of of the government of South Vietnam, and the sinister reinterpretation of Christian martyrdom on the part of the followers of Shakyamuni.
Dal Bosco's book exposes some of the most obscure facets and menacing aspects of the Buddhist religion,and was very successful in Italy. We have translated into English, and we hope to publish it very soon. The following is an excerpt we hope you will find interesting. (Many thanks to J.J.P. for reviewing he English text).
Your comments will be very appreciated. 
Thank you very much.
L. Pavese

Sacrifice in Viet Nam.
By Roberto Dal Bosco (Translated and edited by L. Pavese). 

When the  Buddha attained enlightenment, he received the following awareness: in Sanskrit it’s called pratityasamuptada, in Tibetan rten-cing ‘brel bar ‘byung-ba, in Japanese innen. In English it is called “dependent origination,” but it can also be translated as “dependent arising.” It is a fundamental concept for the whole Buddhism. The Samyuttanikaya recites:

This being, that becomes.
From the arising of this, that arises.
This not being, that does not become.
From the ceasing of this, that ceases.[1]

 In other words, it is the concatenation of cause and effect; the idea according to which every action (karma) originates a direct series of consequences.
Buddha supposedly understood it meditating under the tree; every thing is a cause; every minor act produces a never-ending chain of composite phenomena, spreading in an edgeless web. This is a metaphysical thought of enormous importance, in front of which the individual is either abolished or given a responsibility that extends beyond every one of his or her conscious action. Every thing we do, says the Buddha, can cause an endless ripple effect of consequences.
Therefore, the conduct of Buddhists should always be examined from behind this philosophical magnifying glass.
We think it is worth considering this point of view in earnest, and examine a particular historical event, that is, the so-called Vietnamese “Buddhist Crisis”: a moment in history during which the entire Buddhist clergy of a country mobilized and launched into some sensational demonstrative actions.

Republic of South Vietnam, May 1963.

The war that shortly thereafter will ravage the country had not yet come. The nation was experiencing the prodrome of disaster, with the Communist North poised to invade. The government of South Viet Nam was headed by President Ngo Dinh Diem, who will eventually pay for the escalation of the conflict, not only with the loss of his power but also with his life.
Ngo Dinh Diem today is considered a monster; the Western media of that time — especially the American’s — did their utmost to render him so.

Ngo Dinh Diem 

Dinh Diem came from a family that belonged to the Vietnamese Catholic minority. His brother Pierre Martin Ngo Dinh Thuc eventually became the Archbishop of Hue.
During the Catholic festivities of that horrible year, many flags of the Vatican State made their appearance, waved by the faithful who used them as emblems of their Christian identity. From a certain point of view, that was a grave problem, because it was contrary to a 1958 law (known as the No.10 Decree) that prohibited the display of religious banners.
The Buddhist monks’ organizations now had a concrete reason to oppose the policies of a government that openly favored Catholics in civic life: for example, according to the critics, government posts as well as those in the armed forces were reserved for Christians.
Buddhists seized the opportunity and called for a total nationwide protest. On Buddha’s “birthday,” the vesak of 1963, Buddhists were not allowed to fly their flags. During the protests in Hue, on May 8, the police intervened. There were eight dead.

    President Diem tried to put an end to it all, stating his reasons regarding the need to reserve a place above all others for the nation’s flag, and publicly proclaimed freedom of religion in the Republic of Viet Nam. As to the accusations of favoring Catholics, he could not admit it, but it was clear to everybody that hiring Christian personnel meant insuring loyal anti-Communist people in the nerve centers of the state. Diem’s Secretary of State, Nguyen Dinh Thuan let slip the accusation that the Viet Cong were taking advantage of the Buddhist rebellion.

The revolt acquired an icon of its own too: the pseudo-martyr Thich Quang Duc, who chose a congested street intersection of the city of Saigon to light himself on fire, in protest against the Diem’s government. The media relayed the truly shocking image throughout the world. The Vietnamese chaos that according to the Karmic cause and effect logic was eventually going to provoke the historical horror that we all know had found its icon.
At the end of the month, the uprising reached Saigon, where the monks surrounded the National Assembly.

In June, Diem fell the heads of the officers who had used too much of a heavy hand in the repression, but even that was not enough for the bonzes. Several skirmishes occurred; tear-gas was launched against the monks; the secret police tried to arrest American journalists, while the monks directed their anti-government action from the Xa Loi pagoda; from which, on August 18, the most massive protest march that had ever been seen in Viet Nam originated: 15,000 Buddhists, under driving rain, marched through Saigon, though taking care to avoid government buildings.

 David Halberstam, the correspondent of “The New York Times,” noted that this could have been a strategy to prepare an even bigger demonstration for the arrival of the American ambassador. Halberstam reported that the monks “were playing a fast and dangerous game.” Since it was well known that the government was about to tighten the screw as to the Buddhist propaganda from the Xa Loi pagoda, the American reporter thought that “the Buddhists seemed to be aware of the possible consequences, while their protest became more and more intense.”[2]

The generals asked President Diem for a conference, informing him that the pagoda by then had been completely infiltrated by the Viet Cong. Diem became convinced of the need for martial law and to deploy the army in various points of Saigon; but he asked that the military intervention be contained, saying that the monks should not be harmed. But the situation got out of hand again: on August 21, the army attacked the pagodas over the entire territory of South Viet Nam. 1400 monks were arrested; others (some alleged they numbered in the hundreds) were killed or kidnapped. Many found refuge with the Americans. Saigon passed in the hands of the military; all airline flights were canceled.

The United States, after having trained the same troops that were now raiding the pagodas, reacted by dumping the Diem’s government: President Kennedy, through the famous Cablegram 243, informed the American ambassador that every effort had to be made to get rid of the government of Ngo Dinh Diem and his family members.

It is now a widely shared opinion that the November 1963 coup d’état — during which President Diem was murdered — was promoted, if not actually completely directed by the CIA. The generals seized power. Diem got away boldly through a tunnel, then he try to gather international support, but he was caught and shot point blank with a semi-automatic pistol. His body was then stabbed repeatedly.

1963. Coupe d'état

And so a new phase of the Vietnamese chaos began. This may be one of the most intricate stories of the 20th century. The administration of Ngo Dinh Diem was certainly corrupt, but the emergency situation of the unfortunate Asian country slipped from the hands of a reprobate President to the hands of the murderous Vietcong. As the old adage says: from the frying pan into the fire.

First of all, the historic situation must be put into context: Buddhism was not the religion of the masses, but of the elites. In the course of the early years of the 20th century, Buddhism was re-injected into the social fabric of Viet Nam, not to the disadvantage of France that financed the Buddhist organizations to better control them. Neither the theories of Confucius — to which traditionally the higher classes subscribed — nor the Catholic religion were for the French suitable to tame the riotous Indochinese people that had just been conquered: inoculating Buddhism into the upper Vietnamese classes might have turned out to be a profitable strategy in the long term.

Consequently, far from having ever been the only religion in the country, Buddhism enjoyed a true revival. Italian missionary and author Piero Gheddo wrote:
“The approach to Buddhism on the part of the upper class and, more in general, the better educated population of the cities could not have been without political consequences: in fact the opposition to Diem […] did not come from the countryside but mainly from the cities; not from the humble classes, but from the educated people who felt more intensely the lack of political freedom. Therefore, in the absence of political parties and associations, this renewed form of Buddhism became the central point of the political opposition, and it was backed also by those who were not at all Buddhist, but saw in a mass religion with international resonance a way to rid themselves of the dictator.”[3]

Nevertheless, the rumor that the Buddhists were in every respect remote-controlled by the Viet Cong was more than just plausible; although Edward N. Luttwak, in his book, Coup d’État: A Practical Handbook (which was a very educational reading in the 1970’s) mysteriously hints at the support given to the monks by the United States.[4]
It was also a commonly held view (especially among the Christian missionaries, who were much more at the forefront with respect to reporters and diplomats) that Buddhism and Marxism, not only as doctrines but also from a geopolitical point of view, shared many points of contact.
Buddhologist Edward Conze maintained that “the doctrinal resemblance between Mahayana Buddhism and Dialectic Materialism is surprisingly close, and a reciprocal influence of ideas is destined to take place, with long term consequences for both.”[5]

 Piero Gheddo gathered a fair amount of proof of this idea, which today is almost totally forgotten. He wrote: “The magazine “Croissance des jeunes nations” dedicated an article about this subject: “Buddha opens the way to Karl Marx” (May 1965), in which the cultural connections between Buddhism and Communism were summarized […] Many observers asked — writes the above-mentioned magazine — whether Buddhism, which is being discussed very much since the fall of Diem, is really an obstacle or, to the contrary, is blazing the trail for a Marxist regime.”[6]
The answer lies in what occurred afterwards: when the Americans withdrew from their painful war, Viet Nam became entirely communist.
But it is not about the story of Ho Chi Minh domination that we would like to venture into a mystical line of reasoning.
Let us apply the logic of interdependence, that is, the Buddhist concept of “dependent origination,” the eternal Karmic law of cause and effect. Let’s do it to launch an imaginary (and probably useless, we agree) game of alternative historical:
If, in 1963, Buddhists had not begun that cycle of protests against the Diem government, maybe things would have unfolded differently. Diem might have been able to stand up to the aggressiveness of North Viet Nam for years, or maybe even decades; in a situation similar to what we see today in Korea, where the democratic South (which has had its share of corrupt dictators) has been containing for more than a half a century the invasion plans of the communist North.
In an even more interesting way, we’d like to fancy about a world without the Viet Nam war and all its consequential conflicts: the Khmer Rouge and their genocidal regime in Cambodia; or the too-often-forgotten 1979 war between China and Viet Nam, a conflict that broke out as soon as the communist unification of Viet Nam was completed. And setting aside the local conflicts, let’s examine the global aftermaths of the war: the atrocities committed by the Americans in Viet Nam legitimized the rise of the so-called youth counter culture, in the United States and Europe. In the face of the horrors suffered by the civilian population in the Viet Nam war, there took hold all kinds of sub-cultures that promised peace and utopia, whether they were hippies or even movements with a clear terrorist connotation.

On the other hand, this state of confusion had always been in the plans of the powerful ally of communist Viet Nam: the Soviet Union. The KGB had always hoped to find the key to undermine the vitality of the American spirit. According to the precepts of Sun Tzu (whose The Art of War was a fundamental text for the cadres of the KGB) the war, the cold war, had to be won even before entering the battle field.
As Soviet dissident Yuri Bezmenov[7] testified, they had to pull down the American enemy through the demoralization of the fabric of society; and it must be said that they almost succeeded: the American nation lived the post Viet Nam war period like a grave post traumatic stress syndrome.

Incapable of welcoming back the veterans and to make sense of what had happened, part of the American psyche — and consequently part of the Western mind too — was damaged forever. In a way, the Americans learned their lesson and tried to serve the Russians the same dish, fomenting a war that from this point of view can be considered an offspring of Viet Nam’s: the Afghan War.
At the end of her intervention in Afghanistan— which mowed down the lives of many young Russians — the Soviet Union imploded. Maybe, without the Viet Nam War, the Cold War would have lasted less; or maybe longer. But today, in the uncertainty of this post bi-polar world, bristling with powerful terrorists and financial crises, we are not given to know what would have been better. Certain it is that, today, in a bizarre twist of fate, there are Americans in Afghanistan.

This state of confusion was generated, in part, by monks who walked in the streets in protest. Maybe a bonze, endowed with the siddhi power of clairvoyance, could discern the boundaries of this deathly design of cultural and material destruction. Perhaps the plan was much more vast; and we mortals should give up trying to understand this twisted chain of events, even if we are experiencing its effects every day. But one thing is certain: even in that tragic hour in which chaos was unleashed in Viet Nam too, the goal of the Buddhists was to substitute themselves for that model which so far has yet to be surpassed by any other organized religion: the Catholic Church.

At the heart of Vietnamese Buddhism “alongside the political drive, there was a sense of religious frustration. In its attempt of renewal and modern re-organization, Buddhism came face to face with the Catholic Church that was already well organized and modernized, with an educated clergy, numerous and impressive works, strong associations of laymen, newspapers, higher education institutions, et cetera…hence the sense of frustration.”[8]

But this basic sense of envy was not just a matter of logistics. During the 1963 crisis, Vietnamese Buddhism went looking for his martyrs too. And that brings us to the case of Thich Quang Duc (1897-1963), the most famous “martyr” for the cause of the bonzes, whose holy picture-cards were copiously distributed to the Vietnamese population.

On June 10, 1963, in the very middle of the Buddhist crisis, an envoy of the Buddhist rebels approached the foreign media reporters, and asked them to be at the Cambodian embassy the following day. To stimulate the natural scoop-hunting instinct of the journalistic crowd, the rebels clearly promised them that something big was going to take place.

Not every one listened to the Buddhist messenger, because the crisis by then had been going on for at least a month and a half. Malcolm Browne, an Associated Press photographer, and David Halberstam of “The New York Times” decided to show up for the date. The two reporters saw the advancing of a long procession of bonzes, divided in two phalanxes, with the folkloristic detail of an old Austin Westminster automobile leading the parade.
The monks waved flags and carried bilingual signs in Vietnamese and English, which is proof of the fact that everything had been set up to manipulate the U.S. public opinion through the media. And they succeeded. The content of the messages, as it is easy to imagine, was a series of slogans against President Diem and its policies.

The procession stopped at the intersection between Boulevard Phan Dinh Phung and Le Van Duyet Street.
The elderly Thich Quang Duc got out of the car, accompanied by two young aids. One of them laid a cushion on the road; the other one carried a tank of gasoline. The old monk sat on the ground with his legs crossed, in the classic lotus position.
The young man with the tank poured the fuel on Quang Duc who was fumbling through a string of beads repeating a prayer to a celestial Buddha that the Mahayana sect worships.
 He said: “Nam mo A di da phat” (Praise to the Buddha Amithaba) and he lit a match, letting it drop on himself. His clothes and his flesh were soon consumed by the flames, and a black cloud of smoke blew in the air.

The police tried to reach the center of the scene, but the Buddhist clergy, who had probably studied the logistics of the performance, formed a human shield that prevented the officers from extinguishing the match.
The crowd was speechless. A monk took a microphone and began to chant: “A Buddhist monk set himself on fire; a Buddhist monk became a martyr.” Naturally the well prepared slogan was repeated in Vietnamese and in English.
Then the body of the Quang Duc was collected by the bonzes and taken to the Xa Loi pagoda, where it was completely cremated. The ashes became a relic, as well as the heart that — according to the monks — had remained untouched. Legend has it that the people of Saigon saw in the sunset sky the face of the Buddha in tears.
Malcolm Browne, who took the pictures of the self-immolation, won the Pulitzer Prize. So did David Halberstam, who recounted in his newspaper article the experience of the suicidal monk.

Those images not only had a political value; they were deeply shocking. In the 1963 Ingmar Bergman’s motion picture Persona, the main character becomes aphasic after watching on TV the images of other Quang Duc-imitating bonzes (until October 1963, there were at least five more instances of self-torching monks, some of which were filmed). Thirty years later, the rock band Rage against the Machine chose to put Malcolm Brown’s photograph on the cover of one of their albums.

Practically speaking, Buddhists had invented the snuff movie: a film that actually shows someone’s death. But snuff movies are not only made for perverse rich collectors. Especially in the course of the last recent years, they have acquired great political value: suffice to recall the videos of the decapitations of Westerners that were broadcast on-line by Muslim Jihadi.
 The Vietnamese bonzes had anticipated the cinematographic-political use of death. After seeing the picture, President Kennedy cursed then said that no other photograph had ever been more significant. William Colby, then head of the CIA, said that, after that, very little could have been done to salvage the situation for President Diem.

The photograph was printed on millions of cards and sent to every continent as the incriminating icon of American imperialism; the same imperialism that shortly thereafter would liquidate President Diem.
The monks had scored a bull’s-eye. The “martyr” had produced the desired effect; the mediatic power of his suicide had nailed Diem and his forces for ever. It was an absolute masterpiece of political propaganda.

But if we consider the Christian meaning of the word “martyr” — that is, its original derivation — we see that the bonze could not be considered a martyr. Because the martiryon — the “testimony,” in Greek — can never be a self-immolation: Christians become martyrs only when they are killed by executioners, who often receive blessings and prayers from their dying holy victims. Catholicism never, ever accepted suicide. The Christian martyr lives his or her life to the end, and loves it until the executioners take it away. The suicide as an act of protest does not exist for a Christian: life goes on till the last moment. Martyrdom is the testimony of an exemplary life.
For the Catholic Church, Viet Nam is a land in which the Divine Providence has arranged a good number of martyrs. Unlike Buddhism, with its self-combusting monks, the Catholic Church has produced men who lived their faith till their death, without looking for the spotlight or the Pulitzer Prize photograph to remind the world of their cause, and without co-religionists that yelled their reasons into a bullhorn for the Western media.

François-Xavier Nguyen Van Thuan (1928-2002) is an emblematic case, also because he was the nephew of Ngo Dinh Diem and of the Archbishop Ngo Dinh Thuc; that is, he was a member of the great catholic political dynasty that had led Viet Nam till the Buddhist crisis and its bloody epilogue.

François-Xavier Nguyen Van Thuan

When the Americans were in retreat and Viet Nam was about to become wholly communist, the Vatican chose Van Thuan as the new archbishop of Saigon, as his predecessor, Paul Nguyen Van Binh was gravely ill and exhausted by the past decade of war. Not even six days had passed from his appointment — Van Thuan had not yet taken his place in the dioceses — when the communist regime arrested him together with dozens of other priests. They all ended up in the reeducation camps.
Archbishop Van Thuan remained in jail for thirteen years; nine of which in solitary confinement.
In the Phu Kanh prison, his cell had only one hole through which a little fresh air came in, and Van Thuan spent one hundred days with his nose pressed into that narrow slit.
Worms, spiders and centipedes insinuated into his cell, and the priest, who later confessed that he had lost all the clear-headedness needed to pray, did not even have the energy to brush off the crawlers from his body.
He found the strength to go on thinking of San Paul and his imprisonment. He felt an unexpected strength spring from deep within himself, which gave him clearness of mind and vigor.

“Give up any superfluous thing and concentrate on the essential. It does not matter how many things we do; just the intensity of the love we put in any single one of our actions counts. I have to preserve my love and my smile for everyone else. I am afraid to waste even just one second living without this awareness.[13] 
The harsh regime of his imprisonment had a specific purpose: to reduce as much as possible the threat that he very clearly posed to society. They had begun to notice, in fact, that a very strange phenomenon was taking place around Archbishop Van Thuan.
A prison guard, who every day became more and  more impressed by Van Thuan’s devotion, told the Archbishop that he was going to pray for him on the site of Our Lady of La Vang, a sanctuary that had been torn down. The guard was not even a Christian; nevertheless he felt he had to pray for the intercession of the Virgin to help the prisoner. In a note that the guard sneaked into the cell, he confided the Archbishop that he went to the sanctuary every week:
“I pray for you like this: Our Lady, I am not a Christian. I don’t know how to pray. I am begging you to give Mister Francis what he wishes for.”[14]
The guard began in secret to provide the Archbishop the necessary to say Mass — Van Thuan celebrated it with an infinitesimally small crumb of bread and a drop of wine that the guard had managed to bring him.
 The warder was eventually transferred, but his replacements had the same experience. They were all converted.

The communists realized the inevitability of this “contamination” and established rotating shifts for the guards, to avoid as much as possible the exposure of the warders to the presence of Van Thuan. But the damage had been done: all the guards looked with admiration at that prisoner who taught them French and English; and there were even cases of guards who wanted to receive Latin lessons.

The Veni Creator Spiritus, the ancient prayer to the Holy Spirit, became an often-heard song in the prison.
Upon a request from the prisoner, he was given a few pieces of wood and some wire with which Van Thuan built a crucifix. A few years later in Rome, after he had been freed and elected Cardinal, he chose to wear it as a pectoral cross.
“Every day I wear this crucifix and this chain, not because they remind me of prison, but because they are the symbol of a profound conviction of mine, and of something that for me is a constant point of reference: only Christian love, and not the weapons, the threats or the mass-media, can change one’s heart.” [15]
No Pulitzer Prize winning picture of the Christian martyrs of Viet Nam was ever in the cards.


[1] Samyuttanikaya, ii, 28.
[2] David Halberstam, The Making of a Quagmire: America and Viet Nam during the Kennedy Era, Rowman & Littlefield, Lanham, 2008, page 140.
[3] Piero Gheddo, Cattolici e Buddisti nel Vietnam, Vallecchi, Florence, (Italy), 1968, page 168.
[4] Edward N. Luttwak, Coup d’État: A Practical Handbook, Harvard University Press, Boston, 1979, page 40.   
[5] Armando Rizza, Buddhismo in risveglio (Buddhism reawakening), P.I.M.E., Milano, 1964, page 106.   
[6] Piero Gheddo, op. cit., page 199.
[7] Cfr. Thomas Shuman, Love Letter to America, W.I.N. Almanac Panorama, Los Angeles, 1984. In this book, as well as in the numerous video-recorded conferences that are now available on-line, the former KGB spy Yuri Bezmenov (who became Thomas Schuman after his adventurous escape from behind the Iron Curtain) deals with the general demoralization produced by the detachment of societies from religion. Schuman says that the KGB had very precise ideas about that, and invested funds and assets to promote a trivialized version of religion in order to provoke the disenchantment of the Western masses. “Every great civilization fell when people renounced God and religion […] It is a manifestation of an innate spirit of self destruction, which, if it is freed, leads to the physical extinction of the entire human kind”. Ibidem, page 29.     
[8] Piero Gheddo, op. cit., page 185.
[9] Robert Royal, Robert Royal, The Catholic Martyrs of the Twentieth Century, Crossroad Pub., 2000; page 356.
[10] Ibidem, page 420.
[11] Ibidem, page 360.
[12] Ibidem, page 360.
[13] Robert Royal, op. cit., page 366.
[14] Ibidem, page 429.
[15] Ibidem, page 430.