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  • Extraordinary Rendition: Derrida and Vietnam
  • Martin McQuillan (bio)

‘Every philosophical colloquium necessarily has a political significance. And not only due to that which has always linked the essence of the philosophical to the essence of the political. Essential and general, this political import nevertheless burdens the a priori link between philosophy and politics, aggravates it in a way, and also determines it when the philosophical colloquium is announced as an international colloquium. Such is the case here’.

Jacques Derrida1


Some things have changed quite profoundly in the forty years since Jacques Derrida presented the essay ‘The Ends of Man’ in New York in October 1968 at the conference ‘Philosophy and Anthropology’. Sadly, other things have remained tragically constant. In the former sense, I am referring to what Derrida terms in that essay ‘the reign of the all-powerful motif of… the ‘so-called human sciences’’2, which today has been replaced (or mutated into) the even more tyrannous reign of cultural studies. In the later sense, I mean the re-run of American imperialist hubris that is currently being played out in Iraq as a monstrous, deferred twin to the Vietnam War.

Now, of course, every care should be taken in the analysis of our current situation and one should always seek to rigorously distinguish and discriminate between the cause, conditions and outcomes of both Vietnam and Iraq, always ensuring that the historical specificity of both is absolutely respected and no simple attempt is made to collapse one onto the other in a general Anti-American reduction. The geo-political stakes are different, the onto-theologies of national humanism and their ideological obfuscations of each case are unique one to the other, as are, for example, the techno-scientific-military capacity of each war, the effect on American domestic socio-economy and politics, the strategic interests of participants and para-participants, the status and role of international law, and so on. The War on Terror (if this is a part of that war still) is not the same as the so-called Cold War despite what neo-conservative commentators would have us believe, nor is it World War IV following victory for the US over communism in World War III. Nevertheless, it is almost impossible to read the history of the Vietnam War today without being struck by the remarkable similarities between the incompetence and down right viciousness of White House foreign policy then and now. One might cite the use of phosphorous shells and cluster bombs in Faluja today against the deployment of Agent Orange against the Vietcong; the failed general principle of aerial bombardment common to both; the billions of dollars squandered on supporting ‘friendly’ authorities through reconstruction and ‘progress towards democracy’; the manipulation of intelligence evidence to precipitate resolutions which enable the President to wage all out war without ever securing a formal declaration of war from Congress; the failed so-called ‘security surges’; the domestic spying programme on critics of the war and political opponents of the White House; the recreational atrocities committed by American soldiers on the direct orders of their superiors; the election of presidencies based upon fear and self-interest; the inevitable and equally flawed attempt to shift the burden of defeating an enemy raised by the United States on to those who are being occupied (Secretary of Defence Melvin Laird called it the policy of ‘Vietnamization’, in Iraq the official policy is to hand over ‘security’ to Iraqis); the continual declarations of possible, potential, inevitable or imminent victory. It is also, at present, difficult to see how this entanglement in Iraq can end with anything other than the complete and ignominious withdrawal of all coalition troops and long-running legal inquiries into the actions of those who authorised the invasion and everything that falls out from it. However, that is a matter for futurology.

The Derrida text in question is notably an essay that concerns itself with Vietnam. It is also an essay that gathers together a considerable concentration of the thematics which informed the three great books of 1967 and which in several important respects might be characterised as the most Derridean of essays. In this sense it is...

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