By Dana Visalli
"I am on a journey through Vietnam with a group of American Vietnam War veterans who now live in Vietnam and work to address some of the profound human problems still caused by a war that ended 40 years ago.
Known as VFP Hoa Binh Chapter 160, these men work to help people still being maimed by the estimated one and a half billion pounds of bombs (“ordnance”) dropped by the United States on Vietnam during the war that did not explode at the time they were released (7 million tons, or 14 billion pounds of bombs were dropped on Vietnam and an estimated 10% of them failed to detonate).
In addition these American veterans work to help some of the approximately 1 million people (a Red Cross of Vietnam estimate) people born with genetic defects or otherwise disabled or in poor health due to exposure to the 20 million gallons of toxic herbicides sprayed on South Vietnam’s tropical rainforests food and crops. The primary herbicide used was Agent Orange, which contains the known carcinogen dioxin. . .
Debate over the nature and impact of civilian casualties from U.S. aerial attacks continues. “Are we creating more terrorists than we’re killing?,” Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld once asked of the U.S. invasion of Iraq.1 The rise of Al Qaeda in Iraq and of its offshoot ISIS, suggests the answer there.2
Reflecting in 2012 on U.S. drone strikes in Yemen, the former director of the CIA’s Counter-Terrorism Center, Robert Greiner, wrote:
“One wonders how many Yemenis may be moved in future to violent extremism in reaction to carelessly targeted missile strikes, and how many Yemeni militants with strictly local agendas will become dedicated enemies of the West in response to US military actions against them.”3
That same month a Yemeni lawyer warned:
“DEAR OBAMA, when a U.S. drone missile kills a child in Yemen, the father will go to war with you, guaranteed. Nothing to do with Al Qaeda.”4. . .
What of sustained strategic carpet bombing? Is there any correlation between bomb tonnage and political blowback?
During World War Two, United States aircraft dropped 1.6 million tons of bombs in the European theater and approximately 500,000 tons in the Pacific theater. Some 160,000 tons of bombs fell on Japan, nearly all of it in the final six months of the war. Much of it targeted civilian industrial areas, beginning with the March 10, 1945 firebombing of Tokyo and including the atomic bombs dropped that August on the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Decisive victory proved more elusive in regional conflicts of the postwar era, even when the U.S. continued to deploy massive bomb tonnages.
During the Korean War of 1950-53, the U.S. dropped 635,000 tons of bombs and 32,000 tons of napalm, mostly on North Korea.7 And from 1961 to 1972, American aircraft dropped approximately one million tons of bombs on North Vietnam, and much more on rural areas of South Vietnam — approximately 4 million tons of bombs, 400,000 tons of napalm, and 19 million gallons of herbicides.8
On a per capita basis, Laos, with its much smaller and dispersed population, may have suffered a yet higher rate of aerial bombardment during 1964-73 – “nearly a ton for every person in Laos,” according to the New York Times.9
The late Fred Branfman, who learned Lao and worked with refugees displaced in the country in 1967-69, was one of the first to publicize the human toll of that secret U.S. bombing, in his 1972 "Voices from the Plain of Jars: Life under an Air War". Branfman’s book was reprinted in 2013, with a foreword by Alfred W. McCoy that terms the Laos campaign “history’s longest and largest air war.”10 . . .
...In 1989 one of us (Kiernan) had published an article calculating a figure of 539,000 tons dropped on Cambodia.13
...Our 2006 article, “Bombs over Cambodia”, using the same database and analysis, calculated a figure of 2.7 million tons dropped on Cambodia in 1965-75.15 Our estimate, published in the Canadian magazine The Walrus, and in 2007 in The Asia-Pacific Journal, was widely quoted.16 But in 2010 we corrected that estimate, here in The Asia-Pacific Journal. We revised it back down to around 500,000 tons.17 ...We concluded: “It remains undisputed that in 1969-73 alone, around 500,000 tons of U.S. bombs fell on Cambodia.”18
...[W]hatever the precise U.S. bombing tonnage dropped on Cambodia, it was massive. And as we have documented in three studies, much of it fell indiscriminately on populated rural areas. The bombardment’s humanitarian and political effects are clear. We stand by the conclusions we have published on these issues over many years of research:
“The evidence of survivors from many parts of [Cambodia] suggests that at least tens of thousands, probably in the range of 50,000 to 150,000 deaths, resulted from the US bombing campaigns . . . The Pol Pot leadership of the Khmer Rouge can in no way be exonerated from responsibility for committing genocide against their own people. But neither can Nixon or Kissinger escape judgement for their role in the slaughter that was a prelude to the genocide.” (1989)22
“The still-incomplete [Pentagon] database (it has several “dark” periods) reveals that . . . over 10 per cent of this bombing was indiscriminate, with 3,580 of the sites listed as having “unknown” targets and another 8,238 sites having no target listed at all …
The Cambodian bombing campaign had two unintended side effects that ultimately combined to produce the very domino effect that the Vietnam War was supposed to prevent.
First, the bombing forced the Vietnamese Communists deeper and deeper into Cambodia, bringing them into greater contact with Khmer Rouge insurgents. Second, the bombs drove ordinary Cambodians into the arms of the Khmer Rouge, a group that seemed initially to have slim prospects of revolutionary success.” (2006)23
“Cambodia became in 1969-73 one of the most heavily-bombarded countries in history (along with North Korea, South Vietnam, and Laos).Then, in 1975-79, it suffered genocide at the hands of Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge communists, who had been military targets of the U.S. bombing but also became its political beneficiaries.” (2010)24
Writing about Yemen in 2013, Albert Hunt reported in the New York Times on a smaller-scale recurrence of such expansion:
“There is much evidence . . . that the drone strikes are creating more terrorists. In a report this year for the Council on Foreign Relations, the national security scholar Micah Zenko said that in Yemen, the Pentagon had conducted dozens of drone strikes, killing more than 700 people. In 2009, the Obama administration said there were ‘several hundred’ Qaeda members in that country; by 2012, the group had ‘a few thousand members’.”26
Dropping vast tonnages of bombs has to be destructive, and carpet bombing can inflict comprehensive damage. But understanding the human toll requires study of the impact on people on the ground and, as Fred Branfman did in Laos over 45 years ago, listening to their voices. And understanding the political consequences requires taking account of their responses.
Recruiters propagandizing among bombing victims have adopted varied political strategies, including genocide in the case of the Khmer Rouge, Al Qaeda, and ISIS.
The question whether the United States “creates more terrorists than it kills” has not gone away.27
Ben Kiernan is the author of How Pol Pot Came to Power (1985), The Pol Pot Regime (1996), Blood and Soil: A World History of Genocide and Extermination from Sparta to Darfur (2007), and Genocide and Resistance in Southeast Asia (2008). He is Whitney Griswold Professor of History and Chair of the Council on Southeast Asia Studies at Yale University.
Taylor Owen is the author of Disruptive Power: The Crisis of the State in the Digital Age (2015). He is Assistant Professor of Digital Media and Global Affairs at the University of British Columbia.
Ben Kiernan and Taylor Owen, “Making More Enemies than We Kill? Calculating U.S. Bomb Tonnages Dropped on Laos and Cambodia, and Weighing Their Implications”, The Asia-Pacific Journal, Vol. 13, Issue 16, No. 3, April 27, 2015.
•Ben Kiernan and Taylor Owen, Roots of U.S. Troubles in Afghanistan: Civilian Bombing Casualties and the Cambodian Precedent
•Sahr Conway-Lanz, The Ethics of Bombing Civilians After World War II: The Persistence of Norms Against Targeting Civilians in the Korean War
• Mark Selden, Bombs Bursting in Air: State and citizen responses to the US firebombing and Atomic bombing of Japan
•Bret Fisk and Cary Karacas, The Firebombing of Tokyo and Its Legacy: Introduction
•Taylor Owen and Ben Kiernan, Bombs Over Cambodia: New Light on US Air War
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