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Salisbury’s Stake

Here Salisbury raises what is probably the most important issue in the book:

I had long heard that President Johnson himself approved every target and every operation in the vicinity of Hanoi and Haiphong. I wondered whether the military had been frank in the briefings they had given their Commander in Chief…whether in their deep commitment to the theory of air power they might not have overlooked some basic considerations of national welfare and American in-interest.1

IF HE WAS SHOCKED by the bombing of Hanoi, Salisbury was confounded by the tremendous destruction he encountered during his two brief trips south of the capital. The crossroads town of Phu Ly, forty miles south of Hanoi, had “vanished.” All that was left was “just ruins of buildings strung out along the highway.” In Nam Dinh, a textile mill city thirty-five miles further south, where not a single military objective was in sight, whole residential areas had been razed. 2

Salisbury also saw convincing evidence that planes had bombed the Cao River dikes outside Nam Dinh at least twice, although the Pentagon has denied bombing dikes. Since Nam Dinh lies several feet below water-level during the rainy season, a breach in the dikes could be fatal to the entire city. A week later, on New Year’s Day, he visited the village of Phat Diem, in the Red River delta region, an agricultural community that is overwhelmingly Catholic. Here, again, he found that almost all substantial buildings, including most of the churches, had been bombed, as well as several clusters of thatched huts and some dikes and sluices. There was also evidence that peasants had been strafed in the rice fields.

Salisbury found on his travels that US planes were applying an almost continuous pasting to North Vietnam’s roads, bridges, and railroads, but noticed also that the traffic of trucks and trains, though slowed down, was still moving—an observation with which others, including myself, who have traveled more extensively through the countryside, would agree. Craters in the highways are filled up as quickly as they are made, the rails are repaired with disciplined celerity, and easily dismantled pontoon bridges take the place of the bombed-out spans across the country’s rivers and streams. The traffic moves at a difficult crawl, but it moves continuously. For the Vietnamese, whose patience far exceeds our own, this is sufficient. If an unending stream of supplies is flowing south, it follows that an unending stream of supplies is also arriving at the other end. Salisbury draws a cogent parallel with our experience in the Korean war, when we also commanded the skies and bombed the Chinese supply lines day and night with impunity, yet were unable to prevent the flow of support to hundreds of thousands of Chinese troops. In other words, we can inflict casualties, we can destroy some matériel, but we cannot, with all our best efforts, effectively prevent the North Vietnamese from supplying and reinforcing their allies in South Vietnam. In fact, if one can believe official Pentagon figures, since the bombing began in August 1965, the rate of infiltration of North Vietnamese troops into the South has increased steadily in almost direct proportion to the escalation of the bombing.

According to our government, we are attacking only two types of targets in North Vietnam: military and industrial. Military objectives include, in addition to roads, rails, and bridges, supply depots, radar, SAM and anti-aircraft emplacements, and, only recently MIO bases.3 In other words, most of the military targets are defensive ones—we bomb them in order to be able to bomb the rest of the country more easily. The “industrial” targets are neither numerous nor impressive. The closest thing to heavy industry in North Vietnam is a small, outmoded, iron-and-steel factory near Thai Nguyen, which was only partially in operation when it was first hit early this spring. Beyond that, there are only a small tin factory, a cement plant, several textile mills, two paper factories, a bicycle factory, factories for fertilizers, insecticides, glassware, pots and pans, cigarettes, soap and other sundries, and several power plants. It is not exactly what you would call heavy industry. Most of the production is meant for civilian, rather than military consumption. North Vietnam is, after all, a backward, underdeveloped country. Its economy is mainly agricultural, its people mostly peasants. This fact does not come through in US military communiqués, where one somehow gets the idea that we are bombing a modern, industrialized nation. Indeed, of late, the planners in the Pentagon are reported to be somewhat embarrassed because they are rapidly running out of targets. Anticipating that this would happen, Salisbury poses the logical question:

When you totaled all the “military objectives” in North Vietnam, they didn’t total much…. North Vietnam was paying a tragic price in order that the architects of our bombing policy might prove its validity. But I wondered whether, in the end, the heaviest price might not be paid by us Americans for our stubborn pursuit of a military theory which seemed to have little connection with reality. Would we not in the end suffer more deeply for permitting this folly to continue than the poor, battered, destitute people and their habitations upon which we insisted on imposing the grandiose title of “military objective”?

Salisbury does not hesitate to castigate our military leaders for relying too heavily on bombing to win the war or to criticize them for what he implies are calculated misrepresentations to the President of their real capabilities. Yet he stops short of the conclusion toward which his own eyewitness experiences inevitably lead him: that we are bombing populated areas of North Vietnam deliberately.

…the thousands of tons of bombs that fell on the countryside, on the fields, on the villages, on the peasants in the fields….

Accidents, all accidents. This was our version. This might well be the literal truth. But how to make it credible to the peasants of North Vietnam?

How, indeed, to make it credible (or understandable) to anyone?

OF COURSE accidents do occur. Some are the result of simple pilot error. In zones of heavy flak the planes must sweep in low and very fast, and the bombs often miss the target. Sometimes US planes are attacked by MIGS and forced to unload willy-nilly in order to get away. Inevitably some of these bombs must land in civilian areas. It is also possible that an occasional SAM missile launched by the Vietnamese fails to go off in the air and falls back into a populated sector and explodes, as the Pentagon says.4 Nevertheless, even the most generous allowance for arithmetical probability could not even begin to account for the tremendous amount and variety of bomb damage to civilian areas one finds all over North Vietnam. The evidence is, simply, overwhelming. Like Harrison Salisbury, whom I followed about a month later, I arrived in Hanoi naturally skeptical of reports that the US was intentionally hitting noncombatant areas. Whenever I was taken to look at a bomb-damaged area, I also went all around it and scrupulously searched the vicinity for anti-aircraft emplacements or factories or railroad lines or any other possible military target. Sometimes I found one; more often I did not. When I did not, I tried to think of some other rational explanation of what had happened. The more I saw, the less skeptical I became. After four weeks in North Vietnam, during which I traveled 1,000 miles on five separate trips to the north, east, south, and west of Hanoi, I had seen so many instances of inexplicable bombing of people and habitations that I was forced to the conclusion that there was a willful pattern to it.

Two examples. In the Red River delta hamlet of Antiem, which is nothing more than a few dozen rice farmers’ clay huts entirely surrounded by rice fields, and which I reached by walking across dikes for two miles beyond the nearest road, I saw bomb craters and a rubble heap where once had stood an elementary school; it is now marked by a plain stone monument listing the names of the twenty-nine children and one teacher who had died during the raid. Some peasants told me that two US planes had flown in at the height of morning, circled once, circled again, then dove upon them dropping two bombs each. The hamlet was unprotected even by rifles. Another night, in a jeep riding south on Route 1, I was roused by a jet which streaked down out of a light cloud cover, swept across the road, and laid down a stick of six bombs, one rocket, and a skein of tracer bullets in the fields to our right. It was a frightening and definitive experience. Some seconds later, still shaking, I looked up and could see nothing from the road to the horizon except rice fields and a small cluster of peasant huts, brightly lit by a tropical moon. These two experiences are representative of dozens I and others have had in North Vietnam, where any attempt to draw a connection between the destruction and military necessity seems absurd.

An increasingly important feature of our bombing of the North is the use of the CBU anti-personnel bomb. CBU stands for Cluster Bomb Unit. This is a pontoon-shaped metal canister which contains about 300 spherical “bomblets” about the size of baseballs. The canister, or “mother unit,”5 opens up at a predetermined altitude and spews out the bomblets over a wide area. Each bomblet rolls across the ground and detonates, exploding 300-400 round steel pellets at tremendous velocity. The pellets are coated with napalm or white phosphorous to facilitate their entry through clothing and skin. One CBU “mother” contains over 100,000 pellets and is capable of killing or immobilizing every human above the ground within an area of several thousand square yards. Pellet bombs have limited use against radar installations and wiring; they are mainly effective against people, not things, and certainly not against steel or concrete.

For a long time, the Pentagon refused to admit it was using pellet bombs in North Vietnam. Quite recently, however, perhaps provoked by the fact that visitors to Hanoi have brought back bomblets and exhibited them on national TV, military dispatches from Saigon have occasionally mentioned that the lead planes on a bombing raid usually drop CBUS on the anti-aircraft installations around the target area to make it easier for the other planes to do their conventional work.

This may be true. But I and many others (including Salisbury, although he mentions it only briefly) have found evidence that the CBUs are being dropped all over North Vietnam in populated areas well removed from anti-aircraft installations. There is no mistaking them when you see them. The canisters are clearly stenciled with all the military ordnance data—serial number, date of loading, and so on. The bomblets, when they detonate, make shallow round craters in the earth, and the pellets spray out in a symmetrical pattern which one can find perfectly preserved on walls or doors in towns and villages everywhere. They can also be found in the hands, arms, legs, feet, intestines, and skulls of numerous living victims, for the pellets are small and fast moving; they penetrate so deeply that they are often impossible to remove.

  1. 1

    On January 25, 1967, President Johnson imposed a prohibition on all bombing missions within a five-mile radius of the centers of Hanoi and Haiphong. This was widely attributed to White House reaction to the newspaper reports of Salisbury and others. The restriction was lifted again in April.

  2. 2

    Nam Dinh (population 90,000) was once the DRVN’s third largest city. Salisbury was told by the city’s mayoress that 13 percent of the city had been demolished in more than fifty separate attacks. When I visited Nam Dinh less than two months later it seemed to me that nearly one-half of the city had been destroyed.

  3. 3

    Until April 25, 1967, the MIG bases were off-limits to American bombers. The official reasoning for this was that if we destroyed the airfields, the MIGS would retreat to bases inside the Chinese borders, making pursuit more difficult and, besides, the MIGS weren’t shooting down many US planes anyway. On April 25, the Air Force and the Seventh Fleet began bombing North Vietnam’s seven jet fields systematically, simply because the DRVN pilots were getting better and bolder in attacking US planes. Now the Pentagon argued that the MIGS were effective because they forced our bombers to evade them by flying at lower altitudes where they are more maneuverable, thus subjecting themselves to a hail of fire from conventional anti-aircraft and militia rifles. It would be better, the Pentagon now said, to have the MIGS based in China after all, because it would take them significantly longer to arrive at the interception point and they would be limited by fuel capacity to only a few minutes over the target areas. In the seven weeks between April 24 and this writing, the Air Force and the Navy have bombed North Vietnamese airfields more than a dozen times and have succeeded in destroying about 115 MIG fighters, according to unofficial pilot figures quoted in The New York Times (June 12). (The US lost sixty-eight jets over North Vietnam during the same period.) Meanwhile, intelligence sources estimate that Soviet and Chinese replacements, in spite of ground and air losses, have kept the North Vietnamese MIG complement at around one hundred planes since August 1965, when the bombing began.

  4. 4

    The reader will remember that this is what the Pentagon claimed had caused the “bomb damage” which Salisbury reported seeing in Hanoi. Even if it had been true (which it was not), we could hardly consider ourselves blameless just because people had been killed by their missiles instead of our bombs—it would be as if to say, “Don’t shoot at our bombers when they fly over Hanoi and you won’t get hurt.”

  5. 5

    The terms “mother unit” and “bomblet” are military terms which even appear in ordnance manuals. The idea, obviously, is to give these vicious weapons a better public-relations sound—a mother bomb and her little bomblets.

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