Report from Vietnam II: The Problems of Success

A short helicopter trip from Saigon in almost any direction permits a ringside view of American bombing. Just beyond the truck gardens of the suburbs you see what at first glance appears to be a series of bonfires evocative of Indian summers; thick plumes of smoke are rising from wooded clumps and fields. Toward the west, great blackish-brown tracts testify to the most recent results of the defoliation program; purplish-brown tracts are last year’s work. As the helicopter skims the tree-tops, and its machine guns lower into position, you can study the fires more closely, and it is possible to distinguish a rice-field burned over by peasants from neat bombing targets emitting spirals of smoke. But a new visitor cannot be sure and may tend to discredit his horrified impression, not wishing to jump to conclusions. Flying over the delta one morning, I saw the accustomed lazy smoke puffs mounting from the landscape and was urging myself to be cautious (“How do you know?) when I noticed a small plane circling; then it plunged, dropped its bombs, and was away in a graceful movement, having hit the target again; there was a flash of flame, and fresh, blacker smoke poured out. In the distance, a pair of small planes was hovering in the sky, like mosquitoes buzzing near the ceiling, waiting to strike. We flew on.

Coming back to Saigon in the afternoon, I expected to hear about “my” double air-strike in the daily five-o’clock press briefing, but no air activity in the sector was mentioned—too trivial to record, said a newsman. On a day taken at random (Washington’s Birthday), the Air Force and the Marine Corps reported 460 sorties flown over South Vietnam; whenever a unit is in trouble, they send for the airmen. Quite apart from the main battle areas, where fires and secondary explosions are announced as so many “scores,” the countryside is routinely dotted with fires in various stages, so that they come to seem a natural part of it, like the grave-mounds in the rice-fields and pastures. The charred patches you see when returning in the afternoon from a morning’s field trip are this morning’s smoking embers; meanwhile new curls of smoke, looking almost peaceful, are the afternoon’s tally. And the cruel couples of hovering aircraft (they seem to travel in pairs, like FBI agents) appear to be daytime fixtures almost stationary in the sky.

The Saigonese themselves are unaware of the magnitude of what is happening to their country, since they are unable to use military transport to get an aerial view of it; they only note the refugees sleeping in the streets and hear the B-52s pounding a few miles away. Seeing the war from the air, amid the crisscrossing Skyraiders, Supersabres, Phantoms, observation planes, Psy-war planes (dropping leaflets), you ask your self how much longer the Viet Cong can hold out; the country is so small that at the present rate of destruction there will …

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