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Our Air War

Air War: Vietnam

by Frank Harvey
Bantam, 192 pp., $.75 (paper)

In the spring of 1966 a freelance writer named Frank Harvey was invited by Maj. George Weiss, PIO officer for the 7th Air Force in Saigon, to Vietnam to do a “definitive” study of the conduct of the air war. Harvey was reluctant to go; he is fifty-three and the assignment would be arduous and hazardous. But because of his record as a military specialist (Harvey has written some eighty articles on military subjects in the past eighteen years, all of them laudatory, some of them adulatory), Weiss argued that Harvey was “obligated” to go.

At the same time, Edward Muhlfeld, Publisher of Flying, a well-edited, hawkish aviation magazine, also felt the time was right for such a study, and asked the Air Force officials in the Pentagon to suggest a writer for the job. The Pentagon named Frank Harvey. In spite of Harvey’s reluctance, a liaison was arranged between Flying and Harvey, with the Pentagon acting as matchmaker. The arrangement was consummated in June of that year when Harvey, at Flying‘s expense, flew to Saigon.

In all Harvey spent fifty-five days in Vietnam. Because of his credentials, he was allowed and encouraged to fly every kind of mission being flown in Vietnam. When he returned to this country, he had sampled everything except a bombing run over North Vietnam and a B-52 raid over South Vietnam. His article, fifty-eight pages long, appeared in the November issue of Flying. In December a publisher asked Harvey to expand it to book length (he put back material Flying had cut, emphasized material the Pentagon had suggested be de-emphasized) and in July Air War: Vietnam was published in a silence which has persisted. This is unfortunate, since the book is the most complete record so far of what our airmen are actually doing to the people of Vietnam; it is extremely revealing, if at times reluctantly so, precisely because of those qualities that made Harvey so acceptable to the Air Force in the first place.

AT THE OUTSET Harvey intended to do no more than record, as clearly as possible, every aspect of the air war that he had experienced. From the carrier Constellation in the South China Sea he wrote Muhlfeld: “I am leaving the political situation strictly alone. My assignment is to tell about the air war—not the reasons for it. And I certainly won’t leave until we have spent some time in combat. To leave before that would be to miss the very heart of the excitement.”

The very heart of the excitement! It is interesting to compare this with the celebrated opening paragraph of Mary McCarthy’s Vietnam. “I confess that when I went to Vietnam I was looking for material damaging to the American interest and that I found it, though often by accident or in the process of being briefed by an official.” In Harvey’s case he decidedly was not looking for damaging material, but, as Miss McCarthy did, he found it, and often in the same way. It is to his credit as a reporter that he put it down, often, it seems, against his will. In a curiously effective way his unwillingness to face the moral implications of what he saw makes Harvey’s book at times more shocking even than Mary McCarthy’s book. It also makes one wish Miss McCarthy had been able to see a fragment of what Harvey was encouraged to see.

It did not occur to him then that if one is simply recording facts one can also be making a statement, and he was stunned when peace groups and publications began quoting chunks of prose from his article. He was called down to the Pentagon to account for some of the things he had written, and, although he knew that he had reported the truth, he was stricken with feelings of remorse for having let his country down.

The tone of the book is set on the second page:

Dixie Station had a reason. It was simple. A pilot going into combat for the first time is a bit like a swimmer about to dive into an icy lake. He likes to get his big toe wet and then wade around a little before leaping off the high board into the numbing depths. So it was fortunate that young pilots could get their first taste of combat under the direction of a forward air controller over a flat country in bright sunshine where nobody was shooting back with high-powered ack-ack. He learns how it feels to drop bombs on human beings and watch huts go up in a boil of orange flame when his aluminum napalm tanks tumble into them. He gets hardened to pressing the fire button and cutting people down like little cloth dummies, as they sprint frantically under him. He gets his sword bloodied for the rougher things to come.

This passage, in Harvey’s notes, was originally written as a straight description of the young pilot’s “blooding” process. He showed me these notes when I interviewed him before writing this review. The ironic “So it was fortunate” was added later. The paragraph was originally intended to shock, but not in the way it finally does. It was meant to alert the reader to the fact that this was a professional war and that, in a war, the pros learn how to press the firing button. But it is the image of helpless people sprinting frantically beneath the pilot that finally impresses us.

Sartre has written that the ultimate evil is the ability to make abstract that which is concrete. The military have developed this into a habitual approach. Harvey’s sin against the military code is not only his stubborn inability to make inhuman that which is human, not just to see targets as people and people as victims, but to feel for them as well. “There was nothing profound about it,” Harvey told me. “I just peeked under one blanket too many and saw one too many broken bodies under it. Nothing we were doing was worth this.”

While Air War: Vietnam is revealing in this fashion, its greater interest lies in its hard factual information. I felt, for example, that I was more than moderately well informed about the actions being taken in Vietnam in our name. I confess I was shaken by how little I knew about the air war, which plays an increasingly major role in the military effort there.

HARVEY BEGINS his book with his trip to Saigon, and a visit to the Mekong Delta for a defoliation bombing run that was a part of “Operation Ranch Hand.” The motto of defoliating crew was: ONLY YOU CAN PREVENT FORESTS. At this point, Harvey’s book seems to be describing brave men doing a nasty but needed job. But the tone soon begins to change: what begins to disturb Harvey, violating an inbred American sense of fair play, is the terrible one-sideness of things. If a peasant whose livelihood is being poisoned has the temerity to get a rifle and take a shot at the defoliation plane, the consequences of his rash act will prove to be catastrophic. The accepted procedure at this moment is for a crew member to throw out a smoke grenade in the direction from which he thinks the shot came; within minutes and sometimes seconds an aircraft the size of a Martin B-57 Canberra bomber, “riding shotgun” in the region, will explode onto the scene and saturate the area around the smoke with a fire power no American soldier has ever experienced. It struck Harvey as an excessive application of force. He had not yet reached the point of asking about the innocent people in the area who might be taking the full brunt of it.

Well, it is a little exaggerated,” a flier told him. “We’re applying an $18,000,000 solution to a $2 problem. But, still, one of the little mothers was firing at us.”

Here the peculiar psychology of the American military emerges as something that seems unique in modern warfare. The American soldier has become accustomed to such an overwhelming preponderance of fire power to back him up, especially air power (Harvey estimates it at about 1000 to 1), that he has come to think of it as his right, as an inherent property of being American, as the natural balance of life itself. If the enemy attempts to redress the balance the reaction is often one of shocked surprise: “Why the little sons-of-bitches!” and sometimes absurdly violent. Negroes in the South have an understanding of this kind of reaction. Flying chose two adjectives to describe the nature of the air war: vicious and savage. Both are accurate.

The justification for this behavior, which Harvey himself finds it hard to dispute, lies in the words “saving American lives.” Any action can be condoned, any excess tolerated, any injustice justified, if it can be made to fit this formula. The excessive valuation placed on American life, over any other life, accounts for the weapons and tactics we feel entitled to use on the people of South Vietnam and, increasingly now, North Vietnam.

The key to the air war in South Vietnam is the Forward Air Controllers. The FACS are, as Harvey terms them, “the death-bringers.” They hover over the roads and river banks and paddies of the south in little Cessna O-1E Bird Dog spotter planes and act as all-seeing eyes looking for signs of suspicious behavior in the area below, ready to summon down explosive judgment when they do. “They cruise around over the Delta like a vigilante posse, holding the power of life or death over Vietnamese villagers living beneath their daily patrols.”

When a FAC thinks he has a target he is entitled to call down the appropriate craft armed with the appropriate weapons to eliminate it. What alarms Harvey is the routine, often casual, manner, based on the scantiest evidence, in which some FACS felt themselves authorized to issue death sentences, using a variety of weapons that kill indiscriminately. Harvey, of course, knew that napalm was in use and was aware of its role in the war:

The FAC’S list of fire works is long and deadly. Napalm, or jellied gasoline, comes in aluminum tanks with fuses of white phosphorus. When it hits and ignites, the burning napalm splatters around the area, consuming everything burnable that it strikes. Napalm is considered particularly useful for destroying heavily-dug-in gun emplacements since it deluges a large area with rolling fire, and rushes, burning, down into narrow openings. You might spend a long time and a lot of high-powered bombs trying to get a direct hit on a gun pit that, if you were using napalm, you could wipe out in one pass. Napalm also is said to be effective against troops hiding in caves and tunnels since it suddenly pulls all the oxygen out of the tunnel by its enormous gulp of combustion, and suffocating anyone inside.

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