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.
The description, however, leaves one with the impression that Incinderjell, as the military now refer to it, is used mainly against military installations. Harvey was appalled to find it being used “routinely” against such “targets” as hooch lines (rows of houses along a road or canal) in suspect areas, on individual houses, and even in rice paddies since the new, improved Incinderjell burns in water. The margin for error in such use is very large but that is the price our army must pay to save American lives. Before the general use of napalm the Vietnamese, like the Algerians, “were learning to live with their war” by digging little bomb shelters under the floors of their houses. With napalm, which can flood or trickle down into the holes, a sanctuary is converted into a family incinerator.
Strangely, however, few people appear to know about other devices equally vicious and even more generally in use:
But the deadliest weapon of all, at least against personnel, were CBUS—cluster bomb units. One type of CBU consisted of a long canister filled with metal balls about the size of softballs. Inside each metal ball were numbers of smaller metal balls or “bomblets.” The CBUS were expelled over the target by compressed air. The little bomblets covered a wide swathe in a closely spaced pattern. They look like sparklers going off and were lethal to anybody within their range. Some types were fitted with delayed action fuses and went off later when people have come out thinking the area was safe. If a pilot used CBUS properly he could lawnmower for considerable distances, killing anybody on a path several hundred feet wide and many yards long.
The important phrase in this description is “delayed action fuse”: Some clusters can be timed to go off hours and even days after being dropped, so that while the suspect, the cause of the bombing, may be miles away, others who have not left the area, such as children who may be playing there, end up as the victims. It is hard to imagine a military man being able to justify such conduct, although none to my knowledge has been asked to do so. One kind of fragmentation (anti-personnel) bomb, the BLU-36 B, called “guava” bomb because it looks like the fruit, is an improvement. For guava clusters dumped from one fighter-bomber in one pass over a village can shred an area a mile long and a quarter of a mile wide with more than one million balls or fragments of steel.
CBUS have created a need for drastic new surgical techniques. Because there is neither time nor facilities for X-rays, a CBU victim, if hit in the stomach, is simply slit from the top of the stomach to the bottom and the contents of the stomach emptied out on a table and fingered through for “frags” as a dog is worked over for ticks. When the sorting is done the entrails are replaced and the stomach sewed back up like a football. This “football scar” has become the true badge of misery in South Vietnam. Harvey has photographs of the process, but they are not in the book: they are unbearable to look at.
THERE ARE two tactical applications for these weapons authorized by the Air Force. The first is called “Recon by smoke.” If a FAC or the commander of a “Huey Hog” helicopter (a word on these in a moment) finds nothing overtly suspicious, he is entitled to stir up some action by dropping smoke grenades in places where he suspects something might be going on. If people run from the smoke and explosion, the pilot is then entitled to assume he has flushed Charlie and to call in any means of destruction at his disposal. As one FAC explained to Harvey, why would they run if they didn’t have guilty consciences?
The second approved tactic is more vicious. It is called “Recon by fire.” Under this policy, a FAC, failing to find a positive sign of suspicious activity, is authorized to call in a fighter bomber to cruise down on a hooch line or canal and, at a moment the FAC deems ripe, to drop a canister of CBU. Since the bombs, exploding one after another, move toward, the potential victims at the speed of the jet, the effect is called “rolling thunder,” and is said to be terrifying. Once again, if the people on the ground take evasive action, the FAC is entitled to assume he has caught out VC. Different evasions call for different measures. If people rush into the houses, the most effective tactical measure is to “barbecue” them with a bath of napalm. If they go out into the paddies, the most effective action is to “hose” them down with fire from miniguns mounted on Huey Hog helicopters. The minigun is a rotating, multi-barreled machine gun capable of firing 6,000 rounds of 7.62mm (.30 caliber) ammunition in one minute. If the minifire is sustained on a person in a paddy he will be shredded and will actually disintegrate.
The Huey Hog has become increasingly important in South Vietnam. The Hog is a converted transport helicopter which has been remade into a floating firing platform with the fire power of a World War II infantry battalion crammed aboard. Harvey calls it the most vicious single weapon in use, mainly because of its ability to hover over a target.
One would think, or hope, that a weapon with such a large potential for destruction would be used with extreme care, but Harvey was surprised at the freedom each chopper commander enjoyed for individual action. Many Hueys are engaged in rough and ready reconnaissance, free-lance search and destroy missions, and small-scale hedge-nopping operations which are aimed at surprise. Harvey’s description of some of the men holding and using this power is revealing:
The American Huey troops at Vinh Long are without doubt the most savage guys I met in Vietnam (and the jolliest!). I was impressed by them. But they scared me. They didn’t hurl impersonal thunderbolts from the heights in supersonic jets. They came muttering down to the paddies and hootch lines, fired at close range and saw their opponents disintegrate to bloody rags 40 feet away. They took hits through their plastic windshields and through their rotor blades. They wore flak vests and after a fire fight was won they landed on the battlefield, got out, and counted their VC dead. Each man had his own personal sidearm he carried along for mopping up. A Swedish K automatic pistol seemed to be the favorite.
Capt. George O’Grady wears a steel helmet modeled after the old Roman battle helmets. His door gunners were enlisted people and as savage as the drivers. I saw a door gunner who affected deerskin gloves with long gauntlets. One man I met had been mustered out and had gone home to civilian work. He couldn’t stand it at home. He reenlisted and went back for another tour.
One night Harvey’s Huey made a pass over the edge of a suspect village. “We emptied a full load of ammo out on the silent darkness and went back to Vinh Long; no one will ever know if we hit anything but we did a lot of shooting.” On another afternoon, when Harvey asked a chopper pilot how he did, the man answered in disgust: “Wash out. Got me two VC water buffalo and a pregnant woman.”
The reason Harvey finds the chopper crews the “Jolliest” is that at least they know whom they are killing. The worst crimes being committed against the people of South Vietnam, however, are being committed by one of the least criticized of all our weapons, the B-52 bombers, once the backbone of General Curtis LeMay’s SAC, the key to Dulles’s “massive retaliation” policy. Designed to deliver the H-bomb to the Soviet Union, they have this role in Vietnam:
The B-52 crews are old pros. They took on the mission of defending the United States when they could, at any moment, have been ordered to fly deep into Russia against deadly defense of missiles and fighters—a mission from which many of them would not have returned. Now they have a quite different set of orders. To blast or burn large areas of jungle (also, roads, buildings and fields) containing living things, animals and men, some innocent and unaware, without warning. It’s not a mission of their choosing. It’s just the way the ball happened to bounce. But one can’t help but wonder what a man thinks about, after he’d set fire to 50 square miles of jungle from high altitude with a rain of fire bombs, and wakes up in his room in the darkness—and lies awake watching the shadows on the ceiling….
Nothing will live in those fifty square miles. Even a turtle burrowed in the mud at the back of a cave will become only an ash. Used in this fashion the B-52 comes perilously close to a weapon of genocide. According to Harvey and other reporters, our B-52 operations, using 3,000-pound bombs (“instant swimming pool makers” the pilots say) have done as much to create the 2,500,000 to 3,000,000 refugees in South Vietnam as any other American action.
What do these men feel about what they are doing? Their professionalism protects them, Harvey believes, as well as their ability to make abstract the results of their work. Harvey tried to invite a group of B-52 pilots to visit a hospital at Can Tho where the overwhelming majority of patients were women and children with fire and bomb wounds, but they wouldn’t go inside. They insisted, in fact, that they almost never hit anyone. When Harvey offered to show them quite a few they did hit, one of them finally said: “Yeah, but we patch ’em up, don’t we?” It even made the pilots laugh.
The protection, then, is not to see. One of the most pathetic American statements to come from the war was made by John McCain 3rd, son and grandson of full admirals, after surviving the Forrestal holocaust. “It’s a difficult thing to say. But now that I’ve seen what the bombs and napalm did to the people on our ship, I’m not so sure I want to drop any more of that stuff on North Vietnam.” But he was a professional and was shot down doing it several months later.
HARVEY’S BOOK probably will not open any flier’s eyes but it can help to reopen the eyes of Americans who have become somewhat jaded with reports of search-and-destroy missions and the “pacification” of the village of Ben Suc. Although Harvey didn’t intend it this way, Air War: Vietnam provides new factual ammunition for those who wish to shift the debate about the war from argument about American political and military strategy, an argument that has become repetitive and frozen, to the question whether American actions are morally defensible on any grounds whatever.
There is a legacy of Western thought, rather innocent but still a potent political force, that there are some things that just cannot be done, some actions that cannot be taken, in the name of military expediency. Notwithstanding the complexities of our involvements in Vietnam, this moral argument is a quite simple one. One does not pour flaming jellied gasoline on the heads of women and children merely because there may be an enemy in the house or at least in the house next to it. One does not drop anti-personnel fragmentation bombs on undefended villages in the hope of scaring out soldiers, when there is certainty of mutilating people.
There is a moral logic here: if this is the kind of action the government chooses to take, then not only should one withhold support of that action but it becomes one’s duty to resist efforts by the government to make one help fight such a war—something a good many people, especially the young, have chosen to do. However, while this argument is effective in shorting up the courage of individuals, it seems to me one that could have a far more powerful political effect than it yet has had. Proponents of the President’s policy should not be allowed to hide behind the question of our involvement in Vietnam, for which a case can be made, but should be forced to defend our conduct there, which, on examination, becomes indefensible. For this purpose, facts are necessary; some of these facts are to be found in Harvey’s book. More are needed.
A second legacy that most of us share, though it lies dormant in us, is the belief that men somehow are still held accountable for their deeds. It is the thought, after all, which informed Nuremberg. Generals don’t make policy (usually), but they formulate and approve military conduct. Sooner or later the military people who have authorized and condoned such tactics as “Recon by fire” should be made to account for these acts before the American people. It is inexcusable that men such as Westmoreland have been able to appear on television programs and at news conferences and have not been forced to account for the kind of tactics and weapons being used on the people of both Vietnams. Simply asking the question, spelling out the terms, would have value. It should prove interesting to hear, especially in the face of a persistent questioner, the defense of cluster-bombing a row of houses in the hope of finding a suspect. Until now one of the reasons for the absence of such questions has been a lack of hard information about just exactly what it is we are doing.
I don’t mean to suggest that such information as is documented in this book is going to cause an immediate sense of moral outrage throughout the US. It will not. But if there is hope for this country, it must be that when information of the kind contained in Air War: Vietnam is more thoroughly known and understood (although Harvey has made it plain this was not his purpose in writing this book), an increasing number of people will find unacceptable both our presence in Vietnam and the political candidates who support that presence.
January 4, 1968