The Bombardiers

excerpted from the book


Kissinger, Nixon and the Destruction of Cambodia

by William Shawcross

Simon and Schuster, 1979

The Bombardiers


Ever since the First World War, air power has held political allure, seeming to offer the promise of almost painless victory. The promise has not always been fulfilled, but it is part of the nature of air power that its real effects are often difficult to separate from those claimed; it is often distant if not invisible, and a pattern of organizational mis-reporting has, from the start, accompanied it.

Strategic bombing of the enemy's war-making capacity and attacks upon civilian areas to destroy his morale were first attempted during the Sino-Japanese war in the middle thirties. In the Second World War the British and American air forces pursued radically different approaches to the concepts; the British made much greater use of massive bombing of German cities than the Americans. Some of the reasons were technical: the Americans developed more effective bomb sights, which enabled them to hit critical industrial targets on daytime raids. Without such mechanical efficiency, the British had to rely on nighttime area bombing. But there were also philosophical differences. The Americans believed that civilian morale was unlikely to be destroyed by such attacks; indeed the Japanese bombardment of China could be shown to have the opposite effect. And the Americans tended to be more scrupulous. In January 1945, General Ira C. Eaker, an Air Force commander, wrote to his superior, General Carl Spaatz, Strategic Air Commander, Europe, to advise against bombing transportation and other targets in small German towns for fear of excessive civilian casualties. "You and Bob Lovett [Special Assistant Secretary of War for Air] are right and we should never allow the history of this war to convict us of throwing the strategic bomber at the man in the street." Hiroshima helped destroy such ideals.

After the war was over, jealous organizational imperatives began to assert themselves. The U.S. Air Force emphasized the importance of strategic bombing over tactical bombing (close air support for ground troops) in part to guarantee its independence from the army. The Air Force had no real strategic mission in Korea but it immediately saw possibilities in Vietnam. Although the Joint Chiefs could find only eight industrial targets worth striking in their first survey of North Vietnam, the Air Force officers insisted they had a vital role to play in the destruction of Hanoi's industrial infrastructure.

North Vietnamese industry was not destroyed by air strikes, and the CIA later noted: "Twenty-seven months of U.S. bombing of North Vietnam have had remarkably little effect on Hanoi's overall strategy in prosecuting the war, on its confident view of long term communist prospects and on its political tactics regarding negotiations." Other reports gathered in the Pentagon Papers showed that Hanoi's war-making capacity had hardly been affected, that its will had been strengthened by the bombing, its links with the USSR and China had been improved, and civilian morale had hardened.

Throughout the Vietnam buildup, 1965-69, the principal in-house critics of the air war were to be found in the Systems Analysis Office of the Secretary of Defense. Their South East Asia Analysis Reports contained many scathing evaluations of the recommendations and the data of the military (the twelve volumes have been obtained under the Freedom of Information Act). Their skepticism over the air war convinced Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara but infuriated the Joint Chiefs, who issued constant rebuttals and demanded that distribution of the papers within the Pentagon be restricted. The Chiefs also enlisted Congressional support against McNamara. Because the political appeal of bombing was so strong, this was easy to do.

The first report on the war Nixon and Kissinger commissioned in January 1969, National Security Study Memorandum One, offered little evidence of the military value of strategic bombing, particularly by B-52s. It showed that close air support of ground troops by tactical aircraft was far more effective-but this accounted for only 8 percent of the total of all missions flown in Indochina. There was no agreement between military and civilian officials as to how many Communists were killed in the "boxes" ground out by the B-52s, but the evidence demonstrated that the bombing of base camps was the least effective technique of all. Moreover, despite the enormous number of "interdiction" flights against the Ho Chi Minh Trail in Laos over the past three years the Communists were getting through adequate supplies. Evidence in NSSM I suggested that no amount of air power could prevent them. The American embassy in Saigon, going further, warned that neither the bombing of the North nor that of the Trail had affected Hanoi's ability to wage the war it wished in the South. The embassy concluded, "With this experience in mind there is little evidence to believe that new bombing will accomplish what previous bombings failed to do, unless it is conducted with much greater intensity and readiness to defy criticism and risk escalation.

The new administration considered that the criticism was indeed to be defied. Particularly in the use of air power, escalation was part of their strategy. Menu was launched in March 1969, and in 1970 Nixon expanded the free fire zone in Laos, sent B-52s over the Plain of Jars in Laos for the first time, and approved targets in North Vietnam that Lyndon Johnson had never allowed. One intention was to demonstrate to Hanoi the political point that bombing would not be constrained by domestic opposition.

In its "P.R. offensive" the White House always insisted that it was "winding down" the air war. It is true that the number of sorties by both tactical aircraft and B-52s was reduced during the first Nixon administration. But since many sorties had been judged ineffective, this was fairly easily done. And in 1971 a single B-52 squadron still dropped in one year half the tonnage dropped by U.S. planes in the entire Pacific Theater in World War Two. Furthermore, the White House failed to advertise that bomb loads per raid were increased enormously. In 1968, the average fighter bomb load was 1.8 tons. In 1969, it was 2.2 tons and by 1973, the planes were laden with 2.9 tons of bombs. Each year proportionately more use was made of the B-52, which was militarily the least effective plane, but politically and emotionally the most awe-inspiring. In 1968, B-52s accounted for 5.6 percent of all sorties; by 1972, their share had risen to 15 percent. To the Air Force it was altogether clear that Nixon was doing anything but wind down its role. Its official secret 1969 history was entitled, ''The Administration Emphasizes Air Power," and that of 1970, "The Role of Air Power Grows."

The political use of bombing coincided with the Chiefs' desire to keep their planes and pilots flying. It aroused the concern of Melvin Laird. He understood the "firehose" use of air power and accepted the arguments of his civilian staff that many sorties were flown only for reasons of interservice rivalry and for organizational purposes. He never publicly criticized the Chiefs as McNamara had done, but within the Pentagon he persistently attempted to counter their and the White House's efforts to keep the level of bombing as high as possible. Inevitably, his views were unpopular within the Air Force, and its 1970 secret history disparages him as "the chief apostle of Vietnamization and budget cutting." Laird insisted that Congressional concern must be seen as a real constraint and argued that "escalatory acts on our part" would not help reach a negotiated settlement. This was the opposite of the White House perception. The Air Force history notes that in 1970 Nixon realized that the South Vietnamese Army was improving more slowly than troop withdrawals and so "bridged the gap . . . by applying air strikes for political purposes and by extending the geographic area of air interdiction-into Cambodia and back into North Vietnam. Thus the role of air power, though slated for reductions, continued to be emphasized."

Laird was unwilling to place either political or organizational need for bombing before its purely military use. He and his civilian staff felt that the White House accepted uncritically every claim the Air Force or the Chiefs made for air power, and they frequently voiced their frustrations at the morning meetings on Vietnam that Laird held in the Pentagon. At one stage in early 1970 even the Joint Chiefs wished to withdraw from Southeast Asia B-52s that were not currently required there. The White House refused, demanding that they remain on station "for contingency purposes." A contingency did arise; it was the overthrow of Sihanouk and the invasion of Cambodia. Just before the invasion, Laird's representative, Warren Nutter, suggested at a meeting of the Senior Review Group that enemy activity did not justify the current sortie rates and that these could be made more flexible in future. Kissinger refused to hear of it and demanded that the number of tactical airstrikes and B-52 sorties that had already been approved for the next financial year be flown regardless of the military situation. Laird was furious. "Anyone that addresses the problem starting with a set number of sorties doesn't understand the problem and isn't qualified to discuss it," he said the next day.

Subsequently, Laird tried to introduce a banking system to mitigate the worst effects of interservice rivalry. He proposed that sorties be saved for future use if on any day no worthwhile target was available. Thus each service would eventually fly its full complement of sorties but at least the targets could be more sensibly chosen.

The Joint Chiefs resisted the innovations; so did Kissinger. Laird had to give way.



The invasion of Cambodia led to an extension of the use of bombing; it l needs to be considered in some detail. The Air Force 1970 history notes that when the North Vietnamese recovered from the "temporary setback" of the invasion and began to mount new operations, "the JCS insistence on countering these moves, as well as possible later ones, intensified, and Presidential agreement with the JCS turned the tide in favor of a greatly expanded air interdiction effort."

For a short time in May 1970, Laird attempted to limit the bombing in Cambodia. The White House kept trying to extend it. Kissinger told one meeting of the Washington Special Action Group that the United States would even give close air support to Thai troops in Cambodia if necessary. By early June Laird had stopped resisting. "We're taking so much heat in Cambodia that we might as well bomb as much as possible," he told his Vietnamization group on June 5. But he and his aides were still concerned that Kissinger and Nixon had no idea of what air power could and could not do. He asked Philip Odeen to produce a briefing "to begin educating Dr. Kissinger." "It's a very big job," commented Colonel Pursley, Laird's military assistant. "The President and Dr. Kissinger both believe everything the Seventh Air Force has told them."

The language of the Cooper-Church amendment (limiting U.S. involvement in Cambodia), which was being debated at this time, forbade the use of American air power in close support of Lon Nol's troops. After June 30, 1970, it was to be used only to interdict men and supplies en route to Vietnam. Publicly the administration accepted this restriction, but in fact it was ignored from the start. On the fifteenth of June, Nixon interrupted a WASSAG meeting to insist on more bombing in Cambodia. Its primary purpose might be interdiction, he said, but "I want this purpose interpreted very broadly." The President ordered Laird's deputy, David Packard, to see how more air power could be made available to Lon Nol. Packard suggested that bombing might not be the most effective aid but, he told his colleagues later, "This didn't seem to get through." It was clear to Packard that Nixon was determined to have almost limitless bombing in Cambodia. And so, on June 17, a "Top Secret, Exclusive" cable was sent to Abrams by the Joint Chiefs to authorize more United States and Vietnamese bombing "in any situation which involves a serious threat to major Cambodian positions, such as a provincial capital whose loss would constitute serious military or psychological blow to the country." The Chiefs ordered Abrams, in accordance with Nixon's instructions, to "conduct the most aggressive U.S. and R.V.N.A.F. [South Vietnamese] air campaign in Cambodia which is feasible...." Laird, realizing that the White House was obdurate, secretly recommended that post-strike reports no longer be divided between close support and interdiction; this allowed the support role to be concealed much more easily.

The White House was concerned not to provoke the Congress into banning all air power, as well as advisers, in Cambodia. While the debate over the Cooper-Church amendment was taking place, the extent and purpose of the bombing were publicly played down. But when, at the end of 1970, the amendment finally became law, without any bar on bombing in Cambodia to interdict men and supplies en route to Vietnam, some pretenses were dropped. The Pentagon admitted openly that it would now use the full range of its air power in Cambodia, since any enemy there might "ultimately" threaten United States forces in Vietnam. Laird publicly dismissed the distinction between "interdiction" and "close air support" as "semantics." Rogers declared, "We are going to continue to use that air power, because it protects American lives. It's the least costly way to protect our men-and why we should have any restrictions on the use of that air power to protect American lives, I don't know." Unnamed officials told The New York Times that Cambodia was being used as a laboratory to test "public acceptance of the general process of gradually substituting helicopters and attack planes for foot soldiers, as American combat units are withdrawn from the Vietnam war."

There were fewer controls and restraints on targeting in Cambodia than in Vietnam. The South Vietnamese Air Force, as we have seen, considered Cambodia an open field, and although most American pilots were, as a rule, more careful, several have testified that almost anything in Cambodia constituted a legitimate target. The original Menu strikes on the border sanctuaries ended, still a secret, in May. By now, Menu was a recognized procedure, not merely a geographic area. "I would like to retain the Menu cover," Laird wrote to the Chiefs. One of his aides subsequently explained that the Menu procedures required the Chiefs to ask Laird's approval for specific attacks and thus placed some control on the bombing. At the same time, however, it meant that the falsification of Cambodian bombing reports was now accepted as normal.

The main area of the new, extended bombing was known as Freedom Deal. Originally a box of Northeastern Cambodia between the border and the Mekong, it was gradually pushed southward and westward into more heavily populated areas, as the fighting spread. Bombing outside Freedom Deal was reported as being inside, and bombing in populated areas inside as being in wild, uninhabited places. The mis-reporting meant that there was very little follow-up, or "bomb damage assessment," after missions. In Saigon, little or nothing was known about the location and shifts of Cambodian villages, particularly in Khmer Rouge areas. At the same time, the battle zones of Cambodia were even more inaccessible to the press than those of Vietnam. Carelessness and callousness were easier to practice and tolerate.

There were different procedures for bombing inside and outside Freedom Deal. In the eastern half of the country, B-52 missions were controlled (and targets were selected) by the Seventh Air Force in Saigon. West of Freedom Deal-west of the Mekong river, in effect-B-52 strikes could be requested by the Cambodians.

Much of the tactical bombing of the country was controlled by American spotter planes known as FACs (Forward Air Control planes). Their job was to call the "strike birds" or bombers into targets. Because American ground advisers were forbidden, the United States trained Cambodian soldiers to liaise with the pilots from the ground. They were known as FAGs (Forward Air Guides), and they spoke either a little French or a little English and were equipped by the United States with FM radios on which they could speak either to the "strike birds" or to the spotter planes above. They developed a close rapport with their American counterparts in the sky, and together the FAGs and the FACs actually controlled many battles. The American pilot was often able to see just what a situation was, and he frequently gave encouragement and instructions, through his FAG, to the ground-unit commander, to whom the Cooper-Church amendment denied such help. (Problems arose after the Communists captured or bought the radio sets and started to ask pilots to bomb FANK positions, and jammed the wave bands by shouting or playing Radio Peking down them.)

The story of the river convoys illustrates how the use of American air power expanded in Cambodia. As the Mekong narrowed with the recession of the flood waters, toward the end of 1970, the convoys to Phnom Penh became more vulnerable to attack from the banks. In early January, Swank cabled Rogers to warn that supplies of petroleum in the city were dangerously low. In Saigon, the military worked out an emergency plan to provide Vietnamese naval support and United States air power to push the convoys through.

The task of guarding the convoys was given to the U.S. Air Force, and to Army helicopter gunships. This drew instant protests from the U.S. Navy, which wanted its own planes involved as well. In Saigon, the Air Force categorically claimed that, "Sufficient air assets were available," and refused to allow the Navy in. But the Air Force had also assumed prime responsibility for keeping Cambodia's roads open. As the 1971 dry season progressed, North Vietnamese attacks on the roads grew so heavy that the Air Force was compelled to divert planes from the river convoys. The Navy was called upon.

Once the Navy, the Air Force and the Army were involved, they all made sure they stayed. Although the convoy protection was meant to be short-term, it expanded along with every other American effort in Cambodia. Even after the river widened with the summer flooding, and became safer for the convoys, air attacks over it were extended again and again. They remained an integral part of United States air activity in Cambodia until 1973.



Throughout 1971, the White House hoped to conclude a settlement and withdraw all but an advisory mission of United States troops from Saigon before the 1972 election. This meant, if anything, more bombardment. President Nixon made frequent public threats to step up the bombing, asserting, for example, that he had "laid down" a new "understanding" with Hanoi on the use of air power. And he warned, "I am not going to place any limitations on the use of air power in Indochina-except to exclude nuclear weapons." The reliance on bombing increased after the catastrophic defeat of ARVN soldiers invading Laos on Operation Lam Son 719 in February 1971.

Laird had recently returned from Saigon. He wrote a bullish report for Nixon in which he praised Vietnamization, and endorsed General Abrams' suggestions for such an invasion. But the ARVN was weaker than he believed, and the enduring image of the operation was of wretched South Vietnamese soldiers desperately clinging to the skids of American helicopters, often falling from great heights as they attempted to flee the disaster.

The Laotian debacle must have given comfort to Hanoi; in the White House its effect was to underscore Nixon and Kissinger's conviction that the Chiefs, and not Laird, were right about the limits of Vietnamization and the need for expanded bombing. The Air Force history of 1970 records that his " 'positive' optimistic positions were eroded more and more by increasingly strong enemy initiatives . . . and by Presidential agreement with the JCS." The 1971 Air Force history records, "Past critics of air interdiction had often suggested that ground forces could achieve more effective results, but now they were less optimistic." In his memoirs Nixon later described his general mistrust of Laird's opinion-"I once jokingly remarked that Laird . . . would answer questions and state his views whether he was informed or not."

It is important to remember that Vietnamization never envisaged the withdrawal of American airplanes from Indochina. Laird publicly acknowledged that, after American troops were removed, American planes would "remain on duty in South East Asia" to form part of the "realistic deterrent which we will maintain." He failed to mention that the White House intended to keep the planes not only "on duty" but at work. In private he expressed his concern. "The roof would come flying off the Capitol if they knew we were seriously considering flying large numbers of sorties in 1973 and 1974," he told his staff in early 1971. "We must keep some considerations very quiet," he warned.

Whatever the tactical relevance of American air power in Cambodia (it helped Lon Nol's troops in the short term and made them dependent in the long run), it was employed both to keep the planes flying and as a strategic symbol. Menu had taken up some of the slack after Johnson halted the bombing of North Vietnam and it was supposed to demonstrate Nixon's "toughness." After the 1970 invasion, the growing South Vietnamese Air Force was diverted to Cambodia; Pentagon studies show that this was deliberately done to prevent the South Vietnamese from displacing the U.S. Air Force in Vietnam. Throughout 1970 and 1971 Kissinger was anxious, for political reasons, to keep the sortie rates high; it was the expanding battlefield in Cambodia that enabled him to do so.

The statistics show the way in which the country was used. In 1970, 8 percent of American combat sorties were flown in Cambodia; the figure rose to 14 percent in 1971. In the first quarter of 1972, Cambodia accounted for 10.5 percent of all USAF sorties and 14 percent of the B-52 missions. But suddenly in April 1972 the planes were withdrawn. At the end of March, Hanoi launched its massive spring offensive into South Vietnam. Soviet-made tanks and North Vietnamese divisions poured over the Demilitarized Zone and across the Cambodian border, demonstrating how short-lived the "brilliant success" of the 1970 invasion of the sanctuaries had been. The war seeped across Vietnam, and for a few weeks in April it seemed that the South Vietnamese might be routed and Nixon confronted with a defeat a few months before the Presidential election.

Air power was called upon to avert the awful possibility. Nixon launched hundreds more planes against the North. Haiphong was bombed and mined. In the South immense numbers of strategic and tactical bombers were thrown into close air support of Thieu's beleaguered troops.

Some of this new armada was flown from bases far from Indochina, but the rest were diverted from Laos and Cambodia. The skies around Phnom Penh were unusually quiet that summer. In 1971, 61,000 American and Vietnamese sorties had been flown there; in 1972 only 25,000. Over these two years Cambodia's share of the bombing fell from 10.5 to 4 percent. But then in 1973, when the Paris Peace Agreement prevented American bombing of first Vietnam and then Laos, the entire Seventh Air Force was switched back to Cambodia. All of this had more to do with political and organizational requirements in Washington and South Vietnam than with the military needs of the Lon Nol government. Until August 1973, when Congress brought the bombing to an end, hundreds of thousands of bombs dropped by the American, South Vietnamese and Cambodian air forces onto Cambodia fell unreported and uncontrolled on areas occupied first by the North Vietnamese and then by the Khmer Rouge.

It could be argued that this use of air power constitutes a prima-facie case of breach of international law. Article 6 (b) of the Charter of the International Military Tribunal following World War II defined "war crimes" as "violations of the laws or customs of war. Such violations shall include, but not be limited to, murder, ill treatment or deportation to slave labor for any other purpose of civilian population of or in occupied territory, murder or ill treatment of prisoners of war or persons on the seas, killing of hostages, plunder of public or private property, wanton destruction of cities, towns or villages, or devastation not justified by military necessity."


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