In 1972, faced with a public opinion that was increasingly hostile to the war, all candidates in the upcoming presidential election promised to put a speedy end to the conflict. And contrary to popular belief, there were few illusions in Washington about the real situation in Vietnam: the political leaders knew that sooner or later the United States would lose the war. Starting from this premise, three political solutions presented themselves: first of all, send more troops in the hope of winning regardless, and winning quickly; second, postponing the decision until later, which amounted to continuing the war so as to delay defeat; and third, withdraw without having obtained the political results in the name of which the United States had embarked on this conflict, which amounted to accepting a defeat. No president had the political courage to choose this third ‘solution’, and the strategic bombing campaign increasingly followed the logic of the second. In scarcely veiled terms, accordingly, Nixon said that the objective of his ‘Linebacker’ campaign was to give the Saigon government a ‘decent interval’, which clearly meant that the inevitable collapse of South Vietnam should not take place before his re-election in November 1972 or, still better, not before the projected end of his mandate four years later.
It was the second ‘front’, however, that of ‘pacification’ in the south, that saw the most significant developments in the air war on Vietnam. Ever since the First World War, strategic and tactical deployment of aviation had been distinguished, the first being directed predominantly against civilian populations and the second against armed forces. In guerrilla warfare, however, this distinction tended to blur. Such tactical operations as ‘close support’ in an inhabited milieu inevitably killed a large number of civilians. More fundamentally, the United States pursued a strategy of ‘attrition’ in which strategic success was supposed to come from the sum of tactical successes. Instead of seeking to ‘bend the will’ of the enemy, the attempt was to physically eliminate a maximum of insurgents and cut off the survivors from their bases of support. As far as the latter point was concerned, the United States drew on French and British doctrines, developed in Indochina, Algeria, and Malaya, which consisted in the transfer of large sections of the population, the creation of theoretically uninhabited ‘free-fire zones’, and the relocation of civilians in ‘strategic hamlets’ or fortified villages, surrounded with barbed wire, under strict surveillance and cut off from any contact with the insurgents.
The other element in the attrition strategy, which was to kill as many insurgents as possible, was translated into operational reality with the concept of ‘meat-grinder’, which, according to General William Westmoreland, had the aim of decimating the Vietnamese population ‘to the point of national disaster for generations to come’, as well as by the tactic of ‘search and destroy’, which meant using airborne troops, generally sent in by helicopter, to intervene in enemy territory in order to find and massacre the insurgents before rapidly departing. In practice, this meant attacking villages or hamlets where presumed insurgents or their sympathizers were hiding. Added to this were the effect of the ‘Phoenix programme’, conceived after the French counter-revolutionary doctrine developed in the wake of the Indochina war and applied in Algeria. The objective here was to identify and ‘neutralize’ the leading cadres of the revolutionary organization: infiltration, arrest, torture, and assassination.
The Vietnam War was thus the laboratory of a technique of government already tested during the Second World War, which steadily invaded all spheres of society: ‘benchmarking’, in other words the use of numerical indicators to improve performance. In the attrition strategy deployed in Vietnam, the benchmark was the ‘body count’, the number of enemies killed per week by each unit. Enormous pressure was placed on the commanders, who subsequently transmitted this to their subordinates – the effects are not hard to imagine. Whether in the context of the Phoenix programme or in simple ‘search and destroy’ missions, commandos systematically attacked villages or hamlets by helicopter, in such a way that the famous scene from the film Apocalypse Now, which shows an attack to the music of Wagner’s ‘Ride of the Valkyries’, does not seem that far from historical reality.
In theory, the real mission began on the ground, after a helicopter attack. If there was a Viet Cong response, artillery or bomber planes were brought in: ‘I could … within an hour get a B-52 strike destroying an entire grid square [one square kilometre] on a map, and we did that’, one officer recalled. If there was no response, troops criss-crossed the ground. Sometimes only armed men or other suspects were arrested; at other times, all the inhabitants were taken to ‘interrogation centres’. According to one US soldier who described these missions, ‘we know they’re Charlie [Viet Cong] – maybe saboteurs, collaborators, and like that … These here are hard-core V.C. You can tell by lookin’ at ’em.’ About 220,000 persons were arrested in this way, more than a quarter of them classified as ‘civilian defendants’, presumed to be spies, saboteurs, terrorists, or collaborators.
These suspects were very likely to be tortured, either in the jails of the Saigon regime or on US bases. A Red Cross report of 1968–69 records torture by electricity or water, sexual humiliation, beatings, mutilation, dehydration, imprisonment with pythons or in small barbed-wire cages. According to the US general Edward Bautz, torture was a military necessity and thus an everyday practice, and the chief of staff Harold K. Johnson even admitted that the treatment of the Viet Cong captured by the Americans was worse than that of GIs who fell into enemy hands. An original technique practised by US troops was ‘airborne interrogation’, which consisted in throwing prisoners selected at random out of helicopters, in order to terrorize others.
Practices of this kind inevitably went together with an image of the enemy based largely on ‘Orientalist’ stereotypes. According to US General Peers, charged with investigating the massacre of 350 to 500 Vietnamese civilians at My Lai in March 1968, the attitude of the incriminated soldiers towards the Vietnamese was ‘the most disturbing characteristic’ of these events. ‘You can’t realize what they are thinking. They seem to have no understanding of life. They don’t care whether they live or die.’ The Vietnamese became the absolute ‘other’: ‘It doesn’t matter what you do to them … The trouble is no one sees the Vietnamese as people … even if when a Vietnamese guy speaks perfect English I don’t know what the hell he’s talking about.’ Since Vietnam was a permanent threat, all its inhabitants indifferently became enemies to be killed: ‘They’re all V-C or at least helping them – same difference. You can’t convert them, only kill them. Don’t lose any sleep over those dead children – they grow up to be commies too.’
The asymmetrical strategy saw the disappearance not only of the symmetry that characterized the ‘just enemy’ in Europe, but also of the very possibility of acknowledging the other’s humanity. Churchill still believed that one could ‘treat’ a part of the German population. This did not apply to the Vietnamese. They could not be ‘treated’ and converted to the just cause, they could only be killed. The same premise applied even to children, thus to future generations, which was close to the traditional racism based on the very ‘nature’ of the enemy population. These perceptions were thus the reflection of a colonial and racist imaginary that had long been attached to aviation, and in many respects the Vietnam War did indeed follow the pattern of colonial wars with an exterminatory aim. The American journalist David Halberstam even said that in Vietnam ‘we were fighting the birthrate of a nation’. In this war, too, it was the ‘people’ who became the principal target, but in a sense slightly different from that which could be observed in the traditional colonial wars and in the total war in Europe.
In revolutionary war of Maoist inspiration, as already in the ‘insurrectionary war’ championed by Engels’s ‘Prussian irregulars’ – Gneisenau, Scharnhorst, and Clausewitz – the centre of gravity was nowhere else but in the people. The object of an irregular, insurrectionary, revolutionary war is essentially to win the political support of the population. Conversely, regular armies have long sought to integrate into their ‘counter-insurrectionary’ doctrines the fact that a war of this kind cannot be won without the support of the people. The insurgents have every interest in appearing as an emanation of the people, as this also enables them to define who is part of this people and who, on the contrary, deserves to be brought before a revolutionary tribunal as an ‘enemy of the people’. In a movement of reciprocal definition, the insurgents are the people, in and for itself, both its purest emanation and the power that establishes it.
The people also lay at the heart of the approach of the United States as a great power. The campaigns of strategic bombing against North Vietnam followed the same logic as those at work during total war, whereas in the counter-insurrectionary war waged in the south, everything had to be done to separate the insurgents from the people and present them as mere ‘terrorists’ lacking a popular base. That was precisely the objective of the transfers of populations to strategic hamlets. As a result, the intervening power loses the war if it falls into the trap set by the insurgents, and contributes to assimilating the latter with the people as such. Once the counter-insurrection forces are perceived as waging a war against the people and not just against the insurgents, the latter have in fact won the political battle. This is precisely why it is possible to speak, and not only in relation to Vietnam, of an objective alliance between insurgents and counter-insurrection forces: when both entities are fighting for the people, the population inevitably pays the price.
Although the legacy of colonial war clearly affected the conduct of operations in Vietnam, it would be wrong to underestimate their novelty, which is immediately apparent when the American war is compared with that of the French in the same theatre. In both Indochina and Algeria, the French waged a classic colonial war, in the sense that their objective was to preserve their colonial sovereignty. The US approach was quite different: they in no way sought to replace the French by becoming the new occupying power. Their aim was neo-colonial rather than colonial, inasmuch as they fought to support the Saigon regime, which, despite being corrupt, brutal, and dictatorial, was nonetheless Vietnamese, and thus national. The United States’ political objective was not to control the territory but to maintain a geostrategic advantage.
Once again, these historical developments are reflected with remarkable clarity in the history of aviation. Classic colonial ‘police bombing’, that of the 1920s and thirties, was marked by a contradiction between the technical means employed and the political ends: whereas aviation already tended to a location beyond sovereignty, classic colonialism continued to seek local appropriation of a territory. Since the United States precisely did not have the objective of appropriating Vietnamese territory, aviation logically became the privileged arm in their war. However, a war beyond a locally anchored sovereignty is ipso facto a war beyond just a state horizon. By all these features, the Vietnam War prefigured the developments of warfare that we see today. A combatant that seeks to avoid ground occupation is naturally led to focus on air power so as to physically eliminate all those who resist.