‘Revolutionary War’ beneath the Nuclear Shield I

Operation Linebacker II

‘Operation Linebacker’, as titled by President Nixon and his national security adviser Henry Kissinger, lasted from May to October 1972, and would be the most massive bombing campaign in the history of air warfare. In six months, the United States dropped almost 7 million tons of bombs on Vietnam, more than five times what the Allies had dropped on Germany during the Second World War. Twenty-six million bombs shredded the soil of the country, which at the time had between 35 and 40 million inhabitants. The scale of human losses is impossible to assess precisely. On the lowest estimates these were up to 1.3 million, while others estimate the number of victims among Vietnamese combatants at 1 million, out of a total of 2 million killed and 4 million wounded. It is likewise impossible to know how many civilians perished, but one thing is sure: the proportion of civilian victims was particularly high, between 46 and 66 per cent.

Operation ‘Linebacker II’, also called the ‘Christmas bombings’, took place from 18 to 29 December 1972. Its express aim was to strike the morale of the civilian populations of Hanoi and Haiphong – only 12 per cent of the attacks aimed at military targets. ‘Now there’s nothing more to lose. Nothing. We’ll hit them, bomb them, exterminate them!’ we hear Nixon shout in the Oval Office.4 This political line decided in the White House was soon translated into military terms. The air force general Curtis LeMay had long argued for a still more massive use of bombing: ‘My solution to the problem would be to tell them frankly that they’ve got to draw in their horns and stop their aggression or we’re going to bomb them back into the Stone Age with airpower or naval power – not with ground forces.’

The Vietnam war was particularly deadly, as it fell at the intersection of two genealogical lines of twentieth-century warfare: ‘asymmetrical’ conflict in the tradition of colonial wars, with their potentially limitless violence; and conflict overdetermined by the specific global configuration of the Cold War. The Vietnamese defined their struggle as one of ‘national liberation’, conceiving it after the European model of the construction of a nation state. As for the United States, they saw the anticolonial aspiration to self-determination as a feint designed to camouflage Soviet and Chinese expansionism: behind the Viet Cong stood the Kremlin with its tanks and missiles. The guerrillas were part of the Communist bloc, embodied by a state that was itself perceived as monolithic.

In sum, there was an odd combination of symmetry and asymmetry in the perceptions of the two adversaries, and the Vietnam War combined the worst of two traditions: that of total war between nation states, and that of the ‘small war’ of insurrectionary or colonial type. These contradictory tendencies – statization and fragmentation – continue to characterize the conflicts that haunt us today. Moreover, the importance of this war for the development of the US army’s strategic doctrine cannot be overstated. For all these reasons, the Vietnam War constitutes a fundamental link in the genealogy of twentieth-century warfare.

The US military leaders drew a conclusion from the Second World War that was both deeply rooted and mistaken: according to them, aviation had been the key agent of victory. The reasons for this misinterpretation are many, and partly connected with a situation of inter-service rivalry, in which a very large share of the defence budget was allocated to an air force that had not yet acquired institutional independence. To present aviation as the decisive factor of victory was thus, as we saw, a way for the USAF to better position itself vis-à-vis other branches of the armed forces. It is clear that the atom bomb helped fuel the imaginary of aerial omnipotence. For the state, the most important question was to justify the exorbitant cost of the ‘Manhattan project’, explaining that not only had nuclear weapons played a key role in the war that had just ended, but that they would also be in future the pillar of US defence policy. Finally, in strategic terms, nuclear weapons fitted perfectly into the framework of Douhetism that was then hegemonic in the Anglo-Saxon world, the atom bomb being simply a larger bomb than any other.

After the war, US defence policy was thus essentially focused on the combination of nuclear weapons and aviation. In 1945 the Strategic Air Command was established and became the nerve centre of the US military system: ‘The Strategic Air Command is the soul of our defence,’ said Thomas Finletter, secretary of state for the air force. This orientation was further strengthened under Eisenhower’s presidency. Because of budget constraints, the ‘New Look’ strategists believed that nuclear weapons were the only way of responding to threat: they should be used anywhere in the world, against any initiative that impinged on US interests. This doctrine was clearly based on the mistaken assumption of a ‘Communist bloc’ that was homogeneous in all respects, and whose ardour could only be inflected by pressure on the Kremlin.

Although this policy became considerably more flexible under Kennedy, it still weighed heavily on the military apparatus at the time of the Vietnam War. Maxwell D. Taylor, author of a thorough critique of the ‘New Look’ who was appointed chief of the general staff by the new president, sought from the early 1960s to rebalance US strategy by rehabilitating the concept of ‘limited war’, placing the concept of ‘flexible response’ at the centre of his analysis. The idea was to escape the strategic trap intrinsic to Douhetism and the nuclear strategy of the 1950s; it was certainly possible to destroy the world, but not to win a real war. According to the New Look strategy, centred on strategic aviation and nuclear weapons, the United States represented a potentially immense threat to any adversary; yet it seemed hardly credible that it would embark on a nuclear war for such a limited goal as countering the national liberation movements in what was then called the ‘Third World’. For this reason, from the 1960s US strategy would consist in defending limited interests by limited wars, below the threshold of global nuclear war. The ‘response’ now had to be ‘flexible’, which also meant unpredictable for the adversary. This unpredictability also lay at the centre of the ‘madman’ theory proclaimed by Nixon, who saw it as useful for the world to imagine a US president mad enough to risk the very existence of the planet for the sake of his anti-Communist obsession. The dialectic immortalized by Stanley Kubrick in Dr Strangelove – that of the total unpredictability of the madman theory and its opposite, the automatic triggering of nuclear weapons – thus had a very real strategic foundation.

Unpredictability was combined with a further strategic requirement, that of credibility. The whole world had to understand that the United States was ready to defend its interests, however limited and located in distant regions, and that it would not let down its allies. If the message sent from the Vietnam jungle was addressed to the world as a whole, it was also addressed to the ‘home front’ of American society, which had to be mobilized for this type of war of intervention. According to Defence Secretary Robert McNamara,

the greatest contribution Vietnam is making … is developing an ability in the United States to fight a limited war, to go to war without arousing the public ire … because this is the kind of war we’ll likely be facing for the next fifty years.

These developments explain to a certain degree why the Americans did not draw the lessons of the French defeats in Indochina and Algeria. Despite these precedents, which suggested that aviation could at best play only a very secondary role in this type of conflict, they deployed tremendous military and aviation resources in Vietnam, including the heaviest bombers, the mythical B-52s, built for intercontinental strategic bombing against the Soviet Union and quite unsuited for guerrilla warfare in the jungle.

As for the Vietnamese Communists, their strategy was based on two pillars: a guerrilla war waged in the south of the country, and control of the state in the north. Their combat closely followed Mao Zedong’s precepts on ‘revolutionary war’, which has three successive phases: defence, equilibrium, and offensive. The first phase, strategic defence, is dedicated to the construction and strengthening of the party: recruiting new members, initially from the margins of society rather than from among the ‘masses’, placing cadres in key positions at the local level, getting the party identified with popular causes, such as agrarian reform, in order to win the affection of the population.

The second phase, that of equilibrium, corresponds to guerrilla warfare: conducting sabotage operations, establishing parallel administrations in ‘liberated’ areas, but also placing demands on the civilian population, with a view to intimidating ‘neutrals’ and forcing them to support the insurgents. In this second phase, civilians are deliberately taken hostage and held in a vice between the colonial power and the Maoist rebels. The point for the latter is to rally the population to their cause by recourse, on the one hand, to a mixture of proto-welfare and nationalism, and on the other hand, to terror, for example by forcing the population to provide them with assistance, so as to trigger reprisals which will in turn increase the sentiment that their only salvation can come from revolution and national liberation. This strategy was an integral part of the strategy of ‘revolutionary war’. Between 1957 and 1972, the Viet Cong killed at least 37,000 Vietnamese suspected of supporting the enemy, and kidnapped at least 58,000 persons for various political reasons, particularly to send the political signal that neither the US forces nor the Saigon government could protect them.

The third and final phase is that of an almost conventional war. Until the end of the conflict, the Vietnamese political and military leaders continued to believe that they were still in the second phase, while remaining determined to abandon the guerrilla strategy when the right moment came (which clearly shows that their political perspective was that of a nation state with a monopoly of violence). The rare attempts to launch large-scale operations, such as the Têt offensive in early 1968, which approached conventional warfare, met with military defeat for the insurgents, who learned to their cost that they could not win a conventional war against a US army with crushing superiority. But the main lesson of the Vietnam War was that it was not necessary to seek to obtain victory in the classic sense of the term.

In an asymmetrical conflict, time inexorably works in favour of the weaker party, who ‘wins’ as long as the enemy does not triumph. For this it must be prepared to accept considerable losses at every level: ‘the [Vietnam Communist] Party has been guided by the principle that it is better to kill ten innocent people than to let one enemy escape.’ To be clear: it was acceptable for ten Vietnamese to perish against a single US soldier killed. In the same logic, the insurgents launched attacks from inhabited zones, which incited the United States to bomb their villages by way of response. At the height of their power, the Viet Cong counted close to 200,000 fighters and more than 40,000 auxiliaries; while between 1964 and 1974, they lost at least 440,000 soldiers, amounting to twice the total strength of their army. The number of US troops killed was 56,000 – if the sacrifice had been equivalent on both sides, then a million American soldiers would not have returned home.

Losses of this scale are an integral part of the strategy of revolutionary war, the insurgents being convinced that they are strong enough to endure such blows. Not only were such sacrifices accepted, they were even seen by many anticolonial leaders as desirable, the necessary means for cementing a national people made up of former colonized subjects. The most remarkable formulation in this respect was in fact offered by the apostle of non-violence Mahatma Gandhi, who declared in 1942 that a million deaths were needed in order for India to become a viable nation:

[I]t would be a good thing if a million people were shot in a brave and non-violent rebellion against British rule. It may be that it may take us years before we can evolve order out of chaos. But we can then face the world. We cannot face the world today. Avowedly the different nations are fighting for their liberty. Germany, Japan, Russia, China are pouring their blood and money like water. What is our record? … We are betraying a woeful cowardice. I do not mind the blood-bath in which Europe is plunged. It is bad enough, but there is a great deal of heroism – mothers losing their only children, wives their husbands and so on.

On the other hand, the Vietnamese guerrilla forces correctly believed that American society’s spirit of sacrifice was limited, given that the country’s vital interests were not at stake. To sum up, the insurgents banked on two factors: time and the escalation of violence. They could well sacrifice a large section of their population, and two entire armies, yet they would win as long as the enemy had not succeeded in eliminating them politically. In the good old tradition of guerrilla warfare, going back at least to the Napoleonic Wars, the insurgents had recourse to forms of extreme violence, often highly ritualized: GIs caught in ambush were often tortured, and their mutilated bodies exposed publicly – flayed, gutted, and castrated. The American rear was vulnerable, Colonel Bui Tin explained: ‘The conscience of America was part of its war-making capability, and we were turning that power in our favour. America lost because of its democracy; through dissent and protest it lost the ability to mobilize a will to win.’

This strategy amounted to a considerable challenge for the stronger side in such a conflict. Conscious that time was working against them, and that they could only win rapidly, the US policymakers mobilized ever greater forces with the hope of crushing the insurgents. According to William DePuy, head of US military operations, ‘the solution in Vietnam is more bombs, more shells, more napalm … till the other side cracks and gives up’. At the same time, the configuration of the Cold War and the threat of nuclear war also imposed restrictions. There could be no question of invading North Vietnam to cut off the insurgents in the South from their source of supply, as the risk of direct confrontation with China was too great, especially in a situation where the intentions of the Soviet Union did not seem clear.

The United States was thus confined to bombing the north of the country with a ‘coercive’ aim while seeking to ‘pacify’ the south. Aviation played a preponderant role on both fronts. ‘Coercive bombing’ meant the strategy of imposing one’s will on the enemy by inflicting unsustainable losses and threatening him with still greater ones. It is readily understandable why such a strategy has no chance of success vis-à-vis an enemy whose entire strategy precisely involves the acceptance of losses, even colossal ones. Apart from institutional and doctrinal reasons specific to the military machine, the US stubbornness in continuing on a path doomed to failure in advance is attributable above all to reasons of domestic policy.


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