Slow Squeeze

One legacy of Vietnam that we continue to live with is the idea that air power cannot win a war

Last month, in the first of these columns devoted to the new American way of war and its application in Afghanistan and potentially in Iraq, I discussed the failure of air power in World War II to satisfy the age-old dream of ideal warwar in which the other side quits after a minimum of fighting. In this second installment I had meant to trace the use of air power through the conflicts in Vietnam, the Persian Gulf, the Balkans, and Afghanistan, showing the eventual (and in the end sudden) arrival of air power's revolution. However, as the reader will see, I got bogged down in Vietnam, as has happened to others.

The Vietnam War evolved—or, rather, muddled along—over a long time, at least from 1954 to 1975, and to a great degree American strategy in Vietnam was always reactive, ad hoc, and confused. But at the core of the strategy there was a theory, and this theory was a revival and a refinement of the World War II dream of victory through bombing. The theory was called by various names, "graduated response" and "phased escalation" among them, and it held that a calibrated and predictably increasing use of bombing against North Vietnam would eventually force the Communists to abandon their efforts to take over South Vietnam and to accept a negotiated peace that would leave Vietnam partitioned between the North and the South, as it had been since the close of the first Indochina war, in 1954.

To its supporters this seemed quite an elegant idea: a limited approach to war in pursuit of a limited goal, with limited casualties on both sides. It was to be a rational war, and bombing was to serve as the chief instrument of rationality. As the American Brigadier General Dave Palmer later wrote,

Civilian planners wanted to start out softly and gradually increase the pressure by precise increments which could be unmistakenly recognized in Hanoi. Ho Chi Minh would see the tightening pattern, the theory went, and would sensibly stop the war against South Vietnam in time to avoid devastation of his homeland. Assistant Secretary of Defense John T. McNaughton dubbed the strategy "slow squeeze," and explained it in musical terms—an orchestration of activities which would proceed in crescendo fashion toward a finale.

In time "phased escalation" would be widely seen as the very epitome of insanity in strategy, and it had its detractors from the beginning—notably among those people who knew something about war. (The theory was always much more beloved by the civilians than by the generals in the Pentagon.) Still, there was a logic to the madness. Then as now, the United States was the wealthiest and most militarily advanced nation in the world, and its air power, it would seem, was more than capable of overcoming North Vietnam's defenses; North Vietnam's limited industrial, communication, and transportation infrastructures ought to be easily destroyable from the air; destroying them would quickly reduce an already desperately poor nation to a terrible state; the United States sought to persuade North Vietnam only to cease its aggression, not to surrender unconditionally; ergo, North Vietnam would do the rational thing: choose a limited loss over ruination, and accept peace.

The air campaign in Southeast Asia was the most colossal display of bombing might in history—and also the most ambitious test of the theory of air power. It began in earnest in December of 1964, and continued in its main phase until President Lyndon Johnson ordered an end to bombing, on October 31, 1968; President Richard Nixon ordered two lesser campaigns in 1972. All told, American warplanes dropped nearly eight million tons of bombs on an area about a third the size of France—four times the amount dropped in World War II and seventeen times the amount dropped in the Korean War. In the campaign's peak year, 1967, American planes flew 108,000 sorties. The campaign succeeded in wreaking devastation. As noted in William S. Turley's history The Second Indochina War (1986), the Communists later said that bombing had destroyed almost all the industrial, transportation, and communication facilities built since 1954, had wrecked three major cities and twelve of twenty-nine provincial capitals, and had set any hope of economic progress back ten to fifteen years.

Yet the campaign failed, utterly. As in World War II, and for similar reasons, air power could not deliver on the modern version of the age-old dream of victory without the butcher's bill. Targets proved elusive. From The Second Indochina War: "The bombs had to fall on roads, bridges, and transportation complexes. Such targets could be quickly repaired, moved, or circumvented, and so had to be bombed again and again." The North Vietnamese were able to disperse urban populations and also, to some degree, industrial capacity to the countryside. It proved impossible to stanch the flow of men and supplies from North Vietnam to the South on the Ho Chi Minh Trail. China and the Soviet Union kept the Communists supplied with food and materiel.

And the price was staggering. Again, bombing turned out to be perilous for the bombers as well as for the bombed. The North Vietnamese air defenses, augmented by Russian and Chinese support, turned out to be unexpectedly robust, and by the time Johnson ordered an end to the bombing, the United States had lost 818 airmen and 918 aircraft. And bombing proved no substitute for troops on the ground. The United States was forced into a series of escalating troop commitments; from 1964 to 1973, the main period of conflict, more than 8.7 million Americans served in the war. More than 57,000 Americans died in the conflict, and 313,616 were wounded. South Vietnam saw more than 185,000 of its soldiers killed and nearly half a million wounded; North Vietnam and the Viet Cong reported losses of 924,048 in combat.

Overarching all of this was the moral problem—the problem bombing posed for a civilized democracy. Precision bombing still did not exist in any real sense. From the beginning the American air campaign was broad and brutal in its destruction. Estimates of civilian deaths in Vietnam differ, but they are all large. Hanoi claims that two million civilians were killed in North Vietnam in twenty-one years of war; a more objective estimate puts the civilian death toll for all of Vietnam at 415,000—still appalling.

Moral opposition to the war was fueled by revulsion at the effects of bombing. Over time this opposition came to undermine the will of the war makers and, finally, the ability to continue waging war. By October 31, 1968, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara was privately horrified by a campaign that, he estimated, was costing a thousand civilian lives a week; the former presidential adviser McGeorge Bundy had publicly called for an end to bombing; and Vice President Hubert Humphrey, who was running to succeed his boss in office, had all but promised to stop it. Johnson's decision to end the bombing reflected, as Turley puts it, "the tacit acknowledgment that the United States could not go on pulverizing a society that was so much smaller, weaker, and poorer than itself without provoking moral outrage at home and abroad."

The last bombing campaigns of the war, Nixon's two "Operation Linebacker" campaigns, succeeded in their aim of driving the North Vietnamese to negotiate, but they also strengthened what was by then the establishment view that the American air campaign in Vietnam had been not only a strategic failure but a moral disgrace.

After America's first failed war, then, the view on air power that had arisen from World War II was only—powerfully—confirmed. In an effort far more ambitious than that during World War II, and even given great advances in U.S. technology, bombing had once again proved to be indecisive. War could not be won by air alone. Air power could not break an enemy. Depending on air power could only delude generals into throwing more lives into a lost cause on the ground. Any attempt to use air power on the scale required to win a war necessitated a level of slaughter that a civilized democracy would support only when national survival itself was at stake.

Next: Advances in technology, a revolution in strategy.