Tuesday, September 19, 2006

# Posted 10:37 PM by Taylor Owen  

BOMBS OVER CAMBODIA: I have an article out in this month’s Walrus Magazine on the US bombing of Cambodia, written with Ben Kiernan. We use a yet unpublished database of all US sorties over the country to challenge some of the historical record and consequences of the strikes. The lead is below, I will post the whole thing when allowed in a few weeks. Will also pass on the other more academic articles as they are published:

In the fall of 2000, twenty-five years after the end of the war in Indochina, Bill Clinton became the first US president since Richard Nixon to visit Vietnam. While media coverage of the trip was dominated by talk of some two thousand US soldiers still classified as missing in action, a small act of great historical importance went almost unnoticed. As a humanitarian gesture, Clinton released extensive Air Force data on all American bombings of Indochina between 1964 and 1975. Recorded using a groundbreaking ibm-designed system, the database provided extensive information on sorties conducted over Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia.

Clinton’s gift was intended to assist in the search for unexploded ordnance left behind during the carpet bombing of the region. Littering the countryside, often submerged under farmland, this ordnance remains a significant humanitarian concern. It has maimed and killed farmers, and rendered valuable land all but unusable. Development and demining organizations have put the Air Force data to good use over the past six years, but have done so without noting its full implications, which turn out to be staggering.

The still-incomplete database (it has several “dark” periods) reveals that from October 4, 1965, to August 15, 1973, the United States dropped far more ordnance on Cambodia than was previously believed: 2,756,941 tons’ worth, dropped in 230,516 sorties on 113,716 sites. Just over 10 percent of this bombing was indiscriminate, with 3,580 of the sites listed as having “unknown” targets and another 8,238 sites having no target listed at all. The database also shows that the bombing began four years earlier than is widely believed — not under Nixon, but under Lyndon Johnson.

The impact of this bombing, the subject of much debate for the past three decades, is now clearer than ever. Civilian casualties in Cambodia drove an enraged populace into the arms of an insurgency that had enjoyed relatively little support until the bombing began, setting in motion the expansion of the Vietnam War deeper into Cambodia, a coup d’état in 1970, the rapid rise of the Khmer Rouge, and ultimately the Cambodian genocide.

The data demonstrates that the way a country chooses to exit a conflict can have disastrous consequences. It therefore speaks to contemporary warfare as well, including US operations in Iraq. Despite many differences, a critical similarity links the war in Iraq with the Cambodian conflict: an increasing reliance on air power to battle a heterogeneous, volatile insurgency.

To put 2,756,941 tons into perspective, the Allies dropped just over 2 million tons of bombs during all of World War II. Cambodia may be the most heavily bombed country in history.

UPDATE: The article is available here, if you give an email address. I'll link a pdf in a couple of weeks.
(12) opinions -- Add your opinion

I look forward to the full-text of a thoroughly-researched and veyr interesting article.

One quick point about a rhetorical aspect of the first few paragraphs. You and Ben write that Iraq and Cambodia are similar because of the US' "increasing reliance on air power to battle a heterogeneous, volatile insurgency".

That phrasing suggests a dangerous moral equivalence, which I hope you dispel in the remainder of the article by pointing out the tremendous precautions that the US has learned to take since the dark days of Cambodia.

If one wants to talk about indiscriminate slaughter in Iraq, the place to begin must be with the Sunni insurgents and their Al Qaeda allies.

Their indiscriminate slaughter seems to have driven more and more Shi'ites to embrace the unmitigated brutality of Sadr and his death squads.

Yet like the brutality of the Khmer Rouge, that of Sadr's death squads is in no way excused by Sunni provocations. Nonetheless, the insurgents ought to appreciate that they could have avoided this outcome.

If the US leaves Iraq, the remaining Sunnis may one day have to look back and recognize that their insurgents drove out the only ones who sought to prevent the slaughter of hundreds of thousands of their brothers and sisters at Shi'ite hands.
No question, and I'm glad you point this out. We certainly make clear in the article that in many ways, (moral being one of them), targeted strikes and carpet bombing are virtually incomparable. That being said, what we see in Cambodia is that in a local context (village level) relatively few casualties often led to dramatic shifts in support. A village hut gets bombed, the Khmer Rouge arrive telling the villagers that it was the 'imperialists' supported by the Lon Nol regime and villagers switch support to a movement they previously had little to do with. The personal descriptions of this switch are often really quite dramatic. In addition, the media exposure of current bombing casualties often exponentially enhances their reach and impact. In any case, I look forward to discussing further.
btw - i think you can get The Walrus at barnes and noble in the US...
Most of the bombing in Iraq is being done by Al Qaeda, up close and personal, using retarded teenagers as homing devices. Hell, we can't even bomb a group of murderous tyrants at a funeral in Afghanistan because of our idiotic rules of engagement. The Iraqi terrorists have only one rule of engagement - kill by any means necessary as many people as possible to make the headlines as bad and bloody as they can be.
Congratulations Taylor for seeing your hard work through, I'm looking forward to reading your work. It is a very interesting subject matter and I hope that your conclusions are digested with the gravity that they merit.

To back up Taylor's assertion in commonalities between the US air campaign in Cambodia and within Iraq. It is fair to point out a massive tactical error in US stratagy that occured during the initial periods of the US counter-insurgency effort.

Basically the rules of engagment at this time were if US ground troops experienced resistence from within a fortified position troops were to immediately return fire, take up a tacticle defensive postion and call in for a air strike on the position of the target.

On the surface this is sound military logic. IE it minimizes troop casualty rates, which from a purely militaristic perspective is great.

In reality though what often occured was that troops would call in airstrikes to level buildings (with unknown #'s of occupants) in urban areas in response to snipers and other smaller groups of insergents.

A massive problems with this strategey though is that it loses the (arguably more important) political campaign for Iraqis "Hearts and Minds". This is due to the resulting collateral damage (ie innocent people dead and infrastructure destroyed) that inevitably occurs when bombs are used in urban areas.

As in Cambodia, then neutrally positioned Iraqis could be easily converted into an anti-US postion, through direct contact with this kind of short-sighted policy.

I should also note that ignorance is not an excuse that US policy makers can use. This is because the British followed different rules of engagement that were formulated during their many years of experience in dealing with insurgencies, chiefly in N. Ireland.

The policy that the British used was that the troops could only return fire if more than one bullet was fired in their direction, and the target was identified. British troops then were charged with the task of neutralizing that threat themselves, or falling back so as to re-group with a larger force that could take down the enemy by means of tactic urban warfare.

It merits stating that British controlled areas initially faced much fewer accounts of insurgent activity.

The British did consult with the US forces on this issue but US decision makers insisted that troop casualty figures must be the priority so as to keep public support back home strong.

Unfortunately for everyone involved winning the battle cleanly doesn't always mean winning the war. I sincerely hope that better thought-out policies are being implimented in Iraq today.
Taylor, I'm curious about the description of Iraq as similar to Cambodia owing to the "increasing reliance on air power." Over what time period did that occur? My impression was that the use of air power started at the peak with 'shock and awe', and has since decreased to a lesser though still significant portion of the war effort. In particular as the Iraqi army takes on a greater role, I had assumed air strikes would decrease, since the Iraqis have no air capability.
bgates. No question that tonnage levels will never reach the levels of shock and awe. In fact from what I can tell, they have never come even close to those levels since the fall of Baghdad. But that wasn't against an insurgency. Exact number are hard to get from the last two years but all indications, through a wide range of media and interviews, is that tactical sorties have increased significantly. For example, from 25 to 150 daily sorties over the fall of 2005, and then doubled again by march of 2006. Other reports suggest far greater daily numbers though. This can also be added to the wide discussion and follow ups on using airpower to fight the insurgency stemming from Hersh's piece in 2005. It is also worth pointing to the still pervasive belief that even limited strikes can have positive effects against an insurgency movement. Something I am beginning to question more and more.
Wouldn't Vietnam qualify as the "most heavily bombed" country rather than Cambodia?

Did indiscriminate bombing drive those who survived into the "insurgency?" I wonder if that is ever provable or just wishful thinking by leftists seeking absolution from the Communist genocide in Cambodia.
Ahh Anon 1:34, wonder no more. In this project, we match hundreds of interviews of survivors of the bombing and genocide with 1:25,000 topographic maps of the bombings to show the quite literal link between individual bombing incidents and the rise of the Khmer Rouge. We literally have hundreds of maps and examples demonstrating and groudtruthing this connection. When asked, for example, if his forces had made use of the bombing for recruitment purposes, a former Khmer Rouge officer said:

"Oh yes, they did. Every time after there had been bombing, they would take the people to see the craters, to see how big and deep the craters were, to see how the earth had been gouged out and scorched.... The ordinary people ... sometimes literally shit in their pants when the big bombs and shells came... Their minds just froze up and they would wander around mute for three or four days. Terrified and half-crazy, the people were ready to believe what they were told.... It was because of their dissatisfaction with the bombing that they kept on cooperating with the Khmer Rouge, joining up with the Khmer Rouge, sending their children off to go with them.... Sometimes the bombs fell and hit little children, and their fathers would be all for the Khmer Rouge."

Or, a villager describing a particular incident (which we can map to a level of detail where village huts can be identified):

“Bombs fell only once, during a battle (Chalong village)…People in our village furious at the US (although) they didn’t know why the US bombed them. From our village 70 people joined the anti-Lon Nol forces after the bombing. These 70 soldiers were all killed by Pol Pot in 1978”.

Left wing quacks.

The Vietnam question, however, is interesting, and is the reason we say 'may be' as opposed to 'is'. The answer is that it depends if the standard total tonnage number for the entire indochinese bombing campaign is correct, or is as misrepresented as the Cambodia number turns out to be. The old total for the entire campaign is just over 6 million tons, of which Cambodia was thought to be 500,000. The new data now shows, however, that Cambodia was actually at least 2.5 million. Subtracting this and the Laos tonnage from the 6 million, should mean Cambodia was at least as bombed as Vietnam. However, it is possible that the total campaign number is also undereported, although it is impossible that it is to the degree that the cambodian figure was.

I'm glad, on the one hand, that you've provided such thorough documentation for the connection between bombing and support for the Khmer Rouge (topographical maps, oh my!) but sad on the other hand that your thesis is even remotely controversial.

Perhaps your next article could show topographical maps of planes striking the Pentagon and World Trade Centers and then provide documentation for rallying behind the imperialist flag and all "The personal descriptions of this switch", which "were really quite dramatic" [Ignatieff not least among them]. And, of course, how "the media exposure of current bombing casualties often exponentially enhances their reach and impact."

At any rate, looking forward to reading the full piece.
Well done, Taylor.
Hey big guy, I was just curious: is there a way of telling apart bombing sorties in your data set to distinguish between those for which data simply are defective or has been lost, and for that reason coded as 'target unknown', from ones which were indiscriminate?
Also, I'll think about giving you my e-mail for the article pdf. As long as you promise to stop sending me Clinton porn.
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