Those of us who had the honor of serving in Southeast Asia can claim a pretty high level of expertise about the use of military air power, specifically about how to send that air power downtown, to the heart of the enemy's resources, where it counts. But often we were not given the chance. We know how to waste air power, because we saw it wasted in Vietnam, especially during Rolling Thunder, the air campaign from February 1965 through March 1968 that was theoretically launched to interdict North Vietnam's capability to wage war in the South. Years later, we were glad to see air power used properly during Desert Storm.
Effective Use Of Airpower
It can be said with certainty that had we properly used the airborne resources at our disposal in the first few weeks after the Tonkin Gulf incident in August 1964, or in the early stages of Rolling Thunder, when the North's defenses were weak or nonexistent, we could have dramatically changed the course of that war. Our losses down south could have been a minuscule fraction of what they were.
Certainly a few weeks of concentrated air attack would not have destroyed the North's ground forces, but it would have been very easy to destroy the 94 targets that represented not only the North's capability but also the North's national pride. Ho Chi Minh had seen the results of Allied air actions in Europe and in Korea, and would have been prone to settle for the half loaf he already had. But instead of seeing his Thai Nguyen steel mill and his Viet Tri power plant flattened and his Haiphong harbor sealed within days, he saw an indecisive war of fatal oversupervision, personally and tightly controlled by President Lyndon B. Johnson and Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara. "Gradualism" was their buzzword, and one of Lyndon Johnson's favorite sayings was, "Those boys can't hit an outhouse without my permission."
There were three air wars in Southeast Asia. The first, in the mid-1960s, lasted for three years and two months and included 72 pauses and 17 cease-fires. The North quickly figured out how to deal with the bombing attacks during this period; they moved fuel, missiles, and MiG fighters into the village backyards, then ringed the villages with guns and SAMs (surface-to-air-missiles).
We still almost won, despite the throttling restrictions and the multiple layers of overlapping headquarters that were the conduits of the no-win philosophy. The only action agencies physically hitting Hanoi and the far north were the U.S. Air Force F-105 and F-4 fighter wings and the U.S. Navy carrier strike forces, and they almost pulled the rabbit out of the hat.
John Colvin, consul general at the British mission in Hanoi, who saw it firsthand, concluded in 1967 that "the country and the people were close to collapse which, for the first time, no amount of excited exhortation could correct...failing Chinese intervention, the major war was over."
But observations such as Colvin's and proposals put forth by the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) went unheeded. In a typical exchange, Admiral U.S. Grant Sharp, commander in chief of the Pacific Fleet, briefing officials on the flow of rifles from the North, begged for permission to enter the prohibited circle around Hanoi and strike row upon row of trucks and barges that intelligence knew were preparing to move large quantities of rifles south. McNamara curtly refused the request and silenced the admiral, saying a rifle was a rifle and he did not care if it was up north or down south. The faultiness of that logic becomes apparent when one contrasts the situations of an American rifleman, who had to fight for his life to eliminate one rifle, with an American fighter pilot, who could eliminate thousands of rifles at once by hitting the "pickle button" on his stick at the right spot on a dive-bomb run.
The actions of McNamara and Johnson in the fall of 1967 are among the most shocking of the entire war. McNamara returned from a visit to Saigon on October 25 and briefed Johnson that, much to his surprise, the air war against Hanoi was going very well. Then, without explanation, on November 7 he sent Johnson a memo for signature stating that while we might someday reach the "cross-over point," where we killed more of them than they killed of us, we had better plan on not winning. Johnson signed the memo in agreement, and every single loss we took after that date represents a tragic waste and betrayal by Johnson and McNamara.
Shortly after that, Johnson stopped all attacks on the North, and Rolling Thunder was over. According to John Colvin, "Victory -- by September 1967 in American hands -- was not so much thrown away as shunned with prim, averted eyes....Nor could a war be won by men familiar with computers and academic theory but not with the battlefield or the ageless facts of Southeast Asia."
Air War Succeeds At Last
The second air war, which got going in 1969, was a void that lasted three years and two months. We hurled myriad tons of explosives on dirt trails, re-establishing the fact that dirt does not burn very well. Since we were no longer going "downtown," the North moved large numbers of guns and SAMs into positions along the trails we persisted in flogging. Casualties remained high in the ground war down south, and in the air we lost lots of expensive and irreplaceable aircraft, whose pilots were either blown to smithereens or left to suffer and wonder in the Hanoi Hilton.
The third air war took shape gradually over one year, with the real action confined to the month of December, 1972. Johnson and McNamara were history, and the new president said to go get 'em. Strategic air was pulled off the bombing of jungle trails, and the BUFFs (big ugly fat fellows, i.e., B-52s) got to do what strategic bombers were built to do, bomb strategic enemy installations on the ground. The Air Force and Navy tactical aircraft did the things they were built to do, among which was hammering the defenses. We took the kid gloves off and punched their lights out, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The Vietnamese quit and called for peace talks, and we finally accomplished, in one month, what we could have done in two weeks had we done it seven years earlier.
Comparing Two Wars
Since the Gulf War and the war in Southeast Asia were two very different encounters, with different rules and different results, there are pitfalls in comparing the two. It is still worthwhile, at least in the case of the air war, to examine some of the distinct variations that contributed to the dissimilar outcomes. The first glaring difference is the manner in which the two wars started.
The Gulf of Tonkin incident started with a South Vietnamese commando raid against the North's patrol base at Loc Chao. The U.S. destroyer Maddox was steaming off the Vietnamese coast, and the destroyer Turner Joy and the carrier Ticonderoga were close by. The day after the commando raid, the North launched three patrol boats and fired ineffectual torpedoes at Maddox. Fighters from Ticonderoga sank one of the patrol boats and heavily damaged the other two.
Tonkin Boost For Johnson
President Johnson, deeply involved in his re-election campaign, paused only long enough to consult briefly with the Departments of State and Defense. Nothing happened other than an upgrading in some military alert postures and a State Department warning. This lack of action seemed to substantiate presidential challenger Barry Goldwater's charge that Johnson was soft on communism, and suddenly the Johnson forces felt a strong requirement for something with which to counter that charge.
Two nights later, Maddox and Turner Joy were steaming together when they erroneously reported a torpedo attack. In panic, the destroyers sent uncoded flash messages to Washington, reporting an engagement that did not in fact happen. The senior naval commander on scene quickly denied those reports and gave a skeptical appraisal of the performance of detection personnel and equipment. There were no visual sightings from the air or on the surface, and he requested a complete re-evaluation, but his request was denied. The on-scene military commander's advice was ignored; the decision came quickly, from the top, and we were in what Washington thought would be a short war, but already a war without stated goals, purposes or allies. In the Harris poll on the presidential race the following week, Johnson's rating shot up 14 points.
Hands Untied In Gulf War
Conversely, when the Persian Gulf pot boiled, the United States immediately urged U.N. involvement, resulting in the coalition of nations that stood against Iraq and the world's fourth largest army. The goal was simple and clearly stated over an extended period of time prior to hostilities. The United Nations mandate explicitly advised Iraq to abandon its thrust to occupy and control Kuwait, or face coordinated military action. When Iraq, with full knowledge of the consequences, flaunted its "power" to most of the rest of the world, the coalition struck decisively early in 1991 and was quickly victorious.
Leadership credibility was never in doubt during Desert Storm, as it had been in Southeast Asia, where leadership credibility seldom existed. The heads of state within the coalition were firm, united and determined from day one of the operation. President George Bush, aware of the doubts left over from Vietnam, spoke clearly, saying, "Never again will our forces be sent out to do a job with one hand tied behind their back." The trust and confidence that field commanders must have to be successful was returned to those commanders; the results speak for themselves.
Compare that mutual trust, respect and credibility with the situation at Bien Hoa in November 1964, when the Viet Cong mortared the air base, killing and wounding Americans and destroying aircraft. The White House had announced to the world that we would strike back if any such thing occurred, so the military was primed for some real action.
The JCS plan called for increasing security in the South and turning the B-52s and the tactical fighters loose on the North. We were to hit the airfields, the major fuel dumps, transportation complexes and other military and industrial targets. But it was election eve in the States, and the administration professed concern about Chinese reaction should America do what it had said it would do. The president, ignoring the JCS and Ambassador Maxwell Taylor, decided to make absolutely no retaliatory move. Our leadership credibility vanished and everyone, especially the North Vietnamese, knew it.
Next: Invalid Fear
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