Bombs, drones, people, disasters

Brian Sat, 2012-10-27 09:38
An area of rural Cambodia devastated by American bombing

Currently the United States military/industrial/financial/political complex is engaged in a campaign of "drone strikes" on suspected Islamic militants in Waziristan and the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) of Pakistan.

Though Pakistan is the site of the most intensive current drone campaign, missiles are also being launched against "terrorists" in Yemen, Somalia, and elsewhere. In response to the attack on the US "consular compound" in Benghazi, Libya, President Obama has announced that drones may soon be in action over northern Africa, including in northern Mali, where an Islamic insurgency has effectively split the country in two.

The use of drones to attack "America's enemies," in the view of advocates, has the following advantages:

  • The use of drones to kill enemies requires no "boots on the ground." Since there are no American casualties possible from such strikes, objections from actual, voting Americans will be minimal.

  • Missiles launched from drones involve "precision" strikes against carefully identified "militants"

  • Expansion of the use of drones gives a terrific boost to the American corporations that produce them and sell them to the US military/industrial/financial/political complex. (Okay, they actually never say this; I just added it because I've no doubt it's true.)

Some have argued that drone warfare is on an exaltedly higher moral plane than other kinds of warfare. See, for example, "The Moral Case for Drones," the authors of which argue that the procedures involved in drone strikes are so astonishingly accurate that their victims should venerate and praise the US for its benevolence in its drone program (perhaps I exaggerate slightly here).

On the other hand, a fairly careful academic study, "Living Under Drones: Death, Injury and Trauma to Civilians from US Drone Practices in Pakistan" largely, in my view, puts the boots to any claims for drone-launched missile accuracy. At least 98 per cent of those blown to bits by drone missiles, the study finds, shouldn't really be targets at all. (We assume here, of course, that there are legitimate targets for US killing in countries with whom the US is not at war, an assumption I would dispute, but let's stay on subject.)

"Living Under Drones" also explores the topic of what happens to the people living on the ground in areas where these drones are in operation. They are, not to put too fine a point on it, terrorized. Terrorized by the War on Terror©.

And now, to the point of this weblog posting. For reasons of my own, out of my intense interest in Southeast Asia, I've been reading Ben Kiernan's The Pol Pot Regime: Race, Power, and Genocide in Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge, 1975-79. Many know that 1975-79 was a very bad time for the Cambodian people, who suffered under a genocidal regime, the rule of which resulted in, perhaps, up to 1.6 million deaths. By design (I would argue), every death in Cambodia during that period is attibuted to Khmer Rouge rule, ignoring entirely everything that happened to Cambodians during the 1970-75 period, when they were bombed relentlessly by American and Royal Cambodian Air Force (at the time under the US-client Lon Nol dictatorship) aircraft.

The following is a very important passage from that book. In my view, it should be required reading for anyone considering bombing civilian populations from the air: no matter what other effects such bombings have, the one you can count on is a very embittered population in the areas you afflict with such bombings. They will be driven to embrace the resistance to the bombing, no matter who that is.

As usual, if you read far enough, you'll see that whenever air forces bomb civilians, somehow they always manage to find weddings and funerals to disintegrate.

* * * * *

Starting exactly a year before the coup (on 18 March 1969), over thirty-six hundred secret B-52 raids were also conducted over Cambodian territory. These were codenamed Menu; the various target areas were labeled Breakfast, Snack, Lunch, Dinner, Dessert, and Supper. About 161,000 tons of bombs were dropped; the civilian toll is unknown. The U.S. aim was to destroy Vietnamese communist forces in Cambodia or drive them back into Vietnam. But in September 1969, Lon Nol reported an increase in the number of communist troops in the sanctuaries, an increase that he said was partly motivated by "the cleaning-up operation" of the U.S.-Saigon forces. He added ominously, "In this period, nothing suggests that these foreign units will soon leave our territory.” Like the failing economy, this was one of the major factors in Sihanouk's downfall at Lon Nol's hands. Both factors were exacerbated by the U.S. escalation of the Vietnam War.

By 1970 Cambodia's frontier with Vietnam was breaking down. It was unable to withstand the pressure exerted by the two mighty contending forces that had been expanding and straining against one another in the limited space of southern Vietnam since the escalation of 1965. The pressure was eco­nomic, demographic, political, and military. Cambodia's rice crop drained into devastated Vietnam, while both Khmers and Vietnamese fled into Cambodia, with the U.S. military and air force in pursuit.

Richard Nixon's May 1970 invasion of Cambodia (undertaken without informing Lon Nol's new government) followed simultaneous invasions by Saigon and Vietnamese communist forces. It created 130,000 new Khmer refugees, according to the Pentagon. By 1971, 60 percent of refugees surveyed in Cambodia's towns gave U.S. bombing as the main cause of their displacement. The U.S. bombardment of the Cambodian countryside continued until August 15, 1973, when Congress imposed a halt. Nearly half of the 2.7 mil­lion tons of bombs dropped on Cambodia fell in the last six months.

From the ashes of rural Cambodia arose Pol Pot's Communist Party of Kampuchea (CPK). It used the bombing's devastation and massacre of civilians as recruitment propaganda and as an excuse for its brutal, radical policies and Its purge of moderate communists and Sihanoukists. This is clear from con­temporary U.S. government documents and from interviews in Cambodia with peasant survivors of the bombing.

In the early years of the Cambodian war, Sihanoukists, moderates, and pro- Vietnamese communists predominated in a factionalized insurgency. The CPK Center admitted it still needed to "get a tight grasp, filter into every corner.” Before defeating Lon Nol, it needed to eclipse its revolutionary rivals and allies.

In 1973 the United States withdrew its troops from Vietnam and trained its air force on Cambodia. The secretary of the air force later said that Nixon "wanted to send a hundred more B-52s. This was appalling. You couldn't even figure out where you were going to put them all."

The early bombing had been disastrous enough. In 1970 a combined U.S. aerial and tank attack in Kompong Cham province had taken the lives of two hundred people. When another raid killed seven people nearby, a local peasant recalls, "some people ran away ... others joined the revolution." In 1971, the town of Angkor Borei in southwest Cambodia was heavily bombed by American B-52s and Lon Nol's U.S.-supplied T-28s. It was burnt and leveled. Whole families were trapped in trenches they had dug for protection underneath their homes. Over one hundred people were killed and two hundred houses destroyed, leaving only two or three standing, local residents say. In the same year, Sihanouk's former advisor, Charles Meyer, accused the U.S. air force of "systematic pillage" of "peaceful and captivating villages, which are disappearing one after another under bombs or napalm," and ended with a prescient observation: "According to direct testimonies, peasants are taking refuge in forest encampments and are maintaining their smiles and their humour, but one might add that it is difficult to imagine the intensity of their hatred towards those who are destroying their villages and their property. Perhaps we should remember that the Cambodians have the deserved reputation for being the most spiteful and vindictive people in all Southeast Asia, and this should in any case hold the attention of President Nixon."

U.S. intelligence soon discovered that many "training camps" against which Lon Nol had requested air strikes "were in fact merely political indoctrination sessions held in village halls and pagodas." Lon Nol intelligence noted that "aerial bombardments against the villagers have caused civilian loss on a large scale" and that the peasant survivors of the U.S. bombing were turning to the CPK for support.

One young Khmer joined the communists a few days after an aerial attack took the lives of fifty people in his village. Not far away, bombs fell on O Reang Au market for the first time in 1972, killing twenty people, and twice more in 1973, killing another twenty-five people, including two Buddhist monks. When bombs hit Boeng village, it was burnt to the ground, and, according to peasants, many people were caught in their houses and burnt to death. Nearby Chalong village counted over twenty dead. An inhabitant told me: "Many monasteries were destroyed by bombs. People in our village were furious with the Americans; they did not know why the Americans had bombed them. Seventy people from Chalong joined the fight against Lon Nol after the bombing."

The B-52s scored a direct hit on Trapeang Krapeu village. Twenty people died. Anlong Trea was napalmed and bombed, killing three and driving over sixty people to join the Khmer communist army "out of anger at the bomb­ing," locals recall.

In March 1973, the bombardment spread west to envelop the whole country. Around Phnom Penh, three thousand civilians were killed in three weeks. At the time UPI reported: "Refugees swarming into the capital from target areas report dozens of villages . . . have been destroyed and as much as half their population killed or maimed in the current bombing raids."

Days later, the U.S. bombardment intensified, reaching a level of thirty-six hundred tons per day. As William Shawcross reported in Sideshow, the "wholesale carnage" shocked the chief of the political section in the U.S. embassy, William Harben. One night, Harben said, "a mass of peasants" went out on a funeral procession and "walked straight into" a bombing raid. "Hundreds were slaughtered." And Donald Dawson, a young air force captain, flew twenty-five B-52 missions but refused to fly again when he heard that a Cambodian wedding party had been razed by B-52s.

One Cambodian villager lamented in April 1973: "The bombers may kill some Communists but they kill everyone else, too." The next month the New York Times reported that "extensive" destruction had wiped out "a whole series of villages" along the main highway, including seven villages in the eastern part of the country, with many people killed. Nothing was left standing for miles: "A few people wander forlornly through the rubble, stunned by what has happened, skirting the craters, picking at the debris." Correspondent Sidney Schanberg noted: "The frightened villagers uprooted by the bombing have a great deal to say." One refugee requested politely, "I would be very glad if the Government would stop sending the planes to bomb," while a Buddhist monk pleaded with the U.S. government, "Don't destroy everything in Cambodia."

But in July and August 1973 the Southwest Zone of Cambodia was carpet bombed. It was the most intensive B-52 campaign yet. Its impact in the Southwest was not simply to destroy many more civilian lives. Politically, it tipped what had been a delicate CPK factional balance there in favor of Pol Pot's "Center."

The political effect reached the highest level of the CPK in the Southwest Zone, its ruling party committee. In 1973-74, four of the eight leaders of this zone committee were purged. Two of these CPK moderates were murdered by Pol Pot allies Mok and Vorn Vet. The other two were killed after 1975, when the Southwest became the stronghold of the Pol Pot regime and Mok went on to purge all other Zones in the country.

During the 1973 bombardment, a similar process occurred at the local level. In one village in the southwest, eighty people died when B-52s hit the village and its pagoda. Nearby Wat Angrun village was annihilated; a single family survived. Peasants claimed that 120 houses were destroyed in the air raid. This part of the Southwest was one of the strongholds of the CPK Center. In 1973 Mok's son-in-law, the local deputy CPK secretary, was promoted to chief of a new Southwest Zone Division, and his wife became district chief.

The CPK was now able to recruit many peasants by highlighting the damage done by air strikes. The CIA's Directorate of Operations, after investigations in the Southwest Zone, reported on 2 May 1973, that the CPK had launched a new recruiting drive:

They are using damage caused by B-52 strikes as the main theme of their propaganda. The cadre tell the people that the Government of Lon Nol has requested the airstrikes and is responsible for the damage and the "suffering of innocent villagers" ... The only way to stop "the massive destruc­tion of the country" is to . . . defeat Lon Nol and stop the bombing.

This approach has resulted in the successful recruitment of a number of young men ... Residents... say that the propaganda campaign has been effective with refugees and in areas . . . which have been subject to B-52 strikes.

Mam Lon, a CPK cadre in the Southwest, says that when T-28s and B-52s bombed his village, more than one hundred people were killed and wounded.
“The people were very angry at the imperialists," he adds. Soon afterwards the CPK's political line hardened, and a number of cadres, including Lon himself, were dismissed. Early in 1973, the CPK began a new purge of Sihanoukists, pro-Vietnamese communists, and other dissidents. Mok rounded up hundreds from all over the Southwest Zone. They were forced to perform hard labor before being executed.

In the Northern Zone of the country, where Pol Pot was based, B-52s struck Stung Kambot village one morning in February 1973. They killed fifty villagers and seriously wounded thirty others. Then, in March, B-52s and F-111s bombarded an oxcart caravan in the same district, killing ten peasants. A local says that "often people were made angry by the bombing and went to join the revolution." One peasant youth recalled B-52s bombing his village three to six times per day for three months. Over one thousand people were killed, nearly a third of the population. Afterwards, "there were few people left . . . and it was quiet."

Chhit Do was a CPK leader near Angkor Wat in northern Cambodia. In 1979, he fled the country. Journalist Bruce Palling asked him if the Khmer Rouge had made use of the bombing for anti-U.S. Propaganda:

Chhit Do: 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.... That was what made it so easy for the Khmer Rouge to win the people over. ... 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 . . .

Palling: So the American bombing was a kind of help to the Khmer Rouge?

Chhit Do: Yes, that's right..., sometimes the bombs fell and hit little chil­dren, and their fathers would be all for the Khmer Rouge …

On 3 August 1973, U.S. aircraft bombed the hill village of Plei Loh in northeastern Cambodia, home of montagnard tribal people known as Khmer Loeu, or Upland Khmers. An American agent reported that "the village was totally destroyed, with 28 civilians and five VC guerrillas killed." The next day, B-52s attacked nearby Plei Lom village, "killing twenty people, including children." On 10 August, Plei Lom was bombed again, killing thirty montagnards. On the same day B-52s struck nearby Plei Blah village: fifty died. The U.S. army report on this event noted that "the Communists intend to use this incident for propaganda purposes."

Another report to the U.S. army in July 1973 stated that "the civilian pop­ulation fears U.S. air attacks far more than they do Communist rocket attacks or scorched-earch tactics." Up to 150,000 civilian deaths resulted from the U.S. bombing campaigns in Cambodia from 1969 to 1973.

In 1991, accused of having been "not very candid" about the 1969-70 bombings, former U.S. secretary of state Henry Kissinger replied: "My quick response is that journalists keep saying 'bombing Cambodia.' We were bombing four Vietnamese divisions that were killing 500 Americans a week." In a longer response, Kissinger made the sarcastic claim, "We destabilised Cambodia the way Britain destabilised Poland in 1939." His memoirs state: "It was Hanoi—animated by an insatiable drive to dominate Indochina—that organised the Khmer Rouge long before any American bombs fell on Cambo­dian soil."

Kissinger's view at the time was more perceptive. In a 1974 cable to Phnom Penh's U.S. embassy, he had pointed out that in areas like southwest Cambodia the Vietnamese were actually in conflict with Khmer communists, who "not only had little training abroad but probably resent and compete with the better-trained men from North Vietnam." "The Khmer communists, such as Saloth Sar," he said with prescience, "are probably xenophobic . . . when it comes to Vietnamese.

In 1974, Kissinger was unsure if the Cambodian insurgency was "regional" and "factionalized" with only "a veneer of central control" or whether "the real power" lay with Pol Pot's center. The tragedy is that the former had been largely true in 1972, the latter was largely true in 1974, and Kissinger and Nixon were largely responsible for the change. Attempts on their part to rewrite the record are not surprising.

Communist Party cadres told young peasant victims of the bombing that "the killing birds" had come "from Phnom Penh" (not Guam), and that Phnom Penh must pay for its assault on rural Cambodia. On the day the bombing ended, CPK propaganda leaflets found in bomb craters attacked the “Phnom Penh warriors" who were, they vowed, soon to be defeated. The popular outrage over the U.S. bombing, predictably manipulated by the CPK, was as fatal for the two million inhabitants of Phnom Penh as it was for moderate Khmer Rouge and for Lon Nol's regime.

In April 1975, when CPK troops took the country's second largest city, Battambang, they headed straight for the airport. Finding two T-28s, they tore the planes apart with their bare hands, according to a witness. "They would have eaten them if they could," he added. Refugees reported "the lynching of hated bomber pilots." When they forcibly evacuated Battambang and Phnom Penh, CPK forces told the urban populations that the exodus was necessary because "American B-52s" were about to bomb the city. The second phase of the Cambodian tragedy had begun.


Soldiers patrol a Cambodian village destroyed by bombing