A single B-52d “Big Belly” payload consists of up to 108 225-kilogram or 42 340-kilogram bombs, which are dropped on a target area of approximately 500 by 1,500 metres. In many cases, Cambodian villages were hit with dozens of payloads over the course of several hours. The result was near-total destruction. One US official stated at the time, “We had been told, as had everybody…that those carpet-bombing attacks by B-52s were totally devastating, that nothing could survive.” Previously, it was estimated that between 50,000 and 150,000 Cambodian civilians were killed by the bombing. Given the fivefold increase in tonnage revealed by the database, the number of casualties is surely higher.
The Cambodian bombing campaign had two unintended side effects that ultimately combined to produce the very domino effect that the Vietnam War was supposed to prevent. First, the bombing forced the Vietnamese Communists deeper and deeper into Cambodia, bringing them into greater contact with Khmer Rouge insurgents. Second, the bombs drove ordinary Cambodians into the arms of the Khmer Rouge, a group that seemed initially to have slim prospects of revolutionary success. Pol Pot himself described the Khmer Rouge during that period as “fewer than five thousand poorly armed guerrillas?.?.?.?scattered across the Cambodian landscape, uncertain about their strategy, tactics, loyalty, and leaders.”
Years after the war ended, journalist Bruce Palling asked Chhit Do, a former Khmer Rouge officer, if his forces had used the bombing as anti-American propaganda. Chhit replied:
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 co-operating 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.
The Nixon administration knew that the Khmer Rouge was winning over peasants. The cia’s Directorate of Operations, after investigations south of Phnom Penh, reported in May 1973 that the Communists were “using damage caused by B-52 strikes as the main theme of their propaganda.” But this does not seem to have registered as a primary strategic concern.
The Nixon administration kept theair war secret for so long that debate over its impact came far too late. It wasn’t until 1973 that Congress, angered by the destruction the campaign had caused and the systematic deception that had masked it, legislated a halt to the bombing of Cambodia. By then, the damage was already done. Having grown to more than two hundred thousand troops and militia forces by 1973, the Khmer Rouge captured Phnom Penh two years later. They wenton to subject Cambodia to a Maoist agrarian revolution and a genocide in which 1.7 million people perished.
The Nixon Doctrine relied on the notion that the United States could supply an allied regime with the resources needed to withstand internalor external challenges while the US withdrew its ground troops or, in some cases, simply remained at arm’s length. In Vietnam, this meant building up the ground-fighting capability of South Vietnamese forces while American units slowly disengaged. In Cambodia, Washington gave military aid to prop up Lon Nol’s regime from 1970 to 1975 while the US Air Force conducted its massive aerial bombardment.
US policy in Iraq may yet undergo a similar shift. Seymour Hersh reported in the New Yorker in December 2005 that a key element of any drawdown of American troops will be their replacement with air power. “We just want to change the mix of the forces doing the fighting — Iraqi infantry with American support and greater use of air power,” said Patrick Clawson, the deputy director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
Critics argue that a shift to air power will cause even greater numbers of civilian casualties, which in turn will benefit the insurgency in Iraq. Andrew Brookes, the former director of air-power studies at the Royal Air Force’s advanced staff college, told Hersh, “Don’t believe that air power is a solution to the problems inside Iraq at all. Replacing boots on the ground with air power didn’t work in Vietnam, did it?”
It’s true that air strikes are generally more accurate now than they were during the war in Indochina, so in theory,at least, unidentified targets should be hit less frequently and civilian casualties should be lower. Nonetheless, civilian deaths have been the norm during the Iraq and Afghanistan campaigns, as they were during the bombing of Lebanon by Israeli forces over the summer. As in Cambodia, insurgencies are the likely beneficiaries. To cite one example, on January 13 of this year an aerial strike by a US Predator drone on a village in a border area of Pakistan killed eighteen civilians, including five women and five children. The deaths undermined the positive sentiments created by the billions of dollars in aid that had flowed into that part of Pakistan after the massive earthquake months earlier. The question remains: is bombing worth the strategic risk?
If the Cambodian experience teaches us anything, it is that miscalculation of the consequences of civilian casualties stems partly from a failure to understand how insurgencies thrive. The motives that lead locals to help such movements don’t fit into strategic rationales like the ones set forth by Kissinger and Nixon. Those whose lives have been ruined don’t care about the geopolitics behind bomb attacks; they tend to blame the attackers. The failure of the American campaign in Cambodia lay not only in the civilian death toll during the unprecedented bombing, but also in its aftermath, when the Khmer Rouge regime rose up from the bomb craters, with tragic results. The dynamics in Iraq could be similar.