Escalation 10

One of the illusions of those who advocated strategic bombing was that the air offensive could obliterate or at least slow down Communist war production. But that belief was an outmoded one, left over from World War II, when air raids failed to flatten the German economy. It also ignored the fact that North Vietnam, a simple agrarian society with limited manufacturing capability, was essentially a conduit through which Soviet and Chinese materiel passed on its way to the battlefield in the south. The destruction of its few factories scarcely deprived North Vietnam of the means to carry on the conflict. By the middle of 1967, for example, the American attacks had cut the coun-try’s capacity to generate electricity by 85 percent. Yet, as McNamara noted at the time, it was able to meet war needs by switching to some two thousand diesel-driven generators; North Vietnam’s normal re¬quirements were so small, he remarked, that all its installations com¬bined generated only one-fifth of the electricity produced by the Potomac Electric Power Company branch in Alexandria, Virginia.
The American investment in the bombing campaign was thus wildly disproportionate to the destruction it inflicted, as official American estimates dramatized. By late 1967, the United States had imposed some $300 million in damage on North Vietnam—but at a loss to the American air force of more than seven hundred aircraft valued at approximately $900 million.
The North Vietnamese developed one of the strongest air defense concentrations in the world, comprising eight thousand aircraft guns, more than two hundred surface-to-air missile batteries, a complex radar system and computerized control centers, all provided by the Soviet Union. The entire structure earned the respect of American pilots, who had not expected such withering flak. “Ninety-nine per¬cent of the time as I dropped bombs,” one of them recollected after the war, “somebody was shooting at me.”
The Communists focused as well on civil defense, so that the U. S. raids caused fewer casualties than might have been expected from the tonnage of bombs dropped. Individual shelters resembling manholes dotted city streets, and peasants dug elaborate networks of trenches and tunnels that stretched from their villages into the fields, enabling them to cultivate their crops between air attacks. The Hanoi govern¬ment also decentralized its administration and evacuated thousands of people from urban areas. The massive dislocations created severe scarc¬ities of food and other commodities, and conditions might have been appalling had the Soviet Union and China not provided assistance. Their aid, apart from weapons, amounted to some $300 million in 1967 alone—not much in contrast to the billions in U.S. help con¬sumed by South Vietnam, but still crucial.
Despite their resilience, the North Vietnamese were not immune to pain and fear. The U.S. air offensive probably killed a hundred thousand civilians and, at an early stage, Prime Minister Pham Van Dong told a British journalist in an unusual outburst of emotion that “I’m not acting when I say that I am obliged to cry—literally cry— at the suffering and the losses.” The region just to the north of the seventeenth parallel, where North Vietnamese units assembled to move south, was a special target of American aircraft. Years after the war, an inhabitant of the area, Ho Thanh Dam, recollected the day in July 1967 when they struck Vinh Quang, his village:
The bombing started at about eight o’clock in the morning and lasted for hours. At the first sound of explosions, we rushed into the tunnels, but not everyone made it. During a pause in the attack, some of us climbed out to see what we could do, and the scene was terrifying. Bodies had been tom to pieces—limbs hanging from trees or scattered around the ground. Then the bombing began again, this time with napalm, and the village went up in flames. The napalm hit me, and I must have gone crazy. I felt as if I were burning all over, like charcoal, and I lost consciousness. Comrades took me to the hospital, and my wounds didn’t begin to heal until six months later. More than two hundred people died in the raid, including my mother, my sister-in-law and three nephews. They were buried alive when their tunnel collapsed.
As a practical strategy, however, the bombing backfired. American planners had predicted that it would drive the enemy to capitulation, yet not only did the North Vietnamese accept the sacrifices, but the raids rekindled their nationalistic zeal, so that many who may have disliked Communist rule joined the resistance to alien attack. In Hanoi in 1981, I even discerned a certain nostalgia for the war. Ton That Tung, a prominent physician, compared the elan of those years to the country’s present gloominess: “There was extraordinary fervor then. The Americans thought that the more bombs they dropped, the quicker we would fall to our knees and surrender. But the bombs heightened rather than dampened our spirit. Now, since the end of the war and without the bombs dropping, we have lost much of that fervor. We complain about food and housing shortages—complaints never heard during the war, when nobody cared what they ate or how they slept. The change is strange and paradoxical. ”
Communist troops fighting in the south also displayed great stam¬ina, despite dreadful hardships. As diaries and notes discovered on their corpses revealed, they suffered from the heat and humidity, disease and fatigue—and hunger constantly clawed those in the moun¬tains and jungles far from South Vietnam’s populated littoral, where they could forage for food. The steady pounding of American artillery and aircraft unnerved them, and many were sad and homesick away from their families. An unfinished letter to his mother signed by Mai Van Hung, a young North Vietnamese soldier killed near Pleiku in late 1965, probably shared the sentiments of numbers of his comrades: “How devastating and poignant this war is! It has stolen the vernal spring of our lives, we fledglings who knew nothing except our schoolbooks. I didn’t expect to be so wretched. If I see you again in the future, I will tell you everything in detail. If not, please calm your grief and do not mourn me.”

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