For the duration of the war, whether from the air or sea or on the ground, the American military machine created mayhem and misery on a scale that was as unprecedented as it was indiscriminate as it was reprehensible, with the civilian populations of the three countries affected generally suffering the most.
That much of this carnage took place in secret at the time is now of course no secret, thanks to revelations by intrepid investigative journalists such as Seymour Hersh and courageous leakers like Daniel Ellsberg (the Edward Snowden of his day), both of whom are still active chroniclers of the consequences (blowback) of their country's foreign and national security policies.
On a micro level, it was the infamous My Lai Massacre revealed by Hersh in 1969 that for the American public attracted the most attention to the way their own troops conducted the war on the ground, if not how they were officially expected by their commanders to carry out operations. As David Hackworth, a former US veteran of three wars and military journalist noted, "Vietnam was an atrocity from the get-go..."[There] were hundreds of My Lais. You got your card punched by the numbers of bodies you counted."
Such insight was not known at the time of course . But we now know that the US Army knew much more than it was letting on at the time. Indeed, according to one report, a young Army officer by the name of Colin Powell -- future Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman, US Secretary of State, Republican icon, ostensible national hero and the Man who Sold the World on the Iraq Invasion -- was party to 'termiting' at least one case brought against a fellow senior Army officer for My Lai-type war crimes.
For his part Ron Ridenhour was one of many GIs who were greatly unsettled by the wanton slaughter, and was in fact the man who originally exposed the My Lai massacre based on accounts he collected from other soldiers. He witnessed his share of atrocities up close and personal while serving as a helicopter door gunner in one province. On his first combat mission, Ridenhour recalled seeing his fellow gunner, who had been instructed to fire ahead of a fleeing and unarmed Vietnamese, shoot the man instead. The pilot radioed an officer on the ground to check out the wounded man. As Ridenhour explained to Turse:
"The officer gets there, runs up to him, stops, leans down, looks at him, stands up, pulls out his .45, cocks it, BOOM! He shoots [him] in the head....."
Another day, another dead 'dink' one supposes.
And of course Ellsberg's 1971 leaking of the Pentagon Papers blew the lid off any notion that the war was winnable and/or that it was the noble cause the conflict's architects and champions were still shilling when all objective prior evidence pointed to the opposite. Both these revelations provided enormous momentum for the anti-war movement, and it's easy to see how it might have dragged on longer without them. In an article published in The Guardian in 2011, Ellsberg reflects on the significance of the leaking of the Papers, and their uncanny relevance to more recent developments and events, and reflects also with some regret on the outcome if he'd released the documents earlier.
Over Cambodia (Bombs 'n B-52s)
Of course any discussion of the Vietnam conflict would be incomplete without significant reference to the spillover apocalypse that exploded in neighbouring Cambodia. The aerial bombing campaigns in both North and South Vietnam were bad enough, but for sheer destruction it is to Cambodia we must look for a sense of scale.
To be sure the most recognised and officially acknowledged of the "collateral damage" of the whole Indo-China debacle was the massive aerial bombing of this hitherto peaceful, serene country -- one that America was not even at war with -- where alone more ordnance was dropped than by all the Allies in World War Two, which was just over 2 million tons. As historians Taylor Owen and Ben Kiernan note in their revealing 2006 article "Bombs over Cambodia", the US Air Force dropped around 2,756,941 tons of bombs on Cambodia throughout the 'Nam era; in their summation, Cambodia may just be "the most heavily bombed country in history".
Interestingly, they reveal it was Lyndon Baines Johnson (LBJ), not his much-reviled successor Richard Nixon and his 'Grand Vizier' Henry Kissinger, who ordered the first bombing sorties in that country. By their reckoning, this was three years earlier than originally thought or even presently acknowledged! Although these sorties were extremely modest compared to what transpired later, it seems clear that the Madman Theory of War -- long associated with Nixon and Kissinger -- may have been 'inspired' by LBJ, the man as we have already noted, was the one who started it all.
And the untold numbers of dead killed by the bombing did not include the more verifiable numbers of the Khmer Rouge and Pol Pot's Cambodian genocide of between 1.5-2.5 million, itself one of the most significant examples of blowback to be had anywhere in the US foreign policy playbook, along with the disablement and displacement of millions more. That much of this unleashed maelstrom was calculating, deliberate, and premeditated is something that America has not fully contemplated much less come to terms with. Nor does it appear it ever will.
That it was totally avoidable is a conclusion that in itself is un avoidable.
A significant go-to book here in understanding Cambodia is William Shawcross' Sideshow: Kissinger, Nixon & the Destruction of Cambodia. As one perceptive reviewer -- two years after 9/11 and with the Iraq invasion underway -- noted in response to his reading of Shawcross' classic, ["Sideshow"] is "[A]n excellent summary of the events that overtook Cambodia, [and] has much more to offer to us today as we try to figure out how we reached this turning point in our history and recall how badly things can go wrong whenever we deviate from the principles upon which our nation was founded."