CORNELL (US) — The ineffective and wrongheaded strategy of aerial bombings by U.S. allied forces during the Vietnam War was largely responsible for neutral citizens aligning with the Viet Cong.
“This is a unique strategy to chart the co-evolution of bombing and insurgent control over time,” says Thomas Pepinsky, assistant professor of government at Cornell University and co-author a study analyzing data to reconstruct the war in late 1969 when U.S. forces appeared to have the upper hand in the conflict.
“We can actually observe hamlets across the territory of South Vietnam and the ways in which bombing subsequently leads to changes in the ability of the Viet Cong to hold them.”
Details of the study are reported online in the American Journal of Political Science.
“No one has ever actually tried to see in a broad, comparative sense if the bombardment was effective,” Pepinsky says. “No one’s been able to show, with anything close to the level of detail, broad coverage, and rich statistical evidence that we have, that this was uniformly counterproductive for the U.S. military’s broader strategic goals.”
Then as now—when American drones kill civilians near targets in Afghanistan—the problem of distinguishing between insurgents and noncombatants remains unsolved, Pepinsky says. But many believe that bombing civilians may still be effective. In the context of Vietnam, this perspective can be found in Gen. William Westmoreland’s infamous quote: “It does deprive the enemy of population, doesn’t it?”
Researchers used U.S. government bombing data, which has been released to nongovernmental organizations working to remove unexploded weapons in Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia, that includes GPS coordinates of where every single payload of bombs released between 1965 and 1975.
The researchers also used a data set from the Hamlet Evaluation System, developed by the U.S. military during the Vietnam War to assess which hamlets the Viet Cong controlled and which hamlets were either neutral or held by forces loyal to the South Vietnamese government.
Combining the two data sets showed how bombing affected the pattern of territorial control on the ground.
“Conditional on how strong the Viet Cong presence was in any hamlet at one point in time, the addition of more bombs increased the likelihood that the Viet Cong was able to maintain or increase its level of control in subsequent periods,” Pepinsky says.
“We would suggest—although we don’t do it in the paper—that this has implications for any effort to target insurgents. To be effective in counterinsurgency warfare, you need to distinguish insurgents from neutrals or potential allies.
“Any technology that fails to do that is not only not going to work, it’s probably going to work in the wrong direction. We would like to think that things we find morally repugnant are also bad strategy, but some have argued that targeting civilians can be a productive exercise. Here, though, we show that it is not.
“Our findings are of clear political importance to the American military and other counterinsurgency operations, but they’re also consistent with my personal beliefs about what makes war just or unjust. Killing civilians is unjust, but our research shows that it is also bad strategy.”
Researchers from Yale University contributed to the study, that was supported in part by Cornell University’s Southeast Asia program.
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