If this post looks a little familiar it’s because it began as my brief and cursory commentary about a classic Larry Burrows’ photo from the Vietnam War and LIFE magazine’s caption for it. The New York Times' CJ Chivers (whose Tumblr you can find and follow here) added to it and offers important commentary about the use of air power today. Don’t miss it:
Air war has evolved. And Western reliance on it, and the seductive promises of its power and precision, has freed military minds to engage in ground campaigns that otherwise would be impossible. Nick Turse, on the blog post below, and with the photograph above, shows American air power for what it was not too long ago. If you have ever been attacked by an aircraft, you know something of what this the scene above is like from the other side.
Read Mr. Turse’s post below. But don’t draw lines too bright between old practices and new. For all of the changes (many of them made possible by the technology behind guided munitions) modern Western militaries remain loathe to admit or examine their mistakes and eager to assure all listeners that all is well. For the rest of us, it remains difficult to assess how air-to-ground campaigns fare, and what they really bring us, as long as governments and alliances refuse to be transparent about them. You can frame a moral case that transparency and honesty are for the sake of victims, for survivors, for citizens who underwrite air power, and for bomb-disposal crews invariably summoned to clean up the post-war mess. And moral cases are good. But you can also frame a practical argument that transparency and honesty are essential for national security, which is not much improved, and arguably undermined, when noncombatants are killed — as field work in the face of government denials shows they are, again and again.
As the West uses its air power for plinking where it sees fit, are we better for it? Are we safer? We don’t offer an answer. But we do think on the questions, most every day, and chase for answers out in the places where the rockets and the bombs actually strike.
LIFE magazine captioned this as an “American twin-jet F-4C Phantom heading toward tiny riverside village known to be an important Vietcong site to bomb it during Vietnam War.” The problem of course is that all these villages that were “Vietcong strongholds”were filled with civilians — women, children, old men — who lost homes, limbs, and lives to American rockets.
Photographer: Larry Burrows, 1966
An aside: Nick Turse has a book out. It looks worth tossing into your backpack and packing into your head. Here.