Column: Reflect on America’s promise, not its might

  • Steve Nelson

For the Valley News
Published: 7/6/2019 10:30:06 PM

Fifty years ago, I spent the Fourth of July in Thailand as a first lieutenant in the Army.

I did nothing important or heroic during my military service, but giving three years of my life perhaps allows moral authority to express moral outrage.

President Donald Trump’s cowardly avoidance of military service during the time I served should disqualify him from using America’s military might as a political prop. But Trump aside, our use of military power, from the war in Vietnam until the present, should be more a source of shame than cause for patriotic celebration.

Fifty years ago, U-Tapao Royal Thai Air Base was home to a large fleet of B-52 bombers, growing from a dozen in 1967 to 54 by 1972. The U.S. had negotiated an agreement with the Thai government to lengthen existing runways to accommodate bombing missions over Vietnam. U-Tapao was close enough to Vietnam that the missions required no midair re-fueling, a major logistical improvement. The planes leaving U-Tapao delivered deadly payloads week after week, devastating the Vietnamese countryside and killing hundreds of thousands of North Vietnamese, Viet Cong and innocent women, men and children.

While precise statistics are elusive, the bombing offensive known as Operation Rolling Thunder may have killed as many as 182,000 civilians. Bombing in Cambodia may have killed as many as 150,000 others. B-52s were not the only aircraft in these operations, but these huge planes were a major part of our deadly arsenal.

My friends and I sometimes sat on a quiet hillside near U-Tapao at twilight and watched as B-52 after B-52, pregnant with as much as 35 tons of ordinance, would groan off the runway, bound for Vietnam, where they would pummel the landscape with relative impunity from 30,000-40,000 feet. We knew what they were about to do, and I felt mildly nauseous and complicit as we watched the grotesque birds fly toward the horizon.

In his book Vietnam: A War Lost and Won, prolific British author Nigel Cawthorne wrote: “But what the Viet Cong and NVA feared most was the B-52 strikes. They called them the ‘whispering death’ because the first they knew of the presence of the bombers high above the jungle canopy and the clouds was the whistling of the bomb. Aerial bombardments could go on for days or weeks at a time. Even the most battle-hardened veterans lost control of their bodily functions, soiling their pants and shaking uncontrollably. Some went mad and no one who survived could ever be cured of the abject terror a B-52 strike inspired.”

Cawthorne recounted the experience of Tran Thi Truyen, a 16-year-old nurse who served in southern Laos, who described how the bombing left no place to hide. “During her month-long march down the (Ho Chi Min) trail, she carried a rifle, a sixty-pound knapsack, and a shovel. When American planes came overhead, her group would disperse and dig foxholes. After the bombing had stopped, she said she could not focus her eyes and her head ached for hours. Wounded Vietnamese soldiers were brought up the trail for her to treat in her underground hospital. Most were so badly wounded, nothing could be done for them.”

There is no proper way to fight a war, but American cruelty over the years has been sanitized by technological advantage. Our inclination toward easy violence is because we don’t have to look at it. Whether the appalling pragmatism of Nagasaki and Hiroshima or the B-52s leaving U-Tapao, those who pull the trigger don’t have to recoil from shattered bodies or frozen screams of terror on the faces of dead women and children. The American military used napalm in Vietnam and those who dropped it never smelled the acrid fumes of burning flesh.

Perhaps if we were forced to experience the consequences of our actions we would be more politically and militarily circumspect.

It is also difficult to reconcile the American propensity for self-regard. Whenever the war in Vietnam is publicly discussed or privately regretted, the loss of 58,000 American lives is cited with solemnity — as it should be. We have a powerful national memorial and, thankfully, a better-late-than-never inclination to say “thank you for your service.”

But when was the last time you heard or read about the millions of dead, wounded and traumatized Vietnamese, Cambodians and Laotians for whom we bear significant, if not primary, responsibility? This national narcissism extended to the similarly disastrous Iraq war, in which some 4,000 American soldiers lost their lives — an unnecessary tragedy — while several hundred thousand Iraq citizens and soldiers were killed by our unjustified, misdirected aggression.

War can be a necessary evil, as it was in World War II. But much recent American military history is a story of unnecessary evil. We can’t be “great again” if we are blind to the truth.

July 4 should be a time to reflect on the promises of the Declaration of Independence and recommit to the revolutionary notion of liberty and justice for all — not to celebrate our military might.

Steve Nelson lives in Boulder, Colo., and Sharon. He can be reached at

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