A History of Infamy: US Military Tactics From Vietnam to Iraq

Scientific knowledge can benefit human beings enormously. It can also be used to do enormous
damage, either directly as weapons like DARPA’s cooker, or by destroying infrastructures or environments essential to human life. One military campaign that had a strong impact on the US is the bombing of Iraq’s electricity-generating plants and water-pumping and sanitation systems during the Gulf War of 1991.

Chalmers Johnson reported the incident in detail in his book Nemesis. Johnson noted that Dr. Thomas Nagy, a professor at George Washington University, analyzed a large number of declassified Defense Intelligence Agency documents on the bombing. Nagy concluded that US officials were well aware that the purposeful destruction of Iraq’s water purification systems would cause increased outbreaks of disease and high rates of child mortality. Iraq’s rivers contain biological materials, pollutants, and are laden with bacteria. Unless the water is purified with chlorine, epidemics of such diseases as cholera, hepatitis, and typhoid can occur. Later documents state that the sanctions imposed after the war explicitly embargoed the importation of chlorine in order to prevent the purification of drinking water.

Columbia University professor Richard Garfield, an epidemiologist and one of the leading analysts of the effects of sanctions, points out that Iraq was not allowed to import any of the parts it needed to repair its electrical and water purification systems. Garfield estimated that, through 2000, the sanctions had contributed to the deaths of 350,000 Iraqi children. The United Nations coordinator in Iraq called it "genocide." Osama bin Laden cited these deaths as one of the reasons al-Qaeda attacked the US on 9/11, and no doubt it’s also one of the reasons why invading US forces were not welcomed as liberators in 2003.

The DARPA cooker is hardly a new use of microwaves. Dogs were cooked to death in experiments at the Naval Medical Research Institute as long ago as 1955. The Central Intelligence Agency funded research on electromagnetic mind control as early as 1960 as part of its notorious MKULTRA program. Dr. Robert O. Becker, a leading researcher on the constructive uses of bioelectricity — healing broken bones, for example — discovered these and many other misuses of electromagnetic radiation (EMR) and reported them in his book, The Body Electric. Becker notes that most or all of these "EMR effects can be scaled up or down for use against individuals or whole crowds and armies." How much of this has been done is, no doubt, highly classified.

There’s also a long history, although hardly widely known, of attempts by the US to develop less esoteric weapons specifically for destruction, often long term, of an enemy’s environment. One such arsenal was used against South Vietnam in the late 1960s, remarkable because it was that region that the US was supposedly trying to protect.

Herbicide spraying was typical of programs that were still doing environmental damage years after they were phased out. Investigations by the American Association for the Advancement of Science Herbicide Assessment Commission, headed by Harvard biologist Matthew Meselson, showed that one-fifth to one-half of South Vietnam’s mangrove forests had been utterly destroyed and, years after spraying, there was almost no sign of new life coming back. Perhaps half the mature hardwood forests north and west of Saigon were dead and these regions were threatened by a massive invasion of worthless bamboo. At the time of Meselson’s investigation there was no definite evidence of adverse health effects, but a high rate of stillbirths and birth defects was reported in heavily sprayed areas. The government in Hanoi subsequently claimed that studies had shown a clear connection.

This herbicidal assault left South Vietnam with millions of dead, rotting trees and with locally debilitated ecosystems. Later a new technique emerged. A vast program of systematic bulldozing began in 1965 and developed into major proportions by 1968. The basic tool of the land-clearing operation in Vietnam was the 20-ton D-7 Caterpillar tractor, which was fitted with a massive 11-foot wide, 2.5-ton "Rome plow" blade equipped with a special 3-foot splitting lance. A number of even more massive D-9 tractors subsequently came into use. Companies of these tractors bulldozed continuously, fifteen hours a day, seven days a week, in what must certainly have been one of the most intense land-clearing programs in history.

Arthur H. Westing, a botanist from Windham College in Vermont, visited Vietnam under the auspices of the Scientist’s Institute for Public Information (SIPI) to examine the results of this massive bulldozing program. He estimated that the clearing took place at a rate of more than 1,000 acres a day, with 750,000 acres having been leveled up to the time of his visit. This included 126,000 acres of prime timber. There are many other losses attributable to the bulldozer program, some of them impossible to quantify. One is severe flood damage produced by elimination of the enormous water-holding capacity of an extant forest combined with the heavy rains characteristic of Vietnam. Among the others are the erosion and destruction of wildlife habitat.

The damage caused by herbicides and bulldozers is sharply increased when followed by bombing. "Carpet" bombing by B-52s left millions of moonlike craters, averaging 25 feet in depth and 40 feet in diameter. Ten percent of South Vietnam’s rice lands were destroyed in this way.

One major problem in the heavily-cratered areas was the presence of unexploded ordnance, which is estimated to include several hundred thousand air and ground munitions randomly buried. The SIPI investigators noted that frequently fields were not being cultivated out of fear of unexploded weapons that are detonated when plows strike them.  

A longer-term problem was the presence of stagnant water in many of the craters during much of the year. These become breeding grounds for certain species of mosquitoes and other carriers of disease. The Health Policy Advisory Center in New York reported that malaria had become epidemic, cholera increased by 100 percent and became more prevalent in South Vietnam than anywhere else in the world, and bubonic plague, tuberculosis, smallpox, and polio all increased sharply.

The standard weapon of the B-52 was a 500-pound bomb; these are the weapons responsible for the huge production of craters. This arsenal was supplemented by one of the most awesome bombs spawned by the war. Weighing 15,000 pounds, the "Daisy Cutter" provided a concussive blast surpassed at that time only by that of a nuclear bomb.

According to an official Seventh Air Force source, the blast of a Daisy Cutter is so intense that all wildlife, and of course any human beings, within a radius of about 3280 feet are killed by the shockwave. The area of both death and injury comes to about 1700 acres per bomb. Dr. Westing estimated that as a result of this weapon alone all the wildlife occupying about 116,000 acres had been killed, and the wildlife in again as much area had sustained injury, adding to the already severe stress imposed on the environment of Vietnam.

One other program of environmental warfare against South Vietnam is worth mentioning. In 1965, 1966, and 1967 the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA, predecessor of DARPA) made at least three attempts to light what planners termed "firestorms" in some of South Vietnam’s most valuable timber regions.

The term firestorm was used to describe the holocausts at Dresden and Hamburg in Germany during World War II. The destructiveness of a firestorm is revealed dramatically by the fact that the two most severe bombings of World War II in terms of immediate deaths were the fire bombings of Dresden, which killed 135,000 people, and of Tokyo, which killed nearly 84,000 people.

The first field test of the forest burning technique was attempted in the Boi Loi woods in 1965. During the dry season dead leaves were allowed to dry out for a period, thus preparing a fuel supply. The attempt failed because it rained on the day the field units tried to light the fire. A second attempt in 1966 resulted in ignition but the fire wouldn’t spread, apparently because of jungle humidity and unfavorable wind conditions. The third and biggest attempt took place in 1967. The fire was followed by a rainstorm that put it out, and may even have been caused by the fire. At this point the attempt by ARPA to ignite self-propagating fires was abandoned.

Craig Chandler, chief consultant to the project from the US Department of Agriculture and a firestorm expert, said he repeatedly told the military that it was not feasible to ignite a firestorm in the Vietnam jungle. According to Chandler, "The country doesn’t burn well." Clearly the target jungles were saved by technological difficulties, not any moral considerations.

The US intervention in South Vietnam gave its military an opportunity to develop the techniques of environmental warfare. These tactics, even though outlawed by international law, have been used ever since, the bombing of water-pumping and sanitation systems during the Gulf War being a recent example.

This assault on South Vietnam, a region the US was presumably trying to protect and whose people the US were presumably trying to benefit, has another recent parallel. Despite the ousting of the brutal Saddam Hussein, an objective observer would have to conclude that the US intervention in Iraq has not at all been an unalloyed benefit to the Iraqi people.

Photo from Indymedia