Arthur Herman’s otherwise excellent essay “Who Owns the Vietnam War?” (December 2007) appears to downplay the devastating effects of Nixon’s bombing campaigns in Cambodia. He describes the precision of smart bombs and claims that “the collateral damage caused by American bombing [in Vietnam]…was actually very limited.”
Philip Short, Michael Lind, Elizabeth Becker and others offer clear evidence that the US bombing created enormous hardship for Cambodia’s rural populations, causing large peasant migrations to both Phnom Penh and the forests. Regardless of how smart the bombs were, there were a lot of them—according to some accounts, more than were dropped in all of World War II--and many many Cambodian villages were destroyed. The bombing was also an effective recruiting tool for the Khmer Rouge, although the banditry of the South Vietnamese troops in Cambodia was also important in creating support for the Communists.
Although the bombing might be justified by Cambodia’s violation of its claimed neutrality, minimizing the collateral damage makes it easy for the anti-war Left to condemn everything we did in Indochina by pointing to an apparent lack of sympathy for the civilian population.
On the other hand, Mr. Herman is right to dismiss attempts to hold the American bombing accountable for the Cambodian genocide that followed. Some have proposed that the “savage” American bombing drove the Khmer Rouge to respond with savagery of their own—although no other population in history subjected to bombing has reacted by murdering millions of their compatriots. Noam Chomsky went beyond the moral equivalency of this thesis, proposing a morality tale with the United States as the villain and the Khmer Rouge the victim. It is sophistry to blame the anti-Communist campaign of the U.S. when nearly two million Cambodians were murdered by a Marxist-Leninist government whose leader, Pol Pot, adopted the terror strategies of Stalin and Mao. They were called Red Khmers for a reason.