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Published on May 8, 2007
In the fall of 2000, twenty-five years after the end of the war in Indochina, Bill Clinton became the first US president since Richard Nixon to visit Vietnam. While media coverage of the trip was dominated by talk of some two thousand US soldiers still classified as missing in action, a small act of great historical importance went almost unnoticed. As a humanitarian gesture, Clinton released extensive Air Force data on all American bombings of Indochina between 1964 and 1975. Recorded using a groundbreaking IBM-designed system, the database provided extensive information on sorties conducted over Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia. Clinton's gift was intended to assist in the search for unexploded ordnance left behind during the carpet bombing of the region. Littering the countryside, often submerged under farmland, this ordnance remains a significant humanitarian concern. It has maimed and killed farmers, and rendered valuable land all but unusable. Development and de-mining organizations have put the Air Force data to good use over the past six years, but have done so without noting its full implications, which turn out to be staggering.
The Bombing Database
The still-incomplete database (it has several "dark" periods) reveals that from October 4, 1965, to August 15, 1973, the United States dropped far more ordnance on Cambodia than was previously believed: 2,756,941 tons' worth, dropped in 230,516 sorties on 113,716 sites. Just over 10 percent of this bombing was indiscriminate, with 3,580 of the sites listed as having "unknown" targets and another 8,238 sites having no target listed at all. Even if the latter may arguably be oversights, the former suggest explicit knowledge of indiscretion. The database also shows that the bombing began four years earlier than is widely believed -- not under Nixon, but under Lyndon Johnson. The impact of this bombing, the subject of much debate for the past three decades, is now clearer than ever. Civilian casualties in Cambodia drove an enraged populace into the arms of an insurgency that had enjoyed relatively little support until the bombing began, setting in motion the expansion of the Vietnam War deeper into Cambodia, a coup d'état in 1970, the rapid rise of the Khmer Rouge, and ultimately the Cambodian genocide. The data demonstrates that the way a country chooses to exit a conflict can have disastrous consequences. It therefore speaks to contemporary warfare as well, including US operations in Afghanistan and Iraq. Despite many differences, a critical similarity links the war in Iraq with the Cambodian conflict: an increasing reliance on air power to battle a heterogeneous, volatile insurgency.