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The American way of bombing?

‘Signature targets’ are ghostly traces of the ‘target signatures’ that once animated the electronic battlefield. Commentators have often drawn comparisons between the wars in Vietnam and in Afghanistan, but if Vietnam was a ‘quagmire’ then the air wars over Afghanistan-Pakistan threaten to create a vortex. See the Closing Session of the Shock and Awe conference.

The problems with remote-controlled warfare are legion.  The human operator ‘is terribly remote from the consequences of his actions; he is likely to be sitting in an air-conditioned trailer, hundreds of miles from the area of battle.’  He evaluates ‘target signatures’ captured by various sensor systems that ‘no more represent human beings than the tokens in a board-type war game.’ 

The rise of this new ‘American way of bombing’, as it’s been called, has two particularly serious consequences.  First, ‘through its isolation of the military actor from his target, automated warfare diminishes the inhibitions that could formerly be expected on the individual level in the exercise of warfare’.  In short, killing is made casual.  Secondly, once the risk of combat is transferred to the target, it becomes much easier for the state to go to war.  Domestic audiences are disengaged from the violence waged in their name: ‘Remote-controlled warfare reduces the need for the public to confront the consequences of military action abroad.’  

All familiar stuff, you might think, except that these warnings were not prompted by the appearance of Predators and Reapers in the skies over Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia or Yemen.  They appeared in Harper’s Magazine in June 1972, the condensed results of a study of the US air war in Indochina by a group of scholar-activists at Cornell University.1 As they suggest, crucial elements of today’s ‘drone wars’ were assembled during the US bombing of Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. There were three of them: drones, real-time visual reconnaissance, and the electronic battlefield. 

Sensing the enemy 

The US fought multiple air wars in Indochina. The air strikes against North Vietnam involved what is now called deliberate targeting, in which targets are identified and assigned to aircrews before take off.  To the US military the first series of attacks from 1965 to 1968 (code-named ‘Rolling Thunder’) was an interdiction campaign to close lines of communication and choke off the supply of men and materials from the North to the insurgency in the South.  To President Johnson and his civilian advisers, however, its purpose was to open up a different line of communication: bombing was a way of ‘sending a message’ to Hanoi, designed to coerce the North through a ‘diplomatic orchestration of signals and incentives, of carrots and sticks, of the velvet glove of diplomacy backed by the mailed fist of air power.’2 From either perspective the campaign had to be carefully controlled and calibrated, but the air intelligence was of variable quality.  Starting in October 1964 the US Air Force sought to improve the situation by using reconnaissance drones, which were launched from C-130A transport aircraft on programmed flight paths over target areas in North Vietnam (and Laos) and then recovered off Da Nang. The early ‘Lightning Bugs’ were plagued by navigation errors, but these were reduced when crew on the accompanying aircraft used television cameras to fly the drones.  The photographs taken on these missions were vital components of target folders, but their effectiveness was compromised by two factors that continued to haunt aerial surveillance long after the war.  One was the balance between resolution and coverage: low-level flights (between 200 and 2,000 feet) provided high-resolution but limited coverage, whereas high-level flights (usually at 50,000 feet) opened up the field of view only to have it muddied by cloud and haze.  Today the US Air Force claims to have resolved the problem through the introduction of wide-area technologies like the ‘Gorgon Stare’ and ARGUS-IS that quilt images from multiple feeds into a tiled mosaic covering an area of 100 square kilometres. The other issue was the time taken to process and transmit the imagery; the stills were far better than the stock photographs, but it could take days for the film to be developed and analysed, by which time potential targets could have been dispersed or surface-to-air missile sites relocated. This was improved by the introduction of a satellite link to transmit the images from Saigon to Washington – for Johnson’s inspection – via Hawaii, where the imagery was analysed and the results uplinked back to Saigon for crew briefings the next day.  Satellite links are vital for rapid analysis of the imagery from today’s Predators and Reapers too, and they have dramatically ‘compressed the kill-chain’, as the Air Force puts it: but the Lightning Bugs were all unarmed.  In 1972 the New Scientist, drawing on a report in Air Force Magazine, predicted that in two years time ‘a fleet of new bombers will attack North Vietnam – or some other country’ flown by pilots ‘sitting comfortably on the ground in front of TV screens hundreds of miles away’, and speculated that ‘unmanned drones may be bombing North Vietnam now.’  They weren’t, but by then Nixon had resumed air strikes against the North, this time focusing on targets in and around Hanoi and Haiphong in a concerted campaign of intimidation, and the drones had become so closely integrated into air operations that the USAF relied almost exclusively on them for bomb damage assessment.3

In South Vietnam the air war was made subordinate to the grinding ground war, and from 1962 the Air Force set about exposing Viet Cong bases and fighters by systematically destroying the forest canopy.  The aircraft of Operation Ranch Hand (‘Only we can prevent forests’) were officially described as ‘unarmed’, but that hardly captures the deadly effects of the defoliants like Agent Orange that they dispersed. Yet opening up the field of view was insufficient: just-in-time intelligence was even more important in the South than it was in the North because counterinsurgency relies on dynamic targeting, in which cruising aircraft are directed to (usually fleeting) targets of opportunity that emerge in flight, and often involves providing close air support to ground troops who suddenly find themselves in contact with the enemy.  And so in 1965 the Air Force initiated a visual reconnaissance programme using slow, single-engine aircraft.  These ‘Bird Dogs’, militarized versions of the Cessna C-130, were also used by the Army.  They could fly as slow as 40 mph, maintaining a tight turn to keep a site in view, and while they were not supposed to fly below 1500 feet they usually went much lower. ‘You can’t even see people from one thousand feet,’ one pilot noted:  ‘You can’t see anything unless you go down there.’  This must seem a world away from the full-motion video feeds from a Predator or a Reaper, yet the ‘Bird Dog’ pilots not only looked for direct signs of Viet Cong presence – campfires, tracks on trails, foot prints on shorelines – but also carried out what is now called a ‘pattern of life analysis’.  This was an informal practice that did not have the formalized analytical apparatus embedded in intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance today, but in much the same way pilots were required to become sufficiently familiar with their local area of operations – ‘aware of the eating, sleeping, working, traveling and social routine of the people’ – to be able to detect ‘the slightest abnormality or change in the ground pattern’.4 ‘I was steadily learning my trade,’ another pilot recorded. ‘I knew how many villagers should be in the rice fields surrounding each village. Too many might mean they had visitors. Too few could mean that a VC recruitment campaign was under way, or that trouble was afoot and the villagers had wisely decided to stay home until it was over. New footbridges had to be analyzed to determine what sort of traffic was using them, for the farmers seldom strayed away from their local village. A comparative surveillance of the bridges and trails leading to the villages would almost always show the amount of foot traffic in the area. It was impossible to hide movement in the wet season, since tracks would show in the mud and elephant grass. I was starting to feel like something out of James Fenimore Cooper.’5 It was an odd sort of intimacy – at once detached and intrusive – that continues to characterize US counterinsurgency today.  But it provided a far more animated view of the ‘human terrain’ than conventional mapping or even photoreconnaissance, and when the pilots also served as Forward Air Controllers they could feed information directly to ground troops and to strike aircraft. Then as now the sensitivities produced through this system were conditional, and its affinities were with combat troops not civilians: ‘through this link,’ another pilot explained, ‘the FAC’s war was personalized and he earned the gratitude of the forces he supported.’6

In 1966 and 1967 reports from the Institute for Defense Analysis revealed that Rolling Thunder’s interdiction campaign had failed: in fact, the flow of men and materials from the North to the South had increased. The analysts proposed the construction of a networked system of ground sensors and strike aircraft to check infiltration along the Ho Chi Minh Trail, a dense and shifting tissue of roads and trails running from North Vietnam through Laos and Cambodia to South Vietnam.  The objective of ‘Igloo White’, as the system was called, was not so much to damage the Trail network – which was readily repaired or altered – but to strike traffic moving along it, and since the targets were fleeting the interval between sensor and shooter had to be minimized. Visual reconnaissance was limited because the movement was usually at night, and so thousands of acoustic and seismic electronic sensors were seeded along the roads in western Laos (triggered by trucks) and the trails in eastern Laos (triggered by the passage of people).  An on-board camera photographed each sensor as it fell from the aircraft and the image was compared with large-scale photo-mosaics so that the whole sensor field could be mapped.  When movement activated a sensor, designated aircraft – and for a time drones – flying over Laos intercepted its identification signal and transmitted it to the Infiltration Surveillance Center at Nakhon Phanom air base in Thailand.7 There two large computer screens displayed the sensor field on a grid; activations were filtered by algorithms to eliminate false alarms triggered by animals or even heavy rainfall, and when a critical threshold was passed the sensor was illuminated on screen.  One Air Force officer said the Trail was wired ‘like a pinball machine’ that was plugged in each night when the convoys started their engines.  ‘As the seismic and acoustic sensors pick up the truck movements,’ another explained, ‘their locations appear as an illuminated line of light, called “the worm”, that crawls across [the] screen, following a road that sometimes is several hundred miles away.’8 The Assessment Officers – inevitably called pinball wizards – used the speed and direction of activations to predict the movement of the convoy and to designate a target box and time of attack whose co-ordinates were transmitted to available strike aircraft.  James Gibson emphasized that for those calling in the attack the target appeared only as a trace on a screen; when ‘technowar’ reaches its apex, he argued, ‘it turns completely into representation.  Indeed, the very name for a target was a “target signature”’.  Twenty minutes or so later, when the loudspeakers reverberated with the noise of bombs exploding, the illuminated trace went out.  ‘The representation disappeared.’9Since the targets were linear, so was the bombing.  As the officer responsible for the system explained, ‘We are not bombing a precise point on the ground with a point target bomb – we can’t determine each truck’s location that accurately with ground sensors, which are listening – not viewing – devices.  Since we never actually “see” the trucks as point targets, we use area-type ordnance to cover the zone we know the trucks to be in.’10 As so often happens in air war, the killing fields were reduced to geometries: lines on screens and boxes on maps.  As one FAC put it, ‘the ground never did look exactly like the map…’11

Back to the future 

These three basic elements – remotely piloted aircraft, real-time visual surveillance and a networked sensor-shooter system – provide the technical infrastructure for today’s drone wars.  Each of them has been transformed and brought together in a unified system.  At the time, these were already seen as heralding what Westmoreland called ‘the battlefield of the future’, where combat areas would be brought under persistent surveillance and the US could ‘destroy anything we locate through instant communication and the almost instantaneous application of highly lethal firepower.’12 This wasn’t the only ‘American way of bombing’ then, and it isn’t the only way now.  In 1965 Westmoreland had the giant B-52 bombers of Strategic Air Command start ‘pattern bombing’ in South Vietnam, in which strings of high explosive bombs – one of the hideously iconic images of the war – pulverized wide areas, which included ‘target boxes’ in designated ‘free bomb zones’ where precise coordinates and detailed intelligence were dispensed with altogether. In 2001 an equally devastating high-altitude bombing campaign conducted by conventional aircraft spearheaded the US invasion of Afghanistan.  Who can forget Rumsfeld’s callous jibe, just two days after the first attacks: ‘We’re not running out of targets, Afghanistan is’?  The bombing did not slacken, however, and the air war has since been ratcheted up by the Obama administration.  But Obama has also shown a marked predisposition towards a less visible, less public war in the shadows, and there has been a dramatic increase in the use of Predators and Reapers: so much so that last year another contributor to Harper’s was left thinking that ‘we are watching the future of warfare unfold in the skies over the Afghanistan-Pakistan border area.’  13 

If this is a dismal case of ‘back to the future’, we could do worse than attend to the voices from the past. Critics were concerned at the expansion of the physical space of war and the contraction of the moral space of war.  Military violence would know no global limits and the distinctions between combatants and civilians would be dissolved.  In the case of the electronic battlefield, there was a fear that abstraction would reach a terrifying climax through automation: ‘Ultimately we can have the machines fighting the “target signatures” with no human beings involved on either side.’14 One appalled Senator complained that US ground troops were being withdrawn only to leave behind ‘an automated war’, and he quoted Noam Chomsky: ‘We intend to turn the land of Vietnam into an automated murder machine.’  Other commentators worried that the Pentagon planned to extend its ‘lethal pinball machine’ to the whole world, which, ‘if wired right, could become a great maze of circuitry and weaponry, a jungle from which those who walk off the straight line from home to office to store would be eliminated.’15

This is not a far cry from the claims repeatedly made by the Obama administration that its authority to use military force is not limited to ‘“hot” battlefields’ – that the battle space has become global – and that in consequence remotely piloted aircraft, with their extraordinary capacity to wage war at a distance, are the new weapon of choice: particularly if they can be fully automated.  The use of Predators and Reapers extends far beyond providing surveillance and close air support from a single platform; even beyond killing the ‘High Value Targets’ that the US military and the CIA have in their sights. Since 2008 the CIA has been authorized to use deadly force against un-named individuals on the basis of their suspicious ‘pattern of life’.  These people – those who ‘walk off the straight line’ – are known as ‘signature targets’, and in their anonymity and abstraction they are ghostly traces of the target signatures that once animated the electronic battlefield.16

Commentators have often drawn comparisons between the wars in Vietnam and in Afghanistan, but if Vietnam was a ‘quagmire’ then in these deadly extensions the air wars over Afghanistan-Pakistan – and now elsewhere; soon everywhere? – threaten to create a terrifying new vortex. 



Daniel Swift, the author of a haunting study of bombing during the Second World War, once claimed that ‘We live today in a world made by bombing; Britain and America still fight wars under the impression that they may be won from the skies, and today’s Predator drones in Afghanistan and Pakistan are the direct descendants of the Heinkels and Lancaster bombers of the Second World War.’   I’m not sure that it’s quite so direct.  There were several experiments with drone technologies during the Second World War, and General ‘Hap’ Arnold called for research into remote controlled, television-assisted aircraft that could ‘fly over enemy territory and look through the leaves of trees and see whether they’re moving their equipment.’  On VJ Day he predicted that ‘the next war may be fought by airplanes with no men in them at all.’  But a focus on Indochina shows how those thought-experiments assumed (different) material forms and also how the lines of descent were racialized.  I’m not suggesting that nothing has changed since Vietnam, of course, and it’s extremely important to scrutinise the transformations in the political technologies of military vision and violence under the new regime of distant war – something I’ll do in detail at the “Shock and Awe” conference. In those earlier wars we were bombing cities, forests and target boxes: now the US Air Force talks of putting 'warheads on foreheads'. But if we don’t situate these within the longer history of bombing, and of war more generally, then critics of drones – just like their proponents – run the risk of fetishizing the technology and ignoring the changing political, social and ethical matrices in which they are embedded. So the back-story is important, not least because it’s not just a back-story: as Santayana reminds us, those who forget the past are condemned to repeat it.


This essay is part of Derek Gregory's current research on ‘Killing space: cultural and political histories of bombing’. Next week: Look out for his detailed account of the path that led us from bombing cities, forests and target boxes to  putting 'warheads on foreheads' in Pakistan and Afghanistan, 'Lines of Descent'.

1 ‘The American way of bombing’, Harper’s Magazine, June 1972, pp. 55-8; Raphael Littaeur and Norman Uphoff (eds) The air war in Indochina (Boston: Beacon Press, 1972; revised edition) pp. 159, 163.

2 Robert Pape, Bombing to win: air power and coercion in war (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1996) p. 174.  The ‘sticks’ were sticks of bombs; the ‘carrots’ a series of bombing pauses.  Johnson put it differently: he compared the slow escalation of the air war in the North to ‘seduction not rape…’: James William Gibson, The Perfect war: Technowar in Vietnam (New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 2000) p. 329.  The vocabulary of sexualized brutality saturates this war, like so many others: see Jennifer Milliken and David Sylvan, ‘Soft bodies, hard targets and chic theories: US bombing policy in Indochina’, Millennium: Journal of International Studies 25 (1996) 321-59:  335-6.

3 Thomas Ehrhard, Air Force UAVs: the secret history (Arlington VA: Mitchell Institute for Airpower Studies, 2010) pp. 23-29; Ronald Frankum, Like Rolling Thunder: the air war in Vietnam 1964-1975 (Lanham MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2005) pp. 96-7; Robert Barkan, ‘The robot airforce is about to take off’, New scientist, 10 August 1972.

4 John Schlight, The war in South Vietnam: the years of the offensive, 1965-1968 [The United States Air Force in Southeast Asia] (Honolulu HI: University Press of the Pacific, 2002; original 1998) pp. 47, 74.

5 Jonathan Schell, The real war (New York: Da Capo Press, 2000) p. 279 [Schell’s reports were originally published in the New Yorker in 1968]; Marshall Harrison, A lonely kind of war: forward air controller, Vietnam (Xlibris Corporation, 2011; original 1997) p. 152.  The colonial-frontier figuration of that last sentence is by no means unusual: President Johnson urged US troops to ‘bring the coonskin home’ from Vietnam and ‘nail it to the barn’.  For a discussion of the role of frontier imagery in the Vietnam war, see Richard Slotkin, Gunfighter nation: the myth of the frontier in twentieth-century America (New York: Atheneum, 1992) Part V.

6 John Flanagan, Vietnam above the treetops: a Forward Air Controller reports (New York: Praeger, 1992) p. 24; for a discussion of the ways in which the field of view provided by todays remotely piloted aircraft is culturally divided (and compromised), see Derek Gregory, ‘From a view to a kill: drones and late modern war’, Theory, culture and society, 28 (6) (2011) in press. 

7 Seymour Deitchman, ‘The “Electronic Battlefield” in the Vietnam War’, Journal of military history 72 (2008) 869-887; Eduard Mark, Aerial Interdiction: air power and the land battle in three American wars (Washington DC: Center for Air Force History, 1994) pp. 327-363.

8 George Weiss, ‘The Air Force’s secret electronic war’, Indochina Chronicle, 15 October 1971; Weiss, ‘Battle for control of the Ho Chi Minh Trail’, Armed Forces Journal, 15 February 1972, 19-22.

9 James William Gibson, The Perfect war: Technowar in Vietnam (New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 2000) pp. 396-7. 

10 Paul Dickinson, Electronic battlefield (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1976) p. 86; William Rosenau, Special Operations Forces and elusive enemy ground targets (Santa Monica CA: RAND, 2001) p. 13.

11 Ken Bell, 100 Missions North: a fighter pilot’s story of the Vietnam War (Washington DC: Potomac Books, 1993) p. 177.

12 Westmoreland was addressing the US Army Association in Washington DC on 14 October 1969; see Dickson, Electronic battlefield, pp. 220-1.

13 Scott Horton, ‘The trouble with drones’, Harper’s Magazine, May 2010.

14 Littauer and Uphoff, Air war, p. 160.

15 Paul Dickson and John Rothchild, ‘The electronic battlefield: wiring down the war’, Washington Monthly, May 1971.

16 Greg Miller, ‘Increased US drone strikes in Pakistan killing few high-value militants’, Washington Post, 21 February 2011; Adam Entous and Siobhan Gorman, ‘CIA strikes strain relations with Pakistan further’, Wall Street Journal, 29 August 2011.

About the author

Derek Gregory is the Peter Wall Distinguished Professor, University of British Columbia in Vancouver. Publications include The Colonial Present: Afghanistan, Iraq and Palestine(2004) and the forthcoming The Everywhere War.

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