Blogger’s Preface: It occurred to me that, in terms of the potential for self-defeating collateral damage, Predator drones probably come in second to another weapons system we’re employing in Afghanistan. I wrote this commentary about a year ago, but I think it’s still relevant. The photo is of a Vietnamese Popular Force Soldier. I took it in 1967. --EFP
“A dragon lives forever, but not so little boys.”
That line resonates with me as a
veteran. It comes from “Puff the Magic Dragon,” the sixties hit by Peter, Paul and Mary. I couldn’t help but think of that song and that line [last year] when I read that Afghan President Hamid Karzai was complaining that the indiscriminate use of our firepower in his country is killing more civilians than the Taliban. As it turns out, I know something about how airpower in particular can prove to be not only immoral but also self-defeating in an insurgency. Vietnam
I was especially concerned to learn that one of the weapons we’re falling back on in Afghanistan is the AC-130 Specter gunship. The Specter is essentially a new and improved version of a weapon I knew as “Puff the Magic Dragon.” The “Puff” of my day was an updated version of the venerable old C-47 transport plane. Puff sported the latest in electrically driven 7.62 mm Gatling guns capable of firing 6,000 rounds per minute. Puff also carried a seemingly inexhaustible supply of parachute flares and, in our area at least, was employed primarily at night in hopes of catching concentrations of North Vietnamese Army troops out in the open.
Watching Puff in action could be an amazing spectacle, an awesome sound and light show. The extremely rapid rate of fire made the tracers blend into an unbroken stream of fire stretching between the plane and the ground, and the overlapping reports of the guns would meld into an eerily familiar sound—sort of like the loudest and longest fart you’ve ever heard. Rumor had it Puff could put one round in every square yard of a football field with just one pass. We believed that. As it turned out, we had good cause to believe it.
“We,” in this case, were the members of a Combined Action Platoon. We were 12 enlisted Marines and one Navy corpsman sent out to live and work in a Vietnamese village alongside the village’s self-defense force—Popular Forces, or “PFs,” for short. While we were supposed to train and inspire the PFs to root out the VC infrastructure and to keep the VC out of their village, in the main, ours was not to search and destroy. Ours was to win hearts and minds.
Our platoon, “Papa Three, was trying to win those elusive hearts and minds in a village called Cam Hieu. We had established a permanent compound (complete with wire, sandbag bunkers, and a tin-roofed wooden building or “hooch.”) on a hill alongside South Vietnam’s northernmost East-West route, Highway 9. We were not out in the jungle. We were just seven kilometers west of Dong Ha in Quang Tri province.
On clear nights, from up on our hill, we had a ringside seat to the war. We could see B-52 strikes up on the DMZ—and we used to watch “Puff the Magic Dragon” work out on the hills to the south and west of our position.
But one night in early November of 1967 was different. Always, before, Puff used to stay two or three miles away from our compound. On this night, however, he first appeared only about a mile to our west, and he seemed to be working toward us.
"Do you suppose he knows we're here?" one Marine asked.
"Of course he knows we’re here," Doc,” our corpsman answered. "He has the location of all friendly units plotted."
The next thing we knew, one of Puff’s flares blazed forth almost directly over our compound, bathing us all in an eerie yellow light.
We heard the buzz and cracking of bullets before we heard Puff's distinctive report. Most of us instinctively dove into a long trench the Seabees had dug when they first built our compound. Fortunately, for most of us, the ditch was deep enough and the angle of fire was steep enough that the bullets hit over our heads. I was stung by some rock fragments and dirt kicked up by bullets that must have hit within inches of my head. But I wasn’t hurt. Others were not so lucky.
One Marine, who had been asleep in our “hooch,” took a round through the thigh. Another Marine, who had frozen out in the open instead of jumping into the trench, was hit at the top of one buttock. The round came out at the bottom.
(I still remember that Marine. Every unit has one. He was the guy who never got the word, who never quite got with the program. Even after he got hit, he didn’t take cover. He kept hopping up and down at the edge of the trench, pitifully holding his rear and hollering, “I’m hit! I’m hit!”
When he hopped within arm’s reach, another Marine and I reached up and grabbed his pants’ legs and pulled him into the trench. He landed right on his wounded buttock—resulting in an even louder and somewhat bitter complaint, but at least he was then as safe as the rest of us.)
Unfortunately, the fire must have come down at a steeper angle on the eastern half of our compound, where our PFs used to segregate themselves. One was hit squarely on the top of his head. The bullet came out just beneath his nose. Two others had been hit, one in the forearm and the other in the abdomen. That PF, too, died.
Fortunately, our radio operator had gotten though to our headquarters in time. If Puff had made a second pass, all of us would have been killed.
The next day, a delegation of PFs accused us of deliberately calling in Puff to get even with them. They had long been refusing to patrol with us. So much for “Combined Action.”
The two wounded Marines came back in a couple of weeks. They said they received Purple Hearts and that their wounds were listed as due to “enemy artillery.” They also said the pilots visited them in the hospital and apologized, explaining that it is difficult to know exactly where you are over
at night. Vietnam
To the best of my knowledge, no one came out to our village to apologize to the families of the PFs who had died or the one who was wounded.
“Collateral damage,” that’s what we called it in Vietnam when we injured or killed innocent civilians or allies, or when we destroyed a town like Ben Tre in order “to save” it. Now, forty years after Puff inflicted collateral damage on my unit in Vietnam, the Specter, also known as “the witch,” is working out over Afghanistan and Iraq. And whereas Puff fired only 7.62-mm copper-jacketed rounds, Son of Puff, the Specter, also fires 25-, 40-, and 105-mm explosive shells.
That’s a lot of potential for collateral damage. I just hope that the people now employing the Son of Puff remember that “a dragon lives forever, but not so little boys.”