Between December 18 and 29, 1972, the US carried out an intense bombing campaign over North Vietnam (it would later become known as the ‘Christmas Bombings’). At least 20,000 tonnes of explosives were dropped, mostly on the city of Hanoi.
While bombing was halted on Christmas Day, on the days both before and after the celebration, the US Air Force (USAF) saw fit to fly 729 night-time sorties, bringing death and terror (just as designed) to the civilian population of North Vietnam. Communist officials at the time said the dead numbered about 1,600, but many believe the actual death toll was much higher.
On the day after Christmas, December 26, 1972, Captain Michael Heck, airborne commander for a group of three B-52s, was informed that bombing raids over North Vietnam were to recommence. It was at this time that he notified his commander that he would be refusing to take part in the bombing of North Vietnam.
On 175 previous occasions, Capt Heck had flown his missions without question or incident. But this day would be different. Capt Heck told his superior officers that he would not be taking part in any more bombing missions and that this refusal was based on “moral considerations and matters of conscience.” When asked by his commander if he was a conscientious objector he confirmed that he was. For his actions Capt Heck would be charged with ‘refusing to obey a lawful order’. He was eventually discharged from the USAF under less than honourable terms.
Captain Heck was believed to have been the first USAF pilot to refuse to take part in a bombing mission in America’s war in South East Asia. He said, “I came to the decision that any war creates an evil far greater than anything it is trying to prevent” and that “the goals do not justify the mass destruction and killing.” “I’m just a tiny cog in a big wheel. I have no illusions that what I’m doing will shorten the war, but a man has to answer to himself first.”
Since America was attacked on September 11, 2001, it has been engaged in a global war on terror (GWOT), a war that is, conveniently, undeclared and has no end date. A major component in this ‘war’ is the use of attack drones. And while President Obama assures us that drones are not being used “willy nilly,” facts on the ground might lead one to another conclusion.
On December 12, 2013, it was reported that 15 people were mistakenly killed in a drone attack in Yemen. The victims were on their way to a wedding. This is not the first mistake, nor the most serious. Back on October 30, 2006, at least 82 people were killed, many of them young children, when a madressah (i.e. school) was attacked by a drone on the border region between Pakistan and Afghanistan.
In March of 2011, a series of attacks were carried out that killed between 26 and 42 people in the North Waziristan region of Pakistan, during a jirga (tribal council). Even more disturbing are reports that first responders and rescuers have themselves been targeted in immediate follow up attacks on the same location (a practice known as a ‘double tap’).
Th Bureau of Investigative Journalism has estimated that up to 951 civilians (including up to 200 children) have been killed in Pakistan by CIA drone attacks alone between 2004 and 2013.
Human Rights Watch has said that the US killing of civilians with drones is a violation of international law. Of this there can be no doubt. One only has to ask, ‘What would we say if China, Russia or Iran were engaging in the exact same behaviour, but closer to American shores – say in the jungles of Central or South America?’
One can only hope that the day will come when the US servicemen and women who are taking part in these actions will realise this for themselves, and refuse to take part in these crimes. Just as one man courageously did 41 years ago this week.
Excerpted from: ‘Saying no to war crimes’.
By: Tom Macnamara