Blaine Harden has written an interesting dual biography in The Great Leader and the Fighter Pilot: The True Story of the Tyrant Who Created North Korea and the Young Lieutenant Who Stole His Way to Freedom. He juxtaposes the lives of Kim Il Sung, who led his country into what we call the Korean War, with that of pilot No Kim Suk who fought in that war but eventually fled to the Americans in a Russian jet. I read the book because I knew next to nothing of these stories, but I also discovered that I also knew next to nothing about the savagery of the American bombing during that time.
Harden reports that we “massively and continuously bombed North Korea for three years, turning nearly every city, town, and village in the Pennsylvania-sized country ” into a wasteland. A postwar Russian study concluded that “85 percent of all structures in the country were destroyed.” A precise death toll is not known, but good estimates range from 1.3 to 2 million. The Strangelovian General Curtis LeMay, head of the Strategic Air Command during this period, had urged massive bombing at the war’s beginning. He thought that by killing a large number of civilians quickly, we could force a quick surrender. American strategists found that proposal too horrible, but, according to Harden, we instead “used massive bombing to kill civilians slowly and in large numbers.”
The result of this carnage was not victory, but a stalemate, with Kim and his heirs still continuing to control North Korea.
This made me reflect on other episodes of American bombing. My images had been formed by World War II movies where American bomber crews took out Krupp factories or brave fighter pilots skillfully shot Zeros out of the sky to preserve aircraft carriers or to give cover to advancing marines on Pacific isles. But these were military targets. Of course, Hiroshima and Nagasaki were different, but somehow the use of the atomic bombs was justified to end the war and actually save lives. It was a notable exception to our conventional bombing. We fought clean.
The image became at least modified by reading Slaughterhouse-Five and Billy Pilgrim’s survival of the Dresden firebombing. Even tough we had intentionally destroyed this city before August 1945, but I still assumed that Dresden was still just another exception to our general practices. However, Tony, my knowledgeable ex-marine friend, told me we also firebombed Tokyo. A little research revealed that Operation Meetinghouse on March 9-10, 1945, was one of the most destructive bombing raids in history. Hundreds of B-29s dropped napalm and other incendiaries on a working-class area of Tokyo. The resulting firestorm destroyed fifteen square miles of the city causing an estimated 100,000 deaths in a matter of hours. I cannot truly imagine the horror.
How little I knew of our bombings, however, was most forcefully presented to me on a recent trip to Thailand, Laos, and Cambodia. After seeing endless displays of historic Buddhas in Thailand, we were on a boat on the Laotian portion of the Mekong seeking yet more religious images. Our guide was a thirty-five-year-old Laotian native. I asked him, “Don’t you hate Americans?” Silence for a beat. Silence for a few more beats, and then he said, “It depends on how old you are.” Without stating how his parents viewed Americans, he said that his mother and father had endured many years of U.S. bombing. A hole had been dug in the floor of their hut in which they huddled whenever they heard American planes. He, however, had been born after the bombing, and people of his age, he said somewhat noncommittally, did not always hold the same view of the Americans as an older generation did.
I remembered that during the Vietnam War, called the American War in Vietnam, we had bombed the Ho Chi Minh trail that wound through Laos and Cambodia to prevent supplies and men from reaching Vietnam. But, with a little more research, I began to learn how extensive that bombing was. America bombed Laos for a decade starting in 1964, and bomb it we did—over 680,000 missions. That averages one every eight minutes, 24 hours a day for nearly a decade. More ordinance may have been used on Laos than was used on Europe during World War II. Per capita, we made Laos probably the most bombed country on earth.
Many of the cluster bombs never exploded and still sit in the Laotian countryside. Thousands have been killed or wounded by the bombs since the American raids ended in 1973 with deaths continuing every year. Plowing a field can be an act of bravery or stupidity.
In 2016, President Obama visited Laos, and promised that for three years, the United States would give $30 million a year to find and dismantle unexploded bombs. One report states that the United States spent $13.4 million per day (in 2013 dollars) for nine years in bombing Laos.