Paul Theroux and the Hanoi Christmas bombings.

In 1973, Paul Theroux chronicled his journey round Asia in The Great Railway Bazaar. In 2006, he retraced much of his route for a sequel, Ghost Train to the Eastern Star.

paul theroux ghost train to the eastern star

Changing political conditions had closed off certain routes that were formerly open – he was obliged to skip Iran and Afghanistan this time – and opened others once closed – he could now travel to Cambodia and what had been North Vietnam.

Theroux’s first visit to Vietnam closely followed the withdrawal of the last American troops in 1973. The armies of the South and North, and the North’s guerrilla proxies in the Viet Cong, pretended to observe the terms of the Paris Peace Accords, but the ceasefire was “a painful euphemism”. Theroux was able to travel as far north as Hué, where he gazed across the river at VC territory, its “scalped hills” defoliated by US chemicals. A month after his visit, the euphemistic ceasefire was abandoned and war officially resumed. Without American support, South Vietnam crumbled in April 1975.

Thirty-three years pass. Now Theroux is able to take the train all the way to Hanoi. He is surprised by the capital’s beauty:

But how was I to know? The noble city had always been represented to Americans as the enemy capital, a rat’s nest of villains, and belittled by our propaganda, better off bombed or wiped off the map.

(Did anyone really advocate “wiping it off the map”? True, the most hawkish of the hawks, General Curtis LeMay, famously said of the Communists, “they’ve got to draw in their horns and stop their aggression, or we’re going to bomb them back into the Stone Age” – but that quote appears to have been invented by his ghostwriter.)

A couple pages later, recounting the 1972 Christmas bombing of Hanoi, an “unambiguously genocidal act of pure wickedness”, Theroux reports that,

“Military targets” was the justification we were given at the time by Nixon and Kissinger [1], but this lie was transparent propaganda. In one instance, in an old neighborhood of Hanoi, every house on Kham Thien Street was destroyed, with a great loss of civilian life – nearly all women and children, because their husbands and fathers were away fighting.

(But…if the US government’s declared position was that Hanoi should be “wiped off the map”, why did its propagandists bother to pretend it had been targeting military installations?)

Many websites, including those maintained by the government of Vietnam, back up Theroux’s claim that Kham Thien Street and other civilian targets were targeted out of wickedness. Other sources more sympathetic to the US assert that the intended target was Hanoi’s main rail yard, about half a kilometre away, and that the bomber dropped its payload after being hit by enemy surface-to-air missiles.

But if it’s true that, as Theroux not-quite-accurately asserts (quoting J.M. Roberts), “a heavier tonnage of bombs had been dropped on North Vietnam than fell on Germany and Japan together in the entire Second World War”, mightn’t there be some truth to what one distinguished observer reported after visiting Hanoi in January 1973?

Telford Taylor, for one, refused to concede that bombing for the sake of terrorizing civilians was permissible but nonetheless concluded that the United States could have destroyed Hanoi in two or three nights if it had so desired. He also noted the proximity of the air base to the hospital at Bach Mai [also destroyed in the bombings] and observed that the damage to civilian areas within the city had obviously been an unintentional byproduct of attacks on legitimate military products.

[Quoted in William M. Hammond’s Public Affairs: The Military and the Media, 1968-1973.]

There’s some reason to think Telford Taylor was right. Pace J.M. Roberts, during the war the largest number of US bombs fell not on North Vietnam but on Viet Cong positions in the South. Take a look at these stats, from James P. Harrison’s essay “History’s Heaviest Bombing”, in The Vietnam War: Vietnamese and American Perspectives. The “tons” are tons of explosives dropped:

South Vietnam 4 million tons
Laos 1.5 million tons
North Vietnam 1 million tons
Cambodia .5 million tons
All targets of Allied bombing, WWII 2.7 million tons

Harrison goes on to explain that despite the exponentially greater explosiveness of the Vietnam air campaigns, they killed relatively fewer people than WWII:

An example of the greater accuracy and attempts to avoid civilian casualties, however, might be shown by the contrast between the estimated … 593,000 Germans killed by 1.25 million tons of Allied bombs, and the 330,000 Japanese killed by some 147,000 tons of US bombs; with the perhaps 52,000 people killed by the 643,000 tons dropped by Rolling Thunder [1965-68] on North Vietnam.

To put it more clearly:

Japan WWII 2.2 deaths per ton
Germany WWII 0.47 deaths per ton
N. Vietnam 1965-68 0.08 deaths per ton [2]

Harrison supplies a figure of 20,000 tons for the 1972 Christmas Bombings of Hanoi. If 1,600 people were killed, as Theroux claims (based on Vietnamese statistics), the ratio is consistent with Rolling Thunder – 0.08 civilian deaths per ton.

How do modern air campaigns stack up? According to USA Today, a mere 18,858 tons were dropped on Iraq between 2003 and 2009. But the death ratio has gotten worse. This study in the journal PLOS Medicine compiles all civilian deaths from 2003-08 and categorizes them by cause of death. [3] I’ve combined the totals from the categories “air attacks without ground fire” and “air attacks with ground fire” for a total of 2,636 civilian deaths by air strike. [4] That gives us a very low-end ratio of 0.14 deaths per ton, which suggests US aerial bombing has become nearly 100% more lethal to bystanders than it was in the 1970s.

I don’t think anyone outside of the Chomskyan far left has accused the US and its allies of deliberately targeting civilians in their Iraqi air campaigns. Yet, somehow, in its “unambiguously genocidal act of pure wickedness” the Satanic team of Nixon and Kissinger failed to equal the lethality rate that our modern armed forces achieve through mere carelessness.

Or maybe they really were aiming for military targets.


That’s not to say the Christmas Bombings were okay, or the war was okay, only that it was more complicated than Theroux seems willing to admit. Which is funny, because his 33-years-younger-yet-oddly-wiser self offered a more balanced take (I quoted it in an earlier post):

Some [soldiers] watched the train, with their rifles at their shoulders, in those oversize uniforms – a metaphor of mismatching that never failed to remind me that these men – these boys – had been dressed and armed by much larger Americans. With the Americans gone, the war looked too big, an uncalled-for size, really, like those shirts whose cuffs reached to the soldiers’ knuckles and the helmets that fell over their eyes.

[T]he Vietnamese had been damaged and then abandoned, almost as if, dressed in our clothes, they had been mistaken for us and shot at; as if, just when they had come to believe that we were identified with them, we had bolted. It was not that simple, but it was nearer to describing that sad history than the urgent opinions of anguished Americans who, stropping Occam’s Razor, classified the war as a string of atrocities, a series of purely political errors, or a piece of interrupted heroism.

But Theroux seems to have come around to the opinion that the war was, after all, just “a string of atrocities” perpetrated by American villains. As cynical as he rightly is about 33-year-old American propaganda, he displays a perfect credulity in retailing the still-current propaganda of the Vietnamese regime. This would be fine, or at least consistent, if Theroux were in any way a credulous tourist. But he’s not. A couple chapters earlier, he dinged the Cambodian government for peddling its Killing Fields ruins as attractions for western tourists:

Even though I knew that this torture prison had been turned into a museum by a sanctimonious government that itself violated human rights (corruption, embezzlement, torture in police custody, land seizure, and extrajudicial killings) …

All fair. But for perspective, that year Human Rights Watch’s World Report had this to say about Cambodia:

Cambodia’s veneer of political pluralism wore even thinner in 2006.

Meanwhile Vietnam had no veneer of pluralism to wear away:

Despite having one of Asia’s highest growth rates, Vietnam’s respect for fundamental human rights continues to lag behind many other countries, and the one-party state remains intolerant of criticism.

But when Theroux meets a Vietnamese who spent time in a work camp after the fall of Saigon, who “allude[s], with exaggerated facial expressions, to the sinister ways of the current Vietnamese government”, he is treated as a mildly ridiculous character.

I don’t want to step on any American’s sense of guilt over Vietnam. It was of course a stupid, futile, insanely deathful war, and the US officials who ordered the napalming and Agent Orangeing of large swathes of the country (the cities got off pretty easy) deserve much of the blame. But it was also a civil war among native-born zealots who massacred and terrorized each other over ideology and religion. Even if the vast majority of Vietnamese were ultimately sympathetic to the Communists, Washington was understandably loth to abandon its allies in the South to execution, enslavement, and crackpot sociological experimentation. Theroux knows this, but Occam’s razor flies readily to his hand:

It was an astonishing paradox that, after we had failed to destroy their dream of a socialist paradise, divide their loyalties, and visit ruin upon them for our own profit, they had risen – in spite of all our efforts to demolish them – and become businessmen and entrepreneurs. Saigon was one big bazaar of ruthless capitalism, of frenzied moneymaking, of beating us at our own game.

But the paradox isn’t that Saigon rose up and “beat us at our own game” – how is rejoining the global economy beating us? Does Theroux think the 1972 Joint Chiefs of Staff were bombing the hell out of the Vietnamese to prevent their offspring from someday sewing our blue jeans? In 1972, Saigon was already well on its way to becoming a big bazaar. That’s what America was there to preserve.

The paradox is that Vietnam had to detour through another decade of war and a quarter century of economic backwardness to arrive, under its own steam, at the destination Saigon had already reached in the 1960s: political repression and economic liberty.

So much stupid, stupid waste.


Apart from all that, Ghost Train to the Eastern Star is really good.


1. Nixon in a press conference, June 29, 1972: “I do not intend to allow any orders to go out which would involve civilian casualties if they can be avoided. Military targets only will be allowed.” July 27, 1972: “When, as a result of what will often happen, a bomb is dropped, if it is an area of injury to civilians, it is not by intent, and there is a very great difference.”

2. Wikipedia provides different figures . It claims 864,000 tons of bombs were dropped during Rolling Thunder, resulting in 72,000 civilian casualties. The ratio would then be…0.08 deaths per ton.

3. The PLOS Medicine study is based on data from the website Iraq Body Count – which almost certainly undercounts deaths, since IBC relies on media reports to build its database.

4. I’m aware the date ranges for tonnage dropped in Iraq (2003-09) and casualties by airstrike (2003-08) don’t match up, but according to that USA Today article there were hardly any airstrikes in 2009 anyway, so it shouldn’t skew the results much.

Update, July 27, 2020: Added cover image and linked to Bibliography page.

3 Responses to “Paul Theroux and the Hanoi Christmas bombings.”

  1. 1 Roger Warner September 22, 2012 at 7:38 pm

    Interesting observations, Michael.

  2. 2 Howard September 23, 2012 at 4:06 am

    There was no group called Viet Cong it was the NLF in Western abbreviation for a rather long description thatn meant the Liberation Front.

  3. 3 Richard W. Magner December 18, 2016 at 10:31 am

    I believe it would have been the NVA that was bombed in the DMZ, not the VC(NLF).

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Michael A. Charles is a writer, animator, and musician currently living in the Vancouver area. He used to be the singer and guitarist for the band known as Sea Water Bliss.

You can find a selection of his cartoons, music videos, and ads on the Gallery page.

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