Drone “Blowback”: The Cambodian Precendent

Henry Grabar, writing in the Atlantic, argues that the U.S.’ secretive and not-so-secretive bombing of Cambodia in the 1960s and 1970s provides a historical precedent for understanding the types of consequences that emerge from paramilitary bombing.

“Between 1965 and 1973, the U.S. dropped 2.7 million tons of explosives — more than the Allies dropped in the entirety of World War II — on Cambodia, whose population was then smaller than New York City’s. Estimates of the number of people killed begin in the low hundreds of thousands and range up from there, but the truth is that no one has any idea.”

Neutral Cambodia was involved in the “spillover” from the U.S. Indochina war – with North Vietnamese crossing into its porous borders. Like the drone strikes of today – in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia – the U.S. military conducted the first four years of bombing between 1965 and 1969 in total secrecy (1) (and this was not even made public until the Clinton administration’s 2000 reveal). The strikes also stood on shaky legal ground.

The revelation of its existence, beginning in 1969, was entangled with enough illegal activity in this country — wiretaps, perjury, falsification of records and a general determination to deceive — to throw significant doubt on its use as a precedent in court.

The most important historical parallel, for Grabar, is the strategic “blowback” that emerged: the bombing disrupted the food supply and radicalized the population.

The bombing had two primary effects on survivors. First, hundreds of thousands of villagers fled towards the safety of the capital Phnom Penh, de-stabilizing Cambodia’s urban-rural balance. By the end of the war, the country’s delicate food supply system was upended, and the capital was so overcrowded that residents were eating bark off of trees. Secondly, the attacks radicalized a population that had previously been neutral in the country’s politics. “I want everything that can fly to go in there and crack the hell out of them,” then-U.S. President Richard Nixon told National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger — fomented immense anger in the Cambodian countryside.

Despite this, the causal link between bombing and political upheavals within the country – including the meteoric rise of the Khmer Rouge – was denied in favor of the Cold War era “domino theory” paradigm. William Shawcross’ 1979’s Sideshow: Kissenger. Nixon and the Destruction of Cambodia , was the first to advance the theory that ascent rise of the Khmer Rouge was caused by the U.S. bombing.

In this respect, the DOJ could not have found a more fitting precedent than the carpet-bombing of Cambodia. The purpose of the sustained bombardment from 1972 to 1973 was to prevent the Khmer Rouge from consolidating power. The result was the opposite.

The thousands of people killed so far by drone strikes represent a fraction of the several hundred thousand who died beneath the B-52s between 1969 and 1975. But the level of fear and anger — and the opportunity for insurgent groups to harness those emotions — cannot be so easily calculated.

In the (bizzare, given his own history) words of retired General Stanley McChrystal: “The resentment created by American use of unmanned strikes…is much greater than the average American appreciates. They are hated on a visceral level, even by people who’ve never seen one or seen the effects of one.”


1. Operation Menu was the codename of a covert United States Strategic Air Command (SAC) bombing campaign conducted in eastern Cambodia and Laos from 18 March 1969 until 26 May 1970, during the Vietnam War. The targets of these attacks were sanctuaries and Base Areas of the People’s Army of Vietnam (PAVN) and forces of the Viet Cong, which utilized them for resupply, training, and resting between campaigns across the border in the Republic of Vietnam (South Vietnam). The effects of the bombing campaign are disputed by historians.
An official United States Air Force record of US bombing activity over Indochina from 1964 to 1973 was declassified by US president Bill Clinton in 2000. The report gives details of the extent of the bombing of Cambodia, as well as of Laos and Vietnam. According to the data, the Air Force began bombing the rural regions of Cambodia along its South Vietnam border in 1965 under the Johnson administration. This was four years earlier than previously believed. The Menu bombings were an escalation of these air attacks. Nixon authorized the use of long-range B-52 bombers to carpet bomb the region.
From Wiki entry here.
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