Sitting in air-conditioned comfort, cans of Coke and 7-Up within reach as they watched their screens, the ground controllers gave the order to strike under the cover of darkness. There had been no declaration of war. No advance warning, nothing, in fact, that would have alerted the "enemy" to the sudden, unprecedented bombing raids. The secret computer-guided strikes were authorized by the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, just weeks after a new American president entered the Oval Office. They represented an effort to wipe out the enemy's central headquarters whose location intelligence experts claimed to have pinpointed just across the border from the war-torn land where tens of thousands of American troops were fighting daily.
In remote villages where no reporters dared to go, far from the battlefields where Americans were dying, who knew whether the bombs that rained from the night sky had killed high-level insurgents or innocent civilians? For 14 months the raids continued and, after each one was completed, the commander of the bombing crews was instructed to relay a one-sentence message: "The ball game is over."
The campaign was called "Operation Breakfast," and, while it may sound like the CIA's present air campaign over Pakistan, it wasn't. You need to turn the clock back to another American war, four decades earlier, to March 18, 1969, to be exact. The target was an area of Cambodia known as the Fish Hook that jutted into South Vietnam, and Operation Breakfast would be but the first of dozens of top secret bombing raids. Later ones were named "Lunch," "Snack," and "Supper," and they went under the collective label "Menu." They were authorized by President Richard Nixon and were meant to destroy a (non-existent) "Bamboo Pentagon," a central headquarters in the Cambodian borderlands where North Vietnamese communists were supposedly orchestrating raids deep into South Vietnam.
Like President Obama today, Nixon had come to power promising stability in an age of unrest and with a vague plan to bringing peace to a nation at war. On the day he was sworn in, he read from the Biblical book of Isaiah: "They shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks." He also spoke of transforming Washington's bitter partisan politics into a new age of unity: "We cannot learn from one another until we stop shouting at one another, until we speak quietly enough so that our words can be heard as well as our voices."
Return to the Killing Fields
In recent years, many commentators and pundits have resorted to "the Vietnam analogy," comparing first the American war in Iraq and now in Afghanistan to the Vietnam War. Despite a number of similarities, the analogy disintegrates quickly enough if you consider that U.S. military campaigns in post-invasion Afghanistan and Iraq against small forces of lightly-armed insurgents bear little resemblance to the large-scale war that Presidents Lyndon B. Johnson and Richard Nixon waged against both southern revolutionary guerrillas and the military of North Vietnamese leader Ho Chi Minh, who commanded a real army, with the backing of, and supplies from, the Soviet Union and China.
A more provocative -- and perhaps more ominous -- analogy today might be between the CIA's escalating drone war in the contemporary Pakistani tribal borderlands and Richard Nixon's secret bombing campaign against the Cambodian equivalent. To briefly recapitulate that ancient history: In the late 1960s, Cambodia was ruled by a "neutralist" king, Norodom Sihanouk, leading a weak government that had little relevance to its poor and barely educated citizens. In its borderlands, largely beyond its control, the North Vietnamese and Vietcong found "sanctuaries."
Sihanouk, helpless to do anything, looked the other way. In the meantime, sheltered by local villagers in distant areas of rural Cambodia was a small insurgent group, little-known communist fundamentalists who called themselves the Khmer Rouge. (Think of them as the 1970s equivalent of the Pakistani Taliban who have settled into the wild borderlands of that country largely beyond the control of the Pakistani government.) They were then weak and incapable of challenging Sihanouk -- until, that is, those secret bombing raids by American B-52s began. As these intensified in the summer of 1969, areas of the country began to destabilize (helped on in 1970 by a U.S.-encouraged military coup in the capital Phnom Penh), and the Khmer Rouge began to gain strength.
You know the grim end of that old story.
Forty years, almost to the day, after Operation Breakfast began, I traveled to the town of Snuol, close to where the American bombs once fell. It is a quiet town, no longer remote, as modern roads and Chinese-led timber companies have systematically cut down the jungle that once sheltered anti-government rebels. I went in search of anyone who remembered the bombing raids, only to discover that few there were old enough to have been alive at the time, largely because the Khmer Rouge executed as much as a quarter of the total Cambodian population after they took power in 1975.
Eventually, a 15-minute ride out of town, I found an old soldier living by himself in a simple one-room house adorned with pictures of the old king, Sihanouk. His name was Kong Kan and he had first moved to the nearby town of Memot in 1960. A little further away, I ran into three more old men, Choenung Klou, Keo Long, and Hoe Huy, who had gathered at a newly built temple to chat.
All of them remembered the massive 1969 B-52 raids vividly and the arrival of U.S. troops the following year. "We thought the Americans had come to help us," said Choenung Klou. "But then they left and the [South] Vietnamese soldiers who came with them destroyed the villages and raped the women."
He had no love for the North Vietnamese communists either. "They would stay at people's houses, take our hammocks and food. We didn't like them and we were afraid of them."
Caught between two Vietnamese armies and with American planes carpet-bombing the countryside, increasing numbers of Cambodians soon came to believe that the Khmer Rouge, who were their countrymen, might help them. Like the Taliban of today, many of the Khmer Rouge were, in fact, teenaged villagers who had responded, under the pressure of war and disruption, to the distant call of an inspirational ideology and joined the resistance in the jungles.
"If you ask me why I joined the Khmer Rouge, the main reason is because of the American invasion," Hun Sen, the current prime minister of Cambodia, has said. "If there was no invasion, by now, I would be a pilot or a professor."
Six years after the bombings of Cambodia began, shortly after the last helicopter lifted off the U.S. embassy in Saigon and the flow of military aid to the crumbling government of Cambodia stopped, a reign of terror took hold in the capital, Phnom Penh.
The Khmer Rouge left the jungles and entered the capital where they began a systemic genocide against city dwellers and anyone who was educated. They vowed to restart history at Year Zero, a new era in which much of the past became irrelevant. Some two million people are believed to have died from executions, starvation, and forced labor in the camps established by the Angkar leadership of the Khmer Rouge commanded by Pol Pot.