Edwin E. Moïse

Limited War

The Stereotypes

According to popular stereotype, fighting a limited war is a recipe for defeat. Among the most commonly heard generalizations about the Vietnam War is that it was a limited war--that the United States did not devote its full resources to the struggle, imposed very narrow restrictions on the use even of those resources that were made available, and was not trying to achieve a real victory.

Vietnam has been contrasted with the recent conflict in the Persian Gulf, in which US forces are believed not to have had to "fight with one hand tied behind their backs." The image of the Gulf War as an unlimited war showed most clearly in assertions that that US had dropped more tons of bombs on the Iraqis, in just a few weeks, than had been dropped in much longer air campaigns in past wars. The NBC evening news February 4, 1991, less than three weeks after the bombing began, stated that Iraq had already taken, through air attack, a worse pounding than was inflicted on Germany in the whole of World War II. The New York Times said that the tonnage of bombs that had been dropped on the Iraqis was "generally believed to be more than was used in all of World War II." (John Kifner, "From Bombs to Burgers, Supplies in Persian Gulf Dwarf Past Moves," The New York Times, February 4, 1991, p. 1.) Forbes published a photo of a B-52 with the caption "By mid-February more explosives dropped than in all of WWII." (Subrata N. Chakravarty, "Shell-shocked?", Forbes, February 18, 1991, p. 43.) An article in the Air Force Journal of Logistics later said that the US "expended more bombs in six weeks in the Persian Gulf War than during any single year in Vietnam." (William Head, "Air Power in the Persian Gulf: An Initial Search for the Right Lessons", Air Force Journal of Logistics, Winter 1992, p. 11.)

These statements should have been rejected as false. The US government did not release figures during the Gulf War for the tonnage of bombs being dropped, but it regularly released figures on sorties, and anyone who bothered to do the arithmetic would have concluded that the limited number of sorties being flown could not be dropping such huge tonnages of bombs. (This author did do the arithmetic, and spent a great deal of time writing, phoning, and FAXing to various news organizations, trying to communicate the results.) Hardly anyone, however, expressed any public doubts.

The skill and precision of American bombing clearly struck a chord in the American psyche. But the notion that Desert Storm was not just more skillful but on a larger scale than similar efforts in the past, smashing Saddam Hussein's forces by sending against them more combat sorties and dropping more tons of bombs than the US had used in previous wars, had also struck a very definite chord despite its absurdity.

After the war, the US government released figures showing how little had actually been droppedą--88,500 tons of aerial ordnance. (Press briefing by USAF Chief of Staff Gen. Merrill McPeak, March 15, 1991.) This made possible a comparison with the 1,613,000 tons of air munitions the US used in the European Theater of World War II, (Carl Berger, ed., The United States Air Force in Southeast Asia, 1961-1973, rev. ed. (Washington: Office of Air Force History, 1984), p. 368. Alternate figures using slightly different categories show the US having dropped 1,462,000 tons of bombs in the European Theater, of which slightly less than half--between 600,000 and 700,000 tons--fell on Germany itself. United States Strategic Bombing Survey, Overall Report (European War), September 30, 1945, pp. 2, 7.) and with the more than 6,715,000 tons the US used in Indochina. One does not have to look at a whole year of the US war in Vietnam to exceed the quantity of bombs used in the Persian Gulf War; in mid 1968 the US was using more tons of aerial munitions in Vietnam each month (and this is Vietnam only, not even counting US bombing of Laos) than were used in the six-week Persian Gulf War. (Statement of Information, Book XI, Bombing of Cambodia. (Washington: House Judiciary Committee & GPO, 1974), pp. 93-103. This publication contains the most complete and detailed figures for US bombing of all of Indochina, not just Cambodia, that this author has so far seen. Tonnages are for fighter-bombers plus B-52s; the figures do not include munitions expenditures of fixed-wing and helicopter gunships, etc. Missions in South Vietnam up to May 1964 are not counted.) Nobody was interested in making this comparison. The actual facts--that the US armed forces had become so skillful in the use of air power that they no longer needed to use large quantities of it, and that the tonnage of bombs dropped on the Iraqis had therefore been held to a small fraction of the tonnages used in past wars--these facts did not strike any chord in the American psyche, so they were not said loudly or often.

The smallness of the total bomb tonnage dropped in the Gulf War did not result only from the brevity of the war, either. The rate of bombing during Desert Storm was about two thousand tons per day. When the US had been seriously trying to do a lot of bombing during World War II and the Vietnam War, the US had maintained (over periods considerably longer than the duration of Desert Storm) bombing rates approaching four thousand tons per day.

Overall, the United States not only fought the Gulf War for limited goals--allowing Saddam Hussein to remain in power--but fought with limited means, in some important ways more narrowly limited than the means used in Vietnam. What happened in the early months of 1991 was that the United States waged a much more competent limited war than in Vietnam, against a weaker enemy than the Vietnamese, and attained victory.

Aside from providing a clue to the nature of the Gulf War, these figures also suggest that a common stereotype of the Vietnam War--the idea that Vietnam was, for the US, a narrowly limited war--may need some reevaluation.

Next section: Vietnam: Restrictions on Combat Activities

Copyright © 1998 Edwin E. Moïse. Revised November 22, 1998.