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“I’m afraid that they will forget about the moral and
legal issues raised by this war”
-Captain Michael J. Heck, B-52 pilot, speaking in 1973 after being discharge from the US Air Force for refusing to bomb civilians in North Vietnam.
Between December 18 and 29, 1972, the United States carried out an intense bombing campaign over North Vietnam (it would later become known as the “Christmas Bombings”). Its aim was to destroy North Vietnam’s infrastructure and bring general terror to her civilian population. At least 20,000 tonnes of explosives were dropped, mostly on the city of Hanoi.
While bombing was halted on Christmas Day (Author’s Note: one could imagine for reasons of Christian charity), on the days both before and after the celebration of the birth of our Lord Jesus Christ, the US Air Force (USAF) saw fit to fly 729 night-time sorties, bringing death and terror (just as designed) to the civilian population of North Vietnam. Communist officials at the time said the dead numbered about 1,600, but many believe the actual death toll was much higher.
On the day after Christmas, December 26, 1972, Captain Michael Heck, airborne commander for a group of three B-52s, was informed that bombing raids over North Vietnam were to recommence. It was at this time that he notified his commander that he would be refusing to take part in the bombing of North Vietnam. On 175 previous occasions, Capt. Heck had flown his missions without question or incident. But this day would be different. Capt. Heck told his superior officers that he would not be taking part in any more bombing missions and that this refusal was based on “moral considerations and matters of conscience.” When asked by his commander if he was a conscientious objector he confirmed that he was. For his actions Capt. Heck would be charged with “refusing to obey a lawful order,” and it was recommended that he be court martialed. He was eventually discharged from the USAF under less than honourable terms.
Captain Heck was believed to have been the first USAF pilot to refuse to take part in a bombing mission in America’s war in South East Asia.
In the days immediately following his act of insubordination, Captain Heck said, “I came to the decision that any war creates an evil far greater than anything it is trying to prevent” and that “the goals do not justify the mass destruction and killing.” “I’m just a tiny cog in a big wheel. I have no illusions that what I’m doing will shorten the war, but a man has to answer to himself first.”
Since America was attacked on September 11, 2001, she has been engaged in a Global War on Terror (GWOT), a war that is, conveniently, undeclared and has no end date. A major component in this “war” is the use of attack drones. And while President Obama assures us that drones are not being used “willy nilly,” facts on the ground might lead one to another conclusion.
On December 12, 2013, it was reported that 15 people were mistakenly killed in a drone attack in Yemen. The victims were on their way to a wedding when their party was spotted and attacked in the belief that they were an al-Qaeda convoy. This is not the first mistake, nor the most serious. Back on October 30, 2006, at least 82 people were killed, many of them young children, when a madrassa (i.e. school) was attacked by a drone on the border region between Pakistan and Afghanistan. It is believed to be the single deadliest attack carried out by the US to date in Pakistan. In March of 2011, a series of attacks were carried out that killed between 26 and 42 people in the North Waziristan region of Pakistan, during a jirga (tribal council) that was arranged to help resolve a local mining dispute. Even more disturbing are reports that first responders and rescuers arriving to the scenes of drone strikes have themselves been targeted in immediate follow up attacks on the same location (a practice known as a “double tap”). There is even evidence that attacks have been carried out on mourners attending funerals. An estimated 18 to 45 civilians were killed in an attack on a funeral in 2009, again in North Waziristan.
For their part, the Bureau of Investigative Journalism has estimated that up to 951 civilians (including up to 200 children) have been killed in Pakistan by CIA drone attacks alone between 2004 and 2013 (Author’s Note: A good question to ask might be, “Why does the CIA have its own fleet of attack drones?).
Human Rights Watch has said that the US killing of civilians with drones is a violation of international law. Of this there can be no doubt. One only has to ask, “What would we say if China, Russia or Iran were engaging in the exact same behaviour, but closer to American shores – say in the jungles of Central or South America?”
It is clear that the US and her citizens would recognize these actions for what they really are. War crimes and terror of the highest order. One can only hope that the day will come when the US servicemen and women who are taking part in these actions will realize this for themselves, and refuse to take part in these crimes. Just as one man courageously did 41 years ago this week.
Tom McNamara is an Assistant Professor at the ESC Rennes School of Business, France, and a former Visiting Lecturer at the French National Military Academy at Saint-Cyr, Coëtquidan, France.
“AF Discharges Flyers Who Balked” Associated Press, through The News and Courier, February 10th, 1973. Accessed at:
“Air strike kills 15 civilians in Yemen by mistake: officials” by Mohammed Ghobari, editing by Sonya Hepinstall, Reuters, December 12th, 2013. Accessed at:
“B-52 Pilot Who Refused Mission Calls War Not Worth the Killing” By George Esper, The Associated Press, through The New York Times, January 12th, 1973
“Covert Drone War” by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism. Accessed at:
“Linebacker II” by Walter J. Boyne, November 1997, Air force Magazine. Accessed at:
“North Vietnam, 1972: The Christmas bombing of Hanoi” By Rebecca Kesby, BBC World Service, December 24th, 2012. Accessed at:
“Obama defends ‘judicious’ use of drone strikes during online Q&A” by Christi Parsons, The Los Anglese Times, January 30th, 2012. Accessed at:
“Operation Rolling Thunder: Strategic Implications of Airpower Doctrine” by John K. Ellsworth, Colonel, USAFR, April 7, 2003, U.S. Army War College. Accessed at:
“Pilot Who Balked Gets A Discharge” by Anthony Ripley, the New York Times, February 8th, 1973. Accessed at:
“The linebacker campaigns: An analysis” by Colonel Warren L. Harris, May 1987, Air War College. Accessed at:
“US: Reassess Targeted Killings in Yemen” Human Rights Watch, October 22nd, 2013. Accessed at:
“’WILL I BE NEXT?’ US DRONE STRIKES IN PAKISTAN” by Amnesty International, 2013. Accessed at: