Destroying the Town Does Not Save It

In an imaginary graduation speech to the U.S. Air Force Academy, graduate William J. Astore introduces cadets to the real history of U.S. air power. 

(Cherie Thurlby, DoD)

By William Astore

Twenty years ago, I left the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs for my next assignment. I haven’t been back since, but on June 3 I traveled there (if only in my imagination) to give my graduation address to the class of 2022. So, won’t you take a few minutes and join me, as well as the corps of cadets, in Falcon Stadium?

Congratulations to all you newly minted second lieutenants! As a former military professor who, for six years, taught cadets very much like you at the Academy, I salute you and your accomplishments.

You’ve weathered a demanding curriculum, far too many room and uniform inspections, parades, restrictions, and everything else associated with a military that thrives on busywork and enforced conformity.

You’ve emerged from all of that today as America’s newest officers, part of what recent commanders-in-chief like to call “the finest fighting force” in human history. Merely for the act of donning a uniform and taking the oath of office, many of your fellow Americans already think of you as heroes deserving of a hearty “thank you for your service” and unqualified expressions of “support.”

And I must say you do exude health, youth, and enthusiasm, as well as a feeling that you’re about to graduate to better things, like pilot training or intelligence school, among so many other Air Force specialties. Some of you will even join America’s newest service, the Space Force, which resonates with me, as my first assignment in 1985 was to Air Force Space Command.

In my initial three years in the service, I tested the computer software the Air Force used back then to keep track of all objects in earth orbit, an inglorious but necessary task.

I also worked on war games in Cheyenne Mountain, America’s ultimate command center for its nuclear defense. You could say I was paid to think about the unthinkable, the end of civilization as we know it due to nuclear Armageddon. That was near the tail end of the Cold War with the Soviet Union.

NORAD command post in Cheyenne Mountain, 1984. (U.S. National Archives)

So much has changed since I wore gold bars like you and yet, somehow, we find ourselves once again in another “cold war” with Russia, this time centered on an all-too-hot war in Ukraine, a former Soviet republic, instead of, as in 1962, a country in our immediate neighborhood, Cuba. Still, that distant conflict is only raising fresh fears of a nuclear nightmare that could well destroy us all.

What does this old light colonel, who’s been retired for almost as long as he wore the uniform, have to teach you cadets so many years later? What can I tell you that you haven’t heard before in all the classes you’ve attended and all the lectures you’ve endured?

How about this: You’ve been lied to big time while you’ve been here at the Academy.

Ah, I see I have your attention now. More than a few of you are smiling. I used to joke with cadets about how four years at a military school were designed to smother idealism and encourage cynicism, or so it sometimes seemed. Yes, our lead core value may still be “integrity first,” but the brass, the senior leadership, often convinces itself that what really comes first is the Air Force itself, an ideal of “service” that, I think you’ll agree, is far from selfless.

Since World War II

What do I mean when I say you’ve been lied to while being taught the glorious history of the U.S. Air Force? Since World War II began, the air forces of the United States have killed millions of people around the world. And yet here’s the strange thing: we can’t even say that we’ve clearly won a war since the “Greatest Generation” earned its wings in the 1930s and 1940s. In short, boasts to the contrary, airpower has proven to be neither cheap, surgical, nor decisive. You see what I mean about lies now, I hope.

I know, I know. You’re not supposed to think this way. You eat in Mitchell Hall, named after General Billy Mitchell, that airpower martyr who fought so hard after World War I for an independent air service. (His and our collective dream, long delayed, finally came to fruition in 1947.) You celebrate the Doolittle Raiders, those intrepid aviators who flew off an aircraft carrier in 1942, launching a daring and dangerous surprise attack on Tokyo, a raid that helped restore America’s sagging morale after Pearl Harbor. You mark the courage of the Tuskegee Airmen, those African American pilots who broke racial barriers, while proving their mettle in the skies over Nazi Germany. They are indeed worthy heroes to celebrate.

And yet shouldn’t we airmen also reflect on the bombing of Germany during World War II that killed roughly 600,000 civilians but didn’t prove crucial to the defeat of Adolf Hitler? (In fact, Soviet troops deserve the lion’s share of the credit there.) We should reflect on the firebombing of Tokyo that killed more than 100,000 people, among 60 other sites firebombed, and the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki that, both instantly and over time, killed an estimated 220,000 Japanese. During the Korean War, our air forces leveled North Korea and yet that war ended in a stalemate that persists to this day.

Four-ship defoliation spray run during the Vietnam War. (U.S. Air Force, Wikimedia Commons)

During Vietnam, our air power pummeled Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia, unleashing high explosives, napalm, and poisons like Agent Orange against so many innocent people caught up in American rhetoric that the only good Communist was a dead one. Yet the Vietnamese version of Communism prevailed, even as the peoples of Southeast Asia still suffer and die from the torrent of destruction we rained down on them half a century ago.

Turning to more recent events, the U.S. military enjoyed total air supremacy in Afghanistan, Iraq, and other battlefields of the war on terror, yet that supremacy led to little but munitions expended, civilians killed, and wars lost. It led to tens of thousands of deaths by airpower, because, sadly, there are no such things as freedom bombs or liberty missiles.


U.S. airman performs diagnostics on an MQ-9 Reaper drone at Holloman Air Force Base, N.M., in 2016. (U.S. Air Force, J.M. Eddins Jr.)

If you haven’t thought about such matters already (though I’ll bet you have, at least a little), consider this: You are potentially a death-dealer. Indeed, if you become a nuclear launch officer in a silo in Wyoming or North Dakota, you may yet become a death-dealer of an almost unimaginable sort. Even if you “fly” a drone while sitting in a trailer thousands of miles from your target, you remain a death-dealer.

Recall that the very last drone attack the U.S. launched in Afghanistan in 2021 killed 10 civilians, including seven children, and that no one in the chain of command was held accountable. There’s a very good reason, after all, why those drones, or, as we prefer to call them, remotely piloted aircraft, have over the years been given names like Predator and Reaper. Consider that a rare but refreshing burst of honesty.

I remember how “doolies,” or new cadets, had to memorize “knowledge” and recite it on command to upper-class cadets. Assuming that’s still a thing, here’s a phrase I’d like you to memorize and recite: Destroying the town is not saving it. The opposite sentiment emerged as an iconic and ironic catchphrase of the Vietnam War, after journalist Peter Arnett reported a U.S. major saying of devastated Ben Tre,

“It became necessary to destroy the town to save it.”

Incredibly, the U.S. military came to believe, or at least to assert, that destroying such a town was a form of salvation from the alleged ideological evil of communism. But whether by bombs or bullets or fire, destruction is destruction. It should never be confused with salvation.

Will you have the moral courage, when it’s not strictly in defense of the U.S. Constitution to which you, once again, swore an oath today, to refuse to become a destroyer?

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In your four years here, you’ve learned a lot about heroes like Billy Mitchell and Lance Sijan, an Academy grad and Medal of Honor recipient who demonstrated enormous toughness and resilience after being shot down and captured in Vietnam. We like to showcase airmen like these, the true believers, the ones prepared to sacrifice everything, even their own lives, to advance what we hold dear. And they are indeed easy to respect.

James Robert ‘Cotton’ Hildreth

Major General James R Hildreth, 1970s. (U.S. Air Force, Wikimedia Commons)

I have two more courageous and sacrificial role models to introduce to you today. One you may have heard of; one you almost certainly haven’t. Let’s start with the latter. His name was James Robert “Cotton” Hildreth and he rose to the rank of major general in our service.

As a lieutenant colonel in Vietnam, Cotton Hildreth and his wingman, flying A-1 Skyraiders, were given an order to drop napalm on a village that allegedly harbored enemy Viet Cong soldiers. Hildreth disobeyed that order, dropping his napalm outside the target area and saving (alas, only temporarily) the lives of 1,200 innocent villagers.

How could Hildreth have possibly disobeyed his “destroy the town” order? The answer: because he and his wingman took the time to look at the villagers they were assigned to kill.

In their Skyraiders, they flew low and slow. Seeing nothing but apparently friendly people waving up at them, including children, they sensed that something was amiss. It turns out that they were oh-so-right. The man who wanted the village destroyed was ostensibly an American ally, a high-ranking South Vietnamese official. The village hadn’t paid its taxes to him, so he was using American airpower to exact his revenge and set an example for other villages that dared to deny his demands.

By refusing to bomb and kill innocents, Hildreth passed his “gut check,” if you will, and his career doesn’t appear to have suffered for it.

But he himself did suffer. He spoke about his Vietnam experiences in an oral interview after he’d retired, saying they’d left him “really sick” and “very bitter.” In a melancholy, almost haunted, tone, he added, “I don’t talk about this [the war] very much,” and one can understand why.

So, what happened to the village that Hildreth and his wingman had spared from execution by napalm? Several days later, it was obliterated by U.S. pilots flying high and fast in F-105s, rather than low and slow as Hildreth had flown in his A-1. The South Vietnamese provincial official had gotten his way and Hildreth’s chain of command was complicit in the destruction of 1,200 people whose only crime was fighting a tax levy.

Daniel Hale

My second hero is not a general, not even an officer. He’s a former airman who’s currently behind bars, serving a 45-month sentence because he leaked the so-called drone papers, which revealed that our military’s drone strikes killed far more innocent civilians than enemy combatants in the war on terror. His name is Daniel Hale, and you should all know about him and reflect on his integrity and honorable service to our country.

Drone whistleblower Daniel Hale, with his cat, Dec. 4, 2020. (Stand with Daniel Hale, Bob Hayes, CC BY-SA 4.0, Wikimedia Commons)

What was his “crime?” He wanted the American people to know about their military and the innocent people being killed in our name. He felt the burden of the lies he was forced to shoulder, the civilians he watched dying on video monitors due to drone strikes. He wanted us to know, too, because he thought that if enough Americans knew, truly knew, we’d come together and put a stop to such atrocities. That was his crime.

Hale was an airman of tremendous moral courage. Before he was sentenced to prison, he wrote an eloquent and searing letter about what had moved him to share information that, in my view, was classified mainly to cover up murderous levels of incompetence. I urge you to read Hale’s letter in which he graphically describes the deaths of children and the trauma he experienced in coming to grips with what he termed “the undeniable cruelties that I perpetuated” while serving as an Air Force intelligence analyst.

It’s sobering stuff, but we airmen, you graduates in particular, deserve just such sobering information, because you’re going to be potential death-dealers. Yet it’s important that you not become indiscriminate murderers, even if you never see the people being vaporized by the bombs you drop and missiles you’ll launch with such profligacy.

In closing, do me one small favor before you throw your caps in the air, before the Thunderbirds roar overhead, before you clap yourselves on the back, before you head off to graduation parties and the congratulations of your friends and family. Think about a saying I learned from Spider-Man. Yes, I really do mean the comic-book hero. “With great power comes great responsibility.”

Like so many airmen before you, you may soon find yourself in possession of great power over life and death in wars and other conflicts that, at least so far in this century, have been all too grim. Are you really prepared for such a burden? Because power and authority, unchecked by morality and integrity, will lead you and our country down a very dark path indeed.

Always remember your oath, always aim high, the high of Hildreth and Hale, the high of those who remember that they are citizen-airmen in service to a nation founded on lofty ideals. Listen to your conscience, do the right thing, and you may yet earn the right to the thanks that so many Americans will so readily grant you just by virtue of wearing the uniform.

And if you’ll allow this aging airman one final wish: I wish you a world where the bombs stay in their aircraft, the missiles in their silos, the bullets in their guns, a world, dare I say it, where America is finally at peace.

William Astore, a retired lieutenant colonel (USAF) and professor of history, is a TomDispatch regular and a senior fellow at the Eisenhower Media Network (EMN), an organization of critical veteran military and national security professionals. His personal blog is “Bracing Views.”

This article is from TomDispatch.

The views expressed are solely those of the authors and may or may not reflect those of Consortium News.

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16 comments for “Destroying the Town Does Not Save It

    June 7, 2022 at 02:22

    Gramps Older brother had took part in Spanish War Phillipines where he and other Americans slaughtered over 1000 unarmed Fillipino rebels were forced onto a bridge and shot when bodies got to deep to step over the next rank threw them in river.
    Gramps mom got a letter from him during WWI on his 15th birthday, he wrote saying he was in a French hospital after a German gas attack.
    IN THOSE DAYS CLEAR UP TO WWII when war broke out damn near all available men joined trained fought and died together, and in those wars our sparcely populated county less than 1/2 returned alive and nscathed.
    Stars on windows could still be seen into the 1960s.
    I listened as fathers, sons and their sons told of Ww1, WWii and Korea until it their sons who talked of Vietnam.
    Too bad they are not alive today, those plain blunt truth talking men for all I have is memories of their tales . As gramps who used to make me tag along, I say make me but I wanted to be there .are promice that what was said in the wee saloon morning by him were to remain there.
    I have been privileged to remain in patriotic military family our Irish ancestors came here in 1660s, and known many non family members who were molitary.. and the truth is the mentality of today’s military from after Vietnam is realy f’d up.
    So isn’t the country .
    Yet I still stand for national anthem but not for USA of today but for men of the past.
    I always will Because their bones bones are buried here.

  2. Jessica
    June 6, 2022 at 17:46

    Well said. I am also an Academy grad, and I left the service as a conscientious objector after 8 combat deployments flying in Special Operations. I’m sorry to report that there is nothing new under the sun….we are still hard at work terrorizing populations around the world.

  3. Realist
    June 6, 2022 at 17:09

    How do all of these accomplices justify their roles in what are clearly war crimes–killing scores of non-combatants who pose not the slightest threat to themselves. Is it mere peer pressure? A forced camaraderie achieved through a rigorous training regimen? A chain of command organizational structure that makes refusing even to commit genocide an unthinkable act of betrayal? This in spite of the Nuremberg principles of conduct formulated after WWII? Is it brainwashing so effective as to beggar belief?

    The real eye-opening takeaway from your hypothetical speech that no one in authority will ever allow you to make before a military gathering is the asserted fact, which I totally accept as plausible knowing the make up of our government and its military establishment, that the millions of fellow human beings deprived of the only life they ever had, or would have had, by the acts of the US Airforce in countless wars mostly not even legally declared, to say nothing of the travesties committed by other branches of the “service,” were mostly for naught! These were mostly entirely innocent people who just got in the way and were sacrificed as “collateral damage” on the mere possibility that a target of real consequence may or may not have been liquidated or demolished. At least it was slower, messier and more thought provoking for Hitler’s minions to gratuitously kill the 6-million innocents they have been accused of erasing from this material world. Did the swashbuckling hot shots like the Tom Cruise character in Top Gun (or John McCain in real life) ever end up asking the same questions that life eventually posed to the guards at Treblinka, Dachau and Auschwitz? Does the quick , easy and hands-off automation of modern warfare reduce one’s culpability for committing mass murder?

  4. Charles Carroll, CWO, U.S. Navy Retired
    June 6, 2022 at 15:33

    Amen! Not one General or Admiral since WW2 has won any of the continuous wars the U.S. has participated in. In 1964 I walked the streets in Lebanon in my Navy uniform. Today, I venture no serviceman can feel safe overseas unless it is in one of our paid for occupation countries like Germany. We try to buy or kill anyone that dares to differ. Our politicians are similar to the Russian’s in 1915. They shuffle and shift with only one goal, “stay in power”. It’s going to take more than “Bernie” to correct our path. The ones above the politicians will never permit the changes needed. The country is disintegrating around us and no one cares.

    • maxine
      June 6, 2022 at 20:32

      Bernie never meant to correct anything….He belongs to the 2 war parties.

    • Robert Richard
      June 6, 2022 at 21:29

      For sure Chief Carroll. I don’t think it matters anymore if the U.S. can say it’s won, it’s the Continuous War ECONOMY that must go on living off the fat of $21 Trillion dollars ‘they can’t find’. Robert Richard, PO-2 U.S. Navy Separation Bonused Out /( hopefully not related to Adm. Charles ‘Whack-a-Mole’ Richard nuclear death dealer)

  5. micknolangalway
    June 6, 2022 at 15:31

    Thank you. There’s so much good in the USA; shame it is marginalised. Keep spreading the word Consortium News. All the best, @micknolangalway

  6. RS
    June 6, 2022 at 13:53

    And yet things continue as before. It would be interesting to record the reactions and thoughts of the airmen listening to this speech. Todays weapons don’t allow discrimination. So how then are these new airmen supposed to take this speech to heart? I understand in Britain that Bomber Harris, who authorized the bombing of Dresden is looked upon more as a murderer than a liberator.

  7. jeff montanye
    June 6, 2022 at 13:06

    agree with nearly all of the above, though my actual military experience was as a vietnam war draft dodger.

    however the atomic bombs dropped on japan, two of which ended the war, were actually merciful, unlike the firebombing which japan endured.

    the alternative was continued firebombing followed by a d-day type invasion and artillery barrages, more bombing, and hand to hand fighting against the japanese military and civilians defending to the death their homeland. multiples of the deaths and injuries of hiroshima and nagasaki would certainly have occurred with far greater devastation.

      June 6, 2022 at 17:54

      Generals Eisenhower and McArthur would disagree with you. They said the Japanese were ready to surrender and the Atomic bombings were unnecessary.

      • RS
        June 6, 2022 at 21:10

        That’s correct. The Russians were closing in on Manchuria and Japan and war material was lost thereby as a result. There was no reason to drop the bombs.

  8. evelync
    June 6, 2022 at 12:18

    Thank you, William Astore and CN.

    It’s hard to bear that our courageous, honest (vulnerable too) heroes, like Hale, are viciously punished for having a conscience and risk everything to tell us the truth, while the war criminals control our country and continue our march down this ruinous path.

    We are a criminal enterprise.

    Voters need an INDEPENDENT who will declare for 2024 on a “no more war” campaign and a commitment to redirect what can be redirected from our 4 profit war machine – including the $trillions and also the people who now “serve” overseas – to a sustainable, stabilizing path here at home such as M4A, infrastructure, renewed grid, a shift away from fossils and slowly paying down the $22trillion debt. Our soldiers could be here to help this shift, instead of blowing up other peoples homes….and ruining their own lives in the process.

    Bernie was couped twice – didn’t have it in him to fight back and seems to have bought into the anti-Putin rhetoric, but aside from all those failings has his heart in the right place caring about real people and just maybe he could finally face that Joe’s always been a venal opportunist and idiot and commit to one more try as Independent and this time play hardball.

    They even ruined the last well meaning guy, IMO, Larry Johnson, who does have a couple of loony ideas but generally is well meaning, cares about his people, IMO, is anti-interventionist and pro civil liberties and fiscally responsible. And I think is willing to change his mind on some of his loony ideas.

    We need something and the two major parties are too damn corrupt to change.

    • Stephen Sivonda
      June 7, 2022 at 02:21

      You summed it up quite well…….especially with that last sentence. Thank you, I and many agree.

  9. Jeff Harrison
    June 6, 2022 at 09:34

    Indeed, Mr. Astore. This ex-airman agrees with you.

    • Justin
      June 6, 2022 at 19:14

      Outstanding article. USAF former F-15E pilot and conscientious objector. I recommend all of the newly commissioned cadets quit and pursue an honorable profession like building homes or farming. Build things and feed people instead of blowing shit up and killing people. The psychopaths who run the government can’t be trusted to point you in the right direction.

  10. Linda Edwards
    June 5, 2022 at 23:41

    Free Julian Assange..!

Comments are closed.