On February 7, 1968, American bombs, rockets and napalm obliterated much of the South Vietnamese town of Ben Tre — killing hundreds of civilians who lived there.
Later that day, an unidentified American officer gave Associated Press reporter Peter Arnett a memorable explanation for the destruction.
Arnett used it in the opening of the story he wrote:
“It became necessary to destroy the town to save it,” a U.S. major said Wednesday.
He was talking about the grim decision that allied commanders made when Viet Cong attackers overran most of this Mekong Delta city 45 miles southwest of Saigon. They decided that regardless of civilian casualties they must bomb and shell the once placid river city of 35,000 to rout the Viet Cong forces.
After Arnett’s story was published in newspapers the next morning, February 8, 1968, the unnamed major’s remark became one of the most infamous war-related quotes in modern history.
To this day, it is still used as a quotation that epitomizes the brutal absurdities of war in general and of the Vietnam War in particular.
The veracity of the quote has also been a subject of controversy. Since Arnett did not identify the officer who supposedly used the line, some people have questioned whether anyone actually said it.
In 2006, a Vietnam veteran named Michael D. Miller created a website titled “Saving Ben Tre.” On that site, Miller claims to have been present when a “Major Booris” said something very close to what Arnett reported.
Miller gives the quote as: “We had to destroy Ben Tre in order to save it.”
However, like Arnett’s report, Miller’s version has been disputed.
More significant to the people of Vietnam is the issue of whether Ben Tre actually had to be destroyed.
Thus, their rationale went, trying to oust the VC in ground-level fighting, from street to street, would have caused a high number of American casualties and even more civilian casualties.
Perhaps they were right. But the outcome described in Arnett’s news story doesn’t quite smell like victory:
U.S. advisers said the heavy allied firepower hurled on the city to drive out the Viet Cong probably contributed largely to the deaths of at least 500 civilians and possibly 1,000. South Vietnamese officials say the enemy dead totaled 451. About 50 Vietnamese soldiers died, along with more than 20 Americans...Lt. Col James Dare of Chicago, commander of U.S. Advisory Team 93, said “we will never know for sure” the number of civilians who died…Maj. Chester L. Brown of Erie, Pa., spent hours over the city as an Air Force forward air controller directing helicopter and fighter-bomber attacks. “It is always a pity about the civilians,” he said.
The story went on to say:
U.S. officials reported it was impossible to determine the attitude of the city’s residents to the bombing and artillery fire. “Most of those we see around appear mighty relieved that they survived,” one official said, “But I know that there are lots of refugees, maybe 10,000 to 15,000, outside of town in a camp and they may not be so happy.”
I suspect that last quote was a bit of an understatement.
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