More than 15 years have passed since Vu Duy Thanh heard the train of death rumbling through the sky above, that dreadful drone of the American B-52s and the horrible few seconds that followed each time, as 1,000-pound bombs whistled down on his hometown of Haiphong.
"You do not forget this sound, ever," Thanh said. "North Vietnamese people, we know what is B-52." Thanh relived the memory just weeks ago in Iraq, where, as a road-crew worker, he observed the latest B-52 bombing sorties.
Truong Nhu Tang, a Viet Cong survivor of bombing along the Ho Chi Minh Trail, has similar memories. He pressed himself against a bunker floor during his first B-52 attack, feeling as though he "had been caught in the apocalypse."
"The terror was complete," he later wrote in memoirs. "One lost control of bodily functions as the mind screamed incomprehensible orders to get out."
Both men offer insight into what Saddam Hussein's troops may be experiencing as B-52s shower them with bombs day after day in the Kuwaiti war zone. There are probably many deaths. And if the Vietnam experience is a guide, some Iraqi soldiers are having nervous breakdowns. Others are suffering from ruptured eardrums, nosebleeds, speech impairments, long-lasting headaches, nausea and disorientation.
North Vietnamese and the Viet Cong recall the B-52s and their bombs as among the most terrifying weapons used against them, with potential for both physical and psychological devastation. The U.S. military is counting on that, relying on bombing by B-52s and other aircraft to sap the Republican Guards and other Iraqi front-line troops of both the strength and will to fight.
But there may be another lesson from Vietnam: B-52 bombing may fall short of accomplishing its goals. Vietnamese soldiers suffered under the shower of bombs, but they did not give up. Bunkers provided some physical protection; a certain stoicism gave them psychological support. Bombing strikes leveled acres of jungle but did not stop the flow of North Vietnamese troops, ammunition and supplies.
As a result, no one can predict whether B-52 bombing of Iraqi troops, protected by concrete and steel-reinforced bunkers deep beneath the desert sands, will bring a speedy conclusion to the war.
"No army has ever surrendered because they were subjected to heavy bombardment," said retired Rear Adm. Eugene J. Carroll Jr. "I don't think anyone can count on (the Iraqis) saying, 'OK, we've had enough' and just quitting."
Former North Vietnamese Col. Bui Tin, who trekked the Ho Chi Minh Trail under U.S. bombing and went on to accept the surrender of Saigon in 1975, agreed. Despite its horrors, so-called carpet bombing will fail in Iraq as it failed in Vietnam, he predicted.
"The first two times that I was under carpet bombing, I was very afraid," said Tin, a former deputy editor of the North Vietnamese army newspaper who was interviewed in Paris. "All of a sudden there's a terrible noise, trees falling everywhere, huge explosions in the sky. . . . You're petrified.
"But by the third time, you're used to it. You're not afraid anymore."
Once, the B-52s dropped about 300 bombs and succeeded in killing only two people and wounding some, Tin said. "You stop being afraid if it takes 150 bombs to kill one person," he said.
He acknowledged that the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese army regulars were usually warned of B-52 attacks by Soviet trawlers in the South China Sea that radioed each time the planes took off from Okinawa or Guam. But, he said, his troops were able to survive the onslaught in trenches only about three feet deep.
As in Vietnam, he suggested, the U.S. military once again has failed to predict the endurance and tenacity of a Third World army.
"The Americans are still relying on their large, sophisticated war machine with electronics and awesome carpet bombs. That's their strong point," he said. "But they have always underestimated their enemy. That's their weakness. . . .
"Of course the bombardment directed at the Iraqis is more sophisticated, more high-tech, but it is people who determine the outcome of a war, not materiel," he said.
U.S. military officials have insisted that significant improvements in bomb targeting and accuracy, as well as key differences in geography, supply lines and the nature of the Gulf War, make it misleading to compare the carpet bombing of Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia with the bombardment of Iraq and Kuwait.
Pentagon officials even object to the very term "carpet bombing." They say precise targeting and delivery of B-52 bombs has made "saturation" or "strategic" bombing more accurate.
"Carpet bombing implies that we're indiscriminately releasing a large number of weapons without regard for accuracy," Air Force spokesman Maj. Dick Cole said. " . . . B-52s are very accurate."