Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Dogfights: Hell Over Hanoi

In November 1968, Richard Nixon was swept to presidential power on the strength of a promise to bring "peace with hour" to the bloody battlefields of Vietnam. His strategy of ‘Vietnamization’ meant that the number of American troops engaged in the conflict would fall from 535,000 to 400,000 in one year. Correspondingly, the weekly ‘body count’ – that most grisly yardstick military failure - dropped from three hundred to a hundred.

However, as the new president touted his ‘Nixon Doctrine’ in the world’s conference halls and diplomatic centres, it became clear that the air war over Vietnam would be dramatically stepped up. In April 1969, he ordered the aerial bombardment of Cambodia, which was followed in May 1970 by an abortive and disastrous ‘invasion’ of the country. The US Army would further extend its tentacles into neutral Laos in May 1971. As the disgusting massacre at My Lai became public knowledge, and the army continued its descent into a chaotic mess of disillusionment and drug abuse, college campuses across America once again erupted into angry protest.

Despite Henry Kissinger’s assurance that "peace is at hand", the Linebacker operations heaped endless tonnes of bombs upon the beleaguered North Vietnamese, both before and after the 1972 election. Linebacker II was launched in December, partly as a response to stalled negotiations in Paris; it saw the largest heavy bomber strikes launched by the US Air Force since the end of the Second World War. This documentary looks at the airborne activities of the men who orchestrated Richard Nixon’s "war by tantrum".

We focus specifically upon the astounding career of one man, Captain Steve Ritchie. In the summer of 1972, Ritchie led a team of four F-4D Phantoms performing combat air patrol north of Hanoi; the young pilot was awarded the responsibility of protecting the Strike Force coming in from the Southwest to hit the Thai-Nguyen steel plant. Credited with destroying five MiG-21 planes during the operation, Ritchie’s aviation adventures have passed into American military legend. We also explain that American F4 Phantom pilots like Fred Olmsted and Dan Cherry were able to take on the ferocious MiG-21, and emerge with their lives intact.

While Ritchie entered the annals of Aviation history, the war he fought in remains etched uncomfortably upon America’s collective conscience; Vietnam continues to be a violent blot on the heavily chequered US historical record. When Saigon eventually fell in April 1975, the conflict had claimed over two million Southeast Asian lives; almost sixty thousand US servicemen had been killed in action. In the current climate of renewed American ideological conviction, and corresponding bellicosity, ‘Vietnam syndrome’ still casts a dark and imposing shadow upon the American political landscape.