Memorial Day: Suicide bombers and car bombs

I lived in Vietnam for thirteen months, from March 1967 to April 1968. I lived in various places – Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City), Bien Hoa, Can Tho, Mi Tho and Vung Tau. I never heard of a “suicide bombing” or “car bombing” while I was there, but I’m sure such incidents did happen; for example, both sides regularly booby-trapped vehicles, structures and trails. However, people wearing explosive vests and blowing themselves up, or people ramming explosive-laden vehicles into checkpoints or buildings were extremely rare.

I lived a few months in a converted hotel near the heart of Saigon, along with a few hundred other U.S. soldiers. We worked in administrative jobs, or as stevedores unloading ships at the Saigon River. We had a guard post out front, a guard post out back and steel netting hanging up to the second floor to discourage grenade throwing.
If the Viet Cong would have thought of it, they could have easily placed a car or truck bomb next our hotel and killed two or three hundred soldiers in a few seconds. Why didn’t they?

Everywhere I lived in Vietnam was vulnerable to such attacks. The Vietnamese had moved among us fairly freely, employed by the U.S. as workers in cleaning crews, construction, truck drivers, etc. Also, venders selling everything from flavored ice to hits of heroin tended to cluster around the entrances of U.S. Army posts. A “suicide bombing” would have been easy and effective – at least once or twice. But it never happened.

In fact, the words “suicide bomber” and “car bomb” are not featured in the vocabularies of the Vietnam War analysis. These tactics simply didn’t occur to the Viet Cong or North Vietnamese, even though they had fought a “defensive” or guerrilla war for decades. It’s possible this “gap” in their collective consciousness reflected a strong cultural influence of Eastern philosophies – Buddhism in particular. (Although, ironically, some Buddhist monks protested the war by self-immolation.)

On the other hand, in the “new, modern world,” suicide bombers and car bombs go off every day in the many conflicts in the Middle East. What cultural ideals influenced such “war tactics,” and why is it directed mostly against civilians?

Is there much difference in getting blown to smithereens by a car bomb, as from a U.S. Hellfire missile? The outcome is exactly the same – smashed bodies. The only differences of importance are the identities. The U.S. military announces Hellfire attacks against “suspected terrorists,” but “suspected terrorists” are also “suspected civilians.”

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