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The myth of Colonel Toon: propaganda bogeymen in imperialist wars
The combined armed forces of the US Army, the US Air Force, the US Navy and the US Marine corps lost some 9,000 aircraft in the Vietnam War, of which well over 5,000 were shot down in combat.
About 60 per cent of the aircraft lost in combat fell to anti-aircraft artillery (flak) and small arms fire, 30 per cent to surface-to-air missiles and about two per cent to fighter planes of the Vietnamese People's Air Force (VPAF). The other eight per cent were victims of 'friendly fire'.
In return, the US forces claimed to have destroyed 214 VPAF aircraft in aerial combat, all but four of those MiG fighters.
These figures do not tell the whole story.
The VPAF was always heavily outnumbered by the US air forces it fought against, and most of the fighters it operated were technologically less advanced than US types. The Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-17 and MiG-19 were not equipped with guided air-to-air missiles or radars, and their pilots fought with visually-aimed guns. Pilots of the subsonic MiG-17 often downed supersonic US aircraft.
The MiG-21 could fly twice the speed of sound and could out-turn most US fighters, but only carried two short-range missiles. Its most common opponent, the US F-4 Phantom II, carried four short-range and four medium-range radar-guided AAMs.
Despite all these disadvantages, 16 of the 21 flying aces of the Vietnam War were pilots in the VPAF. The five USAF and USN aces include two two-man F-4 crews who were credited with aerial victories for shooting down the same aircraft. There were only two US ace pilots and three back-seat weapons operator aces.
Put simply, the top six and 15 of the top 16 fighter pilots of the Vietnam War were VPAF pilots. The greatest of them all was Nguyễn Văn Cốc, a MiG-21 pilot who shot down nine US aircraft including three F-4s, four F-105 strike aircraft and an F-102 interceptor.
All of this made a major dent in the pride of the US air forces and their claims of fighter air superiority over Vietnam. The tiny, almost guerilla VPAF was doing to the US what the Royal Air Force's fighter command did to the mighty German Luftwaffe in the Battle of Britain.
The victory claims of Vietnamese pilots are to this day disputed by the US military – not because the aircraft and crew shot down were not identified, but because the US military claim that they were shot down by surface-to-air missiles or flak rather than MiGs. The Democratic Republic of Vietnam was truly a bristling porcupine of anti-aircraft weapons, and enemy aircraft ventured over it at great risk. But this makes for a less embarrassing excuse for US losses than the truth in many cases – that communist-led, Soviet and Chinese-equipped pilots from a third-world nation were going mano-a-mano with the elite of the biggest and most expensively-equipped air force in the world and winning.
Then on May 10 1972, with the air war over north Vietnam reaching a climax, the US Navy announced a major victory: The dreaded Vietnamese flying ace Colonel Toon had been shot down!
The Navy's top ace fighter crew, pilot Lieutenant Randy "Duke" Cunningham and radar operator Lieutenant (junior gunner) William "Irish" Driscoll were credited with downing Colonel Toon's MiG-17 in an epic dogfight over Vietnamese soil, their third victory in one day, after they had become separated from the other aircraft in their group.
The only problem was that Colonel Toon never existed. He was a myth, an invention of the US Navy, a convenient bogeyman whose fictional death provided much-needed propaganda at a time when support for the war was rapidly crumbling. “Toon” is not even a real Vietnamese name.
May 10 1972 was the second day of Operation Linebacker, a heavy bombing campaign intended to terrify the Vietnamese people into halting a major military offensive to liberate the south of the country. In five-and-a-half months of raids by all kinds of aircraft, including 1,000 sorties by giant B-52 bombers, the US lost 134 aircraft while claiming to have destroyed 63 Vietnamese fighters. By comparison the Vietnamese claimed to have shot down 674 US planes and sunk or damaged 80 ships. At least 24 US aircraft were shot down by Vietnamese fighter pilots – a far higher percentage than in the war as a whole.
Some 125,000 tons of bombs were dropped on Vietnam during Operation Linebacker, including the capital Hanoi and the port city of Haiphong. Two months later the US launched Linebacker II, the “Christmas Bombing” campaign, in which B-52s dropped 40,000 tons of bombs on Hanoi. 15 of the 121 bombers involved were lost in the two-week operation – one in eight.
What is the significance of Colonel Toon? The US Navy credited this phantom ace with 13 aerial victories, more than any real Vietnamese ace of the war.
In a scene from the 1958 film 'The Hunters', a piece of retrospective propaganda for the Korean War made just before US involvement in Vietnam began, one of the heroes – a group of US Air Force fighter pilots – speaks derisively of their Chinese opponents. He says that they are almost all rotten pilots who use inferior tactics and who are easy to shoot down. But occasionally, he says, you get a really good one: The faceless, nameless “Casey Jones” who, like the Red Baron, flies a distinctively-painted fighter plane. “Casey Jones” is eventually shot down by Robert Mitchum's lead character Major Cleve "Iceman" Saville.
However, the film differs greatly from the novel of the same name by James Salter upon which it was based, written just two years earlier. Salter's real name was James A Horowitz. He was a fighter pilot in the Korean War in 1952, flying over 100 sorties in six months, and the book was based on his experiences there.
In the book, US F-86 pilots find it difficult to score victories against the fast MiG-15s flown by the North Korean, Soviet and Chinese air forces. Following a largely unsuccessful mission, Saville discovers that his squadron commanding officer had previously encouraged a pilot to confirm a victory that he did not witness claimed by another pilot, thus helping him to become the squadron's latest ace. At the end of the novel Saville shoots down “Casey Jones”, but, unable to confirm the victory without witnesses, credits it to his dead wingman.
The story of Colonel Toon could have been copied straight from that of “Casey Jones” in 'The Hunters'. It has been claimed that two aircraft, a MiG-17 and a MiG-21, which were photographed bearing distinctive painted stars denoting aerial victories, were flown by him. But Vietnamese pilots were not assigned to just one aircraft, and the VPAF used such stars to denote how many victories were scored in a particular aircraft, not by a particular pilot. At least nine Vietnamese pilots flew Colonel Toon's alleged MiG-21, six of whom won the award of Hero of the People's Armed Forces.
The Casey Jones and Colonel Toons of propagandist's imaginations serve many purposes. They steal the laurels of real heroes. They serve as bogeymen on who all defeats can be blamed. They are the one enemy who knows how to fight amongst a horde of incompetent cannon-fodder. They can be “killed” whenever convenient to provide a propaganda victory.
Better known bogeymen of recent years include the following:
“Juba”, the mysterious Iraqi sniper who claimed to have shot up to 645 US soldiers in three videos posted on the internet, which, if it were at all true, would make him the moste successful sniper of all time, more so than the greatest World War II Soviet sniper Vasily Zaitsev. The US military lost just over 4,000 troops killed in Iraq, so “Juba” seems to have been a one-man army division.
Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a “Jordanian militant” who supposedly fought for the Taliban in Afghanistan, before leading an organisation called “Al-Qaeda In Iraq” which reportedly claimed responsibility for various high-profile terrorist attacks.
Like Mark Twain before him, reports of Zarqawi's death were greatly exaggerated. It was widely claimed in 2002 claimed that he had been killed in a coalition missile attack in Afghanistan. Later it was claimed that he had merely had one leg amputated at a hospital in Baghdad – which both then-US president George W Bush and Secretary of State Colin Powell held up as proof of Saddam Hussein's material support for Al-Qaeda. In 2004, Newsweek magazine reported that some "senior US military officials in Baghdad" had come to believe that Zarqawi still had both his legs.
Zarqawi was said to have been killed no less than four times in 2004 and 2005. The final claim of his death was made on June 7 2006. Two days later the occupation forces claimed to have identified Zarqawi's remains by face, fingerprinting, known scars and tattoos – after the US Air Force had dropped two 500-pound high-explosive bombs on the house where he was meeting fellow conspirators.
Ilich “Carlos The Jackal” Ramírez Sánchez, Slobodan Milosevic, Radovan Karadžić, General Ratko Mladić, General Mohamed Farrah Aidid, Osama Bin Laden, Saddam Hussein, “Chemical Ali”, any member of Hamas, anyone Iranian, and any real or suspected communist in history has been turned into a bogeyman of monstrous proportions to justify imperial conquests accompanied by the most savage and bloodthirsty barbarity.
The latest is Laurent Gbagbo, President of the Ivory Coast. Who will be the next?