Anxiety, Fear, and Rumor in the Vietnam War

Thresholds of Power Between Air and Ground

Abstract for a Paper Session at the Critical Geography Conference, 2014

In a 1973 essay accompanying the paintings of Paul Rebeyrolle, Michel Foucault commented that in “the world of prisons, as in the world of dogs, the vertical is not one of the dimensions of space, it is the dimension of power.” In this paper I explore one particular manifestation of this threshold between spaces of detention and vertical power that emerged on, and above, the battlefields of the Vietnam War. Specifically, I detail the role of the helicopter as it was used in prisoner capture and evacuation during that war. While the helicopter is one of the most iconographic symbols of the Vietnam War, for many on the battlefield it was also their first encounter with this instable form of aerial mobility. The helicopter introduced both a new means of controlling vertical and horizontal space and a new spatial system that, in turn, necessitated the development of novel forms of management and control. Using a suite of texts that include military doctrine, technical manuals, and wartime memoirs, I will highlight the ways that the helicopter transformed the spatial relationships of the battlefield encounter by introducing yet another blank space into the disorder of war: a high-velocity, anxiety filled private space wherein ostensible enemies sat in prolonged, aerial proximity. For both civilians and combatants, this threshold between air and ground became a key dimension in the geography of power on the battlefield.