The Secret War
The secret war in Laos provided valuable lessons that we should have learned, had it not been kept secret, valuable because it was characterized by similar failings we see in the current fiasco in Iraq, namely:
- political planning steeped in ignorance, deception ,and arrogant self-interest
- a disregard of the real problems and issues at hand
- inter-departmental contention that caused rival agencies of the US government to compete against each other on nearly the same level as the forces they were fighting against.
- the lack of accountability to the American people, largely through repression of the news media, which allowed the people in power to furtively carry out their own agendas at the cost of hundreds of thousands of lives of innocent civilians. One military objective was the testing of new weapons in a live battlefield situation, a program responsible for several documented instances of the inhuman slaughter of women and children, such as the cave at Tam Piu
- Munitions such as cluster bombs (also have been, and still being used in Iraq), and other anti-personnel weapons, have remained in the country to terrorize the populace and serve as a constant reminder of former US military presence
It has been estimated that as many as 450,000 civilians in Laos, and 600,000 in Cambodia, lost their lives. Figures for refugees exceed a million. In addition, the widespread use of toxic chemical defoliants created a massive health crisis which naturally fell most heavily on children, nursing mothers, the aged and the already infirm, and which persists to this day.
I will try to lay out the complicated series of events, leading to military involvement and the end result of that involvement, using various quotes from the novel and other sources.
This quote was taken from a US Air Force site, Air Force Magazine Online, June 1999 Vol. 82, No. 6, written by Walter J. Boyne, that insinuates much of what was enumerated above:
The struggle for the Plain of Jars in Laos in the 1960s and 1970s was a mysterious and tragic affair, wrapped up in confusion and obscured by years of falsehoods and half-truths.
The following is a quote from a pilot during the war, an accurate and prophetic description:
"Even if the war in Laos ended tomorrow, the restoration of its ecological balance might take several years. The reconstruction of the Plain's totally destroyed towns and villages might take just as long. Even if this was done, the Plain might long prove perilous to human habitation because of the hundreds of thousands of unexploded bombs, mines and booby traps...
The last local inhabitants were being carted into air transports. Abandoned vegetable gardens that would never be harvested grew near abandoned houses with plates still on the tables and calendars on the walls."
Here's another American pilot talking about the joys of napalm:
'We sure are pleased with those backroom boys at Dow. The original product wasn't so hot if the gooks were quick they could scrape it off. So the boys started adding polystyrene now it sticks like shit to a blanket. But then if the gooks jumped under water it stopped burning, so they started adding Willie Peter [white phosphorous] so's to make it burn better. It'll even burn under water now. And just one drop is enough, it'll keep on burning right down to the bone so they die anyway from phosphorous poisoning.'
We owe it to ourselves, as in all human tragedies of violence, to understand how all this came about, so we can avert such atrocities in the future. Because what happened in Laos was kept a secret, and conveniently buried thereafter, we have been denied that opportunity for years. Here's your chance to find out.
Let's start at the beginning:
The foundation of the 20th century conflict was rooted in French colonialism in Indochina. The French first gained influence in the Lao territories through the court of Luang Prabang, where they offered protection against the Chinese maruaders known as the Haw, and furnished a chance of throwing off the yoke of Siamese domination. Through time the French controlled the kingdom, and spread their power over the rest of Laos. Since the French considered Vietnam and Laos as one entity, Indochine, it is easy to see how the nationalist movement against the French in Vietnam, embodied by the Viet Minh, spread to Laos, so that the Pathet Lao was basically an extension of Ho chi Minh's movement. Meanwhile, the royalists, represented by the princely families of Luang Prabang, Vientiane, and Champassak, remained a puppet of the French.
Once upon a time there were five princely brothers. Three of them became political figures. The eldest, Prince Petsarat, first declared Lao an independent nation, free of any French rule, back in 1945, at the urgings of the Japanese who had chased the French out. Within six months, World War II was over, and the French came back in force and told Petsarat and his crew that the party was over, and that he and his fellow mice better clear out, as the cat was back. So they fled to Thailand. The second brother, Prince Souvanna, was to return to Laos as an ill-fated Prime Minister of a divided country - seven times in twenty years! He was a neutralist. Then there was Prince Soupanna-Vong, who, together with Kaysone Pomvihan, a half Lao - half Vietnamese, allied with Ho Chi Minh and the communist Viet Minh, and called their forces the Pathet Lao, the Lao Nation. Together with the Vietnamese, they fought against the colonial government and the puppet monarchy that the French had installed in the north.Excerpt from the Novel The Plain of Jars
What ensued became known as the First Indochina War, in which French rule was overcome.
1954-The French garrison at Dien Bien Phu falls to the Viet Minh and a convention is held in Geneva to end the First Indochina war. The Geneva Convention called for a cease-fire between the colonial forces that fought for the French, and the Vietnamese-backed Pathet Lao. The members of the convention, which included the US, agreed to the formation of a coalition government that was to include members from both sides, and further, prohibited foreign military presence in Laos, whether from the US, Vietnam, the Soviets or China.
The rulings of the convention as stated were certainly sensible, but, looking back in hindsight, not very realistic, considering the intense cold war rivalries and geo-political concerns between the US, China, Vietnam, and the Soviet Union. At this point on, the US becomes aggressively involved in Laos, sending clear messages to Vietnam.
1955 The US attempts to buy Laos - buying up truckfuls of kip, the local currency, and burning the banknotes, giving the Royal Lao Government American dollars at a bloated exchange rate. The US government also pays the salaries of the entire Royal Lao Army, making Laos the highest per capita recipient of US aid ever, and without the average taxpayer even aware where their money was going. The State department allows the creation of a secret project (Project 404) to have military officers temporarily resign in order to be assigned as military advisors, but with civilian identities, furtively violating the Geneva accords. Elections are held but the Pathet Lao are excluded. The Vietnamese, in response, start trickling troops into eastern Laos.
1956 to 1958 Prince Souvanna, the neutralist, is elected Prime Minister and attempts to create the coalition specifically mentioned at Geneva. He plans to integrate the Pathet Lao into the Royal Lao Army and hold supplementary elections for them to participate in. Souvanna also visits the communist capitols of Hanoi and Beijing. All this pisses off the U.S. A coalition government is not acceptable, Geneva Convention or no Geneva Convention, says the Secretary of State, John Foster Dulles. The US threatens to cut off all the aid that they had previously lavished on Laos. When the Pathet Lao dominate the elections and Souvanna starts giving them a piece of the civil service as well, the American government decides no more 'Mr. Nice Guy'. Because, as President Eisenhower argued, if we don't stop the communists, all the countries in Southeast Asia will fall to them like a stack of dominoes. After that, the CIA starts to get involved.
The CIA were looking for a strongman, that would deal ruthlessly with any opposition, and they felt they found him in Poumi Nosovan, a general in the army.
1960 The CIA rigs elections and their man, Poumi, comes to power. Election balloting was fraudulent, and the results, giving rightist candidates large majorities, were totally unbelievable. But this is also where the US starts looking silly. The State Department and the US ambassador in Laos still support Souvanna, but the Department of Defense and the CIA are behind Poumi. Was this foreign policy, or a football pool?
Ahaa, but the turd has not yet hit the fan until a lowly captain in the army, Kong Le, tired of all this nonsense, rises up out of nowhere and throws a spanner into the works. Together with the paratroopers who were in his command, he takes the capitol, Vientiane, in a bloodless coup, driving out Poumi, who runs to Savannakhet, a town in the south.
Kong Le announces his goals: end the fighting in Laos, stem corruption, and establish a policy of peace and neutrality. His forces are not right or left, but neutralists, like Souvanna. Recalling the experience of the first coalition when the country was temporarily at peace, Kong Le asks for Souvanna to come back as Prime Minister
Not to be upstaged by this little pipsqueak of a captain, the US now starts giving financial and military aid directly to Poumi to take back control, and in Dec 1960 he drives Souvanna and Kong Le out of Vientiane. Kong Le joins the Pathet Lao in the north, and together with them they take over the Plain of Jars. The Vietnamese send in top advisors and heavy artillery. Souvanna goes to Khang Khay, a small town on the Plain of Jars, insisting he is still the legal Prime Minister. Although Britain, France, and officially even the United States, accept Souvanna's government as the legal government of Laos, this does not prevent the United States from broadening its support to Poumi's forces. Figure that out. Oh, but things get even stranger.
At this time, the CIA gets tired of Poumi, who behaves more like a racketeer than a national leader, and they hit on the idea of a secret guerilla army of Hmong, a small hill tribe, to be led by another guy called Vang Pao. Wow, a private army for the CIA, and they only had to pay the soldiers $2.00 a day! Not only that, but they get to have their own private air force to airlift supplies, with the glorious name of Air America! The Hmong are more than willing to fight for the US, thinking that they would be able to carve out a piece of Laos for their own little country as part of the deal, should they win. Meanwhile, the Soviets, not wanting to be left out, also join in, airlifting supplies and arms to Kong Le and the neutralists.
Air America as described by Air Force Magazine Online, June 1999 Vol. 82, No. 6, written by Walter J. Boyne
The relations between the official US military and Air America were often blurred, as assets, including aircraft like the C-130, were transferred in secret when the need arose. Air America eventually employed more than 300 pilots to fly in and out of Thailand and Laos. In 1970 alone, it carried more than 46 million pounds of food to the Laotian people. It also carried arms, spies, radar equipment, and refugees and flew medevac missions. Late in the war, they even dropped "hot soup"--that is, napalm-on enemy positions, rolling barrels out the rear of Caribous
Whenever the Hmong secret army is mentioned by pro- US historians, they also conveniently omit the nationalist fervor driving the Hmong to fight, i.e. the goal of achieving an independent Hmong kingdom, where they would be free from oppression by the majority lowland Lao. (refer to the section on the Hmong lower down the page). The CIA exploited this sentiment, realizing the potential it had for motivation, motivation which the ordinary Laotian lacked. Again from the article by Walter Boyne:
The war was fought largely by surrogates for their own aims, the Laotians proving generally to be peace-loving even when--especially when--in uniform; Royal Laotian armed forces preferred to let the despised Laotian hill people, the Hmong, do the real fighting...As the Hmong casualties rose, the US-sponsored fighting forces were increasingly augmented by Thai "volunteers," whose numbers eventually reached 17,000. These mostly were mercenaries paid with US funds and led by Thai army regular officers and noncommissioned officers. The situation suited the US, which was loath to introduce American ground forces. Air America was keeping some 170,000 Hmong refugees alive with airdrops of rice, a situation that had gone on so long that Hmong children were said to believe that rice was not grown but simply fell from the sky.
In fact, the men in Air America, and even the CIA paramilitaries on the ground, were known as 'Sky Men'
Another excerpt from 'The Plain of Jars'
Oops! Halftime! Time to keep score. We now have the State Department abandoning Souvanna and switching to Poumi in Vientiane, who is also the choice of the Defense Department, while the CIA continues to play with Vang Pao and his mountain men. Then there are the Soviets rooting for the former US player Kong Le, the North Vietnamese and the Chinese aiding the Pathet Lao, and the US Ambassador and the rest of the world on Souvanna's side. It' a tie ballgame folks, time for another convention.
1962 - The Second Geneva Convention, which just brings things back the way they were after the first convention, stating the same things they stated right from the start: get everyone's foreign troops out and form a coalition government. An international 'Monopoly' game: Go Home, do not collect $500. Of course this did not apply to the CIA with Air America and their clandestine army, who played by their own rules. It wasn't fun if you couldn't cheat. Nor did it apply to the North Vietnamese with their thousands of troops in northern Lao, who decided they weren't there to play games. But the convention was cordial enough, and appropriate lip service was given out.
Second half. Souvanna is back at quarterback. The Secret War continues. United States military pilots in civilian clothes, their names deleted from Department of Defense rosters, fly Forward Air Control missions over Laos. The CIA builds airstrips on mountains and in the jungle, called Lima Sites, where they conduct aerial re-supply to the Hmong settlements loyal to the Americans. CIA advisers are also in the field to assist these guerrilla units of Vang Pao's army; North Vietnam brings in more troops and bigger cannons. But all the players agree to deny that they are doing anything in Laos. After all, if they couldn's have it conveniently hushed up, they'd have to have another useless convention, and nobody wanted to delay the game and waste time with that again. Everyone knew that whatever was decided, no one would stick to it anyway.
In 1968, things began to change. President Lyndon B. Johnson's declaration of a bombing halt over North Vietnam caused the intensity of the fighting-and the air war-to increase drastically in the Plain of Jars
Fourth Quarter. The war escalates. The Air Force begins bombing with regular Air Force personnel stationed in Udon, Thailand. From 1965 to 1973, the civil war seesaws back and forth in northern Laos, to deny control of territory and population to the other side. Population control was particularly important, because it is the people who provide food, porters, and soldiers. How very inconvenient! Areas were cleared of people by intensive bombing. In the dry season, it was the Communist team that took over the Plain of Jars and scored goals; in the wet season the US-backed forces took it over. Back and forth like that, until everyone got tired of the game.
Again from the AFA article by Walter Boyne:
The B-52 sorties built up at an amazing rate; by the war's end, some 3 million tons of bombs had been dropped on Laos, with 500,000 tons of this total dropped in the northern regions. The war was fought through the years on a seasonal basis, with USB,sponsored forces advancing from April through September in the monsoon season and the North Vietnamese and its allies responding during the dry season of October through March.
The conduct of the war in northern Laos was delegated to the CIA-supported Hmong, who were led by a classic Asian warlord figure, Maj. Gen. Vang Pao. His tactics resulted in heavy casualties over the years, so much so that eventually only preteen-age children and men over 45 remained to serve as soldiers. Everyone else had been killed, captured, or wounded. To spur recruitment, he would withhold rice from communities that sought to shield their young from joining his armies.
And so it went, until 1973.
A peace agreement was signed in Vientiane on February 21, 1973. A new coalition government was to be formed. Within two years the Pathet Lao would dominate and take over that government.
After nine years of war, seven billion dollars, three and a half million tons of bombs, a half-million dead, and 750,000 homeless, the US had failed to achieve any of the objectives it had aimed for.
Just type in 'Secret War in Laos', in any search engine, and you will get thousands of results.
The Mennonite Central Committee also offers a video overview of the Secret War, as well as other excellent videos of the cluster bombs in Laos. Here also you will find many pages devoted to the UXO issues that they are currently involved in - http://clusterbombs.mcc.org/clusterbombs/bombies/. But since you're here already, I recommend you visit our own Unexploded Bombs page first, which has more info and links on that topic.
As the material above has an obvious anti-war tone, you may want to check out an alternative perspective on Air America at http://www.airambrat.com/ a daughter's passionate tribute to her father, an Air America pilot shot down during the war.
Actually, the best way to honor our fallen soldiers and pilots is not to defend the war, but to facilitate reconciliation. Check out this website:
Fund for Reconciliation and development (FRD)
IPeace is a very interactive and social website promoting international peace. http://ipeace.us/about
Another site I highly recommend is http://www.badattitudes.com/BombingO.html Here you can download a sample chapter and purchase an e-novel for $5.00, 'The Bombing Officer', a semi-autobiographical novel by someone working in the US Embassy in Vientiane at the height of the war. A very informative read!
One of the most influential critics of American military policy during the secret war, and a major inspiration for both this website and my novel is Fred Branfman. Check out some of his lucid interviews, essays, and blogs at these sites:
Articles in the Huffington Post
Articles at Salon.com
Catch this excellent article on the Lao soldiers view of the war originally published in 1972:
The Other Men
Fred's clarity of vision goes beyond politics, as his present website demonstrates, concerned with living life in the face of death:
The Hmong - their role as The Secret Army, and
the origins of the Chao Fa movement
The Hmong (also known as the Meo, or Miao), formerly came from the highlands of southern China, where they had lived for almost two thousand years, tending to their rice paddies in upland valleys, independent of Chinese politics and society. This independence was threatened, however, when the Emperor's court resolved to seize their fertile lands, and to subdue the tribespeople to Peking's authority. Military efforts against the Hmong were nevertheless unsuccessful, so in 1775, the Chinese court invited the Hmong king and his advisors to come to Peking and make peace. Upon their arrival, the members of the Hmong delegation were publicly tortured and executed. There followed a campaign of subjugation against all of the Hmong peoples, and by the beginning of the nineteenth century many had fled into the mountains of Vietnam, Laos, and Thailand.
Ever since then, the Hmong who had left their homeland have dreamed of having their own kingdom, where they would no longer be oppressed. This dream was kept alive by the difficult conditions they encountered in the new countries they settled in. The lands they arrived in were already occupied, and thus there was nowhere to go except to the tops of the hills and mountains. Paddy farming was not possible in such places, so they adapted themselves to a life of hunting and forest gathering, and clearing and burning the jungle to grow upland crops.
Over the years, there came into being a popular folktale that was soon passed down from one generation to the next. It told of an ancient warrior named Sin Sai, who had defended the first peoples of the earth against evil giants. Once this great undertaking had been accomplished, the legendary hero told the people to stay on top of the mountains to avoid any other evil giants that may come to harm them in the future. He promised that if that should happen, he would come down from the sky with an army of invincible soldiers to help them, and lead them to form a kingdom of their own, where they would be safe and live in peace forever. Then he disappeared in a flash of fire.
This vision of a Hmong Zion had first become an armed movement during the time of the French. The French, finding nothing in Laos that would help pay the costs of administrating her, copied what the British were doing in India, namely, producing opium for export to China to finance their colonial activities. Since the Hmong already grew a little opium for their own medicinal uses, it was inevitable that the French would get the idea of exacting a tax from them - two kilograms of opium per head, for each man, woman and child - to be collected by the authorities, usually lowland Lao officials working in the colonial government. This was a tall order, since you need at least an acre of poppies to produce one kilo of opium. For a family with five kids that meant cultivating fourteen acres of poppies in addition to your food crops! It required an extensive effort that amounted to slave labor. Eventually, however, it became a lucrative endeavor, and contributed greatly to the hill people's subsistence. Nonetheless, the two-kilo tax was quite exorbitant.
There was also the forced conscription of corvee labor to build such things as roads, a mandatory service that was demanded of all the Lao peoples and another issue that incensed the Hmong. The resentment of many of them grew, and in 1917, someone called Baa Chai announced that he was in contact with former Hmong kings, including Sin Sai, and proclaimed himself the first Chao Fa, a Prince of the Sky. For four years, he led a revolt against the French until the rebellion was eventually crushed in 1920.
In 1961, the CIA approached Vang Pao, a Hmong, who at that time was a Major in the regular Royal Lao Army. They had a proposition for him - to lead his own army of Hmong tribesmen in Xieng Khouang, Military Region II. He would work directly with the CIA, and not via the Royal Lao Army commanders. Vang Pao set about recruiting those Hmong who had not yet joined the Pathet Lao. They were easily swayed, flabbergasted, yet elated, that the most powerful nation on earth, the United States of America, had come to them, the Hmong, a little known hill-tribe, and had asked them to fight alongside them. The invincible army had at last materialized, and the Chao Fa legend was being transformed into living reality. Xieng Khouang was to be a Hmong nation.
And so it was no surprise that the Hmong called their CIA paramilitary advisors 'Sky Men'. The psy-ops people at CIA Udon appreciated the value of this mythical aura around their operatives, and actively encouraged it. The fact that Air America planes dropped supplies from the sky only reinforced this conviction.
Just like the French, the CIA used opium to finance their 'secret army'. By that time, the fragile economy of the Hmong had become dependent on opium as a cash crop. So helping them sell it was a way of paying them as well. Air America, the CIA airline, would fly it out. Some of the opium was sent to Saigon where it was processed into No 4 grade heroin - 99% pure. Unscrupulous South Vietnamese, including government officials and military officers, sold this heroin to American GI's - the very same soldiers who were sent to the other side of the world to protect them, and many of these boys came home with a monkey on their back.
Helping the Hmong market their opium was not the only aid the US offered. Through the work of USAID, the United States Agency for International Development, food relief was airlifted to the families who had to be relocated to US controlled areas, since the men were busy fighting and could not farm.
The Hmong army formed by the CIA took the brunt of it. In the beginning, the secret army was used for guerilla activities such as intelligence, sabotage, and ambushing supply lines. As the war intensified, they were used more and more as a conventional infantry, fighting set piece battles. This was because the Royal Lao Army of the right-wing politicians, under such people as Poumi Nosavan, gave an abysmal performance on the battlefield. The Royalist soldiers, mostly village youths forcibly conscripted, did not want to fight. Many of the high-ranking officers were nothing more than corrupt warlords, and even withheld the salaries of the troops in their command. The Pathet Lao knew this, and often sent messages to the Royal Lao soldiers, warning them that they were approaching, and advised them to flee the area, which they graciously did. In turn, the Royal Lao guards at the US controlled refugee camps would allow the Pathet Lao to come in and visit their relatives, turning a blind eye to their presence. It was as if no one really wanted to fight and kill each other, only that they were forced to by the powers that be.
On the other hand, the Hmong under Vang Pao had something to fight for, namely, their millennial goal of having their own kingdom in Xieng Khouang. They fought bravely, but with their World War Two M1-carbines given to them by the CIA, they were no match for the Pathet Lao and thousands of battle-hardened North Vietnamese troops carrying AK-47's, and supported by Soviet-made tanks. Towards the end, children under the age of fifteen constituted the bulk of the Hmong fighting force. It was as if the American strategists had used them as cannon fodder, while counting on the air war to achieve victory.
The Secret Army of Vang Pao fought for twelve years, and during that time their dream slowly deteriorated into a nightmare. So many youths were lost that families could only send their little boys to go out and fight, and those that refused were denied food drops. Towards the end of the war, when Sam Thong fell and Long Chieng came under siege, exodus after exodus of human misery poured out of the war zone, knowing the end was at hand. Thirty percent of the fleeing died as they made their way south. This was a suffering beyond all the tribulations they had ever known, greater than the hardships their ancestors had experienced leaving China.
When the US pulled out in 1973 in accordance with the peace agreement, there followed an ominous lull in the fighting. Vang Pao also agreed to disband his army. Go home, he told his soldiers, and they did so, stockpiling their weapons for the inevitable encounter. A few unauthorized skirmishes only increased the tension. So when the Pathet Lao sent troops to secure Sala Pu Koun, the Hmong took up arms to help the Royalists to defend it, it being the access route to the Plain of Jars.
They had no choice, suicidal as it was, but to keep fighting. They would not lay down their weapons, dreading the retribution they would face if they surrendered. Vang Pao's forces were predictably routed, and not long after, Long Chieng was about to be overrun. The US offered to airlift Vang Pao to Thailand, and he in turn requested help in airlifting five thousand of his people to safety. The CIA at Udon, who considered such a demand to be irrational, met this appeal with astonishment and scorn. Only four or so planes were sent. Thousands of Hmong, carrying baskets full of their belongings, battered suitcases, cardboard boxes tied up in strings, babies in their arms, mobbed the planes. It was like a scene out of Titanic, fighting for the lifeboats, with soldiers shooting into the air, people being thrown out of overloaded planes, the last of which slammed its doors and escaped into the air. Vang Pao had already been whisked away and choppered out.
The thousands who were abandoned began their long march to try and get to the Mekong and cross into Thailand, but were met by communist troops at the Hin Heup Bridge and were forcefully dispersed. Many hid in the jungles with arms and formed resistance forces. Thousands of others who made it out of the country ended up in refugee camps in Thailand, where additional resistance operations could be clandestinely sent across the river under the blind eye of the Thai military responsible for the camps.
Without Vang Pao and his top advisors, the resistance fighters required new leaders, and so they turned to the Chao Fa. The Chao Fa resistance established Pu Bia as a base, and the Lao Liberation Army and Vietnamese troops carried out bloody punitive operations against them in the late seventies. These battles scattered the Chao Fa but did not eradicate them. And while they posed no real threat to the government, they were a menace to the populace, ambushing vehicles and killing anyone who crossed their path.
Nowadays, unlike the situation posed in my novel, it is fairly safe to travel just about everywhere in Lao PDR, but there still remnants of the secret army still living in the jungles. You can read a fascinating article by an intrepid NY Times reporter who in 2007 tracked one group down deep in the forested mountains by clicking on this link Old U.S. Allies, Still Hiding in Laos.
Many of them have come down from the mountains and surrendered to the Lao government, while others found their way to refugee camps in Thailand. In 2008, however, a repatriation agreement between the Thai and Lao governments resulted in a mass forced deportation of the people in these camps, and reports of atrocities committed against them by the Lao military spurred activist groups to try and persuade the Thai government to keep granting asylum to the refugees, but to no avail. You can read more about this on the website One Hmong Voice Coalition. There is also a link to a very interesting YouTube video "Still a Secret War", which shows the desperate plight of people still waiting for the US to save them and give them a home in America
In April 2012, Nengyong Yang, a farmer in Laos, was cutting a tree in his field, preparing to plant corn. As Nengyong was hacking away, a bomb lodged in the trunk of the tree exploded in his face. Nengyong survived, but lost both his eyesight and his ability to provide for his wife and four children. Two months later, his wife found his lifeless body hanging from a tree.
Nengyong is just one of roughly twenty thousand people who have been injured or killed by unexploded ordnance (UXO) in Laos since 1973. The UXO is the legacy of intensive American bombing of Laos from 1964 to 1973, when the United States dropped two million tons of bombs on the country — more than twelve times the amount of bombs dropped on Japan during World War II. Laos is, per capita, the most heavily bombed country on Earth.
In the United States, the intervention in Laos is known as “the Secret War” because the government concealed everything about its activities. But to Laotians, the effects of the American bombardment have never been a secret.
The Secret War
Laos was (and remains) a mostly poor, agricultural society. The French maintained Laos as a colony from the late nineteenth century until the end of the First Indochina War in 1954, when the country was granted independence and neutrality. (The only exception was when Japan briefly controlled Laos during World War II.)
A coalition government of rightist, neutralist, and leftist factions was meant to administer power, but this proved impossible in the geopolitical climate of the time. The United States endeavored to keep both neutralists and the left-wing Pathet Lao (the nationalist, communist organization that had fought against the French) out of power through bribery and rigged elections.
Disenchanted by a political process that denied it participation, the Pathet Lao returned to fighting, and Laos was soon engulfed in a civil war that pitted the Pathet Lao (backed by North Vietnam) against the right-wing royalist government (backed by the United States). At the same time, North Vietnamese forces began infiltrating Laos on the Ho Chi Minh Trail, intensifying US involvement in Laos.
On the ground in Laos, the CIA organized and trained a mercenary army of ethnic Hmong to fight the Pathet Lao. Led by Vang Pao, a brutal commander who summarily executed those who crossed him, the mercenary army suffered tens of thousands of deaths. Vang Pao began recruiting child soldiers to keep up with the heavy losses and trafficked opium to help finance his operations. These activities were given the green light by the CIA (in fact, the opium was transported on Air America flights, an airline covertly operated by the CIA).
The worst destruction, however, came from the sky: from 1964 to 1973, the United States flew 580,000 bombing missions over Laos. The ostensible targets were Vietnamese communist troops and Pathet Lao forces. In practice, however, the targets were anything that moved, as eyewitness and refugee testimonies indicate.
When Lyndon Johnson announced a halt to the bombing of North Vietnam in 1968, the bombing of Laos escalated. Asked about the bombing during Senate testimony, Deputy Chief of Mission Monteagle Stearns said, “Well, we had all those planes sitting around and couldn’t just let them stay there with nothing to do.”
Some of the bombings were carried out merely to make life more convenient for the American bombers: if they couldn’t find their targets over Vietnam, the pilots would deposit the bombs over a random location in the Laotian countryside, because the planes couldn’t land with ordnance still on board.
The human cost of the US bombing campaign was immense. Fred Branfman, an international aid worker living in Laos, encountered refugees fleeing from the Plain of Jars region, an archeological landscape of ancient stone jars and also the site of intensive American bombing. Speaking Laotian, Branfman talked to the refugees and collected essays and drawings about what it was like to live under the bombardment. He published his findings in an important book, Voices from the Plain of Jars: Life under an Air War.
The refugees spoke of a relentless campaign of destruction: entire villages incinerated, temples and schools destroyed, livestock killed, people buried alive in holes they dug trying to escape the bombs, people burned alive by napalm and white phosphorous, others forced to live underground in caves for years.
A thirty-three-year-old woman described her experience:
I saw my cousin die in the field of death. My heart was most disturbed and my voice called out loudly as I ran to the houses. Thus, I saw life and death for the people on account of the war of many airplanes in the region of Xieng Khouang. Until there were no houses at all. And the cows and buffalo were dead. Until everything was leveled and you could see only the red, red ground. I think of this time and still I am afraid.
A thirty-nine-year-old rice farmer:
The planes bombed every day. After they bombed my village, they bombed the roads and the small paths, and also completely destroyed our ricefields. After that we had to dig other holes even further away because we were so afraid. On the days that the airplanes would come we were so afraid we didn’t want to eat. I pitied my children, for when the airplanes came to bomb my ricefields, they were afraid and afterwards would weep loudly. I was very afraid and could not even close my eyes to sleep. In 1968, there were no houses remaining in my village at all; and all my cows and buffalo had been killed.
It is impossible to know how many people the US bombings killed. As historian Alfred McCoy explained in a 2008 documentary on the Secret War, “We drove tens of thousands of people into becoming refugees. We inflicted . . . we don’t know how many dead. There’s no counting. We incinerated . . . we atomized human remains in this air war.”
The United States ended the bombing campaign in 1973 after signing the Paris Peace Accords. Two years later, the Pathet Lao achieved victory over their royalist enemies and took control of the country. For Laotians, however, the effects of the devastating air campaign would linger for decades.
A Deadly Legacy
A third of the bombs failed to explode on impact, thus becoming UXO. Some of the most harmful munitions were cluster bombs, which were dropped inside casings meant to open in mid-air and spread the “bomblets” over a wide area. About 80 million cluster bombs didn’t detonate; less than one percent of all UXO has been cleared.
Typical victims of UXO include farmers, scrap metal collectors, and children. Farmers often know explosives may be lurking beneath their fields, but must plough them anyway or lose their livelihood. Scrap metal collectors find old bombs for the purpose of selling the metal in them for a few pennies, often mistakenly believing they are dead. Many victims of cluster bombs are children, because the small, round shape of the explosives look like toys.
Beyond killing and injuring people, UXO also prevents development and perpetuates poverty. Construction projects are delayed or abandoned due to the cost of UXO removal. Children drop out of school to care for disabled parents. The health care system is unnecessarily burdened.
There are numerous NGOs in Laos clearing the UXO and helping the victims — but it’s not nearly enough. There are simply too many bombs. According to UXO expert Mike Boddington, cleaning up all the UXO in Laos would cost roughly $16 billion.
Is the United States doing anything to help clean up the bombs it dropped and assist the victims of its atrocities? Hardly. To date, the US has allocated $85 million to help get rid of the UXO — nowhere near the amount required and a pathetic figure compared to the $18 million (inflation-adjusted) the United States spent per day bombing Laos. There’s no reason the US can’t afford to remove the UXO — the $16 billion needed is less than three percent of the amount the US spent on the military in 2014.
It is clear the United States doesn’t have any interest in ending its aggression, but has it at least refrained from dropping the same deadly cluster bombs on other countries that have inflicted so much misery on Laos? No. Unlike 116 other countries, the United States refuses to sign the Convention on Cluster Munitions — which would ban the “use, production, transfer, and stockpiling of cluster munitions.” It has even pressured its allies to reject the prohibition and to sit out the treaty negotiations.
Since 9/11, the United States has used cluster bombs in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Yemen. The US has also exported cluster bombs to numerous countries, including Israel (which used them in its assault on Lebanon in 2006) and Saudi Arabia (which used them to attack Yemen in 2015).
The extreme brutality of the bombing of Laos, the unwillingness of the United States to help the victims, and its continued use and export of cluster bombs demand accountability. For the sake of Nengyong and so many others, such barbarous and shameful acts should no longer be ignored.