Voices from the Plain of Jars: Life under an Air War
Americans cannot perceive—even the most decent among us—the suffering caused by the United States air war in Indochina and how huge are the graveyards we have created there. To a reporter recently returned from Vietnam, it often seems that much of our fury and fear is reserved for busing, abortion, mugging, and liberation of some kind. Our deepest emotions are wired to baseball players. As Anthony Lewis once wrote, our military technology is so advanced that we kill at a distance and insulate our consciences by the remoteness of the killing. A very large part of the war’s moral horror, he said, has been our ability to conceal its human significance from ourselves.
It is very clear indeed that as the White House continues with its escalation of the air war in Indochina, the White House knows that Americans do not care, or do not seem to want to know about it. If there are photographs in the press, the dead will not be drafted soldiers from Arkansas or Tennessee and this is, perhaps, all that matters to us.
For us, bombing is death in the abstract. The Indochinese continue to die as they run to huddle inside holes or bunkers.
In this small, shattering book we hear—as we are so rarely able to do—the voices of Asian peasants describing what we cannot begin to imagine. They are refugees from the Plain of Jars in northeast Laos, telling us of their lives during five years of American bombings from 1964 through most of 1969. And, in addition to these haunting essays, there are thirty-two drawings by refugees to show us their helplessness against American bombs and aerial explosives, how the quick terrible fires rose up, and how the dead blew apart.
The survivors of such bombings in Indochina—who know better than anyone else how Americans kill from the sky—do not often choose to tell what happened, even to sympathetic Americans who ask. They are encouraged to remain silent by their officials and they fear being labeled communist sympathizers if they speak. There is usually no one to hear them. Few Americans speak the language of the refugees or are willing, as was Mr. Branfman, to spend many months encouraging them to write down what they endured.
After a recorded history of 700 years, in September, 1969, the Plain of Jars disappeared—unnoticed and unmourned.
By September the society of fifty thousand people living in and around the area no longer existed. History has conferred one last distinction upon it. The Plain of Jars had become the first society to vanish through automated warfare. Although few people realize it as yet, the disappearance of the Plain of Jars is one of the signal events of our time, as significant in its own way as the Battle of the Marne, the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, the massacre of My Lai.
Not because it is as celebrated as any of these events but precisely because it is not. The Plain of Jars marks the advent of “superpower” intervention—the US role in Laos—through secret, automated war. What is important is not simply that it involves bombing. It is that superstates, Mr. Branfman believes, are now using mechanized warfare as their major means of intervention; not committing their own ground troops, but using local ground troops to support the machines.
We see clearly that President Nixon intended to use American technology in Laos to save American manpower—as he is doing now in Vietnam—while using the relatively ineffective Royal Laotian government troops on the ground. Mr. Branfman points out—in case we have any illusions—that it was not our intention to provide tactical air support for the troops on the ground in northern Laos. They served primarily as lures to draw enemy fire, he says, so that the bombers would know where to strike. So the Plain of Jars—a picturesque, prosperous rural society in an Indochinese country known by so few Americans—is a warning.
We learn from the survivors, years after it took place, of war from the air—in which men are never face to face. The sixteen essays, which were written in Lao in different refugee camps in the Vientiane Plain between December, 1970, and May, 1971, were translated by Mr. Branfman. He also collected the drawings, which have brief, terrible comments. A twelve-year-old artist explains his sketch:
One friend of mine went to the village to get rice for his mother and father to eat. He crossed the field to the hill and the airplanes saw him and shot him and killed him so that you couldn’t even see his body. It was scattered all over the fields.
He has drawn very carefully, showing the pot of rice dropped by the boy, and the American planes coming closer, and the chunks of the child’s body flying apart. He has even made the tiny face look perplexed. The nightmare lacks no details.
How was it all kept a secret? In the revised edition of The Air War in Indochina, prepared under the auspices of the Cornell University Program on Peace Studies, there is a concise explanation.
President Kennedy’s “Country Team” directive of May 1961 placed all US agencies operating within a foreign country under the direct supervision of the US ambassador. In Laos, a nominally neutral country torn by a serious conflict in which the US was involved, this had the effect of giving the ambassador direct control over all US military and paramilitary operations. These operations were subsequently escalated to a very high level, and the American ambassador in effect became the commander in a theater of war, responsible directly to the President.
Ambassadors don’t confide in reporters, especially when they are acting as generals.
In northern Laos, US military operations were conducted by decision of the Executive. At first, paramilitary operations were organized by the CIA and later we used official US air power, but both were still under control of the American Embassy in Vientiane.
For many years these operations were not publicly acknowledged, though occasional newspaper accounts provided a glimpse of them. Because of this official secrecy, Congress was not given an opportunity in shaping American policy in Laos, causing this to be dubbed by some a “presidential war” [the Cornell report says].
The purpose of the secrecy of the bombing in northern Laos was, of course, to conceal the role of the United States in that country, and more particularly the American apparatus of civil and military agencies shaping and dominating the politics and the economic and military condition of Laos. This made it much easier for the White House to claim that the villains who had destroyed Laotian neutrality were, of course, the North Vietnamese and that we were only helping an ally who asked for our assistance. The reason for the American presence in Laos has always been to support the Royal Laotian government against the Pathet Lao, the left-wing insurgents, and their North Vietnamese allies. We have been involved not only through US air power but also by organizing, supplying, and directing irregular ground forces, mostly controlled by the CIA.
Secrecy was maintained by keeping reporters away. They were forbidden—as they still are—from entry to the American bases in Thailand where the bombers take off. Airmen are not permitted to speak to the press. Traveling in Laos I found that reporters—unless they are considered “friendly”—are restricted when traveling through Laos; permission is needed from US officials to fly on any aircraft. There is no way of reaching remote areas. In Vietnam, such restrictions on entering bases and talking to pilots did not exist although many US military officials wish they had.
Over 25,000 attack sorties were flown against the Plain of Jars from 1964 to September, 1969. Mr. Branfman estimates a minimum of 75,000 tons of bombs were dropped on that area.
Every day for five and a half years, the reconnaissance and electronic aircraft would film and track the people below; the jet and prop bombers would bomb them with white phosphorous, fragmentation, ball-bearing and flechette anti-personnel bombs, immediate and delayed-action high explosives; the gunships and spotter planes would strafe them with machine-gun fire.
We knew nothing at all of this. Because American officials who ordered it had neither congressional authorization nor public mandate, Mr. Branfman feels for the first time in our history “a small group of American leaders had taken it upon themselves to destroy a distant society neither to protect American shores nor even American troops fighting abroad.”
The first direct involvement of US forces in Laos dates from the spring of 1964—in May of that year US jets had begun “reconnaissance” flights over the Plain of Jars—but it was not until October, 1969, that US officials conceded that we had been bombing there, always adding that no civilian targets had been struck. In April, 1971, the former Ambassador to Laos, Walter H. Sullivan, testified before a Senate subcommittee on refugees, and he described US activity over the Plain of Jars as “the other war in Laos, which has nothing to do with operations in South Vietnam or Cambodia.”
The “other war” is even worse perhaps, than the war in South Vietnam. In Voices from the Plain of Jars the Lao describe how death came before people had any chance at all to prepare themselves, and no chance at all to plead innocence. A man could only run. In Vietnam, where warning leaflets were usually dropped, the peasants sometimes had fifteen minutes, or an hour, to get out.
A thirty-nine-year-old Lao farmer—who for twenty-three years worked his parents’ ricefields—says that eight years ago in his village life was all that he had hoped for.
But then came a reversal of life for me and all the villagers in this canton. We had committed no crimes and had never said that we were going to do this or that. We had just built up what we had inherited. And because we hadn’t had anything to disturb us for so many years, our building had progressed day by day.
But in 1964, there was great unrest. There were loud noises from big and little guns hitting the mountains and it seemed to this man as though “our village was at the center of a storm shaking from great fear.” The noise of guns was replaced by the sounds of airplanes which “made a spectacle the likes of which our village had never seen.” The farmer and others came out of their houses and stood watching, for in all their lives, they had known no more than the word “airplane.”
It could not have anything to do with them, the villagers said to each other.
“At first these planes shot at the different mountains. We thought that our people had nothing to do with these matters, we thought we could watch to our heart’s content and continue living as we always had,” the farmer wrote.