Voices from the Plain of Jars: Life under an Air War
compiled with an Introduction and Preface by Fred Branfman
Harper & Row, 160 pp., $1.95 (paper)
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 …