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.
But such innocence—the innocence of sane men—ended on March 14, 1967, for the people of Sene Noi Canton, Khun District, Xieng Khouang Province.
Four planes of the jet type dropped their bombs together to destroy my village and returned to shoot twice in the same day. They dropped eight napalm bombs, the fire from which destroyed all my things, sixteen buildings along with our possessions inside, as well as maiming our animals. Some people who didn’t reach the jungle in time were struck and fell, dying most pitifully.
When the fires died down, the living came out of hiding and saw the ashes of their houses, the burned rice, and an end of their existence.
“We were all heavy-hearted and mournful almost to the point of losing our minds,” the farmer said. “From a state of complete happiness we had passed into misery and poverty.”
If there is a single sentence to describe the reactions of the victims of bombing in Indochina—where our six million tons of bombs have been dropped, with as much as one-fourth of them on Laos—let it be this one. “Heavy-hearted and mournful almost to the point of losing our minds.”
Over and over again in this book, the refugees write of their longing to go back to their villages. Americans, with their historical restlessness and pride in their mobility, often find it impossible to understand why an Indochinese, forced to move away from his village, may be a displaced person in the most wretched sense. Many of the accounts are heavy with love and longing for what these Lao cannot enjoy ever again, for views they cannot replace, for land and trees and animals they knew. A man who has moved from Nebraska to New York does not know this.
Pity—our houses, ricefields, inheritance—we must abandon. The ricefields will grow jungles. They will become a wild place filled with tigers. Have pity; the land, the ponds with fish, everything; pity the bathing hole where no one will come to swim and muddy the cool waters. Pity the crabs, fish, game, bamboo shoots; our kind of food. Sorrow for the fruit trees we planted in the garden and around the village, the clumps of large and small bamboo; have pity!… The day does not exist when we will forget.
A Laotian poet wrote this.
The Plain of Jars is an area of 7,600 square miles stretching from the border of North Vietnam to the north to the edges of the Mekong Valley to the south. There were mountains, fertile valleys, forests, and the climate was fresh and bracing. Located in the central province of Xieng Khouang, it was good for growing fruit and raising cattle.
Mr. Branfman did not intend, in this book, to give us either a history of Laos or an analysis of the emergence of the Pathet Lao. His purpose was only to show some of the most sickening results of American foreign policy. In 1949, Laos became an autonomous member of the French Union and it achieved full independence after the Geneva Conference of 1954. American involvement, from that year on, meant creating a paramilitary force of Meo Hill tribesmen to fight the Pathet Lao, under CIA control and independent of the Royal Laotian government. It also meant financial support for those Vientiane regimes which pleased us, and money for coups when they didn’t; the expansion of the Lao Army; and the introduction of Air America. This is the CIA-owned airline, which, although it claims only to be a charter airlift, serves the agency in its clandestine war activities. It transports troops, supplies, weapons, agents, and whatever else is needed.
Peter Dale Scott, in The War Conspiracy,* reminds us that in the 1962 Geneva Agreements on Laos, the fourteen-power conference committed itself to respecting in every way the sovereignty, independence, and neutrality of Laos. The United States agreed to such prohibitions as ones on “foreign paramilitary formations” and “foreign civilians connected with the supply, maintenance, storing and utilization of war materials.” In calling Air America a “paramilitary auxiliary arm,” Mr. Scott makes an important point that the primary function of Air America is logistical—not so much to make war as to “make war possible.”
In 1958 the Pathet Lao and a left-wing neutralist party aligned with them agreed to a special parliamentary election intended to bring all factions into a Royal Laotian government. But when the Pathet Lao won thirteen out of twenty-one seats, a right-wing faction led by the CIA-sponsored General Phoumi Nosavan deposed Souvanna Phouma in May, 1959, and imprisoned his half brother, Prince Souphanouvong, the Pathet Lao leader. It is frequently claimed by US officials that the Pathet Lao was never more than a thin camouflage for North Vietnamese ambitions in Laos, but these 1958 elections—probably the last honest ones held—hardly make the American case a persuasive one.
The White House has claimed that by 1961 North Vietnamese involvement in Laos became marked, that communist forces made great advances, and a serious situation confronted the Kennedy Administration. But it can also be shown that the Americans were the ones who helped to create the crisis, and then contrived to keep it alive. For with substantial US help, General Phoumi’s Royal Laotian Army drove the neutralist troops of General Kong Le, a former paratroop captain and then Souvanna’s military chief, to the north and into a temporary alliance with the Pathet Lao leaders. After Kong Le captured the Plain of Jars from Phoumi’s troops, the Pathet Lao moved south to join him. Both Souvanna Phouma and Kong Le, who were then genuine neutralists fearful of North Vietnamese influences, were forced to seek communist support to survive Phoumi’s attack.
By January, 1961, the West had lost control of most of the Plain of Jars to the Pathet Lao and its ally, Kong Le, who seized temporary control of Vientiane in August, 1960. Supported by the Soviet Union, Kong Le established his own administration at Khang Khay, with Souvanna Phouma as prime minister, and continued fighting the US-backed Lao and Meo armies until July, 1962. Souvanna Phouma, in that year, returned to Vientiane to head a Government of National Union. The alliance of Kong Le with the Pathet Lao crumbled in 1963. Civil war broke out between Kong Le’s troops and the Pathet Lao, who had been joined by a faction of his army headed by Colonel Deuane Sipraseuth. The victor, the Pathet Lao, controlled 80 percent of Xien Khouang’s lowlands, from south and southwest of the Plain of Jars through the entire Plain area up to the borders of Sam Neua and Vietnam. The US held control of Long Tieng, a CIA base of operations, and mountain-top Meo villages in Xieng Khouang Province which were supplied by Air America.
The rule of the Pathet Lao—often called by the people Neo Lao Haksat, the name of their political party—began in May, 1964. It brought its people into what Mr. Branfman terms the postcolonial period and it also brought the American bombers. A beginning and an end.
A stream of unbroken assurances that inhabited villages have never been bombed might once have fooled us if the Vietnam war had not taught us to be suspicious. But now it is difficult even to pretend surprise at the words of US Air Attache Colonel William Tyrell, who testified before the Symington Senate subcommittee in October, 1969.
I recall talking to refugees from Xieng Khouangville (the provincial capital) and they told me they knew of no civilian casualties there during the operations…I think this is typical…. Villages, even in a freedrop zone, would be restricted from bombing.
Of considerably more interest than the self-deceit or deliberate lying of US Army officers—for by now we are too familiar with it—are the accounts of life under the Pathet Lao rule.
Mr. Branfman, who lived in Laos for four years and spent the first two working for the International Voluntary Service in 1967 and 1968, cautions us against drawing conclusions about the political sympathies of the Lao who wrote these essays. Trying to encourage them to write as freely as possible, he specifically asked them, in Lao, not to state which side they preferred nor to engage in polemics either for or against the Royal Lao government or the Pathet Lao.
But he concludes from what he learned about their lives under the Pathet Lao that
…for the first time they were taught pride in their country and people, instead of admiration for a foreign culture; schooling and massive adult literacy campaigns were conducted in Laotian instead of French; and mild but thorough social revolution—ranging from land reform to greater equality for women—was instituted.
No doubt there are some refugees in Laos who do not like the Pathet Lao guerrillas, who object to being conscripted as porters by them, for example, or are irritated because they have stopped gambling, opium smoking, or lotteries in the villages they control. Such complaints have been documented in interviews with Laotian refugees but they do not occur in the essays in this book. The people write only of the changes in their society which they found remarkable, and they do so in a way that seems to me convincing after my own visits to Laos. The general impression they give is that the Pathet Lao cadres seemed to want to help the people as no outsiders ever had and no government had ever seemed eager to do.
In the account of a twenty-six-year-old woman who eventually became a Pathet Lao nurse, we see how slowly, how softly the cadres worked. Writing of the bombing period in 1964 and 1965—“the holes! the holes! during that time we needed holes to save our lives”—she tells how the cadre entered the village “asking this or that.” The Pathet Lao was called the Neo Lao by the villagers.
Sometimes they also went into the holes we had dug to escape the strafing and bombing of the airplanes. They displayed a kindly air and were interested in us. Sometimes when they saw us villagers building houses, growing vegetables and fruits, they would come and help us with the work. Over a long time we got to know each other.
The woman writes how “a very intelligent girl” from the Pathet Lao was sent to live in the village to become their teacher so they might all learn to read and write. She taught them songs, too, to keep up their spirits.
“We saw that she was a truly good person. All the villagers also loved her very much…. We wanted to be like her and have bright futures.”
The woman, with three of her friends, went to study in Xieng Khouang, wanting to become, she says, as strong and splendid as the Pathet Lao teacher. Their training lasted six months and they were sent north to live and work in the villages. In 1968 and 1969, the nurse found that the bombing and the lack of medical equipment made it impossible to carry out her duties. Soldiers of the government army entered the village and told her that because of her youth and innocence she could start a new life in a new region. She writes:
And thus has my life passed. Were it not for the Neo Lao I would have remained an innocent rustic in my village until I got old and died, and my village would not have enjoyed the benefits of any progress. And if the government had not taken us out, I would still be working ceaselessly for the Neo Lao.
At twenty-six years old, she seems to feel her life is over.
The past has melted away. Our lives have passed like a dream. There is nothing which can make up for the sorrow. The past is finished. Goodbye to old things. May the life of a former nurse from Xieng Khouang pass away without returning again.