Deaf and Blind in the Land of Bombs

25 Feb

A British friend of mine, just returned from a trip to Laos, toured Tame Piew cave where 474 villagers, fired upon by fighter planes, were killed.  The unidentifiable remains were gathered and buried in mass graves.  My friend noted that the American secret bombing there was conducted over dense jungle with no real targets visible, aside from villages.

Laos, once called Lan Xang, “Land of a Million Elephants” (more recently referred to as “Land of a Million Bombs”) is a gradually recovering victim of the secret American bombing of Laos, an extension of the Vietnam war.  As if some paranoid, suburbanite War-On-Termites were being waged, the campaign drug on for nine years, from 1964 to 1973

In the name of freedom and democracy, the shock and awe of more than two million tons of ordnance, more than was dropped during all of WWII, visited forest and plain, transforming Laos into the most bombed country in history.  Villages and rice paddies were abandoned as people concealed their children in holes in the jungle.  By the time the Americans finally exhausted themselves, the country was largely contaminated with unexploded cluster bomblets: antipersonnel munitions that shred flesh with flying shrapnel.

Acre upon acre of Laotian farmland is effectively no-man’s-land.  Thousands of people have been killed or maimed by unexploded ordnance (UXO) and the casualties continue at a rate of about three hundred a year.  The work of removing UXO, begun in 1994, continues at a rate of five or six square miles a year.  That leaves 33,669 square miles or more than a third of the country to go.   Today, the US spends about two million a year on the removal of UXO in Laos–perhaps the cost of a day’s bombing.  In 2010, a first congressional hearing was held, with Laotian Americans requesting a modest 10 million a year to clean up the bombs (about a week of bombing).

America’s “secret war” in Laos had to be kept under wraps in part because it was an illegal, violating the 1962 Geneva accords that declared Laos neutral and off-limits.  It was also inexcusable.  The military justification would have been the  Ho Chi Minh trail and the domino theory of communism.  Neither of these justifications go far in explaining the madness of bombing at a rate “equal to a planeload of bombs every 8 minutes, 24-hours a day”, killing the innocent with the guilty, leaving God to sort them out.

The war in Laos came grudgingly to light beginning in 1971 with senatorial hearings initiated by Ted Kennedy.  However, it’s not much discussed in the US.  Thus, the past is present, the wars continue, and societies are brutalized by an empire that can’t remember the million bombs or hear the crying.

What is it in America that compels her to reserve her fullest vengeance for third-world farmers?  For sure, people who bomb thatched villages could not view the human beings living in them quite as they view their own families.  Such unimaginable suffering brought to bear and then shrugged away suggests something vastly delusional at work in the American psyche.

If we could flip through the DSM-IV and locate the particular disorder that leads to the sustained targeting of defenseless farmers or civilians, it might help explain the burning of the barrio of El Chorrio in Panama, (gratuitous carnage not to be seen in the same light as Guernica) the 78-day bombing of Yugoslavia that shredded the downtown areas of Pristina and Blegrade and left behind cluster bomblets, or the Clintonite sanctions of Iraq, which resulted in hundreds of thousands of dead children, or the drone attacks in Pakistan and Afghanistan, which kill ten innocent people for every fighter and transform wedding celebrations into the blackest of nightmares.

Famous Americans who suffer from acute American Callousness Disorder include General Westmoreland and Madeleine Albright.  Madeleine Albright, of course, declared on CBS to Leslie Stahl that the death of 500,000 Iraqi was “worth it”.   During the war on Indochina General Westmoreland stated, “Well, the Oriental doesn’t put the same high price on life as does the Westerner. Life is plentiful; life is cheap in the Orient. And as the philosophy of the Orient expresses it, life is not important.”

In the absence of a-face-to-face encounter with those who have been dehumanized and diminished, those afflicted may be unlikely to experience a full recovery from the aforementioned condition.  However, sufferers would do well to have a look at the website of Legacies of War, a Laotian American organization attempting to raise awareness of the secret bombing and its aftermath.  Among a wide variety of resources, the organization promotes Refugee Nation by Leiland Chan and Ova Saopeng, a play that weaves together narratives from the lives of Laotians.  A media interactive center shows Laotian people recalling the planes that circled daily, targeting anyone who could not make it to a hole or cave.  A travelling exhibition features a group of drawings of refugees from the Secret Bombing, preserved for a quarter of a century and brought to light in 2004.

Executive Director Channapha Khamvongsa recounts,

I was working at the Ford Foundation in the fall of 2003, when I went to Washington D.C. for a meeting with one of Ford’s grantees, the Institute for Policy Studies. In attendance was John Cavanagh, the Executive Director. John asked me what the origin of my name was. When I told him it was Laotian, he immediately exclaimed, “It’s really terrible what happened in the Plain of Jars!” Of course, I was shocked. After all, it seemed most Americans didn’t even know where Laos was, let alone, the specific region of Xieng Khoang, one of the most heavily bombed provinces . . ..  As it turns out, John had worked alongside Fred Branfman in the 1970s at the Indochina Resource Center, a policy think-tank working to stop the bombings in Southeast Asia. When the office closed down, John was cleaning out the office and came across the illustrations. With a sense that the drawings were important, he decided to hold on to them. As John and I came to this remarkable connection, John told me that he had some illustrations drawn by survivors of the U.S. bombings.

More than thirty sketches are accompanied by heart-rending personal testimony from those who had lived in harmony with each other and with nature until America put her shoulder into the work of killing them.

From the plain of Jars:

Credit: Legacies of War

My village used to have hills and forests and houses along the side of the rice fields. Everyone had rice fields and buffalo and cows. We earned our livelihoods with happy hearts. We always helped each other to build the progress of our upland and lowland rice fields, with cooperation. But then came the airplanes to strike. To strike at our houses until they were completely lost. Until we had no place to stay. And we were afraid. Because the planes came almost every day without exception. It was as if we were in jail. We couldn’t go anywhere. All we could do was sit in the mouths of the holes . . ..  And still there were people who were killed. In the forest and in the rice fields. Every single day. Everyday at least once you heard of someone being killed. They would die and then we would put them in a box in order to take them to be burned in the forest . . ..  We couldn’t put them in boxes anymore, just take them and put them into a hole because we had no more wood. We just dug a hole in the foot of the hill and buried them.This is what I think about the people who died in this region. They died like animals die in the forest.

A mother:

Credit: Legacies of War

We are refugees who have fled from the region of Xieng Khouang to come here because there we were always afraid and didn’t have any homes. All we saw was the fire of the firebombs . . .. One day I saw the planes come and I ran out with my child. But I ran out and my child’s skin was hit. I took him and ran for the forest but before we reached it. There were some people who tried to take their belongings and run out of the houses with their children. But the houses were old and big. They were hit by the airplanes and burned and we were not courageous enough to go get any more belongings. After that day I always stayed in the holes in the forest. I didn’t have any house at all. I just made a very small shelter in which to stay.

And there’s this one, which makes me wonder if the writer is speaking of Tame Piew. . . or if it’s just a tale that must be told and told and retold:

Credit: Legacies of War

In my village there was one place in the hills which gave the people a place to hide from anyone in the sky. But death did not flee us for long. Until it was hit by the airplanes shooting so that people died in the hole. There was no one who survived. They all burned and died. Only once in my life did I see many people die in hole like this.  Because the airplanes mistakenly thought that it was a hole of the soldiers. So they shoot it up. But there weren’t any soldiers who died. Only village people. Then in the days after that people went to dig out the bodies and recover the belongings which were of value. Everything was in the hole. The people who went to dig were afraid but they had to do it. Because their own families and children and wives, and parents were in the hole.

The stories are touching, not just in their sadness, but in their disarming innocence and simplicity, which dare I say, reminds us of our own, real and loveable children.

Credit: Legacies of War

I am a child of my village. I once saw a horse of great size and goodness. A man had ridden to the ricefield and was hit by the airplanes. Only the horse ran back to the village. We knew that this must mean the airplanes had shot (him). I went off with the adults to look for him. The person had died at a place in the field. He had died already. My knowledge came with much pity for him. I saw the children and wife and together with them cried. Everyone thought of this man.

Westmoreland would have the people enduring with stolid, savage resignation, but that would be a projection of his own ignorance and lack of feeling.  Or maybe he’d recount the myth of protection, as the Japanese did before the invasion of “Manchukuo . The sad truth of Laos, however, is that kind, innocent men, women, and children–who delighted in life, who tilled the soil–died “like animals” in fields and houses, in holes and in caves.  Perhaps Westmoreland or Albright could view these sketches and tragic tales without regret.  But one wonders what stark answer to Bob Dylan’s question–how many deaths will it take?–could result from such a deaf-blind-and-heartless condition.




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