An American Love for Automated War

22 Feb

Drawing created by a displaced 27-year-old Laotian farmer in 1972. Courtesy of Fred Branfman.

What sadness!  Formerly, the fragrance of ripening rice

would fill the ricefields

I would see flowers opening their blossoms everywhere

in the forests

How beautiful it was for us!

— by a 20-year-old Laotian man, a traditional singer

It was a fertile land, a land of temperate weather and lush landscapes, rich in forests, jungles and mountain scapes.  Rice was the main crop of the region.  Water buffalo, cows, pigs, horses, ducks and chickens were staple livestock.  People lived in small villages where a pagoda might serve as a focal point.  Needs were simple enough that marketing was limited to occasional trips to purchase textiles and clothing.  Then the American bombers came.

From 1964 to 1969, the American government conducted a secret air war against the Laotian people occupying the Plain of Jars, the people there known locally as the Lao Phouen.  The Plain of Jars, so named because of receptacles found in the region believed to be from an ancient Mon-Khmer race, was located in the central Xieng Khouang province.  Editor Fred Branfman’s book, Voices from the Plain of Jars: Life under an Air War (Harper Colophon Books, Harper & Row, New York, 1972) documents the complete disappearance of a civilization through the testimony of survivors from this American-waged Guernica, survivors who were eventually herded into encampments outside the southern Laotian city of Ventiane.

It was the political victory of the Pathet Lao (“nation of Laos”) in May, 1964 that prompted the American government to act.  The United States had earlier attempted to control the Plain: from 1955 to 1963, funding Ventiane regime and far-right coups at a cost of $480.7 million; expanding a right-wing Lao army from a few thousand in 1954 to over thirty thousand by 1960; organizing a separate army of Meos, Laotian hill tribesmen originally from China, under the leadership of the C.I.A.; and establishing Air America bases owned by the C.I.A. (see Branfman, pages 12-13).  Following Western loss of control of most of the Plain, United States influence shrank to an area southwest of the Plain, where the C.I.A. directed the military base Long Tieng (Branfman 13-14).  Strategically, the United States had used northern Laos for Meo and American special forces teams entering North Vietnam on espionage, sabotage and assassination raids, from the 1950’s on; radar sites aiding American bombers attacking North Vietnam in the mid-1960’s; and, also, as a base for carrying out espionage missions into China (Branfman 16 fn. 14).

According to a U.S. Senate Staff Report, quoted by Branfman, the air war was meant “to destroy the social and economic infrastructure of Pathet Lao held areas,” with clarification from Branfman that “it was meant to hurt them by depriving them of local food supplies, disrupting transport and communications, killing off potential recruits and rice porters, demoralizing the civilian population, and eventually causing a refugee flow away from the Plain” (17-18).  Indeed, every aspect of civilian living became targeted under this “automated battlefield.”  Villages were bombed to smoldering ruins.  Rice paddies were destroyed.  As civilians fled to forests and jungles, these refugee sites were destroyed.  Even attempts to live in holes dug in the ground and farm at night were without avail; reconnaissance and electronic aircraft filmed and tracked the people below everyday for five and a half years (Branfman 18).

I found a copy of this book two months ago quite by accident.  Although a teenager in 1972, I was completely unaware of this remarkable testimony from the survivors of an American automated air war.  The words of these people, many who could not understand why the United States was bombing, saddens me greatly.  The drawings that are included are harrowing visions of the destruction we wrought against a people we held absolutely no compassion for.  What are we ignorant of today as our government acts secretly elsewhere in the world?

Branfman continues to educate people about the morality of automated war and the targeting of civilian populations.  You can learn about his life-long peace and justice work, and greater detail about the bombing of the Plain of Jars, at his blog:  His website, Truly Alive: Facing Death in the Prime of Life, at, addresses psychological and spiritual principles with concern for societal and biospheric well-being.

Note: the above poem appears on page 37 of Voices from the Plain of Jars.

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