Tag Archives: alfred mccoy

Voices from the Plain of Jars, Republished

7 Jun

pathetlao02Pages (above and below) from Lao language primer, 1965, assumed to be produced by Pathet Lao (in translation). Collection of the author.

When I read Voices from the Plain of Jars (1972), edited by Fred Branfman — see my earlier review, “An American Love for Automated War,” dated February 22, 2012 — I was not aware of the powerful sentiment of the Lao people against the incursion of American firepower over their land.  This, in itself, is not a criticism of the collection of writings contributing to nor the editorial process involved in the production of the book.  Branfman makes clear that much of this testimony was gathered from survivors of our massive years-long bombing who were herded into relocation centers.  One must assume that informants were circumspect about the revolutionary movement that the Lao People’s Revolutionary Party, or Pathet Lao, represented.  While the book’s testimony does provide devastating description of the unfathomable destruction the United States rained upon Laos, these revolutionary images show a quite different projection of American military power.  In the above image, “U.S.” appears inscribed on a bomb dropping from the hand of an individual who is kicked by a Lao revolutionary soldier.  Perhaps this officer in white, short-sleeved shirt with insignia represents the U.S. client government in Laos.  The picture below, from the same language primer, exhorts the people to fight this phantom-like aggressor.  Here, the United States is symbolized by Uncle Sam, in black suit and stovepipe hat, running from the revolutionary Lao vanguard.  Significantly, his white skin symbolizes death, all that the United States, and by extension, we, can be known to produce.  Information about the reissue of this important book follows below with text provided by Fred.


“Arguably the most important single book to emerge from the Vietnam War” – Historian Alfred McCoy

For Immediate Release:  Official publication date: May 31, 2013 (Now available from Amazon and bookstores.) Contact: Fred Branfman (fredbranfman@aol.com Tel: 805-284-9391); Review copies available from Elena Spagnolie, Univ. of Wisconsin Press, 608-236-0734, email: publicity@uwpress.wisc.ed

“Every night the planes came to drop bombs on us. We lived in holes to protect our lives. I saw my cousin die in the field of death. My heart was most disturbed and my voice called out loudly as I ran to the houses.  Thus, I saw life and death for the people on account of the war of many airplanes.  Until there were no houses at all.  And the cows and buffalo were dead.  Until everything was leveled and you could see only the red, red ground.  I think of this time and still I am afraid.”

—  33 year-old woman, a Plain of Jars refugee from U.S. bombing

Voices From the Plain of Jars: Life Under An Air War is the only book to emerge from the Indochina War written by the villagers — who comprised most of the population, suffered most, and were heard from least.  U.S. leaders dropped 2 million tons of bombs on Laos, part of 6.7 million tons for all Indochina — more than triple what was dropped on all of Europe and the Pacific theater in World War II.  Yet Voices From The Plain of Jars is the only first-person record of the unspeakable suffering of the unseen millions subjected to this aerial onslaught.

No one who reads this book and tries to imagine what its kind, gentle people went through — e.g. how you would feel to see your own precious child burned alive before your eyes or beloved mate slowly suffocate to death — can emerge unchanged from the experience.  No one who reads these pages will ever again see U.S. Executive Branch leaders — who destroyed the lives of these innocents not out of malice but indifference to their very existence as human beings — the same way, then or now.   And anyone wishing to understand the true nature of U.S. Executive warfare now and in the future will learn much from this book.  It has a twofold relevance today:

(1) Understanding the Human Costs of U.S. War-Making — These voices from Laos are also the voices of countless unseen villagers today in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Yemen and other locales as U.S. drone and aerial warfare escalates and slowly spreads to ever-greater regions of the globe.  These voices also remind us that the U.S. has failed to clean up the 80 million unexploded cluster bombs it left behind in Laos, which have killed and wounded over 20,000 innocent Lao villagers since the war ended, and continue to do so until today.

(2) Understanding Today’s New Form of U.S. Executive Secret Warfare — Today’s U.S. war-making is based on the template of the “U.S. Executive Secret War” that was waged in Laos.  Historian Al McCoy writes in his foreword that “today the significance of its message has, if anything, increased.  For even as Branfman immersed himself in the suffering of the  Lao peasants, he understood that he was not only witnessing the present but seeing the future.  In articles, lectures, and congressional testimony, he predicted, with uncommon prescience, that Laos served as a testing ground for forging (a) new global strategy, today and in the future.”

This new strategy sees a handful of U.S. leaders unilaterally waging secret war without even informing, let alone obtaining the informed consent required by the U.S. Constitution, from Congress and the American people.  Because this lawless form of warfare is secret and far cheaper than deploying  ground troops, it has an inward dynamic of escalation and inevitably murders, maims and makes homeless ever-greater numbers of civilians – even as, in the long-run, it is militarily ineffective.

On July 9, 1973, N.Y. Times columnist Anthony Lewis wrote, “The most appalling episode of lawless cruelty in American history [is] the bombing of Laos … The human results … are described without rancor—almost unbearably so—in a small book that will go down as a classic.  It is “Voices From the Plain of Jars” … in which the villagers of Laos themselves describe what the bombers did to their civilization.  No American should be able to read that book without weeping at his country’s arrogance.” (Emphasis added)

On April 27, 2013, MIT Professor Noam Chomsky brought the book’s message up to date, stating that “Fred Branfman [is] the person who worked for years, with enormous courage and effort, to try to expose what were called the secret wars.  The secret wars were perfectly public wars, which the media was keeping  secret.  But Fred didn’t give up, he finally did succeed and gave tremendous exposure to the huge wars that were going on, the war in northern Laos, one of the most malevolent acts of modern history.  He then proceeded to help expose air wars in general.  They’re self-generating, that’s the nature of these (secret war) systems.  It’s already happening, more and more of it.  I think that’s the story that needs to be kept in mind.” (Democracy Now Forum, Harvard, 4-27-13) (Emphasis added.)

Fred Branfman
805-284-9391 (Skype)