Laos bombing

The secret war

In 2008, filmmaker Marc Eberle travelled to Laos to document the grisly legacy of the CIA’s secret war during the Vietnam War

WHY WE WROTE THIS: Because the atrocities of the past should never be swept under the rug.

Marc Eberle
September 30, 2019
The secret war

Editors note: This week in 1965, the US began a series of brutal bombings across North Vietnam, killing tens of thousands of civilians and leaving the landscape in ruins. But across the border in neutralist Laos, another bombardment was tearing another nation apart, hidden from the prying eyes of the US public and world media. In 2008, filmmaker Marc Eberle travelled to a land once locked behind the bamboo curtain to dig into the legacy of the CIA’s secret war on Laos. Now, for the first time, you can read what he found there online.

We met before sunrise: Richy, the cameraman, Sousath, my Lao contact and me. We packed only the most essential film gear, loaded everything in the car and set off. Our destination: the former CIA air base of Long Cheng. Between 1962 and 1975, it was one of the world’s busiest airports with a population of more than 50,000. It was the heart of a secret war waged by the US against communist forces in Laos, yet it was never marked on any map. Today it lies inside the Xaisomboun special zone, a restricted military area that is off-limits to civilians. 

It wasn’t until 2003 that it emerged that fighting between remnants of a former CIA secret army of Hmong hill tribesmen and the Laotian military had continued around Long Cheng since the US withdrawal from Southeast Asia in 1975. 

Last month the National Security Archive published further details of how the American special forces began training Laotian soldiers in unconventional war techniques as early as 1959. US airforce also actively considered resorting to the nuclear option during the crisis. In mid-1965 the US state department vetoed a plan to use Air America planes in a combat role for fear that captured pilots “would confirm to the communists the company’s paramilitary nature”. 

Time Asia magazine first reported the disastrous fate of the CIA’s forgotten army holed up in the Lao jungles for more than 30 years and Philip Blenkinsop, the first photojournalist to meet the rebels, won a world press photo award for his images. But US newspapers failed to pick up the story and it was largely ignored by the world. 

By making a film about Long Cheng, I wanted to shed further light on a dark chapter of America’s involvement in Indo-China. On my journey through the United States, Thailand and Laos I met many former CIA agents, US pilots, aid workers, Hmong fighters, journalists and historians who told me of their time in Laos in the 1960s and early 1970s. Without exception they shared the view that the war in Laos was a forgotten war. But that is not the only tragedy this small landlocked Southeast Asian country suffered.

It was also the most bombed country on the planet per capita, with 2.1m tonnes of bombs – more than the entire payload dropped on Germany, Japan and the Pacific theatre combined during the second world war. 

Most of the bombs were dropped in secret. During the Vietnam war even the name of the country in which this clandestine sideshow took place was classified and referred to as “the other theatre”. For five years, Congress and the American people knew nothing of what the government’s executive branch was up to. 

When it was revealed in 1971 that two consecutive presidents, the state department, the CIA and parts of the US Air Force had been waging a massive air war in a country next to Vietnam, a country most Americans had never heard of, the news was overshadowed by Nixon’s illegal bombing of Cambodia and the US death toll in South Vietnam. The war wasn’t secret anymore, but “officially unacknowledged”.

At that time, large parts of Laos had been destroyed, yet it took another four years for the war to end. Subsequently, following the communist victory in 1975, the country disappeared from the world map. Isolated from the outside world for almost 20 years, few stories had emerged from behind the Laotian bamboo curtain until 2003.

It was our big day, the one I had been waiting for three years. Just before we left, we snapped a picture of ourselves. “I hope it won’t be the last one,” I caught myself thinking. You never knew. Even with the right contacts things could go wrong. 

The last film crew that had tried to enter the Xaisomboun zone, was caught up in a shoot-out between Hmong resistance fighters and the Lao authorities and been sentenced to 15 years in a Lao prison. Not a nice thought. 

“What had started as a low-key, air-supported guerrilla war turned into something completely different”

Former USAID worker Fred Branfman

Luckily their embassies and Reporters Without Borders put pressure on the Lao authorities and they were freed after two weeks. But even a fortnight in a Lao prison was nothing to look forward to and I had to take out safely any footage we shot, otherwise there would be no film. 

Nobody spoke for the first half hour of the trip. Even Sousath, usually a talkative man, was subdued. He had told me the night before that he couldn’t be 100% sure we’d make it to Long Cheng. 

“For a period in history it was the most secret place on Earth,” Chris Robbins wrote in The Ravens. It was the physical heart of the largest covert operation the CIA had ever conducted. In its heyday, the remote valley served as the main air hub for clandestine supply and bombing missions against the communist Pathet Lao and North Vietnamese Army. It was run by the CIA with a proxy army of 30,000 Hmong guerrillas commanded by Vang Pao, a young general. 

What’s more, Long Cheng also became a major distribution centre of the international opium and heroin traffic. 

“Hmm. Maybe difficult to go there,” Sousath had said when I first met him in 2002 to ask for his help. “You have to wait for the right time.” Finally, after many attempts to make contact with the right person at the right desk in the Laotian administration, the time had come and we were on the road. 

Today, the scars of war are visible everywhere in northern and eastern Laos. Huge bomb craters dot the landscape; houses are built from war scrap. People continue to be killed and maimed by unexploded ordnance; 33 years after the war ended, it still takes its toll. 

“What had started as a low-key, air-supported guerrilla war turned into something completely different,” claims Fred Branfman. 

In 1969 he was an aid worker for USAID in Laos when he heard about the US bombing campaign from refugees who had come to Vientiane, the Laotian capital, from the Plain of Jars in northern Laos. Shocked that an air campaign could be kept secret from the world for five years, Branfman interviewed more than 2,000 refugees from the Plain of Jars and the Ho Chi Minh Trail. 

His collection of eyewitness accounts was later published as Voices from the Plain of Jars, a collection of essays and drawings that tell about unimaginable atrocities.  

In order to verify the refugees’ accounts, Branfman visited the war room of the US airbase in Nakhon Phanom, Thailand, where he spoke to the officer in charge who admitted the air force didn’t always check for civilians before they gave permission to bomb. 

In his search for evidence, Branfman recorded pilot radio frequencies with conversations that backed up his claims, which journalist Sydney Schanberg wrote about for the New York Times

Yet the bombing continued. 

Branfman is still angry when he talks about events that happened more than 40 years ago. “The stories I was hearing from the refugees reminded me of an aerial hunting safari, only that we slaughtered herds of people instead of animals. In many ways the secret war in Laos is the progenitor of warfare in the 21st century. 

“Think about it: an automated, high-technology battlefield in the sky above one of the least-developed nations on Earth. The executive branch of the US taking war-making into its own hands, excluding congress, the press and the American people, outsourcing the war effort so as not to be accountable for their actions.”

During filming I spoke to many Laotians who expressed with calm voices what they had seen. “The bombs fell like the monsoon, we could only farm at night,” remembers a farmer from Phonsavan. “The first time I saw a plane I thought it was a god. Then it spewed fire and I was very scared. There was even fire in the river and all the fish were dead.” 

One grandmother, involuntarily mimicking a weapons buff, tells me of T-28 training bombers, supersonic F-4 Phantom jets, cluster bombs, napalm, 500lb bombs, 750lb bombs and the ultimate horror, B52 arclight strikes. 

“You cannot hear the bombers, but suddenly the whole world around you explodes. At first we didn’t even know who was doing this to us, where they were coming from and why they wanted to kill us.” 

As early as 1959, the CIA had started secretly supplying and training a guerrilla army of ethnic Hmong in the hills around the Plain of Jars, confirms Vang Pao. “Bill Lair and a Thai general came and asked me what I needed to fight the communists. I told them 5,000 guns, food and radios. We didn’t even talk about money. We hated the communists, we embraced democracy.” 

Until June 4, 2007, Vang Pao preached the Hmong dream of a Laos free from communism.

Then federal agents arrested the former general and eight other Hmong in California, along with a former US army ranger who had been involved in covert operations in Vietnam, and charged them with plotting terrorist attacks. Allegedly the group had conspired to smuggle into Laos hundreds of AK-47s, C-4 plastic explosives and Stinger missiles to supply Vang Pao’s Hmong insurgents in order to overthrow the Laotian government. 

In a spectacular assault, the carnage of which would have rivalled 9/11 – according to their operation manuals, government buildings in Vientiane were to be bombed. 

Up to this point the US media presented Vang Pao as a decorated war hero who had helped America during the Vietnam War. Earlier last year the school board of Madison named an elementary school after him, only to reverse their decision after his arrest. Five years ago when a park in Madison, Wisconsin, was to be named after him Alfred McCoy, a university professor, objected publicly. His book, The Politics of Heroin: CIA Complicity in the Global Drug Trade, is considered a landmark study, in part on the secret war in Laos. 

Vang Pao is a major character in the book, which suggests that the Hmong leader had once played a central role in the international heroin trade, trafficking opium and heroin from laboratories in Long Cheng to South Vietnam. Towards the end of the war, one-third of the US army in South Vietnam had become addicted to heroin. 

In Laos, while researching the narcotics trail, McCoy witnessed how Vang Pao recruited children for his secret army by starving their villages or threatening to bomb them if parents would not provide their boys. “Vang Pao had the power to do so because he controlled all the air power out of Long Cheng,” says McCoy. 

“The first time I saw a plane I thought it was a god. Then it spewed fire and I was very scared. There was even fire in the river and all the fish were dead” 

A Laotian farmer

Because of his strong ties to the agency, however, Vang Pao never faced any threat of arrest for his ties to the drug trade, McCoy writes. Perhaps the former general’s legendary impunity explains why he might have become involved in a harebrained scheme to overthrow the communist regime in Laos, an effort that US federal agents posing as gun dealers immediately infiltrated. 

Had the scheme gone forward, it would have stood virtually no chance. During an interview with Vang Pao several months before his arrest, I told him of my plan to go to Long Cheng. A brief smile crossed his hardened face. “I’d like to go back there myself, “ he said, “but I can’t, nobody can go, there is still fighting there. The Lao government won’t let any outsider see it.”

When our filming trio reached Xaisomboun, the capital of the former military zone, soldiers with AK-47s  patrolled the market square, which was surrounded by dilapidated wooden shacks. The ground was muddy. 

“Just like Texas some time ago,” Sousath said half-seriously. Trucks of soldiers came and went, buses left for surrounding villages and it felt as if we had reached a frontier of some sort.

In Xaisomboun electricity is readily available, but in the hinterland there is only rural Laos. As it got dark, we met the regional army commander for drinks. He confirmed that there were still renegade Hmong hiding in the surrounding hills and claimed the Lao army did not shoot at them. 

“Why should we kill our own people?” he asked. “I am Hmong myself.”  

We both knew that the refugees in the camps behind the Thai border told a different story. The governor of the Xaisomboun zone joined us. He was a small, soft-spoken lowland Lao in his mid-fifties who happily chatted in a low voice and offered to guide us into Long Cheng with an armed escort, just to make sure.

We were on the road at the crack of dawn. The sky was gunmetal grey and we were speeding along a bumpy dirt road. Long Cheng was 80 km further into the jungle.  

I was surprised how candidly some former CIA agents spoke to me about the US government’s political and covert moves in the 1950s and 1960s in order to bring Lao politics under American control. Such moves included the rigging of elections and supporting coup d’états by secretly providing weapons to competing army generals. Even competing schemes of the CIA and state department about who should be Laos’s prime minister were laid out before me. In no time the formerly neutralist Laotian prime minister was leaning so far to the US side, that the country’s neutrality had become a farce.

Declassified memos show that in 1964, President Lyndon Johnson demanded that USAF jets flew lower on their “aerial reconnaissance flights” over Laos in order to provoke ground fire. 

“What has become clear and was admitted publicly by US embassy officials in Laos later on, is that the aerial reconnaissance flights were just a military euphemism for bombing runs in search of targets of opportunity,” says Branfman. “There was a gradual build up and the real heavy bombardments started after President Johnson had declared a bombing halt over North Vietnam in November 1968 and diverted the planes into Laos because, to quote Monteagle Sterns, a US embassy official, ‘we couldn’t just let the planes sit there’.”

Laos. January 2003. Veterans of the secret war in laos and their families struggle for survival in the face of the Laotian military’s campaign to wipe them out. As we reach the top of the falls and enter a clearing we can see hundreds gathered, standing in silence on a rise. We continue to approach… and this sea of humanity crumbles like a wave, crying, wailing and waiing us (hands clasped together). We are the first white faces any of them have seen since they were abandoned by the Americans twenty seven years ago.

The ugly truth is that during the war the US used Laos as a testing ground for its weapons arsenal. All kinds of cluster bombs, millions of gallons of defoliants, laser-guided missiles to hit people hiding in caves, helicopter gunships with electronic mini-guns that fired 5,000 rounds a minute, equipped with people sniffers, which detected mammal urine on the ground and shot at everything that moved in the night – buffaloes, refugees and soldiers alike. The aerial bombardment continued around the clock for five years until congress learned about its own government’s activities.

It took two more years for it to realise that more than 100,000 refugees from northern Laos were the result of secret US bombings and it took another two years, until 1973, when the large-scale bombing was stopped. By then, 700,000 people had become refugees and hundreds of thousands had been killed and wounded – out of a population of three million. It was a catastrophe for Laos.

When we got to Long Cheng it was plain to see the CIA’s golden age had passed. Once a high-tech oasis in the jungle with allegedly more antennae than trees, the village was derelict. A few Lao troops were stationed there in what looked like another village in the middle of nowhere.  The CIA buildings were in ruins and a few cows fed off overgrown parts of the runway. Vang Pao’s house was sealed off. 

We drove to the end of the runway. From there the landing strip looked like an aircraft carrier that had rammed the mountain. It was a sight I have come across many times studying old photos in US archives. In my mind the runway had become an icon of the covert war. 

As I looked back over the tarmac across the valley of Long Cheng, Alfred McCoy’s words echo in my mind: ”If the US is guilty of war crimes, not just mad minutes of soldiers in Vietnam breaking down under stress, but systemic crimes by commanders, that war crime was the bombing of northern Laos. We destroyed a whole civilisation, we wiped it off the map. We incinerated, atomised human remains in this air war and what happened at the end? We lost.”

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