Deep in the heart of the Indochinese peninsula of mainland Southeast Asia lies the Lao People’s Democratic Republic, (LPDR), informally known as Muang Lao or just Laos. To the north of the country lies the Xiangkhouang Plateau, known in French as Plateau du Tran-Ninh, situated between the Luang Prabang mountain range separating Laos from Thailand, and the Annamite Range along the Vietnamese border.
Twenty-five hundred to fifteen-hundred years ago, a now-vanished race of bronze and iron age craftsmen carved stone jars out of solid rock, ranging in size from 3 ft. to 9 ft. or more. There are thousands of these jars, located at 90 separate sites and containing between one and four hundred specimens each.
Most of these jars have carved rims but few have lids, leading researchers to speculate that lids were formed from organic material such as wood or leather.
Lao legend has it that the jars belonged to a race of giants, who chiseled them out of sandstone, granite, conglomerate, limestone and breccia to hold “lau hai”, or rice beer. More likely they were part of some ancient funerary rite, where the dead and about-to-die were inserted along with personal goods and ornaments such as beads made of glass and carnelian, cowrie shells and bronze bracelets and bells. There the deceased were “distilled” in a sitting position, later to be removed and cremated, their remains then going through secondary burial.
These “Plain of Jars” sites might be some of the oldest burial grounds in the world, but be careful if you go there. The place is the most dangerous archaeological site, on earth.
With the final French stand at Dien Bien Phu a short five months in the future, France signed the Franco–Lao Treaty of Amity and Association in 1953, establishing Laos as an independent member of the French Union.
The Laotian Civil War broke out that same year between the Communist Pathet Lao and the Royal Lao Government, becoming a “proxy war” where both sides received heavy support from the global Cold War superpowers.
Concerned about a “domino effect” in Southeast Asia, US direct foreign aid to Laos began as early as 1950. Five years later the country suffered a catastrophic rice crop failure. The CIA-operated Civil Air Transport (CAT) flew over 200 missions to 25 drop zones, delivering 1,000 tons of emergency food. By 1959, the CIA “air proprietary” was operating fixed and rotary wing aircraft in Laos, under the renamed “Air America”.
The Geneva Convention of 1954 partitioned Vietnam at the 17th parallel, and guaranteed Laotian neutrality. North Vietnamese communists had no intention of withdrawing from the country or abandoning their Laotian communist allies, any more than they were going to abandon the drive for military “reunification”, with the south.
Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Arleigh Burke warned the Joint Chiefs of Staff, “If we lose Laos, we will probably lose Thailand and the rest of Southeast Asia. We will have demonstrated to the world that we cannot or will not stand when challenged”.
As the American war ramped up in Vietnam, the CIA fought a “Secret War” in Laos, in support of a growing force of Laotian highland tribesmen called the Hmong, fighting the leftist Pathet Lao and North Vietnamese communists.
Primitive footpaths had existed for centuries along the Laotian border with Vietnam, facilitating trade and travel. In 1959, Hanoi established the 559th Transportation Group under Colonel Võ Bẩm, improving these trails into a logistical system connecting the Democratic Republic of Vietnam in the north, to the Republic of Vietnam in the south. At first just a means of infiltrating manpower, this “Hồ Chí Minh trail” through Laos and Cambodia soon morphed into a major logistical supply line.
In the last months of his life, President John F. Kennedy authorized the CIA to increase the size of the Hmong army. As many as 20,000 Highlanders took arms against far larger communist forces, acting as guerrillas, blowing up NVA supply depots, ambushing trucks and mining roads. The response was genocidal. As many as 18,000 – 20,000 Hmong tribesman were hunted down and murdered by Vietnamese and Laotian communists.
Air America helicopter pilot Dick Casterlin wrote to his parents that November, “The war is going great guns now. Don’t be misled [by reports] that I am only carrying rice on my missions as wars aren’t won by rice.”
The proxy war in Laos reached a new high in 1964, in what the agency itself calls “the largest paramilitary operations ever undertaken by the CIA.” In the period 1964-’73, the US flew some 580,344 bombing missions over the Hồ Chí Minh trail and Plain of Jars, dropping an estimated 262 million bombs. Two million tons, equivalent to a B-52 bomber full every eight minutes, 24 hours a day, for nine years. More bombs than US Army Air Forces dropped in all of World War 2 making Laos the most heavily bombed country, per capita, in history.
There were all types of bombs from 3,000-pound monsters to smaller “big bombs” weighing hundreds of pounds to “cluster munitions”, canisters designed to open in flight showering the earth with 670 “bomblets” the size of a tennis ball packed with explosives and pellets. It’s estimated that 30% of these munitions failed to explode. 80 million of them, the locals call them “bombies”, set to go off with the weight of a foot, a wheel or the touch of a garden hoe and every one packing a killing radius, of 30 meters.
Since the end of the war some 20,000 civilians have been killed or maimed by unexploded ordnance, called “UXO”. Four in ten of those, are children.
Removal of such vast quantities of UXO is an effort requiring considerable time and money and no small amount of personal risk. The American Mennonite community became pioneers in the effort in the years following the war, one of the few international Non-Governmental Organizations (NGO’s) trusted by the habitually suspicious communist leadership of the LPDR.
On February 18, 1977, Murray Hiebert, now senior associate of the Southeast Asia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. summed up the situation in a letter to the Mennonite Central Committee, US: “…a formerly prosperous people still stunned and demoralized by the destruction of their villages, the annihilation of their livestock, the cratering of their fields, and the realization that every stroke of their hoes is potentially fatal.”
Years later, Unesco archaeologists worked to unlock the secrets of the Plain of Jars, working side by side with ordnance removal teams.
In 1996, United States Special Forces began a “train the trainer” program in UXO removal, at the invitation of the LPDR government. Even so, Western Embassy officials in the Laotian capitol of Vientiane believed that, at the current pace, total removal will take “several hundred years”.
On May 14–15, 1997, the Lao Veterans of America and others held a two day series of events honoring the contributions of ethnic Hmong and others to the American war effort, formally dedicating the Laos Memorial, at Arlington National Cemetery. It was a stunning reversal of policy, an acknowledgement of a “secret war”, the existence of which which had been denied, for years.
In 2004, bomb metal fetched 7.5 Pence Sterling, per kilogram. That’s eleven cents, for just over two pounds. Unexploded ordnance brought in 50 Pence per kilogram in the communist state, inviting young and old alike to attempt the dismantling of an endless supply of BLU-26 cluster bomblets. For seventy cents apiece.
Today, Laos is a mostly agricultural economy with rice accounting for 80% of arable land. Other crops include corn, cotton, fruit, mung beans, peanuts, soybeans, sugarcane, sweet potatoes, tobacco, and opium. Increasingly, highland farmers are turning to coffee, a more profitable crop bringing with it the expectation, that the farmer will be able to educate his children.
Profitable yes, but not without risk. The CIA’s “secret war” in Laos has been over for near a half-century. To this day cluster submunitions and other UXO kill and maim dozens, every year.