Fred Branfman, Voices from the Plain of Jars: Life under an Air War (first published in 1972)
If our country had decency, at the death of Fred Branfman there would have been coverage, interviews, retrospectives, similar to that at the recent death of U.S. Senator John McCain. You reading this have surely heard of McCain yet you may wonder, who is Branfman?
In the 60s Branfman had been a volunteer in Laos, and he later bore witness to what was happening there involving the U.S. Air Force. He and a team managed to interview Laotians who survived. He worked tirelessly to expose what the U.S. inflicted upon an innocent people.
The disappearance of the Plain of Jars was indeed “the other war”: automated war, in which participants are never face to face; war from the air, in which ground troops play but a supplementary role; total war, inevitably waged against everyone below; secret war, in which whole societies are eradicated without a trace.
For five and a half years—as village after village was leveled, countless people buried alive by high explosives, or burnt alive by napalm and white phosphorus, or riddled by anti-personnel bomb pellets—the leaders of the superpower waging this war kept it secret.
Every day … the reconnaissance and electronic aircraft would film and track the people below; the jet and prop bombers would bomb them with white phosphorus, fragmentation, ball-bearing and flechette anti-personnel bombs, immediate and delayed-action high explosives; the gunships and spotter planes would strafe them with machine gun fire.
Since it is clear that superpower bombing in a rural land like Laos cannot distinguish between military and civilian targets, however, the very act of initiating such an automated war is a war crime. Once it is launched, there can be no protection for the civilians below.
American officials have admitted bombing the Plain for five and a half years, from May, 1964 until September, 1969; on the basis of available figures, at least twenty-five thousand sorties were flown against the Plain and seventy-five thousand tons of ordnance were dropped on it; an official United States Information Service survey accepted testimony from refugees that 95 percent of them had had their villages bombed, nearly two-thirds of them had seen someone killed or injured by the bombs, and that in 80 percent of such cases the victim was a villager and not a soldier.
By September , the society of fifty thousand people living in and around the area no longer existed. History had conferred one last distinction upon it: The Plain of Jars had come the first society to vanish through automated warfare.
Laotians from the Plain of Jars
So many loved ones killed
Because of the huge bombs the airplanes rained down upon us
So many loved ones forced to leave their native villages,
Leaving behind spacious rice fields and gardens now turned to dust.
—A young farmer
Each day we would exchange news with the neighboring villages of the bombings that had occurred: the damaged houses, the injured and the dead, the graves dug for burial, the large and the small bomb craters. Each of these concerns entered and dwelt in the hearts of the people. They were exchanged for the age old freshness of our village, which had disappeared completely.
—A 26-year-old nurse
By the time the fire died down it was dark. Everyone came out of hiding to look at the ashes of their houses. Even the rice was all burnt. Some families had been wounded. We were all heavy hearted and mournful almost to the point of losing our minds. The other villagers and I got together to consider this thing. We hadn’t done anything, nor harmed anyone. We had raised our crops, celebrated the festivals and maintained our homes for many years. Why did the planes drop bombs on us, impoverishing us this way?
—A 39-year-old farmer
The day does not exist when we will forget.
—A Laotian poet
We could not go out of the holes, as the airplanes bombed near my village every day. They bombed our villages, homes, and rice fields so much that we didn’t know what belonged to whom any more. Before my village had had a large forest, but now it was completely gone. Only the bare red earth was left.
—A 22-year-old woman
When my father’s body had been cared for, the planes came again. They dropped large flares at night and saturated the area with small gun sweeps. Because of that, I was at my wits’ end. Our possessions were all gone. I had only my life left.
—A 16-year-old student
Then they called us to get into airplanes to go to Long Tieng. As for me, I did not want to leave at all. But I had to because my home, cows and buffalo no longer existed. And thus it was that I and my neighbors left our old village. I came away with sorrow for the animals I cared for every day. Now, who would look after them?
— A 51-year-old farmer
We didn’t have even a little happiness. Difficulty and deprivation came every day.
— A 49-year-old farmer
If the war ever ends, I will return to my village that very day. And if there is no plane to take me, I will walk all the way.
—A 17-year-old boy
The Plain of Jars, then, stands for far more than just a society of fifty thousand that happened to be leveled. It is a very real symbol of the fate awaiting Third World societies throughout the world unless the capacity of the leaders of today’s superstates to wage automated war unilaterally is checked.
To respond to the on-going suffering of Laotians from unexploded ordnance from U.S. bombing, visit Legacies of War.