Hillary Clinton in Laos, Where Our Past Lies Buried

Cross-posted from Scramble for Africa.

Let the world beware — Hillary Clinton is on the move.

Presently she is cementing relationships with a number of governments in Africa, a continent that has taken on new importance for Washington in recent years. The people of Uganda living under Museveni’s thumb are no doubt thrilled.

Just a few weeks ago she was in Asia. On July 11th, Clinton devoted four hours of her itinerary to a stopover in Laos. The moment was illustrative, dramatizing how effectively the crimes of powerful nations can be sanitized and misremembered.

Laos is one of the poorest countries in the world. It hopes to escape Least Developed Country status by 2020. An unnamed “senior US official” modestly said Clinton’s four-hour pit stop was, “a pretty big deal for the Laotians”.

Although none of the press coverage devoted extensive space to a recap of the little-known and long-forgotten history (certainly in the U.S. but also, tragically, to an extent even in Laos, if Western press reports are to be believed; it is a youthful country with a government that has little to gain by publicizing the past).

A photo from Clinton’s pit stop shows her looking at a map of the bombed areas of the country. A huge swath of the center is blotted out in red dots indicating bombed areas that suffered under the assault of 260 million cluster bombs.

The New York Times article gave virtually no meaningful backstory, describing the bombing campaign in the most anodyne tone possible. Take this obligatory sentence: “There were more than 580,000 bombing missions by the United States military, making Laos the most heavily bombed country on a per-person basis.” The line reads somewhat awkwardly because it omits a phrase like ‘on earth,’ or ‘in history,’ but then, that would begin to sound a bit too damning.

The Times did note that the U.S. has demurred to signing the Convention on Cluster Bombs — but failed to contextualize that fact. The U.S. stance is shared with regimes like Syria and Israel, while over 100 nations have accepted the ban. Bullies are often lonely sorts.

The Times did find space to recount that “After Saigon fell, more than 1,200 Americans were evacuated from Laos when the Pathet Lao, backed by the Soviet Union, took power.” This carefully selected back history begins to make it sound like America played the victim.

The wire services did better. The Associated Press article was stronger on context than the Times, commenting for example that:

“Cleanup has been excruciatingly slow. The Washington-based Legacies of War says only 1 percent of contaminated lands have been cleared and has called on Washington to provide far greater assistance. The State Department has provided $47 million since 1997, though a larger effort could make Laos “bomb-free in our lifetimes,” California Rep. Mike Honda argued Wednesday.”

The Legacies of War executive director noted Washington’s null support for two and a half decades, the anemic $2.6 million per year funding initiated in 1997, and the bump to $9 million this year. Such funding has permitted one percent of the bombs to be cleared. At this rate, Laos will be safe for playful children again in 4,000 years. The half-life on cluster bombs turns out to be quite high.

The AP also noted:

“2 million tons of bombs on the impoverished country during its “secret war” between 1964 and 1973 — about a ton of ordnance for each Laotian man, woman and child. That exceeded the amount dropped on Germany and Japan together in World War II, making Laos the most heavily bombed nation per person in history.”

Note the contrast with the way the Times worded and abbreviated the same information.

We further learn that, “More than 20,000 people have been killed by ordnance in postwar Laos, according to its government, and contamination throughout the country is a major barrier to agricultural development.” This death toll — 6-7 times greater than that suffered on September 11th 2001 — is in a small country of 6.5 million people.

Reuters also did a better job of briefly describing the horrific bombing campaign: “the country is still struggling to rid itself of an estimated 80 million cluster munitions and other unexploded ordnance that kill and maim as many as 100 people a year.”

Still these short articles do not attempt to convey something of the atmosphere of living under the attack. Nor are such pieces likely to be forthcoming. For that, one must search, turning for example, to the 2002 documentary Bombies: A Secret War.

Noam Chomsky, in an unusually personal account based on his direct observations from a visit to Laos that appeared in The New York Review of Books in 1970, observed that U.S.:

“policy was precisely to attack and destroy populated areas in the territory controlled by the Pathet Lao. The evidence that the bombing has been directed against farms, villages, and towns, most of which have been totally destroyed in these territories, is incontrovertible.”

Washington was implementing classical counterinsurgency doctrine and draining the swamp:

“The effect and presumably the purpose of the American bombardment in Northern Laos have been to destroy the civil society administered by the Pathet Lao and to drive as much of the population as possible into Government-controlled areas. As Tammy Arbuckle reports:

Well-informed sources said the United States is pursuing a “scorched earth” policy to force the people to move into government areas—and thus deprive the Reds of information, recruits and porters.

When the population is forced into Government areas or driven into caves and tunnels, it can no longer provide support for the Pathet Lao and North Vietnamese troops, who are therefore forced to rely increasingly on supplies from North Vietnam.”

Chomsky then cites the evocative observations of a foreign visitor, later confirmed by a separate source:

“You cannot imagine what it is like in the headquarters of these people. Never is there any halt in the bombing. Not at night. Not by day. One day we were in the cave. The bombing went on and on. The toilet was in another cave only 20 yards away. We could not leave. We could not even run the 20 yards. It was too dangerous.”

Remarkably,

“According to this visitor, the Pathet Lao had set up a hospital, a printing press, a small textile mill, a bakery, and a shop for making arms and ammunition in the caves. The bombardment was said to include guided missiles that can dive into a cave, as well as high explosives and anti-personnel weapons. The people come out only at dusk and dawn to try to farm, but the planes attack any visible target, even trails and cultivated fields.”

It is difficult to forget the imagery conjured up by such descriptions of survival under relentless assault from the sky. Chomsky writes that:

“Prior to 1968 the bombing of the Plain of Jars was sporadic. In April of 1968 it became more intense, and the villagers soon had to leave their villages and dig trenches and tunnels in the surrounding forest. At first they were able to farm sometimes, mainly at night, but this became impossible as the bombing increased in intensity. One man told us that the people of his village had been forced to move eight or nine times, deeper and deeper into the forest into new systems of trenches as the bombing extended its scope. He reported that by April, 1969, his village was destroyed by bombs and napalm. The Pathet Lao showed them how to dig trenches and tunnels, and identified the types of planes.”

Chomsky quotes similar observations from the Far Eastern Economic Review:

“…The area is a carpet of forest dotted by villages and a few towns. Refugees report that the bombing was primarily directed against their villages. Operating from Thai bases and from aircraft carriers, American jets have destroyed the great majority of villages and towns in the northeast. Severe casualties have been inflicted upon the inhabitants of the region, rice fields have been burned, and roads torn up. Refugees from the Plain of Jars report they were bombed almost daily by American jets last year. They say they spent most of the past two years living in caves or holes.”

In a just regime of international laws, Washington would be compelled to pay reparations to the Laotian people. As it stands, they can’t even get an apology. The original manufacturer of these cluster “bombies,” Honeywell, resides in Washington D.C.

While the wire services embarrassed the paper of record, the AP piece also included some egregious departures from impartial journalism. Witness the following passage:

“Persistent human rights issues stand in the way of closer relations with Washington. The U.S. remains concerned about the plight of the ethnic Hmong minority, most of whom fled the country after fighting for a U.S.-backed guerilla army during the Vietnam War. Nearly 250,000 resettled in the United States. The U.S. has pressed Laos to respect the rights of returnees from neighboring countries.

“Washington also has been seeking greater cooperation from Laos on the search for U.S. soldiers missing in action since the Vietnam War. More than 300 Americans remain unaccounted for in Laos.”

Those graphs could have been scribbled down directly from the mouth of some State Department apparatchik on a background interview. Needless to say, the difficulties facing Hmong people or U.S. veteran’s families should not be set against the suffering of the victims of the terrible 9 years of bombing — but to so badly and willfully lose any sense of proportion regarding the crimes perpetrated is an insult to all affected.

Washington had its way, securing an agreement from Laos “to improve and further facilitate the accounting operations for American personnel still missing from the Indochina War era.”

Most coverage rightly noted that one topic for discussion concerned the Xayaburi dam project. It is controversial among other regional governments and poses environmental threats. Clinton was able to play the role of environmental champion. Washington’s sordid past trashing the Laotian landscape with Agent Orange was allowed to pass unobserved.

Most glaring was the failure by the media to emphasize the awkward fact that while Clinton took the opportunity to appear empathic at a land mine removal organization, Washington has long nurtured a shameful record on the matter. Adequately funding the mine removal programs would cost peanuts for the global behemoth.

The video of Clinton’s photo op with a young man victimized by Washington’s war detritus is public relations at its cynical finest. Clinton utters some vague and pretty sentiments of friendship and well wishes for the cameras. Will she join Congressman Honda in pushing for increased funding (and really, this year’s increase remains an insult)? Only the most incurably optimistic will expect even that much.

A Reuters dispatch described her interlocutor as, “a young man who cradled a white cane between the two stumps of his arms as they spoke.” The 19-year-old gently expressed his hope:

“I would like to see all governments ban cluster bombs and (try) to clear the bombs together and to help the survivors”. Clinton, evasive as expected, responded, “You are absolutely right… We need to do more.” Specifically, she claimed, “That’s one of the reasons I wanted to come here today, so that we can tell more people about the work that we should be doing together.”

Perhaps this is an instance of the Obama team’s vaunted ‘leading from behind.’ In this case, ‘you lead, and we’ll put our foot on the path behind you when it suits us and acclaim our own bold vision.’

It takes a special level of shamelessness for the Secretary of State to utter such platitudes after Washington had left tiny organizations like the Mennonite Central Committee and the Mine Advisory Group to undertake the pioneering and risky ordnance removal efforts — all the more dangerous because of limited funds- – in virtual isolation, funded by community donations and other under-resourced civil society groups.

Her Oprah moment aside, the purpose of her visit regarded more important matters. The tour was an opportunity to chat with the Vientiane about cultivating government-to-government ties and managing Chinese influence in the region. The Times noted that “the import of her visit — to seek warmer relations between the United States and Laos — was quite clear.”

Clinton herself was explicit on this point, telling reporters that:

“My trip reflects a strategic priority of American foreign policy today…. After 10 years in which we focused a great deal of attention on the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq, the United States is making substantially increased investments — diplomatic, economic, strategic and otherwise — in this part of the world. It’s what we call our pivot toward Asia.”

Though some reports made mention of Laos being a one-party authoritarian state, none mentioned the timely Human Rights Watch complaint objecting to Washington bankrolling a Laotian torture dungeon of the indigent, the drug addicted, and other undesirables masquerading as a treatment center (welcome to the AA meeting, complete with barbed wire!). Cooperation between Vientiane and the U.S. must start somewhere after all.

The Times account of Clinton’s visit does include one remarkable detail:

“As she toured the center, Mrs. Clinton asked several times why more sophisticated technology could not be used to find the bombs, which are currently located by workers with metal detectors.”

Is it possible that she does not know? Is she truly not aware that demining efforts have languished for decades due to Washington’s refusal to clean up the mess it left at its crime scene? But after all, why would she trouble herself to know? Knowing such things is a maladaptive trait in her line of work.

The Washington Post pointed out that as a student at the time Clinton had protested against the U.S. war in Southeast Asia. The mark of a functioning elite hierarchy is to successfully bring an element of the dissenters into the power framework. Clinton long ago made a full transformation.

In contrast to Clinton, Representative Honda has displayed some concrete commitment to tackling the problem. At the time of her visit he noted that:

“Approximately 800,000 cluster bombs are still buried in Lao soil, remnants of the Secret War that the U.S. waged in the country, without Congressional consent, from 1964 to 1973. While the U.S. fought the Vietnam War, it secretly flew 580,000 bombing missions over Laos, a country the size of Minnesota. The bombings dropped one ton of ordnance for every man, women, and child in Laos at the time, making it the most heavily bombed nation per capita in history. Up to a third of these bombs did not explode when they hit the ground and remain to this day literal time bombs, preventing much needed agriculture and infrastructure development and threatening the lives and livelihoods of villagers across Laos.”

“I believe” Honda declared, “that we have a moral obligation to help eliminate our debilitating war legacy.”

Honda pointedly wrote that:

“the funding since the war ended pales in comparison to the $17 million spent every day for nine years dropping these bombs. In fact, only about one percent of these bombs have been cleared thus far. We have a long way to go, but I am confident this is a problem that can be solved with sufficient political will.”

Unfortunately, political will is exactly what is most always lacking for general welfare, in contrast to serving.

Along with Kevin Funk, Steven Fake is the author of “Scramble for Africa: Darfur – Intervention and the USA” (Black Rose Books). They maintain a website with their commentary at scrambleforafrica.org.