Chomsky Critiques the News Part 2: America Bombs Laos

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While traveling with Chomsky, I stop by page 213 in his book Who Rules the World , where Chomsky critiques another article from the New York Times, “One Woman’s Mission to Free Laos of Millions of Unexploded Bombs” from journalist Thomas Fuller. Chomsky seems to not take issue with the article as a whole, where Fuller describes the efforts of Ms. Channapha, the Laos born woman who founded the activist group Legacies of War and lobbied Congress to raise $12 million so she could remove the dormant cluster bombs America had dropped on Laos from 1964-1973 during the Vietnam War.

Cluster bombs are some of the deadliest weapons of modern war. Not only did we build the bombs well to destroy a wide range of land, we also built the bombs badly so most of them would not even explode at the right time. What we get, or rather what the Laos people get, is a war unending, where children of 8 years still get blown to bits by striking a dormant bomb while farming or playing in the fields. Whether we designed cluster bombs to lay dormant for decades out of cruelty or botched them to not explode out of incompetence is beside the point. We protract the Vietnam War to this day.

Ms. Channapha got involved with Laos when she saw drawings of the Laos bombings, created by the refugees who witnessed the mass slaughter firsthand. The activist Fred Branfman later collected the drawings, and used them to disclose the Laos bombings, then secret, to the American people to oppose the Vietnam War. When I read the Fuller article, I get the “activist hero story” vibe you see in a lot of news stories; a spunky underdog dares to “make a difference” in the world against huge odds, with only a shoebox operation to work from, armed only with charm, conviction, and persistence, waking us up to the Laos tragedies [1].

Next, we will begin a “conversation” about war and foreign policy, things not even the rulers of the world fully understand and do little but make a few token gestures. Meanwhile, we bomb children in Iran using drones. Obama paid Laos a visit, shed a few tears, spent a few pennies to clear out the bombs and, his ablution complete, returned to the Oval Office to continue spending half the federal budget on the army [2]. Rinse. Lather. Repeat. Business as usual.

The Vietnam War, the theater of war behind the bombings on Las, was Machiavellian politics as usual. A boilerplate history to jog our memories: Communist militants formed the People’s Army of Vietnam in 1944, then drove away the French and Japanese colonists occupying Vietnam at the time in 1949. Around the same time, the anticommunists formed a rival faction. Thus Vietnam split in two, a communist North Vietnam and a republic South Vietnam. America and the Soviet Union soon got involved with the two Vietnams, hoping to use them as pawns in their political game. The Soviet Union sided with North Vietnam, which wanted to reunite Vietnam as a communist country, and America sided with South Vietnam, which wanted to stop the spread of communism in Southeast Asia.

Laos faced a similar struggle as Vietnam, with the communist Pathet Lao army battling the Royal Lao Army for control of the country. North Vietnam soon took advantage of the Ho Chi Minh Trail in Laos, using it to send supplies to the communist troops deep in South Vietnam. America got wind of the communists’ strategy and started bombing the Ho Chi Minh Trail in 1964 to snuff out the communists, hitting the Plain of Jars in the crossfire, killing the hundreds of thousands of Laos farmers who lived there.

None of this news or history disturbs Chomsky too much, since he knows more than anyone else how we Americans do foreign policy, but one line from Fuller’s article did annoy him. Fuller wrote, “ The targets were North Vietnamese troops — especially along the Ho Chi Minh Trail, a large part of which passed through Laos — as well as North Vietnam’s Laotian Communist allies.” Fuller is correct in fact, as American bombers did nail a few communists here and there, but he covers the greater truth, something more sinister.

Chomsky quotes Branfman from Voices From the Plain of Jars [3], “One of the most shattering revelations about the bombing was discovering why it had so vastly increased in 1969, as described by the refugees. I learned that after President Johnson had declared a bombing halt over North Vietnam in November 1968, he had simply diverted the plains into Northern Laos. There was no military reason for doing so. It was simply because, as US Deputy Chief of Mission Monteagle Stearns testified to the US Committee on Foreign Relations in 1969, ‘Well, we had all those planes sitting around and couldn’t just stay there with nothing to do. [4]’”

I was shocked when I first read the quote, and I searched for all the sources I could to verify it, and indeed I have four sources: Chomsky in Who Rules the World , Branfman in Voices From the Plain of Jars , Kurlantzick in A Great Place to Have a War [5], and Branfman again from the Zinn Education Project [6]. Sadly, I could not find any direct source online, as I would have liked to read the entire transcript of the Committee of 1969, but while I did not dig up gold I did unearth other precious jewels. I would love to cover myself with a blanket, sip a hot chocolate, and flip over the Pentagon Papers one evening [7]. William Beecher, in his 1969 article for the New York Times, writes that President Nixon would not allow his ground commanders to deploy infantry in Laos and Cambodia following the air raids, which began in secret in 1964 until Branfman exposed the them in 1969, making this article a good cross reference to Branfman [8].

I would like to make several comments on Branfman’s quote. Fuller’s error lies not in lying but omitting the truth. While America did at first bomb Laos to attack the Pathet Lao and the North Vietnam communist armies, she ramped up the bombing on Laos after it made a truce with North Vietnam in 1968. People in New York love to complain about the propagandists at Fox News but less often about the propagandists of the New York Times, probably because the staff at Fox News is so blundering. A competent propagandist does not use lies but gaps in our knowledge and truths that blur our convictions, then works from there to fill in the blanks, creating an opinion for his followers.

Obama worked good propaganda when he visited Laos in 2016. He said to the world, in effect, “We Americans are deeply sorry for the slaughter and mass destruction we caused to the Laos people. We acted from misguided beliefs and ignorance; we knew not what we did. We learned our lesson and will never savage another people with such pointless cruelty again – Honest! Pinky swear!” The Laos people, of course, do not buy it, neither do the Vietnamese people, nor the Iranian people, nor the Serbian people, nor the American natives. This trick is getting old.

Our cruelty against the Laos is less from malice and more from ignorance. Lyndon Johnson and Monteagle Stearns did not seek to harm any farmers when they decided to bomb Laos more intensely; they simply did not care. We see this theme again and again in American history, when only rich white property owners count as people while everyone else simply do not matter, but I will leave that specific truth aside. Howard Zinn in A People’s History of the United States and Chomsky in Who Rules the World cover that history, past and present respectively, far better than I ever could.

Neither can you single out America as the only tyrant in the world and, if you do, you are a naïve reader. America is merely an empire and a typical one at that, like China today, like the British Empire not so long ago, like the Aztec Empire a few centuries ago, like the Roman Empire of revered antiquity, like the Egyptian Empire long before that. America, like all empires, is a business first and foremost; the market must constantly expand, we must seize more and more wealth from the earth and the spoils of other nations to meet the bottom line. Otherwise, civilization will collapse. How then, dear reader, will you get a new iPhone at the Apple Store or cheap coffee at the local deli or diner? Our enormous wealth comes with a price, and people we never see, like the Laos farmers in the Plain of Jars, pay that price.

We average Joes aid the Empire all the time, either passively consuming its products or actively managing the Empire’s business machine, which politics and the military naturally fall under. We do so not because we are wicked but because we need to eat, as the serpent must eat newborn chicks to avoid starving.

Of course, we cannot speak of our slavish needs so rudely. The idiot obeys God, carrying the white man’s burden on his shoulders, bringing “civilization” to the savages while abroad, and defending the Crown justified by Divine Right while home. The other idiot believes we can do away with all that nasty business if only we elect the right presidents, restrict the greedy businessman with the right laws, enforce more human rights for the poor, women, and nonwhites with more bureaucracy, and have more “conversations”. The cynic waifs the matter away with her hand; she knows all cruelty but thinks our government is the least bad thing out there – then she takes Prozac to dull her depression.

But what of the Laos people themselves? If I do not speak of them, I treat them as nonpersons, which justifies our American attitude of “the whole world is about me”. To start crudely, from the raw data of the Laos bombings: America dumped over 270 million cluster bombs from 1964-1973, 80 million of cluster bombs did not detonate, only 1% of dormant bombs have been destroyed to this day, America spent $13.3 million a day bombing Laos while it spent only $4.9 million dollars a year to clean up the mess [9].

As I said before, we protract the Vietnam War to this day. On the 21 st of March of 2017, two children named Seng Lee and Lab Lee found a metal ball when walking home from school, unaware it was a dormant bomb. When Lab dropped the ball it exploded, killing her instantly and horribly injuring the twelve people around her at the time. The last people to perish from the Laos bombings died just last year; on the 5 th of August of 2017, two farmers named Phone and Abo tried dismantling a dormant bomb to harvest its metal, but the bomb exploded, killing both men instantly [10].

Branfman first saw the Laos people in 1969, five years after President Johnson began bombing the country, and formed deep relations with them. He became very close to the village elder, Paw Thou Douang, who was also the leader of the village Buddhist congregation, a medic, farmer, and local spokesman for the Pathet Lao during the Vietnam War. He also interviewed the many Laos villagers he befriended during his stay, which allows us the rare gift of hearing a people tell their story in their own words, without the need of a privileged middleman such as me.

A nurse, 26 years old at the time of the bombings, described the lives of the Laos farmers: “ Around that village of mine were green and beautiful mountains, and the land and the fields my neighbors had sweated over and labored on since the time of my ancestors. My neighbors were all farm­ers, honest and hardworking. Our happiness was full and over­flowing because we were content with our lives, even though we lived in the wilderness.”

A farmer of 39 years describes life before the bombings: “ Travel between villages was easy because there were so many all close together. Boys and girls playing the flute and enjoying themselves in the village was easy. When it came time to work the fields, we went to work together. We shared the labor in a fulfilling way for us young people. When the field work was finished, we joined in the yearly festivities with the sounds of singing, dancing and laugh­ter.”

Other Laos villagers told Branfman horror stories of the American bombings. One refugee said: “ There wasn’t a night when we thought we’d live until morning, never a morning we thought we’d sur­vive until night. Did our children cry? Oh, yes, and we did also. I just stayed in my cave. I didn’t see the sunlight for two years. What did I think about? Oh, I used to repeat, ‘Please don’t let the planes come, please don’t let the planes come, please don’t let the planes come.’ … The past has pelted away. Our lives have passed like a dream. There is nothing which can make up for the sorrow.”

The same nurse of 26 years later wrote: “We who were young took our sweat and our strength, which should have been spent raising food in the rice fields and forests to sustain our lives, and squandered it digging holes to protect ourselves. For many days and nights, having enough food to survive on became a gigantic problem, which pressed upon our hearts. The fields, paddy and seedbeds all became bomb craters. All that remained for our people were sad faces, and tired and weak hearts, disgusted with hating the war, which was like a large stone weighing upon us. We could not understand or imagine why something like this could happen.”

Meanwhile, the same farmer of 39 years could not understand why America would treat his people so horribly: “In all our years, we had known no more than the word “airplane.” 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 Laos woman of 30 years pleads: “Why then don’t we people love one another? Why don’t we live together in equality? Why don’t we build happiness and progress together? In reality, whatever happens, it is only the innocent who suffers. And as for the others, do they know all the unimaginable things happening in this war? Do they?” [11]

– A few critiques, if I may. I get suspicious when I read something that looks like an ideal account of poor people, like the Laos describing their village life before the bombings. It sounds too much like the noble savage cliché, which touches the heart of a simple person but makes the cynic untrusting. Chomsky, in his book, misattributes the quote of the refugee as a quote of the nurse, at least going by my source [12].

While the plea of the Laos woman of 30 years does sound like the liberal cliché “Why can’t we all live together?”, the woman does raise pressing questions. Why are we so hostile to people who look slightly different than us. Why do we swindle, plunder, and destroy other people to build empires, only to feel profoundly unhappy and helpless, when we could live a better life? Why do we have coercive and abusive relationships as the norm when we could have positive and genuine connections with each other, and live as complete human beings? These are deep questions; people wrote volumes addressing them, so I certainly cannot answer them in a small article. –

Branfman gives another striking personal account of Laos when Chomsky himself visited the country to report on the American bombings. Chomsky quickly befriended Paw Thou Douang and his family, as Branfman did, and had dinner together. Branfman describes Chomsky as listening in earnest, with his heart as well as his ears, while Paw Thou tells the story of the lives of the villagers before, during, and after the American bombings. Chomsky wept upon hearing the story.

This shocked me almost as much as it shocked Branfman himself, and Branfman goes into more detail. He describes how journalists from the New York Times would visit the Laos, interview them for a while, then leave with the scoop to write an article that, like the Fuller article I cited above, would mildly provoke the reader but little beyond that. I cannot help but contrast the warm and earnest Laos village elder with the sophisticated and cynical journalist from the New York Times. The two people reveal the stark differences between the rustic and civilized human, between the untamed and domestic animal. Chomsky, in an unconscious way, built a bridge we can cross to meet our past on the other side [13].

Again, I suspect Branfman makes an ideal of the Laos people, but I do think he gets the basic truth right, that the Laos villagers have something we do not because we somehow lost it.

In the next article, I will cover the Obama doctrine of 2017, including his foreign policy and how it relates to the Vietnam War. As I said before, the Vietnam War is protracted, but is itself the protracted Korean War war before it, which is a protracted war before it, which is a protracted war before it…

Works Cited:

1. Fuller, Thomas. “One Woman’s Mission to Free Laos From Millions of Unexploded Bombs.”The New York Times, 5 Apr. 2015, http://www.nytimes.com/2015/04/06/world/asia/laos-campaign-to-clear-millions of unexploded-bombs.html.

2. Labott, Elise. “Obama Announces $90 Million to Clear Laos’ Unexploded Bombs.” CNN, Cable News Network, 6 Sept. 2016, http://www.cnn.com/2016/09/06/asia/laos-obama-aid-package/index.html.

3. Chomsky, Noam. Who Rules the World? Penguin, 2017. pg. 215

4. Branfman, Fred. Voices From the Plain of Jars: Life Under an Air War. University of Wisconsin Press, 2013. pg. 36

5. Kurlantzick, Joshua. A Great Place to Have a War: America in Laos and the Birth of a Military CIA. Simon & Schuster, 2018. pgs. 178 – 180

6. “Voices from the Plain of Jars: Life Under an Air War.” Zinn Education Project, zinnedproject.org/materials/voices-from-the-plain-of-jars/.

7. “Pentagon Papers.” National Archives and Records Administration, http://www.archives.gov/research/pentagon-papers.

8. Beecher, William. “Raids in Cambodia by U.S. Unprotested.” 9 May 1969. https://nsarchive2.gwu.edu//IMG/Beecherstory.pdf

9. Legacies of War. “Secret War in Laos.” Legacies of War, 2018,

legaciesofwar.org/about-laos/secret-war-laos/.

10. Vongvirath, Manininh. “Casualties & Survivors.” Legacies of War, 2018, legaciesofwar.org/news-room/casualties-survivors/.

11. “Voices from the Plain of Jars: Life Under an Air War.” Zinn Education Project, zinnedproject.org/materials/voices-from-the-plain-of-jars/.

12. Chomsky, Noam. Who Rules the World? Penguin, 2017. pg. 214

13. Branfman, Fred. “When Chomsky Wept.” Salon, Salon.com, 15 June 2012, http://www.salon.com/2012/06/17/when_chomsky_wept/.

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