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“A Lake of Blood and Destruction” – The Voices We Never Hear From America's Wars

Branfman's book "Voices From The Plain Of Jars: Life Under An Air War" brings us face to face with the almost unimaginable atrocities committed by the U.S. Military.
 
 
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Photo Credit: Harper & Row

 
 
 
 

Voices From The Plain Of Jars: Life Under An Air War, “arguably the most important single book to emerge from the Vietnam war” according to historian Alfred McCoy, has just been reissued by University of Wisconsin press. The book is the only one of 30,000 Vietnam-era books written by Indochinese villagers, who comprised most of the population, suffered most, and were heard from least. But though unique, these voices also speak today for the countless unseen civilian victims of U.S. war-making in the Muslim World and beyond, and graphically describe the human consequences of U.S. Executive Secret war-making executed by Henry Kissinger from 1969 until 1975, and the dominant mode of U.S. warfare today.

Below please find excerpts from writings by Lao villagers from the Plain of Jars in northern Laos, who were bombed for 5 years from 1964 to 1969. The bombing,  which eradicated the 700 year old civilization and turned the survivors into penniless refugees, was quadrupled after a November 1968 U.S. bombing halt over North Vietnam. It leveled every village and burned, buried alive, maimed and drove underground tens of thousands of civilians, where they lived like animals until evacuated to refugee camps in the capital city of Vientiane where they wrote this material.

When asked to explain the U.S. bombing escalation, U.S. Deputy Chief of Mission Monteagle Stearns testified to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, “well, we had all those planes sitting around and couldn't just let them stay there with nothing to do." (1)

N.Y. Times columnist Anthony Lewis has written, “the most appalling episode of lawless cruelty in American history (is) the bombing of Laos (and is) described without rancor—almost unbearably so—in a small book that will go down as a classic. It is "Voices From the Plain of Jars," ... in which the villagers of Laos themselves describe what the bombers did to their civilization. No American should be able to read that book without weeping at his country's arrogance.” (2)

The following are excerpts from the book The Plain of Jars: Life Under An Air War. This material was  collected by Fred Branfman, who lived in Laos from 1967-71, and adds an Afterword to the villagers’ writings below.  (Harper & Row, 1972).

1. "A Life Whose Only Value Was Death,” by a Thirty-three-year-old Woman

A life whose only value was death. I saw this in the village of my birth, as every day and every night the planes came to drop bombs on us. We lived in holes to protect our lives. There were bombs of many kinds, as in this picture I have drawn. It is not beautiful but it shows the shooting and death from the planes, and the destruction of the bombs. This kind of bomb would explode in the air and was much more dangerous than other ones. I saw my cousin die in the field of death. My heart was most disturbed and my voice called out loudly as I ran to the houses. Thus, I saw life and death for the people on account of the war of many airplanes in the region of Xieng Khouang. Until there were no houses at all. And the cows and buffalo were dead. Until everything was leveled and you could see only the red, red ground. I think of this time and still I am afraid.

2. "Have Pity On The Victims Of The War!" by a thirty-year-old woman

There was danger as the war came closer, like the sound of bombs or shells or the airplanes which constantly made a terrible noise in the sky and led me to be terribly, terribly afraid of dying. At that time, our lives became like those of animals desperately trying to escape their hunters. Our lives were confided to the Lord Buddha. No matter when, all we did was to pray to the Lord to save our lives. We didn't know how long we would stay alive. When looking at the faces of my children who were losing the so very precious happiness of childhood, as each and every day we would seek escape somewhere in the forest, I would grow in creasingly miserable because of the war and hate it more and more.

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? To kill one another like this! Human beings whose parents brought them into the world and carefully raised them with overflowing love despite so many difficulties, these human beings would die from a single blast as explosions burst, lying still without moving again at all. And who then thinks of the blood, flesh, sweat, and strength of their parents, and who will have charity and pity for them? And then what about the splitting up of families to different parts of the country which was caused by war? Who will pity them? In reality, whatever happens, it is only the innocent who suffer. And as for the others, do they know all the unimaginable things happening in this war? Do they? Or is it rather that this war is something which benefits us and thus need not be stopped?

3. "The holes! The holes!" by a twenty-six-year-old nurse

The holes! The holes! During that time we needed holes to save our lives. We who were young took our sweat and our strength, which should have been spent raising food in the ricefields 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. And many of our belongings were also lost from the war. 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. When the bombing would diminish we would seize the occa sion to come out and rebuild our village, repair our homes, and continue farming to sustain our lives, so as to continue on as human beings.

The past has melted away. Our lives have passed like a dream. There is nothing which can make up for the sorrow. The past is finished. Goodbye to old things. May the life of a former nurse from Xieng Khouang pass away without returning again.st is finished. Goodbye to old things. May the life of a former nurse from Xieng Khouang pass away without returning again.

4. “A Lake of Blood and Destruction,"  by a thirty-seven year old man 

In the region of Xieng Khouang there came to be a lake of blood and destruction. For there were airplanes and the sound of bombs throughout the sky and the hills. All we had were the holes. One day I saw a person who had been hit and injured lying near the mouth of the holes. But he couldn't get up so I went to help him and took him to the hospital. He was hit in the side so that he lost a lot of blood.

5. “All That Could Be Seen Were Heads, And Legs, And Hands,” by a thirty-two-year-old Man

In earlier times my village had good fortune and there was nothing to cause us fear or danger in our region, as all over Laos. But in 1965 the airplanes began to drop bombs on the people of Xieng Khouang, and caused deaths and injuries. As in this picture, there were people who died in the holes. Many people couldn't get out. All that could be seen were heads, and legs, and hands.Then there was a man who went to dig them out because his wife and child were buried inside.

6. “It Caused Parents To Be Taken In Death From Their Children And Children To Be Taken In Death From Their Parents," by a twenty-eight-year-old man

The people's houses burned and were completely de stroyed. The people were hit by bombs and killed, and more than thirty were wounded. Because these airplanes dropped bombs on the village without stopping, the people had no place to go to escape. They had never before experienced anything like this. It caused parents to be taken in death from their children and children to be taken in death from their parents in great numbers, causing the people's tears to flow. Because the airplanes had dropped bombs on the ricefields and rice paddies the people saw that they could not withstand these hardships. So they fled into the forest and the jungle or different streams and caves. 

7. “All Children Born Into This World Have Hardship, But Not Like This,"  by a nineteen year-old youth

There was a woman who had only one son, whom she loved most dearly. He never cried and her heart was always happy with her child at all times. But one day the airplanes came and gave her heart unhappiness, for her son was struck by the airplanes and his leg was broken and his arm hit. It made him cry so, a cause for much sorrow. All children born into this world have hardship, but not like this.

8. "They Died Like Animals Die In The Forest," by a twenty-seven year-old man

My village used to have hills, forests and homes next to our ricefields. Everyone had ricefields, buffalo and cows. We earned our livelihoods with happy hearts. We always helped each other to develop our upland and paddy ricefields. But then came the airplanes to strike at our houses until they were completely lost, until we had no place left to live. And we were afraid because the planes came almost every day. It was as if we were in jail. We couldn't go anywhere. All we could do was sit in the mouths of the holes.

In the third phase, we couldn't even put them in boxes anymore because we had no more wood. We just dug a hole at the foot of the hill and buried them. This is how it was when the people died in this region. They died like animals die in the forest because the planes bombed every day. Therefore we were afraid and didn't have the courage to do the right thing. Someone died and we just took him and dumped him and ran back very fast. Some people were not even buried, they were just dumped in a box and left in the forest.

9. "Why Did The Planes Drop Bombs On Us?," by a thirty-nine-year-old farmer

On March 14, 1967, four planes of the jet type dropped their bombs to gether to destroy my village and returned to shoot twice in the same day. They dropped eight napalm bombs, the fire from which burned all my things, sixteen buildings along with all our possessions inside, as well as maiming our animals. Some people who didn't reach the jungle in time were struck and fell, dying most pitifully. By the time the fire died down it was dark. Every one came out of hiding to look at the ashes of their houses. Even the rice was all burnt. Everyone cried at once—loudly and agitatedly. 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?

As time passed, the planes came and bombed all the neigh boring villages just as they had bombed us. Then the planes started viciously shooting in the forest and jungle and in all inhabited places, forcing us to steal away and hide in holes—to dig deep holes to live in. The fixing of food to eat together disappeared. The pagoda fell into disrepair; the monks were all hiding in holes and trenches. The miseries caused by the air planes were immense, because the bombs were large and if they fell in even a deep hole everything would be destroyed.

10. "The Day Does Not Exist When We Will Forget," by a Laotian poet

Looking  toward our  village, we saw only dark clouds. Houses had burned like candles. Houses, ricefields, temples—reduced to dust. Smoke climbed the sky, darkening the countryside. And noises such as would frighten the gods. Even the dragons and serpents were scared. The black crows and jets had turned mountains into lakes, razed towns, and beaten the earth into powder. Now  Muong Khoun was troubled, causing us to leave our village and town.

What sorrow! We couldn't bring our cows, buffalo, horses, pigs, dogs, ducks, and chickens. We came away with only our bodies. What sorrow! Our household possessions in the houses waiting to be used were left behind.

Pity our houses, ricefields, the places we built and repaired. Pity the flowers in the garden which we used to pick and offer up to the Buddha along with bananas and sugar cane. May the paddy fields along with the clumps of big and little bamboo fare well. Pity the lakes flowered with lotus blooms. The pools where we bathed are sad and no one will come to play. Pity the fruit trees which we planted in the garden. May you fare well. Daylight comes and we will go far away because of the foreign invasion of our country. We are separated from our village—the war has entered—and all we can do is to flee far away from the villages. I do not know where they will send us. Now we say goodbye to everything in Xieng Khouang. I will go to Vientiane.

11. "A Bomb Fell About Fifteen Meters From Where My Father Was Ploughing ...," by a sixteen-year-old student, p. 92

After that the planes came all the time, making life very difficult. Wherever you looked the planes bombed, destroying fences, fields, gardens, storage bins and houses. Life became very difficult for everyone. You couldn't light a fire to cook food because a plane would see the smoke and bomb it. I tried to dig a hole deep enough to insure that we would escape with our lives. When the sun was high up in the sky we had to stay in the holes.

But my father was a very diligent and industrious person and persevered in his work. And I couldn't go into the woods any more be cause they had been sown with anti-personnel bombs—some hadn't yet exploded. Sometimes an animal would kick one and it would blow up. Consequently, we could only come and go along a single narrow path. If you left the path just a little ways there was a good chance of your stepping on an anti-personnel bomb!

During that time I merely husked rice and returned to the hole in the gully in the jungle. But my father felt sorry for his animals. He slept in the village and tried to plough early in the morning. He was afraid we would all die of starvation in the coming year if he didn't farm. When the sun came up, he would retire to a hole.

But one day my father was ploughing when suddenly four planes of the F-4H type flew over and im mediately released their bombs. The bombs destroyed my vil lage. All six houses burnt and a bomb fell about fifteen meters from where my father was ploughing, causing the blown-up earth and the shrapnel to kill my father and the buffalo in stantly. We stared toward the village, full of fear. Then we went into the village and saw all the houses burning and the animals dying in the fire. Then I saw my father lying with the buffalo in the ploughed earth. My sister and I ran over to him, but I saw that my father was already dead. I wept and then I carried him out of the field.

Then we went to get the villagers to help take care of his body. When 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.

12. "... In The Forest I Would Go From One Hiding Place To Another," by a thirty-nine-year-old rice farmer, p. 118

The planes bombed every day. After they bombed my village, they bombed the roads and the small paths, and also completely destroyed our ricefields. After that we had to dig other holes even further away because we were so afraid. On the days that the airplanes would come we were so afraid we didn't want to eat. I pitied my children, for when the air planes came to bomb my ricefields, they were afraid and afterwards would weep loudly. I was very afraid and could not even close my eyes to sleep.

In 1968, there were no houses remaining in my village at all; and all my cows and buffalo had been killed. As I had no buf falo to farm with, I had to borrow some from my neighbors. Previously, I had gone farming early every year. After my buffalo died, I had to wait for my relatives to finish ploughing and then borrow their buffalo to plough my own field. As I farmed, I tempted fate in exchange for my life. For, if I didn't farm there would be no food to give my children. Hiding in the forest, I would go from one hiding place to another. We dug holes until there were no more places to dig. My fear led me to believe that life could not continue.

Afterword: If Only To Remain Human Ourselves

I must confess to being in tears right now, as I once more read these writings from the people of the Plain of Jars below. These people had names, you see. They had families whom they loved. They were good, gentle, hard-working people. And they had at least as much - if not more - right to live as those who destroyed their lives not out of malice but indifference to their very existence as human beings.

These  kind and deeply-feeling people were subsistence-level farmers, who worked hard all their lives just to grow enough food to feed their families. And they were people who asked little more than to be left alone to  live the lives they so loved, lives built not around possessions but a profound love of nature, their families, their friends, the Lord Buddha, and a wish to be buried in the village of their birth so that they could be remembered as they remembered their forbears.  They not only had committed no crime against those who destroyed their lives. They did not even know who they were. And yet even the desire to simply be left alone was denied them.

I think of the father described below, having to choose between the relative safety of the forest or staying near his village to tend to his animals and grow enough food to feed his beloved family. Imagine his agonizing choice. And imagine what his son felt when his father died from that choice. I imagine if it was my father, and wonder how others would feel if they could imagine this happened to their father.

I think of Thao Vong, the soft-voiced 38 year old man I met in a refugee camp who had been blinded by the bombing; the innocent 3-year old girl I saw with napalm burns on her breast, stomach and vagina, who died a few weeks later; sweet-faced Sao Doumma, killed in a bombing raid 7 years after the wedding photo that is on the cover of the new edition of Voices From the Plain of Jars.

And, most of all, I remember their kind, sad, gentle, luminous eyes, eyes I see in the mirror each day I shave.

I think of the innocent Lao who are still being blown up by the millions of unexploded cluster bombs U.S. leaders have refused to clean up, as the ongoing U.S. torment of the Lao people has its 50th anniversary next year.

And I think of how these voices are speaking today for the countless victims of today’s U.S. Executive Secret War-making, whose faces we never see and whose voices we never hear, but whose suffering must end if our troubled  nation is ever to recover from the spiritual death it experienced in Indochina.

Much of my life over the past 40 plus years has been spent trying to understand the deeper reasons why the richest of the species would bomb the poorest this way, what it really tells us about humanity in general and America in particular.

It is not pleasant to reflect on what the murder of these innocent people tells us about our leaders and nation, then and now - leaders who endlessly kill the innocent without a thought to their humanity. But we must, if only to remain human – and sane - ourselves.

***

(1)   See "United States Security Agreements and Commitments Abroad, Kingdom of Laos," Hearings Before the Subcommittee on United States Security Agreements and Commitments Abroad of the Committee on Foreign Relations, United States Senate, Ninety-First Congress, First Session, Part 2, October 20, 21, 22, and 28, 1969.

(2) “Another Senate Test,” by Anthony Lewis, N.Y. Times, July 9, 1973

Fred Branfman's writing has been published in the New York Times, the Washington Post, Harper’s, and many other publications. He is the author of Voices From the Plain of Jars, and can be reached at fredbranfman@aol.com.