World

Remembering the Man Who Got Obama to Talk Openly About America’s Most Violent Secret War

Fred Branfman helped Laotian farmers use drawing to bring justice.

When President Obama announced this week in Laos that the United States was giving $90 million to clear away unexploded bombs that U.S. planes dropped on Laos a half century ago and that still kill and maim farmers today, he failed to credit the man who first told us the story: Fred Branfman.

Imagine for a moment that you sign up to be a volunteer in a poorer country on the other side of the world. You fly in and you discover that many of the people you are there to serve are either being killed or shipped to disease-ridden refugee camps. And, then you discover that your own government is responsible but that they are keeping their role secret. Most people would have gotten on the next plane and flown home.

Not Fred Branfman. He stayed. The country was Laos in 1967, a country then becoming the most heavily bombed country per capita in the history of warfare. In 1970 and 1971, after learning the Laotian language, Fred walked through dozens of refugee camps. He gave the displaced farmers there paper and pencils and urged them to draw what they had witnessed and write down their stories. Then Fred hopped on a plane and returned to Washington to launch a relentless campaign to tell their story. He translated their testimonies into English and convinced Harper & Row to publish them in a book: Voices for the Plain of Jars: Life under an Air War. (“No American should be able to read that book without weeping at his country’s arrogance,” New York Times columnist Anthony Lewis wrote in 1973.)

Fred launched Project Air War, which morphed into the Indochina Resource Center (IRC), and he and his relentless colleagues brought the Laos story and the story of the Vietnam War to Capitol Hill and to audiences across the country. He coordinated with the Quakers and the Mennonites, whose brave volunteers stayed in Laos and Vietnam to supply new stories, and he soaked up new stories of the people he loved.

Illustration from Voices from the Plain of Jars

I met Fred when I was a student intern at the IRC in the spring of 1975, and will never forget the relentless energy with which he would bound up the three floors of stairs of the Center or charge down the halls of Congress, swearing about the gutless member of Congress we’d just visited. He, his Vietnamese wife Thoi, and the others there were the embodiment of the Quaker dictum to “Speak Truth to Power.”

I kept up with Fred over the years and, within a decade of my two internships with his Center, I went to work at a group that had likewise been a catalyst of the anti-war opposition, the Institute for Policy Studies (IPS). Years into my work there, I discovered in the IPS storage space that Fred had left the originals of the Lao drawings and stories at IPS in a beautiful leather binder. I placed them in a safe place in my office, hoping that they might yet some day serve another purpose.

Fast forward to 2003. In my IPS office, I was visited by an intense young woman from the Ford Foundation with a name that sounded Lao. She was Channapha Khamvongsa, and we soon shifted the conversation to her country and to the secret war. I got Fred’s blessing to give the Lao drawings and testimonies to Channapha and, within a year, she had created Legacies of War, a group dedicated to education and advocacy to press the U.S. government to pay for clean-up of the 30 percent of the bombs that didn’t explode a half century ago and that continue to kill today. A more effective and tireless advocate you will be hard pressed to find.

Fast forward to September 2016. President Obama is at a meeting of Asian leaders in Laos and he announces that the United States will donate $90 million to Laos over the next three years to vastly speed up the removal of the bombs. To Obama’s credit, he did mention Channapha in his remarks, but he missed the opportunity to laud the man who started it all, who died two years ago, and who would go on to write dozens of articles for Alternet: Fred Branfman.

Illustration from Voices from the Plain of Jars

Let me leave you with four crucial lessons that Fred taught me and countless others: 

  • During wartime, we seldom hear the voices of those who are suffering on the ground; his book changed that by letting Lao farmers tell their own stories.
  • Governments lie hideously as they wage war. To counter the lies, it is vital to have witnesses at ground zero of the fighting.
  • The air war that the United States waged against Laos was conducted from tens of thousands of feet above its victims, making it the first fully automated war, one which removed the U.S. soldiers from seeing the eyes of their victims. It was a precursor to the drone wars of today. 
  • And, one that I took to heart and which I share with the amazing interns who come to IPS: get out of this country and spend time learning from people in other countries. And, don’t make the mistake that you have more to teach them than they have to teach you. Open your mind and listen.

May we pause today to celebrate Fred, his Quaker and Mennonite allies, Channapha, and the farmers of Laos.

John Cavanagh directs the Institute for Policy Studies.  His latest book (with Robin Broad) is Development Redefined: How the Market Met its Match.

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