Should Vietnam have any enemies

Laos and USA: Blood and Secrets

The story of US intervention in Laos has all the ingredients of a thriller. It's a dark thriller, set around 50 years ago during the Vietnam War. One in which there are mainly losers. The greatest: the Laotian people. From 1964 to 1973 the USA carried out the heaviest air raids on Laos. The first five years of it in a "secret war" that even the US Congress knew nothing about - let alone that it would have approved it.

The USA dropped two million tons of bombs on Laos, including 270 million cluster bombs. More than ever over any other country per capita. Because around 80 million cluster bombs did not explode, around a third of the country is contaminated with duds. They still claim victims today. Most recently at the end of August: one of the contaminated sites the size of a tennis ball injured five children when it exploded.

Although there have been foreign-supported measures to clear the duds for the last 20 years, Channapha Khamvongsa explains: "Some regions will probably never be evacuated." In an interview with DW, the founder and director of the Washington NGO "Legacies of War" estimates the proportion of the area cleared to date at just one percent. US President Barack Obama, who is now the first US President to visit the small country in Southeast Asia, has at least significantly increased US support for the clearance of contaminated sites during his term of office.

The size of a tennis ball and deadly: unexploded explosive bombs contaminate a third of the area of ​​Laos

Second scene of the Vietnam War

Actually, Laos was just a sideline during the Vietnam War. The country was officially neutral. This neutrality was supposed to be guaranteed by an agreement of 14 nations concluded in Geneva in 1962; the United Nations should oversee it. But Laos has long since become a plaything for greater powers. Two things in particular are fatal to Laos: its long border with Vietnam and the "domino theory" cultivated in Washington: According to this, - to put it simply - all of Southeast Asia would become communist and Laos would fall into the hands of communists. Now Laos actually had an armed communist movement: the Pathet Lao. And the communist North Vietnam organized the supply for the Viet Cong in South Vietnam partly via Laotian territory - on the famous Ho Chi Minh Trail.

That is why Laos became the base for one of the largest operations in the history of the US secret service, the CIA. Members of various hill tribes in Laos were recruited for a secret army, trained, equipped with weapons and sent into the guerrilla fight against Pathet Lao and the Viet Cong. Central to this operation was a city that was not shown on any map: Long Cheng (sometimes also Long Tieng).

Located around 130 kilometers north of the capital Vientiane in the tropical mountains, a secret settlement of around 40,000 people developed around the left and right of a 1.3 kilometer long runway - at that time the second largest city in Laos. The American publicist Roger Warner has researched the secret war in Laos intensively. He conducted more than 150 interviews, viewed documents and contemporary testimonies and summarized them in a book in 1995. DW told DW that Warner Long Cheng was an extremely busy airport, where smaller propeller planes and cargo planes took off and landed almost non-stop from sunrise to sunset.

Today a sleepy nest. 50 years ago the second largest city in Laos - and yet not on any map: Long Cheng

Most of the 400 or so takeoffs and landings a day were handled by Air America, a wholly owned CIA company. The flights were used to bring food, weapons and instructors to the friendly mountain tribes, activities of the Viet Cong and Pathet Lao were spied on and targets were marked for the bombers. Warner names a CIA agent named James William Lair as the main architect of the operation: "Lair had previously set up a Special Forces force in Thailand. He brought them to Laos in the early 1960s. They then worked as trainers, advisers and agents, they did Radio operated. "

Above all: Lair established contact with Vang Pao. As a captain of the Laotian army, he was the highest officer of the Hmong nationality - and was won over to the idea of ​​his own guerrilla force. In the end, the force, which consisted mostly of his own tribesmen and which Vang Pao then commanded as a general, was almost 40,000 men.

High blood toll among the hill tribes

Despite good equipment, despite massive air support: The troops are worn out in the bitter war. The Hmong pay the highest blood toll: "Over 10 percent of the Hmong population fell during the war, many more were wounded and disabled," said Hmong expert Kou Yang from California State University in an email to Deutsche Welle Balance sheet. "Did you fight for America? No! The war came into your villages and you were forced to choose sides and fight. Did you know the difference between communism and capitalism? No!" Yang, who was born in Laos, emphasizes.

In addition to the Hmong, other hill tribes were mobilized to fight against Pathet Lao and North Vietnamese. For this purpose, CIA agents were sent to remote mountain regions - where they sometimes developed a bizarre life of their own. Thomas L. Ahern Jr. himself worked as a CIA agent for over three decades, including in Indochina. In 2009, his CIA-internal historical study, prepared three years earlier, was published under the title: "Undercover Armies - CIA and Surrogate Warfare in Laos".

In the heavily blackened public edition, the statement of a young agent is quoted that it was "pretty strong stuff to be on your own in the mountains of Laos: As your own boss with his own small aircraft; cargo planes and helicopters on call to help To support a good thousand irregular fighters who were completely dependent on one thing in everything: for food and supplies, for training, ammunition, communication and tactical leadership. "

The shells of the cluster bombs serve as building material - here for the fences behind the children

Model for "Apocalypse Now"

In the end, this means: the agents can rain rice - or bombs. Equipped with sheer omnipotence, some get out of control. One of the better known examples is Anthony Poshepny. The beefy World War II veteran was initially stationed in Long Cheng. Then he was transferred to tribes in northwest Laos. When he died in 2003, the Wall Street Journal describes in his obituary a CIA agent who said goodbye to civilization - married a tribal princess and collected the cut off ears and heads of his enemies.

Author Roger Warner met Tony Poe and confirmed: "Yes, he collected the ears of his enemies. He was an extremely argumentative guy. Tony Poe was a colorful figure, a heavy alcoholic who could tell great stories." In 1970 the man who has developed into a kind of warlord in the jungle becomes too much even for the CIA. Poshepny is withdrawn from Laos. The Wall Street Journal quotes ex-CIA agent Jim Scofield in its obituary: He reports how Poshepny "showed up to a meeting at the US Embassy in Vientiane, drunk with a shotgun in one hand and a machete in the other." Many see Poshepny as a model for the character of Colonel Kurtz in Francis Ford Coppola's Vietnam drama "Apocalypse Now".

In light of this, it is not surprising that CIA historian Ahern concludes the introduction to his story of the secret war in Laos with the words: "For almost all CIA participants, the program became the adventure of their professional life."

For many Laotians, this sentence must sound like pure cynicism.