Theatre of War

Keeping The Secret Alive

Will the CIA be great again?

February 8, 2017 in Theatre of War | Comments (0)

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Luang Prabang

Luang Prabang

By Larry Joseph Calloway ©

A Great Place to Have a War: America in Laos and the Birth of a Military CIA by Joshua Kurlantzick (Scribner, 2017)

jarsLaos is a great place to be a tourist. It has Luang Prabang, with its French colonial architecture and Buddhist monasteries along a simple historic main street. It has the Plain of Jars, with its mysterious artifacts among American bomb craters on a depopulated plateau. It has the Hmong people of the Colin Cotterill’s “Dr. Siri” mystery novels. It has communist Vientiane, linked by a Mekong bridge with the bright lights of capitalist Thailand. It has rolling mountains and calm rivers and deep pools.

So forget the war. The Lao people have or – as in Vietnam – seem to have forgotten. It ended more than 40 years ago. But Joshua Kurlantzick’s book is no travel guide. It is the most comprehensive documentation yet of the “secret war,” whose political secrets have already been told in bits and pieces. (Kurlantzick uses many of the same journalistic clips that I used  in writing inspired by travels in laos beginning ten years ago.)


Saying Goodbye In Thai

Mean Streets, Peaceful River

April 24, 2012 in JOURNEYS,Theatre of War | Comments (2)

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by Larry Calloway (c) 2012

In the new Bangkok air terminal a long sculpture on the way to international departures depicts a tug of war, demigods v. devils, in the clean bright primary colors of Theravada Buddhist  temples. This moral chemistry, this dynamic equilibrium of unresolved issues that has gone on since the beginning is a fine Hindu creation myth.

In this story, “Churning the Ocean of Milk,” the Asuras and Devas pull back and forth on a rope hitched around a spindle. (The rope is a mythological snake, the spindle is a sacred mountain, and the winners will get immortality if they last, but we’ll never know.) From the disturbance of the Milky Way came a number of things, depending on the version. The version in my Western eyes as I departed – perhaps finally – was cosmic. It was creation via the slightest first tick of information in the ocean of Zen Emptiness, like Milton’s Satan crossing Chaos and leaving a track from which all organization evolved. The sculpture also is Thailand, where the nightclubs are as famous as the temples (and a whore would never touch a monk) and yellow shirts and red shirts hold staggered demonstrations and democracy alternates with military dictatorship and committees on national reconciliation don’t reconcile. Whatever, the reciprocating engine produces something wonderful like . . . life.


Secret Wars Have No Heroes

More on what Obama revealed and rued

September 10, 2011 in Theatre of War | Comments (1)

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A king at rest


(C)text and photos by LARRY CALLOWAY


Air America was created in 1959 to support covert operations in Laos, a landlocked country of no more than 3 million people then, caught between Vietnam and Thailand. Our man in Laos was Phoumi Nosavan, a diminutive general of the Royal Lao Army who became prime minister in a CIA-backed coup in December 1959, two months after death ended the 55-year reign of beloved King Sisavang. Phoumi was a close friend of Field Marshal Sarit Thanarat, his cousin and mentor, who ruled Thailand under martial law with the apparent consent of King Bhumibol. Sarit was ruthless and corrupt. But he had American friends like the Dulles brothers (Secretary of State John Foster and CIA director Allen).

Our backup in the war against communism was Vang Pao, a leader among Hmong hill tribesmen. The hostility between the communists of Laos and the Hmong minority was not only due to the Marxist enmity toward traditional cultures (and religion). The Hmongs, long ago driven out of China, had been on the side of the French in the anti-colonial revolution. American intelligence agents who remained in Thailand after the defeat of Japan helped organize the Hmong and other ethnic minorities in an alliance with the Royal Lao Army against the Pathet Lao, counterpart of the Viet Cong. John Foster Dulles called Laos a “bastion of the free world.”

During the 1960 American election campaign (Kennedy vs. Nixon) a former Royal Lao officer named Kong Le, who now sympathized with the Pathet Lao, occupied Vientiane. What alarmed the Dulles brothers was evidence that he was getting support from the Soviet Union. On inauguration day, President Dwight D. Eisenhower told Kennedy he faced war in Laos. Both men must have known the risk at hand because, unlike the nuclear sword rattlers, they knew war and were informed about Indochina. Early in his administration Eisenhower had authorized disguised American transport planes to supply the French army in its last stand at Dien Ben Phu in North Vietnam, and Kennedy had visited Indochina twice as a congressman before the defeat of the French in 1954.

Laos was far from the minds of most Americans, then as now, and so when the new president addressed the nation two months after his inauguration, he used maps showing the landlocked kingdom’s long border with Vietnam to illustrate his thesis that, in his words, “The security of all Southeast Asia will be endangered if Laos loses its neutral independence.” (He mispronounced Laos, perhaps intentionally.) In June 1961 in Vienna Kennedy and Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev declared Laos neutral, a sentiment that was signed and sealed in Geneva a year later.

So in May of 1963, as I stepped from a Pan Am Boeing 707 into the tropical heat of Bangkok, the American setup against North Vietnam in Indochina was this: two Buddhist kingdoms run by cousins, (Thailand and Laos) a Buddhist kingdom run by a neutral prince (Sihanouk in Cambodia), and an anti-Buddhist Catholic autocracy run by brothers (Diem and Nhu in South Vietnam). But it was a fragile setup, a row of dominoes. Hanoi was reinforcing the North Vietnam Army troops that had never left Laos despite the Geneva accord. Kennedy authorized the CIA to arm and train 20,000 Hmong guerrillas. To facilitate this the CIA was building a secret city, Long Tien, south of the Plain of Jars and had scraped airstrips, code named Lima sites, for STOL aircraft on a dozen mountains surrounding the plain. (more…)

The Emptiness Of The Plain of Jars

A sidebar to President Obama’s Laos apology

September 6, 2011 in Theatre of War | Comments (5)

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THE JARS  on the Plain of Jarres (French colonialists named it) are empty. The bomb craters from the secret war in Laos, pockmarks of a sick strategy called “madman,” are not empty. They hold the remnants of cluster bombs that popped open in the air and birthed out baby bombs in tricky patterns. The “bomblets” (military jargon) were designed to explode and fragment at intervals, and some were destined to explode years later like forgotten land mines.

“The use of delayed-action antipersonnel weapons on the Plain after 1967 made life above ground very hazardous,” a report by the Congressional Research Service found. Villagers lived in trenches or caves. They farmed at night. One fourth to one third of

Cluster Bomb Casings

the Lao population became refugees, it said. The casualties at the height of the B52 sorties from 1970 to 1973 were estimated at 90,000 including 30,000 deaths. Each B52 bomber could drop 108 500-pound bombs from an altitude of 18,000 to 30,000 feet.

Descending to the Xieng Khouang provincial air strip in north central Laos near the new town of Phonsavan (the old one was destroyed in the war) I could see the craters, lines of red pocks in a land that reminded me of the arid part of the Colorado San Luis Valley where I live. Among the greeters of the dozen passengers in the waiting room was a young guide named Suen, whom I chose intuitively. He worked for a five-room guest house by some rice paddies on an ugly highway. Bomb casings decorated the entry. A wall of the dining room displayed war weapons.


The Buddhists Had The Answer To The American War in Vietnam

Thich Nhat Hanh In Hanoi

July 23, 2008 in Theatre of War | Comments (0)

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Thich Nhat Hanh’s return to Vietnam in May for a retreat followed by a United Nations conference was a triumph for his “engaged Buddhism.” Not only was his global influence evident at the conference, but he and 400 retreatant-delegates (most of us Westerners) were warmly received on a dramatic slow walk in the center of Hanoi.


Meditation In A Killing Field

What is the relationship of Buddhism to genocide?

February 18, 2006 in Theatre of War | Comments (0)

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We were sitting on bamboo mats in a dark pagoda built at the site of a former Khmer Rouge killing field on the highway from Siem Reap to Angkor Wat. Our Cambodian guide was struggling through a recitation on the life of the Buddha depicted traditionally in murals on the walls and ceiling. “Bodhi tree there, Buddha he enlighten, eightfold path. . .”

I watched a monk who had been sleeping on a canvas cot in a cool place by the altar shuffle to a doorway. He stood in the bright frame searching the folds of his saffron robe for something – a pack of cigarettes. He looked depressed. The guide was getting the eightfold path wrong. “Right talk, right think, not steal and lie, right sexual. . .” I focused my old Canon SLR. The monk stood smoking in the light, looking out toward the killing field with its plain monument, a windowed box half full of human skulls.

Monument of skulls on the temple grounds

What was this monk thinking? (more…)

It Was Not Shambala, This Village Full Of Life

Recalling a Buddhist ceremony in pre-modernThailand

January 13, 2006 in Theatre of War | Comments (0)

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In a Thai village off the Gulf of Siam about 40 years ago I was swept into an ordination ceremony that, as an Eastern Classics MA would teach me in later years, defined the difference between the two vehicles of Buddhism, Theravada and Mahayana.

Theravada, with its orthodoxy of stories about the Lord Buddha in colloquial Pali, is the official religion of Thailand and Sri Lanka. It is the unofficial religion of Myanmar, Laos and Cambodia. Buddhism elsewhere, including Zen, is Mahayana, the “larger vehicle,” which follows expansive texts in Sanskrit, Chinese and Tibetan. (more…)