[Note (June 2020): I’m seeing an uptick in the number of views on this essay. Is there any reason? Since this site is a labor of love, I’m just curious how it is being used.]
“In Houa Phanh and Xieng Khouang provinces, the war (in Laos) has reached into every home and forced every individual, down to the very youngest, to make the agonizing choice of flight or death.” (Yang 1993: 104)
“Those who suffered the most from the escalating conflict were populations living in the east of the country: overwhelmingly highland minorities, Lao Thoeng and particularly Lao Sung (Mien as well as Hmong), but also upland Tai, the Phuan of Xiang Khouang and the Phu-Tai of east central Laos.” (Stuart-Fox, 1997: 139)
“Military Region II (northeastern Laos) bore the brunt of the war for almost fifteen years. Nearly 80% of the refugee population in Laos originated in MR II, including the refugees on the Vientiane Plaine. Almost the entire population of Houa Phan (Sam Neua) and Xieng Khouang Provinces were gradually forced south into the Long Tieng, Ban Xon, Muang Cha crescent.” (USAID, 1976: 210)
A consistent feature of war is the harming of civilian lives. The extent of harm is not always easy to ascertain, but is sometimes quantified in the number of “excess deaths” that occur during a war. For example, Hagopian et al (2013) surveyed two thousand randomly selected households throughout Iraq, interviewing residents about their family members before and during the US-led invasion and occupation. They estimated that from March 2003-2011 approximately 405,000 deaths occurred as a result of the war, mostly from violence.
However, such studies always have limitations – recall bias, survivor bias (the dead cannot be interviewed), and logistics in surveying high violence areas – meaning that mortality estimates will never be perfect, and Hagopian et al. gave a range around their figure (a 95% uncertainty interval of 48,000 to 751,000 excess deaths). Whatever the exact number, which we will probably never know, we can still be confident that mortality rates increased during the war years.
The same challenges apply to all wars, including one that I have been interested in for a while – the Second Indochina War in Laos. The Australian historian Martin Stuart-Fox wrote that: “loss of life can only be guessed at, but 200,000 dead and twice that number of wounded would be a conservative estimate” (1997: 144). Mortality estimates for Laos are further complicated by the fact that it was one the least developed countries in Asia at the time of the war, likely with unreliable census data and other record keeping (though, for those who are interested, see the 1961 Joel Halpern “Laos Project Papers” from UCLA, which contain demographic and health statistics).
However, there are ways to gauge how the war affected civilian life in Laos other than mortality statistics. One is forced displacement, and how many people had to leave their homes as a result of the war, either by crossing an international border or as internally displaced persons (IDPs) within the borders of Laos. Again, returning to Stuart-Fox:
“At one time or another, as many as three quarters of a million people, a quarter of the entire population, had been driven from their homes to become refugees in their own country” (p. 144).
The three selected quotations at the top of this essay demonstrate that the impact of the war was not geographically uniform. Laos is a country with perhaps up to 60 different ethnic groups, with clusters in different regions. All were affected by the war, but the ones that bore the brunt appeared to be in the northeastern highlands (which the US and the Royal Lao Government referred to as Military Region 2), and in the south along the Ho Chi Minh trail. This is illustrated by where American bombing of Laos was most concentrated. By now, the bombing figures are old hat: between 1964 and 1973, the US flew more than 580,000 documented bombing sorties over Laos, releasing more than 2 million tons of ordnance dropped over an estimated population of 2.4 million people (or 0.87 tons per person, the highest amount per capita in history).
Control of the civilian population, rather than just territory, was a crucial element of the war, and relocation/evacuation by the RLG became more common after 1968. Statistics from USAID (United States Agency for International Development) documents show that the number of refugees receiving assistance remained between 100,000 and 130,000 from 1963 to 1968, jumping to over 200,000 in mid-1969, and peaking at 353,297 in June of 1973 (USAID 1973: 22-4). The role of USAID was of course not completely neutral, and civilian and military operations were very much intertwined. The Hmong general Vang Pao told one of USAID’s most important employees – an older farmer from Indiana, Edgar “Pop” Buell – “without your airlift (of food and supplies), all of my people would have starved. I can organize an army and fight, but I must have you to help the civilians. Without the support of the people my soldiers cannot live” (Schanche 1970: 85).
The increasing refugee population, especially those trickling from the Plain of Jars to the outskirts of Vientiane in 1968-69 drew international media attention to the war in Laos, which had remained largely invisible up to that time (Robbins 1987: 134). Attempts to lay blame for the creation of refugees was attributed to either US bombing missions or to increased aggression by leftist ground forces, including the North Vietnamese and Pathet Lao.
In the RLG defense, US Ambassador G. McMurtrie Godley claimed that refugees were migrating toward RLG zones in Vientiane, and therefore were “voting with their feet.” During congressional hearings, a young Ted Kennedy asked whether an American “scorched earth policy” was the cause of the problem (US Congress 1970:15). That the bombing had enormous repercussions on civilians after 1968 is indisputable. According to Keith Quincy (2000: 320), “every village and hamlet on the plain (of Jars) had been destroyed (and) C-123 transport planes crisscrossed the plain dumping defoliants on rice fields to deny the crops to the Communists should they ever return…transforming the Plain of Jars into a wasteland.”
It is probably safe to say that both sides were to blame, though the doling out of responsibility is hard to quantify. People were displaced prior to American bombing, partly by the RLG to deny Communists from new recruits, partly by Communists for similar reasons. But the distinct increase in IDP’s after 1968 coincided with diversion of US air power away from North Vietnam to Laos that same year, indicating that the lion’s share of the displaced can be attributed to the bombings and the overall escalation of the war. President Lyndon Johnson had ordered the cessation of bombing of the northern half of North Vietnam in March 1968, perhaps because of the loss of a strategic guidance system (at Phou Pha Thi), or perhaps because of upcoming peace talks in Paris (Conboy 1995: 196). Reportedly, 97% of refugees coming to Vientiane province had seen a bombing attack, while many lived in caves and holes, farming only at night after 1969 (Branfman 1972). Suffice it to say that the war in Laos was not simply a guerilla war; instead, it had escalated into a high-intensity one with many civilian casualties.
One of the main factors involved in war-related morbidity and mortality in Laos was the ubiquity of forced displacement. The low population density in Laos meant that entire villages were sometimes able to find new homes in uninhabited, secure areas. However, many others were not so fortunate and wandered for days to months to find sanctuary, often in scattered locations where ecological conditions were less than favorable (US Congress 1970:16; Schanche 1970: 100; Yang 1993: 59; Kuhn 1995: 69; Weldon 1999: 52, 124-9, 151, 235; Quincy 2000: 426). According to USAID (1973: 21), some people were displaced a dozen times or more, walking tens to even hundreds of miles in total. Those displacement experiences took their toll on people’s bodies and levels of psychological stress, as they do in all wars.
Finally, statistics are important, but they can only tell us so much. If Stuart-Fox’ estimates are roughly correct, then roughly 750,000 people were displaced during the war, over a decade. Recent estimates from another conflict, in North Waziristan Pakistan has displaced more than 500,000 people in a much shorter time period, perhaps only a few weeks. The numbers are almost incomprehensible. But they are also too sterile; it can be easy to forget that these refer to people, not just numbers. Personal narratives can offer another way of seeing things, giving a voice to those affected:
(A 37-year old Laotian woman, who reflected on her life during the war) “Our lives became like those of animals desperately trying to escape their hunters…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?…In reality, whatever happens, it is only the innocent who suffer. And as for other men, do they know all the unimaginable things happening in this war?” (Source: Legacies of War)
That seems like a perennial question.
Hagopian A, Flaxman AD, Takaro TK, Esa Al Shatari SA, Rajaratnam J, et al. 2013. Mortality in Iraq Associated with the 2003–2011 War and Occupation: Findings from a National Cluster Sample Survey by the University Collaborative Iraq Mortality Study. PLoS Med 10(10): e1001533. doi:10.1371/journal.pmed.1001533 Link
Kuhn EC. 1995. U.S. Foreign Assistance Oral History Program: Foreign Affairs Oral History Collection. Arlington, VA: Associationfor Diplomatic Studies and Training.
Quincy K. 2000. Harvesting Pa Chay’s Wheat: The Hmong and America’s Secret War in Laos. Spokane, WA: Eastern Washington University Press.
Robbins T. 1987. The Ravens: The Men Who Flew in America’s Secret War in Laos. New York: Crown Publishers.
Schanche DA. 1970. Mister Pop. New York: McKay.
Stuart-Fox M. 1997. A History of Laos. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Link
USAID. 1973. Facts on Foreign Aid to Laos, July, Internal reference #: PN-ABI-555.
USAID. 1976. Termination Report, January 9, Internal reference #: PN-AAX-021.
US Congress. Senate. Committee on the Judiciary. Subcommittee to Investigate Problems Connected with Refugees and Escapees. 1970. Refugee and civilian war casualty problems in Laos and Cambodia. Hearings, Ninety-first Congress, Second Session. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office. Link
Warner. R. 1998. Out of Laos: A Story of War and Exodus, Told in Photographs.
Weldon C. 1999. Tragedy in Paradise: a Country Doctor at War in Laos. Bangkok: Asia Books.
Yang D. 1993. Hmong at the Turning Point. Minneapolis: Worldbridge Associates.
Other Useful Sources
Vietnam Virtual Archives: http://www.vietnam.ttu.edu/virtualarchive/
In-depth maps of Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, Thailand http://911gfx.nexus.net/sea-ao.html