The Ho Chi Minh Trail
America became a full partner in the Vietnamese civil war in 1963 and north Vietnam took the strategic decision to supply the south through Laos. The CIA, without congressional approval, unilaterally decided to bomb this supply route. Their action was illegal in US and international law. The nine year bombing campaign was a merciless war crime.1 The CIA believed the route, which they called the Ho Chi Minh Trail, had a fixed infrastructure which was destroyable. This was revealed to be wrong within months. Their metaphysical belief explains the insanity of the campaign. CIA brutality hardened the resolve of the Laotians, leaving the Pathet Lao communists triumphant.
The CIA thought this was a ‘highway’
The campaign was a constitutional outrage and war crime. A congressional inquiry in 2010 (addendum one) left no one in any doubt as to the criminality of the CIA, though they didn’t condemn it as a war crime. President Obama’s visit to Laos in 2016 had the world expectant as to his response to this outrage.
President Obama in Laos, 2016
President Obama was warmly greeted. He explicitly acknowledged US bombing and in his speech said:
Countless civilians were killed. And that conflict was another reminder that, whatever the cause, whatever our intentions, war inflicts a terrible toll, especially on innocent men, women and children. Today, I stand with you in acknowledging the suffering and sacrifices on all sides of that conflict.2 [my emphasis]
President Obama didn’t have a mea culpa, mea maxima culpa moment.3 American presidents don’t admit criminal behaviour. Obama’s empathy extended to offering help clearing up murderous unexploded ordnance.
Obama’s press secretary Ben Rhodes accompanied him to Laos and wrote Obama’s speech. As part of the tour Rhodes set off a single unexploded bomb.
We moved back across the field. They had tied a long wire to this bombie (sic) and attached it to an orange device under our tent. I thought of the time and effort that went into finding and exploding this single bombie, with eighty million still buried out there in the vast (sic) country.* They asked me to turn a handle several times to blow it up. I expected something akin to a large firecracker; instead, an enormous blast shook the ground underneath my feet, echoing across the river valley, sending a towering plume of smoke into the air. It was possible, in that moment, to envision the river valley filled with explosions, smoke covering the Mekong, planes overhead.4 [my emphasis]
(* The USA is 41.3 times bigger than Laos)
Chillingly when Rhodes returned to base he reported it was a much larger explosion than he’d expected. A comment by a member of his press staff devastated him: “Yeah,” he said. “None of the kids even looked up.”5 For the people of Laos unexploded ordnance was a continuing daily reality. The actuality of the illegal CIA bombing is almost beyond belief:-
2 million tons – the amount of ordnance dropped on Laos between 1964 and 1973… This amounts to a planeload of bombs every eight minutes, 24 hours per day, for nine years.
270 million – the number of cluster bombs that were dropped on Laos during this period.
80 million — the estimated number of cluster bombs that did not detonate, most of which are still buried in farmland…. Laos is the most heavily bombed country per capita in history.
20,000 — the number of people who have been killed or injured by unexploded ordnance in Laos.
50 — the number of casualties per year, down from 310 per year in 2008. Forty percent of the victims are children.6
The USA was ideologically driven by fear of communism. American involvement was fuelled by the Domino Theory doctrine first formulated by President Eisenhower.7 The Domino Theory asserts communism is a contagion which contiguous countries inevitably ‘catch’. Once communism has momentum the entire world will be engulfed, therefore America must defend itself by stopping communism even in faraway tiny countries like Laos. That ideological belief coupled with racism drove the CIA’s illegal action. President Obama, a black-American president, couldn’t repudiate the bombing and denounce it because it’s bad domestic politics.
The attempted destruction of the Ho Chi Minh Trail failed utterly. From the beginning of the campaign the CIA knew bombing was a failure but they continued because they only understood brute force. President Obama condemned the Iraq War as a ‘dumb war’8 and from the vantage of 2016 knew that the Laos bombing campaign was the dumbest of dumb wars. He knew it was an illegal war and he knew it was a war crime. Yet he allowed Rhodes to put into his mouth the words, suffering and sacrifices on all sides, claiming moral equivalence for a criminal act: a war crime. Obama lost his moral compass in Laos.
Addendum One: Congressional Hearing, 22nd April 2010
At issue was the causation of refugees and impact of U.S. Air Force bombing operations in Laos. The Departments of Defense and State suggested that U.S. bombing operations had been carefully directed and that very few inhabited villages were susceptible to being hit by U.S. air power. But as Senator Kennedy learned that day [22nd April 1971], and as we now know, the Departments of State and Defense submitted testimony that was incorrect and misleading. The truth is, widespread bombing had taken place and Lao refugees were succinct in describing the destruction of their homes, as well as the use of the CBU cluster bombs and white phosphorus. (source https://www.gpo.gov/fdsys/pkg/CHRG-111hhrg56094/html/CHRG-111hhrg56094.htm)
1 1964-73: for civilian casualties from the bombing of Laos post-1973 https://www.irishtimes.com/news/world/asia-pacific/death-from-below-in-the-world-s-most-bombed-country-1.3078351
2 4 https://obamawhitehouse.archives.gov/the-press-office/2016/09/06/remarks-president-obama-people-laos This mealy-mouthed caveat stands alongside the infamous Trump remark about the outcome of the Charlottesville protest when the so-called alt-right killed a demonstrator. “You also had some very fine people on both sides…” https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2017/08/trump-defends-white-nationalist-protesters-some-very-fine-people-on-both-sides/537012/
3 ‘my fault, through my most grievous fault’
4 Rhodes, Ben. The World As It Is: Inside the Obama White House Kindle Locations 5238-5243 Random House. Kindle Edition.
5 ibid Kindle Locations 5251-5253
8 For Obama’s speech go to https://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=99591469