- Series: New Perspectives in SE Asian Studies
- Paperback: 196 pages
- Publisher: University of Wisconsin Press; 2, Expanded edition (May 31, 2013)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 029929224X
- ISBN-13: 978-0299292249
- Product Dimensions: 5.5 x 0.7 x 8.2 inches
- Shipping Weight: 8.5 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
- Average Customer Review: 12 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #862,841 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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Voices from the Plain of Jars: Life under an Air War (New Perspectives in SE Asian Studies) 2, Expanded Edition
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Voices from the Plain of Jars is probably the most significant commentary about what happened, because it is straight from the mouths of the Laotian people who had gone through that horrible experience. This book was one of the key documents exposing the unauthorized military conflict, and led to Congress eventually becoming aware of the secret war that had been going on for years.
This is the book that opened my own eyes, as it highlights the innocence and bewilderment of simple people caught up in a Cold War conflict that they could not possibly comprehend.
Voices from the Plain of Jars shows exactly what it means to wage modern warfare, where the battlefields are no longer open fields, but the homes of blameless civilians who get caught in the middle.
Branfman arrived in Laos in 1967 to work as an educational adviser for the International Voluntary Services (IVS). He lived in a Lao village 6.8 miles outside Vientiane, a village lacking running water and electricity. He learned how to speak Laotian, though he could not read the language. The time he spent with the Lao rice farmers gave him profound respect for the "kind, friendly, cheerful, decent, fun, honest, sincere, and trustworthy" villagers. He connected with the locals on a deep human level. One day in September of 1969, Branfman accompanied his friend Tim Allman, a New York Times journalist, to interview refugees from the Plain of Jars, a lush mountainous region in the northeast handle of Laos. Branfman and Allman had heard rumors of bombing denied by the US government but reported in "Le Monde" the previous spring.
Branfman learned about the horrific US bombings of Laos from the villagers he interviewed in the Plain of Jars. Survivors of the bomb attacks hid in shelters dug into mountain slopes, living like animals foraging for food at night. When Branfman later interviewed US soldiers stationed in Vietnam, he was disgusted by the arrogance of the military personnel who bragged about killing civilians. US officials in Southeast Asia denied any US air attacks in Laos. Branfman discovered that the US government went to war unilaterally without Congressional authorization.
"Voices from the Plain of Jars" contains a 30-page Introduction by the author, including an outline of the history of Laos. The collection of first-person narratives and their accompanying drawings convey sorrow, loss, bewilderness. Many of the voices come from villagers. One woman talks about what it is like to be a new wife, and one narrator is a nurse who talks about how she came to study medicine. One theme that runs throughout the stories is how the survivors are made to live like animals. Airplanes are featured in nearly all the pictures as though the image of the airplane (symbolic of bombs) is implanted in the people's minds. While the drawings are amateur and unschooled, I cannot help but think of Picasso's "Guernica", which depicts the bombing of Guernica in 1937 during the Spanish Civil War. The Laotian pictures are not as schizophrenic as "Guernica", but they are just as unsettling, especially the drawings of dismembered bodies.
Fred Branfman enlightened the world on a very dark period in US history. We can't get enough of Vietnam, and the movie "The Killing Fields" brought Cambodia to our consciousness. "Voices from the Plain of Jars" adds another dimension to the terror of America's involvement in Indochina. When the book first came out in 1972, it did not sell many copies. The author found that his countrymen had little interest in or concern for the suffering of their leaders' victims, whom they treated as "nonpeople". Branfman called the US secret bombing of Laos the US Executive Secret Automated War which represented an entire new form of warfare. He labeled this the "Laos model" which entailed three features: (1) unilateral executive branch power; (2) strict information management -- "secret war"; (3) automated warfare. The "Laos model" is as relevant today as it was during the bombing of Laos.
Laotian studies, including Hmong in America and history of Laos, is a new academic field. The University of Wisconsin Press, which reissued this book, is embarking on an exciting new niche in Southeast Asian studies.
Books like this remind us of the responsibility we each need to have when fellow human beings are being slaughtered. That this is a chronicle of the world's mightiest power being brought to bear against poor villagers who had to resort to living in caves or digging holes in the ground to live makes it all the more powerful.