“Do you know what Article 25 of the Hague Convention says?” Fred demanded.
Fred Branfman was an intense, idealistic, 26-year old former International Volunteer Services teacher in Vientiane, working overtime to research the secret air war in Laos and the refugee disaster it had spawned. Mike Morrow had given him my name, and when he arrived in Bangkok he headed for our house.
“Something about the rules of war, like the Geneva Convention?” I offered.
“It says you can’t bomb undefended towns, villages and homes. Most civilized counties signed it, including us. But that’s what we’re doing in Laos. We’re committing war crimes up there.
“It’s not just Communist propaganda,” he continued, dark eyes flashing behind his black Buddy Holly glasses. “Visit a refugee camp and you can see for yourself – people with missing arms and legs, napalm burns and scars on their bodies. We’re not talking Pathet Lao soldiers; we’re talking civilians – women, kids, old people.”
Listening to Fred was a humbling experience for me. I spent a weekend on my refugee story; Fred had spent two years chasing his. I interviewed 20-30 refugees, from one village; Fred had interviewed over 2,000 refugees from hundreds of villages bombed by the American planes, and their experiences made you sick to your stomach. The refugees told Fred of family members, relatives and fellow villagers burned alive by napalm, shredded by antipersonnel bombs, strafed by machine guns and vaporized into clouds of blood by 500-pound bombs that dug craters the size of a house. I shared with him the stories I heard from the refugees at Ban Na Long.
“Sankhamseng said they were bombing everything in sight. I thought maybe he was exaggerating, or I got my translation wrong. Is that what you heard?”
“Same stories.” Fred picked up a sheaf of papers and tossed them on the table. “We’ve documented thousands of bombing sorties up there.” According to Fred, the Plaine des Jarres used to have more than five hundred villages. Now it was deserted, a wasteland, a ‘free-fire’ zone. We had spent almost two billion dollars the previous year bombing the Plaine des Jarres, He believed it was the most brutal and sustained bombing campaign against a civilian population in human history. We bombed villages to ruins, then bombed the ruins, now we were bombing the ruins to ruins. And for what? We had already lost the war in Vietnam. There was no military justification left. The only reason we were continuing the bombing up there was because Nixon and Kissinger don’t want to lose face. “They’re hoping they can prop up Laos and South Vietnam long enough to avoid getting tagged for ‘losing’ Indochina.”
Next to Fred’s work, my Lao trip was a kick, a lark – my refugee story a superficial sidebar against his carefully documented and researched indictment. My story was read over Sunday coffee by Bangkok expats more interested in Patpong than the Plaine des Jarres. Fred’s sustained, systematic digging, his extensive taped documentation, couldn’t be yawned away. His material could end careers and reverse policies. And like Cornell, he was getting warnings. He admitted being a bit scared.
”I know my mail’s being opened,” he told us.
He had also received a death threat, he told me. He had written three articles on the CIA’s involvement in the secret air war in Laos and had shown them to a friend of his with the U.N. mission in Laos. His friend confronted American officials and they flew into a rage. They warned the U.N. official that, if the material were published, they could arrange an “accident” for the author. My jaw dropped.
“So you’re backing off?” I asked. I was getting nervous too. Fred shook his head.
He had sent a letter to Walter Pincus on the Fulbright Committee detailing the threat. Word would get back to Laos that the Committee would be asking questions if anything happened to him. He was mailing photos, and copies of his interviews with specific names and dates and incidents, to Congressional investigators looking into the Nixon administration’s secret war in Laos. Mike Morrow had him writing a major three-part piece on the air war for Dispatch. It was almost midnight when we packed it in. It was a sobering lesson in American civics. Before he left, Fred pulled me aside.
“Can you hold some papers and tapes for me until I get back?” he asked. He was heading to Vietnam to do some more interviews, and he couldn’t carry them with him. If he was stopped, they would grab them. Fred’s name was apparently on the intercept list at the immigration counter in Saigon.
“Can I read the material?” I asked.
“Yeah, do. You’ll find it very interesting.”
I took the package, hopped on my bike, and headed back home. When I walked in the house, Ernie and Sam were already lights out, but I couldn’t sleep. I kept reading and reading. I didn’t come across any government documents marked “Secret.” The material I saw was mostly details of the bombing campaign, based on interviews with officials Fred had somehow convinced to talk – insiders in positions to know what they were talking about, including the American who selected the targets to be bombed in Laos.
Dawn was breaking when I finally stuffed the folders in a box and locked everything in my Peace Corps trunk. I was paranoid all day about the trunk. What if someone had tailed Fred, seen us meet, and followed me home? No, that was Hollywood, James Bond crap. But then… but…
I walked over to Mrs. Boonsom’s office at lunch and told her I had to leave early. “Mai sabay iik thii, Khun Maitri?” she smiled. Sick again? She wasn’t dumb, but she was too polite to press me. I mumbled something and raced home.
It was still there, nothing gone. I finished reading the materials that afternoon, before Ernie and Sam came back. It was disillusioning. The dark side of the Nixon administration was on display – Kissinger realpolitik devoid of spin or fig leaf. It was also spooky.
I felt like I was reading stuff that was never supposed to see the light of day.