Germany, 2008, 75 min and 52 min
The Secret War in Laos became the largest covert operation ever conducted by the CIA. In The Most Secret Place on Earth filmmaker Mark Eberle describes how a covert CIA proxy war corrupted a country, destroyed a civilization and mushroomed into the largest aerial war in history.
IT WAS CALLED the “secret war”. Its secrecy derived originally from the fact that the U.S. would not admit its involvement in what was formally a neutral country – Laos – caught in the midst of the Indochina conflicts of 1950 to 1975. Yet, this “secret war” would result in a bombing campaign in which bombs were falling on the people of the Laotian interior every eight minutes for nine years.
In The Most Secret Place on Earth filmmaker Mark Eberle takes us back to the operational centre of the Laotion war, a remote spot called Long Chen near the Plain of Jars. The CIA operative who first selected Long Chen as the site of an airstrip tells us he found it pretty much empty. It was, of course, not empty at all, but home to people who had barely encountered the industrialized world. Eberle’s documentary takes us from this first encounter to the construction at Long Chen of a centre of industrialized death-from-above. He does it at a break-neck speed, clearly aiming to push a complex history through the 45 minute window of television documentaries. But he succeeds, primarily by keeping the focus on the story of Long Chen’s transformation from a bit of forest in the middle of nowhere, into the centre of a covert “death machine” on the western flank of the Vietnam war.
Neutrality in Laos allowed the U.S. to focus on mobilizing for Vietnam, and the war in Vietnam became the most intensely televised war ever. But by 1961, when US military advisers began arriving in Vietnam in their thousands, the CIA had already mustered “La Armée Clandestine”, a force of over 9000 Loatian tribesman (which would later rise to almost 30,000), mostly from the Hmong people. The Armée was led by General Vang Pao, known as “VP” to his CIA handlers. Their mission was to fight the Soviet and North Vietnamese-backed guerillas, the Pathet Lao, in a civil war that had been carefully stoked by both Cold War super powers since the end of French colonial involvement in the late 1950s.
THE EFFECTIVENESS of The Most Secret Place on Earth is its ability to push through this larger story of the Cold War chess game and, against that backdrop, describe a process that leads from low-intensity conflict to a bombing campaign that easily surpassed what twenty years earlier had been thrown at Germany and Japan combined. That journey – from local civil war to devastating war machine – is marked by some very familiar pathologies: the provision of civilian development assistance (including by USAID) to create infrastructure (400 airstrips) and to proved the political cover needed to prepare and fight a covert war; the cultivation of a brutal strong-man, in this case ‘VP’, to lead the fighting; the recruitment and training of fighters along ethic or tribal lines; the reinforcement of this armed force through the creation of a war economy, which both financed the military operations and offered levers of control over the population.
From Long Chen, ‘VP’ planned his operations with the help of the CIA operatives based there. Air America, the CIA owned airline, deployed his fighters into battle and, as the casualties grew, flew in replacement recruits from the villages which had agreed to deal with VP. Air support, often flown by Hmong airmen, flew from Long Chen, as did regular bombing raids on Pathet Lao and the Ho Chi Minh trail, which ran down the eastern border of Laos into Vietnam. As fewer Hmong men were available to farm, food insecurity became a problem, and Air America flew rice into villages. Soon, villagers turned to farming opium, a cash crop and easier to manage with fewer people available to do the work. The opium trade, feeding extraordinarily high demand among U.S. forces in Vietnam, was controlled by ‘VP’ through his control of CIA airstrips and Air America flights in and out of the villages.
Before long, the CIA and VP were sitting on top of a fully integrated war economy based on U.S. aid, the opium trade, Air America and the VPs soldiers. But the system was not sustainable. Facing mounting casualties, VP and the CIA simply demanded more: and where there were no men left to recruit, village leaders were threatened with an end to the aid flights if they did not send their children into VP’s army. At the same time, Long Chen became a center for aerial bombing of North Vietnamese positions in Laos and before long was the busiest airport in the world, with an estimated four hundred flights a day.
Then, in 1968, the “secret war” was expanded even further: the declared halt in saturation bombing of North Vietnam by the U.S. marked the re-direction of that bombing into Laos in an attempt to make the Ho Chi Minh Trail impassable. The unprecedented scale of the bombing, and the increased fighting, combined to decimate the Hmong population.
The Most Secret Place on Earth does its best to communicate the horrors suffered as a war machine, built in the shadow of a larger war. Still, it is hard not to feel that this is something beyond human comprehension. The “secret war” is, as the film implies, an ancestor of today’s U.S. wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. But far from being the mold in which contemporary wars were forged, the film depicts a war that is a nightmarish synthesis of total war and colonialism, a war in which two of the most deadly manifestations of twentieth century violence culminate.
The secrecy in which the war in Laos was shrouded both made the extent of the violence possible and ensured there would be no accounting afterwards for crimes committed. But perhaps the most revealing part of this ‘secrecy’ is the fact that it was not secret at all. Certainly not to those who lived through it, but also not for those who fought in it, nor those journalists who reported on it or those few activists who tried to stop it. The war’s greatest “secret” is that we knew and failed to act, perhaps in part because all of the focus was on Vietnam. In the words of antibombing activist Fred Branfman, speaking to a US audience in 1970, the “secret war” is a symbol of “how those people on the vague frontiers, those people in the Third World, those people we never see, never know about and never hear, can be vapourized, wiped of the face of the earth, without people back here knowing about it.”