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CHAPTER ONE

Shooting at the Moon: The Story of America's Clandestine War in Laos


By ROGER WARNER

Steerforth Press

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THE COUP

Unlike the later and larger war in Vietnam, there were never more than a couple thousand Americans in the sleepy Kingdom of Laos. Of those Americans, only about a dozen were key players. They came to the kingdom by what seemed like chance, and once there it took them a while to create or discover their roles.

The first on the scene was a short, grizzled, balding forty-seven-year-old farmer from Indiana. In late May 1960, his hometown newspaper announced his departure as follows:

Edgar Buell, a lifelong resident of the Edon area, embarked Saturday on a job which offers as an inducement long hours of backbreaking work with archaic tools in a disease-infested land.

International Voluntary Services, an organization dedicated to the better understanding among people throughout the world, is sending Mr. Buell to Laos in southeastern Asia to further its diplomatic work.

Mr. Buell, who farms west of Edon, will be in Laos for two years. He describes his assignment as "people-to-people" work.

"I'm supposed to show them modern farming methods and at the same time a better way of life. This isn't a white collar job. I'll get my hands plenty dirty," he said.

Mr. Buell explained that farming in Laos is 150 to 300 years behind American methods. Such primitive tools as the hoe and wooden plow are used by most of the country's land tillers. Oxen and elephants do the pulling. Opium and rice are the chief exports.

Communism and a high disease rate are other problems he will face.

For that backbreaking work in a disease-infested land where the commies lurked in the shadows, International Voluntary Services, a private forerunner to the Peace Corps, was prepared to pay Edgar Buell sixty-five dollars a month. That was a pay cut even for a dirt farmer, but money was not Buell's motivation. His wife had died the year before, and he was grief-stricken and lonely. For his own mental health, he needed to get far away from home and, being halfway around the world, Laos was as far away as he could get.

He flew first to Washington, D.C., for an IVS orientation session, where he learned that the king of Laos was only a figurehead, and that right-wing strongmen, weak neutralists, and communist-backed nationalists were struggling against each other for control. Laos's former colonial power, France, had withdrawn several years before, and America had rushed in to fill the political vacuum. IVS, with its low-cost self-help projects, was a part of the effort to keep Laos free of communist domination.

From Washington, Buell flew to Chicago and westward in short hops powered by propellor and turboprop planes. In letters to his grown children he wrote of seeing the Rocky Mountains ("Oh yes those Rockies") for the first time from the air. He was utterly amazed, flying over the Pacific, at the sight of clouds underneath. "Just looked like one big white, soft plush rug under you," he wrote. "Gave you a good feeling, like something would catch you if you fell, and hold you and you would just be there forever. You had a feeling of being in space."

There was a touch of the poet in this Indiana farmer, even if he didn't pay much heed to the rules of spelling or grammar. "Now this old boy has saw quite a lot," he declared from Hawaii, "but I have never saw anything as beuitful as these islands were from the air. The sun was right. Oh so beuitful I can't explain. If it were only so I could have said to someone, just anybody I love, Oh Look, Look. Flowers, big flowers everywhere, in the little towns, on the farms, in the fields. The mountains are pretty. Only wish I could show it to you."

He could also be banal. From the Honolulu airport he sent a postcard with a picture of a plane coming in for a landing near the control tower, with palm trees in the foreground. "Hi. Just 3 oclock in the morning," it read. "Had a four hour delay. The Airlines paid our hotel bill and eats. I am at airport, have ate. Leave for Tokyo at 3:30. This is the airport. Bye, Dad."

There was no detail too trivial to be conveyed to the folks at home, for this was Buell's first trip outside the United States and he believed that everybody was as interested as he was in every waking minute of his experience. He wrote a postcard inbound to Wake Island and another one outbound. From Japan, he wrote, "Hi. Made it to Tokyo. Our first real look at Orental buildings and Customs. Nice hotel chairs beds and all close to floor." He sent one more postcard from Hong Kong. "Good morning. Beuitful sunrise on the water. Have ate and shaved."

From Hong Kong he took off just ahead of a storm on a flight to Vientiane, the administrative capital of Laos. By then he was exhausted. Between the bad weather and catching up on his sleep, he missed seeing those features of the earth below that would shape his future far more than anything he had seen thus far: Without his knowing it, his plane flew over the South China Sea to the South Vietnamese coast near Danang, then cut west above the densely forested Annamite mountains in to southern Laos, above what would become the Ho Chi Minh Trail; then over the flat ribbon of the Mekong river, across the arid flatlands of northeast Thailand; and finally to the city of Vientiane along the Mekong again. Buell missed it all. When he arrived he was simply glad to get his feet on the ground. Vientiane, he dully noted the next day, was a nice place, the largest city in Laos, population 35,000. There were temples with multicolored tile roofs and houses on stilts and little naked boys running around in the streets.

In the next few days he began to get his bearings. The country's full and official name for itself was the Kingdom of Laos, Land of the Million Elephants and the White Parasol. There were, maybe, a couple of thousand elephants in the kingdom--nobody had counted--but Buell did see one or two on the outskirts of town. He also saw parasols, though not necessarily white ones. Buddhist monks in saffron robes walked about carrying parasols for shade. It was a little bit of a letdown, but nevertheless a pleasant place.

In Vientiane, portraits of the king adorned the walls of the buildings. Two open-air markets and a handful of Western-style shops handled most of the commerce. Everyone seemed caught in a languid tropical daydream, as though the national sport was waiting in the shade. The people were extraordinarily gentle and polite, and greeted each other with their palms together in front of their chests, a gesture called a wai. Most of them belonged to the country's dominant ethnic group, the Lao, who cultivated rice and lived in houses built on stilts in lowland areas along the Mekong River. The muddy, mile-wide river, filled to its banks with the run-off from the monsoon rains, was also a national boundary, and on the other side was Thailand, with a language and Buddhist culture almost exactly the same.

This relationship with Thailand turned out to matter a great deal. As Buell learned, most lowland Lao identified with the Thais, their richer, more Westernized cousins to the south across the river. (To his surprise, there were many more ethnic Lao in Thailand than in Laos itself, which made him wonder why Laos deserved to be a country at all.) Meanwhile, Laotians from other ethnic groups identified with their own tribes, or with the Vietnamese and Chinese to the east and north. Between the Americans, who were trying to expand their influence from Thailand, and the communists, who were trying to expand their influence from China and North Vietnam, Laos was up for grabs.

Near the end of June 1960--ten days after he left Washington D.C. and six weeks before the coup that set off an international crisis--Buell moved a hundred miles north of Vientiane to a little market town called Lat Houang. He lived in a crude little house with no glass in the windows and an outhouse out back. When it rained he drank runoff water from the roof; otherwise he filtered it from a muddy stream. He cooked on an oil stove until that blew up and then changed to a campfire outside in the yard. The living conditions reminded Buell of his childhood on the family farm in Indiana, and didn't faze him in the slightest.

His job was to teach rural vocational skills to adults on an elementary school level. "How to saw boards straight, how to use soap and water, what it means to boil water," he explained to his family in his letters. "How to better raise live stock. Here they don't belive in castration. What God gave you, you are to keep." He was amazed at the backwardness of his students. "You will be unable to belive this," Buell wrote, in a letter typical for its misspellings, grammatical errors, and solid common sense, "but these people are not yet to the wheel age. They never fix nothing. They just cant figure out why it broke. Now dont get me wrong, these people are not dummies, in some ways very smart and Oh so friendly. They are so Dam willing, but you can't belive grown men that far back. They know nothing about Modern life."

Buell was not the only American in the region. Nearby, on an area of rolling grasslands known as the Plain of Jars, a handful of U.S. Army Special Forces soldiers wearing civilian clothes helped train the Royal Lao Army. A few other Americans who traveled about upcountry Laos in small planes worked for a branch of the government whose name he would speak only in a whisper. Elsewhere in the forested mountains of Laos lurked the communists and "pro-communists"--advisers from the North Vietnamese Army, and units of the Laotian leftist insurgency generally known as the Pathet Lao (properly known as the Neo Lao Hak Sat). These northern Vietnamese had been trying to take over Laos for centuries, long before communism existed; their own land was crowded and they wanted room to expand. But Buell, a fervently patriotic American, saw the struggle for Laos in terms of Cold War morality, as a struggle between free world good and communist evil.

Being part of a cause made Buell feel proud. The respect he got from the local people was good for him, too. He had been observing the local agricultural scene closely, and he had given a middle-aged woman from a nearby village an envelope of red kidney bean seeds. Dropping to her knees, she placed her palms together and then raised her hands up in front of her forehead in the most reverential form of, the wai, the Buddhist gesture. Nobody had ever thanked Buell on her knees before, and he was touched to the core.

A few weeks after arriving at Lat Houang, Buell was invited to a dinner hosted by the Lao military commander for the nearby Plain of Jars. That evening he met the commander's number two, a Maj. Vang Pao, who was also the highest-ranking officer from an ethnic group who called themselves Hmong, but who were known to outsiders as the Meo.

The Meo(*), like other Laotian hilltribes, lived at higher elevations than the lowlanders, planted rice on hillsides rather than in diked paddies, and worshipped animist spirits. When one of IVS's teenage Meo boys got a Meo nurse pregnant, Buell went to their wedding in a tribal village a long hike from the nearest road. The occasion was like something out of National Geographic. The Meo men wore baggy black trousers that stopped at their shins. The women wore turbaned headdresses, heavy silver necklaces, embroidered blouses, trousers, and waist sashes with embroidered panels hanging down fore and aft. Everybody drank lao-lao, or rice whiskey, at the wedding. Hiking out of the village Buell got lost with some inebriated companions. Long after dark when they had been on the trail for hours, they stumbled into a native hut and got directions to the road, which was nearby, and where some other Americans were waiting for them. Buell had enjoyed himself at the wedding and was no worse for wear.

Thus, when there was a coup in Vientiane a few days later Buell had already had his first taste of upland and lowland Laos, and he took it all in stride.

Though Edgar Buell was a novice in Asia, and could speak only a few phrases of Lao, he got along well with ordinary Laotians. He treated them with rough-hewn courtesy, and never patronized them. He had gray hair, which helped, too--Asians respect age--and being the same height (five feet five) as the locals made him seem unthreatening. Thus on a local level he was already making a difference, and if the U.S. government had had a thousand more like him in Laos, the coup might never have happened, for Buell was an exception and American arrogance and clumsiness was the rule.

Few Americans knew how to operate effectively in Laos. It was one of the poorest countries in the world. It had no paved roads outside Vientiane, few schools, and an illiteracy rate of more than 90 percent. Its greatest handicap was a mentality of passive resistance to change. To call the lowland Lao easygoing was an understatement. Every American knew the story of the Lao farmer who had been given fertilizers to double his crop yield; after that the farmer only worked half as hard as before.

And yet there was much that was deceptive and even admirable in the Laotians' ability to resist outsiders' plans for their improvement. The Laotians liked things as they were. Nobody starved. They admired Westerners but knew they were incapable of doing what the Westerners did, and so they didn't bother trying. There was a kind of magical perversity about the place that turned straightforward attempts to Westernize Laos into the purest folly.

Starting in 1957 the U.S. had spent more on foreign aid to Laos per capita than it had on any other nation. That worked out to $150 per Laotian, twice the average person's annual income, though the average Laotian didn't get a penny of the aid. Some of the money went to support pro-American candidates in an election. They won by lopsided victories in balloting that was obviously, and embarassingly, rigged. Other money went to a program to support the local currency, the kip. The Americans bought truckfuls of kip above the black-market rate, burned the banknotes, and gave the Laotian government dollars in exchange. Quickly realizing that bags of nearly worthless kip could be traded for dollars, Laotian merchants imported Mercedes and other luxury goods with their cheaply obtained American money, and then exported them to Thailand at a profit. The tiny class of rich elite got richer, and the poor were no better off than before.

The Royal Lao Army's entire budget was paid by the U.S. government, with much of the payroll going to nonexistent units. Graft was everywhere. Most Laotians were too apathetic to care, but a few lower-ranking officers were both angry at the generals for their corruption and angry at the Americans for appearing to encourage it. One of these disgruntled nationalists was a five-feet-two-inch captain who commanded the army's elite Second Lao Paratroop Battalion.

In early August 1960, the captain's American advisers, including a CIA paramilitary specialist, put him through a theoretical training exercise on occupying a city. The advisers then chose Vientiane to make their example concrete. They suggested he take over the radio station and the airport and then major street intersections, the post office, and so on. They offered him ingenious ideas, such as giving his soldiers little transistor radios, so he could give them instructions once the radio station was captured.

The captain's American advisers didn't speak Lao, a tonal language difficult for outsiders to master. (The Laotians always giggled when foreigners tried to say the word for "I" and said "penis" by mistake.) Thus they had no idea what the outwardly docile Laotians were really thinking. After his CIA case officer went to bed, the captain and his men took over Vientiane according to the script the Americans had prepared. From the captured radio station he gave his orders over the airwaves. His soldiers were wearing little transistor radios, which were presents from the U.S. government. Within a few days he was broadcasting speeches whose message was, Foreigners, go home.

For safety, about seven hundred Americans were evacuated across the Mekong and several hundred miles to the south to Bangkok, the capital of Thailand. Less than fifty were left in Laos, one of whom was Edgar Buell.

In the United States, the Laotian crisis, as it was called by the media, was portrayed as an ungrateful rejection of American aid and as a dangerous flirtation with communism. In Laos itself, however, there was a kind of unreality to the "crisis," which simultaneously managed to seem both serious and make-believe, though that was how the kingdom often seemed to outsiders. In Vientiane, ordinary people took their midday snoozes in the shade. The soldiers draped their laundry to dry on the barrels of their field guns and grinned politely at every farang, or foreigner, who walked by.

From August through October 1960, Vientiane was in a state of confusion. Honest but hopelessly naive, the captain who had mounted the coup proclaimed himself a "neutralist," a man of the nonaligned political center. He asked a fellow neutralist to form a government. Quietly and quickly, this fledgling government was penetrated by agents of North Vietnam, who were far better suited to this kind of work than their clumsy counterparts in the CIA.

Taking advantage of the confusion, left-wing Pathet Lao units seized control wherever they could. And at the same time, down the Mekong River from Vientiane in the town of Savannakhet, army units vaguely loyal to the right-wing elite gathered under the command of a general overthrown in the coup. The kingdom began splitting apart.

Edgar Buell and the other Americans in the Plain of Jars were cut off from the outside world, but were not threatened by the peaceable Laotians. Buell played pinochle with a small group of plainclothes U.S. Army trainers. He went out visiting his Lao and hilltribe acquaintances, who had begun calling him "Mr. Pop," since it was easier for them to pronounce than "Buell" (which they twisted into "Bure"). He wondered how the corn and soybeans were doing on the farm in Indiana, and how the Detroit Tigers were doing in the American League standings. And he wrote letters home.

"Now quit your Dam worrying," Buell admonished his family. "You know I can take care of myself. They are not going to shoot me or stab me either. I love this work, people and all. As for the folks at home understanding, to Hell with it. Cao ji. Understand. Then De ji which means stay or be happy."

Buell wrote that he didn't know whether, or when, the U.S. government would intervene. But he agreed with his Special Forces friends that any effort would have to be staged from across the Mekong River in Thailand.

He added, a bit cryptically, "You know our Buddys across the border are not dumb."

(*) Author's note: In this book, I have used the old outsider's name "Meo" for the tribe today known as the Hmong simply because "Meo" was in universal use among Americans and other Laotians during the Laos war years. Nothing derogatory is meant, nor would it appear that the tribe itself considered the term derogatory, since no tribal member, including Vang Pao, ever told Buell or other Americans that "Meo" was inappropriate.

In recent years, a few Western authors have claimed that "Meo" derives from a Chinese word for "barbarian," but this is simply not true: The Chinese word in question has a different pronunciation and is written with an entirely different ideograph. "Meo" is a neutral name, free of other meanings or connotations.

(C) 1996 Roger Warner All rights reserved. ISBN: 1-883642-36-1

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