Marc Eberle’s The Most Secret Place on Earth (The CIA Covert War in Laos), co-written by Tom Vater, has been has been reviewed by Andrew Nette at Asia Times Online.
Exposing the CIA’s ‘most secret place’
PHNOM PENH – It was known as the “secret war”, a covert operation waged by the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) throughout the 1960s and early 1970s against communist guerrillas in Laos. The most secret location in this clandestine conflict was the former CIA air base of Long Chen, in central Laos, which remains off limits even today. A film exploring this little known conflict, The Most Secret Place on Earth, will be released in cinemas across Europe this year.
The film, which was previewed in Phnom Penh in mid-August, includes images of Long Chen shot by the first Western camera crew to enter the base since the communists took control of the country in 1975.
“I first got the idea to do the film when I visited the Plain of Jars in Laos in 2002,” recalled Marc Eberle, 36, the film’s German director. “You could still see the craters from the air bombing and unexploded ordnance was everywhere. Then I heard about Long Chen and the fact that no one had got there since the war and I thought, how do I visit and how do I make a film about it?”
Much is unknown about the Lao conflict despite it remaining the largest and most expensive paramilitary operation yet run by the US. It was completely run by the CIA using largely civilian pilots from the agency’s own airline, Air America, and mercenaries recruited from the Hmong, an ethnic tribe living in mountainous areas in central and northern Laos.
As the center of the covert operation, Long Chen’s location was never marked on any map even though, at its peak, it was one of the world’s busiest airports and was home to 50,000 people. “I found it bizarre that at one time this was the second-biggest city in Laos and it was completely secret,” Eberle says.
Long Chen is still off limits to foreigners and most Lao due to clashes between government forces and remnants of the formerly CIA-backed Hmong army. Until recently it formed part of a special administrative zone under the direct control of the Lao army.
Interest in the secret war in Laos was rekindled in 2003 when two Western journalists made contact with members of the Hmong resistance, the first Westerners they had seen since the CIA abandoned them 27 years earlier. Upon seeing the white faces, hundreds of the tribe dropped to their knees weeping, believing in error that former CIA sponsors had returned to rescue them from the communists.
Pictures from the encounter were printed in Time Asia and won a world press award, but US media showed little interest. The decades-old conflict again made headlines last year when US authorities arrested 78-year-old Vang Pao, the head of the CIA’s Hmong forces in the 1960s and early ’70s, and indicted him on terrorism charges relating to his alleged involvement in a plot to overthrow the Lao government.
Eberle believes events in Laos in the 1960s have strong parallels with the present conflict in Iraq. “Laos was the progenitor of the way America fights wars in the 21st century,” he says. “Outsourcing the war to private companies, gathering public support by falsifying intelligence and documents, embedded journalism and automated warfare including the use of so-called ‘smart weapons’, all these methods were first tested in Laos.”
The conflict began in the late 1950s, as Washington sought to counter communist Pathet Lao forces and their North Vietnamese allies who had begun building the Ho Chi Minh trail through the jungles running down the eastern border of Laos. The operation was placed under CIA control to get around the supposed political neutrality of Laos and the conditions set by the 1954 Geneva Accords that marked the end of French rule in Southeast Asia and covered the cessation of hostilities for Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam.
Vang Pao, then an officer in the Royal Lao Army, was recruited in 1960 to lead the Hmong troops drafted by the CIA to fight the communists. Long Chen was established soon thereafter, the largest of hundreds of airstrips built by the CIA throughout Laos.
Actors of a secret war The film examines the conflict through the stories of players involved in its covert, diplomatic and military aspects, including former diplomats, CIA officers and Air America pilots. It also draws on critics such as Alfred McCoy, author of The Politics of Heroin: CIA Complicity in the Global Drug Trade and a reporter at the time in Laos, and Fred Branfman, an aid worker turned anti-war activist who worked to help expose the conflict.
Ordinary Lao people at the receiving end of the world’s most technologically sophisticated military machine also get a chance to tell their story. Although there is a short interview with Vang Pao, the one aspect of the story not adequately dealt with is the plight of the Hmong, who bore the brunt of some of the most savage fighting.
With the exception of senior officers like Vang Pao and their families, support for the Hmong forces was unceremoniously dumped when the US abandoned fighting operations in the region after the fall of Saigon to communist forces in 1975. Complicity with the CIA during the secret war is still punished by the government, say the Hmong, who claim that executions by of collaborator’s family members by government troops continue.
One of the most interesting aspects of The Most Secret Place is that it incorporates previously hitherto unused footage Eberle managed to collect, including film of actual combat missions as well as day-to-day life at Long Chen, gathered from myriad sources including the US National Film Archive and television stations from across Europe.
“The CIA had just declassified a whole lot of material so that helped as well,” he says. “The most important source was the guys who were over there filming with their little Super 8 cameras, often illegally.”
The film’s analysis sets it apart from other books and documentaries on the subject, many of which actually seek to justify the conflict, lauding the CIA operatives and their Air America pilots as heroes. The reality, as Alfred McCoy says towards the end of the film, was very different.
“We destroyed a whole civilization, we wiped it off the map. We incinerated, atomized human remains in this air war and what happened in the end? We lost.”
The covert nature of the conflict meant that US forces were able to ignore virtually all the rules of engagement operating in Vietnam. Every building was a potential target and the civilian death toll was huge.
The situation grew worse in 1970 when US President Nixon authorized B-52 bomb strikes on Laos, which remained classified information until many years later.
American planes dropped an average of one planeload of bombs on targets in Laos every eight minutes, 24 hours a day for nine years, making it the most heavily bombed country on earth per capita in the history of warfare.
Eberle remains cagey about exactly how he managed to gain access to film at Long Chen. “It was a matter of having the right contacts,” he says. The last film crew to try and get there were caught and convicted to 15 years prison, although they were eventually freed after four weeks due to international pressure. “After we went another UK crew tried to get there but they were caught and deported,” he adds.
The film, which contains aerial footage of the base as well as shots from the ground, shows Long Chen today as an overgrown airstrip surrounded by heavily forested mountains. “It’s just an army outpost now: a small village, a couple of hundred people, soldiers and their families.”
Even so, “there are some places in the world that have a different energy and Long Chen is one of these. You look down the runway and think this is the place were it all happened. The planes took off from here and bombed all those people.”
The buildings, including Californian-style bungalows and a number of other structures designed in a 1960’s style, largely lie vacant and derelict. “The golden age of Long Chen is over. It used to be the high-tech oasis for spooks in Laos. There were allegedly more antennas there than trees. Now they do not even have power.”
The 2007 arrest of Vang Pao in California, along with eight other Hmong and a former US army ranger who served in Vietnam, on charges of allegedly plotting to topple the Lao government, has highlighted the current state of Hmong resistance inside Laos.
Eberle believes, as do many other observers in Laos, that the resistance is on its last legs. “There are still some groups but they are not organized. They are certainly not politically or militarily organized. They are remnants, the children and grandchildren of those involved in the war who are scared to come out of the jungle because they have never known anything else.”
“Whether Vang Pao is guilty or not of the charges he is facing, one thing that is true is that he and other expatriate Hmong have used these people as pawns,” maintains Eberle. The decline in the resistance has been accompanied by talk of opening up Long Chen and the area around it to tourism.
“I do not see that happening in the next few years. It is still far too sensitive on the part of the Lao government,” says Eberle. “They are also keen not to risk unsettling relations with the Americans by opening it up. It is the last chapter of the Vietnam War and both governments have an interest in making sure it is forgotten.”