By Kevin Stoda
I had certain concerns and questions about crossing into Laos as an American-even as recently as a few weeks ago. I wondered what remnants of war and isolation I would find in a land where the U.S. tonnage of bombs in an illegal and covert war in the 1960s and 1970s had totaled 2 million tons of bombs. At that time, there was only a population of about 2 to 3 million peoples among the various ethnic tribes and groupings in the whole country of Laos. That means that the total tonnage per capita was unheard of (in a comparison to any other country on the planet).
Americans have to a great degree not acknowledged (or at least often have failed to recall) what sort of damage and continuing damage such a war crime of bombing has created not only for the psyches of the Americans who had to participate as perpetrators in such misguided bombings, but of the continuing legacy of personal injuries, deaths and destruction affecting Lao peoples for far too long. Further, the war effort and subsequent U.S. isolation of the region has stunted cultural, economic, political, and social development in Laos and its neighboring Indochinese lands
My own cousin, who flew as a bombing pilot for the Navy in the Vietnam era, once shared how he had asked his navigator never to even reveal to him where his plane was headed.
My cousin consistently repeated to the navigator, "Don't tell me!"
This intentional act of not-knowing of my cousin is symbolic of the intentional lack of recollection by far too many Americans after April 30, 1975 of what we had done or had been doing in Southeast Asia. Now, because of this neglect of cultivating memory, young Americans of the past two generations have been led once again into the crimes of war by a new set of American regimes repeating the same sins and crimes in our present day-and again in Asia, but this time in Southwest Asia.
MY MEMORIES OF EDUCATION ON LAOS
Most Americans of non-Hmong or non-Laotian descent know only of the image of Laos (and the CIA) portrayed in the 1980s film with Mel Gibson, Air America. In This film, Gibson plays an American making money in the name of Patriotism in Laos on CIA run air strips. He sometimes even finds himself flying drug money in and out of the country on behalf of corrupt Lao generals.
However, from watching the film Americans then learn to recall only that America did well by getting thousands of refugee victims, including Hmong tribes, out of war-torn Laos in the final days of an evacuation-an evacuation that was the prelude to the disastrous and horrific evacuation of the Vietnamese capital seen some weeks later. Through watching the film, it is not clear to the viewer that the U.S. CIA was responsible for the growth of the drug cartels in Laos at that time. The U.S. CIA did this dabbling in and promotion of the drugs trade in Southeast Asia in order to raise cash that was free of congressional oversight.
I, myself, learned only of the Hmong tribal experience when I arrived to teach in Kansas City, Kansas around 1985. As part of my preparation for teaching in inner city KCK school district, I learned of how these Hmongs, often referred to in literature as a nearly stone-aged society in Laos, had worked hand-in-hand with both the fascist and anti-communist forces in Laos and Vietnam only a decade earlier. I realized then that their resettlement in America had been harder than for many other South East Asians throughout the 1970s and 1980s.
Imagine having to learn to read and write in another language when you had never even had an alphabet in your own language!
Hmongs had arrived to America without a writing system of their own. Therefore, as might be expected, their youth and offspring-unlike many other Asian immigrants-did not do very well in school (as they were too culturally and educationally disadvantaged coming in).
Moreover, the modern United States offered no economic area that the Hmongs had a natural advantage in. The Hmong students whom I tried to teach either U.S. History or World Cultures to at U.S.D. 500 in Kansas City, Kansas in 1985 had had the potential to share o much insight into America's Vietnam-ra educational,but their language skills and understanding of why education was important was extremely limited. Moreover, Americans just wanted to forget the bad old days and the stupidity of the Vietnam era.
In America of 1985, Hmongs and other Laotian tribal groups were continuing to be too internally focused. Talking to some of these students was like talking to someone in a drug induced haze--as though the members of the community were still in a mass state of shock even a full decade after resettlement in the USA. This was one reason why their children, even as high school students could hardly read nor speak English.
This meant that many young Laos and Hmong teens were still dropping out of American schools as soon as they hit the age of 16.
ANOTHER IMAGE OF LAOS