Aid worker Fred Branfman exposed secret U.S. air war in Laos

Sunday 12 October 2014

Date: 8 October 2014

Type: News

Source: The Globe and Mail

Keywords: US war in Laos

The Vietnam War was raging when Fred Branfman went to Laos in 1967 as an international aid worker. Determined to immerse himself in the society, he lived with an elderly villager, learned to speak Laotian and became a translator. In time, he met Laotians who told him something startling: There was a second war in their country, a secret U.S. bombing campaign that was devastating remote villages.

The revelation led him to take up a new mission when his term as an aid worker for the not-for-profit organization International Voluntary Services ended in the summer of 1969: to bring attention to what became known as the “Secret War.”

It had gone on for years – U.S. Air Force bombers attacked parts of Laos controlled by the Communist North Vietnamese, killing thousands of Laotian civilians – but it had been invisible to most Americans.

Mr. Branfman, who was 72 when he died on Sept. 24 in Budapest, Hungary, became one of the first to expose the air war, publicly challenging accounts by U.S. officials who had initially denied the bombing campaign and later insisted that it did not target civilian areas.

In Laos, he took foreign officials and journalists into bombed villages and wrote freelance articles about the campaign. In 1971, he returned to the United States, where he helped start two influential anti-war groups, Project Air War and the Indochina Resource Center, which lobbied Congress to stop financing the war. The same year, he testified before Congress opposite William Sullivan, the U.S. ambassador to Laos from 1964 to 1969 and one of the overseers of the bombing campaign. Mr. Sullivan, who died last year, told Congress that Mr. Branfman and others had exaggerated the issue.

In 1972, Mr. Branfman provided stark documentation in a book he edited, Voices From the Plain of Jars: Life Under an Air War. The book – its title refers to the hard-hit farming region of northern Laos – included 16 Laotian “autobiographies” drawn from interviews by him. Some included rudimentary line drawings by villagers depicting family members and neighbours being killed.

The book, which was reissued in paperback last year, told of people fleeing the bombardment and hiding in caves for years. According to reports at the time, at least 1.8 million tonnes of bombs were dropped from 1964 to 1973.

“No American should be able to read that book without weeping at his country’s arrogance,” the columnist Anthony Lewis wrote in The New York Times in 1973.

Fredric Robert Branfman was born on March 18, 1942, in New York. He received a bachelor’s degree in political science from the University of Chicago in 1964 and a master’s in education from Harvard in 1965. He taught English in Tanzania before going to work in Laos.

After the war, Mr. Branfman worked in Democratic politics, spending four years as a senior staff member for Governor Jerry Brown of California running the California Public Policy Center. Mr. Branfman was later an activist on environmental issues, particularly climate change.

His wife, Zsuzsanna, said he died of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, known as ALS or Lou Gehrig’s disease. The couple had been living in Budapest for several years.

Mr. Branfman returned to Laos several times, including once to be interviewed for a documentary about the bombing campaign called The Most Secret Place on Earth.###

See online : The Globe and Mail

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