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Laos - Secret Wars & Big Ol Jars

Joshua Kurlantzick’s engaging new history says the secret war in Southeast Asia was the beginning of the modern CIA – no longer merely an intelligence-gathering agency

America was never officially at war in Laos, but its bombing of the Southeast Asian country in the 1960s and 70s was so intense that it averaged one planeload of bombs dropping every eight minutes for a full decade.

In 1969 alone, the United States dropped more bombs on Laos than it did on Japan during the entire second world war. Few outside of Laos knew then, or even know now, that for years an American-backed war was raging.

The war in Laos was also instrumental in transforming the CIA from a primarily intelligence-gathering agency into a powerful paramilitary force. It was the “first such secret, CIA-run war in American history”, writes Joshua Kurlantzick, in his engaging new book, which looks at this little-known conflict and how it still resonates.

Running alongside the Vietnam war, the conflict in Laos, which lasted from 1953 to 1975, was nominally a civil war fought between communist forces backed by North Vietnam and Laotian government troops.

Yet, from the early 60s, the CIA was busy training, equipping and supporting local hill tribes, chiefly the Hmong, who were in the vanguard of anti-communist fighting. The CIA helped train an army of tens of thousands, and supported it with weapons, food and intense bombing campaigns. It also planned many of the military operations.

Kurlantzick paints a stark picture of Laos. The capital, Vientiane, was little more than a muddy village, while most Laotians eked out a living as subsistence farmers. Despite this, at the height of the cold war, American leaders saw Laos as a bulwark, “a nation where the United States could make a stand to prevent communism from spreading west out of China and North Vietnam into Thailand and India and beyond”, Kurlantzick writes.

At the beginning there was little sign that this war, conducted in a country few in the US had ever heard of, would escalate to the extent it did. When John F. Kennedy became president, in 1961, he was surprised to learn that the US had 700 soldiers and CIA operatives in the country

In the decade from 1960, the number of CIA contractors in Laos increased by more than 2,000 per cent while the operation’s annual budget would eventually hit the equivalent of US$3.3 billion in today’s money – a huge sum to spend on a war that America wasn’t officially involved in.

Kurlantzick’s book focuses on the characters at the heart of the war – individuals such as the charismatic but increasingly volatile Hmong military leader, Vang Pao; CIA paramilitary trainer Tony Poe, a hard-drinking fighter who would slowly lose his mind as the war progressed and who would often risk death by leading local troops into skirmishes himself; and Bill Lair, a Laos expert at the CIA who would become increasingly sidelined as those with big plans but little understanding took charge.

See more info on this book - @ Post Magazine

The Laos Giant Jars

The Plain of Jars is a megalithic archaeological landscape in Laos. It consists of thousands of stone jars scattered around the upland valleys and the lower foothills of the central plain of the Xiangkhoang Plateau. The jars are mostly arranged in clusters ranging in number from one to several hundred

The Xieng Khouang Plateau is located at the northern end of the Annamese Cordillera, the principal mountain range of Indochina. French researcher Madeleine Colani concluded in 1930 that the jars were associated with prehistoric burial practices. Excavation by Lao and Japanese archaeologists in the intervening years has supported this interpretation with the discovery of human remains, burial goods and ceramics around the jars. The Plain of Jars is dated to the Iron Age (500 BC to AD 500) and is one of the most important prehistoric sites in Southeast Asia.

More than 90 jar sites have been identified within Xiangkhouang Province. Each site has from one to 400 stone jars. The jars vary in height and diameter between 1m and 3m and are all hewn from rock. Their shape is cylindrical with the bottom always wider than the top The stone jars are undecorated, with the exception of a single jar at Site 1. This jar has a human "frogman" bas-relief carved on the exterior. Parallels between the "frogman" and the rock painting at Huashan in Guangxi, China have been drawn. The Chinese paintings, which depict large full-frontal images of humans with arms raised and knees bent, are dated to 500 BC–200 AD.

Since most of the jars have lip rims, it is thought that the jars originally supported lids, although few stone lids have been recorded; this may suggest that the bulk of lids were fashioned from perishable materials. Stone lids with animal carvings have been found at few sites such as Ban Phakeo (Site 52). The bas-relief carvings are thought to depict monkeys, tigers and frogs.

Stone discs have also been found. The discs, which differ from the lids, have at least one flat side and are grave markers which were placed on the surface to cover or mark a burial pit. These grave markers appear more infrequently than jars, but are found in close proximity. Similar are stone grave markers; these stones are unworked, but have been placed intentionally to mark a grave. To the north of Xieng Khouang an extensive network of intentionally placed largely unworked stones marking elaborate burial pits and chambers are known as "standing stones of Huaphan". These have been dated to the Bronze Age.

The jars lie in clusters on the lower footslopes and mountain ridges of the hills surrounding the central plateau and upland valleys. Several quarry sites have been recorded, usually close to the jar sites. Five rock types have been identified: sandstone, granite, conglomerate, limestone and breccia.

The majority of the jars are sandstone. It is assumed that Plain of Jars' people used iron chisels to manufacture the jars, although no conclusive evidence for this exists. Regional differences in jar shape have been noted. While the differences in most cases can be attributed to choice and manipulation of rock source, some differences in form (such as variations in the placement of jar apertures) appear to be unique to specific sites.

More Information on this available @ Plain of Jars


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