You’re Invited!

Published October 23, 2013

Harvard-Westlake Super-Star Teacher Speaks about Traveling with Us

Published October 8, 2013

Cheri Gaulke, the Upper School Head of Visual Arts at Harvard-Westlake School and teacher of Video Art at introductory and advanced levels, and her students are embarking on an educational adventure to Rwanda this upcoming January with Peace Works Travel (PWT). Next year marks the 20th anniversary of the Rwandan genocide when hundreds of thousands of Tutsi were slaughtered by the Hutus. As this significant date approaches, it’s important to remember and reflect on the atrocities committed during the Rwandan genocide. Cheri and her students hope to spread awareness through the creation of Visual Arts.

Cheri with Lao children, 2013
PWT: Why did you become a teacher? What do you love about it?
Cheri Gaulke: Two of the things I love about teaching video is developing critical thinking skills within my students and developing collaborative skills as film is a collaborative medium. For the critical thinking part, we live in a media-saturated world and yet we do not learn how to be media literate…To not be a passive “couch potato” but rather an engaged and intelligent consumer of moving images is life changing…As savvy media producers themselves, students can have an impact on their world.
Why do you like leading trips of students abroad?
CG: I love travel and being exposed to different ways of thinking and being. Taking students to different countries opens up worlds of consciousness for them and allows them to better know who they are. I love the kinds of trips that I am doing with PWT because it is not just about going and seeing, but also about students reflecting upon their experience and giving back. We charge them with the responsibility of doing something with their experience by turning it into a video documentary, a news article, a photographic exhibition, or whatever form of public expression that they desire. In doing so we are challenging and empowering the students as agents of change.

Cheri with Harvard Westlake students interviewing a
UXO victim at the COPE Center in Vientiane, Laos, 2013

What do they learn on these experiential adventures that can’t be taught in the classroom?

CG: Instead of learning about war in a textbook, they see where a war was fought, meet people affected by it, and they get to confront who they are as US citizens and what their role is in relation to these issues. It makes history tangible and personal.
Leading these trips is a lot of work and responsibility. Why is it “worth it” to you?

CG: Being a teacher is a never-ending experience of being a learner. Travel offers a lot of learning. I love getting to know students in an environment outside of the classroom, where we share in a process of being challenged by looking at difficult issues and pushing through to making art out of those experiences.  It is a lot of work but it also makes me a better person – more open to change, more experienced with transforming life experience into art.
Have you traveled abroad with other tour providers before? Why is working with Alethea and Peace Works Travel better/ more rewarding?

CG: I have done a little travel with other providers. Alethea’s values match mine. Most trips are simply about visiting places and learning about them. Alethea’s values go way beyond. She’s all about a much deeper mission of learning about war and peace. As a person who has been passionate about fighting against injustice my whole life, I love how these trips introduce these ideas to students. What better reason to study history than to not repeat its mistakes? What better reason to meet people different than yourself than to realize we may not be that different.

What I saw on the trip to Laos is 15 year olds many of which had never traveled outside of the US and who certainly knew little about the Vietnam War and nothing about how Laos was illegally bombed by our own country. Now those young people know Laotians who have been personally affected and these young people deeply care about them and are working hard to let others know about their plight. That’s truly amazing and represents the beginnings of a generation of peacemakers.

Cheri and Harvard Westlake students with UXO survivor, Mr. Yelee and
his family.  The group assisted the family with basic needs and continued
to raise funds for the family after their return from Laos, 2013.

What would you say to a teacher who is considering taking students abroad for the first time?

CG: Go for it. But work with someone organized, smart and passionate like Alethea, because your trip will result in a more profound experience for the students and yourself.

Alethea Tyner Paradis, Director of Peace Works Travel
and Cheri Gaulke

California Students Document the Aftermath of the U.S. “Secret War” in Laos

Published September 9, 2013

Bomb craters create stagnant ponds, often harboring
water-born diseases, in Laotian farming villages.
In spring of 2013, a group of 13 aspiring video journalists from Harvard-Westlake School in Studio City, California, spent ten adventurous days in Laos immersing themselves in the culture, volunteering at preschools, and interviewing cluster bomb victims. Forty years earlier, the U.S. military ceased its air war in Southeast Asia, but in the present, unexploded ordnance (UXO) accidentally detonates and maims or kills a Laotian farmer or family member once a day on average. An estimated 80 million “bombies,” each about the size of a tennis ball, are still “live” today. The students returned home determined to publicize the victims’ stories through video, writing, and visual art, thus giving voice to an innocent people still living under the shadow of the Vietnam War.
Student tosses an inert “bombie” into the air.
Playing with found objects (some are still “live”)
maims many Laotian children every year.  Note the
old mortar shells used as banisters in the background.
The trip was hosted by Give Children a Choice, and operated by Peace Works Travel, an experiential learning abroad program. How did a unique study- travel program like this—one that involves high school students and such a somber topic—come about?  It began in 2005 when Alethea Tyner Paradis, then a history teacher, founded Peace Works Travel to give her students an immersive educational experience that was lacking in mainstream youth tours.
“In 2005, with U.S. troops stationed in Afghanistan and Iraq, the world was reflecting on ‘the lessons of Vietnam,” said Alethea. “It was the 30-year anniversary of the fall of Saigon, and it occurred to me that our nation hadn’t learned many important lessons from our controversial military adventures in South East Asia.” Alethea developed an integrative program that invites students to understand war– and the benefits of diplomacy and negotiation—from the perspective of people who live with war’s aftermath. The first trip was to Vietnam, and the program expanded to include Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Cuba, and Rwanda. Alethea directs Peace Works Travel and related activities year-round.
At a safe distance, students detonate cluster bombs that are
surrounded by sand bags.  Both students wrote reflection
pieces describing this experience.
Harvard-Westlake’s Visual Arts Chair Cheri Gaulke and Emmy-award winning journalist Jeff MacIntyre chaperoned the 2013 “Laos Investigative Journalism Adventure,” teaching video-recording, interviewing skills, and editing techniques on site. Staff from Give Children a Choice accompanied the group from the arrival in the Laotian capital of Vientiane, through bomb-ravaged Xieng Khouang Province, to the serenity of scenic Luang Prabang. Students interviewed UXO survivors, walked the safe zones along a cluster-bomb-infested agricultural field, observed a bomb- clearance team at work, and participated in the clearance process. Juniors Kayla and Hana assisted with detonating the bombs (see photo) from a safe distance of 0.75 mile.
Laotian child and American student play patty cake.

Students are now editing their documentary films, with a planned screening at Harvard-Westlake School in October 2013. They’ve committed to advocating for UXO clearance efforts and to helping families directly. For example, the students met Mr. Ye Lee who, while working in a field, lost both of his legs to a hidden cluster bomb. After hearing his story, the students were determined to raise funds to help him purchase equipment and supplies for the family farm.

At dawn, students offer food to monks, who rely on
charity as part of their vows of voluntary poverty, in
Luang Prabang.
Students interview and get to know some villagers,
including those who have been injured by UXO.

Students from more than a dozen schools have participated in Peace Works Travel since 2005.  The cost ranges from $2,500 to $4,100 per traveler, depending on days of travel and group size.  Teachers travel free when accompanied by eight or more students.  Visit and  Email queries about upcoming trips to Alethea Tyner Paradis at

Investigative Journalism – Xieng Khuang to Luang Prabang and Home Again

Published April 6, 2013

“Thongchanh discusses monastic life with a young novice.” 

We ride aloft in air-conditioned comfort, our safe passage facilitated on a ribbon of concrete threading through bomb-riddled mountains. Scenes of endemic poverty roll by the tinted bus windows like history repeating itself. Thatched-roof dwellings frame the margins of the road, bamboo-woven walls, mud-packed floors.  Barefoot children chase chickens, women bathe unselfconsciously outside, old people haul bushels of natural resources harvested from Earth spared the ubiquitious slash and burn. Vibrant growth of tropical green banana trees, over-grown vines, terraced vegetable gardens and flowering plants contrast against a smoky sky. Scorched acres reach into the horizon and tumble to the valley below. Life is precarious here. Vulnerable shelters housing three-generation families are one violent storm shy of catastrophe. It is here that an average of one farmer— or child—per day will unintentionally detonate subterranean munitions dropped from the U.S.-dominated skies in a war few remember and none asked to fight.

The students are tired. Immersed in the escape of iPods and attendant ear-buds, they loll listlessly as our

Cluster Bomb in it’s original casing

oversized vessel rounds the tight corners of this 7 hour ride to Luang Prabang.  We teachers are proud. The kids have worked hard recording painful interviews relaying the tragic realities of peasant life in this remote province of northern Laos. Xieng Khuang, the once-strategic theater of Cold War proxy-fights between communist and western forces, is now struggling to minimize poverty and maintain basic infrastructure. Some civic progress is evident from our 2012 educational adventure one year prior. The main roads in town are paved, though the dust has abated not at all. Chinese companies are bankrolling gold-extraction survey projects; Laos officials are confident these ventures will increase prosperity, though for whom remains unclear.

Cave-combing for old treasures

Along the mountainous drive, we stop and explore caves once-occupied by the Pathet-Lao, the communist resistance fighters — and sympathizers to the Vietcong– of the Vietnam-war era. The caves are remote and absent of tourist presence save our enthusiastic echoes. Students explore the caverns within, discovering graffiti dated to 1968, old relics — antibiotic medicine bottles, fragments of communications equipment and weapons — which seem to have sustained dozens of people in this secluded safe-haven.  The tenacity of a besieged people speaks to us, a life of principled deprivation and struggle imagined within these dark walls. It’s not hard to speculate why a distantly superior and frustrated military power would resort to carpet bombing as the “answer” to the problem of an elusive enemy.

Captivated children mimic our sign-language for “I love you!”

40 years on, our UXO survivor interviews reveal much about the gentle Laotian spirit, their approach to misfortune, the immediate need for victim assistance, and the evident obstacles to bomb-free living.  Our students ask questions designed to elicit responses that support their chosen investigative theme. Koji and Hana are exploring the concept of UXO removal: the scope and consequence of what is and isn’t being done to clear the land. Who are the key players of organizational support and in what ways can people get involved to help? Max and Shingo are cataloging the Lao resourcefulness of repurposing

old weapons’ materials into objects of utility. Jewelry, fences, building materials, agricultural tools and domestic items are refashioned from U.S steel bomb casings in a most haunting illustration of turning “swords into ploughshares.”  Sarah and Marcy are highlighting the effect of UXO problem on children and the relationships within families over time. Gabi and Saavan are using a clinical framework of the seven stages of grief to inspire teen activism on key issues. They aim to illustrate that if young people have the courage to experientially engage in a humanitarian crisis, move beyond the shock and denial, feel the anger and bargaining, weather the sadness and despair, experience the upwards-turn, and arrive at a place of acceptance through social justice advocacy, they will thereby make a difference for thousands around the world. Aimee and Danielle’s project uses a symbol of hope from Hiroshima, applying a theme of origami crane-folding to inspire optimism in war victims to transcend their past with future dreams. Kayla and Delilah are demonstrating how, despite the horror of the secret war, the Lao ethos of acceptance found in religion,

How easy it is for kids to mistake cluster bombs for toys

history and custom explains their quiet resilience to the UXO problem.  They intend to broaden their scope to include this unique healing influence on U.S. veterans who have returned to Laos to quiet their own emotional demons. Milo, the 6th grade scholar amongst this high school crowd, is contrasting the lives, hopes and fears of our group to that of our Laotian friends.

In the process of our investigation, we learn a great deal about our unconscious universalizing of western values. Our vision broadens as alternative viewpoints are brought before the lens. “What are your hopes and dreams for the future?” Is a puzzling inquiry to people who live exclusively in the present moment. “What would you say to the pilot who dropped the bombs and caused your dad’s accident?” “Do you know which country is responsible for the UXO problem on your land?” These are unanswerable questions to those for whom the past is to be relinquished as one season flows into the next.

Mr. Not struggles to find words to describe his feelings

The Lao eschew anger as an unproductive emotion. While many of the UXO survivors exhibit significant
symptoms of PTSD, clinical depression and suicidal tendencies, the concept of seeking therapy for their “mental health” is completely foreign. “Sadness is just part of life,” ThongChanh, our once-monk-turned humanitarian tour guide (who the students affectionately call “TC”) explains to us. “We don’t have doctors for mind sickness. If you’re sad, eventually you make yourself feel better.” The notion that Mr. Not, a nearly-catatonic 14 year old cluster bomb survivor will just someday “cheer-up,” is unlikely.  None of his family expects it to be so. They have resigned themselves, — and by extension, the boy himself—to acceptance that he is “forever changed” for the worst.

And yet, after 25 minutes of ground-gazing, repeatedly dead-end, three word answers to our questions (“I don’t know”) — a somewhat exasperated question posed to Mr. Not (“Why did you want to talk to us at all?”) exposed the silent scream within:

“Because I hope you will help make it better so I can live a normal life again.”

 As it turns out, we are all made of the same stuff: the most universal expression of humans in need is also the most basic call to action: “Please help.”

Procession of Buddhist monks, Luang Prabang

The gentle sweetness of the Lao people revealed again in Luang Prabang as we sit in the pre-dawn grey, preparing to feed the monks. Grace manifest, the procession of saffron-robes emerge like a quiet sunrise from the temple gates. In silence, they receive our offerings, eyes downcast in humility, disappointed at nothing.
How will the students weave the personal narratives they’ve collected into a force of good? We brainstorm the possible “calls to action” their videos will compel from sympathetic viewers. Victim assistance, educational campaigns, UXO clearance, pressure Congress to appropriate funding, sign the cluster-bomb and land-mine ban treaty. Which is most effective? What will bring the most immediate relief from this decades-long legacy of unjust suffering?

Students wait to give alms of rice to the monks

Our final debriefing session reveals a wealth of creative Possibilities:  Saavan believes education is the best long-term solution. Aimee observes that while this is true, going to school is a luxury that a paraplegic-bread-winner’s family can ill-afford. Max agrees that we must be careful not to impose “our idea” of what a “better job than farming” might look like for Lao people. Hana is in support of using our existing democratic process to demand the U.S. policy-makers take immediate clean up action. Sarah reiterates the importance of preventing future UXO tragedies: shouldn’t all cluster bomb victims have priority in getting their land cleared? Delilah believes in a multi-lateral approach, including a modification of our current foreign policy. Why haven’t we signed the cluster bomb ban treaty?  Danielle is passionate about designing the artistic layout for a silent auction. Gabi says that the mind responds most effectively to three choices and we should narrow our options down. Kayla suggests that all of our ideas fall into three categories of hope: “taking responsibility for the past, providing relief in the present, and preparing for the future.” Marcy agrees to write down these brilliant ideas so we can take follow-up action on an awareness and fundraising event.

Cheri Gaulke, the highly accomplished chair of Harvard-Westlake School visual arts department , and magnetic force which inspired kids to take this trip in the first place, is smiling at me. Her eyes are twinkling in that “We just created magic!” kind of way. And with full confidence in the knowledge and vision and follow-through these students now possess, I smile and twinkle, too.

Investigative Journalism – A Day in Pictures

Published March 28, 2013

A sampling of photos represent the magical discoveries of our adventure. As we conclude our last day in Xieng Khuang and prepare for the 6+ hour long bus ride to Luang Prabang, the following snapshots provide a glimpse of the exceptional experiences we’ve enjoyed in the Laotian highlands.

Our intrepid video instructors Jeff Macintyre of ABC News and Cheri Gaulke of Harvard-Westlake School prove that necessity is the mother of invention and just about anything can serve as a tripod in a pinch
Max’s creative style is the subject of local fascination. 
Saavan and Milo observe the resourcefulness of re-purposing weapons: old mortars are recycled into a garden fence. 
Marcy and Sarah show how easy it is for small children to mistake a cluster bomb for a toy. (All weapons pictured are inert and have had their explosives removed by munitions experts.) 

Shingo, Max and Koji lead the parade of pre-schoolers who follow us into Ta Chok village. 
Gabi and her new friend demo Ta Chok village
Patty cake games are the only shared language we need! 
Kayla and Aimee’s new friends didn’t want to say goodbye.
Sarah demonstrates the fun of dancing the Macarena to a playful group of Ta Chok village kids
Hana teaches Ta Chok villagers a game of “patty-cake” 
Our cluster bomb survivor friend, Mr. Yae Li. After interviewing him, we donated clothing for his whole family and nearly 200lbs of rice to sustain them until summer.
Kayla and Hana are instructed by the UXO removal team to detonate cluster bombs and clear land that Lao people have risked their lives to farm for over 40 years. 
A UXO clearance team demonstrates the tedious work of scanning the Earth for subterranean munitions.
A UXO clearance expert demonstrates the delicate art of digging the detected metal fragments from the clay soil.
Cluster bombs explode in the distance!
Caption: A cluster bomb to be detonated beneath a sandbag.
UXO clearance team and our group celebrate a successful clearance activity and share a wish for a more peaceful world.

Investigative Journalism – Greetings from Xieng Khuang!

Published March 27, 2013

Here in the dusty highlands of Laos we have been most fortunate to meet and interview a range of courageous UXO survivors. Students reviewed their biographies in advance, crafted interview questions, and practiced the nuanced art of eliciting the sought-after story from a willing, but pain-stricken, subject.

The results of our split group of six students were most impressive. 

Kayengs village
Upon arriving at the villages, we are touched by the sweetness of the resident children. Barefoot in ragged clothing, their dirt-smeared faces cannot conceal a radiant spirit of a kind and curious people. Some watch us with wide eyes and bashful smiles. Others are more exuberant: “Falang!” They chirp, a slang term for “Foreigner.”

Thatched roof huts are both separated from and connected to one another with bamboo fences and dusty pathways. Chickens, puppies, baby pigs and ducks squawk of our arrival. Women cook a variety of staples (gopher!) over interior fires. Grossly oversized satellite dishes rusting in protest to the ravages of time; in every home, a television.

Digital cameras are the icebreaker. Showing the children pictures of themselves, letting them take snapshots of us, crowding in together around the lens for group “selfies” (American teen-speak for self-portraits) — the giggles we collectively generate are the only shared language we need.

The family shows where the Bombie exploded.
The land has since been cleared.
On on half acre, the detonation team found 11 more UXO

Our first interview participant is the fascinating grandmother of Kayeng, a 3 year old boy whose face was destroyed by a Bombie in January of 2012. He is obviously blind, his right nasal passage reconstructed around a small tube to facilitate breathing. On the day of the accident, he was being watched by his uncles who went up to the sugar cane garden and built a fire. There was a cluster bomb concealed beneath the surface. Heat or blunt force are the necessary triggers to detonate a Bombie, and Kayeng is lucky to have survived the blast. We are shown the chunks of shrapnel pulled from his eye when he finally received proper medical care, nearly a year after the tragic accident. One piece of metal fragment is as big as my index fingernail. 

Kayeng and his Parents
The interview is emotional. Sarah, Delilah, Marcy and Kayla take turns asking questions, taking pictures and videoing the event.. Mrs. Yang starts crying within the first 7 minutes. As she relays the sad story, her grief spills out in heavy tears. To this beautiful, 50 year old grandmother for whom the possibilities of progress and technology and 20th century warfare and modern science are all equally unimaginable, the cruelty of her grandson’s injuries are a source of great pain, but no malice. No, she’s not angry at the Americans. The war was a long time ago. No one meant to horribly disfigure an innocent boy. But she hoped that by talking to us, that someone will see the documentary video and help Kayeng have a surgery.

The translator relays her wish, and I’m puzzled. Kayeng is already being helped by a team of amazing people who are funding him on the surgery circuit.  check out progress on Give Children A Choice blog 
Mrs. Yang hugging Barbara Shimoda in gratitude

GCACnonprofit.twitter  GCAC found him in November of 2012. His cranial cavities were so infected that he was sure to die within a short period of time. The incredibly big-hearted Shimoda duo– Dori and Barbara– arranged for Kayeng to have the first of several reconstructive operations in January 2013. The total cost is expected to reach $30,000 USD.

So what surgery did Mrs.Yang wish Kayeng could have? She explains through an interpreter:

“I will donate my eyes so he can see again.”

Suddenly, all of us observing the interview are dabbing beneath our own sunglasses.

The sweet simplicity of her conceptual understanding collides with her selfless love: an eye transplant. And why not? Livers, lungs, kidneys and even hearts can be transferred from a generous human being to a deficient one. What would a Laotian highland Hmong farmer know of the limitations of modern medicine?

Amazingly, Kayeng is a happy, spirited, undaunted boy. Our students distribute balloons, and engage to play with him and others in quick bursts of creativity. Kayeng is quick to laugh at the sound and force of balloon air on his face. And he’s sharp! We give him the small child’s blind-assistance stick we brought from the United States. After a 3 minute tutorial from his grandfather, Kayeng is out and about, navigating his way with the stick over the rocky pathway and door jamb frame. It’s remarkable, and one is overcome with a feeling of optimism for his future.

Danielle and Aimee are meanwhile expanding upon their hopeful project, teaching the Hmong children how to fold Japanese origami cranes. It’s an ambitious abstraction to apply one historical symbol of peace –inspired from another act of American warfare in Asia: Hiroshima– and these young women are determined. The children respond with incredible attention and enthusiasm. Navigating a language and conceptual barrier, our students successfully impart a bit of magic in their own efforts for a more tranquil world.

Investigative Journalism – Day Two

Published March 26, 2013

We are in the highlands of Laos, landed in Xieng Khuang yesterday. After lunch, we went to the Plain of Jars which was made altogether more eerie by the ambient clouds and fiery sun descending over the valley.

Kids are doing great, though we are all a bit exhausted. We will be settled here for a few days so we can catch up on our rest while synthesizing the incredible learning they are experiencing. 

Today we are interviewing the UXO victims in their homes. Students are breaking up into small groups and — with the help of an interpreter– recording the stories of their accidents. we will synthesize the results in a reflection activity this afternoon. I’ll have much to report thereafter. 

Why Students Need to Learn about the Vietnam War

Published February 19, 2013

Fred Branfman, author of a number of books about the Indochina War is our featured guest blogger. Working as the Director of Project Air War in 1969 he wrote about the U.S. bombing in Indochina, which he claimed was directed at civilians.

Fred Branfman

Branfman, an American teacher who exposed the secret war to the U.S. Congress and helped stop the bombings was working as an educational adviser for the U.S. government in Laos, when in September 1969 thousands of refugees fled into the Laotian capital of Vientiane. Working as a translator for international media, he began to interpret thousands of villagers’ stories, telling of planes dropping bombs.

Told by U.S. officials in Laos that Americans had nothing to do with the bombs, Branfman became consumed with the desire to understand what was happening. Gathering details, he journeyed to Washington and spoke at a special session of the U.S. Senate Committee on Refugees, exposing the U.S. government’s covert activities.

Mr. Branfam who lives part of the year in California will be interviewed by Harvard-Westlake students in preparation for their Investigative Journalism trip to Laos in March, 2013.

“Has American Undergone The Spiritual Death Martin Luther King Warned Of? If So, Can It Be Redeemed?” By Fred Branfman

“A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.”
–Martin Luther King Jr. “Beyond Vietnam” speech, April 4, 1967

I recently watched, and was tremendously moved by, all 10 episodes of Oliver Stone’s “Untold History of the United States” (on Showtime.) I strongly recommend it to all of us, but particularly America’s young people who have been robbed of a most precious legacy: an understanding of their true history – and thus their future. I can’t think of a more meaningful birthday or holiday gift to young people for, as Stone says, “history must be remembered or it will be remembered until  the meanings are clear.” As the same U.S. Executive Branch mentality that produced Vietnam is today illegally murdering and weakening U.S. national security interests through the Muslim world, and threatening its own citizens as never before, it has never been more urgent to learn from America’s real history.

I was most moved by Episode 7, on the war in Indochina, whose closing words below constitute not only an epitaph for the Vietnam War but America itself. I thought of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s warning  as I watched this segment, which so movingly chronicled how U.S. leaders waged aggressive war, killing over 3.4 million Vietnamese according to former Defense Secretary Robert McNamara, and hundreds of thousands more Laotians and Cambodians; have never even apologized for doing so, let alone cleaned up the tens of millions of unexploded bombs and environmental poisons which continue to kill, wound and deform tens of thousands of innocent civilians until today, let alone paid the reparations they still owe the Indochinese; and then successfully erased their crimes and misjudgments from the history taught America’s young people, guaranteeing that they will be repeated now and in the future.

I watched this episode after reading Nick Turse’s monumental new book, Kill Anything That Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam, which documents the systematic “industrial-scale” slaughter of Vietnamese civilians by U.S. troops,  ordered by top U.S. military officers. Anyone who wants to know what the term “American” really means abroad should read this book.

I cannot say that I am surprised that America’s political leaders, media and public intellectuals continue to ignore the U.S. Executive’s ongoing inhumanity and murder of the innocent  – particularly through through its global and spreading drone and ground assassination programs and increasing reliance on the automated warmaking I first saw in Laos 40 years ago. America’s elites are as indifferent to the “mere Muslim Rule” today as they were to the “mere Gook Rule”  in Vietnam which Turse so painstakingly documents.

But I must say that I am astonished that even those who justify U.S. leaders’  actions on the grounds of national security have failed to notice the obvious fact that U.S. warmaking in the 1.8 billion strong Muslim World is jeopardizing U.S. national security as never before. Just as shortsighted  U.S. backing of the Shah of Iran created a U.S. foreign policy disaster in 1978, the continuation of such policies today will guarantee many more Irans in the future.

Nothing will threaten Americans more in the coming decade than an irrational U.S. foreign policy that, in return for killing a handful of “senior Al Qaeda” leaders (often replaced by more competent deputies), has turned hundreds of millions of Muslims against it including countless potential suicide bombers, greatly strengthened anti-U.S. forces, destabilized friendly or neutral governments and, as revealed by Wikileaks, vastly increased the danger that materials from Pakistan’s nuclear stockpile – the world’s fastest growing and least stable – will fall into terrorist hands. It must be understood that today’s U.S. Executive Branch poses a far greater threat to U.S. national security, and to each of us, than its foes.  (Please see my piece on this.)

It is understandable that many of us breathed a sigh of relief when Obama beat Romney, and hope for a Hillary Clinton or Joe Biden victory in 2016. But such hopes should not blind us to the fact that Obama, Clinton, Biden  and the Democrats have continued a bipartisan and suicidal foreign policy that is not only illegal and immoral,  but threatens the deaths of countless Americans at home and abroad, and increasing attempts to turn the U.S. into a police-state in response.

Stone’s words below pose basic questions: has Martin Luther King’s warning come true? And, if so, what can we do to promote the birth of decency, humanity,  and rationality in this spiritually dead nation of ours?

Excerpts from Episode 7: “Vietnam, LBJ, Nixon & Third World: Reversal of Fortune”, from “Oliver Stone’s Untold History of the United States” (Showtime)

The accepted mythology of the time was the U.S. lost the war in Vietnam. But as linguist, historian and philosopher Noam Chomsky has pointed out, “it’s called a loss, a defeat, because they didn’t achieve the maximal aims. The maximal aims being turning it into something like the  Philippines. They didn’t do that. They did achieve the major aims. It was possible to destroy Vietnam and leave”. Elsewhere he wrote, “South Vietnam had been virtually destroyed,  and the chances that Vietnam would ever be a model for anything had essentially disappeared.”

When an aging and wiser Robert McNamara returned to Vietnam in 1995 he conceded, somewhat in shock, that despite  official US estimates of 2 million Vietnamese dead, 3.4 to 3.8 million Vietnamese had perished. In comparison 58,000 Americans died in the fighting and 200,00 were wounded.

The U.S. had destroyed 9,000 of South Vietnam’s 15,000 hamlets – in the north all 6 industrial cities, 28 of 30 provincial towns, and 96 of 116 district towns. Unexploded ordnance still blankets the countryside. 19 million gallons of herbicide had poisoned the environment. Almost all of Vietnam’s ancient triple canopy forests are gone. The effects of chemical warfare alone lasted for generations, and could be seen today in the hospital in the South where Agent Orange was used. Dead fetuses kept in jars. Surviving children born with horrid birth defects and deformities. And cancer rates much higher than in the North.

And yet, incredibly, the chief issue in the United States was, for many years, the hunt for 1300 soldiers missing in action, a few hundred of them presumed taken as captives by the North Vietnamese.  High-grossing action movies were made out of them.

No official apology from the United States has ever been issued, and absolutely no appreciation of the suffering of the Vietnamese.

President Bill Clinton finally recognized Vietnam in 1995, 20 years later. Ever since the war American conservatives have struggled to vanquish “the Vietnam Syndrome”, which became a catchphrase for Americans’ unwillingness to send troops abroad to fight.

For a war that so mesmerized and defined an entire generation, surprisingly little is known about Vietnam today among American youth. This is not accidental. There has been a conscious and systematic effort to erase Vietnam from historical consciousness

Reagan: “It is time that we recognized ours was in truth a noble cause. We dishonor the memory of 50,000 young Americans who died in that cause when we give way to feeling of guilt, as if we were doing something shameful.”

It was not only conservatives who whitewashed American history. Bill Clinton: “whatever we may thing about the political decisions of the Vietnam era, the brave Americans who fought and died there had noble motives. They fought for the freedom and the independence of the Vietnamese people.”

The outcome has been shrouded in sanitized lies. The Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, dedicated in November of 82,  now contains the names of 58,272 dead or missing Americans.. The message is clear. The tragedy is the death of those Americans. But imagine if the names of 3.8 million Vietnamese and millions of Cambodians and Laotians were also included.

The supposed shame of Vietnam would be finally avenged by Ronald Reagan, the two Bushes and even to an extent Barack Obama,  in the two decades to come.

The irony is that the Vietnam war represented a sad climax of the WWII generation from which Johnson, Nixon, Reagan, Bush Sr., and all the generals in the high command came, those proclaimed by the mainstream media in the late 1990s as “the greatest generation.”

Yet that same media ignored the arrogance of a generation that, overconfident from WWII, dismissed Vietnam as a fourth-rate power that could be easily defeated. From what the ancient Greeks called hubris or arrogance comes the fall. And from this initially  obscure war came a great distortion of economic, social and moral life in America. A civil war that polarized the country till this day – with much denied, little remembered, nothing regretted and, perhaps, nothing learned.

History must be remembered or it will be remembered until  the meanings are clear. The second President of the United States, John Adams, once said, “power always thinks it has a great soul and that it is doing God’s service when it is violating all His laws”.

Which makes the details of the oncoming history a sad, inevitable bloodbath that repeats itself again and again,  as the U.S.A., much too often, stood on the side of the oppressors, propping up allies with financial and military aid, war on drugs programs, police and security training, joint military exercises, overseas bases, and occasional direct military intervention.

The U.S.  empowered a network of tyrants who were friendly to  foreign investors who could exploit cheap labor and native resources on terms favorable to the Empire. Such was the British and French way. And such would be the American way. Not raping, looting Mongols, but rather benign, briefcase-toting, Ivy-league educated bankers, and corporate executives who would loot local economies in the name of modernity, democracy and civilization, to the benefit of the United States and its allies.

During the Cold War politicians and the media sidestepped debate over the basic morality of U.S. foreign policy, by mouthing platitudes about U.S. benevolence and insisting that harsh, even dirty, tactics were needed to fight fire with fire. The Kissingers of the world called it “realpolitik”. But even when the Soviet Union collapsed in the early 1990s, our nation’s policies did not change, as the U.S. time and again, has taken  the side of the entrenched classes or the military against those from below seeking change.

It was the American war against the poor of the earth, the most easily killed,  the collateral damage.

As was asked at the beginning, was it really about fighting communism, or was that a misunderstood or disguised motivation?

It was George Kennan, America’s leading early Cold War strategist who went to the heart of the matter in a memorandum written in 1948. “With 50 percent  of the world’s wealth but only 6% of its population,  we cannot fail to be the object of envy and resentment. Our real task is to devise a pattern of relationships which will permit us to maintain this position of disparity.  To do so we will have to dispense with all sentimentality and daydreaming. We should cease to talk about vague and unreal objectives such as human rights, raising of living standards and democratization. We are going to have to deal in straight power concepts. The less we are hampered by idealistic slogans the better.”

But George Kennan, who lived to be 102 years old in 2005,  was an intellectual who never sought political office.

Never in his wildest dreams could he have imagined the barbaric proportions of the upcoming Presidency of Ronald Reagan.

Reflections on Laos

Published July 16, 2012

In March a group of Peace Works Travel World students traveled to Laos, where they visited COPE, an organization that provides prosthetic limbs and orthotic rehabilitation for victims of UXOs (unexploded ordinances). From 1964 to 1973 the US dropped over two million tons of cluster munitions onto Laos. The campaign was part of the CIA’s “Secret War,” which was intended to support the Royal Lao Government against the communist forces of the Pathet Lao and the North Vietnamese. While the US has long since packed up and gone home, 30% of the munitions dropped on the country remain unexploded, and 37% of Laos is still contaminated with these “bombies.” 40 years after the war, less than 1% of the UXO’s have been cleared; and while the US spent $17 million per day dropping bombs, between 1993 and 2010 it has only spent $3.1 million per year cleaning them up.

Motivated by her experience in Laos and time at COPE, Clarissa Coburn, an 11th grader at Laguna Blanca School in Santa Barbara, CA wrote a letter urging Americans to visit Laos and do their part to help heal the country from the bloody legacy of the Secret War:

Clarissa at COPE

Reflections on Laos, the Secret War and Unexploded Ordinances
Clarissa Coburn, 11th grade
Laguna Blanca School

Wars in history books are about facts and statistics:  famous people, important dates, key strategies and the long-term political and economic effects, as understood by the “winners.” But when it comes down to it, war isn’t as clean cut or simple as it is made out to be. There are no true winners when casualties are a consequence. It is really hard to remember that all of the lofty ideals and pure motives in the world cannot change the fact that people will die — innocent people who may or may not support those who are the intended target.

That’s what I learned in Laos, it’s embarrassing that I had to go all the way to South East Asia to realize something that should be completely obvious: all of those statistics–those “body counts”–were once real, living people with hopes, dreams and potential. Every statistic that  says 10,000 people died in a war, really means that 10,000 people had their lives cut short. And it’s not just those individual losses; for each of those deaths, 10,000 families lost loved ones. Thousands more of those 10,000 dead also lost best friends, lovers, co-workers, and community members. That random person who used to smile from the corner table at the local coffee shop? Gone. 10,000 people are now missing who never got a chance to finish their projects, contribute to society or meet that person who’s  thrilled to find  they had the same weird quirk. Potential lost, love lost, countless opportunities lost, and why? Because top decision-makers decided that war was necessary. Civilian casualties were justified, and  in the end the world would be a better place for it.

And so in Laos I learned this lesson. It was a nasty surprise. As I thought about the estimated 20,000 to 200,000 civilians who died during the Secret War in Laos, I felt utterly horrified. But the worst blow came next: it wasn’t over. Laotians live with the threat of unexploded cluster munitions  on 37% of their country. Sure, we stopped bombing 40 years ago and the War, no longer secret but still largely unheard of, has been over for so long that Americans have already had several intervening wars. For young Americans, the Vietnam War is a thing of ancient history, but the story is different in Laos. Laotians can’t forget about what America did to them because they continue to live with it every single day. For them, existing on less than two U.S. dollars per day, escape is impossible. It’s not as easy as moving on to talk about the next war.

For me, nothing could have brought that message home quite like meeting the people who knew exactly what it is to suffer from the after-effects of  war. It is impossible to explain the experience of meeting these people;  it is truly a situation where you must go and see for yourself. It can’t be explained; words can’t ever be as convincing here in the US, where it all seems like an admittedly sad, but far-off story. I am aware that there are serious budget problems that our nation must deal with, and that spending cuts must be made. But in the end we caused this damage and we need to clean it up. At the very least, we owe the Lao people something better than a 2,000 year future of fear, death, injury and poverty.

Ultimately, all I can really say is this: I challenge you to go to Laos and see the extreme poverty. I challenge you to witness the ways in which scrap weaponry is incorporated into everyday life. I challenge you to visit a mother who lost her five year old child to a UXO. I challenge you to hear the story of a teenager who lost his eyes and both hands on his 16th birthday in an accident of curiosity. I challenge you to listen to him when he tells you that he doesn’t blame you or America. I challenge you to think long and hard about whether or not you find yourself as guiltless as he does.

And after you have done these simple things: I challenge you to return home and retain your position about giving US aid to Laos.

Hillary Clinton’s pledge to COPE
Just last week, on July 11th, Secretary Hillary Clinton visited  COPE during a tour through SE Asia before the 2012 ASEAN conference. While visiting the facilities, Clinton received a hard-copy of Clarissa’s letter in her welcome basket. In response, Clinton wrote her own letter pledging US support for  COPE, Laos and the removal of cluster bombs. 
What can you do to help? Join our partners, Legacies of War, learn more about the “Secret War,” help spread education and awareness, and donate to the cause. Or take Clarissa’s words to heart and join us next spring on an investigatory journalism trip to Laos. A group of people dedicated to making a difference can have a huge impact on the world. 

Looking at “Laos Scarred by Secret War”

Published April 26, 2012

Just a few weeks ago a group of our students returned from Laos, where they experienced first hand the ravages of the “Secret War,” played out by the CIA during the 1960s and 70s. While the press covered the horors of what was occurring in Vietnam, the millions of tonnes of cluster bombs concurrently dropped on Laos went largely unrecorded. When American troops packed up and left Southeast Asia, they also left a legacy of unexploded ordinances (UXOs), polluting almost every inch of Laotian soil; a problem that has killed 12,000 people since the end of the war (the majority, civilians and children). 

In her article, “Laos Scarred by Secret War,” Michelle Cooke details the daily struggles of contemporary Laotians to cope with the legacy of war that continues to plague one of Southeast Asia’s most remote and beautiful countries. Her report begins with the story of a young man, Phonsavath, now blind and handless because of a “bombie”: 

“On Phonsavath’s 16th birthday a bomb blew his hands to pieces and caused him to go blind.

He was walking home from school when his friend picked up a rusty bomb, the size of a tennis ball, from the side of the road.

Curiosity got the better of him, and he attempted to open it, but it exploded in his hands.
His story mirrors thousands of others and is a permanent reminder of how although the Vietnam war ended nearly four decades ago, its remnants remain across South East Asia, especially in Laos, the world’s most-bombed country.

The live bomb which injured Phonsavath was one of an estimated 80 million which lie in wait of victims.

At the same time the United States was fighting the North Vietnamese, it was dropping the equivalent of one bomb, every eight minutes for nine years, on Laos – more bombs than the allies dropped on Germany and Japan combined during World War 2.
But the outside world had little idea of what was happening: it was so covert it became known as The Secret War.

What now plagues Laos are the millions of bombs that did not explode on impact, so the tally of casualties adds up, year after year…”

Laguna Blanca students with Phonsavath at COPE 

Click here to read the whole article and learn about the real costs of war, as well as what has been and still needs to be done to heal the country. Cooke’s article also includes a short, informative film that’s well worth your time.