‘An American and a Thai man came into my school and I was taken away to military training,’ says Bou Than, a former Hmong soldier. Still only 13 years-old, the war was raging around him in the Laotian jungle. He was poached from a classroom and shipped straight off for military training.
‘I saw many of my school friends die in those jungles to help American forces,’ he says. ‘Kids as young as eight were being used.’
It’s rumored that at one point, Vang Pao said he wanted to cease all military operations with the CIA over concerns that the enormous loss of life could ultimately lead to the Hmong communities being wiped out altogether. Regardless of his intentions, though, the Hmong involvement continued—as did the casualties.
Soaring heroin sales were perhaps one thing that persuaded him to keep going. Before the Americans arrived, opium smoking was a cultural norm in the region and was prevalent throughout the Hmong highlands. US planes gave the Hmong the opportunity to do something they hadn’t previously—transport and sell large quantities of the drug, including to US soldiers.
There has been a great deal of debate since over the exact details of the operation, based on testimony given by CIA agents who were there at the time. But one thing is clear—there was a busy opium trade operating in the region, and the agency appears to have turned a blind eye.
A number of CIA officers have claimed since that, fearing their operation could be embarrassingly exposed, they decided to give Vang Pao his own local airline, Xieng Kouang airlines, as part of a compromise following his demands for control of all of the agency’s planes.
Much of the opium that was produced is said to have ended up in the hands of American GIs on the frontlines, leading to a dramatic rise in the number of overdoses among soldiers. Yet despite this obvious drawback, those involved in the operation appear to have felt there was little they could do as the profits were, in effect, also helping to fund the war effort.
‘Opium grew everywhere in our highlands,’ says Tho Ther, a former Hmong soldier who now resides in the United States. ‘We smoked it openly, but it was only when the Americans came that our leaders began to sell it.’
‘We were losing countless male children for the CIA’s war and needed to pay to keep the villagers happy,’ he adds. ‘Otherwise they would have changed sides to save their men from joining our army.’
But it still wasn’t enough. The communist forces continued to grow in strength and advanced towards the CIA bases despite Washington’s best efforts—and $2 million a day spent carpet bombing Laos—to stop them. Accepting defeat, the Americans eventually fled, taking a handful of Hmong leaders, including Vang Pao.
With the Americans out of the picture, the Pathet Lao moved to try to wipe out the remaining Hmong elements that had worked with the CIA. But while thousands perished in aerial attacks on Hmong settlements—spurring a mass exodus to Thailand—the rest fled deeper into the jungle, where many remain today, still hoping the United States will return to save them.