Lima Sites – The Secret War
‘Biggest bombing in history’
“Among the calamities of war may be justly numbered the diminution of the love of truth, by the falsehoods which interest dictates and credulity encourages” – Samuel Johnson
Western power in Southeast Asia continues to have a significant influence despite half a century of independence. Regional narratives lean towards revisionist histories crafted predominantly by Western voices. Whilst the great game of social ideologies continues to be played out between ‘developed’ Western capitalist countries and the regional ‘developing’ communist autocracies. The language and historical narratives are dominated by Western administrations, academics and media who promote neo-colonial ideologies that preserve Western economic interests. The end of the Second World War marked a critical time for Western power in Southeast Asia. The colonial capitulation before an aggressive Japanese invasion strengthened local resolve for independence from colonialist administrations.
Until the Second World War Colonial Indochina was administrated by the French government. At the end of the war, after the Japanese withdrawal France was keen to re-establish regional control. Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos had returned to local royalist governance. Northern Vietnam’s communism administration based in Hanoi had been established by Ho Chi Minh who had fought against the Japanese, supported by the American OSS (Office of Strategic Services) the predecessor of today’s CIA. In 1945, concerned that communist influence could spread to northern Laos the French sent a deployment of paratroopers to train guerrilla militias in counter-insurgency warfare (COIN). During this period Laos was under the control of the Lao Royal Family, who supported the French administration but also favoured Laos independence. By 1946 Laos was back under French influence and the communist insurgency had been weakened. Laos became an independent nation within the French Union in 1947.
Communists in Hanoi continued to build support and demanded the French leave Indochina. In 1950 the Pentalateral Mutual Defence Assistance Pact was signed by the United States, France, Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos. This allowed for American military aid to be transferred to the French war effort in Indochina, and marked the initial involvement of the American CIA’s clandestine air transport operations.
Despite American air support the French were defeated at the battle of Dien Bien Phu Valley in 1953. As part of the Geneva Peace Accords in 1954, France agreed to withdraw its forces from all its colonies in French Indochina, and partitioned Vietnam at the 17th parallel, this marked the end of the first Indochina war. However, the United States did not end its support for the Royal Lao Government, funding the entirety of the Lao military budget in order to continue the fight against the communists. Throughout the 1960s and 1970s covert military operations by the United States continued in Laos in violation of the 1962 Geneva Peace Accords. The amount of large bombs and cluster munitions dropped was greater than the entirety of World War Two. The American bombing of Laos is now considered to be the largest bombing campaign in human history, which has left a deadly legacy throughout the country in the form of unexploded ordnance. The United States has never apologised for its unofficial actions.
Western photographers and media were allowed unfettered access during the official American engagement in Vietnam. Through the mass production, reproduction and dissemination of these images the dominant narrative has always focused on the war in Vietnam. Despite alternative narratives slowly coming to light, Western audiences are still provided with a palatable narrative of American involvement in Southeast Asia. Western movies and documentaries feature no Asian voices, the audience is often presented with the heroic exploits of American GIs and shown the American anti-war movement as a tangible example of democracy in action. There is no public narrative of any war crimes, or of a failed illegal counter-insurgency by a Western democratic government, actioned without the knowledge of its people in support of European colonial power, against a people perceived as vastly inferior and primitive. How then, without photographs or film is it possible to substantiate a visual record of there ever being any covert war in Laos. This project brings together a fragmented visual history of photographic images created by former pilots, declassified CIA documents, and military maps of Laos’ forgotten Lima (landing) Sites. Declassified reports and photographs are punctuated by modern satellite images of Laos which show truths hidden within the landscape, a country scarred by a continued hegemony of Western power.
The use of satellite imaging and declassified intelligence documents is itself a form of guerrilla warfare in support of a visual counter-insurgency which makes visible a hidden intervention by Western states. It further questions the legacy of illegitimate covert strategies, and the ‘state of exception’ that facilitates the conditions for both covert and overt military state actions in both a historical and contemporary context.