As our flags go down over Iraq and surge troops pack to leave Afghanistan, I cannot help but think about that other war to which our current entanglements in the Middle East are so often compared. I especially worry that while President Barrack Obama is keeping campaign promises to antiwar activists that the United States might inadvertently inflict damage on allies who must continue to live in regions we evacuate long after we’re gone. After all, this is exactly what happened to the Hmong in Laos after Vietnam. To add insult to injury, not only were these allies abandoned for political reasons, most Americans have never even heard of them.
Even so, originating in the mountainous regions of China, the tribal Hmong people have a long history that extends more that 2,000 years. They moved south to escape brutal Chinese oppression at the beginning of the 19 th century. There they were subject to new influences, as Laos became a French protectorate in 1893. In the first half of the 20 th century, Hmong clans would fall on different sides of the “Free Lao” movement, which would further complicate their modern history.
Regardless, in 1961, one of these Hmong factions led by Vang Pao, a Royal Lao Army officer, answered the call of the CIA under President John F. Kennedy to open a secret front designed to resist the advance of communism. Armed by the United States to be guerillas in Laos and working as spies who gave safe haven to American pilots shot down over the jungle, these Hmong valiantly fought for American interests for more than a decade.
Unfortunately, the Hmong decision to ally with the United States would prove to be a costly one. Apparently unconcerned about the consequences that were inevitable for any American allies abandoned in the region, Congress stopped funding the war effort in Vietnam in 1975. For many of the Hmong, this political action of “friends” in Washington meant exile or death was soon to follow.
In fact, many Hmong were simply shot and killed by the triumphant Pathet Lao communists. Soldiers who had served with Vang Pao were sent to “re-education” centers where they suffered through hard labor and starvation. Hmong peasants who remained in the hills were (and are) subjected to political indoctrination “seminars” and forced labor collectivization.
All of this gave rise to refugee camps that still exist on the Thai border, which is where I first encountered the Hmong. In the 21 st century, those Hmong who are in these camps live in a perpetual no man’s land without hope of entering Thai society, kept under tight military scrutiny, and frightened of taking their children back to Laos.
For this reason, many Hmong are still granted political asylum to live in the United States, and there is even a Hmong community in the Atlanta area. In light of our current withdrawals, it’s ironic that Vang Pao, the complicated but revered leader of the Hmong who continued to work for his people while in exile, just passed away in 2011.
Of course, I know the United States can never leave troops in any one country forever, and President George W. Bush created our withdrawal date in Iraq. However, I cannot help but be concerned about the political machinations that seem to have infiltrated military decisions in the Middle East because I know—while liberals at home may think they’re doing something wonderful for the people we leave behind—if we are not careful, we will create new misery and hardship for those who bravely partnered with us to build better futures in their countries. To prove this point I only need to remember the Hmong.