October 01, 2009
Back When Our Boys Really Knew How to Enhance an Interrogation

A flashback from our last disastrous war of choice — the Southeast Asia War Games. (Not my description: in those days you could buy T-shirts with that message in Saigon):

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — The federal government has dropped its charges against Hmong leader Vang Pao, a former St. Paul resident indicted with 10 others for allegedly plotting the violent overthrow of the communist regime in Laos…

Vang Pao rose from a 13-year-old runner to a major general in the Royal Lao Army — the highest rank ever attained by a Hmong tribesman. He led a CIA-sponsored guerrilla army against the Pathet Lao, Viet Cong and North Vietnamese from 1960 to 1975, before the fall to the communists of South Vietnam and then Laos.

Vang Pao’s units suffered heavy casualties and were credited with saving thousands of American lives. William Colby, a former CIA director, once called Vang Pao “the biggest hero of the Vietnam War.”

Back in the day, I was our embassy’s press attache in Laos, where the Plain of Jars had just been retaken after years from the Pathet Lao and their North Vietnamese allies. Most of the press corps in Saigon had flown in to join the fun.

Generally our mission in Laos had little to boast about in the military line, and so just for this once we were eager to semi-cooperate with the media. I laid on a World War II DC-3 to carry everybody up to a town just off the Plain of Jars called Samthong, which we pretended was the headquarters of General Vang Pao’s guerrilla army. The real headquarters was a few miles to the east, where the CIA had built an airstrip at Long Cheng.

General Vang Pao (below) issued from his Potemkin headquarters to take on the assembled world press. The first questioner asked the general for his opinion of the North Vietnamese presence in Laos. The general answered in the barracks-room French he had learned as a non-com in the colonial army:

“Suppose some son of a bitch shoves his way into your house and takes a piss in the corner, what would you think of him? Well, that’s what these sons of bitches are doing.” He gestured toward a sad, bedraggled Vietnamese prisoner sitting on the ground.

A Vietnamese stringer for the Associated Press got Vang Pao’s permission to question the miserable man, and began to translate for the English-speaking reporters.

At the end the AP stringer said, “General, this man is claiming that your soldiers hooked his genitals up to a field telephone and gave him electric shocks. Is that true?”

“You have to,” Vang Pao. “These bastards won’t talk until you encourage them.” Henry Kamm, the New York Times man, featured the answer prominently in his story next day.

By that time our traveling dog-and-pony show had moved on to the capitol city, Vientiane, for a briefing from the local commanding general, Kouprasith Abhay.

“General Vang Pao told us that he uses electric shocks to interrogate prisoners,” Kamm said. “Do you do that here in Military Region Five?”

“Oh, no,” Kouprasith said. “That sort of thing isn’t necessary. We find that not giving them water works just as well.”


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Posted by Jerome Doolittle at October 01, 2009 09:26 PM
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