Friday, 27 July 2007

'What's a B52?'

In Bangkok, I usually stay at the Atlanta on Sukhumvit soi 2, the old hotel with the prominent sign outside saying, ‘Sex tourists not welcome’. It’s an interesting and quirky place and I invariably meet some interesting and quirky people. That’s one of the main reasons I like staying there, though there was once an American I had to shout at.

He was an ex-marine and I had to sit on his right and shout because his hearing was so damaged. He told me he’d been on the ground in Vietnam within five miles of a B52 raid and it had shattered both his nerves and his hearing. It was as if it had ruined his life.

The words shock and awe do not begin to hint at this terror the ‘free world’ has unleashed in our names from thirty thousand feet just so many times. Usually we are far removed from it all, but to meet someone who had been so close a witness to the horror and had suffered, I found profoundly disturbing.

As a child I remember seeing the first B52s, monstrous apparitions high in the peaceful heavens above a rural Gloucestershire in South West England, no doubt on training flights from their base at Brize Norton. To me even at that age they looked evil and one cannot imagine how they must have been for Indochinese children playing in the dust who knew this was for real and that they could be targets.

In the words of Baker and Pongpaichit*,‘Thailand was host to 45,000 US army and navy personnel in 1969. Three-quarters of the bomb tonnage dropped on North Vietnam and Laos in 1965-68 was flown out of seven US bases in eastern Thailand.’ The Thais should thus know all about the Indochinese wars and their impact, yet selling ‘B52’ brand mosquito nets seems to raise no eyebrows here. Nobody appears to know what the brand name refers to, even though the bombing was so close to home.

When a ceasefire was declared in Vietnam the Americans bombed Laos instead. These were neutral countries so as Kissinger so nicely put it, this was not a war, merely a sideshow. Both by American and international law, the bombing was illegal, yet Kissinger was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

I’ve read many different descriptions of the bombing of tiny, poverty stricken Laos… that it’s the most bombed country in history, that more bombs were dropped there than by all sides in the Second World War, that ten tons of bombs were dropped for each and every Lao, man, woman and child.

These statistics may be exaggerations, but all I know is that when, decades later, I was in a remote village far from the nearest road in the north of Laos, a veritable Shangri-La, the place was still littered with cluster bomb casings, just lying around and used as fencing and for herb gardens.

Whatever was the bombing all for? To make friends and influence people? This small village was a remote, rural paradise presenting no threat to anyone, but I suppose that as the B52s had nothing to do, they’d better bomb the shit out of Shangri-La too.

Thailand was deeply touched by the instability caused by the Indochinese Wars and, as a frontline domino, inevitably caught up in the Cold War, another ‘war’ against an ‘…ism’. The Thais played the opportunity for all they were worth, offering military bases for burgers and their prettiest daughters for ‘R and R’. In return they got massive aid and investment, a superpower for an ally, together with militant materialism and a consumer society. It affected their politics too. In the words of the same authors, ‘In Thailand, the US underwrote dictatorship… Thailand had become a US client-state under military rule.”

The CIA had a massive presence here, providing the police with, ‘tanks, armoured cars, aircraft, helicopters, speedboats and training by 200 CIA advisers’. Yet a rice farmer can wear a CIA cap and not know what the letters mean. Mosquito nets are sold under the ‘B52’ brand name, ‘100% best quality, modern from USA’, and nobody here bats an eyelid, despite their Lao compatriots across the border being bombed to hell and back by these planes.

Why ever did somebody choose this brand name? Selling ‘Bin Laden’ trash cans in Manhattan or ‘Pol Pot’ saucepans in Phnom Penh would be almost as marketable as ‘B52’ mosquito nets in Sangkha. But perhaps only the struggle to get by really counts around here and in a place where intelligent young people don’t know who Hitler was, world politics just passes them by.

Similarly when yesterday I picked up an excellent rubber squeegee in Macro in Surin, I would have though twice about buying it had I noticed its brand name. It was‘Black Man’ no less! (See their excellent English language website, ‘Think of Cleanliness, Think of Blackman.’)

It still surprises me that in a modern country such as this, it’s not appreciated how deeply offensive this sort of thing is. It’s as if Thailand is on a different planet to everyone else or still back in an earlier era, which is strange as their world so obviously collides with all others.

When I was last in Luang Prabang, the old cultural capital of Laos, I bought in the night market a village-made movement from a hand gun. It’s a fine piece of local metal work and it still cocks and fires with an angry snap. I admire its unknown maker very much and I reflect that when the planes were overhead, unseen and probably unheard, this was what the Lao peasants had to defend themselves with. All they could do was to hide, yet when the women and children hid in the caves, the fighters slaughtered them with carefully placed rockets. I saw the caves in that particular village where so many had died.

Harold Wilson, my Prime Minister refused to commit troops to the Vietnam War, though he couldn’t actually condemn the war for fear of breaching the ‘special relationship’ with the US. Years later, Tony Blair too could have drawn some lessons from the tragedy that Vietnam suffered and it could have been highly significant had the UK refused to support the Iraq escapade. Whatever was he thinking of? I’ll never begin to understand.

* Quotations are from Chris Baker and Pasuk Phongpaichit’s excellent ‘History of Thailand’, Cambridge University Press, 2005.


Malte Ehlers said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Thai Girl said...

A reader has just told me that the American former Marine I mention at the beginning of this blog died in a drowning accident on a river in Vietnam four years ago. Interestingly he spent the last twenty years of his life in Vietnam, perhaps with so many Vietnamese, trying to come to terms with the horror that engulfed them.

I am so sorry to hear this news, which even more for me makes 'B52' a dirty word. It's strange how every war is intended to be the war to end all wars.

Andrew Hicks

Kenn said...

i seems you have a very slanted view on Vietnam history, and a bit Anti-American to boot,

their was a lot more to the war than you are saying, and what happen in Laos was all part of a political war, and you seemed to leave out the Cambodian part of it,
i thought you would of loved slamming the Americans for that Also, so i urge who ever read this post , too actualy read up on it and not go by your Anti-American point of view, the Americans did have the support of RVN,

i was not for the war, but your facts are a bit slanted
I live in Thailand, but i am glad it isnt your version of it

Thai Girl said...

Kenn, Thanks so much for reading my blog and for your comments. I respect your views and can only disagree on one point. It is a huge error if Americans think a person anti-American just because they express a criticism of something the US has done. Your sincerest critics are your friends. I am thoroughly pro-American and pro-British (being a Brit)though am highly critical of the Iraq debacle.

Yes, the Vietnam history is far more complex than I made out. My blog is short on facts and long on emotion. I have in fact just come back to Bangkok from Cambodia and my response to the poverty I see there and in Laos still is that something went badly wrong when the USA, the leader of the free world found itself carpet bombing some of the poorest village people in the world.

Lao and Cambodia were in chaos but were technically in breach of their condition of neutrality under the Geneva accords as the Ho Chi Min trails was being used to bring supplies to the Viet Kong on South Vietnam. I have little idea how the US should have dealt with this problem but deceiving the American people and carrying on a secret war with massive bombing was clearly a breach of every principle a democratic state holds dear. Tens of thousands died as a result and fell uncomfortable when I see the evidence on the ground.
My blog really was about how Thais seem to have forgotten all of this and how things have since moved on so much that you can market a product as 'B52'.

Gauloises said...


the war was by proxy also against China and Russia, who both had admitted of supplying Troops, Weapons and training etc..,

I do agree the American Government has a history of twisting their lies and truths to not the point that you don’t know where one begins and the other ends, and Certain Policies in the past and present do seem a bit odd for a World Power

The Vietnam war was a Chaotic Time for many nations involved and even for the ones that weren’t, I am sure you remember how every one was just so anti-commie to the point it was almost like a religion....

I do live in Thailand, and many of the Thais I know, do know about the war and it History, they may not know names of certain Planes, but they do know the History to one degree or another,

I guess it just comes down on who you know and communicate with, and plus we all have our own opinions and experience in life

Iraq was a country in dire need of help; I do know many Iraqis (I Do Work in Iraq)
Who complain the Americans took to long to help them
They didn’t care about the WMD reason for the war, they focus it as a humanitarian issue, and that their people were being killed by their own government. And they complain that it wasn’t taken care of in the First War Gulf War, and complain that the U.N was not helping them.....

So the main problem with the American Government is.......every one complains that they don't act accordingly to what ever they do, Bosnians often say it took them to long to Enter the War, the Iraqis are split depending on who you talk to, some say they should have never came others say the came to late, and they even get heat from WW2 saying it took them to long to act, and the list of arguments, Debates, Discussion go on , they are one of the most influential countries if not the most in the World, it seems you will Find People Who Love the American Government to People who Hate it and you cant seem to find people who are just completely neutral , and that is Counting the Americans themselves

So do people of the World want the United States to be the World Police or just sit back and focus just on their own Country , because by watching the News Reports from many different Nations, I cant tell,
And it only seems worse since they do have a less the desirable current President,

And by the way, do you know B-52 is also a name of an Energy Drink, B-52 Hairstyle (Beehive), The B-52's a rock band, Cocktail and a Chess Move among Others

If you think the names of products in Thailand are a Bit Odd, you need to Take a trip to Japan and Hong Kong

gauloises said...

just thought i would a link about the History, and what countruies were involved, and yes Laos and Cambodia was on the side of the U.S also, the reason for the secret war was to help a Ally who was being over run by communist,

and Oddly enough my Thai Wife Parents were on the side of the Communistand and fought in Laos,