This chapter explains how the Hmong figured into the Vietnam War and American troops fighting there. The Hmong had always been Montagnards, mountain people. Their character proceeded from that. At the time of the war in Southeast Asia, they lived in Laos about 400 meters above sea-level. The lowland Lao may have been richer and politically more powerful, but the Hmong peered down on their masters like eagles looking at mice and so maintained a sense of superiority. Their ethnic identity remained pure, and they also traded little, because they were always so self-sufficient. They had their very own pure language that was filled with lyrical two-word expressions that onomatopoeically described various sounds. They lived close to the land and so were traditionally farmers. They had no class system. No one knew how to read, so no one felt deprived.
The Hmong grew better than any other group in Laos the opium poppy. This had been the case since the end of the eighteenth century when the British East India Company introduced the poppy to China, and the Hmong became the master growers. In Laos, the French colonial government encouraged them to pay their taxes in raw opium in order to supply the official lowland network of government-licensed opium dens. The Hmong complied with ease. Surprisingly, however, few Hmong aside from the chronically ill and the elderly were addicts. They kept less than 10% of what they yielded for their own use and sold the rest. It was their only cash crop. Because opium production equaled wealth, the parents of the author’s interpreter, May Ying, which means Opium Poppy, believed that was the most beautiful name they could give their daughter.
The Hmong grew their crops using the slash-and-burn method which agriculturally was known as “swidden.” This involved cutting away the forest underbrush and felling the trees. Then, they would sprint down the hillsides, igniting the piles of vegetation with torches. When the debris had chilled, the Hmong would work together to clear the debris before they planted, leaving only boulders and tree stumps. The topsoil would be briefly enriched with wood ashes, but after four or five years of monsoons, it would wash away and the remaining soil would be so exhausted that it would take twenty years before it was once again productive. It was estimated in the 1950s that they were burning away more than 400 square miles of land a year, causing enough erosion to alter the course of rivers.
This practice – swidden – is inextricably intertwined with the migrant identity of the Hmong. Once the land was no longer producing good crops, the Hmong would move – as a group – to some other area where they would begin growing crops in the same manner as before. They always moved in groups which ensured that their clan structure, their religion, and their cultural identity always remained intact. Once war arrived in the 1960s and 1970s, their migrant heritage was even more necessary, causing them to leave their own borders and move eventually far beyond them. In 1961, the king of Laos declared his nation a peaceful one and insisted they were neutral, but they had no natural boundaries to protect them and they were too poor to build an army. As a result, their neutrality was not likely to last long. Soon a struggle broke out between the communist Pathet Lao and the Royal Lao government. At this point, the United States stepped up its involvement in the region. President Eisenhower told President Kennedy the day the younger man took office that if Laos were to fall to communism, it would only be a matter of time before South Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, and Burma fell as well. Unfortunately, the US was bound by a treaty signed at the Geneva Conference of 1961-1962 to honor Laos’ neutrality and not send troops into the region. The question then became how our country could get around that problem. This was where the Hmong entered the picture. They created the Hmong Armee Clandestine. It was the biggest CIA operation in the world, but few people ever knew anything about this army until 1987 when Christopher Robbins published a book called The Ravens: the Men Who Flew in America’s Secret War in Laos. The Hmong were chosen because the Lao in the lower plains had too many shortcomings while the Hmong had special assets. The Lao were too peaceful and found it difficult to shoot at the enemy. The Hmong, on the other hand, had a four-thousand-year-long reputation as scrappy fighters. They had already proven their ability as guerilla fighters during WWII, so the CIA organized a network of Hmong guerrilla fighters originally organized by the French.