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The Last of America's Army in Vietnam

When Tony Poe, a CIA paramilitary officer leading Hmong guerrillas, ran into a large force of North Vietnamese in northeastern Laos in 1965, he killed a dozen of the enemy in the encounter. Hit in the abdomen and hip, Poe fell back with his tribesmen to an extraction point five miles away.

There, he refused to let the pilot evacuate until 13 injured tribesmen were pulled off the battlefield. The pilot resisted, arguing that they couldn’t take on the extra weight. But Poe threatened to jump if they didn’t go back. The wounded were evacuated safely, though the helicopter motor was ruined. As a result of his actions in this battle, Poe’s stature among the hill tribes soared. “That’s war,” Poe says, matter-of-factly. “If you don’t go back for them, how the hell are you going to ask them to fight for you? You’ve got to take care of your people. That was the only way to get them to fight.”

After the abandonment of South Vietnam, about two million Vietnamese fled the country, half a million of whom eventually found their way to America. Two million Cambodians died from the “re-education” efforts of the communist Khmer Rouge. But while these catastrophes are well known, the genocide in Cambodia even having been made into a Hollywood movie, the tragedy that befell the Hmong was forgotten with the 1960s. Unlike Tony Poe, who believed in keeping faith with peoples who joined America’s cause, the Hmong who stayed behind were forgotten by their “friends”; but they were remembered by their enemies. In the years following the Vietnam War, the Hmong were “hunted like animals.” And they still may be. The Center for Public Policy analysis reported that the Laotian and Vietnamese governments have begun a campaign to wipe out the last holdouts against their regimes.

The Lao Peoples Democratic Republic (LPDR) regime, in cooperation with the Socialist Republic of Vietnam (SRV), has issued a new order and drafted a comprehensive strategy to mount a major military offensive to exterminate thousands of Hmong in hiding in the jungles and mountains of Laos. The offensive will involve special battalions of troops and special operations commandos from Vietnam who are now being deployed to the closed military zones of operation. The reported object is to eliminate and exterminate some 15,000 Lao Hmong in hiding in key areas of Laos by the end of April 2008. Hmong in Laos are bracing for these new anticipated attacks by Laos and Vietnam, which are expected to be massive and ruthless.

In December 2007 the New York Times quoted an Amnesty International report “that Laotian troops had been involved in numerous attacks on the veterans and their families across northern Laos in recent years, an assessment shared by American diplomats.” However, a Laotian foreign ministry spokesman interviewed by the Times said these Hmong stragglers were probably “bandits.” Yong Chanthalangsy, spokesman for the Laotian government, told Al Jazeera that no campaign of persecution against the tribesmen was imminent.

“There are thousands if not tens of thousands of people who are joining the government’s rural development program and I have not heard of any persecution.” Asked if the Laos government would invite independent monitors into the country, he said that Laos was working “hand in hand” with neighboring countries to address the issue. “We do not need any intervention from a third party,” he told Al Jazeera. “I don’t see why there should be intervention and interference from outside.”

But the Laotian government’s claims were belied by the reluctance of the Hmong in neighboring countries to return to their homeland, as illustrated by a hunger strike in a refugee camp in Thailand. “They think they will be deported to Laos and are afraid of that,” says Gilles Isard, country director of Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) France, which has been providing relief since 2005. “They say they would rather die than go back to Laos,” he said in an interview. “They are really desperate after hearing the frightening stories of what happens to the Hmong once they are sent back to Laos.”

However that may be, some have argued America has no obligation to help its allies in the Vietnam War. Colin Thompson, a CIA officer in Laos from 1963 to 1966, was quoted by the Times as saying, “it wasn’t as if we dragooned them into anything. Their choice was to defend themselves and we provided the means. We provided the weapons and the courage.” Whatever the truth of the assertion that the Hmong needed courage then, they will need it now.

When Tony Poe died in 2003 in California, his wake was attended by nearly as many Hmong and Yao friends as Americans. “All in all, there were about 150 mourners; approximately half were Hmong while the remainder was family, neighbors, friends, and about eight former CIA types or their representatives.” One of the few obituaries for the man who twice won the CIA’s highest award was written by Richard Erlich of the Asia Times. Ehrlich quoted an email by Philip Smith, executive director of the Washington-based Center for Public Policy Analysis, who said Poe “successfully fought terror with terror. He strove to instill courage and respect in the tribal and indigenous forces that he recruited and trained as well as fear in the enemy. In the post-September 11 security environment, fearless men like Tony Poe are what America needs to combat and counter terrorism and the new unconventional threat that America faces from abroad in exotic and uncharted lands.”

Smith said:

Tony Poe epitomized what the late Theodore Shackley, former CIA station chief in Laos, called the “Third Option.” America — to avoid the potential twin options of using nuclear or conventional forces to defend its interests — should instead rely on special, elite clandestine forces to recruit, train and arm indigenous, or tribal forces, to project power, protect its interests, and counter guerrilla movements, terrorism, or other attacks. Clearly, Tony Poe symbolized America’s decision to exercise its “Third Option” in Laos.

Poe’s small funeral in California was a reminder that America really does not want such ruthless men fighting its wars. And as for the Hmong who fought with him, they are worse than forgotten — they are politically incorrect.

Richard Fernandez writes at the Belmont Club.