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Fred Branfman Risked His Life for Ordinary People

Fred was one of the bravest and most decent journalists I ever encountered.

He exposed the terrorism of the U.S. “carpet bombing” over Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia that was explicitly aimed at “drying up the sea” of millions of innocent village people that the U.S. government claimed were providing cover to the enemy during the Vietnam War. And when those people refused to accept our definition of their enemy, and return the love offered by our fragmentation bombs shredding their children’s bodies, we bombed them more still.

That immense tragedy was all the more poignant in Laos, one of the most underdeveloped and isolated nations in the world. It had nothing to provide but its bewildered population to serve as possible targets for Pentagon planners. I had been to Laos before Fred and after he did his brave, epic reporting on the devastation of that country by U.S. bombing of technologically primitive villagers, whom I had delighted with gifts of pencils. We shared many sorrowful discussions about the madness of U.S. policy and the immense suffering that our country had visited upon a people who were barely aware of what the bombers were up to.

Fred risked his life repeatedly for years gathering the stories of people in Laos, whom U.S. policymakers denied had stories worth listening to, and instead were treated simply as inevitable collateral damage of no moral importance.

Fred, who had spent years as an aid worker, knew better, respecting the humanity of people who had never flown in a jet plane but sensed far more about the value and meaning of life than the sophisticated killers who so casually destroyed them.

His great work, driven by an immense humanitarian concern, continued in his last years and provided Truthdig with the honor of being allowed to publish one of the world’s most sensitive journalists.

Robert Scheer is editor of TruthDig.com, where this column originally appeared. Email him at rscheer@truthdig.com.

 
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  1. WhatEvvs [AKA "Bemused"] says:     Show CommentNext New Comment

    I had never heard of Fred Branfman.

    Thank you.

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  2. Anonymous says:     Show CommentNext New Comment

    I do not know whether we bombed villages to “dry up the sea” or not. But I do know that the NVA would pull a 155mm howitzer out of a cave a couple of miles inside Laos to attempt to hit the Chinook I was crewing whenever we flew to a hill that was to easy to shell from Laos. This was Feb 1968 and at that time our artillery was not allowed to shell the NVA Howitzer as it was in Neutral Laos. What was most unfortunate was that FDR died before the end of WWII as he had no intention of allowing the French to have IndoChina back as a colony. And why should they? Ho’s forces got many downed American pilot to China to fly again. The Vichey French turned downed pilots over to the Japanese who executed them.

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  3. When I was a teenager in the 1980s I interned with Fred at a couple of think tanks he ran in DC. He was a really thoughtful and nice guy who took an interest in me, and I wish I had been less callow at the time and took advantage of his mentorship.

    Fred brought Mark Lane to the office after work one day to give me and a couple of other interns his lowdown on American history from the other side of the looking glass. He brought me to his house, where he had a ping-pong table set up in the living room and a chalkboard to keep score, and treated me like a grown-up when I was an obnoxious kid.

    Fred would address everyone he met as “Friend,” which I picked up from him: it is a more civilized way to get people’s attention than yelling out “Hey!”

    It wasn’t until I was much older and reading about the history of the Vietnam War that I realized that Fred had done such important work. He was totally down-to-earth and humble.

    Read More
  4. Fred’s stomping ground as an ‘aid worker’ was opium central. It’d have been by far more impressive if he’d exposed the USA’s clandestine (military/CIA) considerable share/control of the opium traffickers and heroin processing labs in Laos.

    http://www.drugtext.org/The-Politics-of-Heroin-in-Southeast-Asia/7-the-golden-triangle-heroin-is-our-most-important-product.html

    Instead he ultimately ran off to meditate with Ram Dass… and the American intelligence control of much of this world’s international narcotics trade goes unchallenged-unchecked with major players like Robert Gates wielding undue influence to this day, inclusive of rolling the the American heroin supply over from Laos to Afghanistan, meanwhile having facilitated the cocaine trade in Latin America (with ample MOSSAD help during the Iran-Contra period.)

    No, Robert Scheer, I’m most definitely NOT impressed.

    Read More
  5. Anonymous says:     Show CommentNext New Comment

    It’s always the right thing to do, upon an individual’s passing, to emphasize his/her positive achievements, rather than dwell on the more questionable acts of that life. But, I was a little surprised at the extent of the adulation directed towards Fred when, unfortunately, he died a bit before his time not long ago. I can’t claim a close association with him, and indeed saw him on only one occasion – in Vientiane, Laos in October or November of 1970 – not long after my own arrival in that country. It was at the Lao-style stilt house in Vientiane of a fellow member of IVS, the minimally-paid, Mennonite-founded voluntary organization I’d joined to teach History and Asian Civilization at the Lao National Teachers’ College at Dong Dok, a green, leafy area surrounded by rice fields on the very edge of the Government-controlled greater Vientiane zone. IVS was the same organization which Fred has indicated he had joined and served in some years previously in order to escape the US Draft. Our motivations were obviously different. My own reasons for volunteering for Laos had nothing to do with the Draft, as I’d already served a tour of duty in the US Army in Vietnam. Over that year, I’d fallen in love with Asia and had subsequently acquired a Master’s Degree in Oriental Studies, focused on East Asia. My purpose was to get back to a region I loved. We teachers at Dong Dok – specializing in Science, Mathematics, History, Geography, English Language & Literature, and Education – benefited from an unofficial agreement with the Communist Pathet Lao, whose armed forces dominated the countryside just beyond the boundaries of our campus. Recognizing the benefit of acquiring trained teachers once they’d eventually taken over the country, they said they wouldn’t kill or capture us if we stayed within the Government zone. IVS volunteers in other postings in Laos weren’t always so lucky. A handful of American IVS Community Development volunteers, along with their Lao assistants, had been deliberately targeted and murdered by the Pathet Lao in 1969, the year before I came, in a concerted campaign to eliminate Government influence from the areas where those volunteers were sacrificing their own energy and comfort to dig wells, introduce health education, and improve agricultural techniques. Those volunteers lived the same simple, Spartan life of the villagers they were helping. Much has been made, for example by Mr. Scheer, of the dangers to which Fred willingly subjected himself. But, I’ve seen nothing to indicate that was the case. Only a committed conspiracy theorist could believe he would ever have been in danger from US Government authorities, or from the Lao Government, during his time in Laos. That sort of thing just didn’t happen. I was there for 4 1/2 years, considerably longer than Fred, and I’ve never heard of any such thing. I’m sure I would have heard if it had. The murders came from the other side, from the Pathet Lao and their North Vietnamese directors and supporters. The systematic murders of IVS volunteers in the Laos countryside mirrored exactly the techniques which had been in use for more than a decade in South Vietnam, where Government teachers, medical workers, administrators, and even such low-level functionaries as postmen were systematically murdered by Viet Cong assassins. Almost certainly, the Pathet Lao murder of IVS volunteers in Laos were enacted upon North Vietnamese advice, and likely at their explicit direction. The Pathet Lao were essentially pawns of the Communist Vietnamese, both during the war and for decades thereafter – some think even now. But, it appears virtually certain that these are the people with whom Fred, carrying on a comfortable – and indeed as he tells it indulgent – life within the Government-controlled safe-zone, was cooperating, at the very time when his fellow volunteers in IVS were being murdered in the distant provincial villages. He tells the story of collaborating during 1969 with an individual who – he eventually acknowledges – was a Pathet Lao or North Vietnamese agent. This was the individual who played the key role of editing – and I strongly suspect translating and actually undertaking – the ‘interviews’ with the refugees from the Plain of Jars, whom Fred alleged had been the deliberate civilian target of US bombing. I’m far from convinced it happened just the way these two conspired to claim. But, the book they jointly produced was a hit with the anti-war Left in the US, and Fred went on to a starring role in the company of Tom Hayden, Jane Fonda, and other movement luminaries, with whom he became closely associated. My own indelible impression of Fred goes back to that day in the fall of 1970, when I saw him across the courtyard of my IVS host’s home on the Wattay Road. He stuck out like a sore thumb, because he was wearing the bizarre costume of black-silk peasant pajamas associated almost exclusively in those days with the Viet Cong. Nobody in Laos, not even Vietnamese, wore that costume. Most of the Vietnamese there had come as minor functionaries in the French colonial establishment and, as respectable urbanites, wouldn’t have been caught dead wearing peasant garb, either Lao or Vietnamese. Especially not Vietnamese. No, as Fred made clear in a backhanded acknowledgement, wearing that strange costume as he careened flamboyantly around Vientiane on his motorcycle, on his way to one of the girly bars, bordellos, or other “entertainment” venues he acknowledged patronizing, he was deliberately making a political statement. He was showing whose side he was on, and it wasn’t the side of the Lao Government or IVS, in whose service he was supposed to be acting – and who were providing him the alternative service he’d deliberately sought out to avoid the genuinely lethal dangers of American military service in Vietnam. Having actually served in Vietnam, where that costume was often worn by people who were our deadly enemies, I instantly recognized the image Fred was endeavoring to flaunt and kept my distance. I wasn’t at all sure I wanted to meet him. Shortly thereafter, he returned to the US and began his star career as an anti-war protester. Upon returning to my faculty apartment at Dong Dok, however, I did question a veteran IVS teacher as to who the black-pajama wearing fellow might be. He sort of chuckled and said, “Oh, that’s Fred Branfman.The rumor in IVS is that he’s a courier working for the enemy.” That was enough for me. I never thought of him again until I saw notices of his recent death.

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    • Replies: @Craig Nelsen
    Your account is believable. But paragraphs, man, paragraphs!
  6. @Anonymous
    It's always the right thing to do, upon an individual's passing, to emphasize his/her positive achievements, rather than dwell on the more questionable acts of that life. But, I was a little surprised at the extent of the adulation directed towards Fred when, unfortunately, he died a bit before his time not long ago. I can't claim a close association with him, and indeed saw him on only one occasion - in Vientiane, Laos in October or November of 1970 - not long after my own arrival in that country. It was at the Lao-style stilt house in Vientiane of a fellow member of IVS, the minimally-paid, Mennonite-founded voluntary organization I'd joined to teach History and Asian Civilization at the Lao National Teachers' College at Dong Dok, a green, leafy area surrounded by rice fields on the very edge of the Government-controlled greater Vientiane zone. IVS was the same organization which Fred has indicated he had joined and served in some years previously in order to escape the US Draft. Our motivations were obviously different. My own reasons for volunteering for Laos had nothing to do with the Draft, as I'd already served a tour of duty in the US Army in Vietnam. Over that year, I'd fallen in love with Asia and had subsequently acquired a Master's Degree in Oriental Studies, focused on East Asia. My purpose was to get back to a region I loved. We teachers at Dong Dok - specializing in Science, Mathematics, History, Geography, English Language & Literature, and Education - benefited from an unofficial agreement with the Communist Pathet Lao, whose armed forces dominated the countryside just beyond the boundaries of our campus. Recognizing the benefit of acquiring trained teachers once they'd eventually taken over the country, they said they wouldn't kill or capture us if we stayed within the Government zone. IVS volunteers in other postings in Laos weren't always so lucky. A handful of American IVS Community Development volunteers, along with their Lao assistants, had been deliberately targeted and murdered by the Pathet Lao in 1969, the year before I came, in a concerted campaign to eliminate Government influence from the areas where those volunteers were sacrificing their own energy and comfort to dig wells, introduce health education, and improve agricultural techniques. Those volunteers lived the same simple, Spartan life of the villagers they were helping. Much has been made, for example by Mr. Scheer, of the dangers to which Fred willingly subjected himself. But, I've seen nothing to indicate that was the case. Only a committed conspiracy theorist could believe he would ever have been in danger from US Government authorities, or from the Lao Government, during his time in Laos. That sort of thing just didn't happen. I was there for 4 1/2 years, considerably longer than Fred, and I've never heard of any such thing. I'm sure I would have heard if it had. The murders came from the other side, from the Pathet Lao and their North Vietnamese directors and supporters. The systematic murders of IVS volunteers in the Laos countryside mirrored exactly the techniques which had been in use for more than a decade in South Vietnam, where Government teachers, medical workers, administrators, and even such low-level functionaries as postmen were systematically murdered by Viet Cong assassins. Almost certainly, the Pathet Lao murder of IVS volunteers in Laos were enacted upon North Vietnamese advice, and likely at their explicit direction. The Pathet Lao were essentially pawns of the Communist Vietnamese, both during the war and for decades thereafter - some think even now. But, it appears virtually certain that these are the people with whom Fred, carrying on a comfortable - and indeed as he tells it indulgent - life within the Government-controlled safe-zone, was cooperating, at the very time when his fellow volunteers in IVS were being murdered in the distant provincial villages. He tells the story of collaborating during 1969 with an individual who - he eventually acknowledges - was a Pathet Lao or North Vietnamese agent. This was the individual who played the key role of editing - and I strongly suspect translating and actually undertaking - the 'interviews' with the refugees from the Plain of Jars, whom Fred alleged had been the deliberate civilian target of US bombing. I'm far from convinced it happened just the way these two conspired to claim. But, the book they jointly produced was a hit with the anti-war Left in the US, and Fred went on to a starring role in the company of Tom Hayden, Jane Fonda, and other movement luminaries, with whom he became closely associated. My own indelible impression of Fred goes back to that day in the fall of 1970, when I saw him across the courtyard of my IVS host's home on the Wattay Road. He stuck out like a sore thumb, because he was wearing the bizarre costume of black-silk peasant pajamas associated almost exclusively in those days with the Viet Cong. Nobody in Laos, not even Vietnamese, wore that costume. Most of the Vietnamese there had come as minor functionaries in the French colonial establishment and, as respectable urbanites, wouldn't have been caught dead wearing peasant garb, either Lao or Vietnamese. Especially not Vietnamese. No, as Fred made clear in a backhanded acknowledgement, wearing that strange costume as he careened flamboyantly around Vientiane on his motorcycle, on his way to one of the girly bars, bordellos, or other "entertainment" venues he acknowledged patronizing, he was deliberately making a political statement. He was showing whose side he was on, and it wasn't the side of the Lao Government or IVS, in whose service he was supposed to be acting - and who were providing him the alternative service he'd deliberately sought out to avoid the genuinely lethal dangers of American military service in Vietnam. Having actually served in Vietnam, where that costume was often worn by people who were our deadly enemies, I instantly recognized the image Fred was endeavoring to flaunt and kept my distance. I wasn't at all sure I wanted to meet him. Shortly thereafter, he returned to the US and began his star career as an anti-war protester. Upon returning to my faculty apartment at Dong Dok, however, I did question a veteran IVS teacher as to who the black-pajama wearing fellow might be. He sort of chuckled and said, "Oh, that's Fred Branfman.The rumor in IVS is that he's a courier working for the enemy." That was enough for me. I never thought of him again until I saw notices of his recent death.

    Your account is believable. But paragraphs, man, paragraphs!

    Read More
  7. This is an old article so my comment probably won’t be posted but why is an article by pro communist, Marxist, Weather Underground terrorist, 1964 Cal Berkely rioter, friend of the terrorists who kidnapped and raped patty Hearst and murdered several people along the way doing on this site?

    Scheer wrote daily columns that appeared on the editorial pages. He defended Rodney King and sided with the blacks who committed the Rodney king riots. In fact his columns agitated for the riot from the day King was arrested. Scheer like many liberals wants all Whites dead and gone so he and his ilk can reign over a subservient permanent under class of blacks and browns.

    He participated in the Twana Brawley hoax. When it turned out every word of her rape accusation was a total lie he defended her and her sponsor Al Sharpton on the grounds that it symbolized all black women who had ever been raped by White men. He defended filthy rap music and every black muslim and race hustler in existence while preaching the destruction of Whites.

    Read More
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