The Ones We Left Behind
These people bet on America… and lost
Last summer, the Free Syrian Army was getting ready to deliver what it thought would be a deathblow to the Syrian regime—with the military might of the world’s most powerful countries backing it up. The U.S. and France seemed ready to intervene to end the then-two-year-old Syrian civil war.
French warplanes were primed to strike at Syrian regime targets the moment U.S. Pres. Barack Obama signaled the launch of the intervention and loosed cruise missiles from American warships. Anticipating air support, the FSA had already begun its offensive.
Then on Aug. 31, Obama called off the attack. Washington opted to negotiate. America’s abrupt change of heart shocked the FSA and the French and disrupted carefully-laid war plans.
It wasn’t the first time the United States had abandoned people fighting for their lives. People who counted on American help.
To be fair, the Syrian conflict is a mess, involving a regime backed by Russia and Iran and rebels who fight each other as often as they battle the government. If America had intervened, it could have found itself fighting another long war.
It was probably a good idea from the U.S. perspective to stay out of Syria. But it would have been better for America to never have implied it might do otherwise—and get people hoping, and planning, for U.S. support.
The FSA suffered horrible casualties after Washington nixed air strikes. On that August battlefield, America risked alienating Syria’s rebels—men and women who just might become the leaders of a future free Syria.
And that’s the best possible scenario. It’s equally likely the rebels will lose the war, dooming millions of people to continued oppression by Syria’s brutal regime. In any event, tomorrow’s crises could spring from yesterday’s political calculations.
It’s happened before. America has a long, sad history of abandoning its friends.
The Hmong ethnic group made up a large portion of the CIA’s “Secret Army” in Laos during the Vietnam War. The Hmongs conducted operations against the North Vietnamese Army and Vietcong guerrillas staging along the Ho Chi Minh trail, as well as against the Laotian Pathet Lao communists.
Hmong fighters were central to CIA operations between 1962 and 1975. Vast though they were, these ops were always regarded as secret. As a result, when the Pathet Lao rose to power, the CIA more or less disavowed the Secret Army.
U.S. officials were able to secure resettlement for many, but not all, Hmongs. Some stayed and waged a guerrilla war. Thousands fled to Thailand.
Laos pressured Thailand to repatriate them. Human rights groups feared the Hmongs would be subject to reprisal. In 1993, Thailand sent back to Laos a former Hmong soldier named Vue Mai who had been working at the U.S. embassy in Bangkok.
The move was supposed to show that repatriation could work. But upon arriving in Laos, Vie Mai quickly disappeared—apparently arrested by the authorities.
Pres. Bill Clinton’s administration voiced its support for continued repatriation … and opted not to interfere. Some Republicans called it a betrayal. They also criticized Clinton for denying what most observers already knew.
Although the Secret War had more or less ceased to be secret by this point, the U.S. government had never officially acknowledged it. Critics accused Clinton of falling back on that secrecy so the government could deny it owed the Hmongs anything.
Congress shamed the Clinton administration into acting. On May 15, 1997, the government reversed three decades of denial and acknowledged the war in Laos and the Hmongs’ role. That same year, Arlington National Cemetery dedicated the Laos Memorial. Many Hmongs facing forced repatriation to Laos were able to re-locate to the United States instead.
A similar but more obscure story concerns Vietnam’s Degar people, better known as the Montagnards, a French term meaning “mountain people.” America’s collective amnesia about the Motagnards is odd, considering they featured prominently in stories by Time and in John Wayne’s The Green Berets.
The Montagnards are descendents of Polynesians who settled in Vietnam’s rugged central highlands. The Montagnards and Vietnamese never really got along. The mountain people sided with Saigon during the Vietnam War, but never trusted the southern regime.
They were far more receptive to the Americans, particularly U.S. Special Forces, who were more respectful of their customs and aspirations than the Vietnamese were.
Most fought as members of the Civilian Irregular Defense Group, devised by the CIA and led by the Special Forces. CIDG trained villagers in counter-guerrilla tactics. The Green Berets grew to admire their comrades’ courage and resourcefulness.
As the war went on, the Montagnards increasingly came under Vietnamese command. Though some did well in the elite South Vietnamese Rangers, many Vietnamese officers still regarded them as savages.
At a meeting at the U.S. embassy in Saigon on April 4, 1975, State Department officials promised to support the Montagnards if they campaigned against the North Vietnamese in the Central Highlands.
The Montagnards agreed. But in truth, Washington had tired of the war and had no intention of actually helping the mountain people.
Hanoi placed bounties on the Montagnard fighters. Many fled to Cambodia. But Cambodia—then in Pol Pot’s bloody grip—was little better. Pol Pot forced many Montagnards to join the Khmer Rouge.
Special Forces veterans started a grassroots campaign to get their former comrades out of harm’s way and into the United States. Many of the Montagnards who managed to escape settled in North Carolina, home of Army Special Forces.
Veterans started Save the Montagnard People, a non-profit that helps Montagnards integrate in the U.S. The group maintains a camp called the New Central Highlands in Asheboro, N.C., complete with a traditional longhouse and cemetery.
“After seeing the way we’ve treated these people as a country … well, I’m no flag-waver now, that’s for damn sure,” one Special Forces veteran said.
According to STMP’s Website 150,000 Secret Army Hmongs evacuated to the U.S. in 1975, compared to just 3,000 Montagnards since 1975, making the latter the “Forgotten Army.” Which is not to say that the Hmongs have had it easy.
The 1991 Gulf War had an immensely unpleasant epilogue for the supposed victors. Battered by the U.S. coalition, Iraqi Pres. Saddam Hussein looked weak. The Shi’ites in Iraq’s south and the Kurds in the north launched simultaneous uprisings against Hussein’s Ba’athists.
To the rebels, this was long overdue. The Kurds had endured the bloody Al Anfal genocide of the 1980s and the horrific gas attack against Halabja in ’88. Hussein’s government had marginalized the Shi’ites and particularly the Marsh Arabs.
American radio broadcasts encouraged the Iraqis to rebel. The Iraqis believed this to mean that the Americans supported their uprisings. That is why, when the Americans began pulling back after declaring victory, the Shi’ites and Kurds were dismayed.
No longer needing to defend against American attacks, regime troops turned on the rebels. Gunships rained death on Kurdish and Shi’ite communities. The Kurds fled north. Great Britain launched Operation Safe Haven to protect these refugees—and pressured the U.S. to send troops to help.
In the south, the Marsh Arabs had no outside help. Hussein embarked on a campaign of intentional ecological destruction. The Ba’athist government drained huge sections of Iraq’s southern marshes, destroying the homes and livelihoods of thousands of Marsh Arabs.
Many Iraqis never forgot. While no supporters of Hussein, they where skeptical of the 2003 U.S. invasion. Still, many answered the Americans’ call. Thousands joined the coalition as interpreters.
Interpreters accompanied coalition troops into combat, risking of reprisal against them and their families. Some coalition nations including Denmark and Poland offered visas to any Iraqis who had worked with their forces. But the U.S. and the U.K., by far the largest recruiters, forced interpreters to navigate a labyrinth of paperwork that for many proved impossible.
Like the Montagnards and Hmongs, Iraqi interpreters for America and Britain had to rely on the goodwill of former comrades. Charities like the Checkpoint One Foundation, founded by National Guardsmen Jason Faler, were instrumental in helping many interpreters clear immigration hurdles.
Still, the process often took years—too long for some interpreters to outrun insurgent death squads.
Today America is leaving Afghanistan after 13 years of war—and also leaving behind Afghan interpreters and staff. Like we’ve learned nothing from Vietnam and Iraq.
Individual Americans have proved loyal. But the courage of private citizens can’t make up for the government’s dereliction.
If we’re going to wage war abroad with the assistance of local people, we must be prepared to treat those people as well as we do our our veterans. And that sense of honor should inform our entire foreign policy.
America must not make promises it cannot keep.