Anyone who knows anything about Laos knows the Plain of Jars is a mystery itself because the origin of ancient jars strewn remains unknown after centuries of guesswork. In this eighth Dr. Siri mystery, a joint U.S./Lao MIA mission must fly through heavy smoke to reach the P de J.
The Lao and American teams are billeted in separate wings of the aptly named Friendship Hotel. It’s also something of a mystery that the hotel, which began life as the Snow Leopard Inn in the provincial capital of Xiengkhouangville, was still standing, because Xiengkhouangville was wiped off the map. The narrator notes:
There was nothing remarkable about the Friendship Hotel other than the miracle of its continued presence. It stood amid a landscape of craters in the most bombed area of the war.
From 1964 to 1973, Americans dropped 2.3 million tons of ordnance on Laos, and a third of it, including tens of thousands of small devices called “bombies.” didn’t go off . Years later, farmers and their children in Xieng Khouang are still stumbling upon the unexploded ordnance, and as a result the author notes, few residents of the area could claim a full set of limbs.
As an ice-breaker to melt the animosity that hangs like a shroud over their joint endeavor, the Americans suggest the former enemies play charades, miming what they do for a living. When Peach the translator moves her hands to symbolize two people talking (I’m thinking of France Nuyen’s charming hand movements in the song “Happy Talk”), the Lao participants guess that Peach is a duck farmer. That’s about the only laugh for about 200 pages.
The next day the mission sets up shop at the abandoned airbase at Long Cheng. The starting point for thousands of sorties the U.S. flew against Lao Communists, this was where the missing pilot took off a decade earlier. The MIA search team meets in the former home of General Vang Pao, the Hmong leader at the heart of the C.I.A.’s Secret Army. The home of the former hero is now “a two-story outer-suburb motel of a place, as incongruous as the shirt-and-tie spooks who’d built it.” The Americans bring with them a dozen cases of cold Bud. At the time of the MIA mission, beer was hard to come-by. Spearing hot dogs at Vang Pao’s place, the Laotiand are warming up to American hospitality, observing that “Americans had the art of seduction down to a fine point.”
Waiting for the visiting Americans are several hundred hilltribes people, They’ve come to the abandoned spy base carrying scraps of war materiel and bones in the erroneous belief that Uncle Sam will pay a reward for evidence of MIAs. Some have brought tin ration trays, bootlaces, Zippo lighters and shell casings; others brought non-matching bones that they laid out in full skeletons. Obviously, “There were a lot of desperate people in the northeast.”
On the second day, a group of ethnic Phuan from a remote village arrive with a litter carrying the horizontal stabilizer of a helicopter, and not just any helicopter but the one Capt. Boyd flew when he disappeared. Now the search for the pilot, live or dead, and his crash site begin in earnest. We later learn that TIME’s Rhyme, who looks like Woody Allen, has taken aerial shots of the Plain of Jars from the hatch of the American helicopter.
With the help of assorted gang mates and supernatural spirits, including the ghost of the recently departed (murdered) King of Laos, Dr. Siri unravels a history of intrigue among the Americans that is rooted in the Vietnam War and the thirst for money and power. Senator Bowry, for example, who is searching for his lost son, went to war to do good and did very well. He hustled teak from Thailand, made a lot of money, invested it in real estate, grew stinking rich and used his fortune to enter politics.
Senator Vogal the Third, who has come to join the search team, boasts that America was transparent and accountable when he was a clerk at the U.S. Embassy in Vietnam. Civilai, the ex-Politburo member who’s as cynical as his comrade Dr. Siri, brings his condescension to a boil.
“I imagine everything was open and above board,” Civilai says. “Not like in Laos.”
“You couldn’t possibly know just how much good the U.S. was doing for your country,” the G.O.P. senator says, adding that the vast majority of the U.S. budget for Laos was spent on aid. Civilai corrects his accounting.
“The vast majority of your budget went on B-52s and ordnance.” Alleging he has a copy of the U.S. Embassy budget for Fiscal 1970 in his room, Civilai continues:
Your total expenditure for that year was $284 million… $162 million of which was tagged as military assistance… (while) Only $50 million was assigned to aid.
“That’s still a considerable humanitarian effort in anybody’s book,” interjected the Senator’s aide Ethel Chin.
“Except in your book,” counters Civilian. “Humanitarian aid included feeding the Royal Lao Army and several thousand irregulars.” Some went to refugee programs.
When Chin says the refugees were fleeing “the atrocities you people inflicted against them,” Civilai says the U.S. bombed a third of Laos’s population out of their homes, and Ted Kennedy’s 1969 Senate subcommittee found that 40,000 Laotian refugees were “dispossessed as a direct result of U.S. bombing.”
Yeah, says Vogal, but “Kennedy was a Democrat with undisguised Communist leanings.”
The plot twists and turns crazily and so do the relationships between Lao and Americans. Quick at first to criticize each other’s cultural and political intricacies, they are ultimately, in a few cases, able to relish them.
On the other hand, Ugly Americans will be Ugly Americans, and Dr. Siri discovers that there are some bad apples, some very bad apples, in every bunch.