"Let's send the Madison school board back to school for a test," says UW-Madison historian Alfred McCoy puckishly as he weighs the board's unanimous decision Monday night to name a new west-side school for Vang Pao, a former Hmong general and U.S. ally during the Vietnam War.
"The test might be a very simple one for naming schools," McCoy suggests. "If as a school board member you decide to name a school for someone for whom there are numerous public allegations that he ordered point-blank executions of both his own soldiers and enemy troops in violation of all the laws of war, this represents:
"A. Dereliction of duty on your part.
"B. Willful ignorance.
"C. Moral cowardice.
"D. Political opportunism.
"E. All of the above.
"Check one," he says.
If McCoy sounds coldly condemnatory of the school board, it's perhaps understandable. These very same charges -- that Pao as the head of the CIA's secret army in Laos engaged in drug dealing and war crimes -- arose five years ago when the Madison Parks Commission derailed a similar push by Madison's Hmong community to name a city park for Pao, who remains a prominent leader among American Hmong.
But the school board, as reported by the district, was swayed by a large turnout of Pao supporters and an impassioned speech by outgoing board member Shwaw Vang, who said the school naming "will acknowledge the contributions of people who were allies of the U.S. in the Vietnam War."
Says McCoy: "One would think before naming a school after someone, that they would have checked the available resources to make sure it's appropriate."
As McCoy and others have chronicled, General Vang Pao led a Hmong army of 30,000 on behalf of the CIA in northern Laos in the late 1960s and early 1970s. McCoy, as a young researcher, was a firsthand observer and went on to write the classic Vietnam-era book The Politics of Heroin In Southeast Asia and more recently A Question of Torture: CIA Interrogation, from the Cold War to the War on Terror.
"When you're ordering a summary execution, you're talking about someone putting the muzzle of a gun to the back of a human head and firing," McCoy says. "It's brutal."
As support for his concerns, McCoy has compiled a brief summary of allegations (see the related downloads at right) concerning Vang Pao. He noted: "The allegations are consistent. They're all sourced, and they range from ordinary Air America pilots [Air America was a CIA-controlled airline] all the way up to the chief of the CIA station. And they're all on the record and unrepudiated."
For example, an Air America pilot said of Vang Pao: "VP was exceptional. He did a lot of things people didn't like -- he'd summarily execute somebody who didn't do their job. But he kept the whole thing together, and if they hadn't had him it would have fallen apart long before it ever did."
In our interview Tuesday night, McCoy explained the dynamics of Hmong life during the war. The people relied on rice for subsistence and on opium as a cash crop -- and Pao manipulated the supply of rice to force Hmong villages to give up their young men for his army.
"When I was in northern Laos, they were trying to extract 14-year-olds," he said. "The casualities were just so heavy. The mechanism for extracting these boy soldiers, for turning over their children to this killing machine, was cutting off the rice shipment in." Later, a U.S. study found that Pao's army was taking 10-year-old Hmong boys to fill its depleted ranks, McCoy says.
In a 1990 interview with the activist journalist David Barsamian, McCoy compared Vang Pao to the "Judas goat" at a stockyard who leads the sheep to slaughter, then jumps aside when the hammer comes down.
"That's how you have to think of Vang Pao -- as kind of like a tribal Judas goat leading the [Hmong] to the slaughter," he told Barsamian.
The Politics Of Heroin In Southeast Asia, published in 1972 and still in print, details the CIA's involvement with the Laotian drug trade, including the use of Air America planes to transport opium grown by the Hmong. Pao's army was said to control more than 200 landing fields in Laos.
The book alleges that Vang Pao operated a large heroin lab in Long Tien, and that the product -- cheap potent heroin -- became widely used by American soldiers in Vietnam.
In 2002, when the Madison park-naming stirred up controversy, Vang Pao issued a statement strongly denying McCoy's charges, saying they "are without substance and are completely untrue."