Powerful Photos of What Was Left Behind by America's Secret War in Laos
In her series, Operation Palace Dog, photographer Sadie Wechsler looks for ways to capture the veiled impact of American power in Laos.
This story appears in VICE Magazine's Truth and Lies Issue.
In the summer of 2017, my friend invited me on a trip to Laos with her family. While she frequently returns to the country, it was her husband’s first time there since, as a young boy, he fled with his family, crossing the Mekong River and escaping state persecution of the Hmong people.
From the moment I arrived, I thought relentlessly of my own country’s presence in the landscape. During the Vietnam War there was another, unacknowledged, war being fought in Laos, often referred to as the Secret War—a CIA-led fight against the pro-Soviet communist movement in the 1960s and early 1970s. With help from the US embassy in Laos, the CIA and US Air Force fought an aerial war, leaving the ground war to the Royal Lao Government, and enlisting many Hmong (an ethnic minority in Laos) to fight and die on behalf of the West. In this proxy war between the Cold War’s two superpowers, more than 2 million tons of bombs were dropped on Laos, leaving grave physical and psychological scars. To this day, the landscape is considered the most heavily bombed in the world.
I was wary of taking photographs in a culture so far from my own, but as I learned more about the Secret War, I started thinking through the experience of being an American tourist in a place ravaged by American bombs. The result of that trip is the project featured here. The title, Operation Palace Dog, was the name of a series of covert missions that the US Air Force led in the country.
My images—which have been altered, some minimally and others more drastically using physical or digital manipulation—depict Laos not as it literally appears, but more like the psychological experience of being a tourist in a place with which the United States had spent many years at war. I see Laos as a landscape haunted by my own country’s violence, and I look for ways to capture the veiled impact of American power on film: to find instances where past and present states collide, creating a landscape where fear penetrates the beauty.
In a moment in which our borders are tightening, a global refugee crisis is escalating, and xenophobia is rampant, I aim to empathetically depict the experience of living at the mercy of American military might (and fleeing its aftermath), while also documenting my ethical confusion, visual compulsion, and evolving consciousness as I learn about my own cultural responsibility.