SOMETIMES in my dreams I go back to that haunted land by the Mekong where Democratic front runner Howard Dean's brother Charlie was found in a shallow grave, and I see again a place like no other on earth, as Howard Dean described it. I can see clearly the red-brown river that flows down out of Tibet on its way to the South China Sea and the wooded limestone hills like ancient Chinese paintings and the villages at dusk with the oil lamps and the wood fires and the temples to the Buddha set back in among the trees.
During the Indochina war there were many young foreigners in Vientiane, the half-asleep, French provincial river port that served as the capital of the Kingdom of Laos, the "land of a million elephants," as the Lao liked to say. Some came for drugs, while others were travelers in romance, seeking adventure, as it seems did Charlie Dean. But nobody has ever explained why he and his Australian friend took off from the safety of the capital to venture out on the river in September 1974. All that is known is that he was picked off his boat up river by the communist Pathet Lao forces, spent a couple of months in a prison camp, and was then murdered and buried in a bomb crater. When Howard Dean visited Laos last year, however, he said, "I understood it immediately" -- the strange, "beguiling" pull of Laos that must have infected his brother.
Howard Dean visited Laos in 2002, flew in a helicopter to the place where the authorities thought his brother's bones might have lain since he disappeared 29 years ago, and helped sift through the dirt with the recovery crews for missing Americans that our government pays $103 million a year to maintain in Indochina. "Teeth would show up once in a while," he said last year before his brother's remains were found.
Teeth in the dirt would not have been uncommon. Those regions would have been contested by Pathet Lao and North Vietnamese to protect the Ho Chi Minh Trail, and as a result it became one of the most heavily bombed places on earth. Time and nature would have softened the bomb craters by the time Howard Dean got there, but in 1974 there were parts of the country that resembled the surface of the moon.
At the height of the war, some 700 sorties a day flew out of bases in Thailand to bomb Laos. Indochina in all received some 23 billion pounds of explosives from the sky, from 1965 to 1970, more than were dropped on Europe, Asia, and Africa during World War II, peace activists working for Democratic hopeful George McGovern used to say. Laos, then the stepchild of the Vietnam War, was a land of refugee-swollen towns and squalid camps.
Charlie Dean had worked for McGovern, an antiwar candidate who surpassed even his brother Howard in ardor, and Charlie Dean would have been intensely aware of what had taken place in Laos. By 1974 the CIA's secret war was no longer a secret, and the Hmong tribesmen, whom the CIA had armed and sent into battle against the Pathet Lao and North Vietnamese, were on the run.
1974 was not the height of the Indochina war, as some press accounts have said. It was an in-between time, after Henry Kissinger's "peace is at hand" in 1973 and before the final communist takeover in 1975. In 1974 there was a pause in the war and much confusion as a coalition of communists, neutralists, and rightists formed a government. We who were there at that time did not think it overly foolish to try to move about the country. But foreign forces were supposed to leave the country, which the North Vietnamese had not, and it might have been that Charlie Dean saw too much to be let go.
There are few parallels to those long ago days and now, save that America is fighting another strange and unsettling war in a far-away place of which it has little understanding; a war begun in deceit. Lyndon Johnson brought his country into war on a cooked-up pretext of American ships being attacked in the Gulf of Tonkin, just as George W. Bush found excuses to attack Iraq that later turned out not to be true.
But what haunts me still are the accounts of ashamed Americans who in the last days of the Indochina war heard the radio cries for help from behind enemy lines of tribesmen who had helped them fight their war whom they were about to leave behind to their fate. Thousands of Laotians who had backed the United States died in the communist reeducation camps. Today there is little in Laos to remind one of the American times save the memories of those who were there and the unmarked graves.
H.D.S. Greenway's column appears regularly in the Globe.