Do veterans of secret wars get buried at Arlington?


A Hmong war veteran shows his medals at the start of the funeral of Gen, Vang Pao in California on February 4, 2010.


Mark Ralston

Laos, that little communist nation squeezed between Thailand and China, can claim an extremely depressing statistic.

It is the most heavily bombed country on earth. During the Vietnam War, when the U.S. fought to contain the spread of northern Vietnamese forces, American aircraft dropped more bombs on Laos than were dropped on Europe through all of World War II.

In Laos, then in the throes of its own communist revolution, the C.I.A. secretly armed and trained the country's ethnic minorities to battle Marxist-Leninist fighters. The communists won, however, and the U.S. pulled out. And minority groups, namely the mountain-dwelling Hmong, fled persecution and started lives in America.

Now that the covert war is long over, shouldn't its leaders get a spot in Arlington National Cemetery, the most prestigious resting place for America's war dead?

That's the request posed by the family of Gen. Vang Pao, the best known anti-communist fighter in the U.S.-backed secret war. But after a long fight to secure Pao's place in the cemetery, they've buried him in California with hurt pride.

A U.S.-based Lao vets' association claims Pao saved "thousands and thousands of lives" and an ex-C.I.A. agent, who helped direct the anti-communists, says the snub is an "insult and disgrace."

Perhaps the Obama administration is unwilling to lob an insult at Laos, which would likely resent a first-class burial for a man their leaders consider a violent insurgent.

Or perhaps the government doesn't want to dredge up attention to its "secret war" in Laos. For most Americans, the war remains a secret -- even though Lao villagers are still losing limbs and lives to the unexploded ordnance still lift in their soil.