Monday, February 17, 2014

Bombs Away! America's Lethal Legacy in Laos

A huge 2,000 year-old stone jar was standing miraculously unbroken on the edge of a crater about 30 feet in diameter and 15-20 feet deep created by a bomb dropped by the U.S. on Laos during the Vietnam War. The jar is one of thousands clustered in several sites around the Plain of Jars in Laos, a place of archeological mystery, agricultural richness, and great strategic importance during the Vietnam War.  The jars were probably funerary urns but no one knows for sure because the people who made them left almost no other trace. 
Also unknown is how many jars were destroyed by the heavy American bombing campaign in this area, but fortunately enough survived to make a visit here very rewarding.

My wife and I had the good fortune to spend about three weeks traveling throughout Laos recently.  It is a beautiful country of only about 7 million people, many of whom live in mountainous rural farming areas. The country is rich in natural resources but sorely lacking in infrastructure, and it is clearly the least developed of its neighbors, Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam.

It is also the most heavily bombed country in history.

Bombing Sites in Laos.  Peter Larson
From 1964 through 1973 the U.S. dropped approximately 2.5 million tons of ordnance on Laos, about 1,700 pounds for each man, woman, and child. Although the primary military target was the area in eastern Laos where supplies from North Vietnam traveled south along the Ho Chi Minh Trail, nearly all parts of the country were bombed during more than 580,000 bombing missions carried out by the U.S.  According to analyses by epidemiologist Peter Larson the tonnage dropped in some regions reached 5 tons per person.

The full scale of the U.S. bombing operations was kept secret from the American people for many years, but is now well documented by recently declassified military records, U.N reports, Congressional Hearings, and evidence provided by NGO organizations working in Laos to remove unexploded bombs, such as the well-regarded international Mines Advisory Group (MAG) and the U.S. Legacies of War educational and advocacy organization.

Over 280 million bombs were dropped on Laos by the U.S. Many of these were anti-personnel and anti-tank weapons called cluster bombs which open before reaching the ground and release dozens of smaller grapefruit-sized devices informally called "bombies" by the Laotians. Unfortunately an estimated 30 percent of the bombies, or about 80 million, failed to explode upon initial impact and now pose a serious risk to those who disturb them. During the war years the bombing campaign and other military actions killed around 30,000 Laotians.  Since then another 20,000 have been killed or injured from encounters with UXO, or unexploded ordnance.  In the last decade 40% of the casualties have been children.  According to the Mines Advisory Group, approximately 25 per cent of the country's villages are contaminated with UXO, and contamination is found in all 17 of the country's provinces. Finding and removing 80 million unexploded bombs would be a challenge even for the richest and most technically sophisticated country.  Laos is certainly neither rich nor technically sophisticated and UXO continues to be a significant deterrent to its development and a serious threat to the safety and well-being of its citizens.

Many of the casualties from UXO occur when farmers attempt to cultivate land that has not been thoroughly cleared.  Despite the risk, economic desperation makes large numbers of poor rural farmers ignore the dangers. Another even more widespread problem is that villagers can earn a lot of money from UXO scrap metal, leading them to collect UXO even though it has not been properly defused.  Not all the scrap metal is sold, however. As we traveled through Laotian farming areas we saw the bomb casings that once held the bombies being used for barn supports, water troughs, flower pots, and even supports for t.v. antennae. Seeing remnants of U.S. weapons used in these ways was a poignant moment for us as Americans.

During Congressional hearings on the UXO problem held in 2010, Deputy Assistant Secretary Scot Marciel of the Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs offered a positive-sounding account of the U.S. role in helping Laos cope with the UXO problem:
"To address the explosive remnants of war problem in Laos, the Department of State supports a variety of humanitarian demining and unexploded ordnance clearance projects, with funding from the Non-proliferation, Anti-terrorism, Demining and Related programs (NADR) appropriation account. One of the top goals of the program is to clear all high priority areas (specifically agricultural land, health and education facilities); another is to develop indigenous mine and UXO abatement capacity. These projects are selected and managed by the Office of Weapons Removal and Abatement in the Bureau of Political Military Affairs, in close coordination with the Bureau of East Asia and Pacific Affairs and our Embassy in Vientiane. Although the bulk of U.S. NADR funds for Laos goes to UXO Lao — the Government of Laos’ quasi-independent government agency charged with conducting clearance operations — we also fund NGOs that conduct independent clearance operations and run school-based campaigns to educate children about the dangers of tampering with UXO. Our funding supports work performed by Lao national entities (primarily UXO Lao) as well as by international NGOs such as the Mine Advisory Group, Norwegian People’s AID, the Swiss Demining Foundation, and the World Education Consortium. We view our programs in Laos as very successful overall, and one in which the national authorities have established a credible and effective UXO action system."
 And the monetary support for these programs?  Read carefully:

"The U.S. is the single largest donor to the UXO sector in Laos. Other major donors include Japan, the European Commission, Ireland, Switzerland, Luxembourg, Germany, and Australia. From 1993 through 2009, U.S. assistance has totaled more than $25 million...In FY 2009, our total assistance for Laos UXO projects was $3.7 million. In FY 2010 we will provide $5 million on UXO funding for Laos."
Whoa! In this day of a billion here and a billion there, the U.S has provided a total of just $25 million over a 16-year period .  And though we provided the most of any other donor, this still suggests that the overall international support for mitigating the Laos UXO problem is rather small given the scope of what needs to be done.

I will avoid getting into the geopolitics of the Vietnam War and whether it was justified.  I'll also dodge the question of whether hiding the scale of military operations in Laos from the American public was justified or not.  But I suggest that no matter which side of those arguments you are on, surely we can agree that America has left a dangerous legacy in Laos that is still killing and injuring innocent people 40 years later.  If we really are the compassionate and well-meaning country we believe ourselves to be, then maybe we can do more to contribute something positive to the lives of the Laotian people. As we traveled through Laos were were treated warmly even when people discovered we were Americans. The most negative reaction was usually one of puzzlement over why the U.S. had done what it did and why it doesn't seem to recognize the extent of its legacy today.  Why, indeed?
Some Additional Source Material:
Scot Marciel's Congressional Testimony, 2010.
2010 Congressional Hearings on UXO in Laos
Entire Congressional Record Account of Congressional Hearings on Laos, including written follow-up material requested by Committee members.
Analyses of U.S. Bombing Missions by Peter Larson
Mines Advisory Group in Laos Website
Legacies of War Website
"Forty years on, Laos reaps bitter harvest of the secret war."  2008 article in The Guardian summarizing UXO problem
"Laos' Unexploded Bombs: Deadly Scrap Metal, Toys." Transcript of 2010 NPR segment on UXO scrap metal dangers.


Randy Phillips said...

What an eye opener to such a tragic train of events. Thanks for the very well written piece!

Since America doesn’t seem to have the heart or the money to even care for the many brave American veterans of such an ongoing series of military disasters across the globe one can hardly hold out hope that they will do much for Laos. But since the US government spent very good money to buy bombs that were intended to maim and kill as many people and animals indiscriminately as possible (in a timely fashion) - and since 30% of these bombs were defective - we clearly have a potential lawsuit against the players that made billions off of this war. It is the usual list of suspects - Lockheed Martin, Raytheon, Textron, etc. Of course the financial institutions that made all this possible also share some of the blame - it also is the usual list of suspects - Bank of America, Barclays, Citigroup, Deutsche Bank, JP Morgan Chase, Morgan Stanley, Merrill Lynch etc. Now with this certain several billion dollars perhaps we start the cleanup project in Laos and elsewhere. Geesh!

Richard Sherman said...

Peter Larson (see link in my blog) comes to much the same conclusion regarding the profits of war and their possible role in prolonging the Vietnam conflict, as well as the scale of the U.S. bombing of Laos -- a questionable military tactic and one that seemed to enhance the appeal of the Pathet Lao communists rather than weaken them -- their army was larger at the end of the war than the beginning.