Dropping Bombs then Dropping Aid – America’s Dirty Secret in Laos

When Laos is viewed from above, the number of craters appear to rival the face of the moon, but these were not made by natural causes. Instead they are the scars that bear testimony to the “secret” war waged by the Americans during the Vietnam War on this small Southeast Asian state. Laos has the unfortunate title of the most heavily bombed nation per capita in the entire history of human warfare, and civilians are still being killed and mutilated by an enemy that left over four decades ago.

Image courtesy of the US Army, © 1943, some rights reserved.

Image courtesy of the US Army, © 1943, some rights reserved.

The Americans went into the Vietnam War with one aim: to halt the advancements being made in the name of communism as part of a wider strategy of containment. The Viet Cong made use of the Ho Chi Minh Trail for the transport of supplies, which cuts straight through Laos. The country thus became a target despite its neutral status.

1964 marked the beginning of a nine-year campaign during which American forces dropped over two million tons of heavy artillery. A website offers to break down the mathematics involved and gives us this figure: it is “equal to a planeload of bombs every 8 minutes, 24-hours a day, for 9 years”[1]. The same website offers further statistics: over 270 million cluster bombs were dropped on Laos during the Vietnam War during the course of 580,000 missions. To give this some perspective, the United States bombed Laos more than both Japan and Germany during the entire length of World War II.

In other words, bombs fell on the country more often than rain.

However, the real issue that the population of Laos now faces almost forty years after the campaign ended is the 80 million bombs that did not explode (Unexploded Ordnance – “UXO” or “bombies” as the locals call them) and lie dormant in the soil to this day. While at the time it may have been perceived as a blessing when a third of the bombs dropped did not detonate upon impact, it means that the country is essentially a large scale mine field. Over 20,000 civilians of all ages have been killed since 1973 when the last bomb was dropped. A further problem is that only 1 per cent of the total number of unexploded bombs have been cleared, which, given that most of the country’s economy is predominantly agriculturally based, means that the victims are often unsuspecting farmers or children playing in the fields. A further dimension is highlighted by the fact that crop production has been dubbed the “deadly harvest”[2] since scrap prices have rocketed and are worth more than any produce that could be reaped.

Another ironic aspect is the United States’ apparent lack of empathy or sense of moral duty. This is evidenced by the meagre amount of aid the United States has contributed for the removal of UXOs from 1996 to 2012, amounting to roughly $2.6 million a year. This number may seem like a lot, but this sum ought to be contrasted with the $17 million dollars (considering the value of the dollar in 2010) that were spent each day for nine years during the campaign. While the vast majority of human rights abuses rarely have a simple solution, the case of Laos offers a contradiction to this norm since a more substantial influx of aid will solve all problems in terms of removing the UXOs which would, in turn, would open the door for economic and social development.

Yet despite the apparently clear and feasible courses of action available, US policymakers have increasingly been shying away from further commitments to alleviate Laos’ UXO problems.

During an official visit to Laos in 2012, Hilary Clinton as then Secretary of State claimed, “We have to do more. That’s one of the reasons I wanted to come here today, so that we can tell more people about the work that we should be doing together”. However, this sentiment marks a complete change from 2006 when she did not support the US ratifying the convention on cluster bombs. The primary aims of the convention were as follows: to prohibit “all use, production, transfer and stockpiling of cluster munitions. In addition, it establishes a framework for cooperation and assistance to ensure adequate care and rehabilitation to survivors and their communities, clearance of contaminated areas, risk reduction education and destruction of stockpiles”[3]. These guidelines could clearly be applied in Laos and thus highlight the tendency of US policy to ignore crimes that it seemingly got away with.

Peter Haymond, the charge d’affaires at the US embassy in Laos, released a statement to the Guardian in 2010 that ended with the following conclusion. “As demonstrated by our years of engagement and assistance, the United States is committed to help Laos achieve our shared goal of eliminating the threat posed by UXO to the people of Laos”. While financial commitments to a foreign state are admirable, Haymond’s words appear hollow given that the casualty and aid figures serve as a direct rebuttal to this claim to philanthropy.

While the United States might live in the long shadow cast by Vietnam and might still be haunted by horrors of a war that should never have been fought, the war in Laos has never been brought to a close. The assault never subsided even though American soldiers returned home over four decades ago. This war is a dirty secret that has been kept hidden from the public eye, and it will continue to claim lives until greater quantities of foreign aid or investment are granted.

[1] http://legaciesofwar.org/about-laos/secret-war-laos/

[2] http://www.theguardian.com/world/2008/dec/03/laos-cluster-bombs-uxo-deaths

[3] http://www.clusterconvention.org