During my second day in Vientiane I walked across town to the COPE Visitor’s Center, an educational space created by the COPE organization that supports the victims of unexploded ordnance (UXO). The Center is a surprisingly bright and uplifting place, as the organization provides training and work opportunities in addition to high-tech but low-cost artificial limbs and related rehabilitation programs. People are being given their independence and lives back, many after years of making due with sub-par solutions. While I was aware of the issue of UXO throughout SE Asia, I knew little about the origin of the problem—widespread US carpet bombings throughout the Vietnam War.
While Americans learn the basics of the Vietnam War in school, it is rare that we are told of the “Secret War,” in nearby Laos. Laos was a neutral nation, but the Viet Minh funneled massive amounts of war munitions down the Ho Chi Minh Trail, which runs along the country’s eastern border. The American response was nonstop bombings of the region for nine years. According to the US Air Force, 580,000 bombing missions were carried out over Laos between 1965 and 1973, and an estimated 260 million submunition “bombies” were dropped. Of those an estimated 30%, or 78 million, failed to explode and now pose a serious threat throughout all of Laos’ 17 provinces. More than 20,000 people have been killed or injured by UXOs since the end of the Vietnam War; 40% being children.
The Center featured pictures drawn by children who felt the bombs rain down on their sleepy villages in the 1970s—who watched as family members that had never heard of America were blown apart. A videotaped interview showed two teary-eyed villagers who lost their 9-year-old son to a UXO that he found on his walk home from school in 2008. It was a lot to take in.
In addition to the targeted bombings, rural areas of Laos were designated as “safe dumping sites” for US military planes that had not located their targets in Vietnam, and who weren’t able to land safely with the weapons still on-board. What the military failed to acknowledge is that by dropping bombs in rural Laos, they not only affected villagers who lived in the region at the time, but any who would consider living or farming there in the future as well. We created a weapons wasteland in one of the poorest and most beautiful regions in the world.
It’s one thing to read about the bombings in a history book and think, “ That had to be done in order to ‘win’.” It’s an entirely different experience to hold a weapon in your hands that ended someone’s life or left them forever physically changed and is labeled “Property of the US Air Force.” It seems to me that we should be leading the UXO clean-up efforts in Laos. Instead, this country that on the list of 20 poorest nations is expected to cover a large percentage of the costs internally as the US engages in new conflicts in other faraway lands. The $51 million that the US has contributed towards clean-up efforts since 1996 is equivalent to the amount spent in just three days during the war. It simply isn’t right. As Hilary Clinton stated during her visit to COPE last July, “We have to do more.”
I encourage you to read a bit more about the Secret War and the efforts of the COPE Center and other groups working to help those affected by these terrible weapons (www.copelaos.org). If you’d like to make a positive contribution, poke around the Cluster Munition Coalition’s “Take Action” page and add your name to the People’s Treaty, promising to hold US representatives to their promises to end the use of cluster munitions worldwide. The US has not yet joined the Coalition (The US Department of State’s official stance on cluster munitions can be found here) and it seems to be the least that we can do to put an end to this unnecessary form of suffering.