Reconciliation & the Second Indochina War, II

Our prime purpose in this life is to help others. And if you can’t help them, at least don’t hurt them.” – Dalai Lama


I wrote this post, titled Reconciliation, Biology, & the 2nd Indochina War, about a year ago, and I consider it one of the more meaningful things on this site. It addresses:

(1) Examples of profound case studies in reconciliation and making peace with the past (Kim Phuc and John Plummer; the My Lai massacre, Pham Thanh Cong, and William Calley; various national-level apologies for past injustices).

(2) The significance, evolution, and neurobiology of guilt and forgiveness.

(3) Lingering injustices and problems caused by the war, as well as a few reasons for optimism. 

Admittedly, it is a bit long, and if you don’t make it to the end, it concludes on a hopeful note:

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Reconciliation, Biology, and the Second Indochina War

Of all the things I’ve written on this site, this remains one of the most meaningful to me. (May 29, 2017)

The weak can never forgive. Forgiveness is the attribute of the strong.” …………………………………………………………………………– Mohandas K. Gandhi

On my desk sits a spoon I bought in a restaurant in northern Laos. It’s lightweight, bigger than a tablespoon, and full of tiny dents that some unknown metalsmith hammered into it. The owner was bemused that in addition to the bowl of pho noodle soup, I also wanted to buy one of her utensils. But I had my reasons.

Earlier on my trip, my guide1 informed me that people in the town of Phonsavanh half-jokingly called these ‘B-52 spoons,’ as they were made of metal recovered from bombs dropped decades ago by U.S. planes during  ‘the Secret War. To me, the spoon was more than a quirky souvenir. Instead, it represented an attempt by Laotians to take the physical remnants of a tragic period in history and forge them into something more positive, in effect turning swords into plowshares (or bombs into spoons). Continue reading

Meeting to Ban Cluster Munitions, Vientiane Laos

The next generation (Phonsavan, Lao PDR)

Today marks the beginning of the First Meeting of States Parties to the Convention on Cluster Munitions, held in Vientiane, Laos. The meeting’s purpose is to determine how to effectively implement the objectives laid out by the original Convention, which took place in Dublin in May 2008 and became binding to ratifying states in August this year. Those objectives are as follows:

The Convention on Cluster Munitions, CCM, prohibits all use, stockpiling, production and transfer of Cluster Munitions. Separate articles in the Convention concern assistance to victims, clearance of contaminated areas and destruction of stockpiles.

Thus far, 36 countries have been affected by cluster munitions (ex. Lebanon, Angola, Serbia). However, it is appropriate that Laos is hosting this meeting, as it is one of the most heavily bombed countries in history – a legacy of American bombing during the Second Indochina War. The lingering effects of cluster munitions have been particularly pernicious. Even today, almost four decades after the bombing of Laos ended,  there are roughly 250 casualties annually from unexploded ordnance (UXO) leftover from the war. Many of these casualties are children.


Last year, I saw some of the effects of the war in Laos first-hand in Xieng Khouang province, where craters and injured people are both abundant. My interpreter and guide, Manophet, introduced me to a bomb clearance team outside of the town of Phonsavan. They explained how the process of UXO detection and removal is painstakingly slow, given how widespread an area a single cluster bomb unit can cover and how many tons of ordnance were released over Laos (click here to see what a cluster bomb can do to your neighborhood).

The day I visited, the team had located ten ‘bombies,’ and they were kind enough to let me remotely detonate one, an experience far removed from my usual job. It was exciting, but also a chilling reminder of how long such munitions can last, with the potential to indiscriminately maim or kill even decades after a war has officially concluded.

As an American, it also struck me how we are obligated to clean up the mess we left behind. After all, the war in Laos is over. Therefore, UXO is not a military problem or a political one. Rather, it is a public health problem – killing family members, causing disability, and disrupting lives. Regardless of where one falls on the political spectrum, it should be uncontroversial to say that children should not be maimed or killed by bombs leftover from a war that ended decades before they were born. Removing the bombs in Laos is simply the right thing to do.

Brief video from the day I visited (34 seconds).



Lingering Effects of War in Laos Link

Organization: Mines Advisory Group Link

Organization: Legacies of War Link

Organization: Cluster Munition Coalition Link

American – Laotian Relations

Yesterday marked the first visit of a Laotian government official to the United States since 1975. According to the Department of State website, Foreign Minister Thongloun Sisoulith and Secretary Hillary Clinton discussed many issues:

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Laos: The Not So Secret War

Map of bombing record in Laos (from organization UXO Lao)

Below is a clip of a 1970 CBS  exposé of the war in Laos, which had only become known to the American public  shortly before it was aired.

I had not seen most of this footage before, and find it pretty riveting. At the time this was shown, the war in Laos really was still pretty much a ‘secret war’ because of the 1962 Geneva Accords which declared Laos to be neutral and largely off-limits to foreign interference, specifically foreign troops. Of course, that wasn’t quite the way things played out. There are some really interesting tidbits of history in there that video conveys in a way that merely reading about history cannot, such as:

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Funding the removal of UXO in Laos


War leftovers, decorating a hotel lobby in Phonsavan, northern Laos (July, 2009)


I was impressed by the conviction shown by Congressman Mike Honda (D-CA), when he wrote in today’s Washington Times that “we have a moral obligation to fix this problem” (leftover unexploded ordnance in Laos).  He also called for an increase in funds and a sustained commitment to removing leftover cluster bombs dropped by U.S. planes in the 1960s and 70s.

Incidentally,  the organization Legacies of War testified before Congress last week, including Rep.  Honda, about the extent of the problem of UXO in Laos, and the need for greater funding. As I wrote previously, the scope of the problem is massive and deserves much more attention than it has gotten thus far.

Lingering Effects of the War in Laos

Destroyed temple in Moang Khoune (Xieng Khouangville)

The Lao National Regulatory Authority (LNRA) recently released an impressive, 106-page report on the victims of unexploded ordnance (UXO) over the last few decades. The authors, Mike Boddington and Bountao Chanthavongsa, and all of the associated researchers should be commended for this invaluable contribution, which documents in a systematic fashion the damage done by the war. Researchers covered more than 9,000 villages in Laos (95%), collecting retrospective data from interviews with residents about injuries or deaths caused by mines, large bombs, mortars, bombies, etc. from 1964 to 2008. In all, the report found that more than 50,000 people were injured or killed by UXO in Laos, though the authors acknowledge that this is likely an underestimate, perhaps by as much as 20%. Results revealed that Savannakhet and Xieng Khouang provinces were the two most affected in terms of the number of casualties, which makes sense, given their strategic and geographic importance in the southern and northern parts of the country, respectively.

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