U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry visited Laos on Sunday, foreshadowing a visit by President Obama sometime this autumn. It will be the first ever visit by a U.S. President to Laos. There are probably several reasons for the visit, including strengthening ties, checking Chinese power in the region, etc. Most relevant to me is the hope that more will be done to alleviate some of the damage done during the war years, especially by removing leftover unexploded ordnance (UXO).
A CNN article mentions two emotions that Americans might feel toward President Obama’s position towards Laos: guilt and optimism. It quotes Channapha Khamvongsa, who founded he NGO Legacies of War, which works to raise awareness of UXO in Laos. Continue reading
Hillary Clinton was recently asked about the leftover bombs that the U.S. dropped on Laos. The heart of her reply:
“This is a humanitarian disaster that we created, and we need to put more money in and work much faster to try to clean it up so we don’t have more deaths and injuries.”
Today does not escape easily from yesterday.
Several media outlets have published stories in the last few days marking the 40th anniversary of the ‘end’ of the Vietnam War (although it is more accurately known as the Second Indochina War because it also involved the neighboring countries of Laos, Cambodia, and Thailand).
Some of these stories are about families of American veterans still searching for the remains of lost loved ones. Others are about the lingering divisions between northern and southern Vietnamese, even within the same family.
Perhaps Viet Thanh Nguyen, an associate professor of English and American studies at the University of Southern California, best summarized these accounts with his NYTimes essay “Our Vietnam War Never Ended”. He describes moving to the US as a young boy and then growing up in San Jose, California with a foot in two cultures, as well as the struggles and successes of Vietnamese and other refugee groups in the US. And despite the fact that his family members have achieved a lot, such as producing a professor at a prestigious university, he writes that their story is not a fairy tale:
“our family story is a story of loss and death, for we are here only because the United States fought a war that killed three million of our countrymen (not counting over two million others who died in neighboring Laos and Cambodia).”
Those two themes, that the war never truly ended, and that even those who survived and succeeded later in life have stories of loss and death, are important reminders of the past’s ability to reach into the present, even after forty years of yesterdays. All wars are unique, but their most consistent feature of war is the creation of suffering, which can last for decades, perhaps even centuries. Continue reading
This is a simple, yet powerful, video cataloging the 600,000 bombing missions and 2 million tons of bombs the U.S. dropped over Laos from 1964-73. I’ve never been able to comprehend the scale of the bombing in Laos because it’s hard to get a handle on such large numbers. This short video helps put it into perspective.
The person who made the video, Jerry Redfern, also has a new book out Eternal Harvest: The Legacy of American Bombs in Laos (co-authored with his wife, Karen Coates).
The organization Legacies of War shared this animated video on the impacts of U.S. bombing of Laos during the Vietnam War. I thought the filmmaker, Corey Sheldon, put together a very attractive and informative video, although the history is perhaps understandably simplified. Today, the remnants of unexploded bombs are still a problem in Laos, decades after the war has ended, so I think projects like this one are helpful in raising awareness, particularly in the United States. <div style=”text-align:center”>
The Lingering Effects of the War in Laos
Laos: The Not So Secret War
For at least a few days, one of the most emailed article on the New York Times website was a story on Hillary Clinton’s recent visit to Laos, the first there by a U.S. Secretary of State since 1955. As the title of the article suggests (“Vietnam War’s Legacy Is Vivid as Clinton Visits Laos“), much of Clinton’s brief visit pertained to the legacy of the Second Indochina War in Laos.
Hillary Clinton in Laos (Washington Post)
My interests in the war in Laos stem from my research on how physical growth and health of Hmong and Lao refugees were affected by living under such conditions as children, and younger. When one confronts the history, it quickly becomes apparent how disproportionate the damage was compared to any strategic or military importance of the country. In an Op-Ed in the Washington Times, a number of former U.S. Ambassadors to Laos, including Douglas Hartwick, summarized the history and the fact that civilians were – and continue to be – highly affected:
Between 1964 and 1973, the U.S. dropped the equivalent of one planeload of bombs every eight minutes, for 24 hours a day – one ton of bombs for each of the 2 million people in Laos at the time, making it the most heavily bombed country per capita in history. These bombings were part of a campaign – kept secret from the American people, not formally authorized by Congress, and in violation of international accords – whose purpose was to deter communist proliferation. But the people who suffered most were ordinary Lao villagers.
“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: