“It was said that after the war (WW1) when the earth was restored, there was one-third metal and war materials, one-third real earth, and one-third human flesh.” source
“Wars are not paid for in war time. The bill comes later.” – Ben Franklin
This week, a leftover bomb from the war in Laos detonated in Paek district, Xieng Khouang province. One child was killed, and twelve other people were injured (five adults and seven other children). It appears that this was a “bombie,” a tennis-ball sized cluster bomb dropped by the U.S.
Over 2 million tons of ordnance was dropped on Laos from 1964-1973. Many of these bombs failed to detonate on impact, leaving behind unexploded ordnance (UXO) that remains active to the present day. That means that this particular bombie remained dormant for at least 44 years. The villagers who were interviewed in the video below said they think the bomb could have been detonated by children playing jump-rope nearby.
That the tragedies of war can last for so long, and can be triggered by something as innocent as children jumping rope (who were born well after the war ended) only provides more factor to consider when deciding whether to engage in military conflict. It is yet another reason for caution.
And it’s not just Laos. Leftover UXO from World War 2 and even World War 1 still remain active in Europe and Egypt (and probably elsewhere). The Ben Franklin quote above (“the bill comes later”) referred to the paying of war debts, accrued by borrowing to pay for war efforts. But it also apply to the costs paid by civilians and soldiers alike, lasting for decades.
The Sydney Morning Herald reported that the U.S. is seeking $500 million in repayment from Cambodia for a Vietnam War-era loan, primarily in the form of excess maize. According to the SMH:
The debt started out as a US$274 million loan mostly for food supplies to the then US-backed Lon Nol government but has almost doubled over the years as Cambodia refused to enter into a re-payment program.
As the article also pointed out, many people across the political spectrum are outraged by the request, given the role the U.S. played in bombing Cambodia. According to Yale historian Ben Kiernan, from 1965-73 U.S. planes dropped nearly 2.8 million tons of bombs over the eastern part of the country. This was part of a larger war meant to deny communist troops and supplies from North Vietnam from reaching the South via Laos and Cambodia.
Although casualty estimates from war are notoriously difficult, U.S. bombing was estimated to have killed 50,000 to perhaps hundreds of thousands of Cambodians, many of them civilians. Furthermore, historians such as Kiernan have argued that without the bombing, the Khmer Rouge might not have grown as much as it did, with people radicalized against U.S. brutality and into the arms of the K.R. Their rise to power, of course, led to more atrocities and genocide only a few years later.
Given all of that, it seems preposterous, or at least tone-deaf, for the U.S. to request repayment. And it’s not just Cambodians who think so. Also noted in the SMH article was a quote from James Pringle, a former Reuters bureau chief in Ho Chi Minh City, who was near Cambodia during the war:
“Cambodia does not owe a brass farthing to the US for help in destroying its people, its wild animals, its rice fields and forest cover.”
U.S. bombing of Cambodia from 1965-1973 (by Taylor Owen and Ben Kiernan). Source.
Today, President Obama became the first sitting U.S. president to visit Laos. It’s kind a big deal. So far, I think he’s hit all the right notes, pledging a substantial increase in funds to help clear unexploded ordnance dropped by U.S. planes decades ago during the Second Indochina War. Whereas the U.S. had given about $100 million over the last 20 years to help clear some of the bombing, this will now be increased to $90 million over the next three. The effects of these bombs have lingered for too long, causing about 20,000 casualties since the war officially ended, so it is good to see Obama take this seriously. (And, by the way, the New York Times has just published a story on how this increase in funds is almost entirely due to the amazing Channapha Khamvongsa. She has worked on this for a long time, and she is to be admired).
Others have observed that because Obama was too young to have served in the military during the Vietnam War, he has a fresher perspective and can therefore act as a generational page-turner. Perhaps that is sometimes necessary in order to rise above the past, as people often become entrenched in their views. The old guard phases out, and new blood enters the picture. In fact, Obama declared that his visit marked a new era in U.S.- Lao relations, based on mutual respect and “a shared desire to heal the wounds of the past.”
I’ve given this some thought. When I was younger, whenever I read a story about some tragedy — a car accident, a war, a terrorist attack, refugees forcibly displaced from their homes, a victim of sexual violence, etc. — I don’t think I quite understood the magnitude of how long that type of emotional pain could endure. Those things don’t just clear up overnight. They can persist well beyond the actual offense, even for decades. Because we are such a social species, intensely connected to others and highly attuned to the thoughts and emotions of the people around us, it seems that one of the key ingredients to healing is to hear that others recognize and respect our pain.
I think Obama recognized this. If I were a poor Laotian farmer whose fields were contaminated with leftover bombs, I would probably put more weight on the $90 million than on any speech or anything Obama might say. Yet, symbolic gestures can also go a long way. Obama’s statement that he recognized and had high hopes for “the dignity and the future of the people of Laos” is a potentially powerful one. At least I think so. Let’s see what happens during the next few days of his visit there.
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