40 Years After the Second Indochina War

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

Two Million Tons of Bombs over Laos in One Minute

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). 

Continue reading

Bombing of Laos, Animated

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”>


Related posts

The Lingering Effects of the War in Laos 

Laos: The Not So Secret War 


Hillary Clinton in Laos

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.

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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:

Continue reading

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