The Long Reach of War: Another UXO Casualty in Laos

“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. 

 

 

Should Cambodia Pay War Debts to the United States?

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.

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The Dignity and Future of the People of Laos

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.

The “Deep Roots” of War

The debate continues as to whether war extends deep into human pre-history. This tends to break down into two camps: (1) the “deep roots” advocates, who argue that inter-group aggression extends to the origins of our species (or perhaps even earlier), and (2) those who propose that hunter-gatherers were essentially peaceful until the advent of agriculture. 

On his website “Why Evolution is True,” Jerry Coyne has been summarizing the various critiques that deep-rooters like Steven Pinker and Michael Shermer have been piling on against the science writer John Horgan, who has argued that war is a recent innovation.

I think the reason for all the confusion is that the best way to resolve the debate is to have a systematic review of the archaeological record. Of course, that is very hard to do, since there are gaps in what we know about the past, and not all humans leave traces of their existence. But the public debates often encourage cherry-picking of the data, sometimes highlighting prehistoric groups that show signs of intergroup violence (and they did exist), or at other times highlighting peaceful groups (so did they!). Rarely is there a systematic, big-picture approach. 

In an essay I wrote last year, “Genocidal Altruists,” I took a different approach, arguing that our ancestors were complex. I cited the archaeologists Jonathan Haas and Matthew Piscitelli, who actually did attempt a systematic review. To quote myself… 

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The Destruction of Syria

There isn’t much to add. The scale of the destruction is difficult to comprehend. 

Homs, Syria

The Lessons of Hiroshima

A friend of mine, Hugh Gusterson, wrote this imaginary speech that President Obama might consider delivering if he should decide to visit Hiroshima. Hugh is a very thoughtful person and I thought he did an excellent job here. It doesn’t look like his essay was shared very widely, so I thought I would repost it here…

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“The White House is reportedly trying to decide whether President Obama should visit Hiroshima before he leaves office. He should go. And, since he is a very busy man, I’ve written his speech for him:”

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Growth of Recently Arrived Refugee Children in the U.S.

A recent paper in the journal PLoS One examined growth patterns of 982 refugee children (age 0-10 yrs) from 35 countries who were resettled in the state of Washington (Dawson-Hahn et al 2016). Using height and weight measured at the time of their overseas health examination, the authors calculated rates of stunting (low height-for-age), wasting (low weight-for-height), and overweight/obesity as markers of a child’s nutritional status. These statistics were also compared to low-income children in Washington.

To me, the most important part of the results was that rates of substandard growth were quite high among refugees. Overall, refugee children aged 0-5 years old were more likely to be wasted and stunted, and less likely to be obese in comparison to low-income children in Washington.

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Figure 1 from Dawson-Hahn et al

 

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