Growing up in the Midwest, I always heard “You break it, you bought it.”
Thirty-five years after the secret war for Laos, when America was the proverbial bull in the china shop, we’ve still got a lot of pieces to pick up. Technically, 78 million dangerous pieces called UXO, a catchy shorthand term for unexploded ordnance.
This year, 104 nations agreed to the Convention on Cluster Munitions, effective August 1st. America was not one of them. This treaty bans the use and purchase of cluster munitions, nasty little devices who claim victims long after a conflict ends. These weapons created the majority of UXO still left in Laos.
Over nine years during the Vietnam War, America secretly transformed a neutral nation the size of Utah into the most heavily bombed spot on earth. Guided by covert CIA paramilitary advisors, we dropped 260 million bombs on Laos, more than on all of Europe in World War II, or in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Many are reportedly stamped ‘Made in Minneapolis, Minnesota’ courtesy of Honeywell, a leading cluster bomb manufacturers at the time. Honeywell has since gotten out of that business, but their products are unfortunately a gift that keeps on giving.
For many manufacturers, quality control was apparently a non-issue then, because almost 3 out of every 10 bombs failed to detonate properly on impact. Experts believe at least 2 million tons of leftover bombs are still fully capable of exploding.
All it takes is a little summer heat, a little shifting of the earth, an errant farmer’s plow, a bad pass of a soccer ball or someone just trying to make it home to make a tragedy. Young children, 33 percent of the annual victims, learn this the hard way. Many of their parents weren’t even born during the war.
The non-profit organization, Legacies of War, recently testified to Congress about the dangers of UXO. They report there are over 300 deaths from UXO every year, often in the most remote regions of Laos, where medical services are woefully inadequate and hard to pay for.
In my first trip back to Laos in 2003, I saw firsthand the heartbreaking tragedy of a poor family in Xieng Khouang province racing to get their son aboard a rickety Russian airplane to a hospital. They spent their collective life savings just for a chance. The youth was only trying to start a fire for them as they squatted on the CIA’s abandoned airfield at Long Tieng. As he lay bleeding behind me on the plane, the worst was that it was so routine to everyone else. I don’t know if he made it. But since then, little has improved.
For 15 years, the United States has given just under $3 million a year to support UXO clearance. Among the leading groups assisting UXO removal are Mennonites and an all-woman, all-Lao bomb removal team supported by the non-profit Mines Advisory Group and the Lao government’s National Regulatory Authority. They’re doing great work, but at the current level of support, we’ll be done removing bombs in 2610, give or take a century or two.
We used to spend $2 million a day to bomb Laos. Now we barely spend that in a year to heal a nation, to create a place of safety and peace.
With war comes responsibility, or the deaths and destruction of that conflict become mere chaos, and there can be no lessons, no gains from those sacrifices. Such chaos is not constructive to the American character. Wars end. Legacies endure. We can and must do better.