Columns 2015

The bombs we left behind

There was a time when America’s endless war was the Vietnam War. Like our current wars, this war was a quagmire of deception, obfuscation and tragedy. We achieved nothing, which is not surprising since our stated goal of stopping communism came smack up against people who were sick and tired of colonial powers using them as pawns.

When President Nixon was questioned about just how far our war in Vietnam went and whether it now included the neighboring state of Laos, he unequivocally denied the presence of any American troops on Lao soil. And for once he was telling the truth. What he neglected to mention was that we were bombing Laos on a daily basis despite the fact that no state of war was ever declared between our two countries.

This war must seem like ancient history to young people, much like World War I seemed to my generation. The Vietnam War supposedly ended over forty years ago. It has been consigned to the dustbins of history where it is periodically resurrected as an example of why no one in their right mind should ever engage in a ground war in Southeast Asia. But much to my shock and chagrin, I recently found out that the Vietnam War hasn’t really ended, at least not for the people of Laos.

Laos is the most heavily bombed country in the world. America dropped more bombs on it than were dropped in all of World War II. And some of those bombs never exploded, including cluster bombs. They sit in the fields and roads of Laos waiting for someone to come along and step on it the wrong way or try to salvage it for metal. Then they explode. And the Vietnam War claims another victim. Since the war is officially over, we don’t claim these incidents in the statistics of that war. But trust me, the kid lying in a hospital bed without his legs or arms does.

In the poorer villages of Laos, children collect scrap metal to sell to help their family provide food and shelter. Some of these children are especially attracted to the unexploded cluster bombs, which resemble metal coconuts or little balls. What fun. Balls they can play with and then sell for scrap metal. Except that these balls explode in the faces and kill them.

I watched a film while I was at a facility in Vientiane, the Laotian capitol, in which an Australian Explosive Ordinance Defusion (EOD) specialist taught locals how to defuse, remove and/or detonate these bombs before they killed. These people have no protective gear, no robots to send in first. They approach the bomb unprotected and try to rid the village of the danger posed by unexploded ordinance with nothing more than their training and guts. I can’t even imagine what it takes to volunteer to do a job like that. Most of the Lao training for this work do it to make their villages safe so that a farmer plowing a field or a child playing kickball doesn’t get blown up by something they can’t see beneath their feet.

In the Cope Center in Vientiane, you walk through a hanging forest of prosthetic arms and legs made of heavy wood, not the light and functional limbs we now produce for our veterans. These limbs were returned by children who’d outgrown them and needed new ones to keep up with their growing bodies.

The United States walked away from its war in Southeast Asia a long time ago. But our war there still rages on a daily basis for the people who accidentally step on the unexploded bombs we left behind. And I simply don’t understand why it is Australia that is working so hard to rid this land of those bombs. I don’t understand why America isn’t removing the destruction it sent into a country in which we had declared no war and whose people did not war on us.

We have a moral responsibility to clean up our mess in this country. If you have any doubt how bad it can be, watch the documentary, “Bomb Harvest”. What we did was wrong then and that wrong is only compounded every time another Laotian loses a life or limb because of what we left there forty years ago.