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The U.S. promised Ukraine cluster bombs. In Laos, they still kill civilians

View of a collection of defused cluster bombs and grenades used by an international bomb disposal group for training in Savannakhet, Laos, on May 2, 2006.
Jerry Redfern
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LightRocket via Getty Images
View of a collection of defused cluster bombs and grenades used by an international bomb disposal group for training in Savannakhet, Laos, on May 2, 2006.

Pulitzer Prize-winner Lewis M. Simons is the author of To Tell the Truth: My Life as a Foreign Correspondent.


They look more like toys than weapons of death and maiming. Bright yellow, red or black, some resemble whiffle balls, others miniature windmills, robots and Transformers. They're too tempting for any girl or boy to ignore, let alone kids from isolated villages in the hinterlands of a country where nearly three-quarters of the population live in grinding poverty. That country is Laos. And the illusory playthings are cluster bombs.

In the late 1960s and early '70s, the CIA-paid mercenaries and U.S. Air Force pilots who dropped them from the sky had their own warm and fuzzy names for their deadly cargo: "bomblets" or "bombies." I used to schmooze with some of those CIA fliers at the White Rose, a riotous bar and brothel in Vientiane, the capital city, where they drank and danced with naked prostitutes. Many of the swaggering, close-cropped Americans, who towered over the diminutive Lao women, were weighted with thick, 24-karat gold chains slung around their necks and wrists. Should they ever be captured by bad guys, they crowed, they'd buy their freedom with the gold.

The pilots, in their AC-130s and B-52s, had a dual mission: First and foremost, intercept Communist North Vietnamese troops and materiel traversing the so-called Ho Chi Minh Trail snaking through the thickly forested, mountain redoubts of Laos into South Vietnam. Second, crush the indigenous Communist force, the Pathet Lao, most camped around the Plain of Jars, located where the trunk of the palm tree-shaped country meets the crown. There, beginning three millennia ago, local inhabitants entombed cremated human remains in the thousands of massive stone jars, some as tall as 9 feet, which still poke from the flat landscape.

In 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson ordered the bombing of the area to begin and named it Operation Barrel Roll. But to Americans on the ground, the campaign quickly became known as "The Secret War." No secret at all, though, was that the United States never declared war on Laos. For that matter, Washington didn't declare war on North Vietnam either, preferring to downplay the fighting that took the lives of 58,200 Americans and as many as 3 million northern and southern Vietnamese as a "police action." Diplomatic relations with Laos, though certainly strained, never were broken. The U.S. Embassy in Vientiane remained open throughout.

Between 1964 and 1973, the Americans flew 580,000 bombing runs over Laos, according to Defense Department figures. That works out to an almost incomprehensible one planeload every eight minutes for nearly a decade. By the time of the last sortie, in April 1973, Pentagon statistics reveal, U.S. aircraft had dumped 2,093,100 tons of ordnance on the landlocked country, which is about twice the size of Pennsylvania, with a population then under 3 million. Laos to this day remains the most heavily bombed country in the history of the world — more than Japan, Germany and Britain during World War II.

Lao scrap dealers buy metal cluster bomb casings and plane parts from local villagers in Laos, in 1991.
Peter Charlesworth / LightRocket via Getty Images
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LightRocket via Getty Images
Lao scrap dealers buy metal cluster bomb casings and plane parts from local villagers in Laos, in 1991.

By the time the three former Indochinese states, Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos, were seized by Communist governments, 200,000 civilians and soldiers — one-tenth of Laos's population — had been killed; 50,000 of the civilians were victims of cluster bombs.

What makes the cluster bombs in Laos particularly insidious is that the vast number that didn't initially explode remain deadly all these decades later. Because the bomblets are designed to blow up just before hitting the ground, very little pressure or movement can explode a dud instantly. An estimated 80 million — over 30% of those dropped — failed to detonate. The weapons President Biden has promised Ukraine supposedly have a much lower "dud" rate; as low as 2.35%, according to Pentagon spokesman Brig. Gen. Patrick S. Ryder.

Less than 1% of the dormant bombs have been cleared since the war ended in Laos. About 20,000 civilians been killed during the same period. Even as the numbers gradually decline, thousands continue to be killed, crippled and disfigured. Half the victims are children.

I visited Laos for the first time in 1967, while based in Saigon as a neophyte war correspondent for The Associated Press. Attempting to get my bearings, I spent most of that weeklong visit in Vientiane, interviewing Lao government officials and some of the American diplomats who selected bombing targets on maps behind the fortified, windowless walls of the U.S. Embassy. And, full disclosure, downing my share of beers at the White Rose.

On later visits, I wandered farther afield. In a tiny village not far from the Plain of Jars burial grounds, ground zero of the day, I met children and their parents who had survived bomb drops, only to be grievously injured by inadvertently stepping on or digging up unexploded bomblets.

Running along a dusty, red-dirt road through a tiny village were five boys who, spotting my foreign face, came to a sudden, noisy halt. I spoke through my interpreter to a small, dark-skinned boy whose left arm ended just above the elbow and whose left eye socket was sealed shut with pink scar tissue. His name, he said, was Nai. He was 7.

Like nearly all the children in the village, as well as most adults, Nai said, he regularly scavenged for chunks of metal to be melted down and recast as useful objects. Spoons were a favorite. Everyone knew that the recovery work was dangerous, he said, so "we take care." But, no matter how careful, accidents happened. His had occurred two years previously. "I was scraping away the dirt around a metal ball with my fingers," he said. "It exploded in my hand."

He turned to his friends. One had a spider's web of thin scars across his face, from cheek to cheek. Another was missing four toes from one foot. One more pulled up a dirty singlet and showed me vertical rows of scars on his concave belly. Nai returned his one-eyed gaze to me and laughed. The boys shrieked hilariously and ran off. "Life goes on," my interpreter said.

In 2016, Barack Obama, the only American president ever to visit Laos, pledged $90 million to a three-year U.S.-Laotian project to clear the tens of millions of unexploded bombs. Seven years later, the clearing operation drags on. Munitions experts say it could take a century to complete.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Lewis M. Simons