Remnants of War
The deadly legacy of America's air war in Laos
Feb 1, 2000
22 Min read time
In the front garden of Kong Keo’s guesthouse, blazing hibiscus jostle with orchids in overgrown planters. Situated at the edge of the old Soviet landing strip in Phonsavan, the capital of Xieng Khouang province in eastern Laos, the garden is a floral oasis amidst the mud of the rainy season. It offers disquieting contrasts. Forming a tidy border along the flower beds are the half-spheres of unexploded cluster bomblets. Standing by the azaleas is a decrepit American artillery gun slung with bullets.
We are here to talk about the long impact of the "American War" on Laos, and Kong Keo, the cheerful owner of the guesthouse, is describing how fate has blessed him. "I think I did something very good in my last life," he chuckles in idiosyncratic English, "because I am so lucky."
Kong Keo explains how he used to clean toilets at a hotel owned by Vietnamese immigrants and work on the side as a butterfly catcher for a Japanese collector. Then he netted a rare species, and with it a small fortune--and suddenly became one of Laos’s first postcommunist entrepreneurs. Today, he divides his time between guiding tours to the nearby Plain of Jars (the region’s archeological tourist attraction), playing for stakes at a pool hall, and dancing at the town’s new disco. When he takes time out to reflect, however, Kong Keo’s greatest wonder is that he is still alive.
Not long after the United States stopped bombing Laos in 1973, he and some friends were "kicking a little metal ball" they found near the schoolyard. "I don’t know why I left," he recalls, "but the bombie exploded after. My two friends died and one hurt very bad."
"I was lucky," he adds, this time with a grimace.
Tales of near misses are common in postwar Laos. More than 25 years ago, this land of terraced rice paddies, gilded Buddhist temples, and scattered highland villages became the most intensely bombed country in history. For nine years, between 1964 and 1973, the United States dropped more than two million tons of explosives here as part of its wars against communism in Southeast Asia. Ultimately, the United States and their Royal Lao government allies lost that struggle, but they left behind a devastated population, a damaged environment, and a ruined economy. A generation later, Laos is still picking up the pieces.
One of the cruelest after-effects of that long war is lingering unexploded ordnance (UXO), which infests Laos at the highest rate in the world. Since 1973, UXO has claimed 11,928 Lao, most of them killed or maimed by leftover American munitions.1 Xieng Khouang province, along the Vietnamese border, is one of the most contaminated. When we arrived there in May 1999, UXO had already taken 25 lives in the province since the first of the year. Overall, there are about 240 serious UXO accidents in Laos each year, a striking figure given that the country’s population is just five million, the smallest in Southeast Asia.2
Laos’s battle with UXO is a contemporary reminder of an old problem: while diplomatic relations can change rapidly, and wars can be waged in a flash, the aftershocks of combat endure. In recent years, Lao leaders have tried to reconcile with the United States, and the country has undertaken a rough-and-tumble transition from "people’s democracy" to export capitalism. The growth of foreign tourism has encouraged many Lao to put aside painful memories. But even as lucky operators like Kong Keo seek out new opportunities, other survivors remain haunted, sometimes hobbled, by the legacy of the war.
• • •
For much of the twentieth century, Laos endured a long struggle with outsiders.3 The very boundaries of Laos, in fact, were negotiated in 1893 by French and Thai diplomats who created a Lao nation out of a patchwork of kingdoms representing some sixty ethnic populations. A number of these groups rebelled against French rule in the early part of the century, but ethnic divisions, tortuous topography, and village-based social organization worked against broad-based anticolonial resistance. That began to change after World War I, when the French became more intrusive and Lao nationalists, especially those affiliated with Ho Chi Minh’s Indochinese Communist Party, gained ground. For these communist nationalists, World War II was a watershed. After Japan briefly occupied Southeast Asia, and granted the Indochinese territories independence, leftist Lao nationalists fought French recolonization in 1946. Forming the Pathet Lao (Lao Nation) liberation front in 1950, they organized independent zones along the Vietnamese border and fought alongside the Viet Minh at Dien Bien Phu.
This first Indochina War defined the battle lines of conflict that would harden over the next quarter century. French- and US-backed royalists garnered support from Laos’s dominant lowland ethnic groups, while Vietnamese-backed leftists recruited most successfully among long-neglected highland minorities, like the Hmong.4 After the French withdrew following the first Geneva Accords of 1954, these antagonists managed to form a Coalition Government of National Unity, which might have offered a future of independent national reconciliation. Yet as the French pulled out, another imperial power--the United States--reignited the conflict.
At the peak of the Cold War, American diplomats opposed any governing role for communists and aided hard-line royalists and military leaders. (North Vietnam also violated the agreement by sending army units into Lao border provinces, including Xieng Khouang.) Civil war resumed in 1959, and the United States took a more active role. United States government agencies propped up a succession of weak, right-wing governments, directed military engagements in contested areas like Xieng Khouang, and recruited a secret force of Hmong guerrillas to counter Pathet Lao support among highland minorities.5 Through ambitious civilian assistance programs coordinated by the US Agency for International Development, the United States took over most government functions in royalist areas by the early 1960s.6 But as the conflict escalated next door in Vietnam, White House planners came to regard Laos as a sideshow. Winning the society for free markets was less important than wiping out the Ho Chi Minh Trail, a major Vietcong supply route that passed through eastern Laos. As President Johnson’s secretary of state, Dean Rusk, put it, "after 1963, Laos was only the wart on the hog of Vietnam."7 Over the next decade, the primary American policy was simply to bombard it.
From the air, it is still possible to trace the visual record of the escalating campaign. War marks are rare around the capital, Vientiane, and the old royal city, Luang Prabang. But as the limestone peaks of the Annamite Mountains give way to the meadows of Xieng Khouang, hundreds of barren pock marks, scattered amidst tiny houses, old roads, and flooded rice paddies, appear. These are bomb craters. In some areas, they cluster neatly; in others, they reveal a destructive randomness.
The United States conducted its bombing missions over Laos clandestinely and called the attacks "armed reconnaissance flights" in order to circumvent the Geneva Accords’ ban on foreign military intervention. By the time the international community learned the extent of United States involvement after 1969, most of eastern Laos, including the strategic Xieng Khouang province, was a free-drop zone--pilots were authorized to bomb any and all targets at will.
In total, American pilots, together with their Thai and Royal Lao government allies, flew half a million sorties over Pathet Lao-held territories between 1964 and 1973 and dropped planeloads of bombs at the rate of one every eight minutes around the clock. They unleashed 2,093,100 tons of explosives, more than two tons per inhabitant of those regions. The combined destructive force of this bombardment was more than 100 times that of the atomic bomb detonated over Hiroshima, and a third higher than that dropped on Nazi Germany.8 In Xieng Khouang the destruction was total. The old provincial capital was wiped out and had to be relocated, hence the postwar government’s construction of a new regional capital, Phonsavan. The bombing killed over 8,000 residents out of a provincial population of 130,000. It razed some 353 villages.
Yet in the end American designs for Laos collapsed--just as more elaborate United States ground and air operations failed in Cambodia and Vietnam. In 1975, only two years after a negotiated pullout of American forces, the Pathet Lao marched victorious through Vientiane without firing a shot. But it was a forlorn triumph for procommunist villages in Xieng Khouang; survivors who had fled the province found only a treeless and treacherous moonscape when they returned.
• • •
We arrived at Phonsavan on a drizzly afternoon near the start of the rainy season. From the commercial hubbub around the airport, it was clear that Xieng Khouang has made a partial economic recovery. In the 1980s, the country’s pragmatic communist leaders inaugurated a "New Economic Mechanism" (roughly the Lao equivalent of perestroika), and since then business-savvy refugees have made their way home from Thailand, internal exiles have returned from re-education, and a modest commercial sector is thriving. On Phonsavan’s muddy streets, mammoth logging trucks and Land Rovers driven by development workers compete for road space with water buffalo and schoolchildren on bicycles. Because of its proximity to the Plain of Jars, the province has also attracted an influx of backpacking tourists, and new restaurants and modest hotels like Kong Keo’s have sprung up to accommodate them.
On the drive into downtown Phonsavan, however, Xieng Khouang’s legacy of destruction remains palpable. International contractors are rebuilding the highway to Vietnam. But progress is slow, since soldiers must first scan the route, meter by meter, for UXO. On the outskirts of town, Vietnamese truck drivers and local salvagers haggle over the price of rusted bombshells and wrecked military vehicles. Due to the region’s strategic past and a few holdout Hmong rebels in the nearby mountains, there is also an unusual amount of military activity. Soldiers ride by in open-bed trucks, and MIG fighter jets occasionally scream overhead on training runs.
Our escort around this outpost is Manophet, a local historian and tour guide. Like hundreds of Lao, Manophet spent much of his early childhood hiding from the war in caves in the Annamite Mountains, where his mother brought him and two of his siblings when he was two years old. "Vietnamese soldiers sometimes brought us food and taught classes about politics," Manophet recalls, "I had never seen an airplane before, I thought they were huge birds or monsters." To break up the tedium, his mother invented hopeful descriptions of their life after the war. "To keep us quiet she told us we would have a big house, a farm, all the food we could eat when we returned home. But when we finally went back to Xieng Khouang we found only rubble. My mother and all the women wept."
Despite the terror of his childhood--or perhaps because he later spent two years as a guard at a communist re-education camp--Manophet is nearly as critical of his own government as he is of the United States, and is skeptical of political promises from both the left and the right. He shuttles us around in a lovingly preserved Volga sedan, pointing out failed communist public works and describing the growing economic disparities in the province. Through Manophet we meet his "brother" Kong Keo, the guesthouse owner (the Lao use kinship terms to describe friends and family alike). Together, they introduce us to war survivors, local officials, and international aid workers helping with the UXO cleanup. They also update us on the season’s deadly harvest.
"Two children killed and one injured last week playing with a bomb like this one," Kong Keo informs us during our first evening conversation in his garden. He holds out a corroded metal cluster bomblet the shape and size of a tennis ball. It could easily be mistaken for a toy, and hospital workers tell us later that the three boys had been bouncing the weapon off a post when it detonated.
Such tragedies are an everyday part of life around Phonsavan. "There are more deaths from malaria and dysentery," says Dr. Bounxay Nouanthasim, vice director of the tidy but dilapidated Mongolian Friendship Hospital, but "everyone is afraid of the bombs." He keeps a running tally of UXO injuries in his office that chronicles each accident: "hitting a bombie," two dead; "playing with a fuse," three injured; "digging in the ground for crickets," two dead, three injured. Although children are among the most frequent victims, a recent survey by Handicap International found that farmers suffer an even higher casualty rate. Clearing new plots for agriculture is especially dangerous.
By far the most common and lethal culprits are American cluster bomblets, called bombies by locals, which contain hundreds of metal fragments packed around a high explosive. Unlike land mines, which are primarily intended to maim their victims, cluster bombs can kill at a radius of 150 meters. American military strategists favored these anti-personnel devices because Laos had little physical infrastructure to target beyond dispersed bunkers and a few bridges. During the war, the United States dropped cluster bomb canisters by the tens of thousands, each one containing 400 or more individually exploding units. When functioning as designed, the main bomb casings opened in mid-air and spewed forth bomblets for maximum ground coverage. According to local experts, some 10 to 30 percent of these bomblets failed to go off, which means that up to 27 million volatile devices--nearly six for every Lao alive--remain.9
In Xieng Khouang, the accident rate, currently about 50 per year, has fallen more slowly than in other provinces. Clearance workers worry that it may actually increase in the next decade, as population growth pushes farmers into uncleared woodlands. Ethnic Hmong and Thai Dam, who employ slash and burn methods to clear upland plots, are particularly at risk, since the heat from fires can trigger subsoil UXO. "Clearance teams help," Kong Keo explains, but "so many bombs are in the forest where the experts don’t go."
Whether they focus on forests or townships, experts have a daunting assignment. In the 1970s, the Lao government began a modest clearance program, relying on Soviet and Vietnamese assistance to remove residual bombs from major towns and roadways. But most rural communities had to contend with leftover weaponry on their own.10 This began to change in the 1980s, as Laos began its economic transition and as UXO removal attracted new funding from countries like Norway, Denmark, and Japan. By the 1990s, the number of aid organizations clearing ordnance had grown so large that the government chartered an umbrella agency, UXO Lao, to supervise their work. In 1999, this new government bureau began taking control of all clearance and education operations in the country.
The challenges are deep-rooted and overlapping. UXO is so ubiquitous in Laos that it poses serious obstacles to development by adding hazards, time, and expense to virtually any new economic activity. We visited a small quarry at Ban Na Sala, for example, where the workers had tired of waiting for an official clearance team and had begun simply piling up all the bombs and mortars they found themselves. The menacing heap was located only a few meters from a road traveled daily by schoolchildren.
In remote villages, where the majority of the population resides, the UXO problem imposes particularly tragic choices. Poor roads and forbidding terrain preclude regular visits by gear-laden clearance teams. In the face of basic development and health concerns, many local officials also tend to regard UXO clearance as a low priority. In Xieng Khouang, 20 percent of the population lives below the food poverty line and less than 2 percent has access to safe water. Compared to the uncertain threat of random explosion, sanitation and sustenance take precedence.
Staffers at the Phonsavan office of the Mines Advisory Group (MAG), a British aid organization that is the dominant UXO clearance agency in Xieng Khouang, acknowledge these difficulties. "We do what we can," shrugs Gordon Brown, a MAG technical adviser and former British soldier, "but you can’t clear this whole country. My team puts in a full day’s work just to clear eight square meters of the subsurface stuff." On a rainy morning Brown is showing us around MAG’s Xieng Khouang headquarters on the edge of town. Pointing to a carefully stacked pile of some three dozen defused mortars and bomb fragments, he says, "We found all this in one schoolyard."
With a blond crew cut, polished boots, and crisp fatigues Brown--who gained his de-mining expertise during the Gulf War--cuts a commanding, soldierly profile. Helping to get the morning work crews underway, he barks orders at his Lao colleagues, then turns back to us and rattles off technical clearance procedures.
"We’ve found over 100 kinds of ordnance from six different countries, mostly from you Americans," he explains, "and many weapons were altered from year to year by manufacturers or booby-trapped in the field." This makes for complicated work. Usually the tasks are routine--identification, careful deactivation, detonation with plastic explosives--but sometimes unexpected. Nodding toward his mentor, John DeVine, another ex-soldier, Brown recalls, "I’ve seen this man slide into a narrow mud pit and deactivate a one-thousand-pound bomb with a hammer."
Though fond of such adventure stories, Brown recognizes that the most lasting work MAG does is educational. He introduces us to a community awareness team that travels from village to village conducting workshops, demonstrations, and puppet shows to help residents develop safer UXO skills. Because more than 45 percent of Laos’s population is under the age of fifteen, children are their primary target audience. "Kids grow up with UXO all around them, most of which never goes off," explains Enda Dowd, a MAG Community Awareness Advisor, "so they don’t necessarily realize the dangers." In some districts, scrap metal dealers have capitalized on children’s naivete by recruiting them to find and collect UXO.
Brown projects a gritty military bluster but is clearly affected by the injuries ordnance inflicts, especially on children. "These are the pictures the home office can’t use for their fundraisers," he warns, handing us two thick photo albums of UXO injuries and fatalities. A young girl with a bandaged stump where her hand should be. The torso of a boy peppered with shrapnel wounds. The twisted body of a woman torn apart midstep.
In the training area outside, Brown introduces us to the UXO that wreaks such fury on human flesh: cluster bombs, white phosphorous bombs, napalm canisters, artillery shells, mortars. Reading the American military markings on many of the weapons, we ask what he thinks of United States assistance efforts in Laos.
"What assistance?" DeVine quips, "They’ve given us peanuts. Less than peanuts. Not even the skin of a peanut."
In fact, under the Clinton Administration the United States has finally begun to provide material and financial support for UXO clearance. Today, the US embassy in Vientiane provides basic technical training, donates equipment, and makes occasional cash grants to clearance organizations. Most of this aid flows to UXO Lao, which in turn encourages Lao government cooperation with United States missing-in-action searches, opium eradication, and new corporate ventures. Overall, local sources estimate the value of American UXO assistance at about $8 million annually. This provides an important boost to UXO Lao but is a modest sum compared to what United States spent bombing Laos ($2 million per day at its peak), or compared to the $55 million annually spent searching for the remains of American MIAs in Asia.11
What irritates clearance experts in Laos now is not American stinginess but American stubbornness. The Pentagon is just starting to declassify specific mission maps, which are vital to identifying hidden concentrations of UXO. To this day, the United States refuses to share its "render safe procedures," even for weapons three decades old. This makes for an awkward relationship with bomb clearing experts, who gladly accept American aid but must risk their lives guessing how to defuse American bombs. "We’ve had to leave some 500 large bombs in the field because of information withheld [from the United States]," reports Nigel Orr, a New Zealand military officer who advises UXO Lao.
• • •
EVEN IF AID WORKERS were someday able to clear Laos’ remaining UXO, the scars of war are likely to remain. One weekend in Xieng Khouang we drive out of town for a tour of the Plain of Jars. Billed as the "Stonehenge of the Orient," the Plain’s mysterious, ancient vessels are the province’s primary tourist draw. As we bump over the rutted roads in a Russian jeep, we pass farmers on all sides preparing for the growing season. They squat ankle deep in rice beds, gathering green tendrils and setting them aside to be replanted. The scene repeats itself every few hundred feet, until it fills the horizon--a quilt of incandescent green squares traversed by thin dikes, punctuated occasionally by a stilted hut.
The jars emerge suddenly atop a piney ridge. From a distance, they look like boulders strewn from a rock slide or upturned tombs. But up close we can see they are giant urns carved out of solid rock, some as large as a car. Many are still perfectly intact after more than 2,000 years.
The resilience of the jars is legendary. During the war, local villagers and Pathet Lao soldiers hid inside them to escape sudden bombing raids. But this led American pilots to target the jars themselves, and today the magnificent jar sites are ringed with war wounds. Fragments of shattered stone litter the soil; one gigantic jar lies overturned and cracked on the rim of a bomb crater. These craters can look deceptively benign. A dense underbrush has reclaimed some, creating weed islands amidst the meadows. But most remain entirely bare--cavities of red-orange clay that dot the hillsides like freshly dug graves. Here the ancestral icons of Lao civilization are bound up with the marks of the country’s war-torn recent past.
Many Lao grapple daily with the consequences of this history. Near the end of our visit, we met a Hmong woman in a highland village some forty kilometers from Phonsavan. War debris is an important building material in her impoverished hamlet. Houses are made of teak and scrap metal. Bomb casings serve as planters and pig troughs. The fuselage of a downed American plane makes a chicken coop. Up on the hillsides, most of her neighbors are burning patches of brush to make way for crops; she has stayed behind to watch her children. Although she will not give her name, she seems willing to entertain our questions.
During the war, she tells us, she and her fellow villagers were recruited as American allies to fight the communists. (Long alienated from mainstream Lao society and its economy, Hmong made eager recruits on both sides of the civil war.) After the Pathet Lao victory, tens of thousands of Hmong who had made similar alliances resettled in the United States, but she remained behind.
Her sunken cheeks ignite when she detects that we are Americans.
"You are liars!" she shouts, "You promised new houses and food for supporting the war but we lost everything." Kong Keo speaks nervously with her in a mix of Lao and halting Hmong before turning to us. They were a pro-American village, he explains, but were bombed anyway once the Pathet Lao took control of the area.
She sets out stools on the hard earthen floor, and we sit around a smoldering fire. Her children wrap themselves shyly around her, though she seems too haggard to be the mother of the littlest ones. We ask about the two black-and-white photographs and an elaborate altar on the wall.
"Long after the war when we had returned to the village," she tells us, "I lost two daughters to a bombie.... Now I pray for the Americans to get sick in the liver."
We walk down the slippery path toward our jeep, past the brilliant greens of upland gardens, and twisted ochre metal. At the settlement’s edge, we notice a plank affixed to a bamboo post that serves as the village’s main gate. From its faded letters, barely discernible after a quarter of a century, we realize it is the door from an American plane.
It is a remnant put to good use. But to our Hmong accuser the gate may also serve as a constant reminder of bombs dropped and children silenced--an inadvertent anti-monument to the unpredictable aftermath of a recklessly waged war.
1 UXO is defined as any munitions that failed to function as originally intended, including ground and air-delivered ordnance, as well as land mines and weapons left in the field. Accident figures are based on 1973-1996 data. Handicap International, Living with UXO: National Survey on the Socioeconomic Impact of UXO in the Lao People’s Democratic Republic (PDR), October 1997, pp. 24-25.
2 "UXO Accidents in 1999," unpublished report of the Mines Advisory Group, Phonsavan, Xieng Khouang, Laos, 1999. The rate has remained constant since 1987, indicating that the problem is not going away any time soon.
3 The best historical overview of twentieth century Lao military and political history can be found in Martin-Stuart-Fox, A Histoy of Laos (Cambridge: Cambride University Press, 1997).
4 Laos’s diverse ethnic population is generally grouped into: the dominant Lao Loum, or lowland Lao; the Lao Theung, Mon-Khmer groups inhabiting mid-level uplands; and the Lao Soung, or highland Lao, including the Hmong. Today, the Lao government promotes a system of equal opportunity for all ethnic groups, although the lowland Lao continue to dominate state and business affairs.
5 This "Secret Army" was recruited, equipped and trained by the CIA and led by Hmong colonel Vang Pao. Vang Pao fled to the United States in 1973 but guerrillas loyal to him continued attacks on the Pathet Lao government into the late 1990s.
6 Between 1955 and 1958, the United States spent over $120 million in Laos, roughly four times what the French had expended over the previous eight years. During the peak war years, US aid accounted for some 80 percent of the Lao government budget, not counting all of its military operations. See Stan Sesser, "Laos: The Forgotten Country," in The Lands of Charm and Cruelty: Travels in Southeast Asia (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1993), 97.
7 Quoted in Stuart-Fox, A History of Laos, p. 136. For a broad outline of US intervention in Laos as part of its Vietnam strategy, see Marilyn B. Young, The Vietnam Wars, 1945-1990 (New York: HarperPerennial, 1991).
8 There were 580,944 sorties flown over Laos, an average of 177 a day. Sesser, 74. By way of comparison, NATO flew 37,465 sorties in and around Kosovo during that one-month conflict. Nick Cook, "War of Extremes," Jane’s Defence Weekly, 7 July 1999.
9 The American-made BLU 26 is the most commonly found bomblet in Xieng Khouang. See "Mines Advisory Group (Laos) Xieng Khouang Notes," p. 4. Landmines account for 11 percent of UXO accidents in Laos. See Handicap International, "L:living with UXO," pp. 7, 28.
10 Villages frequently have a self-taught bomb-opener who defuses ordnance, then sells the metal and gunpowder for profit. In the case of bomblets, people often place them in an out-of-the-way spot, like the hollow of a tree. Such hidden caches pose their own risk. To cut down on accidents caused by UXO handling, the Lao government made UXO tampering illegal in 1998.
11 The figure is based on unpublished documents and interviews with MAG and UXO Lao officials in Vientiane. The US embassy hesitates to release exact aid figures, perhaps for fear of antagonizing leaders in Congress who oppose all assistance to "communist" governments.
February 01, 2000
22 Min read time