PHONSAVAN, LAOS --
A blond, middle-aged Brit joined us at our table at the only bar in this Most Bombed Province in the Most Bombed Country in the History of Mankind, needing a drink. A tour guide to some of Laos' oldest Buddhist sites, his caravan had passed a more contemporary site about three minutes after it blew up.
Two kids had been literally torn apart by a U.S. cluster
bomb, a BLU 26 (for Bomb Live Unit), which had been lying armed but dormant for 23 years in a rice paddy along Route 7, in the village of Tat Chia, 11 miles from where we were sucking down Lao Brand beer.
"They were literally putting his pieces in a bag," the sobbing tour guide said of the boy who was lucky enough to be killed instantly. There was more gallows humor than overt sympathy among the others at the table, also Brits, former Royal Air Force explosives experts who are part of the non-profit humanitarian Mines Advisory Group (MAG). "We could have this province cleared, in ohh...I'd say 1,100 years," said Paul Stanford of MAG. "Barring a new war." It was an old one among his colleagues. No one looked up.
More amusing to them was my account of how a low-level
employee of the U.S. Embassy in Vientiane had told me that as far as he was concerned, the official U.S. policy is that "most of the unexploded ordnance left in Laos isn't ours." Maybe, MAG's Steve Larson opined, the Chinese pirated the design and serial numbers on American munitions the way they now do with software.
During the CIA's secret air war, a bomb dropped on Laos
every eight minutes for nine years, from 1964 to1973, amounting to a total tonnage greater than that dropped in the entire European theater in World War II. Twenty-three years later, large parts of Xieng Khuang Province have been literally bombed backed to the
Stone Age, sometimes more than once. Some 12 Laotians, often farmers tilling rice fields, are separated from their bodies each month in this province alone. Nearly half the people blown up by these suddenly exploding bombs are children.
Here's how Stanford describes the tennis ball-sized BLU 26: "650 of these are dropped in a casing. Upon impact, razor-sharp shrapnel or ball bearings spray in all directions. Sometimes an incendiary device is added as well, causing the flesh to melt. It's a very effective weapon when you don't know who or where your enemy is: you can kill everybody."
For one reason or another, an estimated 10 percent of the 8
million cluster bombs dropped over Laos (including munitions dumped randomly by U.S. bombers returning to Thai bases) failed to detonate when they hit the ground. They're still there, churned
underground, rainy season after rainy season. On the 1-1/2 hour drive from Phonsavan to one of two schools MAG
is now methodically clearing, Stanford and I passed rice paddies growing up around massive 2,000-pound bomb crater ponds. Ninety-one BLUs had been found at one school, including five armed bombies found three inches under the school's dirt floor.
Now, what I saw in Xieng Khuang is not about to make me question,
without further research, the geopolitical realities of an era in
which I wasn't even born. Who can say for sure whether a decision to not try containing Communism in Southeast Asia might have
resulted in bolder Soviet expansion in other parts of the world? All we know is that America's $2 million-a-day Laos adventure did little good. The Ho Chi Minh trail -- the bombing's primary target -- was hardly touched. And in the end, of course, we lost the war.
I broached the question of anti-U.S. feelings in light of the
fact that a bunch of American soldiers, this time officially and in
uniform, were soon to move into Laos, to supplement MAG ordnance removal operations. The prevailing sentiment was summed up for me by a geriatric, French-educated man in a tiny village about six miles from Phonsavan. "Your society is very young," he told me. "Maybe 250 years. Ours has been here for 2,000 years. We have fought the Thai, the Vietnamese and the Khmer, made peace with each, then fought each of them again. Welcome to Southeast Asia."
The next day I visited the surviving casualty, a 10-year-old ethnic
Hmong boy (the Hmong were U.S. allies during the war),
in Phonsavan's hospital. He was conscious, if not alert. An X-ray showed his back and lungs looking like a jigsaw puzzle where the pellets had seared through him. When I asked him, through my
translator if he was in pain, he looked at me, opened his mouth, then
closed it again, unable to speak. I learned later that he had died, probably from a lung infection.
Strolling around Xieng Khuang later, carefully measuring every step the way one would in a dog park, I stopped at a cluster bomb casing (now a fence post) labeled "August 1972, Arkansas." There were also some serial numbers. I was two years old then. Safe on Long Island. Going out to ball games at Shea Stadium, home of the usually hapless Mets, while my country was fighting a "secret war" with unprecedented force, without the knowledge of the people financing it. Our wars are fought differently now -- Panama, Grenada, Desert Storm -- in which crafting consent is part of the formula.
As for the cluster bombs and land mines, there is Bosnia, Angola, Afghanistan, Rwanda. Let's put it this way: the MAG staff know they'll never be out of a job. In Laos, there are enough anti-personnel weapons lying around 22 years after the war to kill every man, woman and child in the country, twice. "Sometimes I think it would be better to just lay concrete over the whole country, slap down some top soil and start over," Stanford said. He wasn't smiling.
See no evil, hear no evil....
"We were told that from now on our reports would have to be more positive. The effect will be to downplay all human rights violations and play up everything that can be used to promote the holding of elections. It is a cynical move, aiming solely at justifying what will probably be a farce."
--Unidentified staff member of the U.S.-led Bosnia mission of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, quoted in The New York Times, on pressure by the U.S. and other Western governments to ensure that scheduled Bosnian elections proceed despite egregious violations of the Dayton peace accords.