It Is Time to Address the “Secret War”

Dear USA,

I am so grateful for the opportunities you have provided me in my life. I am incredibly fortunate to have grown up in a country with a stable government and with many freedoms. However, this summer as I learn about what you have done to a country I have come to love so deeply, my heart is broken, and I am deeply disappointed. Living in Laos, studying UXO contamination, and touring historic sites that are surrounded by bomb craters, I have a hard time finding the national pride that I grew up feeling. You cannot change what you have done, America, but you could be doing much more to alleviate the pain Laos endures and to educate your citizens.

One of the many craters throughout the Plain of Jars, a recently declared UNESCO World Heritage Site

Between the years of 1964 and 1973, the USA ran 580,344 bombing missions in Laos, dropping a planeload of bombs every eight minutes, 24 hours a day for nine years straight. More bombs were dropped on Laos during this war than were dropped on Europe during WWII. For nine years, the US spent $13.3 million USD daily. Since the war ended, the US had spent $118 million USD in clearance efforts, less than it spent in ten days of bombing. The destruction of the war left 200,000 Lao dead, 10% of the country’s population. At least 80% of these casualties were civilians and 75% were children. At the end of the war, approximately 80 million cluster munitions were left unexploded, and only two percent of the contaminated land in Laos has been cleared. At this rate, it will be hundreds of years before Laos is safe again. The last victim of the “Secret War” has yet to be born.

Graphic from the UXO Survivor Information Center

In Laos the term “Secret War” is incredibly inappropriate. The war is no secret. The families who have lost loved ones know. The 374 civilians killed while hiding from bombs in a cave knew. The farmers that risk their lives daily to work their land, which is still contaminated, know. The children who pick up a bomb thinking it is a toy know. The people of Laos know that they endured the longest war in US history, even if the rest of the world does not.

In the US, Secret War, though a woefully inappropriate term, is sadly quite accurate. Every high school student in the US learns about the Vietnam War. Depending on the teacher, some will hear about the bombing of Cambodia. None will hear about the bombing of Laos. Before I left for the summer I told many people I was heading to Laos and the response was often “Laos? Where’s that?” Most American citizens do not know that Laos is the most bombed country per capita in the world. It is not their fault, it is the fault of the government for sweeping this atrocity under the rug and hoping we would forget, or worse, that we would simply never find out.

Bomb casings which are frequently used as decoration or as building material in heavily bombed areas- this practice can be quite difficult because often not all explosives have detonated.

Since the bombing ended 44 years ago, only 2% of the contaminated land in Laos has been cleared, leaving an amount of land double the size of Switzerland contaminated. In twenty years the US spent less money on clearance efforts than they did in three days of bombing Laos. The largest hindrance to clearance efforts is a lack of funding. The government depends almost entirely on external funding to remove UXO. This mission should not be the responsibility of the Lao government. It should not be the responsibility of Norwegian People’s Aid or the Korea International Cooperation Agency. The United States needs to claim responsibility for what it did in Laos. If the US could afford to spend 3.1 billion USD annually on bombing Laos, it should be able to clean up what it left behind.

To the country I call my home, please step up. To anyone reading this, please read more about the bombing of Laos. There are two steps the country needs to take: stop hiding the past and start amending it.


A Disappointed American