LAOS AND THE LEGACY OF THE VIETNAM WAR
“When the fighting stops the suffering continues.” This is the message Jim Harris brings to his talks on the legacy of our bombing of Laos. Jim and his wife Marty run the nonprofit organization We Help War Victims, Inc., which assists Laotian refugee families in America and victims of war living in Laos. The Vietnam War ended over forty years ago, but that distant conflict still impacts the lives of millions of people in both Asia and America.
For ten years Jim has worked to remove unexploded ordinance in rural areas of Laos. He leads a team of skilled Laotian technicians who advance rural development projects by clearing villages of landmines, cluster bombs and other ordnance left from the Vietnam War. His organization also supports families in Laos by providing library books in Laos, medical supplies, surgery for children with birth defects, and prosthesis for amputees.
Jim Harris is a retired school administrator and his wife, Marty, is a retired classroom teacher, from Mosinee, Wisconsin. His nonprofit receives no government support. He relies on donations and sales of Laotian coffee to support the work.
Between 1964 and 1973, the United States waged a secret, undeclared war to cut off North Vietnamese supply lines through the small, neutral Southeast Asian country of Laos. The U.S. flew 580,000 bombing runs and dropped more tonnage of ordinance than American pilots dropped on Germany and Japan in WWII. Per capita Laos is the most heavily bombed country in the world.
Jim says this is the equivalent of a plane load of munitions every 8 1/2 minutes for nine years. One bombing run can drop many explosives. The biggest problem is cluster bombs. These contain up to 600 tennis ball size “bomblets” that scatter over a wide area. An estimated 10-30% of these did not detonate but are still capable of exploding if disturbed.
The statistics about Laos are staggering:
- At least 20,000 people have been killed or injured by unexploded ordnance in Laos since the end of the Vietnam War.
- About one third of the land in Laos is contaminated with unexploded ordnance.
- Many farmers in Laos know their land is contaminated but can’t afford another plot. They simply have no choice but to cultivate their land.
- Around 40% of the victims are children, who are often attracted by the toy-like shapes of the unexploded cluster bombs.
- Over the past four decades only 500,000 of the estimated 80 million cluster munitions that failed to detonate have been cleared. Jim says at the current rate it will take 5000 years to clean up the problem.
Laos is a small, mostly rural country of 6.4 million. There are 2500 small villages in the mountainous country and about 25% are “blanketed” with unexploded ordinance. These areas are also the poorest regions of the country. The small villages Jim works in have no electricity, water systems, or indoor plumbing and 80% depend on subsistence farming. They depend on gardens, small fields and foraging in the forests to support their families. Jim says, “They have lived with this stuff in their gardens for 40 years.” They often “know where the ordinance is” but they have no ability to do anything except live with it. There are no police, fire departments, or government agencies to call for help. If the bomb cannot be marked, avoided, or ignored, typically it is the grandparents who volunteer to move it. Jim said 50% of the deaths have been from deliberate handling of ordinance.
Even having an outhouse is a problem. Digging a hole for pit toilet can be life threatening so many villages do not even have this basic necessity of sanitation. Even after Jim’s teams have cleared an area it may not be safe. Bombs can be anywhere from on the surface to 18 feet deep. Jim’s teams typically clear an area for a garden to 30 cm deep which is not safe to dig a pit toilet.
What is the United States doing? Jim says he is the only American working to disarm bombs in Laos. There have no American disposal teams in-country. American dollars go to support British efforts. Although the U.S. is the largest monetary donor to the effort in Laos, the total of $82 million allocated is only a small fraction of the $18 million per day (inflation-adjusted to 1968 dollars) that Washington spent to bomb Laos.
Americans are seldom aware of the impact of our militaristic foreign policy. We don’t see, or live with, the destruction of our wars of choice. We believe the propaganda about our fighting for freedom and democracy. Jim’s presentations starkly show the consequences of our actions for the people living in the war zones.
Jim declines to get into “politics.” He is focused on doing what he can to help the Laotians. He does point out that the U.S. is not a signatory to the Convention on Cluster Munitions. This treaty prohibits the manufacture, use, transfer and stockpiling of cluster bombs and has been signed by 118 nations. He asks people to advocate for signing the treaty and for providing greater support for the international clean-up effort.
You can help by inviting Jim to speak to your local group and by donating to We Help War Victims. His presentations are free.
Sources and additional reading:
We Help War Victims www.wehelpwarvictims.org
Eternal Harvest: The Legacy of American Bombs in Laos. A book by Redfern and Karen Coates’ , http://eternalharvestthebook.com
“Watch the US Drop 2.5 Million Tons of Bombs on Laos”, Mother Jones, Fatima Bhojani, March 26, 2014, http://www.motherjones.com/politics/2014/03/laos-vietnam-war-us-bombing-uxo
“Laos: Thousands suffering from the deadly aftermath of US bomb campaign”, The Guardian, Matteo Fagotto, January 31, 2015, http://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/jan/31/laos-deadly-aftermath-us-bomb-campaign-vietnam-air-attacks
“One Woman’s Mission to Free Laos From Millions of Unexploded Bombs”, NY Times, Thomas Fuller, April 5, 2015, http://www.nytimes.com/2015/04/06/world/asia/laos-campaign-to-clear-millions-of-unexploded-bombs.html?_r=0