Laos And The Secret War

I knew about the Vietnam war, everyone has, but I really had no idea of the scale of the war and what that meant for the surrounding countries. There were a bunch of proxy wars happening all along the region, to "fight against the spread of communism". While in Laos I realized that the Vietnam war had no boundaries.  

I visited Phonsavan and the Plain of Jars. The cultural significance of the jars didn't get lost on me, but what really sunk in was the second half of the tour. Among hundreds of other sites in Laos, this area is well known for being heavily bombed by the US between 1964-1973. This was part of the Vietnam war I knew nothing about. It was known as the Secret war.  

The Plain of Jars. Thousands of stone jars used for prehistoric burials dated from 500 BC. 

The Plain of Jars. Thousands of stone jars used for prehistoric burials dated from 500 BC. 

Stone jar with lid. 

Stone jar with lid. 

Mine Advisory Group (MAG). This marker lets you know the boundaries that have been cleared and are now bomb free in the area. 

Mine Advisory Group (MAG). This marker lets you know the boundaries that have been cleared and are now bomb free in the area. 

Bomb crater from a US mission in 1969. 

Bomb crater from a US mission in 1969. 

Local entrepreneurs make key chains and spoons from bomb scrap metal found in the area. 

Local entrepreneurs make key chains and spoons from bomb scrap metal found in the area. 

Bomb shelter used by locals in the Xiangkhouang province from 1964-1973. 

Bomb shelter used by locals in the Xiangkhouang province from 1964-1973. 

Inside the bomb shelter. 

Inside the bomb shelter. 

In Vientiane (the Laos capital) I heard about this museum called COPE that displayed bombs from the Vietnam war, so I was curious. COPE stands for the Cooperative Orthotic and Prosthetic Enterprise. At the time I had no idea what an impact the museum would have on me. 

For me the Vietnam war was terrible, yes of course, but it was generations ago, in a small country far away I knew next to nothing about. The COPE museum was a powerful realization of the horror of war. The tons of bombs we dropped were real. The destruction we caused was real. The people we killed had names. People actually lost their arms, legs, and other body parts, sadly, they still are. The blunt force of our tactics was on full display and it was hard for me to keep watching.

A Laos chid's drawing of their village during the secret bombing missions. 

A Laos chid's drawing of their village during the secret bombing missions. 

Mural made from cluster bombs. These terrible bombs are still exploding today. More than 270 million cluster munitions (or ‘bombies’, as they are known locally) were used; up to 80 million failed to detonate, remaining live and in the ground after the end of the war.

Mural made from cluster bombs. These terrible bombs are still exploding today. More than 270 million cluster munitions (or ‘bombies’, as they are known locally) were used; up to 80 million failed to detonate, remaining live and in the ground after the end of the war.

Here's a trailer for the documentary that plays on a loop at the COPE museum. It's an eye opening video that shares stories of the past destruction caused and current state of a bomb's life cycle. 

 

Bomb Harvest Facts (pulled from maginternational.org):

• There were more than 580,000 bombing missions on Laos from 1964 to 1973 during the Vietnam War.  

• That's equivalent to one bombing mission every eight minutes, 24 hours a day, for nine years.  

• Over two million tons of ordnance was dropped on the country, with up to 30 per cent failing to explode as designed.

• Approximately 25 per cent of the country's villages are contaminated with unexploded ordnance (UXO).  

• All 17 provinces suffer from UXO contamination.  

• More than 50,000 people were killed or injured as a result of UXO accidents from 1964 to 2008.

• From the end of the war in 1974 to 2008, more than 20,000 people were killed or injured as a result of UXO accidents.  

•  There have been approximately 300 new casualties annually over the last decade.  

•  Over the last decade 40 per cent of total casualties were children.