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Legacies of Agent Orange and Explosive Remnants of War in Laos
Laos holds the record, per capita, as the most heavily bombed country in world history.
For ten years (1964-1973), the CIA conducted intensive daily aerial bombing campaigns over northern and southern Laos using automated air war techniques. Local mercenary armies and U.S. military units were sworn to secrecy. Two-thirds of Laos was subjected to 580,344 bombing missions and a total of more than two million tons of aerial-dropped explosive ordnance. The bombing equates to one B-52 plane load of bombs being dropped every eight minutes for nine years—about two tons of bombs per person.
Most Americans, indeed most of the world, have never heard about the CIA’s Secret Air War in Laos.
The CIA and its covert military units conducted this automated air war out of the world’s view. The war was never publicly sanctioned or approved by the U.S. Congress, and historian Geoffrey Gunn claims that the “U.S.-Laos theater of the sixties and early seventies remains one of the least studied areas in western scholarship on Indochina.”
The poorest and most undeveloped ethnic groups of Laos have been most affected by the post-war legacies—unexploded ordnance, environmental and human effects of Agent Orange defoliation, and enormous social and economic disruption.
Today, poverty mapping shows a strong correlation with the areas subjected to the intense, sustained air war. Yet no systematic recording of the post-war legacies has been done.
The U.S. accounts of the bombing and defoliation of the Ho Chi Minh Trail fail to mention that the area is home to small indigenous ethnic groups of the southern Annamite mountains: the Makhong, Taliang, Ta-oy, Oy, Alak, Bru, Tri, among others. During the war, these ethnic groups suffered silently. They lost their homes, fields, and forests; they were subjected to toxic herbicide spraying (Agents Orange, Purple, Blue, and White) for at least five years. By all accounts, they remain the poorest and least-educated people in Laos, and also suffer from the worst health outcomes in the country. They constitute highly vulnerable and fragile societies, and the least able to cope with the legacies of war.
Agent Orange Legacies
The 1962 Geneva Accords proclaimed Laos a neutral country and forbade outside military involvement there. As the U.S. war in Vietnam escalated, however, neither the U.S. nor North Vietnam were able to resist intervening. Local Lao revolutionaries and their Vietnamese allies built a network of paths along the border, later termed the “Ho Chi Minh Trail,” and covert U.S. operations used every means available to try to stop them. Among these methods was defoliation by herbicides, especially Agent Orange. Like in Vietnam, the area was extensively and regularly sprayed with herbicides from 1962 to 1971. Unlike Vietnam, however, few outsiders knew about it.
Herbicides had a military purpose of clearing land around roads and trails so that enemy movements could be detected and stopped. Environmental and human costs never entered the calculation; for the U.S., the greater concern was the preservation of secrecy.
The use of herbicides was reported on during the conflict but officially denied until 1982 when Air Force historian William Buckingham’s draft of the Operation Ranch Hand study was made public under a Freedom of Information Act request by the National Veterans Task Force on Agent Orange. According to Buckingham, the U.S. Air Force conducted herbicide operations in Laos from December 1965 to September 1969.
In 1999, the U.S. Government released the first set of undisclosed Operation Ranch Hand herbicide spray records to the Lao government. According to these U.S. Defense Department records, millions of liters of Agent Orange and other Dioxin-contaminated herbicides were sprayed on Laos during the war from 1965 and 1971. This disclosure, though incomplete, represents the only official account of the secret herbicide spraying activities in Laos. In 2005 the Lao Government began to test a few sites as part of the Persistent Organic Pollutants Treaty.
How extensive was the spraying? Are health consequences from Agent Orange spraying showing up in Laos? Are deformities, reproductive problems and cancers on the increase in sprayed areas? Do ecological consequences persist? The data is currently incomplete.
Furthermore, the hidden health and environmental dangers of Agent Orange may be compounding livelihood problems for some of Laos’s poorest people. The sprayed zones are home to small, remote aboriginal groups, facing the serious risks of extinction.
A full accounting and disclosure are long overdue.
Explosive Remnants of War Legacies
Vast amounts of unexploded ordnance (UXO) continue to litter almost two-thirds of the Lao countryside. Since 1975, live ordnance has killed about 12,000 people and crippled, blinded and dismembered tens of thousands of Lao farmers. according to a United Nations Development Program (UNDP) and the Lao Unexploded Ordnance Program (UXO-Lao) estimate. UNDP predicts a financial cost for clearing UXO will go into the billions of dollars over the next 50 years. Currently, after then-President Obama’s visit to Laos in 2016, the U.S. Government is committing to a pledge of $40 million for fiscal year 2021.
The most prevalent and dangerous of explosives are the anti-personnel bomblets or anti-civilian “bombies.” These tennis ball-size bomblets are scattered through air drops of a large “mother bomb” which opens and spews out in mid-air the bombies which then act as landmines. Today many live bombies remain hidden below the soil surface. Victims include children playing with them like a toy, people collecting scrap metal to feed their families and people cooking over a hidden bombie. The story is gaining attention thanks to an uptick in international press coverage, but more still needs to be done.
For 20 years after the end of the war (1976-1995), there was no official UXO removal program. UXO-Lao only began in 1996, after a special UN Trust Fund was created.
Why has it taken so long and so many lives to address this problem? The secrecy of the war, its history and long-term effects were not seared into public consciousness during the decades since hostilities ended. The Lao general public was not aware of or talking about these legacies. Even international assistance staff did not know the history of the war. When journalists did come to visit this isolated country, their attention was usually focused on Vietnam and Cambodia.
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