Though I have few memories of her, my siblings often told me stories our grandmother shared with them about the Secret War in Laos. She would recount to them about how moving through the jungles of Laos, sometimes, it would be so quiet, that all you could hear was the trickling of water as you came across a stream and the cries of the dead. Wherever she went, she explained, she heard those haunting sounds. My siblings also often recounted, sadly, waking up—throughout their childhood and teenage years—to my grandmother's shriek at night. There is a significant generational gap between my siblings and me, you see. But my siblings always knew, just as my grandmother also knew, that for her (and my parents, to an extent) the war had not yet ended.
As an adult now, I often look back at what everyone in my family endured when they first arrived here in this new country as refugees and political exiles, with nothing to claim as their own. Like my grandma, my parents knew no English. I couldn't even begin to imagine navigating this new world with what little they knew and had. My dad had lost his father when he was just a toddler, and he lamented the way in which he was essentially orphaned.
It was, after all, my grandmother who carried the future of our families on her back across the Mekong River to the safety of refugee camps in Thailand and ultimately to the U.S. across the Pacific Ocean. I think about this bit of history often because it, like my grandmother’s ghosts, haunts me. To think about the sacrifices people displaced by war made—and how the choices people made were given to them under circumstances not of their own choosing—gave me perspective. I was fortunate enough to have been able to make my own choices; to live comfortably and safely; to live freely, without worrying about war, bombs, or toxic chemicals; and to go to college.
In my young adult years, I found myself coming to terms with the many contradictions of history that confounded me as a child. How was I—the daughter of refugee, working-class Americans, who had no language skills, no work or professional experiences, who lived through American poverty—to grapple with my American, first-world privileges and disenfranchisement as an American minority? I wondered, too, while desperately angry at myself over my own ignorance of a war that affected every aspect of my life, how I was complacent in the misery of others overseas because of my ignorance.
I knew that my grandmother suffered but I knew very little as to why the hurt and pain haunted her her entire life. I knew of the Secret War in Laos but I also knew very little about that war and the small landlocked country of Laos.
The gap in my knowledge became my driving force to learn more, and it led me to my internship at War Legacies Project. This desire to make a positive impact on the world emerged early on from my understanding of social justice issues here in the U.S.—from women’s suffrage to the Civil Rights Movement and to Stop Asian Hate and many, many more. While things were different between the issues here and a post-war Laos, I knew that the principles were the same; I knew between what was right and wrong. I was a young Hmong American woman, and I knew what I carried on my shoulders as the daughter of my parents and granddaughter of my grandparents. It wasn't just their legacies as a people determined to live, love, and thrive; it was about doing the right thing and helping our world heal, so that new generations can imagine a new world—a better world.
I remember a project I worked on during my internship—the Interminable War Timeline project—and I remember it well. "The U.S.—from its founding to the present—has engaged in perpetual, endless military adventures in pursuit of global hegemony," the project webpage explains. "Our 'Interminable War Timeline' project shows the history of U.S. military supremacy and its excesses, and the destruction it has caused at home and abroad. The timeline catalogs the long-term consequences that U.S. wars have caused." It continues: "Of its 245 years of existence, the U.S. has had 14 years of peace."
This, then, made sense why Laos, per capita, remains the most heavily bombed country ever in human history. For nearly a decade in Laos, 600,000 bombing runs led by the U.S. air force dropped a ton of bombs per person—a planeload of bombs every eight minutes. How could a country so obsessed with violence, with its military supremacy, not inflict this amount of destruction unto a lesser, underdeveloped country? Why else would it shirk off any moral responsibility to end war and violent conflicts? What happened to Laos, the mass tragedy, was the logical conclusion to America's violence and its military supremacy.
At the same time, I thought to myself, what a miracle it was that my parents and their parents survived. I have not yet returned to Laos—a country of tangled mountains, of the mighty Mekong; a country once so desperately impoverished, now one of Southeast Asia's fastest growing economies. Though we no longer have family there, and my dad is the only one who speaks the language, I hope to bring my mother back to visit her village, somewhere in the northern mountains of Xieng Khouang province.
Learning more about the painful legacies of war, I am reminded of why it is important to remember what conflicts took place, and even more importantly, to make history known by informing the public about the consequences of war. It is also important that we address these issues and advocate for those who have not yet seen the end of war. As my grandma made clear all those years ago, because even the dead do not see the end of war: war must end.