Rolling hills and rice paddies?
To most of the world, Laos represents a beautiful country of rolling green hills and rice paddies. Few know of the dangers lurking just below the ground of this picturesque scene. Since the end of the Vietnam War, Laos has held the unfortunate title of being the most bombed country in human history. Despite remaining officially neutral throughout the conflict, large swathes of Lao countryside were bombed mercilessly by the US. The aim of the US was to destroy the supply lines running along the Ho Chi Minh Trail and disrupt the flow of weapons, food, and people from communist North Vietnam to the South. This attention came largely in the form of saturation bombing, the practice of dropping a large number of bombs to cover an entire area, instead of focusing on one or specifically identified targets. We shall explore what the legacy of this today, almost 40 years on.
Estimates suggest that a third of the dropped explosives failed to detonate, leaving a staggering 80 million pieces of unexploded ordinances (UXO) lying in wait in the fields and forests of the country. With a total of ⅓ of Laos' land being contaminated and with many bomblets buried under ground, farms and fields have become large-scale and involuntary exercises akin to a very deadly, real-life version of the game Minesweeper. Though many farmers are aware of the contamination, they simply do not have the means to clear the UXO, nor the resources to purchase a different plot of land. It is no wonder that subsistence farmers are those suffering a disproportionate number of injuries. Reports from Laos are rife with heart-breaking stories of maimed farmers no longer able to support their families and unable to take care of their disabled children.
A continuation of violence and harm
It is thought that 20,000 people have been killed or injured by UXO since the end of the Vietnam War, with one estimated casualty almost every week even now, almost 50 years on! Most disturbingly, these incidents often affect the most innocent members of Lao society: children, who find and play with pieces of UXO, unaware of the danger they pose. This seemingly interminable collateral damage, a term itself coined in Vietnam, is an apt example of what some refer to as the ‘Shadows of War’; a term that describes the unintended, long-term consequences of wars often overlooked when starting one.
Although the number of victims of UXO incidents is decreasing, the threat of harm most certainly persists, impacting daily activities of communities. The mapping of ‘contaminated’ areas continues to improve, but as settlements grow there is an increasing pressure to use land which is known to contain UXO. Whilst post-war casualties may be considered difficult to categorise, the threat of harm, being intangible, is even harder to measure. This should by no means detract from the impact this threat has however, as many families continue to live in constant fear of an insisible enemy.
UXO serves as a prime example of a continuity of violence and harm post-war, and raises the importance of reassessing what we consider to be the impacts of war. However expressed, it is clear that the impacts of UXO are not only disastrous but also still prevalent decades later.
The effects go beyond injuries
As if their life shattering impact on individuals and families is not enough, the consequences of UXO have an even wider significance: Historically, wars have certainly had long-lasting social and economic effects, and some would even argue there is no such thing as a post-conflict period, as conflict is inevitable and constant even during peacetime. But wide-scale, high explosive bombing campaigns have brought a whole new dimension to the continuation of wars. The legacy of UXO goes against the narrative that we are living in the most peaceful era in human history, or at least suggests this view may be too Western-centric, with conflicts not decreasing in frequency and scale, but rather taking place further afield and thus being less noticeable to European and North American audiences. This has been the case during the Cold War and it is the case today.
Reshaping the narrative?
This contrast in different experiences of war is certainly noticeable when assessing its impact on development. Where some global actors may benefit from the wars (by expanding their influence or arms sales, for instance), the countries upon which war is imposed continue to suffer from the scars of the battleground decades later, Laos being no exception. Having large tracts of land contaminated by UXO hindered the mining and agricultural industries, on which the country largely relied, meaning economic growth in the final quarter of the 20th century proved elusive. Unfortunately, the detrimental effects of conflict on Lao’s development have been compounded by the relatively limited level of assistance the country has received after the war. From 1996-2010, the government and the international community conducted an UXO clearing programme. However, that just 0.5% of UXO was cleared in that time shows the scale of the problem.
All this being said, there is also cause for optimism. From NGOs working to limit the impacts of UXO-related injuries, to individual enterprises using recycled UXO in everyday life, the resilience and ingenuity of communities shines through, despite the legacy of war in which they live. Perhaps if more attention was being paid to the lessons we should learn from such wars, their legacies would be far shorter, and far less harmful.