Hiding America’s War Crimes in Laos, While Reporting on the Grim Results

Just when we really needed some good news in the climate change battle.

The NY Times on Monday ran a lengthy piece (“One Woman’s Mission to Free Laos from Millions of Unexploded Bombs”) on Channapha Khamvongas, a 42-year-old Laotian-American woman on a mission to get the US to help Laos clean up the countless unexploded anti-personnel “bombis” that it dropped, which are still killing peasants — especially children — half a century after the so-called “Secret War” by the US against Laos ended.

The article explained that Khamvongas, as a young adult in Virginia, had read a book by anti-war activist Fred Branfman, Voices from the Plain of Jars: Life Under an Air War (originally published in 1972 and reissued in 2013), which featured accounts and hand drawings by refugees from that war of the deadly US aerial attacks and bombings of their farms and villages. It was a book that sparked revulsion in the US over the saturation bombing of Southeast Asia’s smallest and least developed country — a nation of under six million people.

While the Times article mentioned that the secret air war, launched by Lyndon Johnson against Laos in 1964 and continued by Richard Nixon through 1973, was “one of the most intensive air campaigns in the history of warfare,” and that it had made Laos, a country the size of Great Britain with a population of only a few million peasants, into “one of the most heavily bombed places on earth.” What it did not make clear was that this bombing and strafing campaign, which Branfman’s research showed was so intense that US jets were even killing individual water buffalo, and so continuous that any Lao person, including children, who dared to venture out from underground shelters during the daytime, was targeted.

Instead, Times reporter Thomas Fuller simply parrots the official US line about the Laos air war, which was kept secret from the American public at the time, writing that the campaign’s “targets were North Vietnamese troops — especially along the Ho Chi Minh Trail, a large part of which passed through Laos — as well as North Vietnam’s Laotian Communist allies,” the Pathet Lao.

This is a patent falsehood.

The Ho Chi Minh Trail ran through Laos but along its lengthy eastern boarder with Vietnam. The bombing of Laos, though, was extensive, covering the whole country, and especially the large region of Northern Laos known as the Plain of Jars — an agricultural region in the center of Northern Laos (named for the many neolithic jars found there) that was so heavily bombed that it resembled the surface of the moon (today the circular craters that dot the place are now mostly ponds and breeding grounds for mosquitos). And the goal of the country-wide bombing campaign, as Branfman’s interviews of its refugee survivors made clear, was to disrupt agriculture and kill anything that moved in the country, in hopes of defeating the Pathet Lao insurgency.

Not once in the article is the term “war crime” mentioned, though clearly what the US did to Laos in its Secret War against the people of Laos was a war crime of almost unrivaled horror. (During the war, the Pathet Lao forces, at their greatest, numbered about 35,000, yet the US bombing is estimated to have killed over 100,000 Laotians, which would be about 1.5 percent of the country’s population. The equivalent today in the US would be if some country bombed and killed 3.2 million Americans.)

Not only was this little country bombed. It was littered with anti-personnel bombs that spread tennis-ball sized shrapnel-producing “bombis,” only some 70% of which exploded as intended. The rest remain buried in the soft earth, where they can explode decades later if struck by a plow, or found by a too curious child.

I visited Laos in 1995 as a journalist, and witnessed the continuing horror of this US war crime. Though the Secret War had ended more than 20 years earlier, I kept seeking young kids hobbling along on crutches, with stump legs, or missing hands, some missing both legs. Asking about this, I was told they had been blown up by bombis left over from the war.

Visiting the US Embassy in Laos, which at the time, at least, featured on a flagpole both the US flag and the black-and-white POW/MIA flag of the right-wing pro-war National League of Families, I asked the Press and Cultural Affairs attache about the plague of left-over bombis in the country, and why the US was doing nothing to help clear them away. He said Congress had blocked any such humanitarian action because of pressure from the National League of Families, which was pushing its absurd claim that Communist Laos, two decades after the war ended, was still secretly holding US POWs and MIAs, and was not accounting for America’s dead. He acknowledged off the record that the whole idea of impoverished Laos still holding US prisoners of war was ridiculous, and agreed that Laos — a heavily jungled and sparsely populated country — had not accounted for many of its own MIAs, much less missing Americans who had died or been killed. But he claimed there was nothing that could be done until that issue was resolved.

Of course there is a second matter. Just as the US has done nothing to help Vietnam clean up the massive amount of bombs and the carcinogenic Agent Orange herbicide that was spread across their land by US forces during the war, and has done nothing to help the post-war victims of US anti-personnel weapons and of Agent Orange in that country, not wanting to admit to its war crimes, it has also been loath to assume responsibility for cleaning up the anti-personnel weapons legacy in Laos for the same reason.

It appears that Ms. Khamvongas and her organization, Legacies of War, are finally having some success now at getting the US to belatedly start providing at least some of that assistance — reportedly about $14 million last year. It’s a drop in the bucket considering some 580,000 bombing missions were flown during the air campaign, dropping 270 million bombs. And nearly a third of that ordinance — an estimated 80 million bombs and bombis — are still out there, unexploded, waiting to be disturbed so they can complete their deadly missions.

Some 20,000 Laotians have been killed by unexploding bombs — 40% of them children — mostly by the fragmentation bombis, subsequent to the end of the war in 1973. Far more have been maimed and permanently injured.

Khamvongas doesn’t talk about blame, and that may be understandable for someone who is simply trying to get the US to pony up the money to help get the job done. (A number of countries that are blameless, including Ireland, Japan, Norway and Switzerland, as well as one that shares some of the blame, Australia, are contributing another $25 million a year to the bomb-removal effort.)

But the fact tht Khamvongas doesn’t want to focus on blame doesn’t excuse the Times from having to be honest about what actually happened to Laos and its people, and about America’s criminality in blanketing the country with anti-personnel weapons whose main victims, by design, were and sadly still are civilians, including a disproportionate number of children.

At a time when the US is running a new kind of air war, one involving the use of attack drones, a war which is reportedly also killing primarily civilians, and which is similarly operating in secret from the American people in numerous countries of the world, it is critical that news organizations like the Times, which are always quick to parrot US government calls for war crimes prosecutions of other countries like Syria, Serbia, ISIS or the breakaway Donbass Republics, also call out the war crimes of the United States.

Silence on such grave matters is not just reprehensible journalism; it is a case of aiding and abetting America’s crimes.


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