As the United States carries out thousands of airstrikes in Iraq and Syria, leading presidential candidates are calling on America to “bomb the s— out of them.” Perhaps now is an appropriate time to find out what bombing the s— out of a country looks like. Does the aftermath of widespread bombing campaigns generate gratitude amongst local populations as they plead the American government to bomb all the terrorists around them? Does it blossom into lasting peace agreements and democracy?
The aftermath of a 500 pound clusterbomb is not beautiful, as any person from Laos can attest. From 1964 to 1973, the U.S. dropped at least two million tons of ordnance on Laos during 580,000 bombing missions—equal to a planeload of bombs every 8 minutes, 24-hours a day, for 9 years – making Laos the most heavily bombed country per capita in history. With such an intense level of saturated bombing carried out 50 years ago, we should be able to quickly find out what “bombing the s— out of” a country looks like in retrospect. By looking at the past, we can evaluate if repeating this kind of bombing would really be a fitting solution to the violence and instability currently spreading through the Middle East.
One key recruitment strategy for extremist jihadis is to draw attention to the civilian death toll of Western intervention. And there are examples even US military personnel are anxious to point out. If a civilian is killed by US bombs, that person’s family/community are more likely to join the cause of religious extremists. It is a human reaction to answer the death of a loved one with contempt and retaliation. 84-year-old Laos native Kampuang Dalaseng is quoted in The Guardian saying, “I hate Americans to this date. They bombed, burned and destroyed everything. If their president was here, I would slap him in the face.” A former professor of French, Dalaseng was forced to flee the bombardments, abandoning the village of Bat Ngot Ngum in 1964 and taking shelter in a forest cave with his family and fellow villagers.
According to the U.S. State Department (under Safety and Security),
“The large amount of unexploded ordnance (UXO) left over from the Indochina War causes more than 300 casualties per year. UXO can be found in some parts of Savannakhet, Xieng Khouang, Saravane, Khammouane, Sekong, Champassak, Houaphan, Attapeu, Luang Prabang, and Vientiane Provinces. In addition, numerous mine fields are left over from the war along Route 7 (from Route 13 to the Vietnam border), Route 9 (Savannakhet to the Vietnam border), and Route 20 (Pakse to Saravane). Never pick up unknown metal objects and avoid traveling off well-used roads, tracks, and paths.”
The most vulnerable population of victims being children, who mistake the shiny metal bomblets for toys, choosing to pick them up and play with them before having their short lives ended by a violent explosion. Do we really want terrorists recruiting violent extremists over the corpses of children 50 years from now?
One nationalized debate in contemporary America is whether or not Muslims are an inherently violent and untrustworthy religious sect. That debate couldn’t exist while Nixon was bombing Laos, a predominantly Buddhist society consisting largely of peasants.
I recently traveled to Laos, and while interacting with the friendly locals I couldn’t help but imagine how their lives were different during the Indochina war. During that period, many were forced to move from their peasant villages and into forest caves to avoid being hit by the tidal wave of bombs. Although not even living in a cave always protected them: on 24 November 1968 more than 374 people were killed when an American fighter jet bombed the Tham Piu cave. The cave was being used as a refuge and makeshift hospital.
The bombing was so severe that “farmers resorted to tending their fields at night. Cooking was severely restricted, because the smoke would attract the aircraft.” The US forces were so thorough in their pervasive violence that they sprayed Agent Orange on food crops to deprive the Indochinese of food to eat. Remember, all of this violence perpetrated against a population of Buddhist farmers who never once attacked the American mainland.
You would think that upon the surfacing of these horrors, the officials who implemented these policies would face some level of accountability. Perhaps new people with new ideas would be elected, after all we do live in a democracy and must therefore have a wide range of political options in regards to foreign policy. But nope, Donald Rumsfeld (who served in the Nixon administration during Vietnam and became the Secretary of Defense in 1975) was empowered to serve as Secretary of Defense a second time under George W. Bush, overseeing the decade long invasion of Iraq, where these horrors were repeated. Much like Dick Cheney and a long list of other influential chickenhawks, who precipitated the growth of ISIS and are now using the terrorist organization to stoke fear in a push to further their own political agendas.
In an interview with two kindly and intelligent United States Marines Jessie C. Cash and Greg Price, both of whom served in Iraq from 2005-2011, we can see that the policies from Indochina were carried over. Marine Jessie C. Cash says, “Over the long term, people start questioning, like, why am I fighting these farmers? These guys are just like us, they’re literally trying to provide for their families.”
Marine Greg Price follows these comments adding, “We have flamethrowers over there, right? Now I told my first sergeant, it came up, you know, we might have to be burning crop down, I told my first sergeant I said, “there is no way that I am going to burn another man’s crop down. There is absolutely no way. I don’t care what it is. Because, it’s just, it’s wrong. It’s completely unethical.””
Unfortunately, not everyone is as ethical as Greg Price.
The aftermath of something as horrific as the secret war in Laos should make any American pause and reflect before calling on their government to endlessly hit repeat on the cycle of violence. You can support the troops while simultaneously not supporting the government policies, implemented on high, that instruct those troops to fight wars and bomb peasants in distant foreign countries. The best way to keep the troops safe is by keeping them inside the country to do their duty: defend the United States of America.
What is left behind in Laos is not the pretty, nationally broadcast rhetoric of President Richard Nixon. What is left behind is an entire countryside full of unexploded ordnance which still blows up in the faces of farmers and their children, working native fields in the hopes of eating their fill.