US Bombings in Laos 1965-1973

During the Vietnam War, the US spread combat operations to neighboring Laos. The US secretly waged widespread bombing runs on nearly every corner of the country, as illustrated by the map on the left. Laos experienced more than 30,000 casualties during the bombings, more than 20,000 people have died since bombing ceased in 1974 due to leftover unexploded munitions, and many more tens of thousands were needlessly displaced. A UN report notes that Laos is, per capita, the most bombed country on the planet, with .84 tons of explosives dropped per person from the years 1965 to 1974.

The true extent of the carnage was not known until Clinton declassified military records for the entire Vietnam War. The US military keeps meticulous records of all combat operations, recording the date, precise location, type and number of aircraft and total pounds of explosives dropped. The Defense Security Cooperation Agency’s Office of Humanitarian Demining has been working with the Laotian government to assist in the clean up of leftover landmines and unexploded ordnance. It is estimated that it may take up to 3000 years to clean up all unexploded ordnance in Laos alone.

The U.S. Government spent nearly 17 million dollars every single day to bomb Laos. What it has spent to clean it up, is, as of yet, a pittance (2.7 million a year) and the State Department has reduced this amount even further for 2011. Over 280 million bombs were dropped on Laos. It’s estimated that up to 80 million of them never exploded.

It is through a Laotian demining group that I was able to get a hold of this data set.

The Pattern of Bombing

The United States bombed Laos almost daily for nine years, a country we were not even at war with. Out of 2,858 total days, the United States Air Force bombed Loas for 2,290. Even the Air Force gets weekends and holidays off. Things got really intense in 1968-70 during Operation Menu (Nixon’s secret bombing campaign of Cambodia and Laos), and then spiked again just before the Vietnam War ended.

The military, as in Afghanistan and Iraq, followed seasonal bombing patterns, peaking in summer and falling back during the Christmas season. A time series decomposition confirms an overall peak in 69 to 70, but while the number of bombing runs may have peaked then, the intensity was only magnified. As larger and larger planes came in to the fold (such as the B-52) and smaller craft such as the A-1’s became phased out in favor of the F-4’s, the US military became more efficient in it’s bombing runs, becoming able to drop more tonnage of explosives using fewer aircraft. (It’s incredible what you can learn from data)

The Spatial Distribution of Bombing

Density of bombing events in Laos. Dark means more dense, light mean less dense.

The United States bombed nearly every quarter of Laos, but some areas were hit worse than others. In particular, the eastern end of the southern part of Laos, and the area around the province of Xieng Khouang. Areas along the Thai and Cambodian borders suffered less bombing but probably experience the largest influx of refugees.

Relative to the population Xieng Khouang had the largest tonnage of explosives per person dropped on it, followed by the Southernmost province, Attapu. Bombing runs were not uniformly spread across provinces, but appeared to target specific areas more than others in terms of overall tonnage dropped. There appear to be specific hot spots in the south, which could represent any number of things, but none of which are in this data set.

Pounds of explosives dropped per person. Population data was drawn from a 1995 census.

IDW interpolation of pounds of munitions dropped. Note heavily concentrated spots in the middle of the country, and in the south.

Conclusions

The Vietnam War is widely perceived as having been an incredible policy blunder. That the American government was unwilling to cut it’s losses and stop early was not only a sign of incredible American arrogance, but has resulted in decades of ruined economies, loss of life, and a series of disastrous South East Asian governments, not the least of which was the brutal regime of the Khmer Rouge. This data set, while historically important, should also serve as a reminder of things to come, as the aftermath of the invasion of Iraq comes to the fore. It’s unfortunate that while the Vietnam war is a part of the daily lives of all Laotians, that it rarely registers on the radar of the average American, and if it does, it’s considered to be a problem exclusive to those who served. While the effects of the war on those who fought in Vietnam cannot be understated, the incredible burden that generations of Laotians will experience cannot be forgotten.

Knowing that we were not at war with Laos, the most troubling part of this data set is realizing the incredible monetary expense of the operation. 17 million dollars per day. More than 4 million tons of explosives were levied on Laos. All of which were provided by private contractors such as McDonnell Douglas. I could imagine (although I have no evidence), that the bombing campaigns were less strategic and more corrupt, a dangerous collusion of profit and policy. The secrecy surrounding the bombings make me all the more suspicious. The connections between defense contractors and actions in the Vietnam War and the possibility that the War was extended by those with monetary interests is well worth pursuing. Investigations into the mistakes of Vietnam could go far to inform present day discussions of the merits/demerits of entering long term conflicts. Of course, in the case of Iraq, the milk has already been spilled.

War is devastating in the long term for the US economy. Government spending which could be used to invest in infrastructure and social development projects, is diverted to support an endless war effort. In the short term, however, defense contractors and those involved in defense manufacturing profit. It has been suggested that the workers during the Vietnam war were dependent on defense related manufacturing, so much so, that Reagan’s promises of expanding defense spending helped usher him in office. While our manufacturing jobs may trickle overseas, defense manufacturing must remain in the United States. This creates an internal economy that is dependent on endless war around the world, supported by people who don’t have to fight it. Remember the incredible uproar over the cancellation of the F-22?

I don’t know where I stand on Chomsky besides thinking that he has interesting opinions, but I found this clip interesting. It would be worthwhile to know whether his claims can be verified or not:

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References
NRA, “National Survey of UXO Victims and Accidents, Phase 1,” Vientiane, undated but 2009, p. 39.

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About Pete Larson

Assistant Professor of Epidemiology at the Nagasaki University Institute for Tropical Medicine

19 responses to “US Bombings in Laos 1965-1973”

  1. Bev Boonnhong Korasack says :

    Can we call Secret war in Laos as an unofficial genocise event. Or just emptying the planes and flew empty plane to Don Muang Airport, got big paycheck and entertained at Night Clubs with Thai prostitudes.
    My uncle was working as CIA Commander in Laos during that time.

  2. Cindy says :

    Pete, I am editing a video for an NGO working in Laos and I wondered where you sourced those maps and if I could use them in a video I’m creating. Please respond by email. Cheers Cindy

    • Pete Larson says :

      I made them myself. If you would like to use them, you are welcome to. If you need anything in particular, I can probably provide.

      Have you seen the movie of the bombings?

  3. Luther Bliss says :

    There is a documentary called ‘Bombies’ on this subject. It brings home what the true human cost of the USA’s satanic (I cannot think of a better word) policy of bombing this country. Especially evil are the unexploded cluster bomblets that litter the country.

    Many bombs were dropped on Laos by pilots returning from Vietnam to their bases in Thailand. If they did not drop their bombs over Vietnam (for a variety of reasons) then if was considered safer to drop ordnance on Laos than risk landing with the bombs still attached. I wonder if these stats include this ‘disposal’ practice.

    I always think that the fact that the ‘secret war’ in Laos saw more explosives dropped than WWII shows how far the US government’s control of world opinion can dictate reality. It began as ‘CIA war’ in the 1950s and basically remained covert since then – to everyone except to those who lived through it.

  4. Jeffrey says :

    Hi Pete, I am writing on behalf of a non-profit photobook initiative to seek permission to use the figures in one of the maps that you have created (Pounds of explosives dropped per person). We will re-create a similar map, using your data, but we would like to modify the units from pounds to Kilograms. If this is possible, we will acknowledge you/ your website in our book and the book’s website. It will be much appreciated if you could let us know what you think by email, if possible. Many Thanks Jeffrey

  5. sue birtwistlepeterlarson.com/2010/12/15 says :

    Your article is at odds with facts I have heard and read that up to a quarter of the entire Laos population was displaced and that hundreds not tens of thousands of civilians were killed in a policy of carpet bombing by america to destroy the people and infrastructure that supported the pathetic Laos.

  6. sue birtwistlepeterlarson.com/2010/12/15 says :

    Apologies for the iPad saying pathetic Laos. It was typed as the political group, pathet Laos.

  7. Paxse says :

    Did the U.S. decide to bomb Laos for some unknown reason? You write:

    “During the Vietnam War, the US spread combat operations to neighboring Laos. The US secretly waged widespread bombing runs on nearly every corner of the country”

    Any idea why?

    Many more details here:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Laotian_Civil_War

    Even though it was agreed that Laos should be considered “neutral” in the war, Vietnam launched a major incursion into the country in 1968. The Royalists were fighting a home-grown Socialist effort to unseat them as well. Add in the Ho Chi Minh Trail thru southern Laos and it is easy to see why Laos was not able to remain outside the hostilities. There is blame all around, not just against the Americans.

    To read your words one might believe that the U.S. felt like bombing the sh*t out of Laos and the Laotians for no apparent reason. You may also recall that a large number of Laotians were our allies in the war since they feared a Communist takeover as much as the South Vietnamese feared it. Notice that the Vietnamese and Lao who moved to the U.S. have not moved back. It’s not because of unexploded ordnance.

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