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