Why the U.S. Is Pledging Millions to Clean Up Bombs in Laos

Decades later, a once-secret war still threatens Laotians

Laos Unexploded Ordnance
A foundry in Phonsavan, Xieng Khouang province in Laos has processed over 85,000 live bombs to date. The country is still riddled with unexploded ordnance—a legacy of the United States' nine-year secret war. Mines Advisory Group (Flickr/Creative Commons)

The statistics are staggering: nine years, 2.5 million tons of bombs, 580,000 bombing missions. It all added up to one secret war—a clandestine, CIA-led attempt to cut off North Vietnamese communist forces by bombarding neighboring Laos. The war may have been covert, but its scars run deep. And now, reports the Associated Press, President Obama has pledged $90 million to help clean up the physical legacy of that conflict.

Citing a “moral obligation” to help Laos heal, reports the AP, the president announced this week that the United States would double previous spending on its attempts to help clean up unexploded bombs in the landlocked country. An estimated 30 percent of the bombs dropped on Laos never exploded, and Laotians continue to die when they discover or accidentally run across the unexploded ordnance.

In 1964, the CIA began to carry out bombing operations in Laos. Though the country had been declared neutral a few years earlier, it was home to the Ho Chi Minh trail, which was used by North Vietnamese communist troops to move supplies and troops into South Vietnam. Ironically, the operations were overseen by William H. Sullivan, the U.S. ambassador to Laos, who referred to the mission as “the other war.” (When asked about the bombings in a Senate hearing, Sullivan stated that the bombings had “nothing to do” with military operations in Vietnam or Cambodia.)

The technically neutral country became a de facto war zone for nearly a decade. The U.S. Department of States writes that it is the most-bombed country on Earth on a per capita basis and that the total number of bombs dropped in the nine-year operation exceeded the number dropped on Germany and Japan combined during World War II. And the war didn’t stop when operations ceased in 1973: An estimated 80 million bombs, many of them cluster bombs, malfunctioned and were buried around Laos. To date, writes the regulatory authority for unexploded ordnance in Laos, there have been over 50,000 casualties of unexploded bombs. Twenty thousands of those casualties were wounded after the war ended.

As CNN’s Rebecca Wright reports, children are at particular risk because they often mistake the tennis ball-sized bombs for toys. A full 25 percent of Laotian villages contain unexploded bombs and mines to this day. Though a worldwide effort to clear the unexploded ordnance has been in place since the 1990s, wrote The Observer’s Matteo Faggotto in 2015, only one percent of Laos territory has been cleared so far.

Though President Obama did not apologize for the war during the first visit by a sitting U.S. president to Laos, increased aid will help the country clear out bombs. But according to Legacies of War, an NGO devoted to advocate for the clearing of bombs, that number is less than what’s needed in Laos. (The organization recommends that a total of at least $250 million is provided to clear unexploded ordnance over the next decade.) No apology or expenditure could ever make up for a secret operation that turned a neutral country into a war zone and killed tens of thousands of innocent civilians—but a safer Laos is one that could eventually start to heal from the legacy of the secret war.

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