During the Vietnam war, one country was bombed more than Vietnam itself. Every eight minutes, for 24 hours a day, for 9 years straight, American bombers dropped munitions on Laos. Today, a large number of those bombs remain unexploded, killing and maiming innocent people four decades after the war’s end.
As the Vietnam War escalated, the North Vietnamese communists sought to expand their operations into neighboring Laos. The goal was to keep their forces in South Vietnam supplied and to convert Laos into a Communist state.
To prevent this, the U.S. initiated Operation Barrel Roll. Because Laos was officially neutral, both sides kept their war in Laos secret. Today, most Americans have no knowledge that a war was even fought in the region. Over the course of Barrel Roll, the U.S. staged 580,000 bombing missions, dropping over 2 million tons of ordinance. The missions were intended to stop the flow of supplies along the Ho Chi Minh Trail, the unofficial name for the road network into South Vietnam. Other missions were also staged to provide close support for Royal Lao troops who were fighting against their own communist insurgency.
A wide variety of ordinance was dropped, but cluster munitions were especially infamous.
A cluster bomb is a shell containing dozens of smaller bombs called bombies by locals. Such bombs are dropped on concentrations of people and will literally tear victims apart. Not all victims die, and many survive with horrific injuries. About 30 percent of these bombies never exploded.
Bombies are the size of tennis balls and are sometimes mistaken by children as toys. Kids playing with unexploded bombies have been frequently killed and maimed. Because these munitions were dropped in rural areas, they affect farmers. About 25 percent of the country’s farmland cannot be worked because of unexploded munitions.
Less than 1 percent of the unexploded munitions have been removed, according to activists.
Fortunately, a plan is in place to clean up the country, or at least parts of it. President Obama, during the first visit by an American president to the country, has pledged $90 million to help clear unexploded ordinance.
Following the end of the Vietnam War, the communists succeeded in overrunning Laos, deposing the royal government.
By Marshall Connolly