The US, Laos and The Secret War

Last week, at the COPE Center (Cooperative Orthotic and Prosthetic Enterprise) in Vientiane, Laos, thunder cracked heavily outside as I watched my friends from Canada use a machine that helps amputees calm the discomfort they feel in phantom limbs.  My friend from Ireland, with the reading habit, fiery red hair and skin like milk, read placards detailing the differences between a grenade versus a bomb.  And while I usually feel proud to be an American, to hail from the land of Hollywood, The Beach Boys and NASA, in this moment, I felt the opposite. As our group left the Center, as we ran to the bus, dodging tuk tuks and motorcycles like it was a real-life game of Frogger, a man with missing teeth brandished a bird in a wooden cage in front of my face (“Buy for good luck!”), and I felt ashamed of my country.  

When the US dumped 270 million cluster bombs on Laos during the Vietnam War, it crippled Laos both figuratively and literally.  In the movie theater at the COPE Center, we watched children missing their arms from their elbow talk about how they found the bombs and what happened that day. One scene in the documentary showed footage of a fresh accident. At first, the child appeared to be fine physically. Except that, even though he was lying on a tarp on a field, his limbs intact, no blood, his eyes were open and lifeless. The narrator followed with, “Even just a fragment of a bombie can be fatal,” and the camera focused on a piece of metal lodged in the back of this little boy’s head. His mother wailed in the background.

Before I get into the details, why should you care?

A quarter of the villages in Laos are contaminated with undetonated bombs or “bombies” that the US dropped during the Vietnam War. A quarter. Laotian people are literally afraid to build things, develop their country, move forward in the world and do basic farming (which they have to do to survive) because of the bombs that are certainly in their rice paddies, under their houses, at their high schools and in their mountains. It’s a very real, very present fear for them, and the US’ actions created that culture of fear.

As Americans, it’s good to know the facts and spread them around as this is not something they teach us in school. I never knew this happened, and I’d venture to say, majority of people who will read this didn’t, either. Maybe someone you tell the story to will want to donate. In the same vein, if you can afford to donate, even in a small way to the COPE Center, maybe we’re dropping water in a bucket. Helping right a wrong the US did years ago.

The Facts:

Laos is the most heavily bombed country in the world per capita in history. Thanks to the US. And here’s the thing: when the US bombed Laos during the Vietnam War, Laos was supposed to be neutral. The US signed an agreement stating that it wouldn’t bomb Laos. But sadly, if neutrality was at one end of the spectrum, the US not only went to the complete opposite end, it went miles beyond it.

During the Vietnam War, the US conducted more than 580,000 bombing missions over Laos. That is one bombing mission every 8 eight minutes, 24 hours a day for 9 years.

More than 270 million cluster bombs were dropped onto Laos.  By the way, cluster bombs don’t destroy buildings.  They only kill people. 

Up to 30% of the bombs dropped failed to detonate and remained in Laos after the war. That’s 80 million bombs that did not detonate, and are in Laos land vulnerable to being disrupted and detonated.

This is why The Secret War in Laos is also called “The Lingering War.” Laotian people are encounter these bombs very often, because the amount of bombies the US dropped on Laos is staggering. It’s very hard to wrap your mind around just how many bombs the US dropped in Laos.

Laos is heavily composed of agricultural-based communities, and the villagers there have no choice but to farm, i.e. hoe land, drive stakes into the ground to put cows out to pasture, etc., and they are afraid to do so, because there’s a strong likelihood that when they do, they could hit a bomb.

There are so many remnants from the war, so much ordnance remaining in Laos, that Laotians have started using it to their advantage.  Bomb casings become planters for onions.  Locals use the metal from the bombs to melt it into axes and knives.

Over 20,000 people in Laos have been killed or injured by these lingering bombs since the bombing ceased during the war. There continue to be 100 new deaths in Laos each year from the bombs. Over 40% of the victims are children.  

The Kicker:

The U.S. spent as much in three days bombing Laos ($51M, in 2010 dollars) than it spent for clean up over 16 years ($51M). Translation? The US isn’t doing anything. Australia is doing about 4 times as much donating/helping, than the US is, and they had no part in it.


The reason I wrote about this is because Laos needs help with this, and the US isn’t helping. With only 8% of its land populated by its people, Laos is a beautiful, lush, wild country, and the people seemed to me to be, unusually nice.

The COPE Center helps ensure that people with physical disabilities resulting from these bombs have access to local, free rehabilitation services.

If you’d like more information on the COPE Center, or if you’d like to donate, here is the link to their website.

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