When I was in Laos in 2016 I visited the UXO Lao Visitor Centre in Luang Prabang. There are only two rooms but, despite the small size, it’s a sobering place to visit. During the bombing campaign in Laos the US dropped an estimated 2.5 million tons of explosives – more than the US dropped on Japan and Germany combined during WW2. Among the weapons used were cluster munitions which dispersed 260 million bomblets across the country. An estimated 30% of these failed to explode – that’s 75 million of them. Today, more than forty years after the bombing ceased, people, including many who weren’t even born at the time, continue to suffer as a consequence. Despite the best efforts of de-mining groups large areas of the country are still contaminated with unexploded ordnance.
Joshua Kurlantzick’s book, A Great Place to Have a War: America in Laos and the Birth of a Military C.I.A., tells the story of how the CIA launched and ran ‘Operation Momentum’, the anti-communist war in Laos of which the bombing was part. It’s a fascinating book, not least because a number of the key people in the conflict who were interviewed by Kurlantzick had died by the time the book was published earlier this year, so the book is in a sense their final word. While Kurlantzick occasionally relates the history of this conflict to other more contemporary events he doesn’t over stress this. Not that he needs to; any thoughtful person can make the connections.
When President Obama visited Laos in 2016 he announced an increased US financial commitment to the de-mining programme – $90 million over three years. This represented a significant increase, but it is small change compared to the cost of the war. It’s estimated that the US spent $2 million every day (that $17 million inflation adjusted dollars every day) during the bombing campaign. Agencies like MAG and HALO Trust have been working for many years in Laos yet the extent of the bombing means that, despite their best efforts, only a tiny fraction of the unexploded ordnance has been disarmed.
At the exit of the Visitor Centre in Luang Prabang there is a guest book for visitors to sign and leave a comment. I signed and stood for a moment wondering what on earth I could write in the comments column. In the end the only thing I could think of was ‘Sorry’.
Shortly after I finished Kurlantzick’s book I came across William J. Rust’s, Before The Quagmire: American Intervention In Laos 1954-1961, which covers the period prior to that dealt with by Kurlantzick. Rust describes America’s role in these years as ‘A case study in transforming a small foreign policy problem into a big one.’ What comes across is the incoherence of US policy which set the State Department at odds with the Defense Department and was driven by a belief in the capacity of various communist countries for long term strategic thinking and implementation of that strategy that they never demonstrated.
Rust’s assessment is that ‘the American experience in Laos in the 1950’s was a key initial misstep on the road to war in Southeast Asia.’ These two books complement each other perfectly, both tell a fascinating and tragic story and both are reminders of how we continually fail to learn from the mistakes of the past.