Bomb Harvest The Secret War

In the 1950s and early 60s, there was a growing Communist movement in Laos.

The Communist movement was supported by the North Vietnamese, and the opposing Royalist forces were supported by the US, who were concerned that the fall of Laos would result in the fall of all of Southeast Asia to Communism like “dominoes”.

In July 1962, the Geneva Accord was signed by 14 nations (including the US and North Vietnamese) – which forbade the presence of any foreign military in Laos and demanded that existing foreign military forces in the country be withdrawn.

Both the North Vietnamese and the US broke this agreement. The US wanted to stop the growing Communist movement in Laos, and crush the North Vietnamese Army’s Ho Chi Minh Trail which ran through Laos and was used to transport troops and supplies from North to South Vietnam.  The US launched a massive bombing campaign that remains its largest and most expensive ever paramilitary operation (costing an estimated $20 billion). 

It was the beginning of a new kind of warfare, in which almost no ground troops are committed by a superpower but they bomb from above.  The US pilots would virtually never come face to face with their “enemy” and at the height from which they flew, it was mostly impossible to know what they were bombing through the thick jungle cover.

Because foreign military presence in Laos had been forbidden by the Geneva Accord, the war was conducted covertly, with the country being referred to by the US simply as “The Other Theatre”. The campaign was managed by the CIA who set up secret air bases throughout Laos under the guise of “Air America” aid.

The first bombing was conducted under US President Johnson in 1964.  Ironically, when Johnson declared, to great public approval in 1968, that the bombing of North Vietnam would cease, the bombing of Laos increased as more airpower became available. The bombing of Laos was conducted without the approval of Congress or the knowledge of the American people.  Key political figures constantly denied the bombing of Laos, and when it did become public they still denied that they were bombing civilian targets.  The majority of the indiscriminate US B-52 carpet-bombing was conducted under President Richard Nixon and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. 

Bombing missions were the best way to keep the war secret as they resulted in a very small number of American casualties compared to ground battles.  This meant less potential protest against the war by the public as they were less likely to find out about it.

Due to the secrecy of the war, US pilots were advised they could ignore the Rules of Engagement which had to be adhered to in Vietnam and Cambodia.  For example, in Vietnam pilots were forbidden to bomb within half a kilometre of a temple or hospital.  In Laos the bombers were free to bomb whatever they liked: temples, hospitals, schools and villages.  The US-ratified Hague Convention, which prohibited the bombardment of civilian populations in undefended villages, was ignored. The vast majority of casualties from the bombing were civilians.

US pilots returning to base in Thailand from raids in Vietnam also used Laos as a bomb dumping ground – having been ordered to return with no bombs on board. As stated by an ex-US pilot: “Every day you flew a certain number of (bombing) missions, and you flew those missions regardless of whether there were any targets available or not…so what you’re doing is simply decimating any area with human beings in it”.

The Lao civilian death count was astronomical. US B52 bombers could drop a hundred bombs at a time, and 580,000 bombing missions were conducted. The US dropped a planeload of bombs on Laos every eight minutes, day and night, for nine years from 1964 to 1973.  That’s nearly two million tonnes of bombs – over half a tonne of bombs for every man, woman and child living in Laos.

Around a third of the population of Laos was killed, injured or made homeless by the air war – approximately a million people.

Approximately thirty per cent of the bombs didn’t explode, and can have jammed timers or firing pins, and all they now need is a knock to set them off. The country is still absolutely littered with bombs. At current rates of UXO clearance in Laos, it is expected that it will take 180 years to remove the threat of UXO.  However, there are some areas that will never be able to be cleared due to difficulty of access.

Many of the bombs dropped on Laos were cluster bombs, which are still used throughout the world today (for example they have been used in the recent wars in Kosovo, Lebanon, Afghanistan and Iraq).  A cluster bomb consists of a large bomb casing which opens as it falls, scattering out up to 400 “bomblets” each the size of a tennis ball (these are known in Laos as “bombies”).  Each one of these is a mass of ball bearings around a piece of explosive which scatter like a shower of bullets when it detonates.  Farming areas and jungles are still littered with these. A bombie looks like a ball or a fruit which is attractive to children and it only takes a child throw it to another child and it can go off.  They are not landmines but have the same effect as landmines.

Humanitarian groups such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, and many governments, are calling for the use of cluster bombs to be banned as 98% per cent of recorded cluster bomb casualties are civilians. The Oslo Process was launched in February 2007 calling to prohibit cluster munitions worldwide by 2008, but numerous countries still refuse to back the ban.  The UK, the world’s third-largest user of cluster munitions, has just (September 2007) renamed one of its cluster munitions in an effort to beat the expected ban in 2008.  In mid-2007 the Australian Senate overturned a private member’s bill - from Democrat Lyn Allison - to ban the use of cluster bombs by the Australian Defence Force, and the government gave its support for the Defence Force to purchase cluster bombs.

For a recent official report launched by Handicap International (May 2007) on cluster bombs, the Laos bombing records were re-analyzed and it was found that the number of cluster bombs dropped on Laos by the US is much higher than previously thought: the new figure is that 250 million cluster bomblets were dropped on Laos (it was previously thought to be 80 million).  This is in addition to the thousands of massive aircraft bombs (250 to 1000 pounds) which we see throughout Bomb Harvest.

Laos is one of the poorest countries in the world, and much of the land is unable to be farmed or developed due to bomb contamination – people blow themselves up when cultivating the land.  Ironically, the poverty has driven the locals to search for another form of income and the new cash crop has become bomb scrap metal.  US bomb metal is of the highest quality (the better the quality, the sharper and more deadly the fragments) and therefore fetches a good price.  With more roads opening up to Vietnam, where most of the scrap metal merchants are from, there is now more of a demand for metal and the price for scrap metal has risen in the last couple of years. This means more collecting and there has been a recent rise in accidents and deaths from UXO (unexploded ordnance). Almost half of these deaths are children.

In Laos, as in most third world countries, children are responsible for helping to feed the family from a very young age and selling bomb scrap is a way to buy food and also to help pay for their education. It’s often a deadly race for time for the bomb disposal specialist to get to the bombs before the scrap collectors. But because of the sheer amount of bombs - literally millions - there are not enough teams to get to all the bombs. Training of new bomb disposal teams has become a huge priority to deal with the problem.

The two main organisations featured in Bomb Harvest are MAG and UXO Lao. MAG (Mines Advisory Group) is an international humanitarian organization, established in 1989 in the UK, which has worked on programs to clear the remnants of war in over 35 conflict-affected countries around the world. They are funded by donation. MAG was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1997 for their work with the International Campaign to Ban Landmines - see www.maginternational.org  for more information.  The majority of EOD (Explosive Ordnance Disposal) technicians who work for MAG are former soldiers.

They work in conjunction with UXO Lao, the Lao government bomb disposal department. UXO Lao was established in association with the UNDP (United Nations Development Program) and is responsible for the coordination of all UXO-related activities in Laos.

Bomb Harvest explores Australian EOD technician Laith Stevens training new technicians to enable them to deal with large aircraft bombs of 250 to 1000 pounds.  The official name used by bomb disposal technicians for bombs of this size is simply “big bombs”!  This differentiates them from small items of UXO such as mortars, landmines and such.  Specialised training is required to deal with “big bombs”.

The fresh recruits to the “Big Bomb Project” have mostly never worked with large aircraft bombs. For some of them it is their first job out of home.   The purpose of the course is to take people from each province and train them to be “big bomb” qualified so they can return to their home province as team leaders.  The training happens in three phases. Firstly classroom theory and exercises on safe empty bombs, then a practical phase in Ta Oi District in southern Laos - on the infamous Ho Chi Minh Trail - where they will practise and be assessed on live bombs which remain exactly as they were dropped 30-40 years ago.  The third phase is a post-course validation where they are observed dealing with live bombs back in their home province.  Bomb Harvest begins with Laith examining a 500-pound bomb which has been discovered in a rice paddy field behind a village school in Savannakhet Province, and “big bomb” trainee Pina will finally return with Laith to this bomb to take his final test.