The cost of America’s “secret war” in Laos

Photo: Jared Ferrie/IRIN An employee of Mines Advistory Group searches for unexploded munitions in central Laos in August 2010

By Jared Ferrie

YANGON, 26 January 2016 (IRIN) – The United States may increase the $15 million a year it spends on dealing with the legacy of its “secret” bombing of Laos, said Secretary of State John Kerry yesterday in the capital, Vientiane.

Yet, even a few million more would come nowhere near to matching the amount it cost the US to bomb the country between 1964 and 1973. The campaign came with a staggering price tag of $17 million per day in today’s dollars, according to Legacies of War, a Washington-based advocacy group.

Funding is already at record levels, up from $5 million per year when I visited the country in 2010. At the time, one person a day was being killed or injured by the unexploded ordnance (UXO) that litters Laos.

“We’re now down to about 50 a year, and 50 a year is still too many,” said Kerry.

The decrease in casualty rates has been helped by the increase in funding for programmes aimed at clearing UXO, as well as mapping contaminated areas and paying for rehabilitation for victims.

“We’ve gone from $5 million of commitment to it to $9 million to $12 million, now $15 million this year, and I know that we’re looking at whether or not that could be plussed up even more,” Kerry said.

The commitment of President Barack Obama’s administration to addressing the deadly legacy America left in Laos is commendable. But considering the damage wrought over decades, the question remains – how much is enough to make up for crimes committed against an entire nation?

Legacies of War said in a statement yesterday that it would be appropriate for the US to, at minimum, double the level of its current funding over the next decade. As the group noted: “The US flew 580,000 bombing missions over Laos, the equivalent of one bombing mission every eight minutes, around the clock, for nine years.”

The fallout from that campaign, which was kept secret from Congress at the time, is hard to comprehend.

When I visited Laos in 2010, Maligna Souvignongs, who was then the head of the government agency tasked with clearing UXO, showed me a map of the country with contaminated areas marked by red dots. In some regions, the dots were indistinguishable – they ran together like bloodstains on the countryside.

Aside from causing countless deaths and injuries over decades, Souvignongs said UXO contamination had also crippled the economy. Most of the country’s 6.8 million people are farmers, but much of the farmland remains contaminated, and contaminated areas coincide with the poorest districts, he said.

When I asked how long it would take to rid Laos of UXO at the rate they were being cleared at the time, Souvignongs said 100 years.

So, nine years of bombing left Laos with a lethal mess that will take about a century to clean up. The increased funding in recent years is welcome, for sure. But perhaps the US can do even better to make amends for a historical wrong.