Reflections on Laos, the Secret War and Unexploded Ordnance
Clarissa Coburn, 11th grade Laguna Blanca School
Clarissa Coburn visited us in March 2012. We traveled with her and her classmates from Laguna Blanca School, Santa Barbara, California. We found her to be very observing and thoughtful. Barbara traveled with her to Xieng Khouang and Luang Prabang. We received this note a few days ago. They are her impressions of the Secret War and UXO.
Wars in history books are about facts and statistics, famous people, important dates, key strategies and the long-term political and economic effects, as understood by the ‘winners’. But when it comes down to it, war isn’t as clean cut or simple as it is made out to be. There are no true winners when casualties are a consequence. It is really hard to remember that all of the lofty ideals and pure motives in the world cannot change the fact that people will die — innocent people who may or may not support those who are the intended target.
That’s what I learned in Laos, it’s embarrassing that I had to go all the way to South East Asia to realize something that should be completely obvious: all of those statistics of ‘body counts’ were once real living people with hopes and dreams and potential. Every statistic which says 10,000 people died in a war really means that ten-thousand people had their lives cut short. And it’s not just those individual losses: for each death, ten thousand families lost loved ones. Thousands more of those ten thousand dead also lost best friends, lovers, coworkers, and community members. That random person who used to smile from the corner table at the local coffee shop? Gone. Ten thousand people are now missing who never got a chance to finish their projects, contribute to society or meet the person who would be thrilled to find that they had the same weird quirk. Potential lost, love lost, countless opportunities lost, and why? Because top decision-makers had decided that war was necessary. Civilian casualties were justified, they decided, and in the end the world would be a better place for it.
And so I learned this lesson. It was a nasty surprise. As I thought about the estimated 20,000 to 200,000 civilians who died during the Secret War on Laos, I felt utterly horrified. But the worst blow came next: it wasn’t over. The Laotians live with the threat of subterranean explosives on 30% of their country. Sure, we stopped bombing 40 years ago and the War, no longer secret but still largely unheard of, has been over for so long that Americans have already had several intervening wars. For young Americans, the Vietnam War is a thing of ancient history, but the story is different in Laos. Laotians can’t forget about what America did to them because they live with it every single day. For them, existing on less than two U.S. dollars per day, escape is impossible. It’s not as easy as moving on to talk about the next war.
For me, nothing could have brought that message home quite like meeting the people who knew exactly what it is to suffer from the after-effects of the war. It is impossible to explain the experience of meeting these people, and it is truly a situation where you simply must go and see for yourself. It can’t be explained, words can’t ever be as convincing here in the US where it all seems like an admittedly sad, but far-off story. I am aware that there are serious budget problems that our nation must deal with, and that spending cuts must be made. But in the end we caused this damage and we need to clean it up. We owe the Lao people, at the very least; we owe them something better than a 2,000 year future of fear, death, injury and poverty.
Ultimately, all I can really say is this: I challenge you to go to Laos and see the extreme poverty. I challenge you to witness the ways in which scrap weaponry is incorporated into everyday life. I challenge you to visit a mother who lost her five year old child to UXO. I challenge you to hear the story of a teenager who lost his eyes and both hands on his 16th birthday in an accident of curiosity. I challenge you to listen to him when he tells you that he doesn’t blame you or America. I challenge you to think long and hard about whether or not you find yourself as guiltless as he does.
And after you have done these simple things: I challenge you to return home and retain your position about giving US aid to Laos.