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When War Doesn't End

Unexploded cluster bombs, like ones being dropped on Afghanistan today, have killed 12,000 civilians in Laos since the end of the U.S.'s "secret" war there 30 years ago.
 
 
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There are several disturbing lessons in "Bombies," the forthcoming PBS documentary on cluster bombs in the U.S's covert war in Laos. The first is that the wounds of war don't end with peace treaties in the modern era; they continue in the form of undetonated bombs that cover the former killing fields of the world. In Laos, they have killed 12,000 civilians in the past three decades.

The second is that military technology which initially appears "smart" often proves to be abysmally stupid. Cluster bombs, developed during the Vietnam War and hailed for their ability to effectively disperse submunitions (surface-delivered "grenades" or air-delivered "bomblets"), may indeed increase the radius of destruction. But they also have a high failure rate, with hideous post-war repercussions. Twenty to 30 percent of the 90 million cluster bombs dropped on Laos between 1964 and 1973 failed to explode on impact and now lie dormant, waiting for a child's hand or a farmer's hoe to set them off. The Laotian moniker for these tennis ball-sized destroyers -- "bombies" -- may sound sweet to the American ear, but the weapons are nothing if not proof of man's capacity to do evil.

"Bombies may be the preeminent symbol of humans inhumanity to other humans," says Fred Branfman, a former U.S. government worker in Laos-turned-political activist who appears in Jack Silberman's documentary. "They were designed to destroy not tanks or trucks but to kill people ... and largely civilians."

War is cruel. Untimely death is tragic. When enemy forces face each other on the battlefield or in the skies above, it is difficult to determine which actions are just or lawful. But in the case of the U.S.'s "secret" war in the mist-shrouded mountains and jungles of Laos -- a neutral country according to the U.S.-signed 1962 Geneva Accords -- it is unquestionable that America waged a highly murderous and mostly ineffectual military campaign.

During the nine years that the U.S. attempted to staunch the flow of North Vietnamese people and supplies moving along the Ho Chi Minh Trail and rid the countryside of Communists, American planes dropped more than 500,000 loads of bombs -- the equivalent of a B-52 planeload of bombs every eight minutes. More bombs descended on Laos than on Germany and Japan combined during World War II, making it the most bombed country in history. At least 80 percent of those killed were civilian farmers and villagers. And the U.S. government did this illegally and secretly.

"Everyone talked about Vietnam. Cambodia came under the spotlight. But Laos, it was like it never existed," says Rae McGrath, a bomb demolition expert with the British Army, who received the 1997 Nobel Peace Prize and serves as a key talking head in "Bombies."

"I never saw what the target was. Most of the bombs were just a dump," says Lee Thorn, a former Navy operative who loaded cluster bombs on U.S. planes destined for missions over Laos and, in the film, returns to Laos to deliver medical supplies.

"Bombies" is not soft entertainment. It shows interviews with angry, impoverished Laotian villagers. It follows a seemingly endless trail of brightly-colored unexploded bombs -- a kind of perverse Easter egg hunt -- in bamboo trees, school playgrounds, rice paddies, under houses, everywhere. The film makes clear that ridding Laos of cluster bombs is a Sisyphean task. Even with the help of the Mennonites, who have been working to clear bombs since 1975, and agencies like McGrath's Mines Advisory Group, which helps remove more than 100,000 unexploded ordnances every year, Laos will never be a free of cluster bombs.

One of the most remarkable images in the documentary is of school children, sitting in rows of little wooden chairs, obediently singing the "bombie song," which has lyrics like "Do not touch them. They are not toys." Of the 500 Laotians killed or maimed each year, 43 percent of those who die and 44 percent of those maimed are children. Another unforgettable image is of villagers eating from pots and using spoons made from scraps of bombies, which are the main source of metal in Laos.

Though "Bombies" boldly illustrates the murderous effects of cluster bombs, and focuses on the difficulty of removing them from Laos, the documentary only tepidly addresses the subject of U.S. responsibility, probably because indictments of American foreign policy pretty much guarantee a no-show on PBS. "Bombies" also fails to mention the two treaties -- the 1997 Mine Ban Treaty and the 1980 Convention on Conventional Weapons -- that could force the U.S. from further production and use of cluster bombs. (The U.S. has not signed the Mine Ban Treaty, which does not cover cluster bombs, but it is a signatory to the Convention on Conventional Weapons, which could be interpreted to cover them.)

What the film does effectively address on the U.S. side, though, is the outing of the war before Congress. We see footage of a very young, fairly sober-looking Ted Kennedy, testifying that the bombing created a half million refugees in Laos. Also shown are rousing speeches by Senator George McGovern and Fred Branfman, the young American who documented the effects of bombing and brought them to the public's attention in 1971.

There is a final message in "Bombies" too, however subtlely put across. It is that the story of cluster bombs in Laos has been replicated across the globe. A new generation of bombies has been used in Kuwait, Iraq, the Falklands, Ethiopia, Sudan, Sierra Leone, Chechnya and Kosovo.

Today, the United States is also using them in Afghanistan, which even before the Oct. 7 military campaign ranked as one of the world's most heavily mined countries. A recent CBS investigation has found that a significant proportion of cluster bombs falling on Afghanistan do not detonate on impact or miss their targets all together, and that its manufacturers are well aware of this.

"I think one of the lessons from the [Laotian] war," says Dr. Timothy Castle of the U.S. War College in the film, "is that if you try to use bombing, you probably should think about the long-term consequences, because, particularly with bombies, they are physically going to be there long after the war is over."

Based on the U.S.'s unwillingness to sign international weapons treaties or come up with "smarter" technology, it looks like those long-term consequences will forge a black spot of death and destruction well into the 21st century.

For more information on the use of cluster bombs in Afghanistan and elsewhere, go to this backgrounder from Human Rights Watch.

To express your disapproval of the use of cluster bombs and other land mines, go to the Web site of the International Campaign to Ban Landmines.

For showtimes of "Bombies," check listings for your local PBS station.

Tamara Straus is senior editor of AlterNet.org.