Difficult Emotions

I (Melissa) admit that I knew very little about the 20th-century history of Southeast Asia when we decided to come here. I’m too young to remember the Vietnam War. My history classes somehow never seemed to get much past the end of WWII. I’ve never been enough of a fan of military history to read up on the topic myself—until this trip.

Before we went to Cambodia, I read two first-hand accounts of the Khmer Rouge period that decimated the country. I was horrified. They prompted me to read more about what happened, and I was ashamed to find that my country had played a role in it.

And then we came to Laos. And I read about what the United States had done here, and I was overwhelmed. Between 1963 and 1973, while the attention of the world was on the U.S. war in Vietnam, rural Laos was the victim of the most extensive sustained bombing campaign in history. In an effort to keep Laos from being used as a transport route for the North Vietnamese, and to attack communist factions here in Laos, the United States dropped more than 2 million tons of bombs on Laos—about a ton for each man, woman, and child in the country—in a “secret war” that was not announced to the public or to Congress.

Bombings occurred an average of every eight minutes, 24 hours a day, for nine solid years. Whole provinces were bombed into nothingness. The bombers aimed at temples, which the North Vietnamese sometimes used as headquarters and which were nice big golden targets (a practice forbidden during the war in Vietnam itself).

Decades later, American weapons are still lethal here. It is estimated that about a third of the cluster bombs that were dropped failed to detonate, and unexploded ordnance claims the lives and limbs of playing children and farmers clearing fields on a regular basis, despite cleanup efforts.

Traveling through Laos, there are only small signs of what happened. Bomb casings turned into planters or benches, mortar tubes used to prop up a sloping bank of soil in a village. You can visit caves where hundreds of villagers hid for up to two months at a time. A tour guide explains that his grandfather remembers the bombing and was lucky to survive. Someone mentions that all villages once had a temple, but many no longer do.

Every time we see someone Chris’s age or older, we realize what they lived through. My mind replays firsthand accounts I’ve read—tales of watching village huts exploding all around, of hiding desperately, with no conception that a war was going on (or sometimes even what a plane was). Tales of an unending rain of death. Tales of fear and confusion and complete destruction. I am sickened that such things happen in the world.

I don’t really understand how the Lao people are so welcoming, how they can hear that I am an American and not be overwhelmed by memories or by stories told by parents and grandparents of what we did here. I do know that I am a little ashamed every time I tell a Lao that I am American.

What I’ve learned about war and my nation here in Southeast Asia has been deeply painful. But it would be so much less painful if it weren’t so easy to imagine an Iraqi or Afghani villager telling the same tales. Some things never seem to end.


  1. Glad you have a better understanding of those times. It certainly was difficult even for those of us who remained at home. I had high school classmates who died in Vietnam. It was the first war televised nightly.

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