My trip to the the COPE Visitor Center in Vientiane, Laos.
All I could write in the guestbook at COPE was “thanks for cleaning up our mess.”
I’m not a big museum person – unless it’s a museum where I can touch things! Places like planetariums, the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago, or COSI in Ohio – those are fun, but as a whole I’m not a big fan of looking at a bunch of things I can’t touch and reading big panels of text about them…ugh, shoot me.
That being said, I do also love free things! Here’s a little math: Free + Activity = Zoom’s attendance.
While doing my research for top activities in Vientiane, the capitol city of Laos, my options were limited – not really much to do here it turns out! The #1 recommended activity was a trip to the Visitor Center of COPE.
What is COPE?
COPE is a non-profit organization that helps UXO (unexploded ordinance) victims move on.
“Move on” is actually a morbid pun because the victims have usually suffered loss of a limb, function of a body part, or need some sort of physical therapy after their unfortunate encounter with unexploded bombs throughout the Laos region.
COPE works with provincial rehabilitation centers to provide access to both orthotic/prosthetic devices and rehabilitation services, including physiotherapy, occupational therapy and pediatric services to UXO survivors. They also assist those with disabilities not specifically caused by unexploded bombs.
Why are there bombs all over Laos?
Ah, the question of the day. The answer, dearest reader, is because the USA bombed the complete shit out of Laos during the Vietnam War – as well as Northern Vietnam and Cambodia in the fight to stop the spread of communism. Why didn’t someone use a condom? (just trying to lighten the mood…)
Also known as the Second Indochina War, there were rules and codes of conduct during the Vietnam War. One that I distinctly remember hearing during my tour of the COPE visitor center was that the US was not allowed to bomb within X meters of any temple. I remember thinking “dang that must have been hard because there are temples everywhere over here!“.
During the USA’s struggle (not really sure why it was our struggle in the first place..) to stop the communist overtake of Southern Vietnam by the northern part of the country, bombs and air raids were a common tactic used to assist this vision.
However, without being common knowledge, there was also a War being conducted in Laos during the Vietnam war – the Laotian Civil War. Communist leaders were trying to overthrow the already established Royal Lao Government.
At that time, the United States launched what is known to the CIA as the “Secret War”. The USA began the biggest bombardment in history of a single country – Laos. As I understand it, the motivation was to disrupt any progress made by the assistance of northern Vietnam to Laos, and to also try and regain control of the Ho Chi Minh Trail.
The Ho Chi Minh trail is exactly that – a trail. It runs through Northern and Southern Vietnam, crossing over into Laos in the southern part of the panhandle and ending in Cambodia.
Norther Vietnamese forces were using the part of the Ho Chi Minh trail in Laos as a way to supply troops and mobilize their forces for attacks on Southern Vietnam. Obviously, the USA didn’t want this so how do they solve the problem? “Uh, derp, Mr. Prez I think we should just blow it up!”
From 1964 to 1973, the U.S. dropped more than two million tons of explosives on Laos across 580,000 bombing missions. Think of it like this: that’s a planeload of bombs every 8 minutes, 24-hours a day, for 9 years. Here’s another spin: the U.S. spent $13.3M per day (in 2013 dollars) for nine years bombing Laos. You know how many scholarships that could have provided?
Guys, America is a huge country. LIKE HUGE. Having now visited other countries and talking to people from other countries, I’m realizing just how big the USA is.
You can drive North to South across Germany in 10 hours, and from East to West in 5. I could cross the entire COUNTRY in less time than it takes to drive from Chicago to my hometown in Ohio.
I mention this because Laos is even smaller than Germany, so I want you to fully appreciate just how dense of a bombing this was.
Why are the bombs in Laos still a problem?
I promise, I’m almost off the pedestal here.
Out of the 270 million cluster bombs that were dropped on Laos during the “Secret War” we were at during the Vietnam War (FYI, that’s 210 million more bombs than were dropped on Iraq in 1991, 1998 and 2006 combined); up to 80 million did not detonate. This is just cluster bombs, mind you. Just ONE TYPE of bomb out of the many that were used.
The tiny little bombs inside are known in Laos as Bombies. Maybe giving them a cute name makes them less horrible. They are currently the number one cause of UXO casualties in the country today. Each year, there continue to be over 100 new casualties in Laos. Close to 60% of the accidents result in death, and 40% of the victims are children.
Accidents range from being out in the jungle camping – lighting a cooking fire over some dirt where a bomb resides – to digging holes for construction and hitting a bomb with a shovel. Children sometimes come across the bombs thinking they are balls or toys, and even sometimes they try and return them to the village so that they can sell the metal from the bomb to try and make some money for their families. Yes, bomb scrap metal is a well paying business here – sad that it encourages people to try and not only seek bombs out but to transport them too. That’s real poverty folks.
Many of the bombs found are still live, and need to be carefully extracted by the professionals.
How do the remaining live bombs get dealt with?
Keeping in the spirit of our war-theme here, I’m going to say that they bring in the Big Guns – a group known as MAG (Mines Advisory Group) International.
What does MAG do?
We help people to be safe from landmines and unexploded ordnance (UXO), free from danger, free from fear. We find landmines before children do.
By removing unexploded landmines and UXO from land and destroying them, we enable communities to grow more food and make a better living, access better health services, and know that their children can walk to school in safety.
MAG continues to work with Laos to help clean up the mess made by the US bombings. Working with UXOLAO (the Lao National Unexploded Ordinance Program), MAG assists to train Laos citizens on how to safely handled any discovered unexploded bombs that are found.
- Detonate the bomb at it’s current location.
- Detonate the bomb in a safe location (for example, if it were in a school yard or a village, they might want to move it).
- Return the bomb to the armory to be destroyed.
The trainees undergo hours of classwork, practical field training, and a final evolution where – supervised- they manage a team to destroy a live bomb (this makes every exam I’ve ever freaked out about look like sissies). If they pass the test, they are now certified to handle bomb cases in their local region – potentially saving hundreds of lives.
Zoom, why did you write about this?
Leaving the COPE visitors center, I felt ashamed of my country and angry that we constantly seem to stick our fingers where they don’t need to be.
I almost didn’t write this. I felt this post could be rather controversial and I never want to piss anyone off. But, this isn’t just about Laos but so many other involvements – America has seemed to crown ourselves “The World Police”and I’m tired of it. You don’t get remembered by never causing a stir.
Now, if you’re all Mr. Patriotic like this guy:
I hope you aren’t feeling too upset that I seem to be dumping on the USA’s poor decision making (because that’s totally what I’m doing). Hopefully you aren’t sitting there with your shotgun going “How can she say this? America is the best country in the whole wide world!” I don’t disagree!
Just because there are plenty of things other countries do better *cough* health care, education, food waste reduction, maternity leave, paid time off, minimum wage, abortion rights, inter-country transport, and not being embarrassed by Donald Trump *cough* doesn’t mean I don’t love the land of the free.
I can write this article without any fear of repercussion. I can vote for anyone other than Donald Trump, even as a woman. I can watch TV uncensored and get access to insane amounts of porn on the internet. I can practice any religion I want, or not, as I so choose. I can have friends from diverse backgrounds and ethnicities – and I can do it all without looking over my shoulder.
While maybe I’m feeling a little down about America’s past actions, I’ve decided to still taking pride in our Land of the Free.
I grew up in a military town near an Air force Base. My father was military. My grandfather was military – and a POW in The Vietnam War. When I asked him about it, he would never tell me because “a ladys head shouldn’t be filled with those things”. My uncle retired as a 4 star general in the military. I have countless cousins who joined the military. Many of my friends from high school work on the base. I have two Marine friends who have served multiple tours in Iraq and Afghanistan so that I can write this article. I appreciate and recognize all of their service.
What I hope you get out of this is simply some additional knowledge about the impacts of war. While I opted not to go to college, I’m certainly being educated through my independent study abroad while traveling.
Just like with people, when you stand by someone, you should know all the details – good and bad.
Has this article impacted you at all, or changed your perspective on wars? I’d love to hear your thoughts – pro or anti.