Saturday, May 16, 2009

The Other Thirty Percent

A bus ride through the gorgeous and rugged juggle hills is the quintessential Laos experience. A rusty ‘nam-era bus. Broken windows and the haze of road dust they let in. A crowd of backpackers piled in the back lazing off crooked seat backs and stacks of rice bags. An Asian bus driver that, paradoxically, drives in an almost sensible laid-back manner. Regular coffee breaks. Communities of stilt houses and thatched roofs rolling slowly by. Their tribal residents decorated in an other-worldly array of colors, styles, and names: The Black Hmong, the Red Dzao, the Akha. This is Indochina in low gear.

Our bus turned a corner, lumbered quietly down a dirt road, and squeaked to slow halt. Its crusty payload of international backpackers hesitated and blinked their eyes before squirming out from between their rice sacks and torn seat cushions. In the sunny quiet, we slowly and deliberately set about the solemn ceremony of unloading our enormous luggage, mounting up, and setting off in small teams to uncover the cheapest hotel deal in town and brag about our ruthless providence later.

Katlijn and I teamed up with an Israeli ex-fighter jet pilot and a tattooed Aussie beach enthusiast- typical backpacker circuit company. As we explored the wanting hotel scene, we remarked to each other how amazingly easy backpackers could go about their business here. In other parts of Asia, our bus would have been surrounded by a sea of slippery touts and over-eager hoteliers. They’d not only unload our bags for us, they’d run off with them to their hostels cleverly forcing us to take up chase. Not in Laos. It seemed the local business community couldn’t be bothered badgering backpackers. Sure, they’d make a token effort to rip us off, but it was done in such a half-ass lazy manner and with so much free lao-lao, that we’d feel almost obligated to give them our money.

There isn’t much reason to come to a place like Phonsavan. Indeed, very little reason at all. Nevertheless, I forced Katlijn to accompany me all the way out here just so I could witness first-hand their main tourist attraction: a grassy field full of broken stone jars called, rather uninspiringly, “The Plain of Jars”. Imagine that ! A plain of… jars ! Of all things ! I found that interesting. There is this place, deep in the farthest reaches of Asia’s mystical backyard, witnessed each day by only a handful of dusty backpackers who actually have the time for this sort of thing, full of giant stone jars so old they pre-date the birth of Christ by more than 1000 years. Oddly, these jars are found nowhere else but here, their extinct society would have devoted massive amounts of resources to their construction, and archaeologists haven’t the foggiest inkling what they are for. That’s incredible ! How can it be that everyone knows Stonehenge, but nobody has even heard of Laos’ giant jars ?

Several theories have been proposed to explain the origin of the plain of jars. The Akha people believe the stone jars were used to ferment lao-lao rice wine, while archaeologists think they may be part of an ancient burial ritual.

A german backpacker puts forth a third alternative.

As we wandered happily about the mysterious plain of jars, we began to notice, for the first time, the ubiquitous presence of the following signs posted all over Laos:

And so, I think this is as good a time as any, to finally broach the topic. After all, I know what you are thinking: all these colorful tribal people and stone jars are fine… but, really, doesn’t Laos have something to do with the Vietnam War ? Come to think of it, if it’s the “Vietnam” War what did “Laos” and “Cambodia” have to do with it at all ? And if this was part of the “cold” war, why all the napalm ? And was it a “conflict” or a “war” and what’s the difference ?

If you ever find yourself asking questions like these, then you are probably a closet Vietnam War ignoramus and that’s nothing to be ashamed of. After all, between all the double-speak that developed to explain the unthinkable and all the stoned journalists telling the story, it isn’t surprising nobody really understands what happened anymore. However, the details of Laos’ tragic story seems to occupy a particularly nebulous realm in the already foggy place of the American-Vietnam psyche.

Vietnam era bombies: small clusters of metal balls packed together in clay and gunpowder. Thousands of these were dropped at a time to engulf several football fields of area in a deadly spray of shrapnel.

Despite all the confusion, the story line is very simple. The infamous “domino theory” was coined by John F. Kennedy to garner popular support for his increasingly hawkish interpretation of events in Laos, not Vietnam. These comments were made in response to political events developing in favor of a communist-inspired resistance government called the Pathet Lao. To prevent further escalation, a 14-nation conference was held to create the Geneva Accord of 1962 which strictly forbid the presence of foreign military in Laos. The tragic story is that everybody violated this accord for a very long time.

Bomber releasing bombies over a target.

It would be unseemly to announce in public the wanton dismissal of a major international agreement, so the war was conducted in secret. The “Secret War” lasted nine years and involved foreign superpowers (America, China, USSR) playing off native Laotian pawns (Thai-Hmong tribal groups and the Pathet Lao) against one another, while committing air support and ground troops of their own. The war was such an embarrassing secret that the name of the country was banished from all official communications; participants darkly referred to activities in Laos as “the other theater”. Pilots directly involved in the bombing, were asked to dress in civilian clothes so they could not be traced back to the United States. Since the war was in violation of a Geneva accord anyhow, it made sense to ignore the rest of the international rules of engagements while they were at it and what happened in “the other theater” was so horrible it had to be obscured in a confusing array of nebulous euphemisms forever. However, I will refrain here from the stylized diction of the stoned ‘nam embedded journalist, and stick with the facts:

  • On average, one planeload of bombs was dropped on Laos every eight minutes, 24 hours a day, for nine years at a cost of 2 million US dollars per day.

  • Between 1964-1968, nearly half a million tons of ordnance and 200,000 gallons of agent orange had been let loose on the country. At about this time, bombing was halted in Vietnam increasing the available air power to drum Laos.

  • By the war’s end, approximately 1.9 million tons of ordinance had been dropped on Laos, or over half a ton of explosives for every man, woman and child living in Laos.

  • On a per-capita basis, Laos is the most heavily bombed country in the history of warfare.

During the secret war, seventy-percent of the ordinance detonated successfully. In addition to an astonishing inefficiency, this figure highlights another issue: what about the other thirty percent ? And finally, brings us back to those signs and the subject of this post.

The short answer is that it has been re-integrated back into the local economy. True, some of it still goes off from time to time when a decades-old bomb sunk in the muddy rice fields meets a farmer’s plough or a tourist’s hiking boot; Laos is no place to wander off the beaten path. However, the vast majority of it is meticulously recovered and sold-off as scrap-metal for such mundane items as village flower pots, kitchen ladles, and thatched-roof supports. There were so many bombs dropped on such a poor country, that the left-over ordinance has become a commonplace commodity occupying the most mundane and banal items of daily village life. The locals barely notice that their tulips are growing out of bullet-ridden army helmets and that their families live in homes curiously cobbled together by spent artillery shells.

An abandoned soviet tank in Laos has since been picked clean by scavengers and resold as scrap-metal.

House support, fence, and herb-garden built out of spent artillery shells and bomb cartridges.

In addition to an increase in demand from American journalists and GIs, a newly-formed landscape of bomb craters created a boom for the local opium and heroine industry. Runoff collected in the bomb craters provided a perfect nursery for growing opium poppies. Poppies were grown in these bomb craters long after the war until the industry was made illegal in Laos only five years ago.

Not to undermine the problem of unexploded ordinance in Laos. American bombs of the era were designed to maim, not kill, and this cruel logic is still being unearthed more than thirty years later. The Laotian scrap-metal trade is as wicked as the war that initiated it. After all, who better to find and dig up lethal baseball-like bombies than the little fingers of child-labour ? The small cadre of Western volunteers trying hard to dismantle and remove dangerous ordinance from Laotian communities are often disheartened by the angry looks of villagers watching on as potentially useful and profitable commodities are taken away from them.

The mysterious stone jars were badly damaged during the bombing of Laos, irreparably complicating the process of understanding the past. Today, there exists a field of mostly smashed jars lying about a forgotten backwater of Laos: a kind of shrine to wasted resources attended to regularly by a clergy of gap-year backpackers.