An estimated 30 percent of all bombs dropped did not detonate when they fell. Between 70 million and 80 million bombs remain in Laotian soil today. The vast majority are cluster submunitions: tennis-ball-size bomblets that were packed into canisters by the hundreds and scattered widely. Cluster munitions have notoriously high failure rates, leaving postwar lands littered with fatal dangers. Handicap International, an independent Nobel Peace Prize–winning organization that runs rehabilitation programs in war and disaster areas, reports that 98 percent of cluster submunition casualties are civilians going about their daily lives or returning home in the aftermath of conflict. Since the last explosives fell in Laos, leftover U.S. bombs have killed and injured more than 20,000 Laotians.
The bombing campaign against Laos had two aims: to stop the flow of soldiers and supplies between North and South Vietnam along the Ho Chi Minh Trail (which was actually a series of routes), and to aid U.S. allies in the north against the Pathet Lao, the nationalist communist group. According to the Encyclopedia of the Vietnam War, the first U.S. Air Force strikes took place on June 9, 1964, against antiaircraft positions in northern Laos. The airstrikes escalated and spread with the start of Operation Barrel Roll on Dec. 14. (Operation Rolling Thunder, the bombing campaign that targeted Vietnam, did not begin until March 1965.) The Laos bombings, which were conducted in secret — their very existence hidden from the American people — didn’t stop for nine years.
But the bombs were anything but hidden from the Laotian people. They obliterated villages, destroyed fields, eviscerated civilians. They still kill Laotians today. Farmers die when they strike a bomb while hoeing. Villagers die when cooking fires cause buried bombs to explode. Children die when they find old bombs that look like toys. Survivors fear the ground beneath them. “We are always afraid in the field,” a banana farmer named Sang Kham told me a few years ago, shortly after a relative of his was blown up while farming. Sang Kham’s words echoed those of many villagers I interviewed while researching “Eternal Harvest,” the book my husband, Jerry Redfern, and I wrote and photographed on the lingering effects of the U.S. war in Laos.