War and peace, science and development

Laos Bomb Panos.jpg
Copyright: Tim Dirven / Panos

Speed read

  • Henry Kissinger’s new book downplays the human cost of South-East Asian wars
  • The health, environmental and livelihood effects of chemical warfare continue
  • Unexploded ordnance also scares off scientists and surveyors

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War is a menace to life and livelihoods. So peace would seem to be the opposite: a time of prosperity, health and wellbeing. But it is not always so, because war strikes with finality, and the start of peace is but the first step to recovery. It’s a long-term process that can last decades beyond the devastation wrought in conflict.
It is ironic that Henry Kissinger has published his latest book this month, in which we celebrate the International Day of Peace (21 September). Kissinger, who was national security adviser to the US government between 1969 and 1975 and alongside this role later served as secretary of state under US presidents Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford, presided over some of history’s most destructive wars, in South-East Asia in the 1960s and 70s. But now, at 91, the aged statesman downplays the human costs of those wars – in multiple interviews – while promoting his latest work, World Order, an apparent attempt to make sense of global chaos. [1,2]
What the “dazzling” reviews of Kissinger’s “breadth and acuity” omit is a critical view on the long-term effects of war — his wars — that still stymie progress on the ground. [3,4] The conflicts in South-East Asia are not the only events for which Kissinger is tagged a criminal. [5] But that region offers an incisive scope for assessing the aftermath of conflict. During the week after this day of peace, let us turn to Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam to examine the long-term effects of war on humanity, science and development.
Whittling down decades of history to just a few lines: civil war divided Vietnam from 1955 through 1975, pitting the Communist North against the US-allied South. “The whole of Southeast Asia entered a period of turmoil,” Mike Boddington, MBE, a long-time resident of Laos and adviser to and founder of multiple humanitarian organisations, tells me. In an attempt to aid their allies, stop the spread of communism and halt the flow of supplies and personnel along the Ho Chi Minh trail, US forces bombed Cambodia and Laos, with catastrophic consequences: tens of thousands of civilians were killed, and more than 3 million people fled the region. [6] 

“People all over Laos—they really take their lives in their own hands when they decide to disturb the soil.”

Jim Harris, retired American school principal doing work in Laos

In Cambodia, historians say, the bombings led many civilians to join the ranks of the Khmer Rouge and its subsequent genocidal regime, which killed at least a further 1.7 million people. [7] “Every person with the slightest pretension to an education was mercilessly slaughtered: not good for scientific and technical progress,” Boddington says. “And in Laos: the educated middle class was killed, driven to remove themselves from the country or taken away for huge amounts of time…for re-education.” Science and development “were set back decades”.

Environmental fallout

In many places, development still suffers — particularly because South-East Asia is home to millions who rely on subsistence farming for survival, and war left its toll on land and water.
The bombings were so extensive along southern stretches of the Mekong River that they altered watershed hydrology, according to a 2013 report published by the Asia-Pacific Migration and Environment Network. [8] Through a process of “bombturbation,” the raids disrupted soil, destroyed native forest, spurred the growth of vegetation with shallow roots, and ultimately led to increased runoff that lasted for decades.
In Vietnam, where herbicides were used as weapons, nearly 20 million gallons of toxic chemicals were sprayed, destroying 5 million acres of forests and mangroves and 500,000 acres of crops. [9] Millions of people were hit directly with these chemicals, which are linked to more than a dozen cancers, nervous system disorders and other diseases. [10] Multiple studies have detected dioxins today in the land, water and fish around Bien Hoa, one of the largest US air bases in Vietnam – as well as blood serum and breast milk among people living, working and eating in the area.

Unexploded ordnance

In Laos, where US forces flew more than 580,000 bombing missions, millions of unexploded bombs (UXO) remained at the end of war. Since 1975, more than 20,000 Laotians have been killed and injured in accidents with those bombs. “People all over Laos—they really take their lives in their own hands when they decide to disturb the soil,” Jim Harris, a retired American school principal who spends months each year clearing UXO in Laos, told me in a phone interview earlier this year.
Harris works with aid agencies that can’t operate without clearance first. Roads, ditches, toilets, pipes — all require the preliminary step of bomb removal. “Even an organisation like CARE … they can’t change the fact that the land is contaminated and you can’t put a shovel in the ground until you first clear it,” Harris says.
The risks are often exacerbated as populations grow and villagers seek new lands for developing or farming — as well as newer methods of working. In Cambodia last month, the Phnom Penh Post reported a dramatic rise in UXO casualties over last year, which the Cambodian Mine Action Centre attributes to more farmers using heavy machinery rather than manual labour. [11]
UXO remains a critical hazard to farmers throughout the region. “There seems to be limited opportunity to develop,” Julie Van Den Bergh, an archaeologist who worked for many years at the Plain of Jars archaeological sites on the heavily bombed Xieng Khouang Plateau, tells me. There, “the tempered climate promotes agriculture,” she says, but UXO is an expensive obstacle requiring painstakingly slow efforts to remove it. “The government’s policy of livestock development seems a good fit, as this does not require extensive UXO clearance,” she says. But livestock is an expensive proposition that “largely excludes the already impoverished population.” Even tourism development is stymied by UXO, which prevents travellers from venturing into uncleared areas.

Destroying history

Past wars hamper the future, but they also destroy history. “Carpet bombing resulted in a direct loss of archaeological and historical information,” Van Den Bergh says. Extensive evacuations of people further ruined “connections to collective past, memories, stories and legends,” all of which hinder scientific study.

“We are always afraid in the field.”

Sang Kham, a Laotian farmer 

Further, unexploded bombs “make it hard to promote archaeological investigations and surveys,” she says. “It is hard to sell to universities and institutions the notion that … archaeology students or volunteers should roam the Xieng Khouang Plateau in search of new sites or excavate” knowing that  “numerous unexploded, unpredictable objects designed to maim — or kill — people and livestock” lurk on and below the surface.
Throughout Laos, UXO clearance is typically done inch by inch, row by row, with people and detectors to make sure nothing is missed. It’s slow and tedious, and organisations are always looking for more efficient methods. But — ironically, perhaps — some of the most effective approaches involve more social science than data and technology. The problem is, no one knows exactly where the bombs are, and the available bombing records don't always help. [12]

“When we started, we used US bombing data reference points as start points for surveys, but we quickly found out that they are inaccurate to the extent of being less than useful,” Atle Karlsen, Lao country director of Norwegian People’s Aid, tells me. So his organisation now relies more heavily on other methods. They involve informal surveys and conversations with locals to assess the potential risks of a particular plot. The goals are to differentiate between lands that pose little risk , and dangerously contaminated lands that require clearance. It’s a matter of prioritising limited money, personnel and resources.
If a farmer has used a field for years and there is no indication that ground battles or bombings occurred nearby, the risks are likely low and “full clearance would be wasteful,” when so many other areas are heavily contaminated, as Stephen Pritchard, former program manager for Norwegian People’s Aid, writes in a field report. [13] Instead, what the farmer in Pritchard’s report needs is a “confidence-building measure” achievable through a non-technical survey of his land.
That farmer needs to feel safe — as so many currently do not. “We are always afraid in the field,” according to Sang Kham, a Laotian farmer who lost a relative to a bomb accident in the field adjacent his house. Shrapnel hit the man’s neck, and he was killed.
Fear, for many, is the biggest hindrance to progress. In Laos, Jim Harris says, the “best chance of survival is to do what you’ve always done: walk the same path, tend the same soil, build your fire on exactly the same spot that proved to be safe the last time you needed a fire”.

Innovation is known to be dangerous and experimentation to be life threatening,” he adds. “Few advances in science have been accomplished by people who have as their guiding principle: ‘better safe than sorry.’”
He often marvels at the sophisticated yet low-tech creations that villagers invent — including toys, traps, snares, looms, tools — and wonders “what the makers could accomplish in their lives and in the life of their community if the boundaries imposed by the presence of explosive remnants of war were removed. What talent could be unleashed if villagers had the luxury to imagine a future unfettered and unrestrained?”


[1] NPR staff Henry Kissinger's Thoughts On The Islamic State, Ukraine And 'World Order' (NPR 6 September 2014)
[2] Henry Kissinger World Order (Penguin 2014)
[3] Walter Isaacson Henry Kissinger Reminds Us Why Realism Matters (Time 6 September 2014)
[4] Hillary Rodham Clinton Hillary Clinton reviews Henry Kissinger’s ‘World Order’ (Washington Post 4 September 2014)
[5] Christopher Hitchens The Trial of Henry Kissinger (Verso 2001)
[6] UN Refugee Agency Flight from Indochina In: The State of the World’s Refugees 2000: Fifty Years of Humanitarian Action (UN Refugee Agency 1 January 2000)
[7] Adam Taylor Why the world should not forget Khmer Rouge and the killing fields of Cambodia (Washington Post 7 August 2014)
[8] Alain Pierret and others Environmental and migratory consequences of the Vietnam War [Asia-Pacific Migration and Environment Network September 2013)
[9] The Aspen Institute History: Agent Orange/Dioxin in Vietnam (The Aspen Institute 2011)
[10] Veterans’ Diseases Associated with Agent Orange (US Department of Veterans Affairs)
[11] Daniel Pye UXO casualties rising (The Phnom Penh Post 27 August 2014)
[12] Combat air activities files (US government National Archives)
[13] Stephen Pritchard Reflections from the Field: Lao PDR, Surveys and Land Release (The Journal of ERW and Mine Action August 2009)