Dear Dirty America


Bombs & Jars

March 04
19:30 2012
Berkeley, California

Credit: C.d. Luebke
The most interesting part of my trip to the Lao PDR (October 2006) was the visit to the Plain of Jars in the Xieng Houang province. The Plain of Jars is so called because this area is filled with hundreds of large jars made from either sandstone or granite. When these jars were made, who made them, and why they made them are all mysteries. Most archaeologists speculate, however, that they are between 1500 and 2000 years old, made by a group of Mon-Khmer people, and that they were used for a variety of purposes, including holding the cremated remains of people, storing water, and prisons. However, no one really knows for sure as there is no organic matter in or on any of the jars that can be carbon-dated.

Another aspect that makes the Plain of Jars so interesting is that it is among the most dangerous archaeological sites in the entire world. Everyone knows about the Vietnam War during the 1960’s and 1970’s, but what a lot of people don’ t know is that there was a sort of “side-show” war going on in Lao (as well as Cambodia) at this time as well (in fact, it never really ended—there are pockets of Hmong resistance to this day in Lao.) The Pathet Lao Communist guerrillas were fighting to remove the Royal Lao government, and had supply help from the Soviet and Chinese governments, and North Vietnamese troops helping them. The Pathet Lao started their insurrection in the eastern part of the country near the Vietnam border, and worked their way west, meeting opposition from the Royal Lao government, as well as Hmong soldiers. Also, the Ho Chi Minh Trail, by which the North Vietnamese government supplied the Viet Cong fighting in the South, went through Eastern Lao.

Another fact that not too many people know is that the CIA was secretly involved in this war in Lao, in which a secret air force helped the Hmong and Royal Lao fight the Pathet Lao, in response to North Vietnamese presence in the country (there is an excellent book about these pilots called The Ravens, written by Christopher Robbins.) The CIA also transported opium for the purpose of sale on the international market with this secret air force, in order to supply and arm the Hmong troops, but that’s a whole other story (see The Politics of Heroin: CIA Complicity in the Global Drug Trade, by Alfred W. McCoy for more information on this topic.)

Credit: C.d. Luebke
In addition to all of this, Lao happened to be where the B-52s and other bombers flew over, taking off from Ubon Ratchatani and Udon Thani in Thailand and bombing North Vietnam “back to the stone age.” However, due to the “rules of engagement,” they could not drop their payloads on North Vietnam unless they could visually identify their targets. Since there were several cloudy days in that tropical, rainy land, they often had to turn around with a full plane. For safety reasons, bombers are not allowed to land with bombs still in their planes (that could get messy, as you can imagine). But since the war in Lao was a secret war, the “rules of engagement” did not apply, and these bombers would often drop their payloads on the Lao countryside. If possible, they would try to direct these bombs toward the fighting (and a lot of the fighting was in the Xieng Hoang province, on the Plain of Jars,) or toward the Ho Chi Minh Trail, trying to make use of the bombs. Frequently, however, they would just dump them in remote forested regions.During this time, there were nearly 2 million metric tons of bombs dropped on Lao in total. That’s 10 tons for every square kilometer, and half a ton for every man, woman, and child who lived in Lao at this time. That makes Lao, per capita, the most bombed country in the history of the world.

Not all of these bombs exploded. The US dropped lots of cluster bombs at this time, especially along the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Cluster Bombs, illegal by the Geneva Convention on warfare, are a gift that keeps on giving. You see, only about half of the bombs explode on contact, and the other half remain. They are an effective anti-personnel weapon, as an unsuspecting enemy soldier could walk over one or several of the bomblets (called “bombies” by the Lao,) and set them off. However, the bombies remain for decades afterwards. Every year, about 130 people in Lao die from accidents with unexploded ordinance. Many of them are children, who find the bright-yellow bombies and think they are toys, or else hunters trying to get gunpowder for their guns.

A great number of these bombs were dropped directly on the sites of the Plain of Jars, as this is only about 130 km from Vietnam, had a highway from Vietnam to the hot zones of the Lao insurrection, and was subsequently host to a lot of intense fighting. In addition, it was not far from the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Three of the sixty sites have been cleared of ordinance by the Mines Action Group (

), but many sites have not been cleared, and thus are very dangerous to visit.

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