Secretary Clinton in Laos

Working from Within or Without?

Clinton’s visit to Laos should focus on cleaning up the 80 million unexploded bombs the US left behind from the Vietnam War. Instead, it’s all about realpolitik.

Alternet, July 10, 2012

A symbolic moment periodically illuminates both the true nature of U.S. foreign policy and how even once-idealistic youth become what they once opposed when executing it. Such a moment will occur on Wednesday as Hillary Clinton becomes the first U.S. Secretary of State in 57 years to visit Laos, where the U.S. has refused to clean up the 80 million unexploded bombs it left behind, bombs which have murdered or maimed over 20,000 innocent rice-farmers and children since the bombing ended in 1973 and continue to kill until today.

Secretary Clinton’s visit to Laos is part of the administration’s new attempt to contain China, and will focus on “the Lower Mekong Initiative and ASEAN integration efforts” according to the State department’s press release. The young Hillary Clinton, an admirer of the New Left and activist for the poor, criticized a heartless U.S. foreign policy which plays power politics while shamelessly neglecting urgent humanitarian needs like protecting civilians around the world from being blown up by U.S. cluster bombs. Today, rather than signing the U.N. treaty banning them, she fights to weaken it. As a youth she regarded her predecessor Henry Kissinger’s bombing of Cambodia as “criminal “and “immoral.” Today, she follows in his footsteps.

Millions of Lao children have grown up believing it normal to live in a hellscape where one can suddenly lose a limb, eyes, or life by stepping on an unseen cluster bomb, and where it is common to meet whole families made destitute because a father died in an explosion while searching for food, or seeking scrap metal to make a few dollars, to feed his subsistence-level family.

The Lao people have been tormented by U.S. warmaking for 48 years and counting. U.S. leaders, who dropped more cluster bombs in Laos than dropped in the rest of the world, bombed Laos from 1964-73, destroying and causing an estimated 30,000 civilian casualties. From 1973 until today the unexploded ordinance (UXO) has killed and wounded many more. It has deprived Lao of land badly needed to feed their children and caused them to live in constant fear of sudden death.

From 1969-71, I interviewed refugees from the bombing in Laos who told me that cluster bombs, which U.S. airmen then called “antipersonnel” bombs, were the weapon they most feared. They reported that thousands had been dropped on their villages, and that most of the victims were children, women and grandparents. Lao and Vietnamese communist soldiers moved through the thick forests of northern Laos, and were largely undetectable from the air.

I brought back an antipersonnel bomb to the U.S. in February 1971. Although the communists knew all about these weapons, the information was kept secret from the American people and Congress. It was only by interviewing  U.S. military personnel that I learned how these bombs, which could not destroy buildings or tanks, were designed to maim — not kill — human beings in the hopes of tying up others to care for them; how steel pellets were replaced by flechettes meant to tear more flesh if one tried to remove them from the body; U.S. Airforce personnel at Udorn Airforce Base in Thailand had told me they comprised 80% of the bombs dropped on Laos. I also learned that each “pineapple” bomblet contained 250 steel pellets, and that one aircraft sortie dropped 1,000 bomblets, spewing out 250,000 pellets over an area the size of four football fields.

I also learned how the bomblets had been originally designed to take out massed troops but, given the difficulty of detecting enemy troops in Laos, U.S. leaders had instead consciously used them, in the words of a 1970 U.S. Senate Refugee Subcommittee report, “to destroy the physical and social infrastructure of Pathet Lao areas. The bombing has taken and is taking a heavy toll among civilians. My antipersonnel bomb became to me in those years a tangible symbol of U.S. leaders’ indifference to innocent human life.

At Present Rates It Will Take 1,000 Years for Laos to Be Bomb-Free

The U.S. has cleaned up only 0.28% of the Lao land it contaminated over the past 37 years, as it has spent only one tenth of one percent on cluster bomb cleanup of what it spent on bombing Laos ($61 million vs. $70 billion in current dollars). This year’s appropriation of $10 million to save living human beings may also be compared to the $105 million the U.S. spends annually looking for the bone fragments of long-dead U.S. pilots.

Mike Boddington, a former advisor to the Lao Agency in charge of bomb cleanup and founder of the COPE center that helps bomb victims, calculates that at the present rate  — given 8 million bomb-contaminated hectares and an annual U.S. and international expenditure of $15-20 million — it  will take over 1,000 years for Laos to be decontaminated, at a cost of $20 billion.

He also believes, as a rough estimate, that it will take 25 years at the present rate just to clear “high priority” areas in and around existing villages, about 2.5% of the total  bomb-contaminated land. “Now that we have the cluster munitions ban, international eyes are focused on Laos. But the pace of clearance is snail-like, and assistance for victims is tiny,” he says.

Sec. Hillary Clinton will likely visit the 7-acre site of the new U.S. Embassy complex for which ground was broken on May 18, which will “provide embassy employees with a state-of-the-art workspace.” The U.S. will spend $109 million on the complex, eleven times more than the token $10 million it will spend on cluster bomb cleanup this year. This $10 million will clear 4,000 hectares, 1/2000 of Laos’s bomb-contaminated land.

When I interviewed the Lao government head of the UXO cleanup on the Plain of Jars in northern Laos in 2008, he stated that if he had 10 times more money he could clean up 10 times more land. If U.S. leaders were to spend $100 million on the UXO cleanup rather than a new unnecessary U.S. embassy — the present embassy was big and safe enough to conduct a major war in Laos in the far more dangerous 1960s, and there are now but a handful of U.S. embassy officials in Laos — they could have helped 10 times as many people and decontaminated 10 times as much land.

The Human Impact Of Cluster Bombs

The human impact of the unexploded bombs was dramatically revealed on the third day of the First Meeting of States Parties to ban cluster bombs held in the Lao capital of Vientiane in November 2010. Those of us attending the conference were shocked to our core when the English-language Vientiane Times published a front-page story and photo of the naked corpse of 10-year old Pui, who had been killed the day before:

A 10-year girl was killed and her sister injured on Wednesday by a cluster bomb that exploded in Thasala village … Ms. Pui was returning home from school, and picked up an unexploded bomb (which) exploded and caused serious injuries and extreme loss of blood and she died. (Her sister) Ms. Paeng (had) injuries to her knees, body and neck. She said that after the explosion she heard her sister coughing up blood and held her until help arrived.

Lao people continue to live in fear of UXO three decades after the Indochina war ended. Last month Mr. Ladone of Nhuanthong village in Xieng Khouang province, was injured when a UXO device exploded as he lit a fire in his backyard to warm himself. Mr. Ladone was blinded by the explosion.

The human impacts include not only actual people killed, blinded and deprived of limbs, but the millions of Lao who are forced to live in fear as they walk to school, light a fire or pick bamboo shoots to feed their families. And countless numbers of these subsistence-level rice farmers are denied safe access to land they need to farm in order to survive. “About 37 percent of the country’s surface is contaminated with UXO, preventing people from using agricultural land and making many areas uninhabitable,” the newspaper also noted.

Secretary Clinton’s State Department does acknowledge the problem. At an April 22, 2010 hearing, 29 years to the day after former U.S. Ambassador William Sullivan lied to Congress by denying that the U.S. was bombing civilian targets in Laos, State Department official Scot Marciel declared that:

During the Vietnam War, over 2.5 million tons of U.S. munitions were dropped on Laos. This is more than was dropped on Germany and Japan combined in the Second World War. On a per capita basis, Laos is the most heavily bombed country in history. Up to 30 percent of the bombs dropped over Laos failed to detonate. The UN Development Program has reported that ‘UXO/mine action is the absolute pre-condition for the socio-economic development of Lao PDR’ and that because of UXO ‘economic opportunities in tourism, hydroelectric power, mining, forestry and many other areas of activity considered main engines of growth for the Lao PDR are restricted, complicated and made more expensive.’

Marciel also acknowledged the human consequences of UXO:

The explosive remnants of war continue to impede development and cause (close) to 300 (casualties) per year … At the level of individual victims, of course, the consequences of death or maiming are catastrophic for entire families.

Despite admitting the U.S. has caused “catastrophic consequences for entire families,” the Department of State has basically ignored them. It for many years provided only $3-5 million annually for bomb cleanup, and only recently increased it to a still woefully inadequate $10 million due to the work of the public interest group Legacies of War.

U.S. leaders are prone to lecture others on their need to exercise “personal responsibility.” There may be no more shameful example of their own irresponsibility than their failing to take responsibility for the deadly mess they have left behind in Laos.

Secretary Clinton Pushing To Weaken the Cluster Bomb Treaty

The State Department’s refusal to adequately fund cluster bomb cleanup in Laos is but part of Secretary Clinton’s failures on the issue.

During the November 2010 conference in Laos to ban cluster bombs, many delegates commented on an obvious fact: while over 100 nations were participating in the conference, the major nation not represented was the country that had dropped the bombs in the first place. In a startling display of pettiness, the U.S. embassy refused to accept the Conference’s invitation to even send an official observer, the new U.S. ambassador  delayed her arrival in Laos until after the conference was ended, and the only official American present was a low-level political officer handing out a one-pager lauding America’s woefully inadequate funding of cluster bomb cleanup.

The U.S. has retained its giant stockpile of cluster munitions, by far the largest in the world, and reserves the right to use them whenever it wishes. It dropped 1.8 million cluster bombs on Iraq, 250,000 on Afghanistan. And in Yemen, the Daily Telegraph reported on June 7, 2010:

Thirty five women and children were killed by an American cruise missile armed with cluster bombs which struck an alleged al-Qaeda training camp in Yemen, according to a study (by) Amnesty International.

And then, in November 2011, Secretary Clinton took it a step further. She launched a major lobbying effort to significantly weaken the Cluster Munitions Treaty, as Steve Goose of Human Rights Watch reported:

The U.S. is touting a much weaker alternative (which) will fail to offer greater protections to civilians. In fact it could lead to an increase in cluster munitions, by providing a specific legal framework for its use. It would allow for continued use, production, trade and stockpiling of many millions of cluster munitions. It includes no obligation to destroy stockpiles.

In the end the U.S. proposal was defeated, and human rights campaigners hope that the stigma now attached to the use of cluster munitions will prevent the U.S. from using them in the future. But given that the U.S. government has ignored so much of the U.N. Declaration on Human Rights to which it is a signatory, ((As Jimmy Carter recently noted.)) whether the U.S. will cease using cluster munitions is still in doubt.

The Picture of Hillary Clinton

The implications of Secretary Clinton fighting against the ban on cluster bombs and for their increased use goes far beyond the personal. Though by no means a radical, Clinton was a prototypical and praiseworthy member of the “Sixties Generation.” She first came to national attention when, as Wellesley Commencement Speaker in 1969, at the height of the antiwar movement, she declared that “our prevailing, acquisitive, and competitive corporate life is not the way of life for us. We’re searching for more immediate, ecstatic and penetrating modes of living.” She also decried “the hollow men of anger and bitterness, the bountiful ladies of righteous degradation, all must be left to a bygone age.”

She went out of her way to praise the New Left, the wellspring of the antiwar movement, declaring that “a lot of the New Left hearkens back to a lot of the old virtues.”

She stated that a 1967 article by SDS leader Carl Oglesby in the Methodist magazine Motive, titled “Containtment or Change,” helped turn her against the war. She campaigned for Eugene McCarthy in 1968 and wrote her senior thesis on Saul Alinsky. She marched on Washington and spent the summer of 1971 working for the leading left-wing law firm in San Francisco — led by former communist Robert Treuhaft, husband of Jessica Mitford — and registered Democratic voters for the 1972 McGovern campaign. She became a mentee of liberal activist Marian Wright Edelman and an advocate for children’s rights. I spoke at a giant peace rally at Yale University in 1971 which her future husband Bill Clinton helped organize. Mutual friends spoke warmly of her during that period as a decent human being, concerned about the poor and opposed to U.S. warmaking.

It is hard to believe that, even as an earnest college student planning to “work within the system,” she could have imagined that she would one day become a U.S. senator and then Secretary of State who would support an invasion and occupation of Iraq that has killed, wounded or made homeless over 5 million civilians; strongly advocate a surge in Afghanistan that saw General Petraeus triple U.S. airstrikes and import 7,000 U.S. assassins conducting countless night raids; manage a Pakistan policy that has led 125 million Pakistanis to regard the U.S. as their enemy and vastly increased the dangers of nuclear materials falling into terrorist hands; support a new global U.S. assassination policy by drones from the air and 60,000 U.S. assassins on the ground; do virtually nothing to control climate change; support a global U.S. economic policy that impoverishes hundreds of millions of the poor while enriching U.S. companies and local elites; and become a scourge of whistleblowers and proponent of increasing illegal Executive power.

Her transformation has become most visible since she has become Secretary of State. Pictures of her today reveal the results of the inner conflicts and compromises between her once-decent ideals and present desire to conduct U.S. foreign policy. You can see in her face the “anger, bitterness and righteous degradation” she once decried. It is a rigid face, a face so different from the open-hearted and alive face of her youth as to be almost unrecognizable.

The true lesson behind this “Picture of Hillary Clinton” is not so much about the individuals who wield U.S. foreign policy but the policy itself; not who holds Executive power but what the institution does to those who do.

The indisputable fact is that the U.S. Executive Branch has killed, wounded or made homeless more people not its own citizens in more nations — over 20 million in Indochina and Iraq alone, including millions of civilians ((For the more than 16 million Indochinese killed, wounded and made refugees, see “Dollars and Deaths,” The Congressional Record, May 14, 1975, p. 14262. For Iraqi casualties, see “5 Million Iraqis Killed, Maimed, Tortured, Displaced,” AlterNet, June 21, 2010. Former U.S. Defense Secretary Robert McNamara estimated that 3.4 million Vietnamese were killed, of whom 221,042 were South Vietnamese troops killed by the communists. The other 3 million plus Vietnamese, including 1-2 million civilians, were thus killed by U.S. firepower, as were most of the Laotians and Cambodians killed during the war. To this must be added the countless more that U.S. leaders have killed around the world.)) — than any other postwar institution on earth. If evil consists of destroying the lives of the innocent, no institution in our time has committed more evil. When once-idealistic people choose to execute its foreign policy — whether Barack Obama, John Kerry or Hillary Clinton — they wind up like the characters in George Orwell’s Animal Farm who, after taking power, behave like those they had overthrown.

Secretary Clinton will no doubt speak fine words during her trip to Laos. She is scheduled to make a “feel good” visit to the COPE center, which provides prosthetic limbs to the victims of U.S. cluster bombs, and will likely boast about the $470,000 the U.S. annually contributes to its funding. She will perhaps even be photographed hugging victims of the U.S. violence she once opposed and now perpetuates.

As she does so the rest of us would do well, before it is too late, to ponder the troubling questions that arose for me as I left a 2008 meeting on the Plain of Jars with a sweet-faced youth who had lost the use of his arm, a devastating blow for a villager who must farm to marry and have children — and even survive:

If some of the poorest people on earth are not safe from being tormented this way for decades, who among us is safe?

If our civilization cannot protect these Lao rice-farmers who pose no threat to anyone, how can it protect any of us?

If U.S. leaders cannot even now act to heal their pain, how can we regard them as legitimate leaders?

Fred Branfman is an American anti-war activist and author of a number of books about the Indochina War, including Voices from The Plain of Jars, Life Under an Air War,. He can be reached at Read other articles by Fred.