Individual articles from the Summer 2020 issue of Intersections will be posted on this blog each week. The full issue can be found on MCC’s website.
The 1960s marked the height of the cold war, a superpower conflict that would later create a heart-wrenching challenge for MCC workers in Laos. The United States and the Soviet Union struggled for strategic advantage amidst the rise of anti-colonial liberation movements around the world. In Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia, the result was over a decade of turmoil, war, genocide and displacement.
In Laos, the primary U.S. military involvement was a massive secret air war (1964-1973) which tallied 580,000 bombing missions, the equivalent of one bombing mission every eight minutes around the clock for nine years. The air war dropped more than 270 million cluster munitions, small tennis-ball sized bomblets that sent tiny shards of steel flying through the air at ballistic speed. An estimated 25 to 30 percent of these bomblets failed to detonate on impact, littering Lao villages, fields and forests with millions of lethal explosives. As Lao villagers returned to their destroyed homes after the bombing ceased, injuries and deaths became the unrelenting legacy of the war.
In the wake of the bombing, MCC opened a small program in 1975 to assist Laos with recovery and small-scale economic development. Having aligned with the communist bloc, Laos was largely closed to the U.S., save for a tiny contingent of seven U.S. embassy staff and two representatives each for MCC and Quaker Service Laos. As the only U.S. citizens with permission to travel around the country, the MCC and Quaker workers became the sole U.S. witnesses to the painful aftermath of the U.S. bombing campaign.
As they visited villages made of bamboo and thatch, they saw U.S. bomb containers everywhere, some still bearing the name of the U.S. corporation that had produced them. Over lamp-lit meals of sticky rice and spicy sauces served on dishes made from melted-down bomb containers, Lao villagers quietly told MCC workers of family members lost to the ever-present bombs. Amid this warm hospitality the question of responsibility hung silently in the air. MCC workers struggled for words. What did peace theology have to offer in these settings?
What followed was more than a decade of experimentation, much of it without success. MCC imported a custom-made tractor with a chain flail and heavy shielding to protect the driver, hoping that it would safely detonate the cluster bomblets. After months of testing it proved ineffective, and Lao villagers continued to live and die among the bomb-laden fields. It was a time of great sadness.
Hope finally appeared on the horizon when the Mines Advisory Group (MAG), an agency devoted to clearing landmines and other UXO, was formed. In 1994, MCC and MAG collaborated with the Lao government to establish the UXO clearance project. The first 20 deminers were trained and began clearance operations that fall. It was a noble beginning, but woefully inadequate in the face of tens of millions of unexploded cluster munitions scattered across thousands of acres of landscape.
Amid the urgency of day-to-day clearance operations, the project raised larger questions. More cluster bombs were being dropped by the U.S. in places like Iraq and Kuwait. Might our relationship with the villagers of Laos move us to join the fledgling movement to ban cluster munitions? And what would justice look like in Laos? Should the U.S. government be pushed to provide significant financial support for UXO clearance and victim assistance?
MCC learned several lessons through its work in Laos in the aftermath of war:
- The impact of war on a land and a people extends for generations, long after the media turn to other crises.
- The enormous destruction and harm done to Laos without the knowledge of the U.S. citizenry is alarming. Our government is not always a reliable source for truth.
- Clearing the land of UXO is tedious and dangerous work, requiring an enormous expenditure of resources. The harm cannot be undone. Prevention of conflict, when possible, is a better way to reduce human suffering than relief after war, although both are important.
- By giving numerous presentations in U.S. Anabaptist contexts about the UXO problem in Laos, we learned that many white Anabaptists engage much more naturally with paradigms of service and peacemaking than with the paradigms of justice and advocacy. Raising funds to clear Lao villages of U.S. bombs unleashed a flood of energy and creativity among Anabaptist congregations. Yet the discovery in 1986 of cluster munition component manufacturers in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, raised compelling concerns about the silent complicity of Anabaptists with the systems of war. What would it mean to keep faith with the villagers of Laos in settings where the machinery of war was embedded in local economies and income taxes?
- The paradigms of peacemaking/service and justice/advocacy are not mutually exclusive. The UXO project itself provided crucial information and data that later became the foundation for effective advocacy, an important complement to the storytelling that had become the hallmark of MCC’s early interpretive work on Laos.
- The broader efforts to ban cluster munitions and gain strong U.S. government support for UXO clearance in Laos were capably led by other agencies, rather than by MCC. Legacies of War, an education and advocacy agency begun by Channapha Khamvongsa, a Laotian-American woman, was largely responsible for persuading the U.S. government to greatly increase its support for bomb clearance in Laos. President Obama traveled to Laos in 2016 and gave a major speech describing the years of suffering caused by U.S. bombing and pledged US$90 million in support of bomb clearance. It was as if a great historical harm had finally been acknowledged. Perhaps those like Channapha, whose people have known great harm, have the keenest passion for justice and the greatest determination to find healing.
- Finally, the UXO project in Laos has taught us that within every act of service and peacemaking, a strong movement for justice waits to be born.
In 2019, the UXO project in Laos marked its twenty-fifth anniversary. Having long outgrown MCC, the project now employs several thousand workers who clear an average of 600 pieces of lethal ordnance every day. By all estimates, the work will continue for decades.
Titus Peachey served with MCC U.S. in several peace education roles from 1986 to 2016 and before that as MCC co-representative for Laos from 1980 to 1985.
For stories, images and videos about the early years of MCC work on UXO in Laos, see: http://civilianpublicservice.org/storycontinues/advocacy.
For a timeline of MCC and Quaker work on UXO issues in Laos and support for the international campaign to ban cluster munitions, see: https://mcc.org/sites/mcc.org/files/media/common/documents/mennonitequakertimeline.pdf.
For MCC’s Peace Office Newsletter devoted to stories and analysis of MCC’s work on cluster munitions, see: https://mccintersections.files.wordpress.com/2014/10/pon_2008_04-06_vol-38-no-2_cluster-bombs-again.pdf.
For news of Legacies of War’s advocacy work to gain significant U.S. government support for bomb clearance and victim assistance in Laos, see: http://legaciesofwar.org/.