As I read about the aerial bombings in Laos, the numbers raised hair on my arms. My eyes dried out, because I couldn’t blink, because I couldn’t believe what I read. In nine years, the U.S. dropped two million tons of cluster bombs on the nation of Laos, or about 260 million individual bombs. These were dropped over the course of 580,000 individual bombing missions.
If you averaged this number neatly, this was the equivalent of one planeload of bombs dropping every eight minutes, 24 hours a day, for nearly a decade.
Here’s another way to look at it: The current population of Laos is about 6.8 million. There were far fewer people in the 1960’s; but even if the population was the same, this means that 38 shells were dropped for every single man, woman and child. Civilians were not the intended targets, but they became the collateral damage. If you were Laotian, the United States manufactured, shipped, stored, carried, armed and dropped 38 bombs just for you.
Of course these bombs were not intended for civilians. The real targets were Viet Cong soldiers and personnel. Which means that any civilian casualties were a carefully calculated mistake.
Imagine your worst enemy. The person you hate more than anyone in the world. I know who my enemies are, and I hate them with every fiber of my being. I truly wouldn’t mind if they died slow, horrible deaths, because I hate them so much. But despite my hatred, I couldn’t imagine harming them myself. I would never, could never, do harm to someone else, unless violently provoked. These people have wronged me, hurt me, altered the trajectory of my life. These people relished my pain, and didn’t hide this fact. Still, even if they were held down and I was promised no consequences, I wouldn’t so much as punch them in the face. I’m just not that kind of person. I think most of us would refrain from actually harming our enemies, unless they physically attacked us—or, say, attacked our family and friends. We certainly wouldn’t end their lives, if we could avoid it. Most of us are lucky that way. We just don’t harbor that much hate. We haven’t had reason to. And that is a wondrous thing.
But forget punching in the face. Would you design, build, transport and arm hundreds of cluster bombs, just to spite this worst enemy? Would you drop these explosives on them from an airplane? And what if these were enemies you never met? Whatever if you never—not even once—looked this enemy in the eye, or traded even one word that you both understood? And what if those bombs hit somebody else, by accident, someone you didn’t even intend to hurt?
The American pilots dropped cluster bombs. When I first read this, I frowned. What the hell is a cluster bomb? How is that different from an ordinary bomb? Is it a bunch of bombs that drop together?
Then I learned: A cluster bomb looks like a torpedo, with a narrow shaft and fins. They drop out of the belly of a plane, and they’re weighted to fall horizontally, like metal skydivers. When they hit a certain altitude, the steel casings are designed to split in half. They divide into two pieces, and everything inside spills out.
The shell itself is only a delivery system. Within each shell are packed several hundred smaller bombs, about the size and shape of tennis balls. These are called “bomblets.” As soon as the shell comes apart, the bomblets disperse through the air, raining down on a wide swathe of land. At this point, no human can control their descent. They succumb to sheer gravity, shifted slightly by air pressure and wind.
But the bomblet is also packed with smaller balls—in this case, ordinary ball bearings. When the bomblet hits the ground, it explodes. But instead of fire and smoke vomited into the air, the bomblet’s explosion is barely visible. Fire isn’t the point. The point is that the ball bearings fly in every direction at once, at “ballistic speed,” shooting through everything in their path. They behave like machine guns, except there’s no barrel to aim. The bomblet aims at everything.
Bottom line: Cluster bombs are not designed to detonate buildings or shatter bridges. They didn’t clear woodland, like Agent Orange, or blanket targets in liquid fire, like napalm. They’re not “smart” bombs, aimed at precision targets. Cluster bombs are designed to kill people. As many people as possible, as indiscriminately as possible. Each bomblet can shoot its ball bearings as far as three miles, and every living thing is a bull’s eye. As strategy goes, cluster bombing is the lazy man’s genocide.
Could it get worse? I wondered.
Oh, yes. Much, much worse.
The problem with bombing a tropical country like Laos, aside from the soulless cruelty of it, is that the soil is soft. Especially in the rainy season, especially in the rice paddies. Much of the land is damp year-round, even in the dry season, and much of the arable land is essentially flooded. Farmers wade up to their knees, trudging barefoot through the marsh. They push old-fashioned plows, or guide the plows as draft animals pull them through the brown water. This is how Laos has always been—swampy, humid, wet.
But a bomblet that hits this pillowy soil won’t necessarily explode. Actually, it didn’t explode 30 percent of the time. Which means that of the 260 million bomblets dropped, and of the hundreds of bomblets packed into each shell, 80 million hit the ground and “failed to detonate.” And 25 percent of Laotian villages are still contaminated by their fallout.
And so, as the weary farmer pushes his old-fashioned plow through the murk, he may, at any moment, strike an unexploded bomblet, and if he strikes it hard enough, or taps from the right angle, the bomblet explodes. The force of the blast rips the farmer’s legs from his body. And the ball bearings burst, as fast as the bullet of a high-powered rifle, and they rip through his torso as easily as a welding torch through paper.
Today, this is happening. Right at this moment. As you are reading these words, it is likely that a small child has picked up a bomblet, thinking it’s a toy, and is throwing it to his friend. It is very plausible, at this very split-second, that the bomblet has blasted the skin off their faces.
So much lingering carnage, and all because of a war that I never knew existed. It took me 31 years to learn that this had happened, is happening. And now, I find the most shocking number of all: 30,000 civilians have been killed by leftover ordinance since 1964. Twenty thousand more have survived an ordinance blast, but were injured or maimed. Nearly a quarter of them have been children. And of all those combined casualties, 20,000 occurred after the war ended.
Then again, in a landscape so deadly, does it ever really end?
You might wonder—as I do—what the difference is between an unexploded cluster bomb and an old-fashioned landmine. One is basically illegal, a veritable war crime. Celebrities decry their use. Landmines are barbaric, cowardly, the tools of desperate guerilla fighters.
But cluster bombs? A-Okay.
As of this writing, cluster bombs are still manufactured in the United States. They are still part of our proper arsenal. The U.S. military dropped them in Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003. Again, I'm not naïve, and I know that big countries need armies. And armies need weapons. But why such sloppy weapons? Why weapons with such longevity? As my one friend put it: "Couldn't they program some kind of half-life? After a couple years, couldn't they just fizzle out?"
The Convention of Cluster Munitions vowed to end their use. Dozens of countries ratified this treaty, including such long-suffering nations as Panama, Malawi and Uruguay. Sierra Leone, which is completely devastated by civil war and barely has a functional government, has ratified this treaty.
The United States has not. Nor have Russia, China, or Brazil.
I wonder: Is it because we think they’re effective, in spite of all the data? Is it because we haven’t been cluster-bombed ourselves? Are we so callous? Or is the cluster munitions business really so lucrative?