Robert Isenberg

Robert Isenberg
Birthday
December 31
Bio
Robert Isenberg is a freelance writer, playwright, photographer and stage performer. He is a past recipient of the Brickenridge Fellowship, McDowell Scholarship, Trespass Residency, and two Golden Quill Awards. He earned his MFA in Creative Writing from Chatham University, where he served as Whitford Fellow, the program’s highest honor. Originally from Vermont, he lives in Pittsburgh. His book, The Archipelago, about backpacking the postwar Balkans, was released by Autumn House Press in January 2011. See more at robertisenberg.net.

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Editor’s Pick
NOVEMBER 2, 2011 10:06AM

The Laos Project #3: Math and Aftermath

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Plane

This excerpt continues my story of Laos, a nation I plan to explore at the end of November. My book project, called One Million Elephants, concerns the aftermath of the Laotian Civil War. For the first part of this serial, click here. Photograph of a C-130, taken with permission by U.S. Air Force.

• 

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?

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Comments

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These numbers are absolutely staggering.
Horrifying. But, the mentality of get them before they get you is universal, and the ones who have the superior weaponry don't always win.
I do believe war is a lucrative business, human lives are just numbers, and the world is an experimental playground for the US war machine.
I had a similar awakening recently, Robert, in Lao & Cambodia.
The unavoidable impression is that this was one person's war : Kissinger's.
Neither Lao nor Cambodia had a dog in the fight until the Vietminh were driven west. How they paid, and continue to pay.
Not to dismiss the mines, either. The US may no longer produce landmines, but it was a Californian who since patented a component, made in the US, supplied to the manufacturers, which causes these most recent models to explode when tilted, ie. when being dug up to be defused.
There's an odd list of States that have chosen not to sign the 1997 Ottowa Mine Ban Treaty, among them the US, China, North Korea, Iran, and oddly, Lao & Vietnam.
If you visited The Plain of Jars in Lao I guess you would have noticed the markers indicating where it's safe to walk, & where it's not.
The same goes, sadly, for the beautiful Angkor temples in Cambodia.
It's estimated that it may take another 300 years to decontaminate Cambodia.
Your numbers do not bode well for Lao. Thanks for a sobering piece.
Lucrative and effective as tools of genocide. America, America, Gawd shed his grace on theeeeeeeeeeeee....ptui.
First, thank you for caring and posting about Laos! So many people and places surrounding 'The Vietnam War' are not explained to our new generations. It's telling that over there, it's called 'the American war.' As it should be. We have been the terrorists of the world for so long, but the facts have been spun and spun until they point to a completely different conclusion....

Second, I highly recommend you read "The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down," by Anne Fadiman. Incredibly detailed account of the fate of the Hmong people in that area of the world. It too, will haunt you...

Third, Hooray - for you - for awakening to these tragedies that are still being perpetrated around the world by the U.S. of A. and other arrogant peoples. Now you can help awaken others! BRAVO. Rated.
I do not understand why we as Americans continue to allow these horrific actions. At least in the 60's and 70's, most of the country rose up in revulsion and stopped the Viet Nam war. Now, with two wars going on simultaneously, Apathetic America does nothing.
Robert, I moved to Thailand in 2003 and since then I've worked in previous war zones in Laos, Myanmar, Vietnam, Rwanda and Liberia to name a few. When you stand at the Golden Triangle and look from Thailand into Laos and Myanmar you cannot even begin to picture how out-of-place a war is in the peaceful, quiet, sleepy land that sits there today. Few people want to kill a person, but depersonalize it to a massive enemy and it becomes not only simpler, but exciting in a horrific way. People who live in America believe we should be kind and gentle and "lead the way." Unfortunately this is a flawed concept and if you've walked through these countries of controversy you find out that turning the other cheek is equally as unsuccessful as bombing them. Wars are surreal experiences.
The more you look below the superficial headlines, the worse it gets. Vietnam was under military occupation by 550,000 American troops at one time and bombed with several times more bombs being dropped on them than were used by all sides during WWII, yet it was all in vain. At least two million Vietnamese died because of our invasion, 4 million were wounded, 6.5 million made homeless, and it was for nothing in the end. US troops killed for nothing and they died for nothing. I was just rereading the book "Black Sun" about the development of the H-bomb, written by Richard Rhodes, a sober, highly respected historian. Rhodes notes that the US firebombing of North Korean cities and dams (1951-53) killed more than two million ( 2,000,000) civilians. The US Strategic Bombing Survey admitted that bombing stopped because they ran out of targets when there was nothing left standing larger than a chicken coop in all of North Korea. Yet US victory was not achieved and the war went on. Massive slaughter, once again, didn't equal "winning." Read up on Nicaragua's American-sponsored Contras and CIA acts of war like mining harbors which resulted in French freighters and sailors being slaughtered in violation of international law by the Reagan administration. This pattern goes back a long, long time. I think it is a peculiarly American fantasy to believe there will never be any price to pay for these acts, that there will never be any consequences.
Now everyone say a big thank you to JFK and LBJ.
One of the responses mentioned Cambodia. Not in expiation of any of the US' guilt in the bombing of Laos but you ought to know that the mines and unexploded munitions in Cambodia are mainly Chinese and were laid in the millions by the Khmer Rouge and the Vietnamese when Socialist Republic of Vietnam invaded, and eventually occupied, Democratic Kampuchea in 1978.

Although the Khmer Rouge were eventually outlawed as a party, armed elements remained in the western part of Cambodia for many years and it was not until relatively recently that the last units gave up.

Although not given in the article, the bombing in eastern Laos was an attempt to interdict the supply routes (the HCM trail) and destroy training camps of the Viet Cong.
Traveler while you are correct to point out China's role in the situation in Cambodia ~ as arms suppliers they took advantage of the mess Kissinger created ~ we must never forget the one half a million tons>/i> of US bombs dropped as a parting gesture in '73, many of which lay in forest & field awaiting detonation ...
Apologies ~ didn't close italics. The word I was going for was tons.
Half a million tons.
Yes. A good choice for a Editor's Pick. I Remember Robert Jay Lifton`
`
He was one of the first psychologist who was LISTENING to returning`
`
War Pained`
`
Vietnam Veterans.
Chaplain Maheedy (sp?) wrote about these facts in Dark Night Of The Soul. Murderous.
War is savage killing for filthy lucre. War gives a licence to murder our fellowhuman beings.

I was in Vietnam and heard B-52 bombs drop. I eyewitnessed the North Vietnamese who came South because the civilian Population Centers were bombed mercilessly. It's fact. It's history. Corporate America wanted French Planted Rubber Trees, and Virgin Red Mahogany. P.S. I have no spell check on this Library Contraption. `
`
Sam Clemens had little respect for those who were perfect spellers. killers. gramaticvally correct. He said/wrote that the better commonpeople Never need be apologetic if they spelled not-Perfect.
`
War is a Place suited for pathological liers, killers. and depraved Evil folk who seem bright enough - but sold their inner essence `
`
Soul.
Devil own them.
Folk become beast.
Human can be a Demon tool.
I say Evil INCARNATES FOOLS.
`
Life is a subtle combination of Joy`
`
Pain.
Awarness.
Atonement.
Speak Truth.
Aristotle spoke:
`
In Poetics he wrote:
`
Speak to the tribunal.
That's in Poetics 9:3.
Poetry is more honest.
It's Philosophical reason.
It's to convey serious prose.
History is replete with Lies.
Aristotle was a Lover of Truth.
Philo-Logical. Lover of Truths.
`
It's 'our' savage History. I saw it.
I saw dead in bunker complexes.
Thanks for this book ref warfare.
`
Respect. Joshua Key - as told to Mr.`
`
Lawrence Hill - a book - The Deserters Tales
`
It's a honest story of an ordinary Soldier Who
Walked Awat from the War in Iraq. Desrtion?
That's to go before a firing squad. Never kill.
`
Never apologize for refusing military orders if:
`
The soldiers is ordered to kill innocent humans.
Thew Nixon/Johnson, and Kissinger's Wall Steet
Killers bombed humans with 500-pound Bombs.
`
Those military arsenals make warmogers miserable.
They may reap the so-called "riches" but look at them?
They wince, mumble, say Nothing but Big Official Lies.
`
Write the book. I turned down opportunities to write.
Farming is healin, and all consuming. It's post-war health.
Socrates writes about OIKOS. Oiko. A Real Sustainablility.
Health.
No Hubris.
No Killing.
`
We all know sadness, joy, betrayal, pain, and I'd suggest Spending Quality Time seeking Tranquility. Silence. I am still spending half a day sitting on a Nova Scotian Grey Rock. William Woordworth would approve.
`
on/on ..
`
I have been sipping great tea.
Sometimes I visit neighbors.
A neighbor lived in Germany.
`
Be informed ref:` The Confessions.
The Nurrenburg Law & Confession.
My neighbor is a Linquist Tranlator.
`
on/on.
No sell:
`
the inner
immaterial
sacred Place
Interior Soul
Divine Essence
Holy Muse Place
Sacred Mystery
People know ...
No be depraved.
Ponder immortality.
`

I put my hat on my head
To listen to the Librarian
Who giggles harmoniously.
`
She wags her finger and eyes twinkle.
Her countenance can cause war to go.
Beauty creates a wholsome tranquility.
`
My neighbor may scold me? I hope not.
She's rhymical, and conveys a `Purity.
There is that harmonious Pleasant air.
Send?
okay.
Mercy.
Heehaw.
Immortality.
Oh, a spiel or
a siple banter.
hi. It's hard to read this without getting sick to my stomach. I've been to Laos so I've seen, from a plane, villages built on stilts made from the left over scrap metal from bombs.

I've also seen some of the people without limbs...in Cambodia it's about as bad as anywhere in the world.

Thank-you for writing this book, but I hope that the amazing strength of the Laotian people to survive this ongoing onslaught is also part of that story. The people of southeast Asia aren't ever far from my thoughts. Good luck in your travels.
hi. It's hard to read this without getting sick to my stomach. I've been to Laos so I've seen, from a plane, villages built on stilts made from the left over scrap metal from bombs.

I've also seen some of the people without limbs...in Cambodia it's about as bad as anywhere in the world.

Thank-you for writing this book, but I hope that the amazing strength of the Laotian people to survive this ongoing onslaught is also part of that story. The people of southeast Asia aren't ever far from my thoughts. Good luck in your travels.
Let me repeat again for those who do not read all the comments. The millions of mines in Cambodia were laid by the Khmer Rouge and the Vietnamese forces in their war.
The constant confounding of the laying of landmine fields in Cambodia and the bombing in far eastern Cambodia and Eastern Laos is inappropriate. Both were wrong and caused harm.
However implying that the US caused the sewing of landmines by either the Vietnamese or the Cambodian forces is factually wrong.

If any external power can be said to have proximate blame, it was the Chinese government that both directly and indirectly provided the actual munitions to both sides.

The American War, as the Vietnamese call it, was only one large occurrence in a series of conflicts that engaged the Vietnamese from the late 1800s until the late 1980s when Vietnamese troops actually crossed into Thailand in pursuit of Khmer Rouge units and engaged Thai forces.

Isolating the American War as the cause for every conflict in that area since is a little single visioned.


until
Why do I get the feeling, Traveler, that you're attempting to deflect US responsibility ~ direct responsibility ~ for what happened in Cambodia from the US to China ?
China like any good trader took advantage of a market.
Sure there were strategic alliances to be strengthened too, which endure today. They won.

ps. I hope this isn't too much of a sabotage of your post, Robert, but as you know, all of these things interconnect. All of these people, in fact, were once known as Khmer.

Traveler my initial comment on this post could be seen as ambiguous ~ I see that now ~ I should have qualified by extrapolating on the background as you have done, right back to the 1800's.
The comment was in keeping with the subject of the post as I read it : US Responsibilty, ie. Kissinger's, from 1969.
That's OK ~ each of us will read things differently ...


pps. We support the construction of a school 70 k NW of Siem Riep, affectionately dub The Henry Kissinger Memorial School ( & Orphanage) For The Legless, in case you had a few bucks to spare ...
Whether "Traveler" chooses to respond or not your post, Robert, needs to be kept to the fore.
Good luck & best wishes in your mission there.
May the truth be told. Thank you.
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Traveler understands correctly that Laos and Cambodia chose their fate when their governments became complicit in the “American” war by allowing the Ho Chi Minh trail to pass through their lands. Similarly, Afghanistan chose its fate by allowing the Taliban to host Osama Bin Laden’s Al-Qaeda groups in their country.
i don't care about the 'why' very much. it had nothing to do with warfare, i think, just a 'defense contract' and a president who would do anything at all for a vote.

but who cares. after mylai became public i knew calley was just a typical american, and the sociopaths they put in high office represented the nation accurately enough.

finally it seemed to me the only rational response was to leave, a decision i congratulate myself for making at frequent intervals.

incidentally, this was the substantive result of anti-war protests. perhaps you can guess why i'm not enthusiastic about 'occupy."
Let's not forget the Honeywell flechette bombs-bombs that exploded little plastic arrows into women's and children's bodies in Vietnam & elsewhere. Very clever-Honeywell. The plastic didn't show up on X-rays after it penetrated flesh.