The wall of a building pockmarked with bullet holes in Sepon, Laos

In the Land of a Million Bombs, citizens of Laos are reclaiming sacred sites such as this temple in Old Sepon. Credit: Author.

In the Land of a Million Bombs, a friend told me a strange war story: Two American helicopter pilots were flying low over the jungles of Laos, scouting for villages during the Vietnam War. Skimming the treetops, one pilot saw, in the midst of war and desolation, an idyllic village: whole houses, green gardens, healthy people carrying baskets full of fruit. The pilot signaled a landing but the village disappeared before his eyes as they descended into the clearing.

My Lao friend explained: The pilot had glimpsed a Buddhist paradise, a kind of parallel world untouched by war. “There are worlds around us that we can’t see, full of people who are right and honest. They never kill anything.” The war had made the boundaries between these parallel worlds fragile; and so, paradoxically, one American soldier had glimpsed a Lao paradise free of violence or death.

American pilots frequently saw Lao villages disappear beneath their planes – blown up.It can be hard to tell when fiction and fantasy separate in war stories, but what I do know is that these two American pilots were probably part of the United States’ covert war in Laos in the 1960s and 70s. Laos is a small, landlocked country bordering Vietnam in mainland Southeast Asia. Once a kingdom known as the Land of a Million Elephants, modern day Laos is more aptly called the Land of a Million Bombs. The country was bombed continuously for nearly a decade, making this secret conflict one of the most intense air wars in history. Today, Laos is still the most cluster-bombed country in the world, and the most bombed country in the world per capita (Lao National Regulatory Authority). Over one-third of the country remains dangerously contaminated with explosive ordnance. For forty years since the end of the war, people in Laos continue to die or be wounded in bomb explosions (Legacies of War). At the current rate of funding and clearance, officials estimate that it will take as many as 100 years to clear priority areas and as long as 3,000 years to clear the whole country.

A colorful yellow bell hanging outside on a patio at a temple.

The bell inside the Old Sepon temple has been crafted from the case of an American bomb. Credit: Author.

On the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the Vietnam War, the story of the American pilots contains an unlooked-for hopefulness. Only one of the pilots could see paradise; the other pilot landed the helicopter based on his trust in his colleague, and, perhaps, his faith in what he could not see. A world of peace is there, in the midst of war, whether we can see it or not. I am optimistic enough (and sacrilegious enough) to wonder: What if the pilots had entered paradise, learned to live in a common community with their enemies, and perhaps finally found peace? And, how might we help build peace and paradise in this world?

I am from the generations born after the war, and yet I have met many people my age in Laos who have been injured in bomb explosions. The past maintains itself in the soil and people die in a war that ended before we were born. I share this story with a larger purpose: To urge the United States to sign the Convention on Cluster Munitions as a significant step towards a peaceful future (Cluster Munition Coalition) and to increase funding for explosive ordinance clearance in Laos. Forty years after war, I have seen the kind of world that cluster munition contamination provokes: it is a world in which making prosthetic legs out of empty bomb cases makes sense. The Secret War over Laos was the world’s first massive, automated air war and the ongoing violence in Laos can help us to understand the long-term consequences of cluster bomb contamination. What is happening in Laos is beginning in other areas subject to similar kinds of warfare: Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria among many others.

I am an anthropologist studying religious revival and development in post-war Laos. Anthropology has a particular power to evoke other ways of life, other possibilities. Among all the stories I have heard in my fieldwork, I am drawn continually back to the story of the paradise that the pilots saw from their helicopter. I could have shared other more terrible stories that I have gathered in fieldwork. I decided to share this one, on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the ending of the Vietnam-American War, because it isn’t a war story at all. It is a story about a possible peace.

Leah Zani is a PhD candidate in the Department of Anthropology at the University of California, Irvine. She is currently in Laos conducting fieldwork on religious revival and development in postwar Laos. She welcomes comments to lzani@uci.edu.


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