A Secret War
While the US-led war in Vietnam raged, confronted with massive public protests and civil disobedience on American soil, another war was taking place in the shadows. Between December of 1964 and March of 1973, the US launched more than 270 million cluster bombs on Laos during Operation Barrel Roll. This number is equivalent to dropping a full plane cargo load every 8 minutes, 24 hours a day, for 9 years. Laos is thus the most heavily bombed country in the world.
Reason For Operation Barrel Roll
After fighting between the Pathet Lao communist military group and the Royal Lao Army reached the strategic Plain of Jars region of Laos, North Vietnamese communist forces took control of the northeastern region of the country. The Royal Lao government, unable to gain ground against the communist rebels, made a formal request for assistance to the United States. Due to its strategic location between 6 other countries, the US accepted the request, hoping to show communist leaders its perseverance in the fight against them.
US military leaders proposed the Operation Barrel Roll strategy to stop North Vietnamese infiltration of Laos to the government. The Royal Lao government and other political parties opposing the communists agreed to move forward with the plan. The US began its covert operations. When Operation Barrel Roll did little to stop communist guerilla rebels from moving through Laos, the US military changed its strategy. US forces increased their airstrikes to destroy the Ho Chi Minh trail which ran from North Vietnam into Laos and then south to the border between Vietnam and Cambodia. This road was critical to the Vietnamese communist group, the People’s Army of Vietnam because it allowed them to move weapons and supplies to their military efforts in South Vietnam.
Aircrafts, Bombs, And Casualties
Most of the air missions over the country were conducted with high -performance jet-bombers, World War II cargo planes, Douglas A-1 Skyraiders, and AT-28 Trojans. These last two were Korean War-era machines that could be maneuvered at close range. Cluster bombs were the weapon of choice, hundreds of little bombs packed into canisters. As fighters released these cluster bombs from high above the ground, the canisters would open in the air. This action released hundreds of bombs over a wide radius simultaneously. Estimates suggest that two-thirds of these bombs exploded over the region, taking with them 350,000 casualties across northeastern Laos. The US government lost 131 aircraft during the operation, a miniscule number when compared with the lives lost.
When US forces finally withdrew after having trained the Lao government and handed over power little by little to establish a coalition government, communist forces once again took over the Plain of Jars area. People from the Hmong community, who had backed the US war strategy, fled the country going to Thailand and some to the US. By December of 1975, the communist Pathet Lao movement gained complete control of the country, and Lao People’s Democratic Republic was born.
Legacy And Aftermath
The legacy of this once secret war continues today. More than 80,000,000 undetonated bombs are strewn across the country threatening the lives of its people. Since the end of the operation in 1973, over 20,000 people have died or been injured by these remaining bombs. At any moment, a farmer may strike one while plowing or a child may find one while playing. In response to a stifled economy with little employment opportunities, some people actually search for these bombs to sell them as scrap metal. Countless have died in the attempt. Estimates suggest that as many as 100 civilians fall victim every year. Millions of dollars have been spent in cleanup efforts, yet only 1% of Laos territory has been cleared of bombs.