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The Legacy of War, a Half-Century Later

June 23, 2015
Light skinned young man with short brown hair smiles at camera

Dylan Hedtler-Gaudette

by Dylan Hedtler-Gaudette

There are still roughly 80 million unexploded cluster munitions and other ordnance (UXO) left in the small Southeast Asian nation of Laos, representing a tragic and destructive legacy of a nine-year ‘secret war’ waged by the United States during the Vietnam War. Between 1964 and 1973, over 240 million bombs were dropped on Laos, making it the most heavily bombed country in history on a per capita basis. Upwards of 30% of those bombs did not explode upon impact and therein lies the cause of the ongoing suffering and stunted national development in Laos.

The use of cluster munitions in conflict is particularly sinister. These types of bombs are inaccurate and indiscriminate, with over 95% of victims being civilians and 40% of those being children. Many cluster bombs still litter the land of Laos and it is estimated that a full 30% of the country is still contaminated with UXO. While many countries have joined Laos in signing and ratifying the Convention Against Cluster Munitions (CCM), the United States has not. So not only did we cause the humanitarian crisis driven by UXO in Laos but we also refuse to join in the growing global consensus that recognizes the brutality and counterproductivity of cluster bombs. In fact, American-made cluster bombs are being dropped in Yemen by Saudi Arabia as we speak.

Prior to my involvement with the USICD Youth in Foreign Affairs and International Development summer internship program, I knew none of this. I was shamefully ignorant of this brutal legacy and the constant danger that the Laotian people live with on a daily basis. I knew that the United States bombed Laos and Cambodia during the Vietnam War. I also knew that those actions were undeclared, unsanctioned and violated international law. But having learned that in history courses and delving into the sometimes heart-wrenching details and stories of human tragedy in Laos now are two entirely different things.

I am proud to say that I am an intern at Legacies of War, a Washington-based NGO dedicated to raising awareness about the issue of UXO in Laos through public education, advocacy, lobbying and cultural exchange. This opportunity was only made possible my participation in the USICD internship program and for that I am eternally grateful.

The work that Legacies of War has done in its ten years of operation has been simply incredible. Before Legacies of War began its work, the U.S. allocated just around $2 million for UXO removal and victim assistance in Laos. As of today, that number has been increased to $13 million and that dramatic increase can be largely attributed to the tireless dedication of the Executive Director of Legacies of War, a veritable one-person army and indefatigable advocate on this issue. Though it is important to note that there have been strong allies within both the United States Senate (Senator Patrick Leahy) and the House of Representatives) Rep. Mike Honda) who have been committed partners in the effort to raise awareness and increase U.S. funding for UXO removal in Laos.

The opportunity to undertake an internship at Legacies of War this summer has been both transformative and eye-opening. It has forced me to grapple with an unconscionable epoch in American history in a way that I never have before. It has empowered me with knowledge and strength of clarity and purpose. The information and statistics shared above may lead some to the conclusion that this internship has been depressing or just a series of grievances aired and transgressions lamented over. But that is the opposite of what my experience has been so far. I have been inspired and moved by the hopeful determination of a small organization and its fearless leader to make an impact. I have been overwhelmed and impressed by the grit and grace with which the Lao people have set about rebuilding their land and reclaiming their lives. There is still a long way to go in rebuilding Laos but the task of doing so, once so seemingly unattainable or implausible, is now within reach.

But this story of revitalization and resurgence is not self-executing. We as Americans must deliver upon what is a clear moral imperative. We caused the devastation in Laos – both past and present – and we must do our part to rectify that cosmic imbalance. That means sustaining our financial contribution levels and increasing them. That means joining the emerging coalition of international community members in banning cluster munitions. That means that we as individual citizens must contact our legislators and insist that we do these things. It is incumbent upon us to help rebuild what we nearly destroyed. But this is not an exercise in charity or paternalism. The people of Laos are not seeking a handout or asking for any special treatment, in the same way that any one of us are not being unreasonable in expecting to have our destroyed property paid for or the medical costs of treating injuries caused by another to be covered by the party responsible.

It was 40 years ago this year that Saigon fell. That also marked the fall of Vientiane, the capital city of Laos. During those 40 years there have been an estimated 8,000 Laotians killed by UXO and another 12,000 seriously injured. Many of those injured now live with disabilities and have little opportunities to seek out services and there are even fewer avenues for opportunity and prosperity. Such a condition is not inevitable but it takes a concerted effort driven by a coalition of people interested in redressing a historic wrong that still reverberates today. This is not just an issue of clearing UXO and assisting victims, which it certainly is; this is also a critical facet of the disability rights movement. The issue of UXO in Laos is inextricably linked with the issue of disability rights and the two sectors should converge and join together. It is only through generating a critical mass and leveraging our power in numbers and the moral clarity of our complementary missions that we can hope to advance either cause. So let’s get moving.

Dylan Hedtler-Gaudette is one of the participants in the 2015 USICD Youth in International Development and Foreign Affairs internship program.  He and other USICD program interns are writing a series of blog posts about their experiences with USICD’s internship program, to be posted at this blog.  USICD coordinates the internship program, which brings a cohort of students and recent graduates with disabilities to Washington, DC, each summer to complete internships at various international organizations in the Washington, DC, area.  Dylan Hedtler-Gaudette is completing his internship at Legacies of War.  Learn more about the internship program at http://usicd.org/template/page.cfm?id=257.  Read Dylan’s, and the biographies of other interns in the summer 2015 program, at http://www.usicd.org/index.cfm/news_usicd-mitsubishi-interns-biographies.  The views and opinions expressed at this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of USICD or Legacies of War.

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