Eternal Harvest

Many readers will know the remarkable work that’s been done to reconstruct the US bombing of Cambodia during the ‘Vietnam’ War: I’m thinking of Taylor Owen and Ben Kiernan‘s ‘Bombs over Cambodia’ which appeared in The Walrus in 2006: available here and here.

The still-incomplete database (it has several “dark” periods) reveals that from October 4, 1965, to August 15, 1973, the United States dropped far more ordnance on Cambodia than was previously believed: 2,756,941 tons’ worth, dropped in 230,516 sorties on 113,716 sites. Just over 10 percent of this bombing was indiscriminate, with 3,580 of the sites listed as having “unknown” targets and another 8,238 sites having no target listed at all. The database also shows that the bombing began four years earlier than is widely believed—not under Nixon, but under Lyndon Johnson. The impact of this bombing, the subject of much debate for the past three decades, is now clearer than ever. Civilian casualties in Cambodia drove an enraged populace into the arms of an insurgency that had enjoyed relatively little support until the bombing began, setting in motion the expansion of the Vietnam War deeper into Cambodia, a coup d’état in 1970, the rapid rise of the Khmer Rouge, and ultimately the Cambodian genocide.

US bombing of Cambodia

The contemporary significance of these air strikes includes, of course, what Rob Nixon calls the ‘slow violence’ of the unexploded ordnance that still haunts the Cambodian landscape today.  But they also have implications for recent bombing campaigns in Afghanistan, as Ben and Taylor discuss in ‘Roots of U.S. Troubles in Afghanistan: Civilian Bombing Casualties and the Cambodian Precedent’  here, and for today’s cross-border (though rather less covert) drone strikes in Pakistan, as Henry Grabar argued last year in The Atlantic here.

Eternal HarvestThe conflict in Vietnam spilled across into Laos too, and a new book by Karen Coates (with photographs by Jerry Redfern) documents the effects of this even more shocking campaign in depth and detail: Eternal Harvest: the legacy of American bombs in Laos.  The short animation below, just 98 seconds of your time, prepared by Jerry for Mother Jones, shows each bombing run:

The nearly 600,000 bombing runs delivered a staggering amount of explosives: The equivalent of a planeload of bombs every eight minutes for nine years, or a ton of bombs for every person in the country—more than what American planes unloaded on Germany and Japan combined during World War II. Laos remains, per capita, the most heavily bombed country on earth.

There’s a much longer version at vimeo here, which comes with this rider:

This video shows the US Air Force bombing campaign in Laos, from 1965 to 1973. The data comes from the website of the National Regulatory Authority of Lao PDR (NRA), which oversees UXO clearance in that country. They received the data from the US Embassy in Vientiane in 2000, from records originally created by the Department of Defense and stored at the National Archives.

The NRA data sets include information on the number and types of aircraft flown, types of bombs dropped, target conditions and after-action reports. For this graphic, only the dates, latitude and longitude, and the number of bombs dropped per mission are used.

The US Air Force began bombing Laos in June 1964. Many branches of the US, Thai, Lao, South Vietnamese and other forces also conducted aerial missions. But this graphic reflects only bombing missions noted in the NRA data, which show US Air Force missions beginning on October 1, 1965.

There’s much more information, plus photographs from the book, at the website that accompanies the book.

COVER MAKER 5.5X8.25.inddIf you want a quick overview of the geography of bombing Laos, Peter Larson also has a useful survey which includes some helpful maps here; he’s constructed his own animation here.

‘Animation’ is hardly the verb for such appalling carnage, I realise; the classic English-language account giving voices to the survivors (and victims) is Fred Branfman‘s brilliant Voices from the Plain of Jars: life under an air war, first published in 1972 and republished last year with an introduction by Alfred McCoy and available as an e-book.

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