Thursday, August 9, 2012 – Laos’ neighbor Vietnam will also be getting some much needed and long overdue assistance in cleaning up what the Americans left behind and while unexploded munitions still remain a threat in both countries, in one there is a more subtle threat to the people; Agent Orange.
Forty years after the United States stopped spraying herbicides in the jungles of Southeast Asia in the hopes of denying cover to Vietcong fighters and North Vietnamese troops, an air base here is one of about two dozen former American sites that remain polluted with an especially toxic strain of dioxin, the chemical contaminant in Agent Orange that has been linked to cancers, birth defects and other diseases.
On Thursday, after years of rebuffing Vietnamese requests for assistance in a cleanup, the United States inaugurated its first major effort to address the environmental effects of the long war. Via NYTimes
The American desire to suddenly help clean up the scars of war that previous administrations turned a blind eye to comes at a time when claims to the South China Sea and other water disputes continue to flare up with nearly every dispute being linked to China’s aggressive sea claims.
When I hear people compare the Vietnam War to Afghanistan I can honestly see the similarities even with the stark differences in landscape. The U.S is currently fighting in Afghanistan while running a cross border operation in Pakistan where most of the funding, training and militants come from. Reports come out almost every week of another missile or bomb dropped within Pakistani territory, sometimes killing dozens, even though the United States isn’t at war with Pakistan. Taking a look into America’s involvement in Vietnam things start to look quite familiar. The United States was fighting another war alongside the Vietnam War, a secret war, which was primarily run by the CIA and executed by the Air Force. The United States’ secret war is long over however the bombs dropped are still killing the people of Laos and now the U.S wants to help.
Two million tons
Two million tons is the amount of ordnance that was dropped onto the Laotian people in an effort to destroy communist supply lines that ran into Vietnam as part of the Ho Chi Minh trail. That amounts to about one ton of munitions for each Laotian man, woman and child. That exceeded the amount dropped on Germany and Japan together in the Second World War. Thanks to the United States, Laos became the most bombed country in the history of the world, a title it still holds. With live munitions still being recovered from WWII it should come as no surprise that many are still being found in Laos. Out of the 270 million cluster bombs dropped more than 80 million didn’t explode. Now more than 40 years after America abandoned its efforts in Southeast Asia the munitions we dropped are still killing and the numbers are startling.
20,000 killed since 1973
When the United States left Southeast Asia the nation was poorer than ever and the lands
were ravaged. A nation of farmers had to turn to scavenging metal as a means to live since their fields were turned into worthless holes via 1,000 pound bombs. Metal could be found everywhere thanks to destroyed helicopters, planes, tanks and of course unexploded ordnance. The sad reality is that many of those doing the scavenging have been children and those who continued to farm risked life and limb plowing their fields where bombs continue to rest until disturbed. The ridiculous amount of ordnance has also contributed to a lack of agricultural development and you can’t really blame people for not wanting to literally dig up the past. Four decades later America is once again in Laos but instead of bombing them back to the Stone Age we want to clean up our mess.
You have to ask yourself why the government would care about cleaning up Laos now when we haven’t remembered where Laos is for the last 40 years but the government would rather you focus on the message of helping the Laotian people. In reality we still could care less about what we did 40 years ago but we want to play nice so that Laos has more of a reason to side with the United States on things in the region. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was in Laos this week to see if America can gain a foothold of influence in the region which is where she announced the effort to find and remove old ordnance. Asia is the fastest growing market in the world and the Obama administrations goal is to shift focus from the Middle East and onto Asia. Laos isn’t the only former Cold War enemy that the United States is trying to win over as relations have warmed year after year with Vietnam where talks of military cooperation are now on the table for the first time.
The main reason
In our efforts to focus on Asia we have to discuss the huge elephant in the room; China. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that the United States is trying to counter China’s increasing economic, military and diplomatic leverage in the region and to do that we can’t ignore nations where it is easy for us to lend a hand but where it is also very easy for China to come out on top because of our negative history with these nations. With recent moves to increase a presence in Australia, increase ties with Vietnam, weapons sales to Taiwan and the shift of 60% of our navy to the Asia Pacific it is clear that the Obama administration is racing to shift focus onto China. It’s sad that it takes a growing threat for America to suddenly realize that the death of 20,000 people since the end of the “secret war” is wrong but at the same time you have to appreciate the increasing focus onto truly the biggest threat America faces. Experts have predicted that China will be the world’s #1 economy by as early as 2025 and with economic superiority they will have a desire to defend their interests which is why now is the time to act and I am glad the Obama administration is doing just that.