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A Look Behind the Book: When The Bombs Stopped

From the desk of Dr. Erin Lin


Especially for those who remember the war well, it is easy to feel baffled by and then resentful of US military decisions during the Vietnam War. Over the course of the war, President Richard Nixon and his advisor Henry Kissinger tried to halt the spread of communism in Southeast Asia by expanding the American bombing campaign into Laos and Cambodia, to ostensibly target North Vietnamese supply lines. In the process we dropped over two million tons of ordnance on Laos, an amount equivalent to one ton per Laotian. The United States also dropped 500,000 tons of bombs over Cambodia—more than the combined weight of every man, woman, and child in the country. One of the most unexpectedly devastating (and most ignored) characteristics of the gravity bombs we used was that they often did not work. Many of these bombs failed to detonate when they hit muddy, densely vegetated, or inundated surfaces, leaving a potentially lethal weapon in the soil for decades after the payload drop.



As I show in my new book When the Bombs Stopped: The Legacy of War in Rural Cambodia, these leftover bombs connect the local and the global. In the modern era of airstrikes and bombardments, it is as impossible to draw a sharp line between domestic and international politics as it is to understand the layered realities of Cambodian daily life without understanding its language, religion, and conflict history. In an attempt to move beyond the US-centric corpus of Vietnam War history, I spent more than a decade studying Cambodia and learning Khmer in order to write a book that refocuses history on first-person accounts.


In particular, I turn to the world of Cambodian farmers, who make up 80% of the country’s population. After conflict, the unexploded bombs produced and intensified economic inequities, as farmers in heavily bombed areas were and still are unable to take advantage of modern agricultural machinery and innovations, such as tractors, water pumps, and new types of commercial crops that require tillage. In one chapter, I examine both the surface conditions at the targeted sites and the number of bombs at these sites to discover how and where impact fuses fail to trigger, and shows how large numbers of unexploded bombs tend to cluster in the most fertile soil, causing farmers in these seemingly ideal areas to produce crops only at the subsistence level. Drawing on personal interviews with farmers on the Cambodia-Vietnam border, this chapter elaborates on the livelihood strategies and economic decision-making of current residents, who are often unwilling to invest in green revolution technologies that require them to be closer to the bombs. 



Khmer farmhouse in Koun Mom


My respondents primed me to be alert and question my desire to usher formidable social problems toward easy resolutions. The next chapter describes the painstaking process of safely ridding lands of unexploded ordnance. Survey teams overlay a grid on a suspect landscape, and color-code the cells depending on what the metal detectors find. Deminers differentiate bombs from scrap metal by the length of the pings from the machine. A separate team arrives to dig up and detonate the ordnance. The process of removing unexploded ordnance requires careful attention and surgical precision, unlike advancing armies, which cut rapidly through terrains, placing new mines and dropping new bombs. Demining simply cannot keep up with the amount of ordnance being laid or left behind in the wake of armed conflict.


The United Nations estimates that armed conflict results in more than two million devices left in combat theaters each year, while humanitarian demining removes only 100,000 devices each year (Leary 1997). Professional demining is also expensive. Over the past 25 years, the US government has spent over $400 million to fund unexploded ordnance clearance in Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia. In Cambodia alone, the United States has contributed $134 million to removal, education, and survivor assistance efforts. However, the Cambodian government estimates that it will cost $400 million more to clear the remaining 800 square kilometers of contaminated land (Martin et al. 2019), and international support for demining in Cambodia has been decreasing since 2017. When funding lapses, entire demining teams are laid off— another occupational hazard, since bilateral aid is often tied to the geopolitical landscape.


Minefield in Koun Mom


Fifty years after the Vietnam War tore a hole in Cambodian society, the bombing continues to rupture rural lives. When the Bombs Stopped brings precisely this insight to bear on the politics and village relationships in Cambodia, showing how unexploded bombs became crucial roadblocks to post-conflict recovery.



References

Leary, Warren. 1997. “Better Weapons Emerge For War Against Mines.” New York Times.

Martin, Michael, Ben Dolven, Andrew Feikcert and Thomas Lum. 2019. “War legacy issues in Southeast Asia: Unexploded ordnance (UXO).” Congressional Research Service.



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