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Exhibiting the American Secret War in Dayton

From the desk of Dr. Paul Morrow

2023 marks fifty years since the last American bombs fell on Laos. While the legacies of that war endure, eyewitnesses to the bombings are growing fewer. American pilots and service members have for the most part remained silent, bound in some cases by lifelong oaths of secrecy. Refugees and allies of Laos continue to pursue recognition for their wartime contributions, while survivors seek new ways to share their stories. 

At the University of Dayton, faculty, staff, and students in the Human Rights Center (HRC) have worked with Legacies of War for more than three years to deepen public understanding of the American Secret War. Student interns have contributed to LoW’s mission in a variety of ways, while HRC staff have published a report and hosted events drawing attention to the threat of unexploded ordnance (UXO). In 2023, this partnership took on a new dimension as students in Dr. Paul Morrow’s human rights course created an exhibit that subsequently went on display in Dayton’s International Peace Museum.

Paul Morrow discusses testimonies and drawings from Lao survivors of the American Secret War with a student in his human rights course.

The backbone of this exhibit, and of LoW’s advocacy work generally, consists in the testimonies and drawings collected by Fred Branfman and his Lao colleague Bouangeun Luangpraseuth from eyewitnesses to the American bombing campaign in Laos. Students in Dr. Morrow’s class read Branfman and Luangpraseuth’s book, Voices from the Plain of Jars, in March 2023, then divided into history and design teams. After producing a draft text and making an initial selection of images, work on the exhibit shifted to a collaboration between Dr. Morrow and Peace Museum Executive Director Kevin Kelly over the summer of 2023. Danae Hendrickson and Sera Koulabdara of Legacies of War offered vital assistance with the design and collection of materials⸺including some items brought back specially from Laos for this exhibit.

UXO: Legacies of the Secret War in Laos opened to the public on August 11, 2023. Over two months, hundreds of visitors viewed the exhibit, including school children, university faculty, veterans, and peace activists. A special program of events in September brought Koulabdara, IMID-director Dr. Palina Louangketh, and journalist George Black to the museum for discussion of the legacies of cluster munitions and the stories of refugees from the Secret War. Students from Dr. Morrow’s medical ethics course toured the exhibit and learned from Koulabdara about the importance of humanitarian medical assistance to victims of UXO in Laos. LoW board member Chris Phommasathit joined museum staff for this weekend of events, and shared part of his mother’s story of flight from the violence.

University of Dayton Students visit the International Peace Museum to learn about the American Secret War from LoW Executive Director Sera Koulabdara (September 2023)

The issue of UXO took on additional significance in the summer of 2023, as the Biden administration made the controversial decision to supply cluster munitions to the Ukrainian military during its counteroffensive against Russian invaders. Senator Jeff Merkley and former Senator Patrick Leahy advocated strongly against the use of these weapons, due to their experience with war remnants remediation in Southeast Asia. A statement from the senators provided a timely call for advocacy in the final section of the exhibit, and featured in George Black’s discussion of his book, The Long Reckoning.

Sera Koulabdara and Palina Louangketh speak with USAF veteran Tom about his wartime experience in Vietnam and Laos.

Although this special exhibition closed in October 2023, the lessons and materials will live on. Images and items from UXO were featured at the UD Human Rights Center’s Social Practice of Human Rights Conference. Legacies of War is actively seeking additional venues for putting this exhibit on display. Looking ahead, LoW staff and Peace Museum curators are in discussion about the possibility of making some of these materials part of the Museum’s permanent exhibit.

The harms of war are never confined to a single time or place. They travel globally with the dispersion of soldiers, survivors, and refugees. They endure historically through the stories told in families and the scars left on the landscape. At a time when active conflicts are underway in Gaza, Myanmar, Sudan, and Ukraine, it is important to meet the humanitarian needs of the moment while also continuing to address war legacies. Exhibiting the American Secret War in Dayton aims to advance both these goals.

LoW board member Chris Phommasathit, IPM director Kevin Kelly, and other contributors to exhibit programming celebrate a successful week of events.

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