The New Yorker magazine this week is running a story on the unexploded ordinance we left behind in Vietnam since the war ended in 1975. The story is written by George Black. Unfortunately Obama’s visit will be timed with the funeral for Ngo Thien Khiet, an ordinance specialist who was skilled at defusing bombs, one of the many thousands of unexploded bombs left over as a gift from the Americans to the Vietnamese people. Ngo Thien Khiet died while defusing a cluster bomb.
From the New Yorker article:
“Khiet, who died at the age of forty-five, and who leaves behind a wife and two sons, was an expert on the unexploded ordnance, or U.X.O., left over from the Vietnam War. He was particularly skilled at locating, removing, and safely destroying cluster bombs found in the farm fields of Quang Tri, an impoverished agricultural province that straddles the old Demilitarized Zone, or D.M.Z., which once divided North and South Vietnam.”
More than 40,000 Vietnamese people have been killed since the war ended in 1975. “More ordnance was dropped on Quang Tri than was dropped on all of Germany during the Second World War. The province was also sprayed with more than seven hundred thousand gallons of herbicide, mainly Agent Orange. The names of battlefields like Cam Lo, Con Thien, Mutter’s Ridge, and the Rockpile still give American veterans nightmares. The seventy-seven-day siege of the Marine base of Khe Sanh, in Quang Tri, so obsessed Lyndon Johnson that he kept a scale model of the base in the White House, and demanded daily updates on the course of the battle.”
“For the eight years before his death, Khiet worked for a nongovernmental organization called Project RENEW, which is based in the provincial capital, Dong Ha. The organization was founded fifteen years ago by a group of foreigners, including an American veteran named Chuck Searcy, who served in Saigon during the 1968 Tet Offensive. The group’s mission is to help clear the countryside of leftover U.X.O., and it has grown to employ an all-Vietnamese staff of a hundred and sixty people.”
Thanks to the Project RENEW deaths from U.X.O., have been dropping every year since the program began. “On the day I [George Black] went out with the emergency response team, villagers had found a white phosphorus bomb, three shoulder-fired M-79 grenades, and a 37-mm. projectile. An advance team from Project RENEW had carefully scooped out small holes in the dirt to expose the rusted munitions, marking the spot with colorful warning flags and surrounding it with sandbags. It was time for the demolition crew to move in. We retreated to a safe distance, someone started a countdown, a technician hit a remote switch, and then there was a dull boom. The kids were safe to go back out and play.”
“A couple of days later, I met Ngo Thien Khiet. He was a quiet man, with a sober but friendly demeanor. He was dressed in military-style khakis, with his name stitched in red above his breast pocket. A floppy hat on his head bore the Project RENEW logo. As I reported in a story for The Nation, I’d been invited to join him on a survey of a village called Tan Dinh. Surveying for cluster bombs is slow, painstaking work. Before we set out, Khiet showed me a map that represented his prior work in the area. The map was divided into grid sections, each representing a square kilometre. The sections that had already been combed over were color coded according to the findings of the survey team. Green meant all clear. Red meant cluster bombs. Blue meant other kinds of munitions.”
“Khiet told me that, of all the types of ordnance that still lie buried in the fields of Vietnam, cluster bombs are the most dangerous. They are a particularly devious invention, designed to inflict maximum, indiscriminate harm, and so abhorred that their use, transfer, and stockpiling is prohibited by an international treaty, the Convention on Cluster Munitions. More than a hundred nations have signed or ratified the treaty; the United States is not one of them.”
“A cluster bomb is made up of as many as six hundred individual bombs, each about the size of a baseball, which are packed into a mother pod. The pod is designed to open several feet above the ground, unloading the bomblets in all directions and shredding anything in their path. Because cluster bombs were dropped by aircraft on fixed flight paths, sometimes clearing the way for Agent Orange spraying runs, unexploded bombs tend to be found in groups. If you find one, you’re likely to find more. After so many years, they are usually heavily pitted with rust and highly unstable.”
“Before going out in the field with Khiet, I had to sign a waiver giving my blood type and accepting full responsibility for any harm that might come to me. A young female paramedic stood in attendance nearby as I signed. There was some gentle teasing. Khiet told me I had nothing to worry about, because in fifteen years of work Project RENEW had never had a single accident.”
“On Thursday, Chuck Searcy sent me an e-mail from Hanoi to tell me what had happened to Khiet. The previous day, Searcy wrote, Khiet had received a call from one of his team members, who told him that a cluster bomb had been found. Following his usual protocol, Khiet proceeded to the site to determine how to dispose of the bomb. What happened next is unclear, but there was an explosion, and Khiet was wounded. He was rushed to the Hai Lang District Hospital, and died shortly thereafter. The colleague who had called him, a man named Nguyen Van Hao, was wounded by shrapnel but survived.”
Here are some facts about what is being done about cluster bombs:
- The Convention on Cluster Munitions – prohibits the use, production, transfer and stockpiling of cluster munitions. The international agreement, signed by 111 nations and ratified by 70 to date, entered into force on August 1st, 2010. The U.S. has not signed the treaty. The first meeting of the State Parties to the Convention took place on November 9-12, 2010, in Vientiane, Lao PDR, and the second meeting took place in Beirut, Lebanon, on September 12-18, 2011.
- Former U.S. ambassadors to Laos sent a letter to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on July 8, 2011, calling for an increase in funding to the UXO sector in Laos and encouraging her to visit Laos in the course of a future trip to Southeast Asia. The Ambassadors had already written to Secretary Clinton one year beforehand, on July 15, 2010, asking for a dramatic increase of funding for UXO removal in Laos.
- House/Senate Bill: The Cluster Munitions Civilian Protection Act of 2011 (S 558, HR 996) awaits passage in Congress. This bill would restrict the production and use of cluster munitions by the U.S. A permanent ban on cluster bomb exports from the U.S. was passed in the Senate in March 2009.
- A House Appropriations Subcommittee held the first ever hearing on the issue of UXO in Laos in April 2010, helping to educate members of Congress on the issue and increase support for additional funding for UXO clearance in Laos.
- 2012 U.S. Budget: In the 2012 appropriations report, Congress set as a priority “the clearance of unexploded ordnance (UXO) in areas where such ordnance was caused by the United States,” and directed that “$9,000,000 be made available for UXO clearance in Laos.” This represents the highest dollar amount ever allocated by the U.S. to clearing UXO in Laos.
On September 6, 2006, a Senate bill–a simple amendment to ban the use of cluster bombs in civilian areas–presented Senator Clinton with a timely opportunity to protect the lives of children throughout the world.
The cluster bomb is one of the most hated and heinous weapons in modern war, and its primary victims are children.
Senator Obama voted for the amendment to ban cluster bombs. Senator Clinton, however, voted with the Republicans to kill the humanitarian bill, an amendment in accord with the Geneva Conventions, which already prohibit the use of indiscriminate weapons in populated areas.
The Legacy of Cluster Bombs in Laos
- From 1964 to 1973, the U.S. dropped over 2 million tons of ordnance over Laos in 580,000 bombing missions, the equivalent of one planeload every 8 minutes, 24 hours a day, for 9 years. At least 270 million cluster bomblets were dropped as part of the bombing campaign; approximately 80 million failed to detonate.
- Data from a survey completed in Laos in 2009 indicate that UXO, including cluster bombs, have killed or maimed as many as 50,000 civilians in Laos since 1964 (and 20,000 since 1973, after the war ended). Over the past two years there have been over one hundred new casualties each year. About 60% of accidents result in death, and 40% of the victims are children. Boys are particularly at risk.
- Laos has suffered more than half of the confirmed cluster munitions casualties in the world.
- Over the past four decades, less than 1% of the bomblets that failed to detonate have been cleared. All 17 provinces in Laos, and 41 of 46 of the poorest districts in Laos, are burdened with unexploded ordnance (UXO) contamination.
The problem that I have with Hillary Clinton is that she seems to be in love with going to war.
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