On New Year’s Day 2013, my mother died after a long battle with ALS. The day of her funeral was a typical freezing winter’s day in North Dakota. Our family filled up one pew at the church, and at one end were my mother’s cousins who lived just one state away, but this was our first time meeting each other. I realized just how much of a mystery my mother was to me.
She was forced to flee her home in Laos in the 1960s, quietly crossing the thick jungles at night, taking refuge in caves, and crossing the mighty Mekong River into Thailand. She lived in a refugee camp for two years before being sponsored to come to the U.S. This was all that I knew of her childhood. I wanted to know more about why she fled but she never talked about it.
In the years following her death, I became more determined to reconnect with my Lao heritage. I was scrolling on my phone, pregnant with my first child, and discovered Legacies of War’s website. In one afternoon, I read almost every word on the website and learned of the haunting reasons why my mom fled. (I now work at Legacies of War, as the organization’s chief of mission advancement and communications.)
I learned about the history of The American Secret War in Laos, and that from 1964-1973, the U.S. dropped over 2.5 million tons of ordnance on Laos—equivalent to one planeload of bombs every eight minutes, 24 hours a day, for nine straight years. Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, the U.S. covertly carpet bombed Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam, dropping over 13 million tons of ordnance—many of which were cluster munitions.
I saw familiar names on the screen, President Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger. Names that I hadn’t seen since high school, but this time their legacies were tied to the massacre of my ancestors and war crimes—not to heroic actions for democracy, as I had been taught in school.
When I learned the news that Kissinger had died on Wednesday, I was reminded of the article, “Bombs Over Cambodia,” which shares a phone call record between President Nixon and Kissinger on Dec. 7, 1970. During this call, President Nixon demands more bombings on Cambodia, stating, “There is no limitation on mileage and there is no limitation on budget. Is that clear?”
After his phone call with President Nixon, Kissinger gives the orders to General Alexander Haig, “Anything that flies, on anything that moves. You got that?”
Millions of ordnance dropped on Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam never detonated on impact. But they continue to kill and maim civilians today.
Over the last decade in Laos, over 60 percent of unexploded ordnance-related casualties were children under the age of 18.
This year, 2023, marks 50 years since the last American bombs were dropped on Laos. My family is still living with the risk of being killed by these bombs as they farm their rice paddies and send their kids to school. Thousands of families all over Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam face these risks every single day from a war that was never wanted—and supposedly “ended” two generations ago.
Kissinger’s legacy is a mirror of the United States’ ignorance to learn from its past.
While the U.S. is the largest funder of demining globally, it was just months ago when the Biden administration sent a third shipment of cluster munitions to Ukraine. For 15 years, the U.S. has refused to sign on to The Convention on Cluster Munitions—an international treaty of more than 100 states which prohibits all use, production, transfer, and stockpiling of cluster munitions.
“…thousands of men and women in Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam woke up to the sounds of roosters, sent their children to school, put on their uniforms, and picked up their scanners to safely clear more land of unexploded ordnance.”
In Oct. 2022, I found myself seated on a plane between a Hmong American who had fled Laos and a U.S. Air Force veteran who served during The American Secret War in Laos. It was each of their first times returning to Laos.
Together, we joined eight others who shared similar backgrounds as we embarked on a journey of history, healing, and hope in Laos. We visited some of the most heavily bombed regions in Laos and witnessed the heroic men and women who work each day to locate and disarm unexploded ordnance, provide victim assistance, and explosive ordnance risk education to schools and villages.
One man that we spoke with, Pa (Father) Yong Kham, shared that he had lost two of his siblings to cluster munition accidents during the war—and then after the war was “over,” he was injured himself by a cluster munition, and lost his eldest son to a cluster munition accident.
As the trip came to a close, I left my motherland of Laos feeling discouraged by the long road ahead until Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam can celebrate a bomb-free land. Today, almost 60 years after the first bombs were dropped, roughly 10 percent of the contaminated land in Laos has been successfully cleared.
Today, as many of us, wrestle with the legacy of Henry Kissinger and how he has left this world free of any conviction of his war crimes, thousands of men and women in Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam woke up to the sounds of roosters, sent their children to school, put on their uniforms, and picked up their scanners to safely clear more land of unexploded ordnance.
From Kissinger’s death, we must learn that the future of America’s reconciliation won’t be borne solely by one man, but by all of us. It is each of our responsibilities to continue to hold our government accountable for its actions. May our hope for America not die with Henry Kissinger, but may it unite us as we pave a more peaceful path forward.