The American Bombardment of Laos

The American Bombardment of Laos


Zack Breslin

“This isn’t a war,” said the artilleryman. “It never was a war; any more than there’s war between man and ants.”

– H.G. Wells, The War of the Worlds

I recently began reading H.G. Wells classic novel “War of the Worlds”. In the book, alien invaders from Mars land on planet Earth and begin to wreak havoc, indiscriminately killing all they encounter. The military weapons of the Earthlings are no match for the Martian’s heat-rays and the invaders turn every bush, building and person they encounter into blackened skeletons. As the invasion unfolds we are given no reason for the Martian aggression against planet Earth. The people in the book are left wondering why they have been attacked by an overwhelming force that uses a devastating technology which was previously unknown.

Although a work of fiction, the situation in the novel can be compared to various historical non-fiction events. The European invasions of the Americas, Africa and Australia all involved an alien force using destructive and unknown technology to enslave native populations. The incomprehensible and indiscriminate violence inherent in these invasions was such that a comparison to the Martian invasion in “The War of the Worlds” is appropriate. I recently heard a similar comparison made, albeit to a slightly more modern aggression than the colonial invasions of the pre-modern era. In 1964, the United States began Operation Barrel Roll, a clandestine CIA run operation against the small Asian nation of Laos which involved massive air bombardment with the main purpose of disrupting North Vietnamese supply lines. It remains the largest ever secretly conducted war.

Fred Banfman was on Newstalk FM last week to speak about his book; “Voices from the Plain of Jars; life under an air war”. The book recounts his experiences collecting eye-witness accounts of Operation Barrel Roll and it was he who made the “War of the Worlds” comparison. The Plain of Jars, a small remote area of Laos, gained the unfortunate distinction of being the most heavily bombed place on Earth, an “honour” it holds to this day. Banfman described a situation where a relatively primitive people faced an overwhelming aerial bombardment about which they could have no comprehension. In some of the remote parts that were bombed, the inhabitants would never have even seen a motorised vehicle, let alone a B52 Bomber which could destroy whole villages in a matter of seconds. Laos was one of the world’s poorest countries and many of the victims would not have even been aware that they were Laotian—their loyalty was to tribe or village. Inter-state modern warfare and those that brought it would have been as alien to them as the Martians were to Wells’ Englishmen.

Never before in the history of warfare had destruction been so indiscriminate and so universal

– H.G. Wells, The War of the Worlds

Wells was writing in 1898 and would not therefore have known of the horrors that would dominate the subsequent fifty years. His statement could easily have been applied to both World Wars but it is equally applicable to the travesty Laos experienced. For the Laotians, the destruction was undoubtedly “indiscriminate and universal”. By the time Operation Barrel Roll ended in 1973, the U.S. had dropped more than two million tons of ordinance on Laos. It is shocking to recall that America dropped more bombs on Laos, a tiny backward country, than was dropped during the whole of World War Two.

For nine years, a whole population was subjected to death and destruction, driven underground and turned into refugees. For nine years, the U.S. dropped an average of one B52 bomb load every eight minutes, twenty four hours a day. Whole towns were destroyed and the landscape of Laos still bears numerous crater-like scars. The scale of what Laos was subjected to was unprecedented and remains so.

The bombing of Laos is worth remembering as it serves as a reminder of what human beings are capable of doing to each other. Laos and the Laotian people could never conceivably have been considered a threat to America yet were bombarded into oblivion. During the nine year long massacre, the U.S. air force displayed about as much humanity toward the Laotians as the Martians did to the Earthlings in Wells’ novel. Many of the bombs were essentially dropped on Laos by default. When B52 bombers failed to find a target in Vietnam, it was common practice to fly over Laos and drop the bomb at random. This was done as the bombers were incapable of landing with their load still on board. How else could such a practice happen if not for a total indifference to the Laotian people as human beings? That indifference has continued to the present day.

Despite the fact that no bombs have fallen on Laos since 1973, Laotians continue to die every year. About a third of the bombs did not explode upon hitting the ground and since 1973 over 20,000 people have died due to accidental contact with these bombs, with countless others maimed. Aside from the human cost, Laotians have suffered immense economic damage. Nearly 40 per cent of agricultural land has been rendered unsafe in a country where 80 per cent of people are still farmers. Economic development in Laos was thus irreparably damaged and the poverty today is such that many Laotians risk life and limb digging up unexploded ordinance to sell for scrap metal.

The United States, whilst wholly responsible for this situation, has continued its policy of fatal indifference to Laos. They have the capability to help repair the damage they inflicted. The Pentagon has a database which logged the location of every bomb dropped on Laos. If the will were there, they could use it to help clear the unexploded bombs, bombs that still claim one hundred victims (including 40 children) every year. The extent to which the U.S. government is oblivious to the human suffering it has caused is best indicated by noting that they spent as much on 3 days of bombing Laos as they did in the past 16 years clearing unexploded bombs.

This article is about history. The history of how a power with such overwhelming force and technology can display such detachment from the humanity of its victims. The stories in Banfman’s book would not be out of place in a description of an alien invasion. But it is a truism that history repeats itself. As you read this, just like in “The War of the Worlds”, and in Laos in the past, strange alien machines fly overhead and inflict death and destruction on those below them. In Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq and Yemen, the U.S. uses unmanned aerial combat vehicles (or drones) to strike targets, frequently inflicting civilian casualties. Like the pilot indifferently dropping his load over Laos because he cannot land with it, the use of drones demonstrates how a piece of technology can disrupt a shared humanity. Whilst the use of drones by the U.S. has been nowhere near as devastating as the bombing of Laos, immense and lasting damage is being done. A report on sums up the damage;

Drones hover twenty-four hours a day over communities in northwest Pakistan, striking homes, vehicles, and public spaces without warning. Their presence terrorizes men, women, and children, giving rise to anxiety and psychological trauma among civilian communities. Those living under drones have to face the constant worry that a deadly strike may be fired at any moment, and the knowledge that they are powerless to protect themselves.

Just as the bombing of Laos in no way benefited a single American citizen (aside from manufacturers of B52 bombers), there is increasing evidence that drone strikes are counter-productive—that they create more “terrorists” than they destroy. Given the number of innocent civilians murdered, it is a fair assumption that drone strikes are carried out with the same callous indifference to the victim’s humanity as the bombardment of Laos.


Zack Breslin is the News Editor at The Scum Gentry Alternative Arts and Media. You can read his blog on Irish politics at or follow him on Twitter at @zack_breslin to keep up to date with his latest writing projects.


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