When the US withdrew from Vietnam in 1973 it left a trail of destruction, death and detritus behind. Almost 50 years later, some of the physical junk left in South East Asia has since been transformed into something practical.
Bomb boats are missile-shaped vessels fashioned from the auxiliary fuel tanks of
U.S. B-52 bombers.
The same B-52 bombers that rained hell from above on both Vietnam and Laos during the 1960s and 70s.
Landlocked by Vietnam to the east, Thailand to its west and Cambodia to the south and China to its north, Laos has the dubious distinction of being the most bombed country on Earth. Between 1964 and 1973, as the Vietnam War raged next door, more bombs were dropped on Laos than were dropped during the entirety of World War Two.
The bombings were part of a CIA “secret war” to prevent the dreaded ‘Domino Theory’, the belief of former President Dwight D. Eisenhower that if one country fell to communism, its neighbours would also inevitably fall.
The preferred munition during this secret war were cluster bombs; a bomb casing that housed a collection of smaller explosive “bomblets” inside. The casings were designed to split apart and spread the softball-sized ‘baby bombs’ over a wide area.
It is reported that 280 million bomblets fell on Laos during the onslaught and, predictably, they killed and wounded far more civilians than their intended communist targets.
This on its own was horrendous enough, but cluster bombs had a track record of malfunctioning. According to the BBC, 30% of the ordnance dropped on Laos did not explode. Meaning highly unstable explosive devices were now littered across the nation. This rendered large swathes of the Laotian countryside too lethal to be used as farmland.
For an agrarian nation this was a (humanitarian) disaster.
These UXOs (Unexploded ordnance) have continued to take the lives and limbs of countless more civilians since they were dropped more than 4 decades ago. Tragically, most of these victims were, and continue to be, children, curious about the glinting metal objects they find in the ground and completely oblivious to the danger.
The 9 year bombing campaign on Laos caused continuing damage to the nation and its people. So, you would think they’d want nothing more to do with anything bomb related.
And yet, during our trip through the Laos countryside, one of the first things to catch my eye was the glint of a bomb boat on the Hin Boun River.
Hin Boun is a spectacularly beautiful region in the middle of Laos. It’s close to a nature reserve and bisected by its namesake river. I was lucky enough to spend time there as part of a village homestay and had the opportunity to see these boats used for fishing, transporting goods and shuttling locals between villages.
The rivers of Laos are a lifeline for rural communities and the bomb boats are a practical, cheap mode of transport. I don’t know if the people who use them see them as anything special but for a visitor it’s easy to view them as an example of that old adage: “When life hands you lemons, make lemonade”.
In fact, while researching this post I read articles about the boats making that exact comparison and, for a while, I agreed. The people of Laos certainly had made something good out of a bad situation.
Then I stepped away from the computer and thought about it a little more deeply.
No. Laos being bombed into the stone-age for almost 10 years is not the same as “life handing you lemons”. It’s more like life handing you lemons, punching you in the face, setting you on fire, then squeezing the juice of said lemons into your burns for the next 40 odd years.
So, rather than pitch the bomb boats of Laos as some kind of ‘silver lining’ on a senseless, unnecessary horror, I’ll just end by saying they’re quirky, unique and quite possibly the best example of upcycling I have ever seen…
Resources and Further Reading:
Laos: Barack Obama regrets ‘biggest bombing in history’, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-37286520