Between 1964 and 1973, America fought a secret war in Laos.
Unlike the fighting in neighbouring Vietnam, no help was given to journalists wanting to cover the story.
So, whilst journalists in Vietnam could hitch rides on helicopters, film the fighting and report reasonably freely, in Laos all they received were denials. Supposedly, no bombing was happening.
And of course, what didn’t appear on TV was pretty much ignored by the bulk of the US domestic population.
However, this belies the size of the campaign undertaken in Laos.
America has never, neither before nor since, dropped so many bombs on a single country.
Over two million tons of bombs were dropped in 580,000 bombing missions. That’s effectively a planeload of bombs every 8 minutes, 24 hours a day, for 9 years.
The war was undertaken as part of America’s ultimately failed campaign to prevent Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia from communist takeover.
In Laos, the communist Pathet Lao were already fighting against the Royal Lao Government. In addition, North Vietnamese troops and the Vietcong were crossing the border into Laos to train, recuperate and ship troops and weapons along the many paths making up the Ho Chi Minh Trail.
Cluster munitions were used by the USA – huge bomb-shaped containers which burst open whilst descending, throwing clusters of smaller bomblets over a wide area. They caused devastating damage.
Over 270 million cluster bombs were dropped in Laos. Up to 80 million did not explode.
Since the bombing ceased, over 20,000 people have been killed or injured by unexploded ordnance (UXO). Most of the country has yet to be cleared. Only 1% of these munitions have been destroyed.
Each year there continue to be over 100 new casualties in Laos. Six out of ten die and 40% of them are children.
Laos consequently accounts for more than half of the world’s total for cluster bomb casualties.
The US spent $13.3 million per day (in today’s terms) for nine years during the bombing campaign.
Since then, it has spent an average of $3.2 million a year helping with UXO clearance.
Aside from the ongoing casualties, evidence of the bombing is unmissable in Laos. Large areas are covered by massive bomb craters and huge tracts of the country are unsafe for people to roam.
Children playing or farmers ploughing their fields can easily set off one of the small bomblets that were contained in the cluster munition canisters. If they are lucky, they may lose a limb or two, but for many the penalty is death.
These days, bomb casings are used throughout Laos as signs, memorials and ornaments.
Metals used in bomb-making are re-cast into bottle openers, available in markets at various tourist destinations.
Crashed bombers and tanks can also be viewed as a result of the conflict.