Vietnam War-Era Bombs Cause Current Day Casualties, Demonstrating Need for Updated Weapons Technology

In Laos recently, a 10-year-old boy was killed by a buried bomb he and a friend disturbed while playing. While his friend was killed instantly, the boy survived the initial blast. In a video exhibit at Vientiane's Cooperative Orthotic and Prosthetic Enterprise (COPE), his parents recount the details of the horrific injuries inflicted by the explosion and their frantic search for a truck to take him to the hospital. Their son survived the long trip to the nearest city and the ride to a second hospital but was denied medical care at both. Neither had donor blood. The boy returned to his village only to die in agony at his home.

The bomb that killed this boy was one of many items of unexploded ordnance (UXO) seeded throughout Laos during U.S. bombing campaigns in the 1960s and 1970s. The boy's story illustrates the danger posed by UXOs from the war in Vietnam. His parents' tragic account exposes how domestic infrastructure shortcomings in developing countries can exacerbate the effects of these remnants of modern warfare. As the US and allies undertake operations in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya, they have an obligation to heed these less publicized legacies of prior conflicts. Military forces must transition to new generations of "smart" and self-destructing bombs.

In Southeast Asia, UXOs injure and kill hundreds of people each year. These unstable bombs and de facto landmines render large swathes of land unworkable for agriculture, economic development and infrastructure-building. To clear the land, UXOs have to be removed or safely detonated in place. Otherwise, the land will remain unusable for decades. Some areas of the U.S. are still contaminated with UXOs from the Civil War.

UXOs contaminate a fifth of Vientam's total land area. Between 1975 and 2007, UXOs injured or killed about 105,000 people according to the Vietnamese Ministry of Labor, Invalids and Social Affairs. Too many of these casualties are recent. UXOs caused nearly 930 casualties in the five-year period between 2003 and 2008.

Cambodia still has as many as six million landmines and UXOs. In the last two years, there have been 300 UXO-related incidents, causing 530 casualties. Altogether, there have been more than 60,000 deaths and injuries attributable to explosives since 1979 in Cambodia with others likely unreported.

Neighboring Laos bears the heaviest burden. The United States dropped more than 2 million tons of bombs on Laos between 1964 and 1973, up to 30 percent of which did not explode. Laos is the most heavily bombed country per capita in history. More than half a million raids sowed the country with more than 270 million "bomblets," also called "bombies," the smaller explosive components of cluster munitions. Today in Laos, 80 million bomblets are still active throughout the country, and a quarter of Laos's villages are affected. Since 1964, more than 50,000 people have been killed or injured by UXOs.

In Southeast Asia, the people in the predominantly rural regions in which UXOs are most common are least likely to be educated about explosives. Some disturb bombs while searching for food and resources while others expose them while digging to build. Nearly half of victims are children, who rarely understand the danger when they discover a bomb. Children even play with softball-sized bomblets. Other adults and children knowingly risk bodily injury or death because the value of metal outweighs the threat of harm. Many of the most heavily affected areas are also farthest from medical care. Many survivors live with disabilities ranging from loss of vision or hearing to amputations that leave them unable to support or care for themselves.

Investment in bomb removal must increase dramatically for affected countries to reduce casualties and reclaim land. The developing countries affected lack the financial and human resources to adequately address the scope of the UXO problem. According to Representative Mike Honda, the U.S. spent as much as $17 million per day in today's dollars during Vietnam War-era bombing campaigns in Laos yet has until recently committed only $3 million per year toward bomb removal efforts. This year's commitment of $5 million from the US still falls well short of what's needed. In 2008, with around $3 million, the Mine Advisory Group (MAG) was only able to clear 100,000 items of UXOs across 2.8 sq. km., a numerically insignificant portion of the 87,000 sq. km. affected. Of course, international aid is lagging overall: in 2010, total outside aid for UXO removal in Laos was just $20 million.

Within affected countries, improvements in domestic public health infrastructure and rehabilitation facilities will increase chances of survival and improve outcomes for victims. For prevention, education is necessary but not sufficient. It is necessary to combat the extreme poverty that leads people to risk themselves in pursuit of scrap metal.

Beyond investment in bomb removal, an international ban on cluster munitions would signify a breakthrough for global security -- and against terrorism. As Senator Leahy said, "anyone who has seen the indiscriminate devastation cluster weapons cause across a wide area must recognize the unacceptable threat they pose to civilians."

The Oslo Convention, or the Convention on Cluster Munitions, commits its signatories to destroy the majority of their cluster weapons within eight years and mandates investment in UXO removal abroad. It is the logical successor of the 1997 Mine Ban Treaty, which brought its advocates the 1997 Nobel Peace Prize. Notably absent among the Oslo Convention's 108 signatories: a small contingent of military powers including China, India, Israel, Pakistan, Russia, and the US. Although Britain acceded to the Convention, the US, China, and Russia each possess at least one billion cluster munitions.

President Obama, who voted to limit the use of cluster munitions while in the Senate, could advocate for greater restrictions on cluster munitions and push the transition to "smart" explosives that will self-destruct. Accession is an unlikely short-term goal, but the U.S. and other military forces can independently update weapons technology to prevent post-conflict civilian casualties and collateral damage.

Southeast Asia is not alone in its struggle with landmines and UXOs. It is one of a growing number of regions experiencing the destructive consequences of modern ordnance design. The three-year civil war in Bosnia resulted in the placement of more than three million landmines. Multiple conflicts in Iraq over the 1980s and 1990s seeded the country with thousands of mines and UXOs, leaving as many as one million tons of explosives throughout the country. As many as ten million landmines still lie under Iraq's sands.