By Kitty Hu (UCLA, 2020)
"Juxtaposing my family’s archive and the massive accumulation of military waste materials…I began to ask how families and communities in the U.S. and Laos make and unmake sense of the war’s aftermath, especially a secret war that…is a mere historical footnote to the Vietnam War," began Davorn Sisavath, assistant professor in the Department of Anthropology and Asian American Studies Program at California State University, Fresno. At a colloquium for the UCLA Center for Southeast Asian Studies on February 20 and introduced by Professor Evyn Lê Espiritu Gandhi as part of her critical refugee studies class, Sisavath shared chapters from her book manuscript on the life-making practices after the U.S. Secret War in Laos.
"This is a personal and intellectual project." In trying to comprehend a war that has deeply affected her own family’s immigration history and life today, Sisavath set out for many years to understand how people cultivate ways of living in the aftermath of violence and militarism.
But first, she wanted to make it clear, "In the United States, the intervention in Laos is known as a secret war because the government concealed everything about its activities until it was released in 1970. Yet this war was never a secret in Laos for those who were bombed, for those who were affected, and for those who have resettled in the U.S."
From 1964 to 1973, the U.S. military dropped more than 270 million bombs on Laos. Because the Paris Peace Accords required the removal of all remaining U.S. forces from Vietnam, the U.S. could no longer bomb North Vietnam and instead shifted towards Laos. Sisavath explained, "It would be dangerous for U.S. military air force pilots to land with planes that already had bombs, so in order to protect U.S. air pilots, they dropped the bombs over Laos before they landed back in Thailand where a lot of the military bases were at. So Laos was bombed without intermission day and night for nine years." Eighty million bombs did not explode and remained in the soil.
The history about the war in Laos is still largely hidden from the U.S. public and not discussed. In researching at the US National Archives, Sisavath came across many withdrawal notices or major redaction on the documents that she wanted to access. "Even after 45 years, there are still many documents in the National Archives that cannot be retrieved." Despite the lack of transparency in state and military archives, Sisavath found other means to understand the war’s history.
Recycling, Melting, and Transforming War Metal
"Villagers know bomb casings as reliable and good." In looking at the war’s physical remains and thinking about military waste material, Sisavath found that families are actively transforming leftover bomb materials and these "good" metals into products, such as spoons and other household items or decorations that are sold throughout the country and to tourists, mainly from Europe. In the village of Ban Naphia, she visited two families who were making baskets full of spoons and learned that some families can make up to 1,000 spoons per day. "The spoon invites tourists to experience an intimacy with the aftermath of the war…the very bombs that were meant to kill now transformed into something that sustains life."
At Bombie’s Restaurant in Phonsavan, a town in central Laos, there is a display of the different kinds of bombs that were dropped. Guesthouses, restaurants, and even tourism offices will showcase bombs or related materials to attract western tourists.
Furthermore, "going back to the idea of the good metal which is hammered, banged, and molded," the COPE Visitor Centre in Vientiane features prosthetic limbs that are made from bomb metal and scraps. Even with this "visual representation of the perversity of such violence…the life cycle of bombs in circulation, really revealing shifting economic practices, [gives] life to metal in order to sustain other life forms."
The villagers understand the historical context of their work, but must also live with the war’s aftermath and create space for new modes of living. Borrowing from the poetry of Rudy Francisco, Sisavath concludes, "I heard there’s a woman in Palestine who makes flower pots out of used teargas grenades. From this I learned the explosion is not how the story has to end."