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Signs of the Times  •  8 September 2016  •  No. 87

Processional. Bach’s “Prelude 1” performed by Irena Koblar.

Above: Kuang Si Waterfalls, Laos

The US “secret war” in Laos, 1964-1973
President Obama’s visit to Laos casts light on a forgotten war

        This week President Barack Obama became the first US president to visit the nation of Laos in Southeast Asia. "Given our history here, I believe that the United States has a moral obligation to help Laos heal," he said.

        As a result, two important things happened.

        First, media attention was directed to the “secret war” waged by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) from 1964-1973, part of a larger war (legally it was referred to as a “police action”) centered on the war in Vietnam and the secret bombing of Cambodia ordered by President Nixon in an expansion of the war.

        Even though the bombing of Laos was made public in 1971, few citizens have ever heard of it. Fewer still know that, on a per-capita basis, Laos was the most bombed country in history: a total of 580,000 air strikes, on average one plane load of bombs every eight minutes, around the clock, for nine years.

        The second important thing that happened with the President’s visit was his announcement of a $90 million contribution from the US, spread over the next three years, to clear unexploded ordinance (UXO).

        Some 50,000 civilians have been killed or maimed (20,000 since the end of that war) by UXO.

        Below are several other pieces of this savage story.

Invocation. “Grab the broom of anger and drive off the beast of fear.” —Zora Neale

Left: President Obama tours the Cooperative Orthotic and Prosthetic Enterprise center in Vientiane, Laos. Photo by Carolyn Kaste, Associated Press.

Call to worship. "Suppose the Holy One whose face we seek is not so much invisible, as we are ill equipped to apprehend his grave proximity." —Scott Cairns

Hymn of praise.Lao Phene,” classic music from Laos.

Confession. “Our nation is at war, and our hearts are torn. The seeds of fear are planted in terror and harvested in violence. How long, O Lord, how long? The dream of a new order birthed in justice and baptized in mercy has been ruptured by the nightmare of bloody enmity.” —continue reading Ken Sehested’s “Testimony in a Time of Terror,” a litany for worship

Right: Cluster bomb casing filled with unexploded bomblets.

        § “Acknowledging the history of war is a way that we make future wars less likely.—President Obama, speaking 7 September during his visit to the Cooperative Orthotic and Prosthetic Enterprise (COPE) Visitor Centre in Vientiane, Laos

        § Laos, along with Cambodia and Vietnam, were French colonies from the second half of the 19th century through 1953-54.

        § “Cluster bombs” were among the 2.2 million tons of ordinance dropped on Laos. The most commonly used cluster bombs carries 670 “bomblets,” about the size of a tennis ball, and each of these contain 300 metal fragments.

        § It’s estimated that 20-30% of the 260 million bomblets failed to explode. Less than 1% of these have been cleared.

        § Article 22, a Brooklyn-based company founded in 2010, sells jewelry made from scrap bomb casings (left) that fell on Laos and Vietnam during the war —Daily Capital, “From Laos With Love: Vietnam Bombs Become Jewelry

        § Ten of the 18 Laotian provinces have been described as “severely contaminated” by UXO, making vast tracts of land unavailable for farming—in a country where 80% of the population are farmers.

        § 98% of the victims of cluster bombs were civilians; 40% of those, children.

        § The CIA’s secret war in Laos was aimed at halting North Vietnamese troop and weapons transfer into South Vietnam, along with supporting the Laotian monarchy against the Pathet Lao insurgency.

        § At one point the CIA airport in the Long Tieng region of Laos was considered the busiest airport in the world, with 400 flights per day. (You may remember the 1990 American action comedy film, Air America, directed by Roger Spottiswoode, starring Mel Gibson and Robert Downey Jr. The movie doesn't get many facts right, but it is based on actual history.)

Words of assurance. “The fullness of life is in the hazards of life.” —Edith Hamilton

Hymn of intercession.Jesus, Remember Me,” a chant from the Taizé community.

        § During Obama’s speech in Laos he mentioned Channapha Khamvongsa, the Laos-American director of Legacies of War, the premier US-based education and advocacy group working to address the impact of conflict in Laos during the Vietnam War-era. (Want to get personally involved? They are always looking for volunteers, especially to host their National Traveling Exhibition in cities across the country.)

        § “Despite the international ban on cluster bombs, more than 150 financial institutions have invested $28 billion in companies that produce them, according to a new report released Thursday [16 June 2016]. Bank of America, JP Morgan Chase, and Wells Fargo are among the 158 banks, pension funds, and other firms listed in the "Hall of Shame" compiled by the Netherlands-based organization PAX, a member of the Cluster Munition Coalition (CMC). Of the top 10 overall investors, the US is home to eight. Japan and China round out the last two.” Nadia Prupis, Common Dreams

        § In December 2008 representatives from nearly 100 governments gathered to sign the Convention on Cluster Munitions, a comprehensive ban on the production, transfer, export and use of cluster munitions. To date, 119 nations have signed—the US, Russia, China being among the key holdouts.

Right: These “ponds” are actually bomb craters created by US bombs 50 years ago. Photo by Titus Peachey, Mennonite Central Committee.

        § In June of this year legislation outlawing transfer of US cluster bombs to Saudi Arabia (which has used them in its ongoing attacks in Yemen) failed in the US House of Representatives.

Preach it. “The Body of Christ must remain alert when Caesar quotes Scripture. The text of Holy Writ is forever threatened with being co-opted, is always in danger of being robed in the garments of empire, of being mobilized to endorse injustice, of being segregated from intended conclusion. And in Tuesday night's episode, President Bush [in his address to the nation on the evening of 11 September 2001] neglected to note that the text [from Psalm 23] he quoted pushes forward to the point of table fellowship with enemies.” —continue reading Ken Sehested’s “In the valley of the shadow: Reflections on the trauma of 11 September 2001

Can’t makes this sh*t up. We should “blow them [terrorists] away in the name of the Lord.” —televangelist Jerry Falwell in an interview on CNN, 24 October 2004

Call to the table. “I’m Going Down to the River of Jordan,” Fannie Lou Hamer.

When only the blues will do. “I got me a fearless heart / Strong enough to get you through the scary part / It's been broken many times before / A fearless heart just comes back for more.” —Stevie Earl, “Fearless Heart

¶ The best essay in response to the trauma of 11 September 2001 is John Paul Lederach’s “The Challenge of Terrorism: A Traveling Essay.”

        “We should be careful to pursue one and only one thing as the strategic guidepost of our response: Avoid doing what they expect. What they expect from us is the lashing out of the giant against the weak, the many against the few. This will reinforce their capacity to perpetrate the myth they carefully seek to sustain: That they are under threat, fighting an irrational and mad system that has never taken them seriously and wishes to destroy them and their people. What we need to destroy is their myth not their people.”

        The best book-length treatment (analytically and theologically) on terrorism is Lee Griffith’s The War on Terrorism and the Terror of God. (Griffith had finished his manuscript before 9/11, adding only a postscript.)

        § Between 1993 and 2016, the US contributed on average $4.9 million per year for UXO clearance in Laos; the US spent $13.3 million per day (in 2013 dollars) for nine years bombing Laos.

        § Good news. “Last Remaining Cluster Bomb Maker in the US Ceases Production After Critical Report.” Sam Sacks, truthout

        § Watch this visually-stunning, animated video (1:37) of a map of US bombing missions in Laos.

Right: Dok Champa, official flower of Laos.

        § “US bombs still maim as Obama prepares to visit Laos,” Agence France-Presse (1:55 video).

        § Watch this inspiring video (8:09) produced by the Mennonite Central Committee on 30 years of work clearing cluster bombs in Vietnam and Laos.

        § “In his diary in March 1969, [President Richard] Nixon’s chief of staff, H. R. Haldeman, noted that the final decision to carpet bomb Cambodia [also a secret war, lasting four years] ‘was made at a meeting in the Oval Office Sunday afternoon, after the church service.’”

Sources for the above information include
        • “Laos: Barack Obama regrets ‘biggest bombing in history,’” BBC News
        •“Laos: Thousands suffering from the deadly aftermath of US bomb campaign,” Matteo Fagotto, The Guardian
        •“Obama pays tribute to victims of US bombing during the ‘secret war’ in Laos,” Christi Parsons, Los Angeles Times
        •“The Bombing of Laos: By the Numbers,” Sarah Kolinovsky, ABC News

Left: An empty US bomb being used as a bell at a primary school in the village of Na Phat in the northern province of Xiangkhoang.

        •Landmine and Cluster Munition Monitor, an initiative providing research for the International Campaign to Ban Landmines and the Cluster Munition Coalition

        • Special thanks to Titus Peachey, recently retired director of Peace Education for the Mennonite Central Committee, for the conversations which inspired this issue of “Signs of the Times.” Titus and his wife Linda were the directors of the Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) aid program in Laos from 1980-1985. Titus returned to Laos in 1994 to help coordinate the beginning of the humanitarian demining project in Laos, working alongside the Mines Advisory Group and the Lao Committee for Social and Veterans Affairs. He continues to serve as chair of the Legacies of War board of directors.

        He writes, “I am a member of the Legacies of War Board because of the shattered Lao hoehead that has lain on my desk for more than 30 years. It was given to us by a man from Moung Kham Village who lost his wife and the mother of his 11 children to an unexploded U.S. cluster bomb in 1981. Each day it tells me that I must be deliberate and creative if I wish to contribute to a future of safety and peace."

For the beauty of the earth.The Earth—A Living Creature" (The Amazing NASA Video. 1:28. Thanks David.)

Altar call. “The roots of terrorism lie in the hoarding of sanctuary, economic production and land ownership. But to get there requires a radical reorienting of our minds and hearts. This is what it means to get saved.” —Ken Sehested

Benediction. To have hope “doesn’t mean closing one’s eyes to the horrors of the world—quite the contrary, in fact: only those who have not lost faith and hope can see the horrors of the world with genuine clarity.” —Vaclav Havel

Recessional.Now the Day Is Over,” Hastings College Choir.

Lectionary for Sunday next. “Hear this, oh people of the Covenant: The claim of Heaven’s Reign and the clamor over earth’s rule are woven together. The seed sown in one is harvested in the other. . . . Hoard your money or hallow your God.” —continue reading Ken Sehested’s “No one can serve two masters,” a litany for worship inspired by Luke 16:1-13

Just for fun. “President Barack Obama defended his decision on Wednesday to issue a payment of five billion dollars to Mexico to compel that nation to retain custody of Donald J. Trump. ‘I have been assured by the government of Mexico that Mr. Trump will be well taken care of and, if he proves to be a productive member of their society, will be provided a pathway to Mexican citizenship,’” Obama said. —Andy Borowitz [master of satire], The Borowitz Report, The New York Times

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Featured this week on prayer&politiks

• “No one can serve two masters,” a litany for worship inspired by Luke 16:1-13

• “In the valley of the shadow: Reflections on the trauma of 11 September 2001

• “The payback of Heaven,” a litany for worship inspired by Psalm 103

• “Testimony in a Time of Terror,a litany for worship
Other features
• The information above regarding the US secret war in Laos is gathered separately in one document on this site.

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