Dusk is falling. You’re in your kitchen getting ready to put dinner on the table for your family. The kids are outside finishing a game of kickball on the lawn. An explosion rips through the seam that separates the calm of the minute before from the nightmare of the minute after. The children’s shouts turn to screams.
This terrifying scene doesn’t happen here. But “over there” it happens each and every day. “Over there” unexploded munitions turn ordinary days into days of horror.
And we are among those most responsible. Left behind by us and our endless stream of military engagements, unexploded ordnance brings death and maiming long after our presidents and generals mount the podiums or stand on the decks of aircraft carriers and proudly declare the conflicts to be over. We’re quick to forget the last war and just as quick to move on to the next military misadventure. Long after the last boots have boarded American transport planes and flown home, ordinary people—just like you and me— living ordinary lives in Korea, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Iraq, and Afghanistan can’t find a way to move on. Conflicts waged on their soil never end because sudden death and injury visit them or their children or their grandchildren long after the last bombs have been dropped or the last mines have been buried.
Collateral damage, that sickeningly dispassionate military euphemism for civilian casualties, continues to pile up even after conflicts officially end. The victims often are farmers toiling in their fields or unsuspecting children playing with unexploded munitions resembling toys. According to the International Campaign to Ban Landmines, antipersonnel mines, landmines, and cluster munitions injure and kill civilians every single day across the globe.
The U.S. State Department concurs. According to State Department reports, sixty to seventy-five million landmines are unexploded in the ground worldwide. Imagine it. That’s one landmine for every family of four in the U.S.
The statistics are staggering and heartrending. In the twenty-five years since the last American helicopter took off from a rooftop in Saigon, over 40,000 Vietnamese have been killed or injured by unexploded American ordnance and anti-personnel landmines. Military experts estimate that 12 to 18 percent of bombs dropped on Vietnam by the U.S. military failed to explode on impact. The almost weekly incidents of injury and death, particularly in the former DMZ, the demilitarized zone, are testimony to a shameful legacy.
Let’s remind ourselves as well of what we left behind for Vietnam’s neighbor, Laos. The American bombing there piled up one ton of bombs for every man, woman, and child alive in Laos at the time, earning the country the designation as the “most heavily bombed place on earth.” Those two million tons were rained down in a futile effort to cut off North Vietnamese activities along the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Between 1964 and 1973, during what was called the “secret war,” the U.S. dropped “the equivalent of one planeload of bombs every eight minutes, twenty-four hours a day, on a country the size of Minnesota.” Two hundred and seventy million cluster bombs failed to detonate. Today, one-third of Laos is littered with unexploded bombs.
In the forty years since the bombing ceased, 20,000 Laotians have been killed or maimed by unexploded ordnance proudly made in the U.S.A.
In 1997, in recognition of our responsibility to the Laotian people, the U.S. began funding the cleanup of unexploded bombs by contributing an average of $2.6 million per year. In 2012, Congress increased the contribution to $9 million per year. To date, even with $47 million spent by the U.S. alone, only 1 percent of unexploded bombs have been cleared. In a landmark moment in July of this year, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visited Laos and pledged to do more to speed up the cleanup.
And what of the European theater? The bombing campaigns of the Second World War are a distant memory, infamous events to be examined academically for their military effectiveness or justification in documentaries and books and fictionalized to dramatic effect in films. Or are they? The aftereffects of the bombings are felt almost seventy years after the German and Japanese surrenders in the summer of 1945. For the British, for the Germans, for the Dutch, unexploded underground bombs still pose a real and deadly threat.
Just last week, an area of Holland’s busiest airport, Schiphol in Amsterdam, was shut down and evacuated when an undetonated World War II German bomb was unearthed during construction at one of the terminals.
Also last week, on a busy street in the heart of Munich, a 550-pound American-made World War II bomb was found undetonated beneath the site of a former nightclub and now popular bar. More than two thousand residents were evacuated when it was discovered that the only way to remove the bomb was to carry out a controlled detonation on site. The blast shattered windows and set fires that destroyed one shop.
In an earlier incident in Germany, 45,000 people were evacuated prior to the removal of a 3,000-pound unexploded bomb that was discovered in the Rhine River when water levels fell.
How pervasive is the problem? It’s estimated that tens of thousands of unexploded bombs are still hidden underground in Germany alone. The German city of Duesseldorf employs thirteen fulltime teams searching for and defusing bombs, small hand grenades, and munitions that are found every day. The State of North-Rhine Westphalia, where Duesseldorf is located and just one of sixteen states in Germany, spent $26.4 million in 2010 for bomb disposal.
Want to build a new library in Germany? You’ll probably need to budget for the hiring of an expert during the planning stage to review aerial photographs from World War II military archives in the UK and the U.S. to locate bomb craters in order to estimate how many bombs were dropped and possible non-detonations below your building site.
Britain has not escaped either. In April of this year, a 1,650-pound unexploded World War II German mine was caught in the nets of a fishing boat in the Thames Estuary. The mine was lifted and transported to another location where a controlled detonation took place.
Plans to build a new airport on the Thames Estuary have been put on hold because the wreckage of the USS Richard Montgomery, a World War II freighter that was carrying munitions from the U.S. to Britain when it sank, has yet to be removed. One military expert called the wreckage a “ticking time bomb.”
These reports should make us shudder. They also should encourage a more thoughtful debate about the justification for going to war when wars’ effects are felt for decades afterward by the innocent and the unsuspecting.
The writer and French Resistance pilot Antoine de Saint-Exupery—who lost his life while on a mission in 1944—wrote that war was not an adventure but a disease. Remember those words when you read about the deadly leftovers—the unexploded bomb or landmine or cluster bomb that detonates in a child’s hands.
Remember those words as well when you hear the sound of chests being thumped out there on the 2012 campaign trail. The sound you’re hearing is the sound of the irresponsible gearing up to spread the infection.