In the 1960’s and early 1970’s I was fiercely opposed to the Vietnam War. I protested, marched, sat in, and obtained a deferment by teaching at a local college. However, I think this opposition was more closely related to my deep-seated fear of fighting in the steamy jungles of SE Asia than to any inherent pacifism or fundamental opposition to the horrors of war.
However, 40 years later, those horrors were brought home in a most unusual and unexpected manner. My wife and I recently finished a lovely visit to Vientiane, the capital of Laos. Unknown to me, from 1960 to 1972 Laos had more bombs dropped on it than any other nation in SE Asia. The areas surrounding the Ho Chi Minh trail, which runs the length of the country, were a vast dumping ground for American artillery, rockets, napalm, and, worst of all, cluster bombs. Sadly, many of these Vietnam-era armaments are still active, lying in wait under the soil for the unsuspecting farmer to plow a new field, for the bicyclist to take a new short-cut into town, or for the young child to chase an errant baseball. Each year almost 5,000 innocent Laotians lose arms and legs to these hidden remnants of the Vietnam War, certainly one of the low points in our country’s history.
While in Vientiane we had the good fortune to visit COPE–the Consortium for Orthotic and Prosthetic Enterprises. COPE is the country’s valiant but limited attempt to provide rehabilitative services to the tragic victims of unexploded ordnance (UXO). With a full-time paid staff of only three, along with many dedicated volunteers, they provide artificial limbs as well as the occupational and physical therapy needed to use these new limbs effectively. For example, I observed a 12-year-old boy who had lost both hands to a UXO learning to type on a laptop with his mouth and a pointing stick. It was a highly sobering experience, and you can only imagine how you feel as an American knowing it was your country’s own munitions that caused the pain and suffering before your very eyes.
Surprisingly, there was absolutely no animosity or hostility directed toward either my wife or me. In fact, the staff at COPE gave us a welcome that could not have been more warm or sincere, and they were proud to show us what they have been able to achieve with limited funds. The staff focuses on meeting the needs of the present and looking toward the future, not dwelling on the mistakes of the past. I have to say they showed a level of forgiveness and understanding that I might not have been able to achieve if the situation were reversed.
Laos is now opening up to large-scale Western tourism, and I recommend it as a fascinating destination with lots to see and enjoy–not to mention great food and one of the best beers in the world (Beerlao). If you do go, please make sure to include some time for a visit to COPE. It is an amazing place that will leave you emotionally drained, spiritually uplifted, and filled with food for thought.
(Read more about my visits to SE Asia in my book, On The Other Guy’s Dime: A Professional’s Guide To Traveling Without Paying)