When Hilary Clinton visited Laos last week, no one expected her to emulate West German Chancellor Willy Brandt when he fell to his knees on his 1970 visit to the Warsaw Ghetto. But still, the Secretary of State’s appearance was the first of its kind since the Vietnam War, when the U.S. dropped more bombs on the small country than it had on Germany and Japan combined during World War II. So you might have thought she’d have worked up something better than to tell a man who lost both hands and eyesight due to an American cluster bomb that "I wanted to come here today, so that we can tell more people about the work that we should be doing together." To be fair, it’s possible that Clinton made other, more profound remarks about our country’s impact upon theirs that went unreported – her visit only lasted four hours and the news media didn’t give it a lot of attention – but it seems unlikely. After all, it’s not like our foreign policy makers have learned much since the days of our “secret” war in Laos.
Such coverage as there was focused on how different things had been the last time a U.S. secretary of state, John Foster Dulles, visited Vientiane in 1955 when his plane had to circle the airport because there was a buffalo on the landing strip. (Of course when the U.S. dropped 2 million tons of bombs on the country between 1964 and 1973 they probably lowered the buffalo population some.) But unfortunately, the reality is that so far as policy goes, things are depressingly the same.
For one thing, the U.S. still sees itself fighting and financing a worldwide war, just as it did then and has virtually without pause since Pearl Harbor. Laos itself mattered little to the U.S. back then. The 270 million cluster bombs it dropped on the country were aimed primarily at the Vietnamese coming through to fight the U.S. backed government in South Vietnam. And Vietnam itself was only a part of a larger world wide war against communism. Today’s enemy, Islamic “terrorism” is, of course, very different. But the battlefield remains the same – the globe.
The other great similarity is that the U.S. is still fighting “secret” wars. This would be funny, if it weren’t tragic. Yes, the bombing of Laos was a “secret” war. How do you drop roughly a ton of bombs for every single person living in a county and keep it secret? Well, obviously you don’t, except from your own citizens. Then, as now, the place to find the people least informed about American foreign policy is the U.S. of A.
Who among us can say we know for sure just how many countries American forces are currently fighting in? Just as the government is finally starting to come clean about its previously “secret” drone strikes in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia – countries with which we are not at war – there comes a report that the U.S. launched one in the Philippines – in 2006! And then there are the three U.S. Army commandos just found dead in Mali. What were they doing there? Don’t ask. The military’s real “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy goes on unchanged.
You won’t learn much about this in the American newsmedia, of course. There we hear instead about how our military just keeps getting better and better as it absorbs the lessons of the past. We may not be one of the 74 nations to sign the international treaty banning cluster bombs, let’s not dwell on that. We’ll never again leave behind 90 million unexploded bombs like we did in Laos. Even if it is the case that 20,000 Laotians have been killed or maimed by unexploded ordnance since the end of the war, as their government claims, it won’t happen again. (Phongsavath Souliyalat, the man Clinton met, is only twenty. His injuries occurred four years ago – thirty-five years after the U.S. ended that “secret” war.) We have “smart” cluster bombs now. And if you give the Pentagon half a chance, it can even explain its official policy that “Blanket elimination of cluster munitions is ... unacceptable due not only to negative military consequences but also due to potential negative consequences for civilians.” That is, if it’s not too busy making the moral case for assassination by drones.
If Hillary Clinton was embarrassed to be criticizing the Laotian government for its shortcomings on human rights when she should have been prostrating herself asking forgiveness for the damage her country has done and continues to do to the Laotian people, we’ll have to wait until she publishes her memoirs to find out. Right now she’s too busy covering up America’s current “secret” wars.