Stephen Wilkes Finds Laos with National Geographic
The war that the United States waged in Laos between 1964 and 1973 wasn’t secret to everyone, despite its generally accepted moniker as a secret war. 270 million cluster bombs were dropped on Laos as overflow from the conflict in Vietnam, in addition to four million larger bombs. As many as 80 million of those bombs never detonated, burrowing themselves into the earth in Laos, waiting to be exploded. And explode they do. Laotians frequently set off these ordinances that result in the maiming or death of those who stumble into them.
Despite the fact that these bombs are still a present and prescient part of Laotian life, Laos continues to move forward. In a recent story with National Geographic, “Life After the Bombs,” Stephen Wilkes traveled to Laos to capture what life is like there now, almost a half century after the bombing has stopped – while the presence of the bombs are still acutely felt.
There’s no denying that this is an American legacy. They are American bombs, and the injuries that are caused today are continued violence against a people who were caught in American crosshairs (in the most brutal sense of the phrase). But on Stephen’s trip through Laos what he walked away with is that life is continuing to move forward. As T. D. Allman, the writer of the story that Stephen’s photographs accompanies, reports, a scarred past with a potentially violent present isn’t holding anyone back in the future. “These people have an extraordinary ability to forgive and persevere,” Stephen tells National Geographic. “I hope this piece opens American eyes to the tragedies of the war and that, as a nation, we begin accepting our responsibility to do more.”
Stephen’s photographs tell the tale as consciously as the sentiment with pockmarked rice fields, and the adoption of bomb casings as planters. The bombs are a part of Laotian life more than in their potential destruction: artisans and entrepreneurs are using the metals from the ordinances for the creation of silverware, bracelets, and the inspiration for woven goods. It is no consolation for the violence visited upon a people who never invited it, but it is a testament to their way of life that if they don’t receive deserved aid, they will find a way to make it through.