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One Lesson of Vietnam That We Can All Agree On… Right?

September 30, 2008

Last summer I met a 12 year old Vietnamese boy who had recently been crippled by an American bomb outside the former airbase of Khe Sanh. He had been watching his neighbor dismantle a small bomb to sell on the Ho Chi Minh City scrap metal market when it exploded, killing the neighbor and embedding shrapnel deep into the boy’s legs and face.

The American and North Vietnamese armies fought over this remote mountain valley close to the Laotian border in 1968. The armies are long gone, and the most visible remnants of the war are a few rusting American helicopters, sitting admist coffee plants outside the Khe Sanh war museum. But lying on the ground or just below the surface there lurks a more insidious legacy of the war: the hundreds of thousands of tons of unexploded bombs that litter the forests and the farms of central Vietnam.

How many Americans know that bombs we dropped 40 years ago are still killing people in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia? The images of B-52 bombers over tropical forests are burned into the American consciousness But what happened after those mother bombs opened up, spewing 500 baseball-sized bomblets out over villages and forests? Between 10 and 15 percent failed to explode on impact. Ten to fifteen percent of several million tons of bombs…

The story speaks for itself: cluster munitions left over by of a war that ended in 1975 are still killing and maiming children. That is the urgency of banning these weapons. It was so frustrating watching the debate on Friday night and hearing John McCain intone about ending the war in Iraq with “victory” and “honor.” The line evokes an involuntary shudder, even among those of us who weren’t alive to hear Nixon say it the first time. We have clearly not learned the lessons of the Vietnam War – instead, we seem to have put incredible efforts into forgetting them.

But the issue of cluster bombs brings up one lesson of Vietnam that we should all be able to agree on: that the destructive consequences of our wars stick around long after the fighting has ended.

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