National Geographic : 2015 Aug
120 national geographic • august 2015 by American bombs long after the end of the war. At the local high school, algebra was being taught on a blackboard. I couldn’t decipher the equations: Laotian teenagers in this remote vil- lage were learning mathematics more advanced than I’d been taught at their age in America. Back home, I showed a photo of that blackboard to a mathematician. “It analyzes the velocity of falling objects, like bombs,” he told me. Falling bombs still show up in dreams as well. “I live it inside me,” a world-renowned embroi- dery artist named Tiao Nithakhong Somsanith explained as I admired his use of gold thread to embroider Laotian silk with images of bombers. Tiao Nithakhong is helping revive the traditional arts in his country: classical dance, flower ar- rangement, costume design, orchestral music, and all kinds of weaving. Examining his exquisite work in a Louang- phabang art gallery, I saw what I’d also seen in villagers’ handicrafts. Whether the materi- al is bamboo or plastic, silk or synthetic fiber, weaving is the art at which the Laotian people most excel. Masters at turning every kind of material into something useful and beautiful, they weave palm fronds into baskets, bamboo into fish weirs. They weave silk and gold thread into beautiful women’s skirts called sin. On a bookshelf in my apartment in New York City, I keep a soccer ball woven from rattan, so perfect Buckminster Fuller might have invented it. I call it a soccer ball, but it’s the kind of ball in a game called kataw that Laotian youths play, using only their feet to cooperatively keep the ball in the air. In total the U.S. dropped more than 270 million cluster bomblets, or “bombies,” on Laos—more than one for every man, woman, and child in America at the time—as well as four million big bombs. The total weight of the bombs dropped was many times greater than the weight of the people living in Laos, which at the time had a population of perhaps two mil- lion. It worked out to as much as a ton of bombs per person. Periodically during the war Washington announced a “bombing halt,” but the munitions conveyor belt stretching from the stockpiles in the U.S. 8,000 miles across the Pacific could not be switched on and off. Bombs that did not fall on Vietnam were redirected to Laos. It was the world’s first supply-driven war—the pent- up munitions constantly generating a demand for their use. This mass production of airborne death had no quality control: Possibly 80 mil- lion of the bombies didn’t explode on impact and are still considered live. Up to 10 percent of all the big bombs also failed to explode. Laotians are a forgiving people, but as long as Laos remains riddled with explosives, nobody can forget, because forgetting can kill you. No matter how beautiful the scenery on the Plain of Jars, don’t forget and climb that nearby hill for a better view. The bombs there could maim you, if they don’t kill you. No matter how many times you’ve warned your kids, don’t forget and let them pick up those toylike capsules. Those little round bombies might disfigure or kill them. When the U.K.-based Mines Advisory Group Nearly everyone has a smart phone in Laos, where a third of the people are younger than 15. Laotian ingenuity and drive have put the country on track to be off the UN’s list of least developed countries by 2020.