Book review: Eternal Harvest, by Karen Coates and Jerry Redfern

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 01 December, 2013, 4:51pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 01 December, 2013, 4:51pm

Eternal Harvest: The Legacy of American Bombs in Laos
by Karen Coates and Jerry Redfern
Things Asian Press/Global Directions
4 stars

David Wilson

"Laos is a land steeped in cliché: of gilt temples and golden Buddhas, shimmering rivers and dazzling sunsets. There are saffron robes and colourful markets with exotic foods. The paddies gleam an emerald green, the people smile with ease," journalist Karen Coates writes in her guide to the real Laos, grounded in a seven-year-plus investigation.

With her photographer husband, Jerry Redfern, Coates digs under the surface of the landlocked country "ringed by a necklace of economic and political rivals", including China. Their quarry - the harvest in the title - is the unexploded ordnance (UXO) that still infests Laos thanks to the United States' 1965-1973 bombardment sparked by the country's support for communism.

The statistics about the bombing are head-spinning: more than 580,000 missions were conducted over Laos: it is the most heavily bombed country, per capita, in history. Every year, about 300 people - many of them scrap scavengers whose land has been rendered unsafe to farm - are killed.

UXO, including "bombies" (unexploded bomblets), is everywhere. Even that Stonehenge-like landmark, the Plain of Jars, in Xieng Khouang province is riddled, making it the world's most dangerous archaeological site.

Across Laos, war is etched deep in the fields and forests. One hotspot contains an apparently infinite amount of ordnance. The disposal team destroys one layer of bombs, then returns to the field to clear again. "They find more bombs. They clear again." The cycle continues.

The calculus raises the question of whether Laos will ever be purged. "We just keep up the good work we're doing, and in 5,000 years we'll be finished," clearance campaigner Jim Harris says.

The best clearance tool is oddly low-tech: explosives-detection dogs that only react to the smell of explosives and ignore rusty nails. Trained canines save time, but they cost almost US$20,000 each, so sophisticated detectors dominate.

A team leader never knows what he will find at a blast site; even controlled detonations are prone to go awry. Sometimes, nothing explodes when the button is pushed. Sometimes, a bomb just partly blows. In 2002, a Lao team leader and section commander died in a routine demolition.

A demolition that goes off reasonably well nonetheless sounds horrendous. "When the 750-pound [341-kilogram] bomb blows, it shoots sideways in a ball of fire. Grey smoke billows out and up until it swallows the valley. The hillside shakes," Coates writes, also noting "towers of dust", skittering rocks, and immense noise as the mountain quivers; although she yells through a bullhorn, she cannot be heard.

Coates' compelling testimony is crowned by her husband's black-and-white photographs, which show the surreal upside of munitions metal - its imaginative inclusion in Laotian design. One Redfern photograph shows the bell at Wat Siphoutthabath in Luang Prabang, made from an American bomb's rump end. Another photo shows a disarmed BLU-3 cluster bomblet reframed as an ashtray.

Redfern's photographs show a landscape so scarred by craters that it resembles a golf course. Amid the devastation stand victims and disarmament professionals.

One of the most powerful photographs depicts munitions expert Sang Kham framed by some of the thousands of bombs that he claims to have defused since the war ended. The bombs are Kham's personal shrine to those who died from the US bombing campaign, the caption notes.

The final picture that the gritty book conjures up is apocalyptic: Thone the gardener, who lost a son to UXO, says the US should pay reparations. Grimly, as America focuses on disentangling from Afghanistan, that prospect looks increasingly distant.