War is a metal-heavy project, whether total and nuclear war, which deals in heavy metal production, or conventional warfare, which relies on metal casings for bombs and bullets. Once metal serves a mechanical purpose—to puncture, deflect, contain, or burst—it also does secondary war work: it remains, it leeches, it radiates, and it circulates. Metal, because of this visibility and long-term endurance on warscapes, both marks and makes a violence that I call “metallic violence.” By metallic violence, I mean the violence of metal that endures and intimately engenders life-making practices of survival and recovery in war’s aftermath, impinging on present and future possibilities. As a border technology, metallic violence marks the vulnerability of movement on contaminated landscapes, revealing the layered processes of navigating and resisting war waste. Metallic violence also draws our attention to the traces of imperial violence that it holds: the visible and nonvisible markers of displacement and destruction of military operations conducted and unexploded ordnance pollution concentrated in the Global South; new injuries and death from experimental warfare technologies and weapons that have a life of their own; and war metal’s potential to enact a different kind of circulation. Such legacies of war of places like Lao People’s Democratic Republic (Laos) reveal metallic violence resulting from the United States conducting more than 580,000 bombing missions between 1964 and 1973. This translates to a planeload of bombs every eight minutes, twenty-four hours a day, for nine years. Today, metal contamination of Laos presents ongoing violence, including the seventy-five to eighty million unexploded ordnance, specifically cluster bombs and submunitions, that have remained.
In Laos, the teleological dimensions of high-quality, US-made cluster munitions did not culminate in the process of widespread destruction of infrastructure or its intended purpose, but it lives, producing large quantities of “good” metal, creating economies of survival and recovery. War metal’s transformations through their circulation among people in Laos depict the ways warfare endures, sometimes via human resilience made necessary by its material force. While many cluster bombs still lied buried, people create value by recycling and repurposing other war metals such as bullet casings, shrapnel, rockets, grenades, antipersonnel landmines, and bomb casings. Yet little attention in the literature examines metallic violence in the postwar landscape or considers the social and economic aspects that make up the material consequences of war on the ground.1 My contribution to this conversation addresses the “wealth” of metals dumped through warfare and highlights both the sheer plunder of war and the slow violence of how metal works as a currency of harm and a currency of survival through harm.2 It takes the form of three parts: first, I offer a military history of the movement of metals from the Global North into Laos; second, I detail the legacy of war waste on the landscape; and finally, I show how people in Laos circulate war metals and repurpose them. I describe these iterations of metal’s transformation from a weapon to a “good” in war’s aftermath to reveal metal’s significance. Conceptualizing metallic violence in war’s aftermath, I argue, offers a critical analysis of metal’s capacity to account for different, messy, and entangled materialization that sustains social, economic, and political relations. As such, attention to metallic violence involves connecting histories and patterns of US imperialism that bring different, yet complexly interrelated, spaces together to capture practices by which people sometimes creatively and critically navigate and resist war metals.
In Laos, what are people to make of metal from highly explosive munitions left behind, with much of them lying in rural areas? How might we theorize war metals as ongoing imperial impositions? Scholars examining the Vietnam War critically reflect on how the war’s residues and legacies continue to be lived in Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia.3 By charting the impact of war through daily routines of how individuals negotiate difficult pasts to rebuild their lives, these scholars unveil layers of lasting environmental damage on ruined landscapes that shaped their daily encounters. Foregrounding “interactions of a violent past,” Vatthana Pholsena and Oliver Tappe remind us that war endures and manifests in various materializations upon the landscapes and peoples in the region. In this collection of essays, scholars attend to how lingering violence and ongoing damages shape collective memory and identity in postconflict landscapes of Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia. In their respective chapters on war debris, Christina Schwenkel reveals the risks associated with the informal economy of scrap metal trade in Vietnam; Elaine Russell exposes violent histories that cannot be relegated to the past because war debris causes ongoing death and injury in Laos; and Krisna Uk draws on the Jorai experience in northeast Cambodia to show how war survivors of US bombing encounter warfare objects by crafting them for use in ritual and everyday purposes. War metals, now lodged permanently in the landscape, impact material life in a kind of second wave of war on human livelihoods. From the perspective of those living on embattled landscapes, metallic violence is not an externality or aftermath of war, but in fact a core part of it. The ever-present force of war metal in the landscape mediates human relationships with one another and their environments. As anthropologist Leah Zani writes of bomb ecologies, these are “zones in which war profoundly shapes the ecological relations, political systems, and material conditions of living and dying.”4
Engaging with militarism and militarization, feminist scholars reveal that the continuum of violence in war zones does not distinguish between pre- and postwar spheres in everyday life-making practices, but is deeply seeped into the social and cultural imagination.5 Few anthropologists have focused on military waste and its materiality in postwar zones.6 In postwar Bosnia-Herzegovina, anthropologist David Henig attends to the social life of military waste to show how people remake livelihoods and reengage with the environment.7 In the most recent study on Laos, Leah Zani’s rich ethnography and poetry illustrate military waste as “active, corrosive elements of the present and future.”8 Adding to the scholarship on war’s aftermath, Everyday Militarisms, a collaborative research group led by scholars in the United States and Australia, direct our attention to “ways in which militarisms are inseparable from everyday life” and remind us of the “violence embedded in seemingly banal sites ‘hidden in plain sight/sites.’”9 Building upon scholarship on “everyday militarisms,” alongside scholars of military waste, feminist analysts of bomb ecologies, and historians of memory and identity in postconflict landscapes, I analyze war metals to illustrate how militarism and its effects remain and persist in Laos, their complex historical entanglement, and the material form they take in everyday life-making practices of survival and recovery.
From October to November 2016, I observed how war metals in Laos function as an archive of the so-called US secret war.10 Cluster bomb casings, submunitions, rockets, landmines, and other weapons were displayed in homes, shops, restaurants, and guesthouses throughout Xieng Khouang Province. Information bearing purpose, weight, kind, and origin remains marked and legible on some bombs. The enduring legacy of war metals—their contamination, visibility, and durability—serves as evidence of the so-called secret war fought in the country. Yet to write about America’s presence in Laos, one must attend to the difficulty in reconciling a violent past and the material consequence of war. In Laos, war remains because of the ongoing material thrust of munitions on the landscape and their continued violence on Laotian bodies, such as my own cousin who was killed from a cluster submunition in Xieng Khouang Province decades after the last bombing mission in 1973. According to Lao National Unexploded Ordnance Programme (UXO Laos), it will take more than one hundred years to complete the clearance of unexploded ordnance in Laos.
I use a mixed-methods approach in this article, following the circulation of war metals, offering an ethnography of Phonsavanh and Ban Naphia in Xieng Khouang Province, historical research of cluster bombs left by US experimental warfare, and an analysis of media depictions to engage resistance and creativity. I focus my observation on Phonsavanh and Ban Naphia because of their location in Xieng Khouang Province. During American bombing campaigns, the northeastern region part of Laos became a “free-drop zone”: a zone permitting indiscriminate bombing “where planes that had taken off from bases in Thailand and had been unable to deliver their bombs, could dispose of them before returning to Thailand.”11
Alongside an ethnography of place, I turn to media depictions to give texture to the processes by which war metals made their way into everyday practice. I analyze Pae’s story, one of many in Karen J. Coates and Jerry Redfern’s Eternal Harvest: The Legacy of American Bombs in Laos (2013), which is categorized as travel literature and contains richly textured stories and photographs of war’s aftermath. Over an eight-year period, author Karen J. Coates and photojournalist Jerry Redfern conducted research and interviewed farmers, scrap metal hunters, bomb disposal unit teams, and individuals who exploited war metals for commercial or practical use. I also turn to Lao artist Bounpaul Phothyzan, whose art installations address legacies of US secret war, the effects of deforestation, and land issues in Laos. In Lie of the Land (2017), Phothyzan utilizes war metal material as a form of resistance and creativity. Drawing attention to aspects of everyday life that often do not garner much critical attention, my ethnography of place and analysis of these media depictions unpack the material consequences of war, with a focus on how those consequences of war are directly bound up and complicated by war metal.
Part I: Dumping Metal into Laos
Metal serves as evidence of the secret war conducted in Laos, and also as a maker of harm, reflecting military doctrine that turned the country into a dumping ground. In Phonsavanh, Laos, guesthouses, restaurants, and even the local tourism office display cluster bomb casings, evidence of a CIA-run secret operation aimed to wipe out communist Pathet Lao forces and North Vietnamese forces infiltration on the Plain of Jars during the Second Indochina War (1961–75). As part of the larger US Cold War foreign policy of containing communism, Laos became a “testing ground for counterinsurgency and nation-building programs that came of age in Vietnam,” according to historian Seth Jacobs.12 Since 1955, American officials’ strategic miscalculation of the US “Cold War plan for Laos” fueled a secret war in the country.13
Barred from military operations by the 1962 Geneva Accords that called on the neutrality of Laos, the Kennedy administration opted for covert intervention, with bombing in southern Laos along the Ho Chi Minh Trail to cut Vietnamese supply lines and CIA paramilitary operations in the north between US-backed forces, the Pathet Lao, and North Vietnamese units. The war in northeastern Laos, specifically on the Plain of Jars, became a battleground because of its strategic location.14 After President Lyndon B. Johnson halted bombing over North Vietnam in 1968, the northeastern part of Laos experienced intense bombing.15 Over the course of nine years (1964–73), the United States conducted four phases of airpower; the last phase (1969–70) saw planes fly daily, attacking everything, “buffaloes, cows, rice fields, schools, temples, and tiny shelters erected outside the villages.”16 By the war’s end, the US dropped over 2 million tons of bombs, with some 321,000 tons of this total dropped in the northeastern province of Xieng Khouang, the most heavily bombed region of Laos.17 Karen J. Coates and Jerry Redfern explain, “All told, the U.S. military and its allies dumped more than 6 billion pounds of bombs across the land—more than one ton for every man, woman, and child in Laos at the time.”18 My account of war metals’ visibility and durability must be situated within the context of US military officials’ sentiment of Laos as a dumping ground—both out of experiment and convenience.
Prior to the massive bombardment in rural areas, and along the Ho Chi Minh Trail that ran through the jungled mountains of Laos, the US Department of Defense broadened its research and technological development after World War II to support military operations in the tropics. This shift of directing resources toward the development, testing, and experimenting of new, deadlier weapons aimed to target insurgencies and the elimination of nature as the enemy. Since the Cold War, military research and development remained steadfast toward the drive for national security, expanding land-based air strength in the Pacific with various bases in the Philippines, Guam, and Hawai‘i to service US military training and heavy strategic bombers. Together, the devastating price of America’s “militant tropicality” and deployment of cluster bomb units (CBUs) conceptualized the landscape of Southeast Asia as the West’s “environmental Other”—a region marked as “combative, belligerent, and seditious”—requiring weapons that can cover an enormous territory.19 This, of course, included the infamous and widespread use of chemical defoliants such as Agent Orange.20
During the Vietnam War, the US Air Force introduced thirty different varieties of CBUs designed to efficiently disperse over a wide area and effectively kill or wound human beings, indiscriminately. Categorized as “area weapons,” the development of cluster munitions proved to be a successful military strategy in war because of its highly catastrophic impact and dispersion characteristics.21 First used by Germany during World War II, refined versions were sequentially deployed during the Korean War, the Vietnam War, the First and Second Gulf Wars, and in Syria and Yemen. According to author Jonathan Neale’s A People’s History of the Vietnam War, the most widely used CBU-24s in Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia provided the greatest aerial coverage and inflicted maximum damage as they contained the most metallic fragments.22 Lodged in each CBU-24s contain approximately 665–700 aluminum, tennis ball–sized bomb live units (BLU). Embedded with steel fragmentations, BLU-26s/B contained approximately eighty-five grams of an explosive charge, as well as hot plastic fragments. Other unexploded submunitions found include but not limited to the “jungle, all terrain” cast iron BLU-24, bright yellow with anodized gold BLU-3 containing 250 steel pellets, spherical metallic BLU-42 with external flanges and fuze landmine, and BLU-63 made of aluminum and steel with titanium/zirconium pellets, all manufactured in the United States, designed to effectively kill or wound people.
In March 1967, a hearing was held before Congress on the evaluation of weapons research, development, and testing in Southeast Asia. Director of Development for the US Air Force and Special Assistant to the Deputy Chief of Staff/Research and Development for Counterinsurgency Major General Andrew J. Evans emphasized the importance of US investments in advancing the design and effectiveness of cluster munitions. Illustrating the need to develop weapons that could support US military operations in Southeast Asia’s jungle, Evans testified that “it became clear early in the Vietnam war that we wanted a family of munitions, each tailored to do a particular job better than any other munition—a surgical rather than a sledge hammer approach.” Fulfilling this requirement, the Armament Laboratory at Elgin Field, Florida developed CBU-24 that could “be delivered in a dive move and released above the zone of intense ground fire. To be most effective we wanted it to cover a wide area.”23
Operational tests of cluster bombs ran in Southeast Asia and its success received approval from the Department of Defense to produce CBU-24s as part of “a program to insure the earliest possible availability of these new munitions is termed our accelerated ordnance program.”24 The design and development of munitions aimed to cover a wide area with force including secondary fires and explosions. Historians of science and technology Naomi Oreskes and John Krige point out “weapons—including their testing, hiding, detection and delivery—were of paramount importance” for the United States and the Soviet Union during the Cold War.25 In the United States, for instance, the Department of Defense required open and distant spaces for weapons tests, such as Puerto Rico, the Marshall Islands, and the deserts of the US Southwest—places perceived as unproductive.26 Concluding his testimony before Congress on research and development to improve the US arsenal capabilities in Southeast Asia, General Evans stated the CBU-24 was “probably our most successful weapon development to date.”27 Michael Krepon writes that “the CBU established itself during the Vietnam War as a highly effective weapon,” and its extensive use in North Vietnam and key supply areas in Laos by 1966 became “the darling of the aviators.”28
Legal scholar John Hart Ely writes, “the only difference was that bombs that might have fallen on North Vietnam were dropped instead on similar targets in the jungles of Laos.”29 The decision to dump American bombs made economic sense, since CBUs were cost-effective to manufacture and because of the lack of monitoring of its use at policymaking levels. Similarly, journalist Brett S. Morris reveals Deputy Chief of Mission Monteagle Stearns’s testimony emphasized that some bombings were carried out for convenience, and other economics. Stearns testified, “We had all those planes sitting around and couldn’t just let them stay there with nothing to do.”30 By the end of the last bombing mission in 1973, the United States dropped more bombs on the country than all the bombs dropped during World War II combined. In northern Laos, CBUs were a common find. Since regulated unexploded ordnance clearance began in 1996, clearance operators reported the presence of at least 186 different types of munitions on the ground.31
The impact of US military policies and actions—operational tests and convenience bombing—rendered Laos as a dumping ground: a zone of contamination felt across space and time. This story is one of many chapters in the long history of US military war waste and heavy metal contamination, including depleted uranium, dioxin, and unexploded ordnance. During the Korean War, US saturation bombing scattered thousands of landmines, bombs, mortars, and live artillery shells over North Korea. First deployed on a large scale during the 1991 Gulf War as antiarmor weapons, the United States introduced the toxic heavy metal depleted uranium, a waste product of the nuclear industry. The toxicity of depleted uranium could enter the body through ingestion, open wounds, or embedded fragments. The United States and its allied coalition also dropped over sixty thousand cluster bombs containing more than twenty million submunitions on Iraq and Kuwait. These include large numbers of Vietnam-era cluster munitions and depleted uranium weapons. Depleted uranium was also used during the invasion of Iraq, while US military sites deployed burn pits in Iraq and Afghanistan. The result of this military history is that metals transported from one part of the globe to another in high quantities linger in the landscape, causing harmful effects on human beings and the environment. I do not focus here on where war metals were originally mined or the devastation such extraction produced. It is important to note, however, that the devastation of Laos is intimately linked to a global and connected economy of extraction and militarism marked by the circulation of metals from lead to cadmium, from uranium to steel.32 The transfer of metallic violence in the form of dropping metallic objects from the sky did not end in a singular explosive event for those living amid the aftermath of war.
Part II: Metal in the Landscape
These metals from cluster bombs are enduring weapons, theorizable in ways useful to critical scholarship on militarism. Initial military campaigns mark the beginning of a metallic legacy that permanently alters human-environment relations. The kinetic force of metal, in bullets and bombs, is meaningful, but it is not only the danger of unexploded ordnances that make war metal a significant source of ongoing harm.
Prolonged bombardments left behind a “wealth” of metal, generating new effects and relations for people living among them. This wealth of metal and access to metal provide viable means to secure an income in many impoverished villages, fueling a scrap metal trade by the mid-1980s. Collecting war scrap metal is an illegal trade, but in rural villages, the sheer quality of metal in the landscape, combined with high rates of poverty, draws adults and children to take up the work despite knowing the risk of engaging with explosives. According to a 2005 study of scrap metal collection in Laos by the Geneva International Centre for Humanitarian Demining (GICHD) group, the report notes people’s attitudes toward the threat from unexploded ordnance (UXO): “Some people reported fear of striking an item of UXO as a primary reason for not collecting scrap metal. Others recognised the threat of UXO as being part of scrap metal collecting but felt that the risk was acceptable. Others suggested that ‘money makes you not afraid.’”33 These attitudes capture how people negotiate their lives when deciding to take on the work of collecting scrap metal. In Le Monde Diplomatique, journalist Angela Robson provides readers a glimpse of Dao’s “pursuit to make ends meet” by selling his sack full of war metals to a scrap metal yard on the outskirts of Phonsavanh.34 Robson writes that Dao “plan[s] to give up his job at the end of the month to look for bomb scrap full time.” A familiar feature of “interacting with a violent past,” the work of collecting metal in the landscape is not the only reason for people handling UXO. Prior to the commencement of national clearance efforts and operations in 1996, villagers also handled clearance work by removing bombs to use the land for farming.
Existing alongside work performed by individuals collecting or clearing metal in the landscape, humanitarian demining work also provides an opportunity to remove UXO and clear contaminated land. UXO Lao (national clearance operation) and international nongovernmental organizations Mines Advisory Group, the HALO Trust, and Norwegian People’s Aid offer opportunities for men and women from local communities to train and clear UXO. A global demining initiative present in countries heavily contaminated with US cluster bombs and landmines such as Cambodia, Vietnam, Libya, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Lebanon. The demining initiative supports a “legitimate” workforce that did not exist prior to the West’s postwar commitments in Laos and other countries and, as such, positions the United States as rescuers. Its role is to rescue and highlight the success stories of demining and clearance operations regardless of the work as a violent imposition of neoliberal development in war-ravaged countries. This paid work to “clean up” in the aftermath of war demonstrates a persistent feature of metallic violence underpinning postwar countries. Although the work of scrap metal collectors—people picking up metal from the rural environment to sell it for cash—may not be seen as demining work, I suggest their work also “cleans up” metal prior to the presence of official humanitarian demining operations. In other words, whether collecting or demining, the precarious work of cleaning up metal depends on racialized and gendered labor, subjects who are rendered valuable until they are “thrown out, replaced, and/or (both literally and figuratively) killed after or as the labor is performed.”35 In her examination on the ethics of metallic exposure and racial capitalism, anthropologist Stefanie Graeter writes, “residents continuously accumulate lead in their brains, bones, and tissues, persisting as a valuable, cost-saving human infrastructure of toxic storage for contemporary extractive capitalism.”36
Since 1973, the country’s bomb problem, the metallic violence, has been the responsibility for the local populations to take up. In 2016, referring to the bombs as “good” metal, a Lao man spoke candidly as we looked toward the open field in Ban Naphia. He explained, “There were so many bombs here, we live with them.”37 Metal contamination altered how they use the land, walk the fields to gather visible surface-lying metal, or repurpose metal to make something new. In Xieng Khouang Province, over fifty thousand people lived in the region in 1964; after the war ended “only about 9,000 remained at the end of the decade,” Joshua Kurlantzick writes.38 After the foundation of Lao PDR in 1975, the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) and Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) were permitted to work in Laos to assist with refugees returning to the Plain of Jars and advocate for bomb removal assistance.39 Despite the humanitarian efforts of AFSC and MCC, many who remained or returned to the region reengage the land by cleaning up the bombs themselves. This included moving visible bombs from fields to farm the land or attempting to open bombs to extract scrap metal. In their ethnographic study examining the impact of unexploded ordnance in Xieng Khouang Province, Kiengkay Ounmany and Edo Andriesse write, “The locals had very limited knowledge of the explosive devices, which led to inappropriate handling. Some respondents state that after piling them up, they burned them in a bid to detonate them [while] several villagers tried to disassemble the UXO for scrap metal and gunpowder.”40 Ounmany and Andriesse reveal how locals, even with their unfamiliarity with explosives, take up the work of cleaning up war metals that contaminate the land for farming.
The work of collecting or cleaning up metal in the landscape also means some people predict a decline of scrap metal collection in the future. The GICHD 2005 report featured interviews with several people: “They see the metal as a finite resource that is being rapidly exploited now but which will become harder and harder to find in future years.”41 Despite this prediction, the scrap metal trade is an industry in Laos. “Good” metal from aluminum, tin, copper, and steel derived from large unexploded bombs, bullet casings, vehicles, and oil drums became the unfortunate basis of survival and recovery in the country. Against the inadvertent risks with live bombs, local populations in rural communities participate in a cash-based market of extracting economic value from high-quality US-made metal. In the mid-1980s, the scrap metal trade was fueled by massive construction and remained strong into 2005. The high price of scrap metal, the use of cheap metal detectors, and the establishment of metal-processing foundries/minimills drove metal collection and sale at a local level. GICHD also notes that “at a national level, urbanization and construction are creating a market for locally produced reinforcing bar (rebar), which is the primary product of the foundries.”42 Melted, formed, and shaped into rebar, war metals are used for local construction to build businesses, schools, shops, and homes. The transformation of war metal to rebar underscores the perverse fact that the present state of Laos’s infrastructure cannot be separated from the history of bombs dumped out of convenience and experiment, the dangerous labor of collecting scrap via the expenditure of human life, and the vital refiguration of metal that bonds and reinforces the country’s development.
Part III: Metal Becoming a “Good”
War metal is thus transformed from a killing tool to a high-risk commodity by which people make do, or make good, with the scraps of war. In Laos, the active process of salvaging valuable war metal from bombs and the practical integration into everyday purposes illustrate the imperial imposition of metallic violence. The guesthouse at which I resided in Phonsavanh displayed deactivated large and small duds as aesthetic features to attract tourists to their business. On a table placed against the kitchen wall sat instant-coffee packages, creamers, cups, and war spoons for guests at no cost. Melted in an earthen kiln and molded in different sizes from war metals and recycled aluminum scraps, the spoons are made in Ban Naphia, a village located approximately twenty-eight kilometers from Phonsavanh. Approximately twelve to fifteen families produce 150,000 spoons per year to be sold throughout the country and globally.43 The first product furbished from bombs in Ban Naphia, the spoons served an economic and efficient purpose for families making do with the abundantly available metals from bombs in the wake of the war. Despite the considerable risk of scavenging bombs, their response to appropriating metals reveals the enduring quality of war by which they, as cultural anthropologist Ann Laura Stoler writes, “make something new of those entanglements.”44 Forged with purpose, war metals persist in enacting a circulation of financial value but are also seized by the formerly bombed as a way to survive. This perpetuation of metallic violence in war’s aftermath illustrates the tension between survival and resilience informed by ongoing military violence and compromised living conditions. As such, this tension produces a life that is made meaningful in an intimate relationship with bombs.
Villagers in rural areas know the value of “good metal” from bombs. In one home, I touched, tapped, and scratched what the homeowner called “good metal.” The bomb casings were sturdy, their tags of origin clearly marked, and some were bent while others slowly rusted away. Across the small single dirt road in Ban Naphia, a well-maintained fence consisted of seven strands of barbed wire held apart by wood posts with bomb casings leaning on them for decoration. Walking down this road, I saw several planters made from cluster-bomb casings raised on wood stilts, growing green onions, cilantro, pepper, and tomatoes. Stripped of its initial purpose to kill and maim, the garden of herbs provides food to nourish.45 Heavily contaminated by cluster bombs, villagers in Ban Naphia (like other villages in Laos) found ways to live with them for practical use and for some generating income from war metals’ durability.
Metal, however disposable to a mixed economy, is still a precious resource, quickly metabolized into economies that turn swords into plowshares as an alchemic project of survival. At the entrance to what is known as the “war spoon village,” Mr. Phet Napia’s “King [of] the Spoon and Bracelet” sign sits perched on a split bombshell in front of his home. Since the end of the war, melting bombs into spoons has been a family business. Journalist John Dennehy writes, “La lok, 23, learned how to make spoons from his father, who began working with unexploded bombs, or ordnance (UXOs), in 1978.”46 Families who participate in this subeconomy of generating income through the circulation of war metals make impossible choices between remaining in poverty or risking their lives to collect war scraps. After many years of collecting bombs and war scrap metal strewn throughout the countryside, there are very few remaining in Ban Naphia. Families may buy aluminum and war scrap metal from other villages to make bracelets, keychains, and spoons to be sold throughout Laos and globally.
The day I visited Ban Naphia, a few families worked on their home or garden. I observed two families as they worked side by side to melt locally collected war scrap metals and aluminum in a homemade kiln, and then pour the metals into a wooden mold to create spoons. The families planned to mold a total of one thousand spoons for the day. In figure 1, loose spoons were placed in a homemade basket, then prepared for packing and shipment to be sold throughout Laos, and to ARTICLE22, a New York–based company that works to transform Vietnam War shrapnel and other debris into jewelry. The company’s campaign invites consumers to “buy back the bomb,” a percentage of each piece purchase helps Mines Advisory Group to clear unexploded ordnance and provide new metals for Laotian artisans “to craft more original favorite and new designs.”47 For example, the decorative object design, “This Is Not a Spoon Ornament” can be purchased on the global market via the internet to customers in over forty countries and is priced at $40.00 USD. Molded in the same shape as soup spoons sold throughout Laos for practical purposes, the decorative object sold online aims to bring attention to the conscious buyer about the legacies of the US secret war. Potential buyers of the decorative object become linked to the livelihood of Laotians as their purchase “clears 3m2 of Laotian landscape.”48 ARTICLE22’s reliance on objects made from war metals offers customers in the West an opportunity to symbolically take part in the process of “cleaning up” through their purchasing power. This “virtuous circle,” even if intentionally to do good, of linking “Peacebomb” spoons and jewelry to the history of US bombing in Laos, serves as an imperial imposition felt across space and time in everyday life for those resigned to the work of collecting, demining, or repurposing bombs. That is, deeply implicated in imperial imposition, this “virtuous circle” employs a linear temporal progression from victims of war to wage earners who are oftentimes obligated to tell their story and show their gratitude. As a different iteration of feminist scholar Mimi Thi Nguyen’s “gift of freedom,” ARTICLE22 functions as proof of the West’s purchasing power to provide the liberal gift of giving.49 These stories of families, while celebrated as stories of success, empowerment, and progress, reveal a perpetual project reflecting the normative order between the powerful and the powerless in postwar international relations. As Laos continues to clean up US cluster bombs, this “feel-good capitalism and warm, fuzzy geopolitics,” Caren Kaplan reminds us, often fails to illustrate how asymmetrical relations of power are sustained in postwar reconstruction.50
In Eternal Harvest: The Legacy of American Bombs in Laos, Karen J. Coates and Jerry Redfern feature poetry, black-and-white photographs, first-person prose, interviews, and stories revealing how people in Laos live with the remains of war. In one narrative in the volume, centered on Pae, a seventy-year-old Lao man from Ban Thapa, Khammouane Province, sees the endless bombs cast off by the US military since 1964 as metals possessing value. Described by Coates and Redfern as a “skinny, wrinkled man who lost his left leg to a land mine during the war, when he was a young adult,” Pae saw value in bomb canisters, which was a common find during and after the war. He brought back bombs to the village and participated in selling them between friends. Simultaneously, Pae saw value in refurbishing war metals into objects as one form of life-making practice.51 Coates writes, “When [Pae] found the canisters [he] thought, oh I can make so many things . . . cowbells, and also spoons, and a bucket to carry water; and I can make a basin to wash laundry.”52 He responds to everyday life by creating practical objects to sustain and improve his quality of life. He fabricates war metals into the most basic, tangible, material things: cowbells, spoons, a bucket, ladder, and laundry basin. In doing so, Pae realizes the potential to make “the best” things from the “good metal” of US bombs collected. I read Pae’s interactions with war metals as revealing the ordinariness of military violence on everyday life, which can be told from the familiar and strange ways of consolidating bombs and altering their purpose. Pae’s story, alongside my observation of Ban Naphia, reveals the repurposing of metallic violence in war’s aftermath as a critique of imperial imposition.
How is it that, as Lao contemporary artist Bounpaul Phothyzan states, “something meant to destroy could be put to good use—what was once dangerous instead benefits people in the form of a boat or garden”?53 Phothyzan’s statement recognizes the generative ways in which people in Laos inventively repurpose war metals into something good. Their engagement also reflects a refusal to succumb to military violence and material debris. Forced to reckon with metals from cluster bombs, they repurpose metal as a “good” and transform metal to good use. Born in Champasak Province, Laos, six years after the last bombing mission in 1973, Bounpaul Phothyzan currently lives and works in the capital of Laos, Vientiane.54 Formerly trained as a painter at the National Institute of Fine Arts in Vientiane, he turned to installation and performance after his studies in Thailand to address social and environmental issues in Laos. His works Ship (2015), Lie of the Land (2017), and House of Dove (2018) critically attend to the violence of American bombings by documenting the lives of Lao villagers living alongside the debris of war.55 Motivated by his own experience as a child, Phothyzan witnessed his neighbor’s hand maimed by an unexploded ordnance. In an interview with Susan Chenery of the Guardian in 2012, Phothyzan discusses the process of conducting research and interviewing people affected by unexploded ordnances. His research also opened a dialogue with his father, a soldier with the Pathet Lao, who fought against anticommunist forces in the Vietnam War. As part of the generation born after the war, Phothyzan’s installations emphasize that the remains of the US secret war cannot be ignored as they persist in different forms across time and space.56
Phothyzan’s Lie of the Land installation, first commissioned as part of the Singapore Art Museum’s exhibition Imaginarium: To the Ends of the Earth, Lie of the Land (2017), displays two shrub-filled planters in a large shopfront-like window at the Singapore Art Museum. Shaped like a boat, Lie of the Land includes one metal bombshell suspended as if in midflight, the other on a wood stand near the floor. The juxtaposition of the bombs’ placement symbolizes destruction from the air, and what remains on the ground or buried beneath the soil. Galvanized by how rural villagers live with bombs, Phothyzan’s Lie of the Land bomb planters capture the unexpected ways metallic violence weaves into everyday life-making practices, particularly for whom salvaging war metal exists between the tension of survival and recovery.
For Phothyzan, this recycling process addresses the country’s history marked by division and trauma. The title itself, Lie of the Land, combines both Laos’s terrain and a long history of occupation experienced over time with French colonialism, the brief occupation under Japan, and US militarism and violence from the air and land. Respecting the materials, hunks of war metals and scraps, aluminum, and wood lie in the production of Phothyzan’s installation. There are imperfections in the bombshell planters, mostly notably the range of pigmentation on the metal—some parts shiny, others dull. Yet when examined closely, the boatlike planters reveal the bluntness of metal banged, hammered, and smoothed, parts pieced together to construct its shape. Motivated by how rural villagers live with bombs, Phothyzan’s bomb planters capture the unexpected ways violence and the remains of war play out, particularly for whom salvaging war metals is a source of survival and recovery. In doing so, Lie of the Land illuminates Laos’s violent past and creative modes of life activities sprouting in the war’s aftermath. Rather than view Phothyzan’s installation, in the national and global imagination, as an art piece representative of a nation healing from US bombing, I read Lie of the Land alongside my ethnographic evidence of metal’s visibility and durability as a creative and critical indictment of US imperial violence. In examining metal becoming a good, I interpret the processes of collecting, salvaging, handling war metals, and making something new as active modes of existence that make sense of a failed war in creative and critical expressions.
Metals from cluster bombs and their circulation teach those of us who study war a great deal about militarism and the traces of imperial violence that it holds. Attending to metal to think about war, here I have shown war metal’s visibility and durability on warscapes; metal’s wealth capacity in enacting a circulation of financial value; metal as evidence of the so-called US secret war; and metal as a site of critique and indictment of ongoing US military violence in Laos. A violence that reveals the compounded layers of military force, particularly when we center how people and communities resist and creatively manipulate, transform, and circulate the metals of war. Metal and metal circulation reveal Laos’s postwar entanglements in three stages: first, there is the military framework that dumps metals into Laos; second, there is the saturation of metals into the landscape that permanently alters human-environment relations; and third, there is the repurposing of metals into a “good.” As a way of understanding and theorizing metal and war, metallic violence captures the effects of war that are never-ending and challenges us to relationally and comparatively attend to the idea that “sedimented and interconnected histories of imperialism, racial capitalism, and state violence can open new pathways for transnational struggle.”57 This is a task that turns to other sites/sights where continued violence of unexploded ordnance opens new ways of engaging metallic violence transnationally.
Davorn Sisavath is assistant professor of ethnic studies in the Department of Anthropology and Asian American Studies program at California State University, Fresno. Her research focuses on militarism and empire and science, technology, and warfare. Her writing has appeared in Radical History Review, Journal of Transnational American Studies, and Anthropological Quarterly.
For more on the anthropology of military waste and scholarship examining the material consequences of military waste in postwar spaces, see David Henig, “Living on the Frontline: Indeterminacy, Value, and Military Waste in Postwar Bosnia-Herzegovinia,” Anthropological Quarterly 92, no. 1 (2019): 85–110; Yael Navaro-Yashin, “Affective Spaces, Melancholic Objects: Ruination and the Production of Anthropological Knowledge,” Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 15, no. 1 (2009): 1–18; Eleana J. Kim, “Toward an Anthropology of Landmines: Rogue Infrastructure and Military Waste in the Korean DMZ,” Cultural Anthropology 31, no. 2 (2016): 162–87; Christina Schwenkel, “War Debris in Postwar Society: Managing Risk and Uncertainty in the DMZ,” in Interactions with a Violent Past: Reading Post-Conflict Landscapes in Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam, ed. Vatthana Pholsena and Tappe Oliver (Singapore: National University of Singapore Press, 2013), 135–56; and Leah Zani, Bomb Children: Life in the Former Battlefields of Laos (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2019).
For more on slow violence, see Rob Nixon, Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2011). For more on a cultural critique of cluster bombs, see also Rob Nixon, “Of Land Mines and Cluster Bombs,” Cultural Critique 67, no. 67 (2007): 160–74.
See Pholsena and Tappe, Interactions with a Violent Past; Heonik Kwon, Ghosts of War in Vietnam (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008); and Zani, Bomb Children.
Leah Zani, “Bomb Ecologies,” Environmental Humanities 10, no. 2 (2018): 528.
For more on women and militarization, particularly women’s work, see Cynthia Enloe, Maneuvers: The International Politics of Militarizing Women’s Lives (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000). For more on life-making practices and everyday refugee life from a feminist approach to the study of militarized refuge(es), see Yến Lê Espiritu, Body Counts: The Vietnam War and Militarized Refuge(es) (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2014). For more on the effects of militarism on people’s everyday lives, see Leisa Meyer and Kamala Visweswaran, eds., “Everyday Militarism,” Special issue, Feminist Studies 42, no. 1 (2016).
For more on the social life of military waste and how people reengage with the environment after war, see Henig, “Living on the Frontline”; Navaro-Yashin, “Affective Spaces”; and Kim, “Toward an Anthropology.” For a reflexive account on the hazards of conducting fieldwork in Laos, with attention to the conditions of war remains, military waste, police harassment, paranoia, self-censorship, and surveillance, see Zani, Bomb Children. Zani’s Bomb Children also examines military waste—such as massive bomb craters, bombshells, repurposed bombs, and other ordnance—to illustrate how remains are lively sites of sociality in contemporary Laos. For an examination of risk perception and risk management in demining and UXO clearance practices, see Schwenkel, “War Debris.”
Henig, “Living on the Frontline.”
Zani, Bomb Children.
For more information on Everyday Militarisms, see their website: https://everydaymilitarisms.squarespace.com/; and “Everyday Militarisms: Hidden in Plain Sight/Site” (forum), ed. Caren Kaplan, Gabi Kirk, and Tess Lea, Society & Space, available at https://www.societyandspace.org/forums/everyday-militarisms-hidden-in-plain-sight-site.
For more on constructing an archive from military waste, see Davorn Sisavath, “The US Secret War in Laos: Constructing an Archive from Military Waste,” Radical History Review 133 (2019): 103–16.
Michael F. Martin et al., War Legacy Issues in Southeast Asia: Unexploded Ordnance (UXO), US Library of Congress, Congressional Research Service, R45749 (2019), 8.
Seth Jacobs, The Universe Unraveling: American Foreign Policy in Cold War Laos (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2012), 3.
“Secret U.S. Policy toward Laos,” folder “300 General—US Govt Attitudes and Actions,” entry A1 3121: Laos Files; 1954–1961, Bureau of Far Eastern Affairs / Office of Southeast Asian Affairs, box 1, Record Group 59, “002 Briefing Papers THRU Viet-Nam/Laos,” National Archives, College Park (hereafter cited as NACP).
See Thomas L. Ahern Jr., Undercover Armies: CIA and Surrogate Warfare in Laos, 1961–1973 (Washington, DC: Center for the Study of Intelligence, Central Intelligence Agency, 2006); Timothy N. Castle, At War in the Shadow of Vietnam: U.S. Military Aid to the Royal Lao Government, 1955–1975 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1993); Jacobs, Universe Unraveling; and Joshua Kurlantzick, A Great Place to Have a War: America in Laos and the Birth of a Military CIA (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2016). See also William M. Leary, “The CIA and the ‘Secret War’ in Laos: The Battle for Skyline Ridge, 1971–1972,” Journal of Military History 59, no. 3 (1995): 507. Leary writes, “The main strategic prize in northern Laos was the Plaine des Jarres (PDJ), a circular plateau measuring five hundred square miles in area and with an average elevation of thirty-five hundred feet. The PDJ’s attractive rolling grasslands and tree-studded hills saw some of the most intense fighting of the war, with control of the area passing from one side to other, depending upon the season.”
John Hart Ely, “The American War in Indochina, Part II: The Unconstitutionality of the War They Didn’t Tell Us About,” Stanford Law Review 42, no. 5 (1990): 1098. Hart writes that the US Air Force flew an “estimated 500 sorties a day over Laos, more than 300 in the north and the rest over the Ho Chi Minh Trail in the south.”
Nina S. Adams and Alfred W. McCoy, eds., Laos: War and Revolution (New York: HarperCollins, 1970), 233. According to historians Nina S. Adams and Alfred W. McCoy, the United States conducted four main phases, with the last phase of bombardment occurring mostly from 1969 to 1970, in which everything and everyone had become a target. Adams and McCoy’s periodization of the bombing campaigns in Laos was to provide an understanding of the human toll over a nine-year period.
See Fred Branfman, Voices from the Plain of Jars: Life under an Air War, 2nd ed. (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2013), xii; Alfred W. McCoy, “Reflections on History’s Largest Air War,” Critical Asian Studies 45, no. 3 (2013): 485; and Channapha Khamvongsa and Elaine Russell, “Legacies of War: Cluster Bombs in Laos,” Critical Asian Studies 41, no. 2 (2009): 281–306.
Karen J. Coates and Jerry Redfern, Eternal Harvest: The Legacy of American Bombs in Laos (San Francisco: ThingsAsian Press, 2013), 24.
Daniel Clayton, “Militant Tropicality: War, Revolution and the Reconfiguration of ‘the Tropics’ c. 1940–c. 1975,” Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers 38, no. 1 (2013): 180. For more on connecting histories of military operations during the Vietnam War to US state violence in the war on terror that marked these regions as “abstract warscape—knowable, mappable, and bombable,” see Ian G. R. Shaw, “Scorched Atmospheres: The Violent Geographies of the Vietnam War and the Rise of Drone Warfare,” Annals of the American Association of Geographers 106, no. 3 (2016): 688–704.
David Zierler, The Invention of Ecocide: Agent Orange, Vietnam, and the Scientists Who Changed the Way We Think about the Environment (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2011).
Michael Krepon, “Weapons Potentially Inhumane: The Case of Cluster Bombs,” Foreign Affairs 52, no. 3 (1974): 595.
Jonathan Neale, A People’s History of the Vietnam War (New York: New Press, 2004), 78.
Department of Defense Appropriations for 1968, Subcommittee on Department of Defense, Department of Defense Appropriations for 1968, Part 3 on Research, Development, Test, and Evaluation: Hearing Before a Subcommittee of the Committee on Appropriations, 90th Cong. (March 20, 1967), 513.
Department of Defense Appropriations for 1968, 513.
Naomi Oreskes and John Krige, eds., Science and Technology in the Global Cold War (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2014), 4.
For more on the United States’ abuse of Indigenous land in the southwest, see Valerie L. Kuletz, The Tainted Desert: Environmental Ruins in the American West (New York: Routledge, 1993); and Rebecca Solnit, Savage Dreams: A Journey into the Hidden Wars of the American West (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000). For more on the impact of US nuclear weapons testing in the Pacific Islands, see Elizabeth DeLoughrey, “The Myth of Isolates: Ecosystems Ecologies in the Nuclear Pacific,” Cultural Geographies 20, no. 2 (2013): 167–84; and Jon Mitchell, Poisoning the Pacific: The US Military’s Secret Dumping of Plutonium, Chemical Weapons, and Agent Orange (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2020). Jon Mitchell writes, “Between 1945 and 1992, the United States exploded more than eleven hundred nuclear bombs, mostly in the Pacific region and the deserts of the United States” (2). Moreover, from mid-1940 until 2003, the US Navy used the island of Vieques, Puerto Rico, as a bombing range and site for intensive military training activities where significant amounts of explosive compounds have been linked to heavy metal pollution. See Valeria Pelet, “Puerto Rico’s Invisible Health Crisis,” Atlantic, September 3, 2016, https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2016/09/vieques-invisible-health-crisis/498428/.
Department of Defense Appropriations for 1968, 514.
Michael Krepon, “Weapons Potentially Inhumane,” 603–4. Krepon published the article in Foreign Affairs magazine in 1974, a year after the last bombing mission in Laos, detailing Pentagon efforts to suppress information and debate on cluster munitions development.
Ely, “American War in Indochina,” 1098.
Brett S. Morris, “Laos after the Bombs,” Jacobin, July 3, 2015, https://www.jacobinmag.com/2015/07/laos-us-bombing-vietnam-cold-war.
Lao PDR Mine Action Report, Landmine & Cluster Munition Monitor, November 19, 2018, http://www.the-monitor.org/en-gb/reports/2019/lao-pdr/mine-action.aspx.
In my larger, book-length project, I discuss and link US war metals not only to postconflict spaces but also to the impact of contamination in the United States.
Geneva International Centre for Humanitarian Demining, “A Study of Scrap Metal Collection in Lao PDR,” Global CWD Repository (2005), 31.
Angela Robson, “Laos Reaps a Deadly Harvest: War Scrap Is a Resource like Wood or Bamboo,” Le Monde Diplomatique, June 9, 2008, http://mondediplo.com/2008/06/09laos.
For more on labor resulting “possibilities of death,” see Jin-kyung Lee, Service Economies: Militarism, Sex Work, and Migrant Labor in South Korea (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2010). Lee writes, “As a direct and indirect result of U.S. militarism, various locations in Asia, including South Korea and Vietnam in the short and long run, came to function as places of low-wage labor for U.S. capital since 1970s” (1).
Stefanie Graeter, “Infrastructural Incorporations: Toxic Storage, Corporate Indemnity, and Ethical Deferral in Peru’s Neoextractive Era,” American Anthropologist 122, no. 1 (2020): 24.
Personal conversation with a villager in Xieng Khouang Province, November 23, 2016.
Kurlantzick, Great Place, 13.
Between 1977 and 1991, both organizations distributed thirty thousand shovels in Xieng Khouang to farmers as an effective alternative to garden hoes that often detonated submunitions in the soil. See “The American Friends Service Committee’s Shovels Project,” Civilian Public Service Story, accessed June 16, 2021, https://civilianpublicservice.org/storycontinues/advocacy/shovels; and Virgil Wiebe and Titus Peachey, “Timeline of Mennonite and Quaker Work on Cluster Munitions,” Mennonite Central Committee, August 2011, https://mcc.org/sites/mcc.org/files/media/common/documents/mennonitequakertimeline.pdf.
Kiengkay Ounmany and Edo Andriesse, “The Legacy of the Vietnam War: Making a Living amid Unexploded Ordnance in Xieng Khouang Province, Northern Laos,” Asian Studies Review 42, no. 3 (2018): 447.
Geneva International Centre for Humanitarian Demining, “Study of Scrap Metal,” 19.
Geneva International Centre for Humanitarian Demining, 12.
Kurlantzick, Great Place, 13. See also “About ARTICLE22,” ARTICLE22, accessed September 1, 2020, https://article22.com/pages/about.
Ann Laura Stoler, Imperial Debris: On Ruins and Ruination (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2013), 8.
This practice flourishes elsewhere—for example, in Bil’in, Palestine, where gardens grow in empty tear gas canisters. See Steven Bloor, “West Bank Garden of Teargas Canisters—in Pictures,” Guardian, October 3, 2013, https://www.theguardian.com/world/gallery/2013/oct/03/west-bank-garden-teargas-canisters-in-pictures.
John Dennehy, “Turning Bombs into Spoons—Relics of the Secret US War in Laos,” Guardian, March 31, 2016, https://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2016/mar/31/turning-bombs-into-spoons-after-the-us-war-on-laos.
See also “About ARTICLE22.”
See also “This Is Not a Spoon Ornament,” ARTICLE22, accessed May 5, 2020, https://article22.com/products/this-is-not-a-spoon?_pos=1&_sid=3da1e9122&_ss=r.
For more on refugee integration in the United States as grateful refugees, see Mimi Thi Nguyen, The Gift of Freedom: War, Debt, and Other Refugee Passages (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2012).
Caren Kaplan, “‘A World without Boundaries’: The Body Shop’s Trans/National Geographies,” Social Text 43, no. 1 (1995): 59.
Coates and Redfern, Eternal Harvest, 108.
Coates and Redfern, 108.
Indah Gilang Pusparani, “Turning a Bomb into a Flowerpot? Lao Artist Exhibits His Work at Singapore Art Museum,” Seasia, May 31, 2017, https://seasia.co/2017/05/31/turning-a-bomb-into-a-flowerpot-lao-artist-exhibits-his-work-at-singapore-art-museum.
Caroline Ha Thuc, “Artist Profile, Bounpaul Phothyzan,” elevations: Contemporary Art Projects in Laos, accessed July 12, 2019, http://www.elevationslaos.net/bounpaul_phothyzan/. See also Susan Chenery, “The Art Thriving in the Most Heavily Bombed Country in History,” Guardian, December 6, 2018, https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2018/dec/07/the-art-thriving-in-the-most-heavily-bombed-country-in-history.
Chairat Polmuk, “Bounpaul Phothyzan: Unearthing Lao History through Art,” Kooper, August 7, 2019, https://kooper.co/bounpaul-phothyzan/.
Those among the generation born after the last US bombing mission in Laos, in both Laos and the diaspora, are examining how war persists and manifests in different forms through their work. Specifically in the United States, examples of such artists and poets are included but not limited to Sisavanh Phouthavong-Houghton’s exhibition Legacies of War (2017), at Tinney Contemporary Gallery in Nashville, Tennessee, that confronts the challenges of history and memory, and Krysada Panusith Phounsiri, Dance among Elephants (Dublin, CA: Sahtu Press, 2014), whose book of poems intimately explores his family’s journey from Laos to the United States.
Camilla Hawthorne and Jennifer Lynn Kelly, “Borderland Regimes and Resistance in Global Perspective,” in this volume.
I am grateful to Camilla Hawthorne and Jennifer Lynn Kelly for their astute editorial direction and support. Thank you for your care and generosity throughout the revision process. I thank the generative feedback received from the reviewers. I also owe deep gratitude and am indebted to the reviewer who provided substantial and generous critiques and comments that allowed me to sharpen my argument and theorization of metallic violence. The reviewer’s thoughtful commentary, gentle suggestions, and developmental edits helped further strengthen the article. I also thank Josen Masangkay Diaz and Emily Hue for sharing a virtual space with me as we write and care for each other in the time of the coronavirus pandemic.