Inside Operation Barrel Roll, a covert US military campaign that dropped 2 million tons of bombs on Laos over 9 years – DIGIWIZ CENTRAL

Inside Operation Barrel Roll, a covert US military campaign that dropped 2 million tons of bombs on Laos over 9 years

A boy runs past rusted halves of cluster bomb shells and other military hardware in a scrap metal shop along the main street in Phonsavanh, Laos.

Jerry Redfern/LightRocket via Getty Images

For nine years, a covert CIA-run operation called “Operation Barrel Roll” dropped more than 580,000 bombs on Laos.
The US was trying to stop North Vietnamese forces from transporting weapons and soldiers through Laos.
But the bombs’ impact continued long after an estimated 80 million bombs were dropped but failed to detonate.

Between 1964 and 1973, the US dropped about 2 million tons of bombs on Laos in a covert campaign known as”Operation Barrel Roll.” 

The CIA covertly executed the bombings, which is referred to as the US “secret war” on Laos.

The bombings were indiscriminate. They killed about 200,000 people in Laos, which was around 10% of the country’s population. Another 400,000 people were wounded and 750,000 people were forced to flee due to the devastation.

Here’s what happened and why the bombs are still hurting Laos today.

Laos is a landlocked, mountainous country, which at the time had a population of about 2.5 million.
President John F. Kennedy points to a map of Laos at a news conference.

Bettmann/Getty Images

The small Asian country, which is about the size of the state of Michigan, is located between China, Vietnam, Thailand, and Cambodia.

It was an impoverished, former French colony and most of its people were farmers.

In 1961, President Dwight D. Eisenhower told President-elect John F. Kennedy in a briefing that Laos was the “cork in the bottle.”
John F. Kennedy and Dwight D. Eisenhower sit at a table in Washington, DC.

Abbie Rowe/PhotoQuest/Getty Images

What he meant was that Laos could be used as a buffer to stop communism from overtaking Asia.

The following year, in 1962, the US signed an international agreement that stated none of the signing countries — including the US, Russia, and China — would invade Laos. 

The agreement was to ensure Laos remained neutral during the Vietnam War.

Two years later, in 1964, after Kennedy was assassinated, President Lyndon B. Johnson ordered the first bombings in Laos.
Smoke billows from bomb blasts along the Ho Chi Minh Trail in Laos.


The earliest bombing was in June, but Operation Barrel Roll didn’t officially launch until December.

Johnson made the order about three weeks before he signed the Civil Rights Act.

The US was in the midst of the Vietnam War and was trying to stop the North Vietnamese from transporting weapons and soldiers through Laos.
Several trucks, belonging to communist forces, lay overturned on a rural road, part of the Ho Chi Minh Trail, after the US Air Force bombed the road.

Bettmann/Getty Images

The North Vietnamese had been using a route called the Ho Chi Minh Trail, which weaved through Laos. They also wanted to hurt Laos’ local communist forces. 

Due to Laos’ terrain, it was decided bombing was the most efficient way of stopping them.

For the next nine years, the US undertook more than 580,000 bombings, dropping more than 2 million tons of bombs on Laos.
A US Air Force Boeing B-52 Stratofortress dropping bombs over Vietnam.

Pictures From History/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

It was more than the total amount of bombs the US dropped during World War II on Germany and Japan.

The bombing wasn’t just along militant routes.
Bomb craters in the Laos region of Xiang Khwang.

Gerhard Joren/LightRocket/Getty Images

The bombs destroyed villages and fields, killing thousands of civilians as well as soldiers. 

Pilots who failed to find a suitable target in Vietnam would drop bombs randomly on Laos rather than return to base with unused bombs.

In 1969, when President Richard Nixon entered office, he decided to increase the bombing, thinking it would force Laos and Vietnam to surrender.
President Richard Nixon pointing to a map of Vietnam and Laos.

STF/AFP/Getty Images

Under Nixon, the campaign reached a point where approximately 300 bomb flights were being conducted every day.

Back in the US, people were aware of the Vietnam War. There, the military action was run by the US State Department and the media had covered it extensively.
The US 173rd Airborne are supported by helicopters during the Iron Triangle assault in Vietnam.

Tim Page/Corbis/Getty Images

But the Laos bombings were run by the CIA, and for years, national media didn’t report on it.

Along with the bombing, the CIA also trained and funded Laos soldiers against the local communists, according to the South China Morning Post. By 1970, the cost of the Laos campaign was about $3.1 billion per year.

But in other countries, it wasn’t entirely a secret war. The international media had been covering it and people in the region knew what was going on.

It was only in 1971 that the bombings were officially confirmed in the US during a congressional hearing.
Aircrafts and 250-pound bombs at a CIA base in Laos.

Bettmann/Getty Images

Senator Stuart Symington of Missouri, then the subcommittee chairman, said it was an “encouraging sign that the executive branch has finally agreed that much of what the United States Government has been doing in Laos may now be made public.”

But he was critical of the fact a lot of information had not been provided. 

“The veil of secrecy which has long kept this secret war in Laos officially hidden from the American people has been partially lifted,” he said.

Even after the campaign was made public, the bombings continued.
A sketch by villagers in refugee camps of the bombing in Laos.

Bruce Bisping/Star Tribune/Getty Images

It wasn’t until 1973, when the US withdrew from Vietnam that the bombs stopped falling on Laos. Two years later, in 1975, the US left Laos, and its communist party took over the country.

By then, the bombings had killed approximately 200,000 people, many of whom were civilians — about 10% of the country’s population. At least 400,00 more were wounded and 750,000 had to seek asylum due to the devastation.

In contrast, 728 Americans had died in the Laos conflict.

Even after the war ended, the bombings’ impacts continued. Their shells were used for a variety of things, including as the base of stilt houses.
Stilt houses built with American bombs in Laos.

Dea Giannella/Getty Images

They were sold for metal.
Two men pick up half of a cluster bomb casing bought by the woman behind a scrap metal shop in Phonsavanh.

Jerry Redfern/LightRocket/Getty Images

Some were even used as animal troughs.
A water buffalo eats from a trough made from the shell of a cluster bomb in Laos.

Jerry Redfern/LightRocket/Getty Images

But they also continued to kill people. Cluster bombs in particular were deadly.
Villagers show off a cluster bomb in Laos.

Peter Charlesworth/LightRocket/Getty Images

Cluster bombs are small bombs that disperse waves of shrapnel and ball bearings when they explode.

An estimated 30% of all the bombs the US dropped didn’t detonate, meaning 80 million bombs remain scattered across the country. They were dangerous because their design allows them to explode under the slightest pressure or movement.

Bombs have exploded while farmers plow their fields or when people cook meals on fires.

Since the campaign ended, more than 20,000 people have been killed or wounded by dud explosives.

Children have been the most common victims.
Kids in Vang Vieng, Laos pose for a photo while sitting on a disarmed US bomb dropped during the Vietnam War.

Gerhard Joren/LightRocket/Getty Images

The first detailed study of the impact of the leftover bombs found that 42% of the bomb victims were children.

The bombs don’t look like bombs and the children in many of these areas often live in poverty and can’t afford toys.

“They look more like toys than weapons of death and maiming,” Lewis M. Simons, the author of “To Tell the Truth: My Life as a Foreign Correspondent,” wrote for NPR. “Bright yellow, red or black, some resemble whiffle balls, others miniature windmills, robots and Transformers.”

In recent years, the US has taken steps to make amends for Operation Barrel Roll.
A worker uses a metal detector to search for bombs in Laos.

Jerry Redfern/LightRocket/Getty Images

In 1993, the US began to help with the clean-up. Then, in 2010, the US increased its funding for the clean-up.

In 2016, President Obama visited Laos — the first US president in office to do so. He promised $90 million more in funding to help remove the remaining bombs.

However, experts believe the bombs are so numerous it could take another hundred years before they are all removed.

Despite the funding, less than 1% of the remaining bombs have been removed since the war ended.
A farmer stands beside a live mortar he found on his land in Laos.

Jerry Redfern/LightRocket/Getty Images

“Laotians are a forgiving people, but as long as Laos remains riddled with explosives, nobody can forget, because forgetting can kill you,” T.D. Allman, who broke the story of the CIA’s secret war in Laos, said in National Geographic.

Laos is still a farming nation, and unfortunately, the danger is part of daily life.

A banana farmer named Sang Kham, whose relative was killed by a bomb while farming, told Al Jazeera, “We are always afraid in the field.”

Read the original article on Business Insider
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