Leah Zani is a Junior Fellow in the Social Science Research Network at the University of California, Irvine and the author of the new book Bomb Children: Life in the Former Battlefields of Laos. In Bomb Children, Zani considers how the people and landscape of Laos have been shaped and haunted by the physical remains of unexploded ordnance from the CIA’s Secret War.
How did this project start? What brought you to the former battlefields of Laos?
For nearly ten years prior to and during my early research on this project, I thought of myself as a disability studies scholar and advocate. My experiences with dyslexia sparked my scholarly interests in disability. As a child in segregated remedial classes, I was told by my teachers that I would never graduate from high school—let alone finish a bachelor’s, or a doctorate, or write a book!
So I had this personal interest in disability studies. I had intended to study experiences of disability in Laos as they relate to the war, doing fieldwork with the state’s national prosthetics factory and rehabilitation center. Once I was on the ground in Laos, I realized that this was not feasible due to restrictions on foreign researchers—clinicians told me that I could not talk to patients—and made nearly impossible by government restructuring. I sensed that every few months, the name of the appropriate ministry changed as well as the appropriate paperwork. I couldn’t find a way “in” to a project on disability.
While I struggled to find an open door at the rehabilitation center, I was also building connections with humanitarian and development workers, many of whom were involved in victim assistance or explosives clearance. I quickly realized: There was my open door! I began spending more time with humanitarian and development organizations working in former battlefields. My earlier interest in disability studies is still present in the book if you look for it: my theorizing of danger as a disability; my critique of the language of the accident; and my attention to military wasting, i.e., military waste as a process that is simultaneously embodied, ecological, and geopolitical. I came to the project with an existing interest in bodies, the senses, risk, and impairment.
When I started this project, I did not know that the United States had covertly and massively bombed Laos for nine years. The Secret War was initially a silent backdrop to my research on disability, and the war slowly moved into the foreground to become my primary research focus.
You include what you call “fieldpoems” in the book. How does poetry help you make sense of what you learn in the field?
I came to poetry intuitively, provoked by my own confusion in the field. I didn’t know how to process or record what I was experiencing. In the book, I describe this feeling as a kind of vertigo: standing on the edge of another reality, feeling pulled in, but my feet still firmly planted. I was doing fieldwork in Phonsavanh, arguably the most bombed part of our planet. The town was flattened and then rebuilt after the war using bits and pieces of war debris. There had been no systematic clearance after the war, meaning that people rebuilt the town on top of thousands of live bombs. This existential particularity lends itself to poetry. My sense is that a lot of ethnographers come to poetry via this or a similar path: a wrestling with excess, looking over an edge, or losing one’s language. Poetry can be used to notice and give meaning to experiences that resist description.
Later, my interest in poetry led me to the Lao practice of poetic parallelism. In this regional poetic form, lines are split across multiple columns, the gaps generating an unresolvable tension. Parallelism became the central organizing frame of the book—it unlocked my awareness of how war simmers into everyday paranoia, helped me to recognize when interlocutors were sharing information discreetly and gave me a language for writing about peacetime life and ongoing war violence without dissolving one into the other. And I would probably not have picked up on parallelism if I hadn’t already been writing poems. For this project, poetry was a field method that encouraged a related method of poetic inquiry: thus, “fieldpoetry,” poems written as fieldnotes.
My use of fieldpoetry is linked to my experiences with dyslexia: Words are not the way that I know things, so when I write poems as evidence, I mean that they are evidence in this slightly estranged way, a kind of bewilderment or wandering away from words. As a feminist and queer scholar, poetry is one way to engage with what Strathern called “nonknowing” as evidence that does not depend on positivism. Poems are a way for me to explore nonknowing while still feeling rooted and sure of myself. I wrote poems before I wrote ethnographies, and the two are mutually supportive in my work. We need to mainstream more diverse methods and representation practices in anthropology, methods that are as varied as the people and events that we encounter.
I recently became the poetry editor at Anthropology and Humanism, the journal of the Society for Humanistic Anthropology. I am, as far as I know, the only poetry editor at a peer-reviewed journal in the social sciences.
You take particular interest in the sociocultural impact of cluster submunitions, known in Laos as “bomb children.” What is it about these particular bombs or their impact that stand out to you?
Cluster munitions have a social and cultural impact that distinguishes them from conventional weapons. They are, like landmines, a type of antipersonnel weapon that contaminates the places that people live. They are mines in every way that matters. Earlier versions of the Mine Ban Treaty prohibited cluster munitions alongside landmines. Under American pressure, delegates removed cluster munitions from the Mine Ban; the United States signed the Mine Ban but has yet to sign the subsequent Convention on Cluster Munitions. Since deploying these weapons in Laos, the United States has more recently used cluster munitions in the Middle East and continues to sell them.
When a bomber drops a cluster munition from their plane, the force of the fall opens the bomb to disperse hundreds or thousands of smaller submunitions, or bomblets, over vast areas. In Lao, the larger munition is called a “bomb mother” and the smaller bomblets are called “bomb children.” These bomblets are usually the size of two fists held together, lightweight and durable. During the Secret War in Laos, about a third of these bomblets failed to explode on impact. A bomblet will generally not explode if stepped on, though a fire or the impact of a farm tool will likely set it off. Due to their small size, durability, and geographic spread, even heavily bombed areas are still often farmed and inhabited. This means that cluster munitions become part of life—under people’s houses, found in rice fields, used for metal scrap—in ways that challenge distinctions between war and peace, or battlefield and village. They have a unique sociocultural signature, a wasting of the everyday. In the book, I develop a theory of the sociocultural blast radius: the radius of social and cultural effects surrounding explosive ordnance (such as family stigma, endemic risk, ecological destruction, and poverty). A bomb’s sociocultural blast radius is much larger than its zone of mere physical destruction.
Under President Trump, the United States rolled back restrictions on the use of these weapons and is now using cluster munitions with higher failure rates and thus higher civilian causalities.
The title of the book is a reference to the Lao practice of calling these smaller bomblets “bomb children.” The phrase is also a way for me to think about how these weapons have multi-generational, long term effects that exceed the logic of war. I like how the phrase gestures to a future after bombing. And yet, the United States intended the bombing to ruin the incoming state’s capacity to flourish; in a sense, the United States was bombing the future. Fifty years after the war, children are now more likely to be victims of explosions than their parents (because adults know how to safely avoid or handle bombs). What does it mean to be “born” from a bomb, or born from bombing?
Laos is the most cluster bombed country in the world. In 2010, Laos hosted the signing of the Convention banning cluster munitions. The country and the explosive clearance organizations that work there at the forefront of global efforts to create standards for cluster munition clearance.
You mention Laos is “one of the most rapidly developing countries in the world; it is also the world’s most bombed country . . .” How do military waste “haunt” development projects and the government’s response to the country’s rapid growth?
I take up haunting as an attitude to time: the Secret War as haunting, rather than history. At the Sepon Gold Mine, the focus of Chapter Two, the partially state-owned gold mine digs beneath an old communist stronghold bombed during the Secret War, and beneath that into the remains of a 14th century village. These subterranean histories layer on top of each other, sometimes intersecting or puncturing everyday life on the ground above. The first things to be dug up at the Gold Mine were bombs—not gold or copper—and more bombs are found and demolished every day of active operations. During my fieldwork in Sepon, rumors circulated of bombs and war ghosts brought to the surface by the runoff from the mine. And ghosts from the ancient village underneath the mine were possessing mine workers. The gold mine was also a ghost mine—a place where one dug up ghosts or became a ghost oneself.
Back in Vientiane, the Lao capital, I extend this analysis of haunting to explore the relations between state violence and development. My fieldwork was bracketed by the disappearance of Sombath Somphone, an important Lao civil society leader, and the phase-out of one of my primary research hosts. Sombath was abducted from his car in 2012 (on a Vientiane street near my apartment) and has yet to be returned to his family or confirmed dead. I began my preliminary fieldwork just before Sombath was abducted; and when I returned for primary fieldwork I discovered that my research partnerships needed to be renegotiated. One of my research partners rescinded their patronage all together, citing concerns over state violence. My fieldwork ended just as my primary research host was phasing out of Laos, in part due to the challenges of working in an increasingly authoritarian state. In the post-Sombath years, my interlocutors expressed concern that the hardships of working in Laos were caused by Sombath’s ghost. Since Sombath has not been confirmed dead, and his body not found, Sombath’s kin have not be able to perform the proper funerary rituals, thus causing Sombath to become an “angry ghost.” His ghost is haunting Lao development. At the same time, the ambiguity of disappearance (Sombath is alive/dead) points to another possible world of forgiveness and cooperation. Political disappearance creates an awareness of multiple worlds layering within the everyday. In the book’s logic of parallels, this contemporary state violence forms a parallel with the ongoing violence from the Secret War.
In your book, you talk about doing research in what is considered a dangerous environment. What were some of the hazards you encountered while doing your fieldwork?
I went into this research assuming explosives would be the greatest risks to my safety. My Institutional Review Board protocols included procedures for conducting fieldwork in uncleared battlefields and at explosives clearance sites. I soon discovered that state terror, surveillance, and harassment were far greater threats: that being an American woman in an authoritarian state was a greater risk factor than being in the middle of an old air strike zone. I joked to my friends: “The men are more dangerous than the bombs!” I was unprepared for the levels of surveillance and harassment that I was experiencing. In hindsight, I realized that my lack of preparedness was evidence for the public secrecy of state violence: there was no way I could have predicted many of these challenges in advance of doing fieldwork. We must negotiate our research ethics in the field. I also think that my unpreparedness points to a larger, shared issue in field-based sciences around the unequal risks faced by female researchers. As a discipline, we are impoverished in our theories and methods for risk: How I wish that the #metoo anthropology movement had begun before I started my fieldwork! I hope that this book contributes to that larger, disciplinary discussion of research risks and subject/researcher protections.
I approached these challenges as an ethical and methodological provocation to practice fieldwork differently, including my development of a hazardous research methods toolkit. I used the word “hazard” to counter the over-determining language of danger in explosives clearance. I wanted a word that would organically encompass military waste, state terror, and everyday risks like harassment and unsafe water. Ethnographic fieldwork is often a balance between intimacy and danger. The tension is written into our basic method: participant-observation, to participate without losing the distance that is essential to scholarship. Fieldwork in explosives clearance zones materializes the risks of ethnographic intimacy: areas of safety and danger are marked on the ground with stakes and red tape. Get too close, and the bomb with destroy you and itself! I learned to walk the perimeter of explosions, looking inward from a safe distance. My practical development of hazardous research methods eventually dovetailed with my theorizing of parallelism: I began to see how hazards layer on top of each other in postwar zones, amplifying risks without necessarily intersecting or being causally related.
What do you hope readers will take away from Bomb Children?
My goal in writing this book is to increase our collective ability to think about war, particularly covert air war, as a lived human experience. Postwar zones deserve more robust area and cultural studies. Military waste as area studies has only been possible since the 1990s when the widespread use of these weapons, the opening of many Cold War battlefields, and the development of humanitarian explosives clearance made it possible for researchers to study in these zones. Our theories and methods for studying postwar zones are out of step with the realities of the people that we study and our own lives under empire. Many of the theories I put forward are ways of grappling with a world changed by modern warfare’s unprecedented ecological and social impacts. Violence on this scale transforms the very conditions of being, living, and dying. Then, in Laos, half a century passes and new generations are born alongside bomb children, luk labaerd, cluster submunitions. Humanitarian explosives clearance often goes only as deep as a typical Lao plow—a handful of centimeters. More bombs often remain buried deeper, with a thin line of soil separating the farmer from the explosives. How is the violence of war lived in times of peace? How can we lean into the shared challenges of military waste, toxic inheritances that by their nature outlive our politics? Out of respect and accuracy towards the people impacted by these weapons, I offer theories and methods for understanding in parallel both our lives above ground, in all our human richness and possibility, and the brutality of a war buried in the soil just beneath our feet.
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