Laos: A Moral Man at Work

Lee Thorn is a Vietnam War veteran, a bomb loader on the aircraft carriers that sent the likes of John McCain screaming over Vietnam and Laos to unleash the fires of hell on those b elow.  In both Vietnam and Laos most of the victims were not active combatants in the war.  Laos was not even party to the war. Yet the bombs fell.  When they didn’t fall to decapitate and burn they fell so the aircraft would not have to land with them; they were dumped.

For years Thorn had PTSD dreams of the hell he had been part of sending down on the villagers.  In 1998 he took a trip, as did other vets, to try to come to grips with their demons, and with what they had done.  Thorne fell in love with Laos, and returned, where he lives to this day.  Among other things. he helped set up, and is on the board of the Jhai Foundation.

This is is opinion piece in the SF Chronicle today:

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton visited Laos on Wednesday. Laos is a small, beautiful, landlocked country, which I first came to know when I served in the Navy during the Vietnam War and have since come to love.

I hope that the secretary will make a significant, long-term commitment to remove bombs that the United States dropped during the secret war in Laos and that are still killing people to this day. I hope that Americans can truly reconcile with the people of Laos and our own brutal past there.

This visit by Secretary Clinton was the first time a senior U.S. official acknowledged that we committed a secret crime against humanity in Laos. Of course, she did not put it this way. But that is what it was.

We never declared war on Laos, yet we carried out military operations there. In 1966, as an “emergency” bomb loader on the aircraft carrier Ranger, I loaded cluster bombs, napalm and high explosive bombs that fell mainly in the Plain of Jars. There was an “emergency” almost every day.

Bombing killed more than 30,000 non-combatants during the war. More than 20,000 people, a large percentage of them children, have been killed in Laos since then by unexploded ordnance, according to Legacies of War, a U.S. nonprofit. …

There is more in his piece, which you can read here.  I was particularly struck by his closing.

I try to work for peace on a daily basis now.

I must.

Sometimes it is just mentoring a younger person or holding my grandson. Other times I write or speak publicly.

I must do service or the dark memories of the bombing in Laos come back to haunt me.

But I also do service for Lao people because I have learned so much there. Lao people have something I think we all need: They know how to reconcile. They taught me how to reconcile.

Now we Americans need to reconcile with our history and the people we have harmed and to make amends. Our secretary of state’s visit is a start.

Other stories about Thorn can be found on-line.  Here are a couple:  from 2000;  about his coffee project, 2001;  in a geek blog ‘since 1968” about the Remote IT Village project; about growing coffee in Laos, in 2003;  he, and the rugged Jhai-PC  appears in a 2010 posting from the International Telecommunications Union.

Thorn is also on the advisory board of Legacies of War, a site to click on often.  Their release today, calls on SecState Clinton to honor her promise to address past legacies.

“It’s remarkable to see the highest ranking U.S. official to visit Laos since the end of the war come face to face with the devastating effects of unexploded ordnance (UXO). Now, she must keep her promise to Phongsavath and the people of Laos, who will otherwise live on dangerous land for generations to come,” remarked Channapha Khamvongsa, executive director of Legacies of War, further adding, “We agree wholeheartedly with Secretary Clinton that we can and should do more to end these past legacies.”

 Thorn is one of few in the world who have the moral imagination to grasp what has been done in his name, and in which he participated.  He found his road to healing by admitting: yes, I did this thing.  And then he had to courage to go to the land of the crime.  There was no reason to think this would turn out well.  His demons could erupt full force.  People could turn on him.  He could have walked  in shame and never emerged.  But he had the courage to put himself there.  He was rewarded.  As he says: The Laotian people “know how to reconcile. They taught me how to reconcile.”

His work there is small, in the big scheme of things.  In the big scheme of things, everything we all do is small.  Even big wars are small in the big scheme of things.  To Lee, and those he works with, what he does is large.  May it grow larger, and send many seeds.

What we need desperately in this world is an answer to the question of how to produce more Lee Thorns.  Ideally, before the fact of loading the bombs, but even after, to find a moral center and connection to others through the act of aggression come back in repentance and healing work is a wonderful thing. It wasn’t easy for him.  He didn’t let that stop him.

How do we encourage more to stand up and say no to the terror they are asked to participate in, the corruption they are players in, the cruelties they witness and walk away from? Way too many sit down, turn away, turn up the music and tell themselves it’s ok to ignore what they can’t change.  Lee Thorn changed, and so can we all.

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