Lê Espiritu on Zani, 'Bomb Children: Life in the Former Battlefields of Laos'

Leah Zani
Yến Lê Espiritu

Leah Zani. Bomb Children: Life in the Former Battlefields of Laos. Durham: Duke University Press, 2019. Illustrations. 184 pp. $24.95 (paper), ISBN 978-1-4780-0485-1; $94.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-4780-0422-6.

Reviewed by Yến Lê Espiritu (University of California, San Diego) Published on H-Diplo (February, 2020) Commissioned by Seth Offenbach (Bronx Community College, The City University of New York)

Printable Version: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=54638

“Bombs are part of life” (p. 17)—this is the key argument of Leah Zani’s book on war remains in Laos, the most cluster-bombed country in the world. Half a century after the Central Intelligence Agency’s secret war in Laos, every province of the country remains massively contaminated with dangerous explosives. According to Zani, even though Laos is technically no longer an active war zone, the ordnance that remains will continue to be explosive for between 50 and 350 years (p. 18). In this anthropological account of military waste, Zani records, reports, and meditates on how traces of violence—the explosive remnants of war—remain viscerally present in the every day of people’s lives, even as the country has become one of the most rapidly developing nations in the world.

Zani’s account of the afterlife of the cluster bombs is an account of US “violent imperial processes [that] persist in peace” (p. 21). Indeed, Zani reports that the US military goal of the bombings was to foreclose the incoming socialist state’s capacity to develop and thrive. When a cluster bomb is dropped, it disperses hundreds of thousands of smaller bomblets—called “bomb children” by Lao people (thus the book’s title)—over vast areas. About a third of these bomb children failed to explode on impact; they thus exist literally just beneath the surface of people’s lives, becoming part of everyday life. As Zani points out, since cluster munitions were intended to have long-term effects that exceed the end of war, the US, in a sense, was bombing the future of Laos—to arrest its postwar reconstruction and development. As a result, Zani argues, the risk of military waste constitutes a form of necropolitics; that is, military waste is not an exceptional or accidental byproduct of war but its own form of deathly power—“a necessary practice of imperial control ... that systematically debilitates target of populations far beyond the cessation of conflicts” (p. 14). Focusing on the physical remains of war, Zani’s argument is this: if military waste, by definition, persists beyond the conflict of its emplacement, then an account of cluster bombings in Laos challenges the demarcation between war and postwar, offering up instead an alternative temporality, one that emphasizes the war’s irreconcilability and ongoingness.

To bring to the fore the living effects of what seems to be over and done with, Zani conceptualizes the ongoing war violence in Laos as a sociocultural process that is simultaneously embodied, ecological, and geopolitical. In The Culture of the Cold War (1991), Stephen Whitfield notes that war has a geopolitical and a social temporality: even when war has ended in the geopolitical dimension, it has not necessarily done so in the social dimension. Extending this discussion, Zani traces the sociocultural impact of cluster submunitions, insisting that postwar zones and military wastes are the purview not only of area studies but also of anthropological and cultural studies. For instance, in chapter 3, she theorizes that a bomb’s sociocultural blast radius is much larger than its zone of physical destruction. That is, whether or not people are physically harmed in the blast, they experience this blast radius as a zone of disabling possibility that includes the sociocultural aftereffects of war, such as family stigma, endemic risk, ecological destruction, and poverty.

Working with and through an explosives clearance operator and a faith-based development organization, Zani collected stories of people living and working in old air strike zones. She conducted seventeen months of ethnographic fieldwork in Phonsavanh, arguably the most bombed place on earth. Phonsavanh was flattened by explosives and then rebuilt after the war on top of thousands of live bombs, using salvaged bits and pieces of war debris. Fieldwork in postwar zones, according to Zani, is thus full of hazards. Issues of safety and danger are always present: in explosive clearance zones, the risks are real; stakes and red tape mark the perimeter of explosions, warning the researcher to watch her steps. Fieldwork involves striking a balance between intimacy and danger, between getting close but always from a safe distance. As Zani tells us, she started her fieldwork anticipating that explosives would pose the greatest risks to her safety. However, once in the field, she learned that state terror, surveillance, and harassment, which increased alongside contemporary economic reforms in Laos, are other fieldwork hazards. In these postwar zones, Zani discovered that being an American woman in an authoritarian socialist state was a far greater risk factor than being in the middle of an uncleared battlefield or an explosive clearance site. As she writes, “military wastes, despite their abject danger, were not the hazards that required my attention; police harassment and government surveillance were much greater hazards in fieldwork” (p. 63). The success of Zani’s research was thus dependent on her ability to navigate the hazard of conducting research under an increasingly authoritarian regime.

In chapter 1, Zani develops what she terms “hazardous research methods” (p. 29)—a conceptual frame for understanding hazards in fieldwork as well as for practicing fieldwork differently. As she explains, she uses the word “hazard,” rather than “danger,” to signal that the risks faced by researchers encompass not only military waste but also state terror and everyday risks like harassment and unsafe water. Her main argument is that hazards should not be recorded and analyzed as obstacles to data collection but as data themselves. As an example, she reports that data on the secret war are often contradictory or unavailable, in large part because of the interviewees’ reticence to speak out of fear for their own safety. Faced with these deliberate omissions, Zani’s hazardous research method paid close attention to the unsaid, discreetly said, or silenced—to see “thin description” not as a failed ethnography but as a form of ethnographic evidence that indexes the presence of authoritarian revival and the “culture of paranoia” in Laos (pp. 31, 34).

Zani’s development of hazardous research methods is linked to her theorizing of parallelism, the central organizing frame of the book, whereby war, state violence, and peacetime development are examined in parallel. This organizing frame offers new ways to understand the parallel, though not necessarily intersecting, relationship between ongoing war violence and postwar revival. For instance, in chapter 2, Zani documents the parallel process of remains/revival in Sepon, a new industrial center in Savannakhet Province, as an example of the sedimentation of both war and peace in contemporary Laos. Heavily bombed during the war, Sepon remains one of the most war-contaminated zones in Laos, but it is also the home of the first gold mine and thus a source of great wealth for the authoritarian state. During her fieldwork in Sepon, Zani learned that the first things to be dug up at the gold mine were not gold or copper but bombs and that ghosts from the village buried/trapped underneath the mine were reportedly possessing mine workers. Zani argues that these parallel accounts of the gold mine and ghost mine constitute not a history but a hauntology of military waste that intersects everyday life in Sepon, cross-cutting war and peace.

In terms of ethnographic method, Zani contends that parallelism “implies an ethics of attention to contradictions, multiplicities, and silences” (p. 61). To better capture the parallel process of remains and revival—of ongoing violence and peacetime development—that layers through people’s everyday lives, Zani turned to writing poetry in the field. She suggests that ethnographers come to poetry because “fieldpoems”—poems written as fieldnotes—embrace ambiguity, jettisoning the positivist mandate for single answers on the war and its afterlife. Since poetry, as a field method, is a type of knowledge that is open to ambiguity and multiple interpretations, Zani argues that it can be used to give meaning to experiences that defy description. Zani’s interest in poetry and parallelism eventually led her to study the Lao regional poetic form of parallelism, where structurally the lines are split across multiple columns, with the gaps visually generating an unresolvable tension. As Zani explains, “hazardous fieldwork compelled a poetic sensibility attuned to Lao parallelism” (p. 63). These fieldpoems constitute some of the book’s most illuminating ethnographic and methodological meditations on war and its aftermath. In chapter 3, in another effective use of poetry, Zani contrasts the sound of an explosion with the sound of chanted poetry performed by Buddhist monks during mine risk education training; this juxtaposition effectively captures the sociality of war, dismantling binaries between war and postwar, between the mundane and the spiritual.

Throughout the book, Zani enumerates the dangers of conducting research in an authoritarian postwar state: a research assistant resorting to lying to cover up their research together from prying government officials, a bomb clearance operator accepting Zani’s fieldwork request out of fear that Zani was an American spy checking up on the team’s financial conduct, an organization director canceling Zani’s internship to protect her staff from increased threats from police. Zani reads these incidents as manifestations of “a culture of paranoia”—as challenges of doing fieldwork in Laos and as research gaps that constitute evidence for state and extra-state violence. Although Zani was careful throughout to note her positionality as an American researcher in Laos, at times, her discussion of “hazardous research” appears to conflate the danger that she faced to that experienced by her interlocutors. For instance, to protect her research assistant, she hid his identity from her government interlocutors but then claimed that this “mutual secrecy highlights the contingency of subject and researcher protections. The two of us formed a relationship of parallel secrecy” (p. 52). And when one of her research partners rescinded their partnership in order to protect her own staff and interns, Zani tells the partner that her decision perpetuated “the access problem and contribut[ed] to a culture of ignorance and fear” (p. 142). At these and other moments, I wanted a more emphatic statement from the author that the danger faced by a researcher studying bomb culture is not the same as that faced by Lao people living amid military waste in an authoritarian state.

In all, given the hazards of conducting field research in contemporary Laos, the main contribution of Bomb Children seems to be just that: to open a disciplinary discussion in anthropology about theories and methods for research risks and researcher protections. While I appreciate Zani’s generative and nuanced discussions of “thin description” and “poetic inquiry” and “hauntology,” they, in the end, prioritize anthropologists’ concern about omissions in data, which differ greatly and gravely from her interlocutors’ concerns about being disappeared or harassed by state and extra-state authorities.

Yến Lê Espiritu is Distinguished Professor of Ethnic Studies at the University of California, San Diego. Her book, Body Counts: The Vietnam War and Militarized Refuge(es) (2014), is widely credited for charting the interdisciplinary field of critical refugee studies. She is also a founding member of the Critical Refugee Studies Collective (criticalrefugeestudies.com).

Citation: Yến Lê Espiritu. Review of Zani, Leah, Bomb Children: Life in the Former Battlefields of Laos. H-Diplo, H-Net Reviews. February, 2020. URL: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=54638

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