Taking Responsibility in Laos

Things have been a little quiet around here lately as I have been working on some longer articles that I hope to be able to share with you soon.   Today: a short post to highlight a stop on Obama’s current Asian tour. Yesterday in a visit to Vientiane, Laos, the President acknowledged the secret war that the United States waged there from 1964-1973 as part of its war in Vietnam. In an effort to interdict the flow of men and materiel along the Ho Chi Minh Trail and to support the Lao government against the Pathet Lao, the United States dropped more than two million tons of bombs on Laos—more than it dropped on Germany and Japan during the Second World War. This amounted to 580,000 bombing missions, or dropping a planeload of bombs every eight minutes, all day every day, for nine years. Laos is the most heavily bombed country per capita in history.

Millions of the bombs dropped by the United States in this campaign did not explode immediately, leaving the country riddled with live bombs that continue to kill and maim people every year. The vast majority of these weapons have not been cleared. In his address this week, Obama pledged $30 million a year for three years to help clear the unexploded bombs; one source claims that the United States spent $130 million on ten days of bombing (in 2013 dollars). Needless to say, the clean-up funds are far from adequate, nor did Obama actually apologize for the bombing. He joined the Lao people in “acknowledging the suffering and sacrifices on all sides of that conflict.” Indeed.

It is never too late for the United States to take responsibility for the massive suffering it inflicted on the Lao (and Cambodian and Vietnamese) people as part of its war in Southeast Asia. Nor is it ever too late to hold the architects of this wasteful conflict accountable, but that does not seem to be something in which Americans are interested. We will prosecute the platoon leader who failed to prevent his troops from committing an atrocity, but we will continue to venerate Henry Kissinger, the man who orchestrated the campaigns in Laos and Cambodia, helped to prolong the war in Vietnam, supported heinous regimes in South America (and I could go on). Hillary Clinton has famously cited her admiration for Kissinger (and her satisfaction at his praise of her efforts as Secretary of State). This is deeply troubling. Kissinger helped orchestrate military campaigns and prop up corrupt regimes that killed millions of people without making the United States any safer in the process.

If Clinton is elected, what will be the new Laos? For what industrial-scale atrocities will the American president be apologizing in thirty years? My friends in the liberal camp tell me that we should not be criticizing Clinton at this critical juncture, lest we help to usher in the apocalypse. But if we care at all about justice and the lives of innocent people around the world (not to mention the lives of American troops), it is never too early to start criticizing someone who might become the most powerful person in the world and cites Henry Kissinger as an inspiration.


Regime Type and Icelandic Feminism

In my research project about decision-making during the Second World War, I am examining how a state’s “regime type,” i.e., the type of government it has (democracy, autocracy, or something in between) affects its foreign policy. I am also examining whether the regime type of a state’s opponent or potential opponent affects foreign policy outcomes. So, for example: does the fact that a potential opponent is a democracy affect a state’s decision to launch a war against it? In the world of international relations, we refer to such theories as “second image” explanations of international political behavior.

In addition to tracking down and interpreting the relevant archival sources on the decisions in question, one of the most challenging aspects of conducting research like this is deciding how to classify a particular state’s regime. Ask yourself this question: how do we determine whether a state is a democracy or not? One obvious answer might be that the state must hold elections. Okay, so….elections for what? For the head of state? For the head of government? What about representatives in the national assembly? What about judges? How many candidates or parties must be running to count as a “real” election? And who is voting? These are just a few of the many criteria that researchers must consider in determining whether we should classify a state as democratic or not. In an earlier post I argued that many of the criteria researchers use to evaluate whether a state qualifies as a democracy are actually measures of how similar a particular state is to the United States, not how well the state measures up to some objective standard.

To me one of the most important criteria for determining whether a state should be counted as democratic is that adults are not excluded from voting in national elections based on their race, gender, or socioeconomic standing. So, for example, it is inappropriate to refer to the United States of 1850 or 1915 as fully democratic because major categories of adults were ineligible to vote (African Americans in 1850 and women in 1915, although we know that African Americans were effectively disenfranchised long after they were officially granted the right to vote, further complicating our assessments).

Back to my research: my project examines the British invasion of Iceland in 1940 (and the planned attack on Norway that was thwarted by Germany’s own invasion of that country). Over the past few weeks I have been researching Iceland’s political system, and I discovered that Icelandic women were granted the right to vote in 1915, before the same right was extended to women in the United States. I also learned that in 1980, Iceland elected Vigdis Finnbogadottir as president, making her the first democratically elected female head of state in the world. A fascinating article by Kirstie Brewer ties this remarkable electoral feat to a day in 1975 when 90% of all women in Iceland went on strike, refusing to attend their jobs outside the home, to perform housework or to look after children in order to call attention to their demands for equal rights with men.  Icelandic fathers dubbed this day “the Long Friday” while they scrambled to entertain children at their workplaces and bought out easy-to-prepare sausages for their kids from the local shops. For many the day was heralded as a wake up call for women demanding equal rights with men.  It’s a fascinating article about the path taken by a state that many have dubbed the most feminist country in the world, and worth thinking about in a U.S. election season where feminism and gender have become major stumbling blocks for the Democratic party.

Banner Image: Imperial War Museum, London

The image currently serving as the blog’s banner comes from the following photograph taken by my husband Robert P. Chamberlain:
DSC_0743The two signs that feature in the banner are part of a larger assembly of signs that stood at various “no-man’s-land” locations during World War I.  They featured in a special exhibit on the Great War at the Imperial War Museum in London, UK, in the summer of 2014 to mark one hundred years since the start of the war.  I visited the museum that summer as part of a research trip to the British national archives in service of my current project on British and French decision making in the Second World War.

This past March, I travelled to Paris, France, to visit the National Archives and the archives of the Foreign Ministry for the same project.  As part of the trip, my husband and I visited the Musée de l’Armée at les Invalides (better known to school tour groups as the site of Napoleon I’s tomb).  We spent a considerable amount of time at the “Two World Wars” exhibit, which focused on the French experience.

What was most interesting about the French exhibit was that it covered the period 1871-1945.  That is, for the French, the history of the world wars begins with the French defeat in 1871 in the Franco-Prussian War.  The British exhibit at the Imperial War Museum begins, as one might expect, with the events in the summer of 1914.  The contrast between the two approaches to the same conflict prompted me to think about the very different ways in which different countries can understand the same events, and the way in which those events can come to have very different meanings in the context of different national cultures.  I think about the American impression of the world wars (and what I was taught in high school history courses):  we have a vague belief that the United States swooped in to win the First World War for the good guys, and a much stronger sense of our “Saving Private Ryan,” guardian-of-freedom triumph in the Second World War.  This is not to diminish the United States’ contribution to either of those conflicts, but I doubt that the average American knows that the vast majority of German soldiers killed in WWII died fighting Soviet forces on the Eastern Front or that the French lost more than 10 times as many military dead as did the United States in absolute terms during the First World War.  I had never even heard of the Franco-Prussian War before graduate school.

The exhibits I visited over the past two years suggest that the British and French see the world wars as intimately connected, and the French view the 1871 conflict as intrinsically tied to the other two; I think the United States tends to view the two world wars as relatively disconnected events that happened “over there” in the first half of the twentieth century.  Differences in national memory and national legend can, I think, affect the ways in which we perceive both past and current events in international politics.

In other news, the United States has decided to suspend the program for training Syrian rebels; instead, we are going to be identifying appropriate indigenous forces to give American equipment.  The New York Times notes that, “failure on the battlefield or the loss of weapons that could fall into the hands of extremists could result in a cutoff of military equipment, officials said.”  Well as long as we’ll be cutting off additional transfers of weapons after the equipment has fallen into the hands of extremists, what could go wrong?