By using our website, you agree to the use of our cookies.
Documentaries & Non-Fiction Series

VICE Correspondent Kaj Larsen Talks “Collateral Damage” from War in Southeast Asia [Exclusive] 

VICE Correspondent Kaj Larsen Talks “Collateral Damage” from War in Southeast Asia [Exclusive]


Photo Credit: HBO
Photo Credit: HBO

There are countless victims of war. VICE correspondent Ben Anderson travels to Pakistan to investigate that country’s war on polio. The health workers in the poorest areas are routinely attacked or killed because some people view the vaccinators and the vaccine with distrust. They believe their enemies are trying to get to them through their children and for that they must be punished. VICE correspondent Kaj Larsen travels to Southeast Asia to investigate the lasting and deadly legacy of land mines and cluster bombs from past and present conflicts in the region. He meets a few people maimed by these bombs and follows a trained disposal team working to clean up these weapons before they claim more lives.

Earlier this season in “Return to Yemen,” correspondent Ben Anderson explored the ongoing danger of unexploded cluster bombs affecting the civilian population in Yemen. In “Collateral Damage,” we see the lasting legacy of both cluster bombs and land mines. In Myanmar the conflict still rages, but there’s been peace in Laos for decades and still thousands and thousands of people are killed or injured when they come in contact with unexploded bombs.

Kaj Larsen

I had the chance to talk to correspondent Kaj Larsen about the human cost of war, how these bombs claim victims every year, what’s been done to get rid of these explosives, and what role America is playing in the cleanup.

TV GOODNESS: This is the second piece VICE has done this season on how bombs and munitions are maiming and killing unintended targets. After the piece on Yemen, how and why did you decide to focus on Myanmar and Laos?

Kaj Larsen: “I think it’s important to understand the global perspective on the explosive remnants of war. If what’s past is prologue, what happened in Laos thirty years ago is predictive of what my colleague Ben Anderson saw in Yemen.

Yemen is real-time, but we know what Yemen is gonna look like in thirty years because I went to Laos and showed us a glimpse of the future. These guys are gonna have to deal with the explosive remnants of war and unexploded ordnance the way Southeast Asia has [and] is doing right now. Yemen’s gotta do that for the next thirty years.

So, I think there’s a really interesting parallel through line between my piece and Ben’s piece and, of course, Ben and I are on again tonight. His piece is on polio this time, but it was a very deliberate through line between the two pieces.”

TV GOODNESS: One of the things that really struck me was one of the men you talked to who said it’s hard to take care of his family with all of his limbs. From what you saw and the people you talked to, how did losing a limb affect their daily lives and their ability to provide for their families?

Kaj: “I think it’s important to keep in mind that these are difficult socioeconomic conditions to begin with. These are agricultural communities that rely heavily on farming and manual labor. It’s almost a prerequisite, in order to make a living, that you are an able-bodied person.

The loss of a single limb, it inhibits your ability to hunt in the jungle, to tend a field, to farm a field, to do all the basic things that are required. There’s no Uber and there’s no Postmates in the hills of Myanmar. These guys literally have to hike from village to village, sometimes just to get a goat to feed their family. Without a leg and with cheap prosthetics, that becomes nearly impossible, so they basically have to rely on the kindness of the community to help take care of them.

What’s extraordinary is, when we were hiking with the KNLA, the Karen National Liberation Army, we were hiking to all of these remote villages in Burma, in this conflict zone, but every single village we went to there was victims from land mines. It was like, ‘Oh. We have to hike to this faraway village to find one land mine victim.’ We would hike for six hours, stop at a village, ask if there was any land mine victims and, invariably, they’d be like, ‘Oh, yeah. There’s this guy. He’s in his house. There’s this woman who stepped on land mine over there.’ In every village, 3 or 4 or 5 victims would come out to greet us and tell us their stories. It was pretty astounding, actually.”

TV GOODNESS: When you talked to Dr. Yeshua Moser, he said that land mines are considered weapons of mass destruction in slow motion. I’ve seen the piece so I know what he means, but can you talk a little bit about that?

Kaj: “I think what he’s trying to explain is the scale in human cost and also the timeline. These things kill and maim thousands and thousands of people, but it doesn’t happen instantaneously. It happens over the course of one, two, sometimes three decades.

So in that sense, it’s most analogous to cancer than it is to a traditional explosive. We spoke to villagers in Laos who had had 3 generations who’ve been impacted by these weapons, much like a cancer, where the grandfather had been a victim from the original bombing, then one of his children picked up a cluster munition or stepped on a land mine at some point within the next twenty years and then his children as well, so the grandchildren had also been impacted.

We literally saw villages with three generations of families that had been impacted by these munitions, so I think that’s what Dr. Moser was trying to get at with that statement.”

TV GOODNESS: Let’s talk about Laos, where the problem is cluster bombs. There are literally millions of unexploded munitions on the ground there, which shocked me. I have to say, I was really nervous watching you walk around. Were you afraid for you own safety?

Kaj: [Laughs.] “I was less nervous in Laos with cluster munitions because they’re relatively stable unless you pick them up or hit them with an object. So you could theoretically step on one and it wouldn’t explode as long as everything is ok.

Because the land mines in Myanmar are designed – they’re all anti-personnel munitions – because they’re pressure activated anti-personnel munitions and because the areas that we were in in Myanmar are active conflict zones, I was significantly more concerned about my own whims when I was in Burma than I was when I was in Laos.

But either way, the thing is demolition is dangerous. [Laughs.] We were pretty close to those explosives. One of the things that didn’t make it in the piece was that we found a very big bomb, a 500-pound bomb, in one of the riverbeds and we actually had to explode that as well. So any time you’re working with demolition and explosions, you’re on edge.”

TV GOODNESS: You talked a little bit about this already, about how all these generations are having to deal with the fallout from these bombs. The kids that you talked to specifically, how did they feel about it?

Kaj: “The adaptability of the human condition never ceases to amaze me. They live among these bombs and these cluster munitions, but they’re pretty matter-of-fact. Life goes on and they just figure it out.

The good news of the story is that there has been some progress in terms of educational awareness and the kids are the ones who are finding these weapons and pointing them out more than the adults now. So there’s been a good enough education go down that they’re actually telling everybody how to recognize it and warn kids to stay away from ‘em.”

TV GOODNESS: Since cluster bombs are American-made what responsibility do you think the U.S. has to a) stop making, using and selling them and b) contribute to or help clear all these unexploded munitions in Laos and other countries?

Kaj: “I want to make sure I give you a nuanced answer on this.

I will say that I think on the humanitarian mine clearance action, the US has done a good job of leading the way on that. So, and I guess this is interesting context, maybe, a decade ago I was in Cambodia in a minefield doing a story on land mines that were unexploded in the ground.

In Cambodia, there was still 10 million land mines in the ground and just like Laos, maiming and killing people every day. Cambodia, at the time, had the highest amputee rate in the world, but in large part thanks to the US and UK and humanitarian organizations like HALO, they have made a significant dent in that problem, in clearing it.

Cambodia today, they have millions and millions of less land mines in the ground and millions and millions of more acres of useable land for farming and for civilians than it did a decade ago. So Cambodia’s a good news story. It means that it can be done with a commitment to action.

I think the US both understands the moral obligation to help with this from a humanitarian perspective and is engaging in that moral obligation. I will say, though, that part of that understanding – and this goes back to the first part of your question, which is about utilization of these weapons – and responsibility in terms of utilization, the other part of that is understanding the cost benefit of using these weapons in the first place. When you do that, there’s really a couple dimensions we have to think about it on and the first dimension is from a strictly tactical perspective.

There are other weapons that have similar killing power, but not the long-lasting pernicious legacy of these cluster munitions. So I think it’s incumbent upon battlefield commanders to understand the tools that are at their disposal and utilize ones that aren’t gonna have these long-lasting effects. And it’s also incumbent to educate those battlefield commanders in those options. So that’s from a tactical dimension. As a former Navy SEAL, I do think that tactically there are other ways to accomplish what those weapons are trying to accomplish.

One of our mandates as a military and as officers in the military is to minimize harm to civilians and that calculation has to be taken seriously when we think about employing these weapons.

To the [other] part of your question which talks about selling these weapons, absolutely we have a responsibility, and I think we have a legal, moral and ethical responsibility to ensure that whoever we sell these weapons to uses them in a safe, judicious and ethical way.

I don’t think there is any way — and this was proved by Ben’s piece in Yemen — to prove that we can safely sell these weapons and they’ll be used up to our standards. Once the horse gets out of the barn, you can’t shut the door when it comes to selling cluster munitions to other countries.

So I think my policy recommendation is that we should never again sell cluster munitions to people outside the United States. It only has the potential to go awry.

Finally, I think there’s one other small component of this argument that’s important. I was really moved and persuaded by the arguments of Senator [Patrick] Leahy, who’s worked for decades on this issue saying that there’s a new law, and what I’m saying, I don’t think, is novel. Lots of people recognize that this is important hence why Senator Leahy was able to create legislation that mandated US cluster munitions have a 1% dud rate.

Now I will say that throughout our investigation, it’s increasingly dubious that that 1% dud rate is a realistic goal and we were not able to see any evidence that the US is actually able to achieve that 1% dud rate at all.

I’m suspicious and doubtful that cluster munitions can be used safely and effectively while minimizing civilian casualties anywhere in the world at any time.”

TV GOODNESS: Let’s talk more about Senator Leahy. I’m happy to hear that that legislation is going through. When you talked to him, did he seem optimistic about this mission or was it just business as usual in Washington DC?

Kaj: “That’s an interesting question. I would characterize Senator Leahy’s stance as someone who has been in the middle of this fight for decades and has made significant progress on the issue of land mines in conjunction with the ICBL, the International Campaign to Ban Land Mines and other NGOs, Non-Governmental Organizations. He’s made significant progress.

I think what now keeps Senator Leahy up at night is the issue of cluster munitions, which they’ve had much less success [with]. They haven’t had thirty years of an international coalition designed to reduce them, so I think that’s his main pressure point now.

It’s almost like he’s been fighting a battle. If it was a medical analogy, it’s like he was fighting a battle with, I don’t know, brain cancer for 30 years and he finally managed to get it under control and found out that he had lymphoma or something like that.”

TV GOODNESS: If there’s one thing you want people to take away from this piece after they watch it, what do you want that to be?

Kai: “I think the most significant thing that people can take away from this piece is that it is possible to reduce the civilian casualties and the long-lasting effects of war. War, as you see when you walk through both these post conflict zones and active conflict zones, takes a tremendous toll on the society.

But I don’t think it was the goal or in the best interest of anyone in the United States that the people in Laos continue to pay the price for the Vietnam War. In fact, it’s wildly expensive for us to assist them through the humanitarian de-mining efforts and everything. So it’s in everybody’s best interest that the violence stops when the conflict stops.

But in order to have that long-term vision people need to be aware of just how deadly and long-lasting these munitions and some munitions are. So if there’s one thing that I want people to take away it’s that by having a voice and by being active and passionate about this issue and supporting people like Senator Leahy or supporting humanitarian mine clearance, you actually can make an incredible difference and you can help protect civilian life.

If we could get one less cluster munition dropped, we might have not just saved a life today, but you might save a life of the next generation or the next generation after that.”

TV GOODNESS: Is there anything I didn’t ask you about that you wanted to talk about?

Kaj: “It’s not in the cut, but one of the things that was interesting is when the villagers found that really big bomb in the riverbed and came to us. The local country team for HALO, the mine clearance organization, didn’t actually have the expertise to be able to defuse the bomb, so the HALO director and myself, I have a lot of demolitions training, we were able to actually construct a very complex cutting charge in order to safely detonate this giant explosive that we found.

I will say that personally it felt good after seeing all of the victims, trekking through Myanmar with rebel armies and hiking through the little foothills in Laos to these different villages and seeing all the victims. It felt really good to be able to repurpose my military skills for good and to be able to render safe that piece of ordnance that could have potentially hurt somebody.”

TV GOODNESS: I know you’re not allowed to say much about what you’re working on, but is there anything you can tell me about your next piece?

Kaj: “Yeah. So I have a new piece coming out a couple weeks down the line that’s also about American weapons systems, but it’s one we don’t think about that much. Just like land mines, these are buried in the ground but these are America’s nuclear arsenal. America’s nuclear arsenal is aging, so I go around examining the nuclear triads, flying a B52, driving a ballistic missile class Ohio submarine and going down into an ICBM silo, all in order to discover what the current state of our nuclear program is.

And then I should be in the field soon in an undisclosed location south of the border working on the next piece after that.”

Edited for space and content.

Photo Credit: HBO
Photo Credit: HBO

What happens when health workers are the targets of violence? In “The End of Polio,” Ben Anderson travels to Karachi to meet the women putting their lives on the line to help eradicate polio. Pakistan is the last battleground in this fight. But in Pakistan’s poorest areas, there is widespread distrust of vaccinators, and the Pakistani Taliban has openly condoned violence against them, especially after the CIA used a vaccinator to help track down Osama bin Laden.

Pakistan’s polio problem:

Although constantly under threat, these women have a job to do and they’re going to do it.

There is no cure for polio. Once it’s been contracted, it can have severe effects on children.

VICE airs Fridays at 11/10c on HBO.

Related posts

Leave a Reply

Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.