Laos is the most heavily bombed nation on Earth, the legacy of a lengthy, covert American campaign during the Vietnam War. Many bombs failed to detonate, leaving a problem that has since killed or maimed tens of thousands. The Mines Advisory Group (MAG) spearheads an effort to find and neutralize this unexploded ordnance (UXO). John McFarlane, an 18-year Canadian army veteran, serves as its technical operations manager. He spoke with Canadian Business senior writer Matthew McClearn.
Number of bombing missions conducted by the U.S. Air Force between 1964 and 1973: 580,000
Tons of ordinance dropped: 2 million
Estimate of how many failed to detonate: 30%
Types of munitions found in Laos: 186
Number of UXO-related deaths and injuries since 1964: 50,000
Portion of that total who were children: 23%
Average new casualties per year, last decade: 300
Year MAG began working in Laos: 1994
How does this assignment compare with your previous work?
I’ve been here in Laos for a little over one year. Before that, I worked for MAG in Africa. I started in Angola and moved on to Sudan and then to Somalia. Prior to coming here, friends told me I’d be dumbfounded by the amount of ordnance. I thought I’d seen it all. But coming here opened my eyes. In March, I visited a work site. It was approximately half a hectare — the size of someone’s backyard in Canada. In that area we found 220 cluster bombs. That’s one every 20 metres.
Describe your job.
I go from province to province overseeing the conduct of the operation, making sure the requirements of MAG’s donors are being met. My responsibility is to project outputs and tell my boss: “OK, over a two-year period we can do so many hectares or square metres to this clearance depth. We can work with this many development partners to facilitate the construction of aid posts, schools, hospitals, irrigation canals and so on.” I’m also responsible for training and mentoring our Laos national staff. We have five senior staff who can deal with all the ordnance found here: big bombs, cluster munitions and projectiles like grenades, mortars. And then we have 27 staff who can deal with cluster munitions and land service munition. Basically we’re trying to work ourselves out of a job.
How great is the variety of ordnance you encounter?
There’s air-delivered weapons anywhere from 100 to 18,000 pounds. There’s multitudes of different types of cluster bombs. There’s mortars. There’s rockets, surface-to-air missiles, surface-to-ground missiles. There’s got to be 60 different types of grenades. And they’re Chinese-made, Russian, American, French, Belgian, British. So there’s a vast range.
These UXOs have been buried or exposed to the elements for decades. Why are they still dangerous?
One of the concepts of fusing is to keep it simple, so you have a low failure rate. The Russians are masters at this. The Americans used high-quality materials. A lot of their fuses were sophisticated, but more parts mean that more things can break or malfunction. The high failure rate was due to poor design. But the durability of the components meant they would last for 30, 40 or 50 years and still function if abused. Somebody digs them up, kids play with them, it’s a matter of time before — Bang! — up they go.
That’s not to say every one functions. There are scrap metal collectors here that knock fuses off big bombs, harvest the explosives, and sell the metal casing as scrap. Some have been doing it for many years.
What’s the proper frame of mind when approaching unexploded ordnance?
I don’t want to sound overly dramatic, but one slip and it could be your last. You have to keep sharp, mentally. You want to identify the group from which it comes: projectile grenade, mortar, cluster bomb, air drop weapon, missile, rocket. And that will tell you how to approach it. For example, you don’t want to approach a rocket from the rear — the motor is in the rear. There’s static in your body. If you touch it, you might transmit a small electrical current, and that might cause the ordnance to function, depending on the fuse.
What’s been the most memorable moment so far?
Rendering safe my first big bomb. We stopped in one day to visit one of our all-women teams. I said to the team leader, “Ms. Peng, I’ve been here two months and we haven’t found a bomb yet. It would be nice to find a big bomb.” She said, “Mr. John, we’ll do our best.”
My colleague and I got in the car and drove back to Phonsavanh, about a two-hour drive. We were there maybe 10 minutes and the phone rang. It was the leader of the girls’ team calling to tell us they’d found a bomb. So we got in the car and headed back. Sure enough, it was a 750-pound bomb that looked as fresh as the day it was built. The paint was still a nice green, you could read the stencilling on it.
How did you render it safe?
We used what’s called a “round Tom.” The nose fuse was smashed off, but the base fuse, the one in the rear, was still in good shape. We wrapped the circumference of the base of the bomb with a C4 composition, and detonated it. We did it in situ because owing to the damage we couldn’t identify the fuse — and in that situation you have to assume the worst-case scenario. The C4 cut the base plate of the bomb off. It ejected the base fuse, which we destroyed. And then we burned out the explosive in the bomb. We turned the metal case back over to the village, which made them happy because it has a fair amount of scrap metal value.
Does physically disarming a bomb still provide an adrenalin rush after all this time?
The one thing you can’t have in this work is a sense of complacency. If it’s not exciting, you shouldn’t be doing it. It still raises the hair on the back of my neck. So long as you have a healthy respect for these ordinances and apply what you’ve been taught, you’ll be fine. But sometimes you think, “Oh man. Yikes.”
Which is more nerve-wracking: disabling UXO, or watching students do it?
[Laughs] Watching my students do it. This type of work, it’s recognized as a one-person risk. But when you’re teaching, you have to be with the student to observe and make sure they’re doing it correctly. There’s a bit of worry there because they’re just learning. But things are taught in a sequential, step-by-step process. Any misstep, we see it coming well before it happens.
How long do you intend to keep doing this?
Probably another seven to 10 years. I’m 53. This is the best job I’ve ever had. MAG is, in my opinion, the best humanitarian mine action organization in the world. The people are dirt poor in the provinces. By clearing their land of UXO, we’re not solving all their problems. But it’s a first step. And the people are genuinely grateful for the work we do. That keeps me going.