The Rice is More Delicious After Bomb Clearance
Updated: Oct 17
I receive daily accounts of air warfare from around the world—some related to my research, some from the front page news, and others from people I know who are directly impacted by bombings. Sorting through these accounts, and my own feelings about them, I return again to the deep grief that these explosions will not end when the wars end. In my research, I study what happens decades after bombs fall. I know that air warfare creates specific patterns of destruction and ecological contamination that persist for decades, even centuries, after a war is officially over. Any bombing that is happening now will not end in our lifetime.
I am one of a handful of social scientists who study the long-term effects of bombing. Generally speaking, as researchers and weapons designers and soldiers and humanitarians, we do not understand the long-term effects of air warfare, and we have a terrible track record of cleaning up remnants of war.
For my first two books, I studied places in Laos that the United States bombed during the Vietnam-American War. I sometimes traveled with explosives clearance teams working to defuse old bombs before they went off. Clearance teams did surveys to better understand villagers’ experiences living on contaminated land. These battlefields were fifty years old. Most farmers who worked on this land were born after the war ended. In one of these village surveys, a farmer told the team that “the rice is more delicious after bomb clearance.” Getting bombs out of the ground didn’t make the rice grow faster or plumper, but it did make the farmer safer, and safety tasted good.
Fieldpoem 15: “The rice is more delicious after bomb clearance.”
dig this rice field with a shovel
so the rice will be more delicious—
each two white grains
precious as two eyes.
There is no “postwar” in old air strike zones. The landscape, the very ground, is altered. Researchers like me are only beginning to understand the full force of these effects. Lao farmers used shovels rather than hoes because shovels were less likely to trigger a buried bomb, likely a cluster submunition. One of the many cruel ironies of air warfare is that the most fertile soil is also most likely to become contaminated—the soft earth cushions the fall of the bombs, which then become de-facto landmines. So, in Laos, the richest, most fertile fields were also the most dangerous. If an explosion did occur, blindness was a common injury. At a Buddhist temple that administered to survivors of explosions, I once heard a monk encourage his novices to treasure the rice in their alms bowls as if every two grains were as precious as their two eyes. A farmer might have risked his eyes to reap that rice. What if everything was precious, even if we didn’t understand why? Each grain of rice, every eye, every monk, every farmer?
Around the same time that I heard the first accounts of the Israeli siege of Gaza, I also received accounts of bombings in Myanmar. Today, cluster munitions are again falling on Southeast Asia for the first time since the Vietnam-American War. The Myanmar state has reverse-engineered the cluster bombs the United States dropped on Southeast Asia fifty years ago. Now, Myanmar is dropping these home-manufactured bombs on its own citizens. The bombs Israel is dropping on Gaza are also American models, received as military aid from the United States. As are the bombs Ukraine is using in its defense against Russia. Russia deploys its own home-manufactured cluster munitions, many also based on American models. All five of these countries (Myanmar, Israel, Ukraine, Russia, and the United States) are connected by their refusal to sign the Convention on Cluster Munitions that bans the manufacture and use of these indiscriminate weapons.
We may think of these battlefields as distinct and separate regions, but they are connected by shared military strategies, weapons designs, air strike patterns, and flows of military and humanitarian aid.
Only with a clarity and breadth of vision wide enough to see these connections, historical ties, and imminent futures can we unmake the beast of global war. It is not a thing that happens in Gaza, and then also in Myanmar. It is a thing that happens in many places at once, even in places like Laos that are ostensibly at peace.
The ineffable taste of safety—and the bitterness of fear—are among the things I heard from people born generations after air war to a land rife with unexploded bombs. The places being bombed today will be contaminated with dangerous, live explosives for decades. These explosives will lodge in the soil and continue to go off. Focusing on the present suffering of the people we care about is reasonable and human. But I grieve the future. The earth remembers our wars and cares not a fig for our politics.
Image: A map drawn for a village survey in Laos. Each red dot is a bomb found by villagers. Image courtesy of the author.
For more on the bombing of Myanmar:
For a thoughtful take on the political nuances of the bombing of Gaza (thank you to my friend Marta for sharing this one):
And a good conversation guide for talking about conflict, courtesy of the American Friends Service Committee: