Notes from Postwar Laos
Published by: Stanford University Press
208 pages, 140.00 x 216.00 mm
- ISBN: 9781503611733
- Published: March 2022
A strike pattern is a signature of violence carved into the land—bomb craters or fragments of explosives left behind, forgotten. In Strike Patterns, poet and anthropologist Leah Zani journeys to a Lao river community where people live alongside such relics of a secret war. With sensitive and arresting prose, Zani reveals the layered realities that settle atop one another in Laos—from its French colonial history to today's authoritarian state—all blown open by the war. This excavation of postwar life's balance between the mundane, the terrifying, and the extraordinary propels Zani to confront her own explosive past.
From 1964 to 1973, the United States carried out a covert air war against Laos. Frequently overshadowed by the war with Vietnam, the Secret War was the longest and most intense air war in history. As Zani uncovers this hidden legacy, she finds herself immersed in the lives of her hosts: Chantha, a daughter of war refugees who grapples with her place in a future Laos of imagined prosperity; Channarong, a bomb technician whose Thai origins allow him to stand apart from the battlefields he clears; and Bounmi, a young man who has inherited his bomb expertise from his father but now struggles to imagine a similar future for his unborn son. Wandering through their lives are the restless ghosts of kin and strangers.
Today, much of Laos remains contaminated with dangerous leftover explosives. Despite its obscurity, the Secret War has become a shadow model for modern counterinsurgency. Investigating these shadows of war, Zani spends time with silk weavers and rice farmers, bomb clearance crews and black market war scrap traders, ritual healers and survivors of explosions. Combining her fieldnotes with poetry, fiction, and memoir she reflects on the power of building new lives in the ruins.
Introduces the narrator, Laos, Lao social systems and village life, Lao geography, and the Secret War. The narrator attends the Fire Boat Festival in Chantha's village.
Introduces explosives clearance and methods of cluster bomb clearance. The narrator accompanies Channarong, the field manager, on a village survey. Vanida, another technician, is also working on the survey.
Back in Chantha's village, the narrator learns how to say 'no' in Lao and refuses several offers. The narrator says 'yes' to an interview with Silavong, Chantha's aunt, about her experiences in the war. The narrator meets Bounmi, who visits Silavong for an exorcism. The narrator reflects on her experiences growing up with a step-parent who was a Vietnam War vet with PTSD.
The narrator accompanies Channarong on a demolition and learns how to wear safety gear. The narrator meets Dao, a demolition technician, who lost her leg in a cluster bomb explosion. Dao explains that the "safe point" is the safest area in a clearance site.
The narrator meets Vanida in a rural village where the two of them are staying at a haunted guest house. The narrator learns that the ghost is a Frenchwoman who died before the war, when Laos was a French colony. The narrator imagines talking to this ghost.
The narrator attends a basi ceremony where the clearance team tries to draw back the spirits of Dao's body that she lost in the explosion that destroyed her leg. The narrator interviews Dao about her six legs: her born leg and five prosthetics.
The narrator wakes up afraid from a nightmare about a bomb exploding. The valley is flooding during the monsoon, and this makes clearance harder. The narrator accompanies Channarong on a visit to an all-female clearance team that includes Vanida. Vanida shows the narrator how to use a metal detector. Later, Vanida shows the narrator how to plant rice.
The narrator accompanies Channarong and Emilia on a trip to a handover ceremony in a remote Khmu village. The residents refuse to participate in the handover ceremony, and the technicians become frustrated.
Bounmi invites the narrator to visit his farm and bomb garden. The narrator interviews Bounmi and learns that he is a black market war scrap trader. Bounmi shows the narrator his records of all the deadly explosions that have occurred in the valley.
The narrator attends a village mapping ceremony managed by Vanida. Later, Vanida and the narrator try to get the villagers to show up for a risk training, where the villagers laugh and make jokes about explosions. Channarong shows the narrator a new kind of bomb he has found that creates huge strike patterns.
"Strike Patterns is a powerful and poetic observation of the remains of war. The book offers a poignant perspective on what scholarship and experience can yield in the hands of a writer unafraid of the boundaries between disciplines and across genres." ~Kao Kalia Yang, author of Somewhere in the Unknown World
"In fields of still-live explosives, the U.S. bombing of Laos has not stopped. Through a series of vivid meditations, Zani brings us to their horrors, where children play with cluster bombs, and some prostheses are judged too 'advanced' for Laotians. The stories ring with the kind of truth that can only be brought to light through artistry." ~Anna Tsing, co-editor of Feral Atlas
"Strike Patterns joins the best of anthropology of war books by centering the research in stories, and by acknowledging that while violence can transform societies, anthropology has an equal responsibility to shift patterns." ~Roxanne Varzi, UC Irvine