Back in December, Radiolab at WNYC published a podcast on Worth, writ large. What is the worth of one day of life? What is the worth of Nature? And (most germane to this topic of UXO in Laos and the aftermath of the bombing campaign there) what is the value of a human life, or, “How much does it cost to say ‘I’m sorry’?” In this case, they ask: should the US pay indemnities to the families of civilians killed in the US drone war going on in Yemen and elsewhere? There is a follow-on question: how does that calculation change when the people are killed years after the war?
The basic Pentagon reply is that if someone is killed or injured while the US conducts a military operation, there are no reparations. Civilian casualties are an unfortunate but expected part of warfare. Issues of gross negligence and criminality can change that, though.
It is a fascinating story (as most Radiolab stories are) that raises powerful questions about how and when the military of the world’s most powerful country values human life. It also raises the question: what is the cost of killing a person you are ostensibly trying to save?
During the whole of the Vietnam conflict – in Vietnam, in Cambodia, in Laos – the US military in all its various forms killed untold hundreds of thousands of people – many of them civilians. In Cambodia and Laos, those civilians were killed by indiscriminate carpet bombing campaigns. Are their surviving families owed something?